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What Is a Trombone Quartet?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

A trombone quartet is a musical ensemble made of four trombone players. Although less popular than other types of quartets, trombone quartets can play a wide variety of music. Considered a small brass ensemble, a trombone quartet uses different sizes of trombones to accommodate different compositional ranges. The term "trombone quartet" also can refer to the musical arrangements and compositions played by four trombone players.

No rules exist about what types of trombones can make up a trombone quartet. Generally, the makeup of the group depends on the musical requirements of the piece to be performed. For instance, if a work extends into very low registers, the trombone quartet might use bass and contrabass trombones. If the work is higher, at least one trombonist might perform on the alto trombone, but sopranos generally aren't used due to their difficulty in tuning and more trumpet-like embouchure. It is common to see two tenors and two basses, two tenors with a bass and contrabass, an alto and tenor with a bass and contrabass, three tenors and a bass, all tenors, all basses or an alto, two tenors and a bass.

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A trombone quartet can play virtually any type of music because of the wide range of timbres and techniques available to trombone players. Composers have not concentrated with great frequency on writing for these quartets, however, so much of the music available for trombone quartets is arrangements of works intended for other ensembles. Even though trombonists and arrangers can put together music from any genre, they are somewhat limited in that the presence of only four players does not allow for extremely elaborate works. For example, they might not be able to play in full antiphon, where two groups answer each other, and they cannot play anything that requires more than four pitches to be played at a time.

Occasionally, trombone quartets might require the assistance and support of other musicians, such as a drummer in a jazz work. In these cases, the use or number of supplemental or peripheral musicians does not change the designation of the group. It is still always called a trombone quartet because it is the four trombone players who are featured with prominent parts. In fact, a work still could be called a trombone quartet even if the supporting group were a full band or orchestra.

Trombone quartets are most common in school settings, particularly at the college level where musicianship is more serious and players become increasingly concerned with developing exceptional ensemble skills. They are not as popular as other quartets in the professional setting, but often are a favorite of brass players. Trombone quartets often find it is easier to market themselves if they play more popular music, but some groups have found great success by specializing in a particular genre or musical era. Many professional groups make it a point to enter schools with the purpose of showing off trombones for educational purposes.

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