'The trombone picked me': Edmonton trombone festival slides into third year

For many trombonists, the long, sliding brass instrument wasn’t their first choice when opting for a part in the school band.

But the trombone has grown on them.

“I didn’t pick the trombone, the trombone picked me,” said Kathryn Macintosh, assistant principal trombone for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, in an interview on CBC’s Radio Active on Friday.

Macintosh is part of a trombone trio taking part in the third-annual Edmonton Trombone Festival Saturday at the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre.

“We all play this beautiful instrument and we want to celebrate it,” said Allen Jacobson, the festival’s founder.

‘A beautiful, warm sound’

When Jacobson first started out as a musician, he wanted to play the flute because he didn’t want to carry a large instrument. Among an abundance of aspiring flutists, his Grade 7 music teacher convinced him that his lips and teeth were suited to play the euphonium, another conical brass instrument.

He picked up the valve trombone shortly after when he joined a jazz band in France, and eventually switched to the slide trombone.

“I’ve loved the sound of it ever since,” Jacobson said. “It’s sort of a natural resonance with the sound and the fact that you have to work quite hard to make a sound.”  

The trombone’s range and signature sound come from its unique shape, he said.

“The trombone is the brass instrument that is the closest expression of the human voice because it’s a beautiful, warm sound,” he said. “There’s lots you can do with the slide for vibrato and lots of different things like that.”

Edmonton has a strong trombone culture, said Jacobson, listing the late South African and Canadian bass trombonist Malcolm Forsyth among the city’s greats. Forsyth played for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra for 11 years, starting in the late 1960s.

“He had an influence on that generation coming up and so we’ve got to celebrate this,” Jacobson said.

Trombonists Audrey Ochoa and Allen Jacobson hit the high notes at the Yardbird Suite in Edmonton. (Dave Culver)

The festival has drawn an average of 55 to 60 trombonists each year, including junior high and high school students, amateurs and professional musicians.

Organized by the Cosmopolitan Music Society, the event will begin with warm-ups led by professional trombonists.

The group plans to start an Edmonton trombone society at this year’s festival, which would allow them to get funding to invite international guest trombonists to future festivals.

“There’s lots of great stuff going on here, but it would be really healthy for everybody if we got a little infusion of fresh ideas from somebody from away,” Macintosh said.

Musicians of all skill levels are welcome, she said.

“Everybody’s going to learn something there,” she said. “One of the fun things is there’s going to be a bunch of instruments, so you can just try out instruments from some of the music stores in town. So that’s always loud.”

Dream job

Macintosh said she feels privileged to play trombone professionally.

“It’s kind of a dream job. There aren’t that many of them and they’re highly sought after,” she said. “People are waiting for me to retire, I’m sure.”

Macintosh got her start in Grade 8, when she joined the school band and her music teacher told her that cello, her first choice, was not an option.

She agreed to play the trombone, not knowing what it was.

“I guess I thought it was a trumpet because I do remember being surprised at how big the case was when it showed up,” she said.

I picked trombone and kind of stuck with it and loved it.– Alden Lowrey, trombonist

Playing the trombone professionally has also been a dream for local musician Alden Lowrey, an organizer for the festival.

“It’s really fun to make music, and to get paid money to make music is pretty sweet,” he said. “I’m still working hard, but I get a lot of job satisfaction from making music.”

Growing up, Lowrey’s dad played trumpet and his sister played French horn.

“So I obviously had to pick a brass instrument and I wasn’t going to pick one of the ones that was already in my family,” he said. “So I picked trombone and kind of stuck with it and loved it.”

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