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Marching to the Beat of a Different Slide Instrument

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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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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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entertainment
20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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