Small brass section for a theater pit orchestra: 2 trumpets, 1 trombone (bass doubling on tenor) and a French Horn:
For some numbers, 2 part harmony with the trumpets in the treble clef and the bass trombone playing counterpoint or a bass line in the bass clef works fine.
For slower numbers, 3 part harmony with the trumpets and French Horn at the low end of the treble and/or upper end of the bass staff is also working for me.
Ditto for using the French Horn as a fifth voice in woodwind ensembles. (Indeed that, and solos, is how I am using the horn most of the time).
But I have some reservations about using the two trumpets over the trombone (usually the tenor) in triads. It sounds okay in JABB, but I worry about whether the trombone will overpower the other voices in the higher part of its range (largely from posts that I have read in these forums.)
The numbers where I have used this voicing usually take the form of uptempo, staccatto passages, often with a lot of repeated notes. I use open brass in some numbers, harmon mutes in the others. Triads are necessary here because the chords have four or more voices (with the string bass, and/or bass clarinet or bassoon providing counterpoint or as part of the rhythm on the lower staff).
So, my question is: How far above the staff can a trombone go before it begins to overpower the trumpets in their lower register. For example, if a chord begins on middle C (trombone) with the E and G above it played by the trumpets, is that okay? Will most trombone players be able to balance the volume? With the fact that the trombone is playing further up in its range sound too dissimilar to the trumpets? Is it any less noticable if they all have harmon mutes? If the C-chord I described is do-able, how about taking it up half a step, and then another? How far up can I go before it begins to be a problem for most musicians?
I am principally concerned with the tenor trombone in these passages, but I think I may have a couple of places where I was forced to use this technique with the bass trombone, because I am writing only 1 trombone player, who doubles on the bass trombone and there may not be time to switch. (I need the bass trombone for the big tuttis, where the tenor just doesn't have enough punch or can't reach the lower notes reliably. Think "Les Mis". It's that kind of score.)
If worse comes to worse, I could substitute one of the reeds, playing alto sax for the bottom voice of the triads, but I really don't have an extra reed to spare. And saxes sound a little too contemporary for this piece, so I am trying to limit their use to a mininum, and cover them up as much as possible.
There's alot of what you ask that really depends on the player. Personally I'd feel comfortable writing for trombone up to g above middle C. The specific example you gave wouldn't pose a problem with balance. That's not too high for the trombone and it's a good comfortable lower middle range for the trumpets. Also depending on the intensity and affect you're going for you could invert the chord as well. A first inversion of that chord would sound ok as well, putting the trombone on e above middle c, g and c for the trumpets.
I guess alot of it depends on the context. If you don't need to represent every note in the chord amongst the brass, octaves sound nice too. Double the trombone and 2nd trumpet on the lower octave and the 1st trumpet an octave higher.
From a color perspective also consider flugel horns if your trumpet players have access to those.
A bass trombone rarely has to play above a middle C, though in theory it can have the same upper range as any tenor trombone. You'll need a pretty good player if you want them to switch between the two quickly, though.
An average tenor trombonist will be comfortable playing up to the F just above middle C and I'd suggest sticking to that for the straight triads with the trumpets. Tuning can be particularly tricky above the F, though good players can comfortably reach the Bb above that, and great players another octave above that at least.
But as trombonists, we'd normally expect to be playing a lead/solo line above the middle C, so it is going to be odd for the player to be on a bottom line in this sort of range upwards.
For the trumpet players, playing below the G (2nd line treble clef) can also be diffcult for fast repeated notes, making it difficult all round.
Much better to drop the trombone part down an octave if possible and raise one of the trumpet parts, using an inversion, which means that all players are playing more in their comfortable zone - though on the trombone can be hard to play fast repeated notes below the F below middle C quietly.
If it really necessary though, it's up to all three players to balance, not just the trombonist!
The trombone can adjust it's tuning a lot more readily than a trumpet so giving the trombone the middle note of the chord as Steve suggest will make for finer intonation and lessen the feeling of the tromb being the heaviest low instrument.
Mutes will help by letting the players "blow" harder to get the same volume, and lessening the difference between the sounds.
Perhaps one of the trumpets can play a flugel, which can sound quite like a trombone at times and may give a better balance/spread of tone, or could you use the French horn in the middle for a similar effect?
Thanks for all the advice (more than I had hoped for, actually). As it happens, I do have the second trumpet player doubling on the the flugelhorn in other numbers. I didn't think to use it in the brass triads because my feeling was that chords with only 3 instruments should be played by either the same instrument or with 1 different instrument on the top or the bottom. (I read that somewhere and it usually works). I don't think i want to use the French Horn for these chords because they need to have a sharp attack. i'm going to try going for more of an open position on the non-muted chords (to get the trombone parts lower) and see if it sounds okay. Otherwise, I'll stick with what I've got (except for the places where the bass trombone goes above middle C.)
One other question comes to mind. Is there much difference between a true bass trombone and a tenor trombone with a trigger (extending it down to the bass range)? Is it easier for the trombonist to play the higher parts on this instrument? Does the lower range sound as good as on a true bass trombone?
A true bass trombone has larger tubing so is richer in the lower register and I think can reach the lower notes more comfortably. A tenor trombone with a trigger extends the range a little but not as far down as a bass trombone nor with as full a sound.
