Trombone champ makes a hit video game of an unlikely instrument

Over the past week, Trombone Champ has become an unlikely gaming phenomenon, with fans posting clips of their fraught attempts to play the tunes on social media. (Photo: NYTimes)
Backstage at the Royal Festival Hall, one of London’s grandest classical music venues, James Buckle, the bass trombonist for the Philharmonia Orchestra, braced himself to do something he had never done before: play the familiar opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.اضافة اعلان

Trombone players usually spend most of the symphony waiting in silence at the back of the orchestra, only getting the chance to play in a piece’s final euphoric movement. But thanks to the popular new video game Trombone Champ — a sort of Guitar Hero for brass players — Buckle was having a go at the exhilarating opening, as if he were one of the first violins. “I have to admit I’m a bit excited,” he said.

Buckle, 29, who gamely agreed to test out Trombone Champ last weekend, gripped a mouse for changing the pitch of the virtual trombone, placing his left hand on the laptop’s space bar, which he would hit to play notes.

Then, the game began. As a flurry of notes flitted across the screen, Buckle desperately tried to keep up. But what came out of the speakers was less a Beethoven masterwork than an out-of-tune mess.

“It sounds like me warming up!” Buckle said.

As the melody ended, Buckle leaned back, grinning. “This is going to sound really sad,” he said, “but it felt genuinely great getting to play that”.

Over the past week, Trombone Champ has become an unlikely gaming phenomenon, with fans posting clips of their fraught attempts to play the tunes on social media.

Over the past week, Trombone Champ has become a surprise phenomenon online, with fans posting clips of their fraught attempts to play Auld Lang Syne, The Star-Spangled Banner, and Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Last week, a clip of someone mangling Rossini’s William Tell Overture was retweeted over 40,000 times.

The game has rave reviews. Christopher Livingston, in PC Gamer magazine, called it “a serious game of the year contender” (he said he “wasn’t joking”, if anyone was wondering). A handful of gamers have even built trombone-shaped controllers so they can play like real musicians.

But what do actual trombone players make of it?

Trombone Champ does not take the trombone or trombonists very seriously. It calls players “tromboners”, for a start. Before each song, it displays pseudo-factoids about the trombone (“in England, trombone is spelt troumboune”, reads a typical one). The virtual “tromboner” dances even during serious musical pieces.

But Buckle had only positive feedback. “If it raises awareness or means anyone wants to pick up the trombone, it’s a great thing,” he said.

Trombone Champ is the creation of Dan Vecchitto, a web application designer at Penguin Random House, who makes video games with his wife in his spare time.

Vecchitto, 38, said he came up with the idea four years ago while brainstorming game ideas: “I just got this mental picture of an arcade cabinet with a giant rubber trombone attached,” he said. After realizing that concept would be difficult to execute, Vecchitto set about creating a version where players use a mouse to emulate a trombone’s movements, sliding between notes.

It was immediately clear the game would be a comedy, Vecchitto said, and he took every opportunity to insert jokes.

Vecchitto used to play saxophone in high school bands, but said he had no experience of the trombone. Asked if he had consulted any trombonists while making the game, Vecchitto said, “I meant to,” then laughed.

“I was a little concerned that real trombonists might take offense,” Vecchitto said, “but for the most part they’ve been extremely supportive.”

Vecchitto said he received one negative email from a jazz trombonist telling him the game was disrespectful to the instrument. Otherwise, a host of trombone players have praised it.

Star WWE wrestler Xavier Woods, who plays the trombone in bouts and is also a well-known gamer under the name Austin Creed, said he had unexpectedly ended up playing the game for hours.

The trombone’s joy is its versatility, Creed said: “You can make incredible jazz on it, you can play at Carnegie Hall and the most beautiful sounds will come out of this horn, and then you can play at a kid’s clown birthday and just make everyone giggle.”

British composer Alex Paxton said that clips of Trombone Champ were so full of out-of-tune notes and microtones that they “had all the hallmarks of great experimental music”.

Paxton even tried the game himself. After a few attempts, he appeared to grow weary of following the rules and started waggling the mouse up and down rapidly to create a barrage of noise. Then, the composer grabbed one of his own trombones and tried to play a duet with the game.

Whether Trombone Champ will encourage any “tromboners” to take up the real instrument remains to be seen. At the Royal Festival Hall, Buckle of the Philharmonia invited his colleague violist Joseph Fisher to give it a try. After struggling with trombone Tchaikovsky on the laptop, he was asked if he might switch instruments.

“Not to the trombone,” Fisher said, “but I’m definitely going to get the game.”

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