Advice from a Conservatory Graduate (Part II)

A warning to conservatory students: A conservatory style education will most likely not give you a strong background in the humanities, mathematics or science. If a broader-based education is what you seek, you would be better off studying at a college or university that has the ability to teach liberal arts effectively. By design, most of the liberal arts courses required in a conservatory try not to interfere too much with a music student’s need to practice and perform. While I did enjoy a few of the non-music courses offered at New England Conservatory, particularly literature courses such as Shakespeare and poetry, they were a far cry from the rigors of comparable courses I had taken at Boston University.

One of the reasons I left Boston University was to escape such coursework to pursue my music, and that was a conscious choice. When I left New England Conservatory with two music performance degrees and entered the real world, I quickly realized that I had some catching up to do. My advice: Develop your intellectual curiosity as well as your musical curiosity. So much of what you do in a conservatory is artisanal, which is great and necessary in forming your artistry. In the larger scope of things, you must still have enough knowledge of the world to exist and contribute outside of this setting. Make sure you are reading the classics; study history and politics, go to plays, poetry readings, visit the museums which your city has to offer, have an intellectual debate with your friends. In short, try to have as complete an experience as possible while you are a conservatory student. Become a “self starter:” Autodidactic. If all else fails, you can always watch Jeopardy.

Ensemble Experience
Perhaps the most valuable advice which I can pass on to the conservatory student to be used immediately with excellent results would be to hone one’s ensemble skills. This is your chance to really learn in an ensemble situation. The skills which you develop here you can take just about anywhere, such as: part preparation (with practice and score!); working with your section to achieve excellence: tuning chords; deciding upon styles; execution of entrances and releases; balances—you should be actively talking about all of these things in rehearsals, never failing to stop short of what you want. You learn the essential teamwork skills of leading and following. You learn to be flexible. In the real world, these skills are all givens, in that you show up to a job and are expected and paid to be good. You adapt very quickly or you do not get called again. Worse yet, you may not be given tenure. This is probably the best and most easily applicable advice I can give you that you can take right now to your freelance gigs. Learn it now while you are in school. It is a tough lesson to learn on the outside.

Band versus Orchestra
Over the course of my six years of musical education, I had the chance to perform with many ensembles: band; wind ensemble; orchestra; trombone quartet; trombone choir; brass quintet; and brass choir to name a few. I had already known before entering music school that my ultimate goal was to be an orchestral bass trombonist. I must admit, however, that I had a far more meaningful musical experience in wind ensemble than I ever did with the orchestra or any other group. After all, I was playing a good deal more than in the orchestra, being challenged on a number of different levels technically and I had my own exposed part to prepare and execute. As a training ground, I seemed to be able to learn more about my playing and my ensemble skills from band than from orchestra. The repertoire was rich as well, covering everything from Gabrieli works to world premieres.

Frank BattistiAt NEC, the wind ensemble conductor was Frank Battisti, perhaps the finest bandsman in the world. His reputation as a wind ensemble conductor is virtually unsurpassed, yet it was his ability to instill a level of integrity to each member of his ensemble that left an indelible mark on my musical personality. He made sure that each member of the ensemble knew his/her role in the music, however significant or insignificant the part. He never stopped short of what he tried to achieve from us. He also taught us to practice our integrity through exercising our minds, arguing that regardless of how gifted a player one may be, a sense of integrity is not an automatic. Like music, it too must be practiced.

Musical integrity means: show up on time, your parts prepared, with a good attitude, be courteous to your colleagues and be ready and willing to work towards bringing the music you are working on to a higher level. In other words, be a good musical citizen. Such a simple message, really, but oh-so-important. Thanks, Mr. B. I will never forget you.

Some Ensemble Experience Tips
Try not to just let the ensemble experience wash over you as the rehearsal minutes tick by. Experiment. Find out what is too much and what is too little, what works and what does not. Use your ensemble rehearsal time to experiment and practice techniques that are not easily replicated in the practice room. A few of the things I worked on:

  1. Breathing deeply, approaching soft attacks and touchy entrances in an aggressive manner in order to teach myself to not be afraid of them and to be more pro-active (make sins of commission rather than omission).
  2. Making sure to observe absolutely every level of detail in the “ink” of a composition: distinguishing between every possible kind of accent; giving very distinct layers to every dynamic level; being true to the articulation marks (slurs/non slurred) trying to not be trombonistically accommodating articulation-wise. (i.e. sloppy).

    WHY? To make sure I had developed the skill to play something with complete adherence to the composer’s indications, so that I would then have a strong base upon which to add my own interpretations, the conductor’s interpretation, or the section’s interpretation and so on.

  3. Experimenting with air delivery to determine what kind of sound would best fit the ensemble or composition I was working with. (Tone color.)
    • Orchestra: thicker, warmer column of air equals more mass, less strident sound.
    • Wind ensemble: cooler, more direct air stream equals a leaner, more brilliant sound.
    • Brass quintet (bottom): even more air delivered quite slowly to create a more an ambient but less directional sound that the group can wrap itself in.

When I was a conservatory student, I swore to myself that if I were to get a “big gig,” I would never complain again about my situation in life. After all, as musicians, we are trained and encouraged to become hypercritical of ourselves as well as others. While I must admit to breaking my vow a few times I still feel incredibly fortunate about my career and all the things which it has provided for me and my family. It really is a wonderful life. Most folks really do toil to earn their bread. There are hundreds and hundreds of trombonists that would be happy to take my place. I have not forgotten what a privilege it is to be where I am and I will not take it for granted.

I will leave you with a favorite story of mine, which also happens to be true. A friend of mine is a successful divorce lawyer, extremely well respected in his field and wealthy as a result of his hard work and talent. He also loves the acoustic guitar, but has absolutely no musical training in his background. As an adult, he began to study the guitar with a teacher from a local music store for $15 per half hour. He confided to me that he could not believe the injustice of this dedicated guitar teacher receiving such a low wage for his talents when he as a divorce lawyer received such a high one. “He is bringing beauty into this world through his music and his teaching, for such little money,” he said. Well, if nothing else, a conservatory education will help insure that you, too, will bring more beauty into the world, which is nice.