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Topic: Trombone vs Bass Trombone

  1. #1

    Trombone vs Bass Trombone

    I am still orchestrating my score for the musical theater. I have pretty much settled on my brass section: First Trumpet/Second Trumpet, doubling on Flugelhorn for a couple of numbers/ French Horn / Bass Trombone, doubling on Tenor trombone for several numbers.

    Regarding that trombone... The score requires periodically giving the brass section that low bass punch (think Les Miserables or Sweeny Todd), which is why I need the Bass instrument. Most of the trombone part is in the middle range -- which, according to my reading, should be equally easy to play on the bass or tenor. But sometimes I need it to go above the staff. (Remember this is a small brass section that needs to sound bigger than it actually is and have a lot of variety.) Sometimes I need to simulate three trumpets. If one of the reeds is free, I use a soprano sax for the middle trumpet part. If the triads are lower, I use the trombone as the bottom voice (never going higher than F above middle C).

    So, my question is this: do I really need to have the trombonist play two instruments? Everything I've read tells me that the notes above the staff should be as easy on a Bass trombone as a Tenor. The only difference appears to be the quality of the tonal color, which is not all that different, and the fact that Bass trombonists may not be used to playing that high. The question is an important one for theater pit orchestras because, I think, under the current musician's contract, they get paid more for doubling. So, it's generally better to have fewer instruments. But, of course, if it's going to sound bad (either because of the instrument or the difficulty of playing the part) I'll have to let him double.

  2. #2

    Re: Trombone vs Bass Trombone

    Bass trombone and tenor trombone are very nearly the same instrument. There are differences in the construction of the instruments which favor the production of low notes, in the case of the bass trombone, or high notes for the tenor. But I've heard bass trombonists play in the tenor range and it sounded fine.

    If it were me, I would write the whole part for bass trombone, and let the player decide if he needs to switch to tenor for certain passages.
    Dan Powers

    "It's easier to be a composer than it is to compose."
    --Ray Luke (1928-2010)

  3. #3
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2006
    Suburban NYC

    Re: Trombone vs Bass Trombone

    I agree with Dan's suggestion.

    The proficiency of your Bass Trombone player and the types of cues written "high" is important, as is how exposed the slight difference in timbre would be heard/perceived. If it's in a concerted voicing or unison with any other instrument(s), it should be fine.

    In general, pit musicians rule! They are used to bleeding as much color out of a chair as possible and are used to the added difficulty of playing in extreme registers both softly and in-tune, and getting a great sound with as many as four different types of mute changes within a single number.

    Note also that in modern Jazz Big Band writing/playing, the Bass Tb chair is only playing low bass function about half the time. There's many instances where the Bass Tb is playing a unison line (at least as high as your F) with the other three tenor trombones (once again, it's not totally exposed doing this).

    As someone who lives in the NYC area and has peered into dozens of B'way pits over the past 30 years (and devoured the Playbill for the various pit instrumentation/doublings), there is no hard-fast basis for your dilemma. For single (and multiple) Tb chairs, I've seen both Tenor Tb/Bass Tb chairs and several w/ only Bass Tb (Les Miz comes to mind). Also, several shows w/ Bass Tb/Tuba chairs (and several shows where the Acoustic Bass player doubles Tuba!). It's the orchestrator's gut (and the show's pocketbook) that decides.

    Good luck!,


  4. #4

    Re: Trombone vs Bass Trombone

    Thanks for your feedback. I am a professional actor in the NYC area. I see lots of shows, and occassionally pick the brains of pit musicians, composers and orchestrators, when I work with them. But the business being what it is, most of the jobs I do are on flim and TV (for financial reasons). I did meet a B'way trombonist on a film set once (sadly, I don't remember his name). He was playing the Euphonium in the scene. But he said he knew every trombonist and tuba player on Broadway at the time -- and that basically all of them could comfortably double on any trombone and tuba. That day, he and the trombonists in the film were all talking about one guy they all knew who had to bring in his own valve trombone for some of the numbers in a show he was doing because the parts were impossible to play with a slide trombone. (What they were talking about was how good he was and that you really couldn't tell the difference.)

    When I talk to orchestrators, it's a different story. They're all about keeping the number of players and instruments down and not making the parts too difficult. They have a lot of rules, like "yes, you can ask the tenor trombone player to double on the Euphonium, but not the bass trombone player, etc."

    For myself, being a novice at this, my biggest fear is professional players looking at their parts and saying "this guy doesn't know what he's doing" or worse "this is boring". I feel more secure about my ability as a composer because I've played my score for some pit musicians in stock and they were all saying "What show is that from?" I know, of course, that if anyone ever produces my musical, it will be reorchestrated by a real pro. But, having been burned once, on the first musical I wrote, by a competent musician who was a bad orchestrator I wanted first crack at it -- if for no other reason than to nail the kind of tone that I think best suits the show -- and also to make the demo sound as good as possible (and not too expensive.)

    My full version of the score will use 17 players. Then I'm going to do a reduction for 8 or 10 players, which is the largest number of musicians that regional theaters who accept open submissions and will consider for a show with a cast of this size.

