Since the 1960s the large bore trombone has been the norm in the British symphony orchestra section. Anybody who has become accustomed to playing a medium or small bore trombone, having tried a large bore trombone, will agree that the bore size of a brass instrument significantly affects its characteristics both as a player and a listener.
It is generally accepted that large bore trombones in general require more effort to play. The higher register is frequently inferior to smaller bore instruments, and although the lower register is superior they require considerably more air, which means that certain aspects of playing, such as phrasing, are more difficult. However, symphonic trombone players generally agree that any shortcomings large bore trombones might have are more than compensated for by the sound quality they produce in the modern symphony orchestra. This sound has a dark quality, particularly evident in loud playing, that cannot be matched by smaller bore trombones. I believe that Denis Wick once described the sound of an overblown small bore trombone as something akin to an overloaded circular saw! The sound of a section of large bore trombones playing a in a fortissimo passage in a symphony orchestra has a quality that is both magical and at the same time won't overload any electrical systems! But some have questioned whether this norm should always be the accepted one. Critics of large bore instruments would argue that they have lost much of the character that gave the trombone its distinctiveness. Some years ago I went to a Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall where a new piece was being performed which had lengthy solos for trumpet, horn and trombone. I was sitting in a restricted view seat which meant that I couldn't see the brass section. I can honestly say that from a listening point of view I couldn't tell the difference between the horn solo and the trombone solo. The playing was exemplary, but I did wonder whether the situation would have been the same had the trombonist been using a smaller bore instrument.
I spent my formative years playing in a brass band where I used a medium bore trombone for some years. When I expressed a desire to play professionally in a symphony orchestra I was informed that I would need to play a large bore trombone. I bought one and used it in the band, where at first I found it difficult to produce the sound needed to cut through a twenty-eight piece championship brass band. But I did persevere to the point where I thought I was producing the sound required for a symphony orchestra.
After one band concert in which I had played a solo, a very well meaning punter came up to me and said, "Well done. What a beautiful sound. Just like a euphonium!" Clearly the requirements of the trombone in a brass band and an orchestra are somewhat different, however I am sympathetic to the argument that there is a place for smaller bore instruments in the symphony orchestra.
Before expanding on the argument, I think that it is important to clarify exactly what we mean by small bore instruments. I have noticed that many symphonic orchestral players use the generic term "small bore trombone" to describe any instrument that is smaller than a large bore instrument. Medium bore and small bore trombones both come into this category, although their characteristics are quite different. For the majority of the operatic repertoire at the Royal Opera House we use large bore instruments, although we have been using medium bore instruments for specific pieces. I know that orchestras such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Queen's Hall do use genuine small bore trombones or "peashooters", but to my knowledge we have never used these instruments at the Royal Opera - certainly not in recent times. One of our regular guest conductors regularly talks with great authority about the authentic sound of the "peashooters" which we use for him when he requests them. I'm sure that he would be rather perturbed to know that we have never used genuine "peashooters".
Sometimes we use smaller bore instruments because we decide that they are better suited to the repertoire. Examples include the operas of Mozart such as The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni or Idomeneo. Here we might use an alto on first with a medium bore on second and a large bore tenor with F attachment (e.g. Conn 88H) or a G trombone on bass. In this situation the medium bore blends much better with the alto trombone. Loud passages are rare in Mozart operas, therefore it is unlikely that the sound of the smaller instrument will be intrusive. Other examples include early Italian operas by composers such as Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and early Verdi. Here we might use medium bore trombones for first and second with a large bore tenor on third (and a cimbasso on bass for the Verdi operas). At the time of writing this article we are playing Louisa Miller, an early Verdi opera where this combination is ideally suited to the generally lightweight nature of the music. Personally I would use a medium bore trombone for operas such as L'Enfant et les Sortilèges or L'Heure Espagnol by Ravel which have high solos. This is a personal choice that might not be shared by all but I think that the lightweight nature and the superior high register of smaller bore trombones suit those pieces.
Sometimes we use medium bore instruments at the behest of the conductors. Mostly this is for the lightweight Italian repertoire although the aforementioned conductor seems to request the "peashooters" almost every time that he appears with us. Within the last few years we have performed with this particular conductor a number of operas that might not necessarily be an obvious choice for the smaller bore instruments. For example Romeo and Juliet by Gounod and The Bartered Bride by Smetana. Here the music isn't particularly lightweight; indeed the Gounod is a real tour de force for the trombones with frequent loud unison passages. In the early rehearsals for this opera we exercised a certain amount of caution in these passages but the conductor seemed to want more. Much more! Eventually we were producing a sound that wasn't unlike the overloaded circular saw sound described earlier. He seemed to positively relish this sound and even encouraged us.
A certain eminent London music critic is currently using his regular column to bemoan the increase in the volume of modern day symphony orchestras and the resulting lack of finesse. (Whilst I agree that modern symphony orchestras are loud, I do not agree that there is a lack of finesse.) What is rather disturbing is that a similarly eminent representative of the Association of British Orchestras chose to join in the debate by writing to the same paper to announce with great authority that the reason for the increase in the volume of modern symphony orchestras was due to the use of large bore brass instruments.
