Apr 5, 2014

Alto Retort, by

The following essay from a reader details the overall approach to playing alto trombone, and reviews some well known alto makers. -Jay Friedman

I think the issue of alto trombone use and selection is complex. I have written way too much about it. But I explain how I got to the conclusions I have made. Please feel free to use any, all, or none of my essay. Thank you for your inspiring and useful web site.

Committing to playing the alto trombone well is a complex process. The many problems that must be overcome when learning to play the alto are part of the process of evaluating and selecting an instrument.

Like most American trombone players 25 years ago, I had no interest in the alto trombone. My teachers (Philadelphia Orchestra) never played them. I hadn’t even seen one by the time I graduated from music school. We had the mistaken attitude that the alto was a crutch for players who had difficulty playing high parts on tenor trombones. I had an epiphany when I heard the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra play Schumann’s 4th at Carnegie Hall. When I saw the trombonist walk out on stage with an alto, I rolled my eyes in smug ignorance. My turning point was when the trombones played the soft, short chorale in the slow movement. It is only six notes. The alto sang beautifully. It was very soft, but it projected well and filled the hall with what sounded like effortless grace. The section was repeated, and the chorale was just as beautiful the second time. I listened to some of my favorite recordings of European orchestras with a more critical ear. In fact, my favorite recording of Schumann 4 has always been the 1954 Furtwängler performance. Surely, the first trombonist used an alto. And it is a superb example of orchestral trombone playing. So I started my alto experience.

My friend worked in a horn shop. I told him that I was interested in learning the alto. Before long, he called me with a Yamaha 671 that had been used as a demo at trade shows. This made my initial investment modest. I had quite a sobering experience with the new instrument. I was just horrible. Even when I learned the correct positions, I struggled to keep it in tune. The intonation only became manageable when I stopped trying to play on larger mouthpieces with which I was comfortable because of my tenor experience. I finally started using the small mouthpiece that came with the instrument. This was my first lesson about alto equipment. I learned that alto trombones performed much better with mouthpieces that are acoustically appropriate for them. Yes, I could have made the larger mouthpieces work better with enough practice. But it was a struggle. And, truth be told, the alto sounded better with the small mouthpiece, even if I was uncomfortable with it at first.

Selecting and playing an alto trombone is counter-intuitive to modern trombonists. When we think of the aural qualities that make an alto sparkle, they are almost the opposite of what we are conditioned to seek in a trombone sound. We want a big, dark, full sound. But an alto should sound light and bright. Not too bright; but it certainly is the sort of sound that we definitely do not want to make with our tenors. That is a commitment that we must make before we embark on selecting an alto. We need to seek a sound on this instrument that is very different from our tenor trombone sound. If not, we would simply keep playing everything on our tenor trombones.

Alto trombones have an acoustic limitation. It is very difficult to produce an alto trombone that has a viable seventh position (to play that E in the Mendelssohn Reformation Symphony) and is not flat in first position. I played my Yamaha with the tuning slide pushed all the way in. It barely made it! My slide wiggled on the end when I played an E or the rare low A in seventh. And I was in deep trouble if I played with a group that played a little higher than A-440. There were also some strange position adjustments that I had to know about my particular instrument so that I could play it well, even with the small mouthpiece.

I started playing more and more alto because of my trombone choir. It was a lovely addition to the choir’s sound, and I enjoyed playing the unusual instrument. Because I played it so often, I thought I might upgrade to a better instrument with respect to those intonation quirks a few years ago. So I tried several new models to see if I could make my life easier. To my great surprise, almost all of the alto trombones had the same intonation inconsistencies. I believe that this is because of the limiting structure of the alto trombone that I described earlier. They all tended to play on the low side in order to get a viable seventh position. And they all had some weird notes that had to be adjusted just like I did with my Yamaha. The only alto that played very consistently with respect to all the positions and sounded beautiful was the Rath. Unfortunately for me, the Rath is built small. I could not comfortably get it around my grotesquely huge head and neck. Clearly, playing it for any length of time was never going to be practical.

I believe that the Rath alto plays so well because it has the tuning mechanism in the slide. This allowed Mick Rath to shorten the bell branch and lengthen the slide in order to overcome the acoustic limitations of the small trombone. I recently switched to a Shires alto that does everything that I would ever want in a trombone. It has a secure seventh position. All the notes in any position line up as well as they would on a tenor trombone. It does not play on the low side. And I can tune to ensembles that play to a higher reference pitch. It also has a short bell branch and tuning in the slide. It makes a gorgeous sound.

Of course, the Rath and the Shires are very expensive alto trombones. They might not be appropriate for the budget of a player who is starting out on the instrument. For those players, I strongly suggest that they play on a small mouthpiece and with the tuning slide pushed all the way in. This works well. (I now play on a Hammond Design 12S mouthpiece that I have used for the past five years.) I would start out with those conditions on any alto trombone with crook tuning. From my experience of trying several instruments, I think that the best alto in that configuration is the old Yamaha 671. There are many used ones out there. They come up for sale regularly. The current 871 alto from Yamaha had exactly the same intonation quirks that my 671 had. That is quite a testament to Yamaha’s manufacturing quality and consistency, but it has a nickel slide. The sound of the 871 is not as sweet as the sound of the 671 with its brass slide. The new trombone that plays and sounds most like the Yamaha 671 is the Courtois. The only German alto that I played extensively was the Throja. It is very well made, but it has the same limitations that the other altos have when tuned in the crook.

If the budget allows it, I think that the alto trombones with the tuning in the slide are a vast improvement over the ones with crook tuning. To my knowledge, the altos that are built with this feature are the Rath, Shires, and the Austrian Shagerl.

For me, learning to play alto was a humbling and arduous chore. I wish somebody had told me about the tuning and mouthpieces. But I had to experiment and learn on my own because there were few alto trombonists in America twenty-five years ago. But I strongly recommend alto trombone playing. It is simply a joy! I never fail to enjoy it. The alto voice is very useful in ensembles. It allows musicality because it resonates and projects so well without even playing very loudly. In trombone choir, I often use it just because it sounds so clear and pretty. I even use it on pieces that one would never expect would work well on alto. Bruckner arrangements are less muddy when played with an alto on top. Why don’t we just play everything on our bass trombones? After all, the notes are on those instruments. We don’t play first parts on a bass trombone because it is built to resonate best at lower pitches. Altos, pitched higher, logically ring more overtones and resonate better than a tenor would when playing higher pitches. I can play the same pitches in a Mozart mass on my tenor, but I must play them more loudly if I want them to project. The alto trombone has a special, beautiful vocal identity in any ensemble. It is well worth the effort and the expense to buy and learn to play a good alto trombone.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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