Upon first glance, graduate school looked no different to me than my final year of undergraduate study. After all, I was studying at the same institution, New England Conservatory, with the same trombone instructor, Douglas Yeo. I had entertained the idea of studying in New York or Chicago for my masters degree as a change of pace, but after only one year of study with Mr. Yeo, I knew that there remained much to be learned and that Boston was still the right place for me to be. While the transition from undergraduate to graduate study proved to be a smooth one on the surface level, my subconscious told me that I was now playing for keeps in the music world. By committing myself, my future and my time, not to mention my money, to an endeavor with notoriously low job placement rates, the onus was now on me to make a success of myself. To my way of thinking, if I did not have what it takes to succeed after graduate school, then perhaps a career in trombone playing was not meant for me—a thought which I hold to this day for my own students.
Mr. Yeo and I met each week in a small room with live acoustics on the third floor of N.E.C.. He brought his horn to each lesson, which at that time was a single Thayer valve bass trombone with a Monette bell flare. I remember the Bach French style trombone case with a custom denim case cover.
We would frequently start a lesson with a duet or two, with Mr. Yeo applying petroleum jelly to his lips before playing. I was impressed immediately by his dexterity on the single valve instrument, and his purity and consistency of tone production. As soon as money allowed, I too had a single Thayer valve bass with a custom bell flare from Steve Shires, who was a technician with Osmun Brass at the time. The petroleum jelly I could not copy, as I was and have always been a “dry” player: my lips must be absolutely dry when I play. The purity and consistency of tone production was my focus then and now, and if I ever need to conjure up the most pristine bass trombone sound, I just remember Mr. Yeo’s playing which is forever burned into a sound file in my brain.
Together, we plunged the depths of the orchestral repertoire, often highlighted by works which Mr. Yeo might be performing that week with the Boston Symphony. Score study was essential as I prepared the bass trombone orchestral works for him, and I was expected to know with whom I was playing and when, what the translation of the German/Italian/French etc., terms meant, how the bass trombone part fit into the texture and harmony, and so on. He encouraged me to spend the necessary time in the library as well as the practice room in order to learn the literature in a cohesive manner. We worked from orchestral parts only, and I rapidly developed a library of all the standard bass trombone orchestral literature with photocopies from the BSO and NEC libraries. We covered much of the usual ground of etudes, exercises and solos, but a healthy amount of time was centered around learning the orchestral repertoire in a thorough and cohesive manner. Mr. Yeo’s manner was a mixture of enthusiasm and firmness, always encouraging yet never accepting of anything substandard in quality.
One of the added benefits of graduate study is the increased amount of practice time available due to a less rigorous class schedule as compared with undergraduate study. Inspired by Mr. Yeo and determined to master the bass trombone orchestral material, nearly all of my free time was spent in the practice room. Frequent were the days in which I had the horn on my face for eight or nine hours. I was developing real “chops,” endurance and facility with much quicker results than in previous years. I was learning also to focus my practice time so that I was only working on those things which I had not yet mastered, one of which was my ideal sound.
While I maintain to this day that there is an imbalance in the development of American brass players weighted on the side of tone production, I admit that a superior tone is an important part of any successful brass players’ portfolio. I was not unhappy with my sound as a first year masters student, but I did chase the elusive dream of the perfect sound, which to me was a larger, thicker, more complex sound with substance. I wanted to take the purity of Doug Yeo’s sound, the richness of Charlie Vernon’s sound, the velvety beauty of George Roberts’ sound, and the cavernous sound of David Taylor, mix them in a blender and pour them through my horn. In a sense, that is exactly what I did via the blender in my brain. Like many, I did some experimentation with various kinds of equipment looking for the right kind of sound. Mouthpieces, leadpipes, bells and braces. You name it, I tried it. There was also the idea of wrapping the bell throat with duct tape to darken the sound, and I tried that one, too. Oddly enough, regardless of the changes in equipment, I always ended up sounding more or less like myself. At the end of the day, it was my exposure to great players with wonderful tone production which most positively affected my own sound. Additionally, by vastly improving my air intake volume and adjusting my air delivery, I found that I was able to change my sound more effectively, not to mention more cheaply, than by purchasing new or different equipment. This subject of sound quality is an endless one, and one which fascinates brass players to distraction. I have little doubt that I will devote an entire article to this topic in the near future. In summary, it is my recommendation that a brass player use his/her best resources, ones own lungs and brain, to discover the perfect sound for them before embarking on a wild goose chase for tone.
During the summer before entering graduate school and again the following summer, I was a fellowship student at the now defunct Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute. It was the west coast equivalent to Tanglewood Music Center, the National Repertory Orchestra or the National Orchestral Institute.
