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Preaching to the trombone choir: Music gives German church a boost

While membership in Germany’s Protestant church is rapidly declining, its trombone choirs are thriving. Already 18,500 players are registered for a trombone choir festival in Dresden in June.

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    Silke Lantau (l.) plays in the trombone choir at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, Germany.
    Elisabeth Braw
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On a recent Monday evening, tourists and locals were dining at restaurants next to Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church. And, with spring having just arrived, their conversations were accompanied by a faint brass band sound from a building next door.

Though the foreign tourists among the diners had no idea what the brass music was about, the local diners were accustomed to it. Monday night is rehearsal night for the St. Nicholas Church’s trombone choir, one of around 30 such ensembles in Leipzig alone.

“I’ve played in brass bands in the past, but trombone choirs are great because you play with people of all ages, and you play all kinds of music,” explained Silke Lantau, a young member of the St. Nicholas trombone choir, after the rehearsal. Ms. Lantau, an 11-year veteran of her instrument, plays the trumpet. Though the name suggests that trombone choirs only feature one instrument, they are in fact church brass bands set up the same way as church choirs, with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses.

While membership in Germany’s Protestant (Lutheran) church is rapidly declining – last year a record 200,000 members left the church – its trombone choirs are thriving. Today, Germany has 110,000 amateur brass players belonging to 6,000 trombone choirs.

In June, trombone choir members from all over the country will meet up at a gigantic trombone choir gathering in the eastern German city of Dresden; 18,500 players are already registered, up from 16,000 players at the last national trombone choir festival eight years ago.

Not just trombones

Nobody is quite sure why trombone choirs are called just that rather than, say, trumpet choirs or brass choirs.

According to one theory, the name is connected to Martin Luther’s translation of a Biblical instrument unknown in 16th-century Germany, which he translated as trombone as it was an instrument familiar to Germans. Another theory holds that the first trombone choirs used the name as a way of distinguishing themselves from secular brass bands.

“Trombone choirs became popular about 100 years ago, during the Protestant revival movement in Germany, when lots of churches moved their services outdoors and needed accompaniment,” explains Reinhard Gramm, a board member of Germany’s association of trombone choirs. “But today churches have both organs and trombone choirs in their services.”

Christoph Käßler, a hobby trombonist who has led the St. Nicholas trombone choir for the past 13 years, has seen membership grow even as service attendance has plummeted from 1989, when St. Nicholas peace prayers spawned the demonstrations that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Mr. Käßler arrived, the trombone choir had had 13 members; today it has 30, ranging from young teenagers, college students, and young professionals to retirees.

“Making music together gives people a sense of community, and it’s easy to fit in in a trombone choir,” he explains. “And it’s a great place to meet people. You arrive not knowing anybody and make new friends.”

Faith and music

Indeed, according to a recently published book-length study by Julia Koll, a theologian at the University of Göttingen, trombone choirs are also unique among German hobby associations in bringing people of all ages together. When Dr. Koll’s first results – a survey of trombone choirs in the Hannover diocese – were released three years ago, the diocese’s leading official explained that the brass ensembles are an area where the church has no recruitment and retention problems.

“People don’t just join trombone choirs because if their Christian faith,” says Mr. Gramm. “They join as much because of the music. We try to perform all kinds of music.”

Christian Hälfer, a young trombone player at St. Nicholas, has only played the trombone for a couple of years, and has already played in a brass band. But, he explains, the trombone choir gives him the opportunity to combine his faith with music.

Indeed, at their rehearsal the St. Nicholas trombone choir – featuring mighty trombone and trumpet sections, along with one horn and two tubas – practiced hymns, brass band pieces, and popular music with syncopation that tripped some players up.

All experience levels

Granted, trombone choirs don’t always make an impeccable sound. Like most church choirs, there are no auditions, and even players new to their instruments are encouraged to join, with beginners offered coaching on their instruments.

But with at least a couple of experienced players in every section, trombone choirs manage to perform pieces ranging from chorales to gospel and brass band classics at church services and community concerts. The St. Nicholas trombone choir, for example, performs 35 times per year, including monthly church services as well as performances at retirement homes and the city’s Christmas market.

Lantau, one of St. Nicholas’s best trumpeters, patiently repeated sections together with less experienced players. Though she played in a brass band for several years, she says she prefers the trombone choir because if its variety of ages. Indeed, at the rehearsal she shared a stand with a retired gentleman.

Gramm confesses to feel daunted by the upcoming national festival in Dresden: He and other volunteers have to solve enormous logistical challenges before the 18,500 players and some 3,000 other participants arrive on June 3. Not to mention the musical challenge: Can 18,500 brass players really perform together?

But, Gramm recalls, eight years ago it worked. He still gets goose bumps thinking about it.

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