As I said last month, I bought my first alto trombone in 1966 and I still play it today. It is a Latzsch. I learned the positions by playing Rochut Etudes, which I was already familiar with on tenor trombone. This helped a lot because I could tell when I was playing wrong notes or out of tune, because I knew the melodies. I think it is important to learn the alto trombone as if it is a new instrument rather than transposing from the tenor because there are times when you need to read all 4 clefs and if you learn the positions independently, different clefs will be no problem.
I want to describe what I feel is the ideal alto trombone sound. This would apply to an orchestral sound rather than a solo sound. It would also be the sound I would use for something like the Mozart Requiem, which is a good example of classic alto trombone writing. The sound should be focused but not “trumpety”, because it should still blend with the tenor and bass trombone. However It should not sound like a small tenor either because that would defeat the purpose. On the other hand an alto used for solo playing should have a smaller more brilliant sound, so that it can produce a lighter more buoyant timbre and ride above the orchestra rather than blend into the upper middle range.
I prefer the old style German type alto, with a thin, soft type of metal which produces a dense, saturated sound in the softer dynamics, as described in last months column. Loud playing on an alto is generally not a major concern because most of the repertoire (with exceptions of course) are weighted toward the middle and softer dynamics. I used to use an alto sparingly, but now I use it on almost everything, including Brahms symphonies and Schubert 9th because I believe I have found a combination of horn and mouthpiece that keeps the alto sound concept while providing the warmth of sound these pieces demand.
I think every player in an orchestra needs 2 or more alto trombone mouthpieces. Good alto mouthpieces are hard to find and each one needs to fit the particular characteristics of that instrument. I use a Bach 5GS for most things I play on alto. I have a smaller alto trombone mouthpiece that I use for Beethoven 5 and 9. There you would want a “trumpety” sound because these are (especially the 5th) very percussive type of writing, unique in the literature. I also have a medium small mouthpiece that I use on things like the Mendelssohn Reformation Symphony where you play in unison with the trumpet, but want to add more body to the sound that that unison produces. The Parke Mouthpiece Company is making my model tenor mouthpiece which I am very happy with. I plan to design an alto mouthpiece that will give me the type of sound on alto that I now have on tenor.
In a future column, I will discuss my experiences in choosing mouthpieces and the evolution that has brought me to the equipment I play today.