LAS VEGAS--It seems too much to take in all at once--dozens of
trombone players lined up. Only trombone players. The sight of all
that heavy metal stops you.
What strikes you right off is the vibrating air--the whole room resonates.
It's not loud, not brassy, but something that surrounds, what it
must feel like to be dipped into warmed chocolate.
OK, writers occasionally take you to some odd places in pursuit of
What Makes People Tick. But the idea of 500 trombonists converging
here for the International Trombone Workshop last week was too tempting
Of course, I have a bias. My non-Times life is as a trombone player.
So this was an assignment from heaven, a chance to mingle with people
who share the eccentric view that most of the population was placed
here to hear from the few of us who play slide trombone.
Now, 500 of anything in one place could be interesting. But 500 trombones
. . . now that's really interesting.
They're not viola players," explained one trombonist. "You
wouldn't get them confused. They're not finicky."
There are more of us out there than you may think. A call to the
University of Nevada, Las Vegas, host of the workshop, turned up
the news that organizer Ken Hanlon in the provost's office is a
trombonist; a secretary said she had known that fact." Even
if he didn't talk about it all the time, you'd know. He has passion
about it. He has the soul of a trombonist."
I knew we were onto something important here--unearthing Southern
California's trombone subculture.
Question: What is the definition of an optimist?
Answer: A trombone
player with a beeper.
You imagine a gathering of 500 trombone players
in Vegas will be, well, something like 500 Elvis impersonators
It was oddball enough for the local television weather reporter
to do the evening stand-up before an impromptu gathering of about
trombones. And the university dining hall was turned into a lunch-hour
Actually, the workshop was an extended oasis with some of the best
players in the world, a celebration for the trombone-starved--recitals,
concerts, teaching clinics and lots of music. Said Marty Williams
of Santa Ana: "It's Disneyland for trombone players."
Indeed, it was a most eclectic mix of people and music styles,
from jazz to avant-garde, symphonic presentations to the cacophony
instant hallway duets. The pros mixed with the academics, the hot
students met up with retirees who finally have enough time for
trombone in their lives. And Greg Ingalls from Michigan, finishing
studies at Oberlin, was here for what became a successful audition
for a job--with a small orchestra in Germany.
Among the non-professionals, this was like going to that baseball
fantasy camp, mixing with the stars. "It does leave you with
a bittersweet feeling, though," said Dr. Norm Buckley, an anesthesiologist
from Hamilton, Canada. "These players are so good, you don't
know whether you want to just put the horn away."
Not all was sweetness and light: People worried about jobs, about
getting paid for playing, about evening the opportunities for women,
about the declining support for the arts.
And they worried that among the musical instruments, the trombone
gets no respect.
Jan Kagarice of Denton, Tex., whose all-woman quartet PRISMA drew
plaudits, explained, "We are artists just as violinists are
artists. People would probably laugh to think of having a trombone
quartet for the tea instead of a string quartet. . . . But we have
so many more colors in our sound."
Organizer Hanlon, who teaches music theory, said UNLV has been
host to a 76 Trombones group each fall. "People seem amazed
to see that many trombones at one time. Then they seem amazed at
of sound it produces."
While players of other instruments have similar gatherings, "this
one is different," said Steve Wolfinbarger, teacher of trombone
at Western Michigan University and president of the sponsoring International
Trombone Assn. "People aren't showing off. They like being
with each other."
There is a similar gathering for viola players, he said, "but
I wouldn't want to be there."
little humor during the International Women's Trombone
Choir performance when musician John Marcellus (left) joins
with the group next to musician Jan Kagarice (right) at
the 24th International Trombone Workshop at
Photo By Lawrence K. Ho /Los Angeles Times
The main problem is image.
Most people probably can't name a living trombonist," Wolfinbarger
said. In all, there are a few hundred professional jobs in the
country among symphonies and military bands. Even professionals
their wages by teaching, clinics and campus visits.
Orchestra management seems to think that soloists are only pianists
or violinists, or an occasional baroque flute," said a teacher. "There
are probably only about two people making a living as soloists,
and probably just barely."
