article-imageThe one-handed trombone (courtesy Horniman Museum)

The Horniman Museum in London has some fascinating objects in its musical instruments collection, from arm-shaped clappers to a crystallophone made from 33 glass bowls, but one brass horn is especially extraordinary for its inventiveness. The one-handed trombone allows a person to play the bellowing instrument with just one arm. 

Classical music specialist Gavin Dixon wrote a guest post for the Horniman about the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust’s recent visit to check out the musical wonder. The Trust is dedicated to the development of instruments like the old trombone for musicians to play with one hand. The trombone was the work of Eric McGavin who was with Boosey & Hawkes from 1950 to 1970, working on instrument design, education, and overseeing the musical instrument museum at the company’s factory in Edgware.

“This double-slide trombone benefited from all these fields of expertise,” Dixon writes. “Another instrument in the Horniman collection, a double-slide contrabass trombone, was part of the Boosey & Hawkes collection that McGavin curated, and this may have provided an inspiration for his design.”

article-imageEric McGavin with the trombone (courtesy Horniman Museum)

The instrument was played with a now-missing support stand which allowed the musician to slide the trombone and buzz into the mouthpiece with just one hand. There’s a long, if somewhat obscure, tradition of one-armed instruments, such as the early 20th century vaudeville star Bert Amend who lost an arm in a mill accident and formed a whole one-armed band with devices he engineered for one-handed play, and the late jazz musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, known for playing several saxophones at once, who altered his instruments following a stroke so he could continue to perform.

But how did the one-handed trombone sound? It’s a bit worn with age, but Dixon tried it out himself:

“After our visitors had left, I couldn’t resist the chance to put the trombone through its paces. The 50-year-old slide was a bit creaky, and the double-slide arrangement only adds to the problem by increasing the resistance. Then there is the issue of the shortened slide positions. Anyway, excuses, excuses… I managed to get a tune out of it, just.”

Gavin Dixon writes on classical music and instruments at Orpheus Complex. Thanks to the Horniman Museum for sharing this intriguing instrument with us, and check out their blog for more from their fascinating collections. 

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