Advice from a Conservatory Graduate (Part I)

masterclassI recently gave a master class at my alma mater, the New England Conservatory. With 15 years of hindsight working for me, the class was a wonderful chance for me to share my conservatory experience with the current students. My conservatory experience was an extremely positive one and I wanted to encapsulate my four years there with the hope of passing on what I had learned to others. While many of my comments are clearly connected to my New England Conservatory experience, most can be applied to any school of music.

I arrived at New England Conservatory as a transfer student in my third year having studied at Boston University the previous two years. The reasons for my transfer were threefold:

  1. I had a desire for complete immersion into a music program;
  2. The university academic requirement were sapping my time and energy away from my practice time; and
  3. I was the only bass trombonist at the university and I knew that NEC had many excellent players that would provide me with competition and inspiration.

Over the course of my four years at NEC, the following players were also NEC students:

  • Joel Borelli: Principal, U.S. Naval Academy (Annapolis, MD)
  • Oddur Bjornsson: Principal, Iceland Symphony
  • Susan (Page) Chumley: U.S. Air Force Band (DC)
  • Pat Corbett: Bass, U.S. Marine Band (DC)
  • John DiLutis: 2nd, San Francsico Symphony (deceased)
  • Mark Fisher: 2nd, Chicago Lyric Opera
  • Ben Herrington: Meridian Arts Ensemble
  • Julie Josephson: NY freelance, soloist, chamber musician
  • Dave Ridge: Bass, San Francsico Opera
  • Brett Shuster: Professor, University of Kentucky, Louisville
  • Paul Welcomer: 2nd, San Francisco Symphony
  • Doug Wright: Principal, Cleveland Orchestra
  • Mike Zion: Principal, Naples Philharmonic (FL)

As you can see, the talent level was exceptionally high. Additionally, there was a sense of camaraderie within the trombone studio which fostered excellence. There existed a healthy competition among us and our general level of expectation of ourselves and of each other was quite high. We always played for each other. Spontaneous duet, trio, quartet, and orchestral excerpt sessions were de rigueur.Trombone recitals were big events for us – everyone would attend to support the recitalist, often joining them onstage for some pieces, then partying together afterward.


Yes, the NEC atmosphere provided fertile soil to nurture us, but we did so much to help ourselves and each other succeed.

Studio Instruction
masterclassOver the course of my four years at the conservatory, I studied with three teachers: Norman Bolter (one year, plus two previous years at Boston University); Douglas Yeo (two years); and John Swallow (one year). This gave me an excellent cross section of instruction from varying points of view. I certainly had a lot to learn and each teacher had a great deal to teach me. Not that I came to the conservatory to learn HOW to play trombone – I had already proven my ability on the trombone by being accepted for enrollment. I feel that I began more of an apprenticeship than anything else in the studio, learning side by side from a master craftsman how to better hone my skills.

Having been a teacher at the university level now for many years, I can offer these words of advice to students: Listen to carefully what your teachers say, but more importantly, listen and watch how they play even more carefully. Remember, your teacher was trained to be a musician first, so chances are quite good that his/her language skills will not match their musical skills. While some teachers are quite eloquent and can easily express their ideas to you, this is not always the case. The information you seek may be non-verbal. For example, Norman Bolter’s body usage provided me with a superb model of how a trombonist should carry his or herself. In all ranges and in all dynamic levels he played in a relaxed and calm manner, something that I strive for to this day. Douglas Yeo had a purity of sound quality that I wanted very badly to emulate – no fuzz, pops, hiss or any other extraneous noise in the sound, just pristine tone. John Swallow had the ability to tip things upside down to gain new perspectives of the music I was preparing, encouraging me to think “out of the box” of typical trombone-think.

Prepare for your lessons as if you are going in to a performance each week. Treat your teacher to a well prepared presentation of your playing. To quote a famous chef, you will “kick it up a notch” by placing your brain into a performance mindset. I realize this is often easier said than done, particularly if you are slogging your way through materials or techniques that you have not yet mastered. Still, by using a performance-based attitude, you may just surprise yourself and begin to raise your own self-expectations.

