Cold Play. Madonna Mallon.
Bass Trombonist in the London Metropolitan Band
There’s something about Christmas carols being played live by a brass band, the soothing dreamy purr of a French horn, the wispy liquid slur of a mellow trumpet to the throaty drawl of the trombone, then there’s the joyful thrum-pump parp parp sonic characteristics of the big brass tuba.
A congested London Paddington Station on the Eve of said festive occasion, was indeed looking like a train strike had just been announced as I arrived. My first thoughts were, at least I have relaxing music to listen to while they sort it out.
But trains are running smoothly and on time, the crowds were actually watching and enjoying the London Metropolitan Band, all scarfed and mittened up performing in the station’s main concourse. As the band took a break and with a watchful eye on the time of my train, I grabbed the chance to talk to the band’s bass trombonist, a rather cold Madonna Mallon.
“I really need to get a plastic mouth piece”, says Madonna, “Brass is very cold on the lips this time of year and like this afternoon, a lot of the band’s gigs are outside. This also has an effect on the pitch of instruments. They all need to settle down as they warm up and acclimatise to the outside temperature, although not all at the same time, the bigger the instrument, the longer it takes.
In this situation we really have to concentrate, especially when we have this many brass players together, for perfect pitch and intonation, instruments in the higher register have to tune in to those in the lower register.
This is where the skill comes in, it’s down to the finger pressure on the valves and of course the pressure on the mouthpiece and fine tuning during the performance. If you were playing a piano, you would be in fixed tuning without any headroom to compromise, so the development of your ear, hearing your pitch and being able to adjust either with your lips or the instrument, is very important.”
Although she has been playing trombone from a very early age Madonna tells me she has only been in the London Metropolitan for a year.
“I was born in Bundanberg, Queensland, Australia and grew up in Cairns where my dad was in a successful brass ensemble called Cairns Brass. When my brother and I were old enough he took us along to join the band and we played as a family for many years.
“Apparently I also sang a lot from an early age,” she laughs “In secondary school I sang jazz and musicals, I was about 16 when I sang a German lied for the first time and realised my voice was powerful enough to sing opera. It just felt right and I decided to go down the opera road and study at the University of Queensland whilst still playing bass trombone in the Navy Reserves. I loved opera singing, particularly Mozart and Verdi. Possibly one of my favourite roles was playing Nanetta in Falstaff and I also enjoyed playing Pamina from the magic flute.”
It’s apparent that being able to sing opera at levels that exceed 125 dB requires a healthy, powerful pair of lungs, Madonna agrees.
“Oh definitely. It goes hand in hand, I also play tenor trombone but the bass trombone certainly needs a little extra huff and puff and strong stomach muscles, especially if we are marching at the same time. There’s one particularly fantastic marching weekend for brass bands here in the UK, it’s the Saddleworth Festival held on Whit Friday in June. Over a hundred brass bands march through the streets of moorland villages scattered around the western edge of the Pennines. I did that for the first time last year and I think we covered no less than 8 villages stopping several times at pubs along the way, purely to lubricate the lips of course.
I can relate that day to a TV show called Brassed Off staring Ewan McGregor, it was a comedy about a brass band in a Yorkshire mining town, so the Saddleworth march was a bit of a dream come true, we’ll be geared up for the event this coming summer as well.”
With one eye on the illuminated display for my train time, I’m having trouble keeping up with how busy Madonna is, then she hits me with the big one.
“For the last few years, I’ve also been a full time teacher”, she grins. “I really thought I wouldn’t have time to commit as a bass trombone player in any band until I heard about the London Metropolitan. It’s a perfect situation as there are so many members who play at such a high level, the organiser can choose who is available for the next gig, it’s fun and I don’t have to be on call all the time.
This is really how I came back to trombone, having finished singing, then taking a career in teaching young children who have lots of colds and germs and get sick, which more or less settles the score for an opera singer.
Up until then, I hadn’t played for about ten years. The LMB is very welcoming to new members, offering free lessons and sometimes loan out instruments for people to get started on until they are able buy their own. This is a blessing for parents who, at the first stage of learning, are wary of buying their child an instrument that may get left in the cupboard. I think the schools these days are doing a lot by reaching out to encourage children to learn
But while you can teach a child the likes of a violin from a relatively early age, it’s the physicality of the brass instrument, again, there’s a lot of huff and puff required that would limit youngsters to at least 10 years old before they start. Whilst a lot of the councils and boroughs are set up for children to learn, the LMB have an intermediate band where adults can learn, I think that’s so good as there are very few places they can learn to play a brass instrument in a band environment.”
As with all works of life in the world of musical instruments, there are options within price and quality.
“Players of a high standard will of course have their own preference within the quality of build, sound and playability of the instrument of their choice and also the mouth piece. But I think if you are experienced and have developed your own technique, you should be able to achieve an adequate tone on any brass instrument whatever the cost. Some of the cheaper brass instruments are great for the price and ideal if you are new to the game before committing to a more expensive model which will probably have better moving parts. The slide quality of a trombone for example, if it’s sticky you’re not to going to be able to play at speed.
I grew up playing a Yamaha trombone which had a beautiful slide, I’ve recently bought an old second hand Bach Stradivarius bass trombone which has been a challenge to play, as it has old fashioned triggers which have a different range of pitches compared to newer ones. I bath my Bach regularly to make sure it gets a good clean around the bends, that’s what my Dad taught me to do. Then triggers are rotary valves and need special oil, which is different to a trumpet for example, it’s all about the viscosity, so you have to choose wisely.
A regular service like this keeps it in fine working order for several hours playing. The LMB do a lot of gigs in a year, I’m usually involved in about a dozen in that time playing anything from hymns to David Bowie. I particularly like outdoor gigs especially festivals where everyone seems to love a brass band. I would say the weirdest gig was last year’s Santa Dash, where nearly three thousand people dressed as Santa, raced across London’s Clapham Common in the snow to raise money for Great Ormond Street hospital. It was so cold even the lake was frozen.”
As my train is announced and people rush predictably to the designated platform, I spy a Fusion Trombone bag amongst the mountain of holdalls and equipment.
“Yes, my Fusion bag, it’s the Premium 10.5 bass trombone bag in black and lime. I can honestly say as a woman, it’s the thought behind the design of this bag that also allows me to play the bass trombone. I physically wouldn’t be able to carry it around otherwise. When I decided to play bass trombone again here in the UK, it was the first time I had to look after myself and travel with a big instrument, as my Dad did all that for me when I was a child back home in Australia.
I suddenly found myself having to go on the tube and just couldn’t carry it in its original case. As an independent woman, having to ask my husband to carry it just wasn’t do’able. I watched the video on the website and was so impressed with how they focused on the safety of the instrument and all the gear that you could put inside.
If I have a gig or a rehearsal after teaching, I can take the day’s gear plus all I need for the gig in the same case. It’s light enough to carry and I can hop on and off the tube or train (I can hear the guard whistling for the departure of my train) easily with the back straps. I feel completely at ease putting my instrument in there, it’s so well protected.”
As Madonna and the London Metroplitan Brass start up again, I have plenty of time to hear their full set as I watch my train leave the station!
For more information on the London Metropolitan Band visit: www.londonmetropolitanbrass.com
Interview by Lars Mullen