Herein lies one of the great myths about large bore brass instruments. They are not louder than small bore brass instruments. The sound is bigger in the sense that it is fatter and almost widens when it leaves the instrument, but I am sure that if one compared a large bore and a small bore trombone playing fortissimo with a decibel meter, the small bore would win hands down. The sound of the fortissimo small bore trombone may not have the quality of the large bore trombone, but it will certainly be louder.
Much of this raises the question of why we might play smaller bore instruments in the symphony orchestra. Is it because they are better suited to certain repertoire or is it to achieve authenticity? Personally I would prefer to play smaller bore instruments because they are better suited to the music. I like to think that the modern day symphony orchestra has evolved to the state that it has. There was a general consensus amongst symphonic trombone players in this country around the 1960's that large bore trombones would be better suited to the significant majority of the repertoire. Like other instruments in the orchestra, technical development and general changes in playing style have contributed to a gentle evolution that has made the symphony orchestra what it is today.
I respect orchestras like the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment who play on original instruments (like small bore trombones) for authentic reasons. In these cases all of the instrumentalists in the orchestra will be playing on original instruments. However, I would question the merits of playing on small bore trombones on a symphony orchestra when you are sitting next to a section of large bore trumpets or modern horns.
Some years ago at the Royal Opera House we did a production of The Magic Flute. The conductor had made his name conducting a number of orchestras which specialised in using original instruments and he requested that we play on "authentic" trombones. We agreed to use an alto on first, a medium bore on second and a G trombone on bass, which we felt was as authentic as we could do short of raiding a museum. However, for contractual reasons the horns and woodwind could not use original instruments so they used their normal instruments. The result was an absurd mixture of the modern and the new which certainly could not have been classed as authentic. If one makes a decision to play on smaller bore trombones because they are suited to the music then that is a decision that can be made by individual sections. A medium bore trombone blends much better with an alto trombone for Mozart regardless of what the other sections in the orchestra are doing.
If one makes a decision to play on smaller bore trombones for authentic reasons, then I believe it is important that all the instrumentalists follow suit, otherwise the authenticity is compromised. I believe therefore that there is a genuine case for using smaller bore trombones in the modern symphony orchestra in the right situation. The sound quality of large bore trombones will ensure that they continue to be the general instrument of choice for the majority of the repertoire. Smaller bore trombones can be used for specific repertoire depending on the wishes of the section and the conductor, but with the reservation that if authenticity is the reason for their use then it is important to consider that authenticity in the context of the other instruments in the orchestra.
Whenever I see/hear a band these days (either a brass band here or a wind band on the continent) I am invariably impressed by the standard of the playing and the quality of the instruments. Trombones are now more often than not large bore instruments with players striving for, and making, a big sound. I can't help but think back to my brass band days (with the City of Oxford Silver Band) and the "peashooter" which was my first trombone. Like everyone else, I couldn't wait to get my hands on what I thought of then as a proper trombone - a medium bore Boosey & Hawkes Imperial. Eventually I was given one by the band, but I still remember my disappointment when I discovered that it had the silver "frosted" finish.
The Imperial was a good instrument and saw me through the rest of my brass band career, which included the National Youth Brass Band, where I had the good fortune to play alongside that fantastic player Ian Richards, of Cresswell Colliery and Manchester CWS fame, who tragically died so young. There must be other people out there who remember his virtuoso rendition of Love's Enchantment at the Royal Albert Hall Finals concert of 1964 on, if my memory serves me correctly, another Imperial.
By the time I went to the Royal Academy of Music I was the proud possessor of a medium bore King 2B - a fabulous instrument (I realise now!). All around me large bore Conn 8H and 88Hs reigned supreme. I had to have one. I bought one - I still have it - I still use it. My 88H has served me well: BBC Training Orchestra, BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra, English National Opera, BBC Symphony Orchestra and, for the last 18 years, Covent Garden Orchestra. However, I am now finding that there are more and more opportunities to use another of my favourite instruments - my medium bore Conn 6H (uniquely, I believe, fitted with slide springs). One of our regular conductors invariably asks for medium bore trombones when he comes to The Garden. In Gounod's Faust we obliged him with medium bore tenors and a G bass - yes, really! It's a shame that the G trombone has become the butt of unwarranted humour as, in the hands of a fine player, it can sound majestic and colourful - and we are in the happy situation of having two such exponents (Keith McNicoll and Richard Tyack).
We recently completed a run of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute with Sir Colin Davis conducting, in which Eric Crees used his Conn 36H alto, I used the Conn 6H, and Keith McNicoll used my Conn 88H for the bass part. This really is an ideal combination as we could play quite firmly without the usual requests for less! The use of small bore instruments in "period" orchestras and sackbuts in chamber groups is well documented, but I wonder if other mainstream orchestras and bands have tried experimenting with medium bore instruments, and with what results?
My latest trombone acquisition brings me full circle back to my first "peashooter". Jim Ketchen, principal trombone of Sadler's Wells/English National Opera from 1956 to 1980, has recently joined the exodus of Brits to Spain. On top of the wardrobe was his father's Salvation Army model small bore trombone. Who knows, maybe we can use it in the stage band of Donizetti's opera L'Elisir d'Amore where there is a requirement for two "nineteenth century village band trombonists"!