The trombone is a uniquely flexible and useful instrument for music therapy.
My very first encounter with music therapy, largely involved the trombone. I was on a music therapy under-graduate placement working at a large UK hospital institution. In a group for people with learning disabilities, I vividly remember opening the trombone case and immediately attracting the focused attention of older women. She had a background in the salvation army and made a bee line for the instrument. She wanted to touch it, for me to play it. The introduction of this instrument had a powerful effect on her, week after week she would sit close to me, and want to put her head in the bell as I played. For this women, the instrument was associated with her life history, with something positive, although she was unable to articulate and tell us what this was. It was expressed in her actions and how she related to both me and the instrument. I was nineteen at the time, and for a teenager it was a very overwhelming and profound experience.
Over the years I have used the trombone in different guises. It is an impact instrument, both visually and sonically. It can be used to gain attention or create an exciting event within a session. The slow opening of the case and putting together of the piping, can be done with anticipation. As any trombonist can witness, it is an extremely versatile and flexible instrument. The trombone is not restricted to the western tonal system, if a child is vocalising ‘off key’ you can easily join them in micro-tones, and the vocal nature of the timbre makes it excellent for matching or mirroring voices. However, it can easily dominate a session situation, because it is a large presence instrument. It could overpower others music, and needs to be used with the utmost sensitivity and care.
I often use low, soft breathy notes to create a holding effect under a group’s music, sometimes it is possible to obtain an almost imperceptible sound which can be felt and just heard. Breathing or speaking into the instrument amplifies sounds. In contrast volume and timbre of the trombone can cut through chaotic group sounds. I have experienced children holding onto the slide as it has been played, putting their head in the bell, holding onto the tuning bolt.
The children that remain in my mind who have responded to the trombone, have often been children who are very-very withdrawn, have disabilities which mean they are extremely isolated or find it difficult to relate. It is with these children that the instrument has come into its own. I have used it to create connection, to create interaction and interest, which has been difficult to make previously. It is these sorts of experiences, working especially with these children that has convinced me that the trombone is a gem of a instrument (to be used with care and consideration) in music therapy.