At the workshop, there was news: Seven newly commissioned pieces
were performed, including four trombone concerti underwritten
by a single Nevada doctor. A commission for a jazz work by
leader Bill Holman featured four name trombonists (Bill Watrous,
Carl Fontana, Ian McDougall and Jiggs Whigham) playing together
for the first time. The Los Angeles Philharmonic low brass--Ralph
Herbert (Sonny) Ausman, Jeff Reynolds and Norm Pearson--gave
one of several clinics, this one showing the dynamics of sectional
There were tensions: Organizers showcased women's groups and
performers. A longtime hiring discrimination battle waged by
principal trombonist for the Munich Symphony, to get and keep
her job has sparked
efforts to draw more women to the trombone, and more notice
that women have trouble getting hired.
There was playing: Groups were organized at the pffst of a
spit valve. The women formed a trombone choir. The professors
I went with the Weekend Warriors, the organized path for the
non-professional musicians. Jazz star Whigham was featured
in front of our 48 trombones
on stage. Playing quietly was encouraged.
And there was humor. Lots of humor.
Q: What does a trombonist ask when he gets to his job? A: Would
you like fries with that, sir? "The soul of a trombone player"?
What could that have meant?
Trombonists "are generally nice people. They don't show off.
They are, well, different from, say, trumpet players," explained
a musician from the Midwest. "Trumpet players just tell
you right off they are better than you. Trombonists actually
Trombonists have a cynical sense of humor. Of course, they have to,
to get through the day or to try to make a living," said
a Las Vegas musician.
Said Hanlon: "We had a gathering of oboists and bassoonists
here a couple of years ago. I can tell you there is a difference.
But that would be instrument chauvinism.
" Within the orchestra, the trombone players tell the best jokes. It's
probably because they spend the most time counting measures,
waiting to play."
Kagarice said, "You have to have a sense of humor to be a trombone
player." She is married to another trombone player.
McDougall deadpanned, "My father, who was a banjo player,
told me to play the trombone because a good trombone player
is never out
of work." That line got the biggest laughs of the week.
Q: How do you make a trombone sound like a French horn?
A: Stick your hand in the bell and play some wrong notes.
are no Census numbers for trombonists in Southern California,
but there are probably a couplehundred. The studios draw
on a core
of them, colleges account for others, and then there are
the scores of amateurs and free-lancers who have other
feel a need
The region was well represented by musicians from the Los
Angeles Philharmonic, several jazz players and the Moravian
Choir of Downey.
Just the idea of a trombone choir is enough to surprise
most folks. Trombones varying in size from a relatively
director Rob Smit calls an "oversized paper clip"--to
alto trombones, the more familiar tenor trombones, bass
a contrabass trombone blend in a unique, organ-like sound.
I was among the 20 trombones in the Moravian group, most
of whom drove to Las Vegas just to perform before other
Smit manages a hotel in Whittier. Members include a bank
a music librarian, an aerospace engineer, a newsletter
publisher; some are from the Moravian Church congregation,
tradition that has adopted the trombone for 300 years,
with quartets often
substituting for organ.
The music is a mixture of hymns, fanfares, transcriptions
and compositions just for this choir.
It's a sound you hear nowhere else," one musician said. "It
is like the blending of human voices. Most groups that
have trombones have a different coloring--brighter."
Don't look at the trombones. It will just encourage them.
--Richard Strauss (from a trombone discussion group on
For sure, the trombone is a subject of endless ribbing
very shape and slide lend themselves to spoofing.
Los Angeles-based jazzman Bill Watrous told of the Inglewood
music store that was looted. "Once they found out what they were,
they returned all of the trombones," he quipped.
The Internet has a trombone discussion group (email@example.com)
(now, in 2006, go to TROMBONE-L@listproc.samford.edu ) and the Trombone
Web Page (http:www.missouri.edu/~cceric/index.html)(again, in 2006,
look to the Internatiaonal Trombone Assoc http://www.ita-web.org/
Opportunities to play trombone around Southern California
abound. Opportunities to get paid for playing lag, and
that, too, is
a constant source of concern and, inevitably, of black
It is not difficult to play every night of the week. In
addition to the trombone choir, I play regularly, for example,
a jazz sextet, a brass quintet featuring chamber music,
quartet, and occasionally with a Dixieland group and community
orchestras. Of course, I have a day job, though it can
annoy my boss, the editor
of The Times, when I tell him I'm leaving to moonlight.
Trombone is not an easy instrument to play. The slide positions
are inexact; the sound can be affected by the weather,
the room, the
temperature or even diet. Playing well seems to require
a simultaneous balancing of skills, mental agility, flexibility
hearing for intonation.
A lot of trombonists will turn to conducting or arranging. It is
more lucrative," explained one professional player.
" Or they work at another job."