Playing Second Fiddle

(BTS article 2023.)

Dan Jenkins takes a light-hearted look at the role of Second Trombone.

     In June 2021, the excellent Radio 3 programme The Listening Service did a show called Playing Second Fiddle. This was all about the vital role of being in the middle of any section of the orchestra, be it violins, horns, trumpets, and so on. Well worth a listen.

     But focussing as it did on the vital role, it didn’t have time to emphasise the comical aspect of the job, especially when it comes to the trombone section. The instrument itself, surely, has long been regarded as the comedy element of the orchestra, or, in fact, of anywhere it turns up. It’s our fault for having a slide. No-one else can do that clown-effect, whoops-missus, raucous or semi-tragic noise like we can. Look at Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, where he uses us as a vivid raspberry to Shostakovitch. In Stephen Roberts’ superb Brass Quintet arrangement of Come Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl, who was the only possible choice to portray the reveller having drunk to overflowing? The classic tune with our trademark glissandos in is of course ‘The Acrobat’, a sort of brass equivalent of ‘The Laughing Policeman’.

     That’s the trombone itself, as jester and light relief of the group (though we do often turn out to be the big hero in the end). But among the three trombone stooges, the Second is definitely the stoogiest. Though all three are often used for our various light moments, it’s the Second Trombone who is stereotyped as the most laughable focus, the most pathetic and bumbling character. He’s Cletus in The Simpsons, Doberman in Sergeant Bilko, Ron Weasley, Donkey from Shrek, Phoebe in Friends, Baldrick, Rodney Trotter…                                            

     The unique character of Second Trombone  was highlighted by WS Gilbert in ‘The Mikado’ when Nanki Poo, the hero (told you) and son of the Emperor describes why he had to go into hiding. ‘My father… ordered me to marry (Katisha) within a week, or perish ignominiously on the scaffold. That night I fled his Court, and, assuming the disguise of a Second Trombone, I joined the band in which you found me…’. He also said that it was his job in the band ‘to take the cap round for contributions.’ This character and portrayal was no accident; even in 1885 Second Trombones were being singled out for their relative obscurity and role as lackey.

     In 1933, the comic author P.G. Wodehouse joined the mocking crowd. In his story ‘Best Seller’ from ‘Mulliner Nights’, he wrote this: ‘From far away in the distance came the faint strains of the town band, as it picked its way through the Star of Eve song from Tannhäuser – somewhat impeded by the second trombone, who had got his music-sheets mixed and was playing ‘The Wedding of the Painted Doll’.’ No doubt who’s the bumbleheaded member of the band there. I must admit I had to look both these tunes up, and the contrast chosen by Wodehouse, of a solemn Bass aria accompanied by minor-key trombones and a flippant 1920s vaudeville number is priceless.

    Our value to the section is, of course, equal to the other two trombones; professionally there’s no buffoonery. The Second is the heart of the machine, the hub of the wheel, from which the spokes of First and Bass stretch out musically and in their own higher and lower ranges. Or you could imagine the section sitting on a plane. The Bass takes the aisle seat, the foundation of our row, and the First sits at the window, staring out at the wider world in which they sometimes spread their soloistic wings. We Seconds sit in the middle, with little musical elbow room but still in close contact with the other two.

But there is an element of territoriality. Both First and Bass are rightly proud of their speciality of range, and it’s best not to encroach on that. This can happen during the warm-up before a rehearsal. The First may be practicing way above any stave, leaping from note to note ‘like a chamois of the Alps’ (as Wodehouse used to say), while the Bass is exercising his right of ownership of everything deep and dogged. This situation once happened to me in an orchestra, and at one point the Bass ended his routine on a rich pedal F, while the First sang out the same note four octaves higher. So I simply played a single, short middle F, to demonstrate my own range and area of expertise. They both laughed.

     Seconds are the guys and girls who sit next to the guys and girls playing the famous solos. Tell yourself that no-one is staring at you as you sit in mute support inches away from the glamour of the Bolero solo to your right, the majesty of the Mahler 7 solo to your left, or the brilliant improvised lead trombone run-around in a big band. How to look detached yet approving. It’s their spotlight, you could reach them with your elbow, yet you mustn’t be in it with them. How to look humble yet mentally encourage every note with the star. How not to look extremely awkward, a sore thumb next to a high-five.

     It would be easy not to take yourself too seriously on Second Trombone, in any ensemble (and often that’s a very good idea!). But remember this ode, written by Osbert McDoonen, conductor of the Forfar Instrumental Band in the 1950s, when trying to gee up the under-confident youth in the middle of his trombone section:

     ‘You might be humble, you might not be glamourous

     You might seem to bumble, and not appear amorous

     But have pride in the calling, you’re part of the wheel

     A hub, not a spoke, with a certain appeal.’   

*  The Listening Service is a fascinating half-hour programme featuring Tom Service and his irresistible enthusiasm about the myriad aspects of music, aired weekly on Radio 3.     

* This article also appears at .

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