I first heard an alto trombone around the year 2000. I had come across Christian Lindberg’s recording of Mozart’s Horn Concertos, played in an alto trombone. These were some of my favorites concertos and to hear them played in a trombone was exciting. Immediately, I decided I wanted to play that.
After some research, and because I couldn’t justify paying $2500 for an alto, I bought a used alto for around $900. It was a gorgeous instrument with an 8-1/2 inch bell and tuning in the slide. I bought Benny Sluchin’s alto trombone method and went ahead with trying to learn the alto trombone the traditional way.
The traditional approach to the alto is rooted in history and orchestral tradition. It involves learning alto clef and learning new positions. There are many reasons for this, and I am not going to go into them here.
Learning the alto the traditional way proved frustrating, even for a dedicated enthusiast like me. The combination of the new positions, and the quirks of the horn I had bought proved too much for me. I found out that I couldn’t really leverage on my experience playing tenor. I slowly abandoned it after not getting anywhere, and eventually sold it on eBay and moved on.
The E-flat alto trombone as a transposing instrument in F
Fast forward to 2018. Early on 2018 I had a chance to go to the NAMM Show and I was able to play some altos. They sounded so nice that I came home decided to buy one and give it another try. While I was looking at Sluchin’s book I realized something that no one had ever mentioned to me, and that I had never heard. I googled and researched it and found no mention of this approach anywhere.
This is what I found: if you take an E-flat alto and play it like a tenor trombone it becomes a transposing instrument in F. Think about it. A tenor is a B-flat instrument that plays in C, so an E-flat alto, pitched a perfect fourth higher, plays in F. Simple as that. Moreover, when sixth position F (F3) is taken as written middle C (C4), this transposition is the same as a French Horn. So, an E-flat alto played as a tenor can read F-Horn music. One of the reasons that motivated me to write this blog is that I shared this with some professionals, even alto players, and they were not aware of this. It seems, from the postings in different trombone forums, that most trombone players think that an E-flat alto is a transposing instrument in E-flat (which would have been great too, but that, it turns out, is not the case).
This “discovery” was a game changer for me. I decided immediately to get an alto. And, as soon as my new alto arrived, I put my Yamaha bell tuner on it, set it to “F transposing” and in a couple of hours I had the positions down. The same relative positions as in the tenor. Next day, I was working on the Romanza from Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3.
I was (and still am) very excited. I couldn’t believe that I could have spent the last sixteen years playing alto! Back in 2002, when I was trying to play alto the traditional way, I had bought Ralph Sauer’s Alto Trombone version of Richard Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1. Needless to say, I couldn’t crack but a few bars of this piece. This time, I got the F-Horn version of Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1, and playing the alto as a transposing instrument in F, read thru the first two movements, thrilled at the music coming out of my horn.
I could finally leverage on my knowledge of the tenor trombone. My focus now is on playing the music in front of me, not on finding a note or being frustrated because my hand is going the wrong way.
By now you must have noticed that we are talking about playing mostly music written for the French Horn on the alto trombone. Which begs the question, how realistic is this? My answer, which is an opinion based on my limited experience, is that this is very realistic. Let me address first the low points of this approach.
The most obvious shortcoming of this approach is that we are asking trombone players to read treble clef. Most musicians that I know play more than one instrument and are at ease reading treble clef. However, it’s very common for younger trombone players to only know bass clef. So, if you don’t know treble clef this will be your first hurdle. However, I strongly encourage you to learn it because this won’t be the last time treble clef stomps you.
Playing a transposing instrument
We are also asking trombone players to play trombone as a transposing instrument, something that is anathema to some people. However, if you have played anything with valves on it, then chances are you have already played a transposing instrument. I personally play cornet and baritone, in addition to trombone, so playing a transposing instrument is not new. In my experience, it’s easier for the ear to get accustomed to written C sounding as F, than it is to rework the eye-arm coordination required to play known notes in new places. Which I think is one of the reasons transposing instruments are so common.
The upper register of both instruments is about the same. However, the lower register of the F-Horn is pretty darn low. Remember, an F-Horn is as long as the F-extension on a trombone. So, even with a B-flat extension on your alto, you’ll be at a disadvantage. The good news is that going this low is rare. When the music goes this low, you could play an octave or a fifth above, depending on where the music is going.
