Answers to a few excellent questions on alto trombone

I received an email today from a trombonist who packed a lot of good questions into I was looking into getting an alto trombone and I was wondering, is a trigger really necessary? Or Would it be better just to find an alto without one? Also what alto trombone do you use and how did you get into ready alto clef efficiently?

To trigger or not to trigger… I think the answer depends on what you plan to play on your alto. The trigger gives you a few things like less arm movement and that low Ab down to E range. On the other hand, the trigger adds weight and likely detracts a bit from the overall sound, depending on the quality of the trigger.

I have never been a fan of the trigger. In fact, the Silver Adams I now play doesn’t even have a second brace up by the tuning slide. I prefer light and as little tubing as possible. That probably influenced my exclusivity with alto in the first place!

Conn 36H alto trombone with Bb trigger

If you will be playing primarily symphonic music with the need for the low register (which is odd since the alto isn’t usually called for in that range), perhaps the trigger is important for you. If you plan to play jazz, maybe not so much. I should warn you that I occasionally run into difficulty playing big band or other music written for tenor that goes into that low range. I either lip fake those notes or play them up an octave. Haven’t yet been kicked out of a band for that!

I recently bought an Adams alto. I just spent 5 minutes searching the Adam’s site but cannot find the horn to which I was going to link. That’s not good. But I do like my silver Adams. It locks into pitch well and has a great overall sound. Less brassy than my Yamaha YSL671. Here’s a sample.

Now for the fun part of this post! About getting into alto clef efficiently.

This is a very popular question. I originally wrote my first book, Alto Trombone Savvy, in bass clef, not having given it much thought. It seemed obvious to me at the time. I gave it to the great Christian Lindberg to review and his one comment was that it should be in alto clef.

I thought about that and decided to create a second edition of the book in alto clef. Since going to print, I sell about half bass, half alto editions. It was a good decision.

Both editions of Alto Trombone Savvy

A friend of mine who plays trombone in a major symphony remarked after I told him about people wanting the book in alto clef that, in his opinion, too many trombonists are locked into alto clef when playing the alto trombone. In other words, they can’t play the alto trombone in bass clef. He considered that a problem, and as you would probably expect, I tend to agree.

I agree because simply associating black dots to the mechanical manipulation of a musical instrument seems to miss an important aspect of playing a musical instrument and being a musician. Those black dots should inform the musician of the frequencies of the written music, and her musicianship should inform her fingers or arms where to find that frequency on her instrument.

Now, if you happen to be most fluent in a particular clef because that has been how you developed your music-reading skill, then by all means find written music in that clef. The issue I’m taking is if your arm only knows where to go on an alto because of rote muscle memory associating dots with slide positions, yet you fluently read bass clef for tenor trombone, I would suggest a change.

I frequently characterize the alto trombone as a concert pitch instrument similar to a tenor but whose fundamental overtone happens to be Eb. So where A440 is written as a note in treble, bass, tenor or alto clef, it lives in the second position of the 5th partial of the alto. Know the frequencies on your horn and recreate them on the horn when you see them illustrated as notes on paper. Use your ear more than your eyes or muscle memory.

I know that’s a long explanation, so my bottom line is: if you are a tenor trombone player who is fluent in bass clef, do not think that you need to learn alto clef just because you want to play the alto trombone. It will make learning the alto much more difficult and is totally unnecessary unless you plan on playing alto trombone repertoire that will be largely in alto clef. My experience has been that that is not the situation for most if not all players looking to take up the alto.

4 thoughts on “Answers to a few excellent questions on alto trombone”

  1. Is it possible to just play the alto trombone in the treble clef? Such using sheet music for an E flat Alto Horn or a tench horn if pitched in F? I play an Alto horn in the treble clef and wondered about playing the alto trombone.

    1. Yes, most certainly. The tenor voice parts are all written in the octaved tenor clef treble with an 8 beneath. This has the added advantage of being contiguous with the bass clef – middle C is one ledger line above the bass and one below the treble. The alto and tenor clefs were OK a couple of hundred years ago, but imagine plaing the piano using them!

  2. John, sorry for the delayed response. I think of this stuff in what traditionally would be considered odd. I do not think of the alto trombone as a transposed instrument. When I see A3 in bass, treble, tenor, or alto clef, I play second position A. So, I read a concert pitch note and then play that pitch on the alto trombone. I am unfamiliar with the transposition of an Eb horn but I recommend that players treat the alto trombone just as they do a tenor trombone. As a concert instrument.

    Honestly, I’ve never understood the purpose of calling notes something different from their concert pitches except in the case of flute or bass, etc. where the notation is too high or low to practically write and read. But who decided that the Bb trumpet should be transposed? And why wasn’t the tenor trombone treated the same way considering that the fundamental is Bb and not C?

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