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   Author  Topic: Sackbut vs. Trombone  (Read 16846 times)


Gender: male
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Sackbut vs. Trombone
« on: Oct 6th, 2003, 8:14am »
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I'm attaching an article by Doug Yeo that he posted on a trombone forum that may be of interest to sackbut players.  I am doing this with Doug's approval.  He had several pictures which did not copy, but the text is intact with no editing.  
"Over the last few weeks, I learned a lot about a few things and thought I'd share them with my friends on the forum.  
Last week, I played bass sackbut in a production of the "Vespers of 1610" of Claudio Monteverdi. Boston's Handel and Society, conducted by music director Grant Llewellyn, gave three performances of what is believed to be the first staged version of the "Vespers" in Boston's Emerson Theater. Chen Shi-Zheng devised the concept for the production and was the director; an ensemble of seven dancers (six women, one man) interpreted the "Vespers" in dance in what was a quite powerful synergy of Asian inspired dance forms (the dancers were all Chinese and Indonesian), and the presence of hundreds of statues of various sizes of the Virgin Mary (from 6 inches high to life size) made for an overwhelming visual spectacle.  
I've played bass sackbut for a few years, most recently before this in performances of Monteverdi's "L.Orfeo" with Boston Baroque. The "Vespers" has long been one of my favorite pieces, with its sumptuous sound and glorious, highly elevated music and text. A special treat of these performances was working with such accomplished colleagues who played cornetto and sackbut.  
Shown above are the cornetti and sackbuts (from left to right): Michael Collver (kneeling), Paul Perfetti, Kiri Tollaksen, the Virgin Mary, Douglas Yeo (bass), Robert Couture (kneeling, alto and tenor), John Faieta (tenor). The orchestra and chorus sat on the stage, with the cornetti and sackbuts on the left side, the chorus in the rear, the strings and recorders on the right, and the continuo and conductor in the pit (which was elevated). The dancers then had the main area of the stage in which to work.  
To prepare for these performances, I played bass sackbut exclusively for three weeks, including the week of the rehearsals and the performances. I completely stayed away from bass trombone - the instruments are VERY different in many ways. First, the bass sackbut is in F (the instrument I used is by Frank Tomes, a fine London based maker). Its length is such that it requires a handle to reach the outer positions. The bore is small, the bell is very small, and the mouthpiece is completely different (I have a mouthpiece made by the Dutch maker van der Heide) - it has a flat rim, and a very sharp cut down to the throat from the cup. It is awkward to hold (more on that below). You have to blow a sackbut differently as well - it will not take "modern symphonic" air flow, the style of playing is rather antithetical to the "concrete" kind of playing we often do in modern orchestras. Rather, it is all about soft blowing, easing into notes, a certain diffuseness of articulation, swells of notes, and such. In all, it was a wonderful time of re-discovery and joy, putting myself back in time and working with players who approached their playing with a similar kind of wonder and love.  
Having said all of this, I kept thinking that I was learning so much by entering this old world, things which I can apply to my trombone playing as well. Here are a few thoughts:  
1) When I picked up my bass trombone on Monday of this week after three weeks with the bass sackbut, it felt like it weighed 10 tons. The bell looked like a pizza pan. This I expected. What I did not expect was how easy it was to play. It took a little while to get used to the "short" slide (compared to the long sackbut slide) but after I did, I realized that the work I had done on the sackbut in terms of having to deliver incredibly focused air (since the bore is so small and the mouthpiece very large, you need a very clear focus in order to hit notes on the sackbut square on - if you don't do this, you have a high risk of over or undershooting the note). In the days since I started playing bass trombone, again, I feel like Hercules. This has always been a benefit when I've doubled on an instrument which is much more difficult to play than the bass trombone (including serpent, ophicleide, bass trombone, contrabass trombone) - the difference in bore and the technique require to center notes is effort well spent, for when you go back to bass trombone, my sound is always clearer and technique lighter and more nimble. I think I will also play a little differently when the Boston Symphony begins its season next week - in a sense, I'm glad we're starting with an all Beethoven week since I'll be playing my Yamaha YBL-601 Vienna style bass trombone which is a small bore bass trombone in the German model. It will be a nice transition back to the modern orchestra as my other trombone colleagues will be scaling back to an alto trombone and a small bore tenor.  
2) There is a technique Monteverdi uses in his vocal writing which is designed to heighten the emotion the singer is trying to communicate. It is a kind of vocal stuttering which, when I heard it, reminded me exactly of the "ha-ha-ha" type of "tonguing" that I have talked about when I articulate simply by using the syllable "ha" and pulsating the air. Hearing singers do this - incredibly quickly and quite expertly - made me think that perhaps I had heard this technique used by a singer and then tried it and applied it to the trombone.  
3) Holding the sackbut was difficult. I have never had trouble with left hand tension, but the problem with the sackbut is that the bell stay (brace) was much higher up the bell than on a trombone. There was no way I could reach it with my thumb and without a brace (or trigger) to rest on, you just can't hold a trombone in the traditional way. I tried several work arounds but nothing seemed to work (any possible solutions were made more difficult to execute since the sackbut has flat stays unstead of round braces, making holding the stay with your hand (making a fist around it) very uncomfortable.  
Having become very frustrated with this, and having worked out a poor solution by wrapping a piece of leather around the bell stay that I could put my finger through, I noticed that Bob Couture was using a hand strap on his tenor sackbut. He said it really helped him hold his tenor sackbut very comfortably so I promptly went out and bought one. I got the one made by Yamaha (YAC-1535P) and it instantly solved my problems holding the horn.  
As you see in the photo above, the strap wraps around the mouthpiece, under the lower part of the hand grip, and is around my hand. The weight of the horn is therefore on my left hand. I can use my left index finger to stabilize the horn. I can't use my usual "Yeo grip" since the weight of the horn is just too unbalanced - it is incredibly front heavy; also the slide tubes are very wide apart, much wider than on my bass trombone - and I need as many fingers on one side of the hand grip stay as possible to keep the horn up. The photo also shows the handle that must be used in order to play the sackbut. This solution worked very well, and while when I picked up my bass trombone again I had no trouble at all holding it and I don't expect to use the hand strap when I play bass trombone, I was convinced of the merits of the accessory for people with small hands or with horns that just make playing uncomfortable.  
There were other things I learned as well, mostly about blending, ensemble and such, but these are some of the main things I wanted to pass on which might be useful in our application to bass trombone playing. I know others on the forum, such as Edward Solomon, often play other instruments and I'm sure they have learned a lot from playing them, as they have mentioned on this forum and elsewhere.  
It's back to the bass trombone now, at least for awhile. I have two concerts on which I'll be playing serpent coming up in October so next week, it will be back to the serpent and, no doubt, learning more things about music making. Life is a grand adventure!"
Douglas Yeo  
Bass Trombonist, Boston Symphony Orchestra  
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alto recorder, bass trombone, tenor trombone, euph, Eb tuba, flute, dulcimer - someday a sackbut
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