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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

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

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

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

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.

Google Street View Now Lets You Explore the International Space Station

Google Street View covers some amazing locations (Antarctica, the Grand Canyon, and Stonehenge, to name a few), but it’s taken until now for the tool to venture into the final frontier. As TechCrunch reports, you can now use Street View to explore the inside of the International Space Station.

The scenes, photographed by astronauts living on the ISS, include all 15 modules of the massive satellite. Viewers will be treated to true 360-degree views of the rooms and equipment onboard. Through the windows, you can see Earth from an astronaut's perspective and a SpaceX Dragon craft delivering supplies to the crew.

Because the imagery was captured in zero gravity, it’s easy to lose sense of your bearings. Get a taste of what ISS residents experience on a daily basis here.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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Lucy Quintanilla/iStock
6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.


59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.


116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.


74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.


111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.


430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.


327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.


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