Are Brass Players Ruining Orchestras?
Over the past two decades, there has been a veritable explosion in the development of the modern trombone. Players are now confronted with a dizzying array of choices in mouthpiece, bells, leadpipes, valves and slides. Many manufacturers offer the player the chance to put together a highly specialized instrument made up of several individually selected parts. The good news is that the choice has never been greater - the free market is a wonderful thing. But there is a down side to all of this.
Part of the argument is that a dizzying array of instrument choices feeds (feeds into, perhaps?) the ability to 'bury the violas'.
So, the question is, do instrument makers have an obligation to feed a need for more and more volume if the market asks for it? Should instruments become bigger and louder? And, is our collective sound concept changing?
I believe our sound concept IS changing. I compare especially bassoon and trombone from my early years, both of which had distinctive nasally qualities that instantly identified them. Contemporary instruments are heading toward a larger, rounder, fuller sound with more of the low harmonics, and less distinguishing characteristics. Modern trombones are getting so big that they approximately horns in sound concept, even while horn players desperately avoid any hint of sounding like the trombones. Modern bassoons have a smooth, mellow, deep resonance that older bassoons lack, losing much of the flavor of the sound.
But are brass players changing their sound concept just to stand out? That's a more complex question. Standing out has certainly become a theme in recent years, going back at least as far as the old Conn poster show Phil Myers getting 'buried by the trombones'. Heavier instruments are marketed as being able to 'cut through' and as 'laser-like'.
Doug Yeo has awakened us to a valid point. The instruments are not themselves to blame. Nor are the instrument makers, but they are responding to a market demand, which is fueled in no small part by the brass players' wishes to come forward from the back of the orchestra. If the market demands it, the makers will respond. That's how our economy works.
Even so, I am reminded of the old saying, "Science tells us that we can do it. Humanities asks us if we should do it."
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Dave and Chris are brass technicians who enjoy helping players get the most out of their playing experience.