For two summers, I had the privilege of working with the entire L.A. Philharmonic low brass section over the course of 8 weeks. The fellowship orchestra gave weekly concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and UCLA. I found the west coast atmosphere a refreshing change from uptight Boston. There I ate my first sushi, made frequent trips to Malibu Beach, worked on a killer tan and checked out the west coast trombone scene.
At that time, the L.A. Philharmonic low brass consisted of Ralph Sauer-Principal, Byron Peebles-Associate Principal, Sonny Ausman-Second, Jeff Reynolds-Bass and Roger Bobo-tuba. The very first thing I noticed about this section is how much fun they had making music together. They not only sounded fantastic, they also had a good time while doing it. At one point, they were all playing on pre-WWII Conn trombones, which produced a burnished and uniform sound. They were all really into it, too. As teachers and coaches, they managed to co-mingle their sessions with requisite amounts of butt-kicking and levity. Roger Bobo told me point blank that my pedal register was weak and that I should change that. I did, after scooping my ego up with a broom and dust pan. Jeff Reynolds taught me the importance of being a smart player within the section, always being aware of my role whenever it might change depending upon the musical circumstance. After playing the Schumann Symphony #3 excerpts for Ralph Sauer, he told me that he did not want me in his section: my tempos were much too slow and no principal trombonist would want to be hung out to dry on a high E flat! I am always mindful of this in audition situations, since principal trombone players frequently will have the most power to reject or hire, aside from a music director.
As I accumulated more and more knowledge of orchestral trombone playing and its idiosyncracies, I entered my second and final year of graduate studies at NEC. After two solid years of study with Douglas Yeo, my senior year and first year of masters, I became the student of John Swallow. My two years with Mr. Yeo had thoroughly prepared me for my future as an orchestral bass trombonist and I felt ready to win a job-if only an opening would come up! That opening would have to wait a couple of years. In the meantime, I had a masters degree to finish, and one year with John Swallow was the icing in the cake of my musical education. Mr. Swallow taught the bulk of the trombone students at NEC, taking nearly all of each Monday and Tuesday in his studio. At that time, he was still busy teaching at Yale and the Manhattan School as well as fulfilling his position as principal trombonist with the New York City Ballet Orchestra. This was a man who had seen so much in the musical world of America in the preceding four decades, from the Chicago Symphony to premiering works of Stravinsky. There was a wealth of knowledge I wished to tap into there, and luckily I was old enough and mature enough to grasp his concepts.
Mr. Swallow demanded a great deal of intellectual stamina from his students. He would want to know why you would play something in a particular way, and if you had no real answer, you would be asked to account for yourself. He wanted to know the thought process of his students so that he could better assist them. The student who did not want this kind of analysis from a teacher most likely had a hard time of it with Mr. Swallow, but judging by the hundreds of successful trombonists he has produced over the years, as they say, “the proof is in the pudding.” We spent a great deal of time on modern trombone etudes such as Bitsch, Boutry and Maenz. He had a knack of turning traditional trombone concepts on their head or of ignoring many of them altogether. I “discovered” positions five through seven with him, although he referred to the outer positions as the Bermuda Triangle of the slide which trombonists too often maneuver around, especially in the upper partials. With Mr. Swallow, we charted a course straight through the heart of Bermuda Triangle and I was a better navigator of the trombone as result. He also often re-barred my etudes and orchestral excerpts so that I could shift emphasis off of certain beats to achieve a different perspective.
Graduation and Final Thoughts
Ironically, I did not attend the graduation ceremony when I was bestowed a Master of Music degree from the New England Conservatory in 1988. The truth was, I had a graduation gig across town. It seems appropriate that I began my post-graduate days earning money since I had trained so hard the previous years to become a gainfully employed, working musician. I have supported myself on my musical ability since that graduation day, which is a real testimony to the effectiveness of the institutions at which I studied and the teachers from whom I learned. Although I chose an extremely narrow field of endeavor, orchestral bass trombone, I did what I could to diversify my education through seeking out different kinds of teachers and by embracing their different approaches.
I now teach at the university level and most of my pupils are graduate students. On a weekly basis, I see this process lived out over and over again through my students. Personally, I find it thrilling to work with young people who are so committed and devoted to learning an art form at the highest level. Graduate music students spend more time in a practice room each day than law students spend in the library and study groups. The dedication required to achieve success in the field of music is significant, and comparable to that of an Olympic athlete in that it is highly specialized and rigorous. Best of all, it is worthwhile because it ultimately brings joy to others, and that is music to my ears.