Arthur Pryor: Blue Bells and the Trombone

"What were you thinking?  It's just a trombone!"

"When you see him, you'll understand!  He could turn a tin whistle into stardom!"

From Blue Bells of Scotland
Book One of The Blue Bells Chronicles

In an unintended instance of art imitating life, Blue Bells of Scotland opens with Shawn Kleiner marching in to audition for the position of second trombone, and walking away as the new principal player. Though I was not aware of it at the time I wrote it, the scene could have been taken directly from the life of Arthur Pryor, the original "Greatest Trombonist in the World."

In 1892, the 22 year old Arthur Pryor from Missouri, self-taught on the slide trombone, arrived in New York City at the invitation of John Philip Sousa himself. At the first rehearsal of Sousa's brand new concert band, Pryor so stunned the musicians with his virtuosity that the first chair trombonist, Frank Holton (for all the musicians out there, yes that Holton) offered to hand his position to the young newcomer. Sousa convinced Holton to stay, but in 1893, Arthur Pryor did assume the official position of featured soloist with the Sousa band. Over the next ten years, he performed 10,000 trombone solos with the group.

When Shawn's teacher refuses to teach him the Arthur Pryor piece, Blue Bells of Scotland, he teaches himself. In this, too, he imitates Arthur Pryor. In Pryor's 19th Century America, the slide trombone was a novelty. When one was given to his father, the town's bandmaster, as repayment of a debt, nobody in the town knew how to play it. They had only ever seen valve trombones. Pryor's father gave it to him and told him to figure it out. He did, discovering the system of alternate positions known to all advanced trombonists today.

(It would be five years before someone told him the full length of the slide, all seven positions, could be used, not to mention passing on the helpful information that the slide really ought to be oiled!)

Ten hours of practice a day, however, in combination with his alternate positions, left Pryor so adept that he became a hit at county fairs, under the moniker of "The Boy Wonder of Missouri." This led to a midwestern tour with Allessandro Liberati, and a similar offer from Patrick Gilmore, (which he declined, as he'd already accepted a job as pianist and music director of the Stanley Opera House in Colorado.) It was after this that he received the telegram inviting him to play for John Philip Sousa, and still later that he began working with recording.

Though a prodigy and well-known band leader and musician in his own time, Arthur Pryor is largely remembered today for his arrangement of Blue Bells of Scotland, an old Scottish folk song. Amazingly, he did this arrangement probably at the age of 18 or 19, when he'd been playing the instrument only 3 or 4 years himself.

Bluebells demonstrated what a slide trombone could really do, featuring quick tempos, lots of sixteenths and triplets, double-tonguing, octave jumps, a three and a half octave range from pedal G's an octave below the bass clef staff to high C's in the treble clef, and, of course, the beautiful lyric statement of the original melody, which shows off the trombone's beautiful tone.

Arthur Pryor inspired interest in the trombone with his virtuoso playing, and Bluebells of Scotland in particular has been a standard of trombone literature for decades, and a favorite challenge for advanced players. It has been performed and recorded byJoe Alessi and Christian Lindberg, today's "World's Greatest Trombonist," among others.

For other Scottish songs set in Scottish locations with accompanying stories:

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To read the first four books in the series, click on the links:


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