There are two reasons why I’ve been working on learning alto sackbut.
- I sing in that range, so in the Tuesday group, where we usually play and then sing, it’s useful to be able to play an instrument in the same range I sing in. Renaissance music was often sung by men singing falsetto, so there are a lot of parts that are by modern choral standards high for a tenor but low for an alto, and I’m someone who can sing them. My Tom Prescott Renaissance tenor is pretty good, but the notes above A are finicky and I need something that goes up to C or D. The tenor serpent would be good if I played it enough, but I don’t, and in any case, I’m coming to the conclusion that serpent family instruments aren’t well-designed for sight-reading groups.
- The loud wind faculty at workshops would be more comfortable, and would come up with better parts for, an instrument they understood better than they do the serpent.
So right now I have access to two alto sackbuts. This one is cheap, durable, lightweight, a cheerful color, and I have been practicing it and am starting to sound pretty good.
It might well be a good solution for the Tuesday problem, where people play plastic recorders and modern stringed instruments all the time. But I don’t think the loud wind coaches at early music workshops are going to like it.
So I also have this:
[Photographer: Ishmael Stefanov]
It was originally a Finke alto sackbut, but an early music enthusiast/instrument builder named Clifford Wheeler put two valves on it so that it would play in the range of a tenor and bass sackbut as well as alto, and also modified the mouthpiece receiver so that he could use his French horn mouthpiece.
I think the valves are cute, although I wouldn’t have added the weight of them myself, but I can’t make even slightly good-sounding noises out of the French horn mouthpiece. A professional sackbut player who was in the room with it the other day didn’t sound a lot better than I did.
So I’m currently investigating buying a good sackbut mouthpiece and getting someone to change the mouthpiece receiver so that I can use it. I’ll let you know how that goes.
Of course, the other problem is that while I’ve been practicing regularly for the last month or so, I have yet to convince anyone to play with me. So it could be that although I can read music in not too remote keys and convince myself I sound something like a trombone player, nobody else will believe that.