No more octopus contortions;Interview;John Kenny;Arts

29th October 1999 at 01:00
John Kenny has a way to stretch young trombonists' skills without damaging their bodies. Kenny Mathieson reports

The trombone is an unforgiving instru- ment for a seasoned professional. Its challenges are magnified for a child who has not yet grown to meet its physical demands.

While teaching senior school pupils and music college students, Edinburgh trombonist and composer John Kenny became increasingly aware of physical and postural problems caused by their early training - particularly the child's inability to extend the slide on the common tenor trombone to its full length.

Kenny thought a solution might lie in the smaller alto trombone, which had largely fallen out of use, but has made a return to the orchestral trombonist's armoury in the past 20 years. A strong advocate of the alto, he approached his sponsor, the American United Musical Instruments, makers of Conn trombones, and asked for seven altos at cost for a ground-breaking schools project in Edinburgh.

The company and the education department were both enthusiastic. Colin O'Riordan, Edinburgh's principal music officer, saw a parallel in the widespread use of half-size violins in schools.

Twenty-seven aspiring young trombonists from Primary 6 and 7 were auditioned. Four boys and two girls were chosen for the initial group. Four of the children attended Flora Stevenson primary, where the project is based. One came from Edinburgh Music School and one from James Gillespie's primary. The seventh instrument has been set aside for in-service training with teachers.

"We chose the children strictly on apparent ability," says Kenny. "We brought in the parents at the first session and explained what we were doing, because I want them to feel as involved as possible. I meet each pupil individually on a Monday, and we assemble as a group on Friday.

"By the age of 10 most children are big enough to extend the alto to its seventh position without the contortions they need on the tenor. However, the alto trombones we have are very special. They have a trigger which drops the pitch of the instrument by a fourth, so they can play music for tenor trombone up to a pretty advanced level.

"Children usually reach the necessary size to play the tenor around 13 or 14. But this means they can play in ensembles two or three years earlier. We hope to take them to the British Trombone Society Festival next year."

That will be good news to Colin O'Riordan, who also runs the Edinburgh Schools Symphony Orchestra and often has problems filling the trombone section.

During the project John Kenny intends to write a method for teaching alto trombone, using empirical results, not just devising a theory and trying to make it fit. He also wants a rolling programme with a new intake every two years. And he is talking to UMI about developing an alto trombone to be made cheaply enough for schools and colleges around the world to buy in sufficient numbers.

For more information contact John Kenny at carnyx@ or his website at

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