Further advice to enhance your studio instruction would be to record your lessons. Today’s technology of CD mini-disc recorders and DAT recorders makes this quite easy, and I believe the benefits far outweigh the cost of the equipment. With the ability to re-listen to your lessons you will have a constant reminder at your disposal of where you must be focusing. A good student will retain the information given by the instructor anyway, but having a recorded backup is added insurance of success. I must admit that I never recorded even one lesson as a student, but when I recorded a private lesson after graduation (with Douglas Yeo) just prior to my audition with the San Francisco Opera, it served me quite well indeed.

Faculty & Facilities
masterclassThe faculty members of your institution may have far more to say than they are able to communicate during their classes. You can gain a great deal of insight from them and their musical experience by simply approaching them outside of the classroom. It is one of the most sincere forms of flattery to ask someone about themselves, and most folks are more than willing to share their story with you if asked nicely. For example, Louis Krasner, who commissioned and premiered the Violin Concerto of Alban Berg, was on faculty at NEC while I was a student. This concerto has an excellent bass trombone part with some very exposed passages. I regret not having talked with Mr. Krasner about his experience with this masterpiece because he was a very visible and approachable presence in the school. I did not make the same mistake twice: John Swallow had incredible amounts of information from his experience in the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner, and premiering works of Stravinsky, Schuller and other notable composers of the 20th century while in the NYC Ballet and the NYC Brass Quintet. All I had to do was ask.

This only serves to date me, but the internet was not available to me when I was a student. I got most of my information the old fashioned way, via the library. I think there is still a great deal of valuable information you can access in libraries that is not yet available on the web, such as: Scores; parts; books; articles; and periodicals on specific subjects. I will admit to feeding a few bags full of dimes into a library photocopier so that I could have a personal study copy of some expensive or copywritten orchestral scores. Furthermore, librarians are trained to help you, so make use of them. In many cases, they are under-utilized, so remember that they are there to help you. You can ask “I want to know what was going through Schumann’s mind when he was writing the slow movement to his Third Symphony. Can you help me?” or “Can you show me some solo bass, cello, or bassoon literature that I can transcribe for the trombone” and get immediate human assistance. The library plus the internet can provide you with the kind of information I could only dream about 15 years ago. It will make you a better musician. Take advantage of it while you are a student.

Listen Live
masterclassThere is plenty of free music be enjoyed at a conservatory. Attend not only the trombone recitals but listen to all the other instruments as well. By hearing the Bach Cello Suites, Telemann Flute Fantasies, Mozart Bassoon Concerto and other works commonly stolen by trombonists, I gained new insight into their performance. I learned to incorporate these sounds into my own playing. For example, I learned a real staccato by listening to bassoonists. I discovered the possibility of a real pianissimo from a clarinetist.

Each Friday morning saw me in line early waiting for rush seats for the Boston Symphony matinee concert. These are the unsold box office tickets for the performance which are offered to the general public at a greatly reduced price on the day of the show. If I was unable to get my own ticket I would sneak in to the hall following intermission, when the doors opened, to hear the “big” piece on the second half of the concert. Sometimes a BSO member would sneak us through the stage door. I would go to great lengths to be able to hear this great orchestra play a live concert or an open rehearsal. If you are a conservatory student with access to a good professional symphony orchestra, you simply must get yourself to these concerts. It’s a no-brainer if your ultimate goal is to someday join the ranks of these symphony players.

In Boston, the BSO is king, but Boston is musically rich in a variety of different ways. There is an early music scene which is second to none in the U.S., tons of solo and chamber music all over the city and at all times, visiting orchestras, and the list goes on and on. Again, most conservatories are in this kind of thriving urban setting, so expose yourself to as much as possible, keeping your experiences varied. Become a cultural sponge and suck it all up.


  • Some of the pitfalls of a conservatory education
  • Making the best of your ensemble experience
  • Some final thoughts