Going back now to the trombone, it, like a stringed instrument, is a wide dynamic range and is well able to blend with other instruments of the orchestra, such as the bassoon. His function in the orchestra is a bit hard to define. If using the 3 trombones in the traditional way, the first tenor trombone plays the melody while the 2nd tower and the base trombone supply the courts and backing. Examples of this are the Statue Music and Mozart Don Giovanni and the Chorale -like section in Brahms's 2nd Symphony. An example of its use as a purely melodic instrument is in Ravel's Bolero, where the first tenor trombone has a long solo passage followed by the saxophone (a rare instrument to be used in a Symphony Orchestra, but a mainstay of the jazz band and jazz big band, and indeed occasionally used in barn dance bands – mainly bands of English style.)
Although the trombone is used extensively in the Symphony Orchestra, where truly virtuoso playing has been developed is in the jazz band, where it excels as a solo lead instrument. The top players demonstrate the instruments remarkable agility as well as the ability to produce notes at the very top of the instruments range. One can also hear virtuoso trombone playing in many of the brass bands, where brass band competitions have honed the musicianship of the players. The same can really be said of all brass instruments.
Let's go on to the Big Daddy of the brass section, the tubas. The different members of the tuber family are somewhat obscure, as there are a large number of now obsolete designs. Instruments in common use today are the euphonium (or tenor Tuba) in B flat, and the Bombardon (or base tuba) in F. They are both non-transposing instruments.
Both versions of the tuber look fairly similar, and are impressively large instruments capable of equally impressive belching rules, but capable also of great delicacy and sweetness. Because of the low notes they play, the length of piping is considerable, so they were around in the impressive coil of tubing. Although they are common orchestral compositions, the best use of the tuber is often in military band music and in compositions and arrangements for brass band. An example of good orchestral writing for base tuba is in Wagner's (1813 to 1883) overture to Die Meistersinger. Richard Strauss also wrote excellent parts for the tenor tuba in part of Don Quixote. Stravinsky used the base tuba the theme tune of the Dancing Bear in Patricia and Again in the Right of Spring.
Before getting to the backbone instruments of the orchestra (the strings), let's have a trawl through the kitchensink department, the percussion. This extremely important section of an orchestra is often neglected in the write-ups of musical instruments, yet it can make or break a performance, and also can give great visual entertainment watching the percussionists running from instrument to instrument in their position, high up at the back of the whole orchestra.
Percussion of one form or another is not just something to the Symphony Orchestra, but is part of a jazz band (side drum and bass drums in the old marching bands, and full drum kit in the swing band or lounge jazz band), appears as the bodhran in Irish ceilidh bands in Scottish ceilidh bands, along with the bones, spoons and sometimes tambourines, and in the English barn dance band you can get side drums, bass drums, pots and pans and just about anything that can be thumped or banged.
Percussion instruments fall into 2 categories; those of defined pitch and those of indefinite pitch. Defined pitch, or tuned instruments, include timpani, bells, glockenspiel, Celeste, xylophones, and in some forms of their use, the piano and harp. The bodhran is used in Celtic ceilidh bands can be tuned or untuned. The standard bodhran can have its pitch varied slightly during playing dependent on where it is hit, and the skin is tightened to give a sort of pitch that is somewhat relevant to the music is being played, but there is a version of the bodhran that can have its notes altered by a couple of tones by applying pressure with the left hand (the non-drumming hand). Also occasionally used in folk bands and jazz bands is the Indian Tabla, which in the hands of a skilled drama can achieve a large variation in pitch.
Percussion instruments without tuned pitch include the side drum, bass drum, tenor drum, tabor (a kind of portable snare drum), tambourine, triangle, cymbals, gongs, castanets, rattles, wind machines et cetera et cetera.
I'm always impressed by percussion players. Typically they spend most of a piece of music doing nothing, then at exactly the right moment stand-up to bang or rattle something, then sit down the next hundred and 50 bars. How do they do it? I couldn't count the number of bars without getting lost. I couldn't just listen to Peter music income in in the right place, as opposed to a similar sounding wrong place. When they stand up and play their often relatively few notes, they have the ultimate power to destroy the whole concert in one misplaced bang. Such responsibility, I couldn't cope with it. To my shame, I remember many years ago when I was in my county youth orchestra, some reason I was unable to attend rehearsals so couldn't play in the concert, so I went to listen to the concert instead. A friend of mine was playing percussion, and had one of those terrifying entries where she stood up with cymbals and gave just 2 loud but absolutely critical smashes. To play the cymbals one holds them in front of you and does vertical slicing action in front of one's body. Just before the concert I whispered in her ear that she had better hold them far enough away from her so that she didn't slice her bra strap in two. In the concert, in front of hundreds of people in the audience, she stood up at the back of the percussion and unfortunately caught my eye as I sat in the audience. The poor girl started to turn red, and I felt awful fearing that she was going to make a hash of her entry. Fortunately, she was such a good musician that she didn't let the situation get the better of her, and she performed her entry faultlessly. I can't remember what she said to me afterwards, it certainly wasn't very nice, but it was well deserved.
Timpani come in 3 or 4 sizes, typically with a combined range of an octave from the F below middle C down to the F1 octave above. Resonating part of the instrument comprises a copper bowl, across which is stretched a parchment drumhead. The tension of the parchment can be altered by taps, or tensioning screws, and one will often see attempt list putting their ear close to the drum skin during the performance and touching the skin lightly, so that they can hear it and tune it without the audience hearing. Drum skins, unless made of artificial materials, are very sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature. Each drum can be tuned by about one fourth. The drumsticks are wooden handled variety of head sizes and padding stiffness is. It seems that the timpani was an Arabic drum in its original form, and they are mentioned in Chaucer's The Knights Tale.
Another tuned instrument is the tubular bells, big versions of the windchimes that are so popular and sold in garden centres. Consists of metal tubes of varying length hanging from a metal frame. Often they used to represent church bells, but a much more practical than the real thing (a church bell tuned to middle C would weigh over 20 tonnes).
The glockenspiel producers quite a twinkly sound, and has been around for a long time, being used in Mozart's The Magic Flute for example. Originally instruments were made with a keyboard, but now it comes in the form of a xylophone, the metal plate mounted horizontally on the frame and it with hands. Standard kinds are the glockenspiel in B flat, offering 2 octave is starting at the B flat above middle C and another version with an extra 10 semitones below the bottom note.
The Celeste, a small keyboard instrument invented as recently as 1886 in Paris, gives a magical twinkly sound, and has mostly been used by French composers. A xylophone consists of horizontal wooden bars resting on tubular metal resonators. The ranges typically from the B flat above middle C up with a octave is under tone. There played with either hammers or bent wooden sticks, rather in the manner of the Hungarian Cimbalon. (The Cimbalon is rarely used in orchestral music, and outside Hungary there are very few players of this amazing instrument. Its tuning is completely wacky, and it's a sort of horizontal harp that gives an amazingly evocative tone. It's played with one or 2 sticks in each hand, and can be played at great speed. I remember going to a bar in Budapest that was renowned for its ethnic Hungarian music. On the night that I was there it was a virtuoso violin, clarinet, double bass and Cimbalon. Music ranged through Eastern European gypsy folk, salon music (virtuosic light classical music of the late 1800s) and jazz. The Cimbalon player, when I congratulated him on his musicianship, said that he was only beginning to learn to play it and that a really good Cimbalon player required 3 lifetimes to master the instrument. I can believe it.)