COLUMBIA — The MU trombone choir is 51 members short of the famous “76 trombones,” but it has more than enough sound and spirit to make up for it.
Its rich Renaissance melody saturated the silence of First Baptist Church on Dec. 5, among simple Christmas trees and a modest crowd. Twenty-five men and women ascended to the choir loft and the front of the church to provide the audience to this selection of the Odyssey Chamber Music Series with a live “surround-sound” experience.
“It was really great,” said Doris Koffman of Sedalia, who came to watch the harp performances but was impressed by the trombones. “I liked it coming from both angles.”
Started in 1992 by Nathaniel Brickens, then a trombone teacher at MU, the choir is composed of students and alumni and is an extension of the MU trombone studio class. It is made up primarily of music majors but also includes students from fields such as English, electrical engineering and social work. And though the choir is a requirement for trombonists majoring in music, its members gain friendship and service along with their practice.
“The interesting thing about the personality of trombone players is that we get along with each other a lot,” said Erik Dancy, a junior music major in the choir. “Sometimes they say that musicians or certain instruments bring certain personalities, and that’s definitely a characteristic of trombone players, that people are pretty good at just getting along.”
Buddy Green, an alumni member of the choir, called trombonists "collaborators.” "We know each other really well, and that makes it a lot more fun," said Green, who recently got his degree in music and now plans to apply to medical school.
He said his decision to stay in the ensemble after getting his degree had a lot to do with the choir’s laid-back qualities and versatility.
“The way it’s always worked at Mizzou is that any trombonist can play,” Green said. “It sort of crosses that barrier from a college class to a community group or ensemble. I think it’s just coming together with your friends and making music. We get to perform at a lot of fun places and the fact that we get to do a variety of concerts and settings to a variety of audiences is really rewarding.”
The choir’s easy rapport and goofy sense of humor is apparent when watching its members interact. Between stops on a Christmas caroling tour of The Bluffs, Lenoir Woods and Tiger Place senior living facilities on Dec. 12, they heckled each other good-naturedly about their appreciative audience, laughing about a big kiss one choir member received from a friend who lives at The Bluffs.
“That lady kissed you!” they yelled, laughing at fellow member Brian Vaughn. He smiled and shrugged bashfully.
Just about every audience the choir encounters seems to be that appreciative of the performance.
“I think it’s wonderful that they would take the time to come out here,” said Dorothy Holt, a resident at Lenoir Woods. “It’s one of our joys to have groups come out here during the season — it makes our day special.”
At Lenoir Woods, Bill Mann, who leads the ensemble and teaches trombone at MU, took time out to explain the different sounds made by different trombones, from contra-bass to soprano. He is always willing to tell a story or teach a lesson and is passionate about the sound of his choir.
“I wouldn’t say that the trombone ensemble is better than other ensembles, but it has several qualities that I feel set the ensemble apart from other homogeneous ensembles,” Mann said. “One of the greatest traits is the likeness to the vocal choir. The trombone has a similar tone quality to the human voice. Therefore, as an ensemble, the trombone choir can produce a beautifully rich sonority, which cannot be duplicated by any other ensemble.”
Mann brings the choir full circle, in a way, as a former student of Brickens, the choir founder, at the University of Texas at Austin. And his care for the choir extends far past its sound. He teaches members' trombone studio class, oversees their final performance jury exams and even makes them fajitas at the end of the year.
Mann plans the choir's performances and activities: a once-a-semester campus performance, community performances at area schools, churches and retirement homes and an annual spring trombone Olympics. The informal Olympics, held on the Marching Mizzou practice field, include competitions for longest note, loudest note and farthest trombone throw.
He also makes sure to incorporate different kinds of music throughout the semester for his ensemble, including late Renaissance pieces, modern classical works and Christmas carols. The students seem to appreciate all of it.
“I think that my favorite music to play in choir is either jazz or the really beautiful chorales,” said sophomore music major Grace LaRose. “I know those are two opposite styles, but they both showcase what is special about the sound of a trombone choir. Jazz shows off what we can do with our slides and the loud, fun sound we can make, while traditional chorales show off a really gorgeous, full, dark sound.”
The MU trombone choir incorporates school with fun, friendship and community service. For LaRose, the value of the choir is a mixture of self-enjoyment and audience “wow” factor.
“It's a really different sound and you have to think about blending with the other players in a different way than with regular wind ensembles," she said. "I especially like it when people come up to me and say, 'I didn't know trombones could sound like that.'"