The Singing Trombone

At this time last week I was preparing to perform Canzon “La Hieronyma” by Giovanni Martino Cesare (1590-1667) as a prelude to the Sunday service at College Hill Presbyterian Church. It has been over fifteen years since the last time my wife and I were members of a church that has an organist, so one of the great pleasures for me since we began attending College Hill is getting to explore the trombone and organ repertoire a bit. While the repertoire of original music for this instrumentation is not excessively large, what is there is significant, and most of it is appropriate for use in the worship service, at least in more “traditional” churches with regard to music selection. Playing through some early music is a special treat—the Cesare piece was composed in 1621, and congregants are usually surprised to learn that trombone and organ is most likely the originally intended instrumentation. Apparently the trombone’s long history—going back to at least the mid-fifteenth century—and particularly its historic role in liturgical music is not common knowledge.

Besides expressing surprise at the existence of a trombone solo repertoire, the comments I most often receive in this context have to do with the lyricism of which the trombone is capable. People whose only exposure to the instrument is in athletic bands and perhaps to a lesser extent jazz and other commercial genres are accustomed to trombonists playing loud and articulate passages, or perhaps comical effects, not lyrical, vocal-like lines. Developing a lyrical approach to the trombone is perhaps more difficult than on some other instruments, which explains the unfamiliarity, but people seem to enjoy it once they’ve heard it.

Interestingly, one of the greatest compliments I’ve received regarding my playing in church happened on a day when I was not playing at all. At a Sunday evening service several years ago my wife and I found ourselves seated behind a young family that did not normally sit near us. At the conclusion of the service the gentleman turned around and offered a compliment regarding my singing, saying that my singing reminded him of my trombone playing, which he had by then heard in worship services on a few occasions. I thanked him, but at the same time explained that his understanding of causation in this case was backwards. I do not try to mimic my trombone playing while singing—I try to mimic the voice while playing the trombone!

Why this “singing” approach? First of all, it sounds nice, and you might remember from another post here some time ago that “because it sounds good” is the number one reason for playing in a certain way. But there is a historical reason for that “singing” approach, as well. The trombones of the first three centuries or so after its invention, while functionally similar to modern instruments, were smaller in their bore and bell sizes than current models. These “sackbuts,” so called using this old English term to distinguish instruments of ancient dimensions from those of modern ones, had as one of their primary functions to reinforce the voice parts in choral singing and sometimes other contexts. This traditional way of writing for trombones with voices persisted well into the eighteenth century and beyond. Keeping this in mind, the cultivation of a “singing” approach to trombone playing not only sounds good—it is historically appropriate.

A lyrical approach to trombone playing is not a departure from historical norms. If anything, the various more aggressive or more comical approaches that seem more common today are such a departure. I guess I’ll need to keep playing preludes in church from time to time so that more people will become aware of the majesty and nobility of this great instrument.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Tubist/Bass Trombonist of the Mississippi Brass Quintet, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The ideas and opinions expressed here are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which the author is associated.
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