Among the recent innovations in Eb alto trombone design, the most significant has been the introduction of the valve attachment5. This was developed by Thein at the end of the 1970s for the eminent trombonist Armin Rosin, the author's colleague in the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra. I had an opportunity to test this instrument in its prototype phase. Fitted with two valves (one of which is detachable), it enables the performer to execute all the major and minor second trills that regularly appear in the alto trombone solo compositions of Leopold Mozart, Eberlin, Reutter, Wagenseil, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Albrechtsberger, among others. According to Thein:
wenn es sich hierbei auch nicht um eine instrumentenbauerische Lösung im Sinne der historischen Aufführungspraxis handelt, so entspricht diese Lösung der musikalischen Auffassung moderner Solo- und Orchesterposaunisten... sehr.6
Utilising just the fixed valve enables the player to lower the trombone's pitch from Eb to Ab, which, although extending the range down to Eb, requires the player to learn an entire new set of positions and is thus of rather dubious benefit.
In 1994 I had the opportunity to test the prototype of this instrument. The following is extracted from the report I submitted.
To: Matthew Pollack and Fuji Ozawa, Yamaha Music Atelier, Research and Development, London
From: Ken Shifrin, Principal Trombone, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Date: 27 February 1994
Re: Preliminary evaluation report of the Yamaha Alto Trombone prototype YSL673 with detachable Bb valve.
The Yamaha YSL673 has a warm, full-bodied sound that matches well with the tenor and bass trombone of the orchestral section. It has the mellifluous, rich tone generally associated with the tenor trombone – indeed it has a tendency to sound somewhat like a small-bore tenor – which should make it attractive to many conductors. The YSL673's lovely timbre makes it an excellent choice as a solo instrument. However, whether an alto soloist is looking for a brighter, smaller (more 'authentic'?) sound is naturally subjective.
As far as the Bb valve is concerned, I have sketched out a number of examples from the orchestral repertoire that are less awkward (and probably better in tune) when the Bb valve is utilised. As one can observe, the main reason to use the Bb valve is to avoid 7th position e on the Eb alto, by providing alternative Trigger 2 (T2)7. However, this note is relatively low for the alto register and does not often occur in the alto solo or orchestral repertoire. In this respect the YSL is superior to the non-detachable Bb valve of its counterpart, the Conn alto trombone, for although the Bb valve renders a good number of orchestral passages more fluid (and indeed some passages, as from Berg's Lulu, are not even playable without it as the notes descend below the Eb's register), it is an option that I feel many players will want but will not need most of the time.
As I have remarked previously, of more obvious value is the double-valve trill mechanism which permits one to trill minor and major seconds. (I mentioned that in Stuttgart I tried such an alto while it was being developed for Armin Rosin.) Even a single valve that enabled one to trill a half-step would be keenly sought, as it is the one interval that is impossible to produce by lip-trilling.
However, the exception to this statement is the fact that the Bb valve apparently enables the player to execute virtually all major and minor 2nd trills – either by availing oneself of alternative slide positions with the Bb horn and lip-trilling, or by using the Bb valve as a piston, thus filling the gap that exists on the Eb horn. (A chart is enclosed.) Problematic trills in the Albrechtsberger Concerto, the Wagenseil Concerto, the Leopold Mozart Concerto and Wolfgang Mozart's 'Jener Donnerworte Kraft' – mainstays of the alto trombone solo repertoire – are thus rendered properly playable, where even the most masterful lip-triller was previously forced to 'disguise' them. (And bear in mind that there are a lot more less-than-masterful lip-trillers than there are masters!)
Analogous to the F horn on the Bb/F tenor trombone, the Bb valve on the Eb alto trombone provides only six positions as each succeeding position on the Bb horn is progressively longer than its Eb horn counterpart. Therefore, the lowest note available (non-pedal tone, that is) with the Bb valve is F in long-6th position or Trigger 6 (T6).
The low E in the passage from Berg's Lulu should be playable in T6 by retuning the Bb valve to A, simply by fully extending the Bb tuning slide. Presently, however, the Bb tuning-slide is not long enough to lower the pitch a full half tone. Also, the 'authentic' execution of several trills – including the famous opening a' to bb' trill in the Albrechtsberger – requires the tuning-slide of the Bb horn to be lowered a semi-tone. Compared to the comparable Conn alto trombone, I found more resistance with the Yamaha in the crucial upper-register.
Therefore, since we are dealing with a prototype, I suggest you consider the following possibilities.
A possible alternative for the attachment of the two separate 'horns' (the Eb or straight horn and the Bb horn) is to have them share the same tuning slide (I believe the Bach Bb/F tenor trombone is connected in a similar way). The valve would be positioned higher than it currently sits, thus preventing it from digging into the player's neck. Space is available for open-wrap which would eliminate the stuffiness of the Bb-valve notes. And now space is provided for the superior Thayer-type valve system. Likewise, the open-wrap permits the attachment horn to have the same resistance as the straight horn. Also, the necessary tubing would now exist to enable the player to retune the Bb horn to A when it is needed.
First produced in 1995, this mechanism enables the alto trombonist to produce half-step trills which are otherwise impossible to produce by lip-trilling. It also allows one to trill intervals of a major second in the fourth and fifth harmonic series. For example:
eb' – f' – eb' = fifth position
d' – e' – d' = sixth position
db' – eb' – db' = seventh position
The major second trill on ab' was superior to the lip trill in third position, and a full-step trill starting on g' no longer has to be produced by lip-trilling in seventh as one can use the valve in first position. The quality of sound of the 'straight horn' notes and valve notes was fairly equal. The biggest drawback is the inefficient and awkward trilling mechanism, unchanged from the Eb-Bb prototype, which is counter-productive as it militates against achieving a good speed of trill. Also, major second trills on c', common to so many eighteenth-century alto trombone solo and obbligato works, are still not possible to produce.
Figure A.6 Trill valve for the Yamaha YSL-671/673 alto trombones8
This instrument, first manufactured about three years ago according to Kerry Long of the UK Conn distributor Rosetti9, is a large-dimensioned Eb alto (178mm bell, dual bore, .491mm and .500mm) with a fixed Bb valve. Although undetachable, the valve appears not to cause undue stiffness in the sound of the instrument. The valve action is far better than that of Yamaha's, but a design in which the forefinger operated the trigger would probably be superior still. The question, as with the Yamaha Eb-Bb model, is whether the Bb valve is really necessary given its limited usefulness and application.