By Zachariah Friesen
Here are 10 interesting facts about trombone that you may not have known. Allow me to indulge you:
1. The trombone is derived from an instrument called a sackbut.
Yes, you read that correctly, sackbut. The name sackbut is derived from the Middle French words saquer and bouter literally means “pull, push”. This is a very fitting name for the instrument since it was the first instrument to have a movable slide. This is unique to the instrument. The sackbut was mainly used in sacred and court music settings during the 1600s. Interestingly, the trombone has changed very little since its precursor, the sackbut. Many other instruments have been improved with major revisions to their original design. Apparently, trombone was the closest to perfection!
2. The trombone is said to be the “Voice of God”.
Some say that Beethoven and other composers described the trombone as the “Voice of God”. This may have been due to the ability of the trombonist to achieve perfect intonation at all times. The trombone is essentially a big tuning slide! The range of the instrument also closely resembles that of the voice, more so than any other instrument. The funeral of Ludwig von Beethoven featured a trombone quartet written by Beethoven. It is said that the 3 Equali depicted the sadness and sonorous grief of a great legend passing away and is still played frequently today.
3. If trombones indeed represent the Voice of God, it’s usually when he’s not very happy!
The trombone has also been used to musically depict the depths of Hell in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, the chopping off of a head in Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, thunder and lightning in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and the raucous crowd anticipating and delighting in a beheading in Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique.
4. The role of the trombonist, more often than not, is to wait.
Trombonists are often asked to count a large amount rests or simply wait until the end of a symphony or opera before they get to play. A good example of this can be found in the first known use of the trombone in a symphonic setting, Beethoven’s 5th symphony. The trombones only get to play in the 4th and final movement of the symphony. This means that the trombones will only play about 30 minutes into the symphony. Now that is a lot of waiting! Likewise Beethoven’s 9th symphony and Brahms 4th symphony call for very important trombone writing after 30 to 40 minutes of waiting. Such is the life of a trombonist. We are generally the culprit of awaking potential sandmen in the audience by the 4th movement. Trombonists are happy to oblige.
5. Trombone is not lefty friendly.
All southpaw trombone players who are left hand dominant are forced by the constraints of the trombone to be right hand dominant. It is rather interesting to think that many of the greatest trombone players in the world are using their “weak” hand to be surgically precise with cat-like speed and reflexes on the slide. One of the greatest jazz trombonists in history, Slide Hampton, defied all of these obstacles and had a successful career playing the trombone left-handed. Leave it to a trombone player to not follow the rules or common practice and do it successfully.
6. That noise you hear when Charlie Brown’s teacher speaks to the class or to Charlie Brown: that’s a trombone!
Trombonists often use a plunger mute in jazz to achieve the effect of a human voice speaking. The creators of the great Charlie Brown series decided to incorporate that unique sound into the show. For those who are curious, trombonists do have to be careful not to confuse their plunger mute with their household plunger, which are exactly the same thing but with absolutely different uses. Leave it to the trombones to incorporate the bathroom into the performing world.
7. “Don’t look at the trombones it only encourages them.”
This famous quote has been attributed to Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss on different occasions. I’m not sure who said it, but I know it to be true.
8. “The trombone is too sacred for frequent use.”
This quote, attributed to composer Felix Mendelssohn, explains a lot as to why only a few of his compositions call on the trombones to join the party. He did however encourage his friend Ferdinand David to write a concertino for trombone, which has become one of the most standard pieces in the trombone solo repertoire. This piece is the most often performed solo in the repertoire and is a requirement for nearly every solo competition and nearly every trombone audition. Despite the quote, Felix Mendelssohn did, in this case, make a significant contribution to the trombone world.
9. The first documented use of a trombone in public was a wedding gig.
Our penultimate fact speaks to the first documented mention of the trombone, which was in 1488. The Duke of Burgundy was married in 1468 and was so kind as to have a trombone play at his wedding. Do your part to recreate history and hire a trombone player for your wedding!
10. “I don’t know why but the trombone makes me very uncomfortable.”
Our final fact about the trombone comes from a quote by the great Sigmund Freud.
I appreciate your indulgence as do all trombone players, and I leave you with one final quote from another great mind about the instrument that is my world: the trombone.
“If it please your neighbor to break the sacred calm of night with the snorting of an unholy trombone, it is your duty to put up with his wretched music and your privilege to pity him for the unhappy instinct that moves him to delight in such discordant sounds.”
Zachariah Friesen is the Online Merchandiser at Sheet Music Plus and is a freelance trombone player and private lessons instructor in the bay area.