If we are to say just the word “trombone,” we automatically think of the ubiquitous Tenor Trombone. In many ways, the Tenor Trombone is the simplest of all wind instruments. A standard Tenor has only a slide to change the pitch. It is unchanged except for bore size since the days of the Renaissance. Like other common instruments, there is little about the Tenor that I can expound upon.
The standard Tenor Trombone is pitched in B-flat, but it is not a transposing instrument. The fundamental pitch of the slide when it is in its closed position is a 9 foot B-flat harmonic series. Only in British brass bands is the Tenor Trombone ever treated as a transposing instrument. The standard range is two-and-a-half octave scale starting on the E below the bass clef. The standard high note is the B-flat in the treble clef. Higher notes are possible, and not uncommon. The famous solo in Bolero goes up to a high D-flat. Many Tenor Trombonists will play parts originally for the Alto Trombone, and thus will be required to play up to an E-flat or an F.
Technique-wise the Tenor Trombone (and all trombones) can be slower than most other brass instruments. In order to combat the sluggishness of the slide, most instruments are now equipped with a trigger. The trigger is a valve operated by the left thumb that drops the fundamental pitch of the instrument down a fourth to F. This has two effects. The most noticeable is the extension of the range all the way down to a low C below the bass cliff. The second advantage is that notes can be played in more than one position. For instance, if a player has to play rapidly a B-flat in the staff to a B-natural in the staff, which are normally play in 1st and 7th positions respectively, the could now play them with the trigger in 3rd(T) and 2nd(T) position, or with 1st and 2nd(T) position. The player now has three options, where they had only one before. Technique is now greatly increased. When writing for the Tenor Trombone in anything above the junior high lever, you can safely assume that the player will have a trigger available.
Another exploited feature is the pedal notes. These are the fundamental pitches of the open tube. The first pedal note is the B-flat below the bass clef (the same pitch as the bottom note of the Bassoon). The capable trombonist can play all the pedal tones down to the pedal E (or pedal C if the trigger is used). This can extend the range of the trombone another octave, so that the effective range is close to four octaves. However, this four octave range is not complete. The Tenor Trombone cannot play the low B-natural below the bass clef, as it lies in between the extended range with the trigger and the first note of the pedals. The pedal notes are raspy, loud, and sinister. They are used for moments of horror and shock. The normal warmth of the instrument is lost. The Tenor Trombone should have a full arsenal of mute available (straight, cup, plunger, harmon).
The Tenor Trombone can mix well with all brass instruments. Within the woodwinds, most mixes are satisfactory. One of the most curious mixes is from Berlioz’s Requiem where 8 Tenor Trombones playing pedal notes play against 3 C Flutes. Trombone and clarinet as well as with saxophone is well-known from jazz. Trombone and Bassoon is will-known from Renaissance wind music. Oboe and trombone is much rarer. The solo Tenor Trombone is one of the rarest solo instruments in the orchestra. Most trombone passages are for the instrument in harmony. This was its original role, and the role it seems to be most suited for. For a solo passage, I again turn to Berlioz and his Funeral and Triumphal Symphony where the second movement is a long extended solo for the Tenor Trombone. This piece has some of the best writing for wind band from the 19th Century.
Berlioz’s Simphonie Funebre et Triomphale 2nd Movement
Berlioz’s Hungarian March from the Damnation of Faust
Berlioz’s Requiem “Hostias.” The only instruments in this movement are the Celli and Basses, three Flutes, and 8 Tenor Trombones. It is some of the most substantial use of pedal notes in the literature.
Ravel’s Bolero. Joseph Alessi is considered to be one of the greatest living American trombonists.