So if it were me, I would ditch the bass trombone altogether and just use a straight tenor trombone, or if you need a few notes below e below the bass clef staff then a tenor with a trigger would probably suffice. Keep in mind that playing notes in the low register will require quite a bit of blowing so will actually could be difficult to play softly depending on the player. If alot of soft playing is required, try to keep the brass in their respective middle registers if possible. Again this really depends on the level of players.
That deep, rich bass trombone sound is what I want for more than half the numbers in which the brass plays. It has to support the whole orchestra playing tutti (not just the brass in those cases). If the tenor with a trigger sounds thinner, weaker, etc., I'll stick with the bass trombone. Often the French horn, low reeds, cellos, or keyboards are filling up the space between the trombone and the trumpets anyway.
In the numbers where I can have a lighter sound (or higher brass), I thought I'd have the trombone player double on the tenor. It's cheaper than hiring another trombonist and, from what pit musicians tell me, it is a reasonable doubling request. In a pinch, the part could be played on the bass trombone, in its higer register. The part doesn't go higher than the D above middle C, when playing as the bottom voice in a brass triad -- and I am now in the process of revoicing to keep it below the staff. The rest of the time, if it is used at all, it is as a solo instrument (and then, I don't think it ever gets higher than the E or F above middle C). So, I don't think I'm asking the player for anything that's too extraordinary -- especially if he can double on tenor. I just wanted to make sure. And I was curious about the differences between the bass and tenor with a trigger (since what I have read suggests that they are more or less interchangable.)
As a newbie on this technical forum, there'll be few questions I can talk about knowledgeably, so I'll make the most of this one while I can ...
The standard tenor trombone and modern bass trombone have exactly the same basic length of tubing, and extendible slide length, so can produce the same basic range of notes, though as Steve says, the bass trombone has a larger diameter tubing, as well as a bigger/deeper mouthpiece and a larger bell. These all serve to give a fuller sound in the lower register, and orchestral tenor trombones are often larger in these aspects than the standard (though not as big as bass trombones) for those reasons.
On such instruments though, it can be hard to play high where the notes can get very thin toned.
Apart from being noticeably heavier, bass trombones can have a different feel/response so players wouldn't generally expect to be asked to double unless they advertise themselves as being able to do so, so best not to expect it.
If played correctly (as professional players are taught to play), it's actually probably easier to switch between tenor and bass trombones than it is between a trumpet and a flugel, which are much less closely related instruments ... though trumpet players often do such doubling so get used to the differences between them and having to switch instantly, though that too shouldn't be expected as a standard.
The [standard Bb tenor or bass] trombone can play the low Bb on the second line of the bass clef, and the Bb an octave below (some can play the next Bb down again too!).
The slide can extend to lower the notes by up to an augmented 4th, so any tenor or bass trombone can naturally reach down to the low e below the bass clef, as Steve says.
But there is a gap of notes between the low E to the bottom (aka pedal) Bb which officially can't be played with just a normal sized slide.
Played properly, the length of tube in use for any brass instrument shouldn't matter ... one should aim to be able to get you're lips to vibrate at the required frequency without the particulars of the instrument used having any part to play.
When played this way it is possible to play any note in any slide/valve position (Don Lusher once did a whole solo without using his slide, I'm told), though if the length of tubing brought into use matches the frequency at which the lips are vibrating, it will resonate and produce a full/warm sound.
So it is quite possible to play the missing notes from the low Eb to the C# just above the pedal Bb without using a trigger, though they won't generally sound very full at all.
It is better to have the proper length of tube brought into play for such notes to resonate fully, so for this reason modern bass trombones always come with an F trigger ... though these are available on most professional tenor trombone models as an option.
Pressing the F slide extend the length of tubing in use such as to "bring" the note played down by a perfect 4th (i.e. it will resonate fully a 4th lower than without it), though a second factor now comes into play ...
The longer the length of tubing we use to play a particular note the greater the additional length required to play a note a semitone below it ...
So when using the F trigger, the main slide can now only extend the notes down in pitch by up to a perfect 4th below that ... so while we can play the low F with the main slide closed but having the F trigger pressed, the main slide can only take us down to the low C (just above pedal Bb) ... leaving the low C# still unavailable! ...
Some players can of course just "lip" this note into tune if required, though for this reason the modern professional bass trombone almost always has a 2nd trigger usually pitched at Eb (sometimes triggered independantly of the F trigger giving three triggering options (none, 1 or 2 triggers) ... which can then fully span the range below the bass.
Another option on some single trigger instruments is to have an additional extendible "tuning" slide which lowers the pitch a further semitone, or switchable crooks as with some horns, though these are not much use "on the fly".
The trigger can also be useful in negating the need to make sudden long changes to the main slide length in fast passages of music.
There are other solutions to playing the low range on the trombone, such as the contrabass trombone (pitched an octave lower and having a double slide) and the now thankfully defunct G bass trombone.
Bass trombonists might be more willing to double on tenor than vice-versa, though they'll probably be happier sticking with just the bass for anything up to the F above the bass clef ... only seeing the need to change if you regularly go higher than that, or need more of a lead/solo sound.