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Alto Trombones are pitched in E-Flat (Eb) – and occupy the musical alto range, sitting above the tenor and bass trombone. Historically the alto trombone rose to prominence in the 18th century and saw a decline in the 19th century due to the rise of the valved trumpet. However, the alto trombone has still found a home in orchestral literature and classical performance even in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Unlike the bass trombone which has identical slide positions to the tenor trombone, the alto trombone is an overall shorter instrument causing the slide positions to be much shorter than other trombones. In addition to the shorter slide positions, the alto trombone generally uses a smaller mouthpiece and combined with the smaller bore size produces a bright, crisp alto voice that is functional both as a solo instrument and as an ensemble instrument. Because of the higher range, alto trombone music is commonly written in alto clef or even treble clef causing challenges for tenor trombonists not used to reading alternate clefs.
Some alto trombones produced today will have a Bb-attachment similar to the concept of the F-attachment on a tenor trombone. This Bb-attachment will lower the initial pitch a perfect 4th and provide some alternate options for lower pitch and slide positions.
Because of the prominent use in baroque music and the necessity for performing trills and other ornamentation, some alto trombones are available with a trill rotor which will let the player trill either a half step or whole step from the initial pitch. While the different ornamentations such as trills can be performed as a ‘lip trill’, it’s somewhat difficult and requires quite a bit of control. The trill rotor can enable the player to seamlessly perform the challenging technical feat.
Students studying classical trombone will often be required to have some familiarity with the alto trombone due to the application being primarily in the orchestral setting. However, there is not much opportunity for a player to truly specialize in the alto trombone.
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