True Confessions: I Dislike “Euphonium”

Just a brief post for this week, and a couple of days early. Unlike many of my trombone-playing colleagues, I am not attending the American Trombone Workshop (formerly the Eastern Trombone Workshop) this week. As a “switch-hitter” with professional interests in both the trombone and tuba-euphonium worlds, I divide my time between activities related to both, and am almost never able to attend every conference and gathering that I would like. In just under twelve hours I’ll be taking thirteen students from Ole Miss to the South Central Regional Tuba-Euphonium Conference, held this year at the University of Central Arkansas. The UM Tuba-Euphonium Ensemble will be performing on Friday afternoon, and then I will give a brief solo recital on Saturday morning. To my knowledge, this will be the first event of this kind for all of these students, and I am looking forward to seeing their understanding of the possibilities of their instruments being broadened through attending concerts, clinics, and lectures. In fact, I am looking forward to this almost more than to our performances!

Given my planned activities for the remainder of this week, perhaps my chosen topic is surprising. Before you call me a hypocrite (or worse), though, please read my title carefully. I did not say I dislike playing the euphonium, that beautiful-sounding tenor member of the tuba family with its rich, velvety tone and smooth slurring. Adding this instrument to my performance activities has been wonderful for my musical life, the euphonium’s strengths and weaknesses almost perfectly counterbalancing those of the trombones. I would be a lesser musician if I did not play it, and possibly an unemployed one, as most of my teaching positions have required that I play and teach at least one valved low brass instrument in addition to the trombones.

No, my dislike is simply for the term “euphonium.” Derived from a Greek term meaning “good sounding” or, more loosely, “pretty sounding,” the term strikes me as a remnant of over-the-top nineteenth-century marketing. I can imagine some inventor saying “Hmm. I have a new instrument here that I would really like to sell and have become part of bands everywhere. I know—I’ll call it the ‘pretty-sound,’ but in Greek so it sounds artsy.”

Not only is the word a little too much, but the name gives the general listening public no clue as to what the actual instrument is. American school band directors often erroneously call the instrument the “baritone” or “baritone horn,” so the public is slightly more familiar with those terms, but only slightly. While these instruments are related to the euphonium, they differ in bore and bell size, physical dimensions (euphonium is larger), bore profile (euphonium is conical while baritone is cylindrical), and sound (the euphonium is more tuba-like while the baritone is more trombone-like). If you would like to see comparison photos or read more about the differences between the two, see this helpful article by retired United States Coast Guard band euphoniumist David Werden.

While I have great sympathy with the desire to eschew the over-the-top term (and sometimes I think people think I’m being snarky when I continue using it), I can’t bring myself to use the word “baritone” because, well, I know what a baritone is and it has a different appearance and sound than the euphonium. No, if we’re going to get away from the term “euphonium” an entire change in nomenclature is needed.

I see two possible solutions. First, we could jettison the word “euphonium” and refer to the instrument instead as the “tenor tuba.” This idea has a great deal of merit. The instrument is already labeled tenor tuba on the rare occasions that it is employed in the symphony orchestra, and it is essentially the tenor member of the tuba family (though some would argue that there is a slight difference between the euphonium and tenor tuba). Non-musicians seem to be able to imagine what the instrument is and what it sounds like when I describe it this way, and as a trombonist playing the euphonium as a secondary instrument I find that envisioning a more tuba-like sound helps me to achieve the desired result.

Another solution would be to shift to more of a German-type nomenclature for valved low brass instruments rather than the British or hybrid-American ones. In British brass band instrumentation (where the euphonium plays a central soloistic role along with the cornet), the E-flat cylindrical mid-range instrument is called the “tenor horn.” There are two or three of these, along with two baritone horns and two euphoniums (yes, baritone and euphonium as two different instruments, playing different parts.) This nomenclature for baritones and euphoniums is typically followed by professional players in the United States (though often conflated by others as stated above), but the E-flat instrument (rarely used today outside of British-style brass bands) has normally been called the “alto horn.”

In German-speaking lands, though, a nomenclature for some similar instruments to the ones I am describing used “althorn” for the E-flat instrument, “tenorhorn” for the smaller and brighter B-flat instrument, and “bariton” for the larger and darker B-flat instrument (though “euphonium” is now used to describe more British-type models). If we could just all call the E-flat instrument the alto horn, the cylindrical B-flat instrument the tenor horn, and the conical B-flat instrument the baritone horn, we could get rid of the word “euphonium” altogether, the general public would be less confused, and the entire American concert band movement would suddenly be calling the instrument by its proper name. Everyone wins!

Of course, none of this will ever happen, and in case any readers are upset by my thoughts here let me assure you that my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek even as I write. I love playing the euphonium and will continue calling it that, and with as little snarkiness as possible. Still one can dream…. 🙂

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About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Bass Trombonist of the Great River Trombone Quartet, and Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released his first solo recording, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOL. 1, on the Potenza Music label in 2015. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. The opinions expressed here are solely those of Micah Everett, and are not necessarily shared by the employers and organizations with which he is associated.
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