    Based on your feedback, and the reality that my demo is going to be entirely scored with samples, I probably will use tenor trombone virtual instruments on some of the numbers, on the assumption that a good Bass Trombone player will be able to get something close to that sound, if he knows that's what I'm aiming for. (I'm assuming that in sample libraries, the publisher would be trying to make the bass trombone sound as different from the tenor as possible.)

    As for the reduction, I'll probably have more questions once I get into it. Now I am looking at the score for Grey Gardens, which is very interesting (basically two instruments from each section) -- not just abandoning the strings, or going with mostly strings and nothing else. Very interesting.

    Also, in case you haven't seen it, a couple of issues ago, the Dramatists Guild newsletter did a piece on orchestrators. I was shocked to learn that none of the original Broadway orchestrations to this day are being preserved -- unless the orchestrator himself keeps a copy. The rental houses use the reductions from the touring companies -- and sometimes reduce them even further. They tend to get rather homoginized and standardized, so they all start to sound the same. If you want to know how a musical was scored, you've got to find the original playbills or go to the Lincolin Center library (if you are in the business) and look at the tape (if the show was recorded.) It also means, unfortunately, that if you are not seeing the show in NYC you probably are not hearing the score as fully realized as the orchestrator intended.

  5. #5
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2006
    Suburban NYC

    Re: Trombone vs Bass Trombone

    Thanks for your feedback as well. I'm involved in a similar endeavor and it's always helpful to hear from someone who is also trying to simulate a pit orchestra.

    As far as the "It's boring" fear, it won't matter which horn it's written for, right?

    You can't go wrong using both tenor and bass trombone samples for your demos, and then possibly just combining the parts for a single written bass trombone chair when you publish.

    I use the Garritan J&BB brass samples for my virtual pit. I find the bass trombone samples are very similar in timbre to the tenor trombone samples in the upper end of the Bass-TB range (including your F). The B-TB samples end at the G above middle C, whereas the tenor TB samples go up another m7th, and there's also a 'solo' tenor TB that goes all the way up to C two octaves above middle C (a vein splitter for a TRUMPET, right?). I'm in love with the Garritan brass samples for the simple reason they have all the muted trumpet and trombone samples I absolutely need for pit orchestrations.

    I'm putting off my score reductions (and discussion!) until I get all the music written and fully orchestrated. It's too painful to think about right now!

    My wife and I just saw the "South Pacific" revival at Lincoln Center. It utilized the original 30 piece pit from the original show (imagine ... 30 pieces!!!!). I too was shocked that in the Playbill, they mention EXACTLY what you just mentioned: that the orchestrations (Robert Russell Bennett, no less!) had to be restored by the Rogers and Hammerstein Organization from manuscripts (Rogers and Trude Rittmann, the original dance/incidental music arranger), Bennett's full score, and the individual parts played by the original pit. That's pretty sad when you stop to think about all the amazing B'way orchestrations already lost and who won't have the vast resources that the R&H Org has to restore/preserve them.

    Good luck again on your show!


  6. #6

    Re: Trombone vs Bass Trombone

    Re: libraries. I am using JABB as well -- for the variety of trombones and trumpets, and because it has several varities of mutes for each. I also use GPO for some things (notably the harp and harpsichord). The trumpets are C trumpets, rather than Bb, so I don't use them. But the trombones are very bright and different from those in JABB. I haven't used them yet, but its nice to have another alternative. I use reeds from the VSL in Kontakt, suplimented with the clarinets & French Horn libraries from Westgate (which are far superior to those in any other library I own) NI Akoustic piano and Real Guitar. For the strings I am using primarily Dan Dean Solo Strings and some of Kirk Hunter's (principally the bass, but the acoustic bass in JABB is also surprsingly good for some things.)

    I don't care for the saxes in JABB. In fact, I have yet to find a sax library that I like. In this particular score, I muddle through with one of the soprano saxes from JABB, in two numbers where I need a trumpet trio (the sax playing the middle voice). More than 20 years ago I appeared in a Shakespeare in the Park production (back when Joe Papp was still with us). The original score was composed by Dick Peaslee, who did Marat/Sade. He pre-recorded some of it (strings, etc., used very sparingly) but the bulk of the show was done with just a drummer (mostly on timpani), a trumpet and soprano sax. It was absolutely amazing. I remember I was struck by how much the trumpet and sax could sound like two trumpets -- yet you could still get a lot of variety from what ranges you used and how you voiced them. No sample libraries come close to this, so I am scoring the trumpet/sax stuff more from memory than what I actually hear.

    I'm still looking for a good sax library and a vocal one (that doesn't sound like only a church choir and will allow your to build small or large ensembles the way you can with JABB and GPO.)

  7. #7

    Re: Trombone vs Bass Trombone

    There are lotsof ideas here!!!!!!!!!
    but people seem to be very casual with this site!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Any body interested in a joint venture ?
    I got some stuff to share

  8. #8

    Re: Trombone vs Bass Trombone

    @smithparker, What is that?

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