From spare to spotlight

Years ago, while in junior high school, I graduated from a ‘pea-shooter’ trombone to a large-bore Conn 88H with an F-attachment, which I took with me to high school. I don’t know where my band teacher found it – probably army surplus – but it was a beautiful instrument (an old Elkhart), and I enjoyed playing it very much. When it was time to buy my own instrument for university, I got a Benge 190F which I played for 18 years until I replaced it with a Shires trombone. It was difficult to part with my Benge – indeed, I kept it as my spare trombone for many years, until it became the perfect instrument for a former student who is loving it as much as I did.


Me and my Benge, summer 1988

It may sound like an extravagance to keep a spare trombone, but it’s actually entirely practical – not once, not twice, but three times I have made the 30-minute trek from my home into Charlottetown to play Anne of Green Gables, only to open up my trunk and discover that I forgot to pack my trombone! Each time I was extremely lucky to find a student who could lend me an instrument on short notice, because otherwise I’d have been rather late for the show if I had to drive all the way home and back with my own. I now leave my main horn at work, and practice on my spare at home.

At least, that’s how it used to work…

Two summers ago I was asked to help a student buy his own instrument. The local Long & McQuade store brought in a few trombones for him to try, and we got together and played them for each other. The student made his choice, but in the process I had become charmed by one of his rejects – a Conn 88H-CL that somehow felt like ‘home’ to me. I returned to the store with my wife (a trombone appreciator) and then her brother (a trombonist himself) to have them listen to me play this instrument, and both of them agreed that there was a special quality to this Conn’s sound that seemed to suit me. So I bought it.


My new Conn 88H-CL

Not the least of its appeal is how different it is from my Shires. My previous spare trombone (a Yamaha YSL-882O) was a lovely instrument – really wonderful in many ways – but I couldn’t think of a performance situation where I might choose it over my Shires. In the case of my new Conn, although it won’t replace my Shires for most of my orchestral playing, I can imagine it being the perfect horn in many other situations: solo recitals, chamber music, brass quintet, maybe even some lighter orchestral works. Indeed, this coming Thursday my Conn will make its solo recital debut. I’ve found a mouthpiece (a Bousfield S4) that complements the instrument very well, and this combination is very different from my Shires setup – lighter, more nimble, with a high register that sparkles. It’s been a lot of fun to play. I look forward to our new life together as this instrument transitions from simply serving as a spare sliphorn to stepping into the spotlight as a starter in its own right.

And in case you’re wondering whatever happened to the old Elkhart Conn 88H that I grew up with: a few years ago I returned to my old school to teach at a summer band camp. On the first day, a young trombonist entered the room, carrying a case that I immediately recognized. I couldn’t wait for him to open it up so I could see my old horn again. When he did, I almost cried. My old instrument had not been treated well in the two decades since I’d loved it. The slide was beat up, the bell all dented and twisted, the valve corroded and practically useless. What a shame, what a waste. But, if there’s a bright side to be found, perhaps that instrument served its purpose by being in the right place at the right time to help me fall in love with the trombone enough to make it my career. And now I have my very own Conn 88H – a homecoming of sorts; a reminder of my musical coming-of-age.

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2 Responses to From spare to spotlight

  1. Dale, doesn’t it make more sense to have two of the same trombone model, so that you’re practicing on basically the same instrument at home that you use to perform at a concert?

    • Dale says:

      There’s a long answer to that question that I’ll write a blog post about, but for now let me say this: If you’re worried about making sure your instruments feel the same, then yes, it would make sense two have two identical horns. Me, I don’t worry about what an instrument feels like (other than I like them all to be responsive). I play different mouthpieces on different horns, and at this point I can switch quite easily back and forth on any of them. I’d rather have two instruments with different characteristics or sound qualities so I can choose the one best suited to particular repertoire or ensembles.

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