Opportunities to write for the alto trombone

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring (JS Bach) – brass ensemble sheet music available by clicking here
Performance by the Boulder Brass on Dorian 93204 – Bolder Baroque

I know some trombonists who just felt a disturbance in the force.

My brass ensemble has 6 treble instruments and 5 bass instruments, which can be assigned as 3 soprano instruments (or 1 soprano and 2 mezzo soprano), 3 alto instruments, 3 tenor instruments (or 2 tenor and one baritone) and 2 bass instruments. This information is really only useful as a preliminary way of getting my work organized. After, I look for ways to ‘violate’ these registrations that will add interest to an orchestration.

These rough classifications used as a baseline, can serve to understand some scoring exceptions that add spice to your orchestration:

  • extremes of the trumpet range
  • horn in the soprano or bass register
  • tenor trombone in the mezzo soprano or alto register
  • bass trombone in the alto, tenor (both sound different than a tenor playing the same line), or contrabass register
  • tuba in the tenor or (if you dare) alto register

These ‘extreme’ registrations can really make a musical line stand out, as long as you have the right people on the bus.

Regarding the arrangement above – as I have mentioned, we typically use 3 trombones and euphonium. Our Falcone competition winner euphonium player is also a world class trombonist (Jeremy Van Hoy) and this makes it possible for us to use a 4 trombone texture (opening up the Philip Jones / London Brass library to us). But this is one of the few times I have written specifically with a ATTB trombone section in mind – the trombone section here assumes the role of the ‘chorus’ from Bach’s famous pastoral choral setting from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Cantata 147). The alto trombone is played beautifully here by Colorado Symphony trombonist, Paul Naslund.

To better facilitate the trombone choir, I lowered the key to E flat major – the choice of this key accomplished 2 things primarily: 1) the highest pitch of the chorale on a D flat (briefly) which is still reasonably achievable on a tenor trombone and, perhaps more importantly, keeps the trombone in a singing range; and 2) the highest note of the obbligato on a concert A flat. This consideration kept any part of the arrangement from sounding ‘extreme.’ We’ll talk more about general key considerations later.

This is not paradigm shifting arranging, but it does illustrate the versatility and flexibility of the Boulder Brass instrumentation.

August 3, 2017 – Mike Allen

2 thoughts on “Opportunities to write for the alto trombone

  1. And, to underscore what a great trombone section we always have in Boulder Brass, I recall Mike telling me that the “chorus” parts used on that Bach recording were all drawn from the 1st take.

    1. Yes – that’s correct. Other fun facts:
      It was 105 degrees that week in Denver and the AC in the church made so much noise that we had to turn it off. The temperature in the sanctuary was pushing 90.
      The trombone section was Jim Gray, Paul Naslund, Bill Stanley, and Pete Vriesenga.
      The principal trombone of the Colorado Symphony (John Daley) played euphonium on that recording.

      MA

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