In summary, chances are that we are going to find stuff that can’t be played. I think the repertoire of F-instruments is vast enough for us to carve out a chunk for the alto trombone that is probably as large as its native repertoire. And it goes without saying that, when needed, transposing stuff to play in your instrument is not exactly rocket science.
In my opinion, for the enthusiast, there are some clear benefits to this method.
Leveraging your knowledge
In the traditional method to the alto trombone, all you leverage from your years playing trombone is your embouchure. The rest is all new. You may as well be a viola player. Of course I’m joking, we all know that embouchure is critical. But the fact that you can’t leverage anything else is why so few players ever give a serious try to the alto.
When you play it as a “little tenor”, then a lot of things open up. For starts, many of the intonation quirks of the alto turn out to be the same intonation quirks of the tenor, just a fourth higher. Not that individual instruments won’t have their challenges, or that everything will be rosy, however, a lot of things won’t be new, they will be familiar.
There is a clear advantage in using your knowledge of the tenor to play, on the alto, music that you know and enjoy, or music that you know how it should sound. This helps you navigate the instrument, slot the notes, and improve your intonation. And if necessary, you may also use a tuner with a transposing function to guide your ears.
In his Complete Method for the Alto Trombone, professor Stephen C. Anderson teaches the alto using three methods. One of the methods is to play the alto as a transposing instrument reading bass clef. Using this method there is no repertoire that you can use to your benefit. Of course, when presenting his transposing method professor Anderson’s goals are different than ours.
One of the benefits of playing the alto trombone as a transposing instrument in F, reading treble clef, is that we benefit from the existing repertoire for instruments in F (mostly French Horn, but also English Horn). We already went over some of the difficulties inherent in the horn repertoire. Nevertheless, most of this repertoire is playable on the alto.
The F-Horn repertoire is more extensive than the traditional alto and tenor trombone repertoire. It includes, by the way, a lot of pieces originally written for alto and tenor trombone, as well as pieces written for the horn by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, and others. To this, you can add any other pieces that you may be willing to transpose.
Something to keep in mind is that some pieces shared by the trombone and the F-Horn may be in different keys for each instrument. For example, the Telemann Horn Concerto is available in D for the French Horn and in B-flat for the alto and tenor trombones. It’s not an easy piece on either key but it’s harder on D. My strategy is to play it in B-flat using the horn version and transposing it a third down.
Most popular music books and tunes available for the trombone are also available in F. The main limitation of the repertoire in F is the lack of any jazz real books. I personally use my tenor for jazz, blues, salsa, etc., and my alto for classical music, mostly baroque. But the lack of real books shouldn’t be a roadblock if you want to play jazz using the alto as a transposing instrument in F. However, I cannot offer any recommendations, if that is your interest I suggest you check out French Horn players playing jazz or alto trombone players that play jazz, (you may want to check Michael Lake’s website ).
Other nice features of the alto trombone
No matter what way you decide to play the alto trombone, transposing or not (or both!), the alto has some nice features that I would like to stress.
One of the beauties of the alto is its size. It feels like a feather on your shoulder, the slide is lighter and shorter, and it allows you to play fast passages easier than you could in a tenor.
While it is generally true that the alto trombone doesn’t extend your range, it does help you by better isolating the higher notes. It gives you better definition and accuracy. This is because in higher pitched instruments these notes happen in lower harmonics than in lower-pitched instruments.
For example, for me it’s hard to accurately play notes above C5 on any of my tenors, no matter the bore. However I can play accurately and in tune, all the way up to F5 on the alto.
I could go on and on, but that’s not the point of this blog. I hope that by now you have an idea about what to expect from this approach, and whether it suits you or not.
I will like to stress that the ideas in this blog are not addressed to professionals, nor to college students training to become professional trombone players. Their needs and attitudes are very different than those of amateur, casual players. That doesn’t mean that the opinions of professionals and students are not welcome.
I’ll be happy to hear you comments.
Thanks for reading.
[Blog updated on March 21, 2019.]