There are many instruments in the trombone family. However, the most common are the tenor trombone and the bass trombone. The trombone is a featured member of symphony orchestras, concert bands, and chamber ensembles (e.g., brass choirs and brass quintets). Like the trumpet and saxophone, the trombone is also a mainstay in popular genres including jazz (all eras), big band, and Latin music.
On all wind instruments, tonguing is an essential technical skill used to play rhythms (e.g., triplets) and expression marks (e.g., staccato). On each instrument, syllables are “tongued” or enunciated; this purposely interrupts and structures the airflow. Single, double, and triple tonguing patterns are employed so that a multitude of rhythms and articulations may be created.
The trombone's long telescopic slide allows the trombonist to change pitch without the use of valves. As the slide is pulled out, the pitch gets lower; as the slide is pulled in the pitch ascends. However, with the exception of the slide, the trombone is very similar to its brass siblings. Like the trumpet, it has a cylindrical bore. And like all brasses, the buzzing of the lips on a mouthpiece generates the sound. This sound travels through a network of pipes—some of them “S” shaped—until it's released at the bell.
There are seven positions on the trombone and each one produces a distinct harmonic series. This refers to the notes a trombonist creates without changing the length of the tubing (i.e., moving the slide). With the exception of the tuba, the trombone uses more air than any other wind instrument. Therefore, more breaths are necessary and composers must allot for this in their music.
There are usually three trombones in an orchestra: two tenors and a bass. Typically, music is scored in bass clef for both types of trombones. However, classical trombonists must also be able to read parts in tenor and alto clef.
The tenor trombone and the bass trombone also have the same compass. However, lower notes on the bass trombone are more clearly defined. In other words, the bass trombone can play notes in the trigger and pedal ranges with greater accuracy; see Figure 17-16. Although the tenor and bass trombones are both pitched to B, they read music in concert pitch. The trombone also uses the five mutes outlined earlier in this chapter; see Trumpet Mutes.
FIGURE17-16: Range of the trombone
Unlike the trumpet or any other brass instrument, the slide trombone can create beautiful, arcing glissandos with ease. This effect has sometimes caused the trombone to be looked upon with mirth since these glissandos can sound comical and even cartoonish.
On the other hand, the trombone has the ability to bring solemnity and power to an arrangement, and symphonic composers have long exploited its dynamic muscle. Moreover, jazz musicians have proven the subtle, lyrical qualities of the instrument (e.g., swing trombonist Tommy Dorsey). Lastly, in contemporary music, composers have successfully used the trombone to explore multiphonics and microtonality.