Minnesota Opera

Minneapolis Trombone Choir gears up for annual concert and Twin Cities Trombone Day

The Minneapolis Trombone Choir rehearses in 2012 for its annual concert.Courtesy of the artists

March 13, 2019

Back in 1974, Jim ten Bensel decided that he'd had enough of Minnesota winters.

A trombonist by trade, Ten Bensel rustled together a bunch of like-minded trombone players to blow some of what he calls the "January and February doldrums" away.

Four decades later, the group is still together. It gives its annual concert at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 17, at Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis Trombone Choir, as the ensemble is now known, was not initially intended as a long-term project.

"It was mainly done to get us through the winter months after Christmas, when professional musicians are often not working that much," Ten Bensel says. "And over the years, we've just kept doing it during January, February and March."

Membership of the Trombone Choir has gone up gradually over the decades, not least because the Twin Cities is a hotbed of community bands and keen amateur players.

"We've had up to 45 members, and right now we have 40," Ten Bensel says. "We have tenor trombones in the group mainly, but also alto trombones and bass trombones."

There are no auditions. To join the Trombone Choir, all you need is a functioning instrument and the desire to make music with your fellow players.

"It's open to everybody, people from all walks of life," Ten Bensel says. "It gives an opportunity to play in an all-trombone musical ensemble that's quite different from anything else."

The trombone itself is different in character from other brass instruments, he argues.

"I think it has more variety than just about any instrument," he says. "It can bellow like a priest. It can whisper like a dove. And it's used in jazz and pop music all the time, as well as classical."

The trombone's versatility has a major impact on the type of music chosen for the Minneapolis Trombone Choir's concerts.

"I try to get a lot of variety," Ten Bensel says. "We usually start with some spiritual music, then go on to classical, pop and jazz.

"This Sunday, for instance, we'll be playing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture with our guests the Twin Cities Horn Club. And because it's St. Patrick's Day, we'll be both singing and playing 'Danny Boy.'"

Audiences love the breadth of repertoire, he adds. But he has other reasons for being eclectic in his programming.

"I really put the variety in for the players," he says. "You need to play all kinds of music to make you a better player, to be presented with a wide range of problems to solve."

Ten Bensel is proud that the Minneapolis Trombone Choir also provides an outlet for the creative instincts of its members.

"There are composers in the group, and arrangers, too," he says. "And I encourage everyone to conduct their own pieces."

New works by Minnesota-based composers Stan Bann, Rich Raaen, Samantha Hogan and Glen Newton will all feature in the St. Patrick's Day program.

Beyond Sunday's concert, the Trombone Choir also will be taking part in Twin Cities Trombone Day, an event presented Saturday, April 6, by Schmitt Music in Brooklyn Center.

"About 20 of us will be going over there and playing a 35- to 40-minute concert," Ten Bensel says.

Schmitt Music's all-day event is, he adds, an ideal opportunity for trombonists to push their skill-set further and network with fellow players in the metro area.

"Each year the organizers bring in a big-name player, and this year it's the New York jazz trombonist John Fedchock, who's a familiar name to most of us," Ten Bensel says.

Fedchock will lead a players' clinic, as will Twin Cities trombonist Lauren Husting, a founding member of the 10-piece traditional folk band Brass Lassie.

Members of the Minnesota Opera orchestra will give a low-brass section master class, and the University of Minnesota Trombone Choir also will make a guest appearance.

"It's all part of generating interest and activity," Ten Bensel says, and he has further plans to keep the trombone gospel growing.

"Right now, part of the philosophy of the Minneapolis Trombone Choir is outreach," he explains. "So I've developed a program called Trombone Magic, using a core group of about seven musicians.

"The idea is that they will go around town and play at different places. We have two concerts lined up already in the Rondo district of St. Paul, and we want to play in the public schools, too."

The particular tonal qualities of the trombone, he adds, make it ideally suited to this type of outreach activity, exposing new audiences to the ability that music has to flatten barriers and nurture emotional well-being.

"In the Middle Ages, the trombone was used to conjure up images of the heavenly kingdom," he says. "When you want heaven brought into a piece of music, you add trombones."

And what of Ten Bensel's future? While freely admitting that he is now "probably the oldest member" of the Minneapolis Trombone Choir, he has no intention of packing his instruments, mutes and mouthpieces away any time soon.

"We're going to go to our 50th anniversary year, and then I'll make an assessment," he says with a chuckle. "But playing in the Trombone Choir is as much fun as ever, I look forward to it every time."