Marching to the Beat of a Different Slide Instrument

As a companion piece to Jason Plautz's College Football Traditions quiz, Steven Clontz is here to make sure the marching band gets its due. Here's a picture of him with his trombone, to prove he's qualified.

Over the next few months, he'll be contributing a series of band-related stories, including the definitive list of celebrity marching band alums (Know of any? Make his research easy and leave names in the comments -- rock stars, musicians, CEOs, politicians, etc.) His first story explores the seedy underbelly of the pseudotrombone world. Enjoy.

Talk to me for ten minutes, ten minutes tops, and I'll probably mention that I'm a member of my university's marching band. This is because we take marching band seriously around these parts, calling ourselves "band athletes" and running rehearsals until half the clarinet section is unconscious from heat stroke. But this aura of solemnity ends right at the edge of the field where you can find my own section warming up, the trombones. In fact, the only thing we take seriously is our dedication to slacking off. And I'm sure that more than once, our director has considered giving us the boot because of it. The highest organization of marching ensembles, Drum Corps International, doesn't even include trombones on its list of approved instruments, opting for the more valve-centric euphonium.

I suppose, though, that we're pretty safe in our inclusion on marching bands across the country. We are, after all, the only mainstream brass instrument that uses a slide rather than valves in order to change pitch. (Brass instruments in general change notes by changing the length of the instrument being blown through; the longer the instrument, the lower the pitch. Aside from the trombone, however, most do this by pressing valves, which then redirect air through extra tubing, before returning to the instrument proper.) So I'd argue we're protected by some sort of bizarre musical affirmative-action.

However, we are not the ONLY slided instrument to grace God's green Earth. So let's take a moment to look over some of the lesser-known pseudotrombones, and I'll thank my lucky stars that I get to play the real thing.

5. Sackbut

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This funny-sounding instrument (at least its name sounds a little funny) is actually the great-granddaddy of the modern trombone. Alternate spellings include "sacbut", "sagbut", "shagbolt" and "shakbusshe". (Gesundheit!) While its exact origins aren't certain, we do know that it was being regularly used by the 1500s, being mentioned and illustrated in documents from the time. Those brave enough to play the sackbut in modern times experience the musical equivalent of "roughing it". Many of the precious amneties we trombone players enjoy today were not present in the ancient sackbut. There was a smaller bore (the hole a mouthpiece is inserted into), a smaller bell, no lock for the slide, no tuning slide, and no water key (a nice way to say "spit valve" for those of you not in the know). While the range of a typical tenor sackbut is similar to the modern trombone, it produces a much more mellow sound. Judging from the loud, edgy tone many of my peers like to produce on the trombone, I'd doubt there'd be much of a market for the sackbut today.

4. Soprano Trombone

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The poor, poor soprano trombone. This little bugger is, in many ways, identical to the typical tenor trombone played by most trombonists. The main difference being, of course, it's so small. Created in the late 1600s, it was used to play the treble parts of chorales, which are typically covered by trumpets or cornets in modern orchestral ensembles. This is with good reason, as well. Soprano trombones often prove difficult to play in tune, as slight movements of the slide cause a much greater discrepancy in pitch as compared to the larger tenor or bass trombones. In fact, due to its short slide, it often has small gaps in its playable range, such as a concert B natural, which may require more than the full extended length of the slide in order to be played in tune. I'll begrudgingly admit that a trumpet is often better suited for the job of playing the treble clef, as long as you promise not to tell any of my trumpet-playing friends I said so.

3. Slide Whistle

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Okay, maybe this is more of a joke than anything. The slide whistle just isn't given much respect; in my experience, it's used mostly for gimmicky sections of marching band shows where a bit of a comic flair is needed, or as a sound effect on Wheel of Fortune. Actually, slide whistles are more closely related to recorders, flutes, and other woodwinds rather than the brassy trombone. Notes are played by blowing into a mouthpiece known as a "fipple", which directs air towards a bladed edge, located at the big hole you'll see at the top of most whistles. This causes the instrument to resonate, and produce a sound. Similarly to the trombone, the slide whistle changes notes by moving the slide out in order to lower the pitch.

2. Electric Trombone

So, for all intents and purposes, the electric trombone is basically a pimped-out regular trombone. One of the biggest proponents of the electric trombone is jazz trombonist and bandleader Robin Eubanks. He describes the electric trombone as an "acoustic trombone [with] a microphone on the bell [run] into a bank of processors; usually a basic guitar multi-effects processor that's been around for decades." The result? Well, listen to it for yourself. Eubanks has a piece called Blues for Jimi Hindrex, which you can check out on YouTube.

1. Superbone

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It's a bird! It's a plane! Actually, it's hardly either! The Superbone takes the precision of a slided instrument, and combines it with the speed and reliability of a valved instrument. Sometimes referred to as a "valide trombone", the term "Superbone" was coined by the legendary bandleader Maynard Ferguson, who used it in many of his charts. At first, the Superbone seems exactly like a regular trombone, with a slide that is maneuvered using the player's right hand. However, just past the slide comes a set of valves controlled with the left hand. In theory, the Superbone can be played like a regular slide trombone by ignoring the valves, or it can be played like your typical valve trombone by ignoring the slide. However, those who are true experts at the device can use both in tandem, providing many alternate positions to play a given note, and thus allowing for a greater combined speed and accuracy than your AverageJoeBone. The Superbone also has a cousin for trumpet players known as the Firebird, which is a valved trumpet with an attached slide. I am, tragically, not enough of a man to wield either with much success, but it's good to know that somewhere out there, there is an instrument that can do it all. Just don't try playing it near any shiny green rocks.

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New Plant-Based Coating Can Keep Your Avocados Fresh for Twice as Long
Apeel
Apeel

Thanks to a food technology startup called Apeel Sciences, eating fresh avocados will soon be a lot easier. The Bill Gates–backed company has developed a coating designed to keep avocados fresh for up to twice as long as traditional fruit, Bloomberg reports, and these long-lasting avocados will soon be available at 100 grocery stores across the Midwestern U.S. Thirty or so of the grocery stores involved in the limited rollout of the Apeel avocado will be Costcos, so feel free to buy in bulk.

Getting an avocado to a U.S. grocery store is more complicated than it sounds; the majority of avocados sold in the U.S. come from California or Mexico, making it tricky to get fruit to the Midwest or New England at just the right moment in an avocado’s life cycle.

Apeel’s coating is made of plant material—lipids and glycerolipids derived from peels, seeds, and pulp—that acts as an extra layer of protective peel on the fruit, keeping water in and oxygen out, and thus reducing spoilage. (Oxidation is the reason that your sliced avocados and apples brown after they’ve been exposed to the air for a while.) The tasteless coating comes in a powder that fruit producers mix with water and then dip their fruit into.

A side-by-side comparison of a coated and uncoated avocado after 30 days, with the uncoated avocado looking spoiled and the coated one looking fresh
Apeel

According to Apeel, coating a piece of produce in this way can keep it fresh for two to three times longer than normal without any sort of refrigeration of preservatives. This not only allows consumers a few more days to make use of their produce before it goes bad, reducing food waste, but can allow producers to ship their goods to farther-away markets without refrigeration.

Avocados are the first of Apeel's fruits to make it to market, but there are plans to debut other Apeel-coated produce varieties in the future. The company has tested its technology on apples, artichokes, mangos, and several other fruits and vegetables.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
Express/Express/Getty Images

The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

chimp eating banana
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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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