Doubling Down Low: Tales of a First Encounter with the Cimbasso

A few weeks ago I arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to begin my first season with the Santa Fe Opera company. After 4 days of driving from Jacksonville, Florida, and the landscape changing from swamp, to more swamp, to forest, to ranch country, and to dry, mountainous terrain along the way, thoughts of the first rehearsal became more present.

Aside from a couple chamber ensemble engagements I have outside of the Opera, our season includes 5 operas of which I play on 3. We're doing a company debut of John Adams' Dr. Atomic which is a highlight for us, especially being so close to Los Alamos where the Manhattan Project occurred years ago and where nuclear research still occurs today. It's a production that Peter Sellars has reimagined and tweaked to fit best for our location and will involve members of the community called "down-winders" who were affected by the experiments years ago. I'll also be playing on Ariadne auf Naxos by R. Strauss and Puccini's ever-classic Madama Butterfly. But, what I didn't realize on that drive was that I would be playing 3 different instruments on 3 different operas.

Wessex Cimbasso in the pit at Santa Fe Opera
Before heading to Santa Fe I knew I would be playing 2 instruments this summer - both bass trombones. One would be my gorgeous, modified Edwards B-502I and the other would be my new acquisition, a beautiful Conn 72H from 1967 that I planned on using for the Strauss as it's a chamber opera and calls for only 4 brass members (2 horns, 1 trumpet, 1 bass trombone). But, once Puccini rehearsals were underway, my section and I felt something wasn't quite right and that was because I was playing the wrong instrument.

Puccini and Verdi call for trombone basso to anchor the brass in most of their operas which is not to be mistaken for a bass trombone. The company has traditionally used bass trombone on these, however, after playing Contrabass Trombone to finish up our season in the Jacksonville Symphony in a 90 minute version of Götterdammerung, I knew it was that color of a trombone we were looking for in this production of Puccini. But, with the confines of a pit, a contrabass trombone isn't always the easiest option. Luckily for us, Verdi and the Italians had already figured it out and created the Cimbasso.

Besides looking like an instrument manufactured straight out of Dr. Suess' imagination and played in the Whooville Orchestra, the Cimbasso is almost only used in the operas of Verdi and Puccini. It's an instrument I had never played before and our first performance of the opera was in 8 days. Luckily, for me, the least of my worries was with actually learning the instrument but with a different aspect: fixing it.

The instrument the Opera company owns had been locked away in a closet and hadn't been played in 4 years. With the dryness that is Santa Fe, the valves had completely frozen, the rotor bumpers had deteriorated or were gone altogether in some places, and I realized I didn't own the correct sized mouthpiece. But, luckily for me, my early days of learning valves along with trombone positions and having played plenty of Euphonium while at New England Conservatory, learning the instrument would just be a matter of fusing what I knew about valves with the slide positions of the Contrabass Trombone which I had just played a few weeks earlier.

Easier said than done, and after some early Arban's studies and Bordogni/Rochut etudes (which, by the way, are much more difficult at 7200ft than at sea level), the Cimbasso became an instrument that I could play for what I needed to do. But why stop there?

Doubling is an essential skill set to any modern-day musician. In all sections of the orchestra except for strings, specific bonus/surprise instruments come with the instrument you once picked back when you started. And in school, most students gain experience one way or another by being assigned to doubling instrument parts while they have access to their teachers who most likely have experience on the instrument and are able to help. But for bass trombonists, it seems we're expected to learn Contrabass Trombone on the fly in the States when we have our job as it isn't often taught in schools because of it's much smaller amount of repertoire that doesn't often get programmed in school orchestras.

For tenor trombonists, Alto Trombone is taught as part of your degree and it's expected that you are able to play the instrument proficiently when you audition for a job. There are specific excerpts that are required to be played on Alto Trombone in high caliber ensembles. So why is Alto taught but Contrabass isn't?

In Germany and The Netherlands, the Contrabass is taught if you are a bass trombonist studying in conservatory. It's an instrument that has a specific set of excerpts listed on major auditions, just like the Alto for tenor trombonists. But, even tho the States don't specifically ask for Contrabass excerpts, shouldn't it be an instrument that we work in in school with guidance? Shouldn't it be an instrument we're all at least familiar with?

Further though, why stop at one doubling instrument when several standard orchestra pieces also call for Euphonium and some call for Bass Trumpet or Cimbasso. Why not have the ability, especially as a freelance musician, to be able to play several of these instruments proficiently? Why not challenge yourself to become a more well-rounded low brass player? All these instruments fall on a trombonist to play due to their similar mouthpiece size and register they play in so why not learn them?

1967 Conn 72H
Well, the standard argument to not learn more than 1 double would be that they all require different skill sets. Most require different sized mouthpieces to play, give a different back-pressure, and, let's face it, Euphoniums don't have slides. Plus, for an orchestral trombonist, how often are we really going to double on Contrabass Trombone or a valved instrument? For a valved instrument, it's more likely the assistant/associate principal trombonist will be required to play that instrument than us bass trombonists. And for a Contrabass Trombone it isn't that often we'll play one in a symphonic job as opposed to opera, where if you're in the midst of a Ring Cycle, you and that instrument will develop a bond over the next 5 years.

But my counterargument to this thought is that while, yes, they're different and require some things that are different, they're all more similar than they are different. For starters, they all require a buzz to produce a sound. Check. They all are brass. Check. They relatively have the same role in the orchestra (looking at you, bass, contrabass, and cimbasso). Check. They all are roughly in the same register. Check. So, why hesitate?

In my experience, I've noticed benefits to my bass trombone playing when coming back from or while switching between my doubling instruments. I always notice an enhanced lower register when I play the contra instruments. I notice bass trombone feeling easier due to the larger quantity of air required by contrabass trombone and cimbasso. I notice a fluidity that comes to my playing after playing euphonium as I rely on the valves to do the work in legato while I'm focussed on a constant airstream. And when going from bass trombone to these instruments, I always retain my basics and use them as a baseline for where to start. Plus, the better I get at my main instrument, the better I get at my doubling instruments due to constantly building on my fundamentals.

It's important to mention that all of that is only a slight enhancement. I'm not saying we'll magically get great at one instrument by practicing another. We all must really hone our craft on something that is familiar to us; for me, the bass trombone. But, it's worth taking the time to invest yourself and your career in a secondary instrument that you can play as well as your main.

I feel I always grow as a musician by expanding my horizons and challenging myself to learn an instrument - and the history behind that instrument - that I am unfamiliar with. The lessons I learn from picking up a new instrument remind me of the basics on my main instrument. It teaches you how to teach your students better because now you are learning an instrument again. You have put yourself in their shoes. And now you remember the struggles you went through when you were younger and learning the trombone for the first time. You remember how hard it can be. You remember how diligent and determined you had to be in order to really improve. And you remembered how rewarding it is when you finally did.

So go practice that doubling instrument of yours or pick one for yourself. Plus, who knows, maybe someday you'll have to play Cimbasso in a pinch and already know how to.