Under the Influence of Music: Beginner thru High School (Part I)

10-17-03

Two more frequently asked questions I get from non-musicians are “Why did you choose music as a career?” and “Why did you choose the trombone as your instrument?” These are questions that I enjoy answering, primarily because I enjoy seeing the reaction of the non-musician asking the question. I think the notion of an artistic and creative career is something which appeals to many. It is out of the ordinary and tends to suggest something creative and romantic which may be missing from their own lives or careers.

While many musicians who I know also enjoy telling their story in answer to these questions, I have found that these are not the questions which musicians ask of each other. For the musicians, some more typical questions asked are “Where did you study?” or “Who did you study with?” or “Do you know so and so?” Most musicians like to cut to the quick of their college/conservatory training and where they went from there. Perhaps we see this “serious” or intensive training as the most important in shaping us as artists.

There is a far deeper story to tell about a musician’s journey. From the day that we first open that instrument case in our youth to the day that we step onto a concert stage as a full-fledged professional performer, there are a great many turns and twists of influence along the way. I would like to share my story with the musician and non-musician alike.

I think that this article will be of particular interest to the young musician in training, looking for guidance or reassurance that they are taking the proper steps along the way to a career in music.

Finding Your Voice
I grew up as the youngest of three children in a small town in southeast Massachusetts. My parents wanted all of their children to learn a musical instrument. While not trained musicians themselves, they had a deep love of music and realized its value as an integral part of one’s education and overall enjoyment of life. When it came time to choose an instrument, I had no leanings one way or the other for any specific instrument. My Mom chose for me because she “loves the sound of a good trombone.” While it was a few years before my sound was even close to “good,” I did manage to show some aptitude for the trombone—enough so that I was ready to move on to a more professional caliber instrument. There was a nearly new Conn 62H bass trombone for sale by a local man who had given up playing, so there I found myself at age 12 with this double-valved brass monster absolutely dwarfing my pea-shooter student model horn.

In my humble little hometown of Middleboro, MA, there was a man who could not only play the bass trombone extremely well but was also a very gifted low brass teacher. He even played a Conn 62H, just like me. I learned how to play the bass trombone from this man, Jerry Shaw, in his small teaching studio with the kerosene heated stove on the outskirts of town. His droll, no-nonsense, Yankee style, along with the coziness of the studio, the smell of the kerosene and the baseball bat leaning in the corner are all images (and smells) that I can conjure up instantly. There was a consistency to my entire experience with Jerry that provided the right climate for me to learn. Jerry told me to go home and listen to the opening music to “Hawaii-5-O” on TV and listen to my folks’ Frank Sinatra albums (remember those?) with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra to get the sense of a good bass trombone sound (meaning George Roberts, of course). When he played me a tape of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra low brass section orchestral excerpts, I think I nearly lost my mind.

By age 12, I was completely hooked on “the big horn.” Although it was not my idea to choose the trombone, it does seem to have chosen me. The environment of my earliest musical training was so ideal that it almost seems destined that I was to play this instrument. Of course I did my part by practicing and studying to improve, but under these circumstances, it seemed like all fun and no work because I liked it so much.

Additionally, I wanted my parents to be proud of me and my musical accomplishments. They worked very hard to provide me with a fine musical instrument and top quality musical instruction, and I did not take their contributions lightly. Their support and encouragement, without being pushy, enabled my eventual success as a musician.

Junior High
By grade 7, I was involved in just about any musical activity that was offered in my Junior High School: Band, orchestra, chorus, jazz band and brass choir. At that time, there was also a mandatory general music class for all students—an endangered species in America’s current climate of budget cuts and Standards of Learning testing paranoia.

Thankfully, music was not considered an extra “frill” to be lopped off of a curriculum when I was in the public school system. It was a fully integrated part of the education. The students loved music class and its’ teacher, Alice Carey, who made music accessible and fun for all.

For me, there was not a great deal of idle in my youth. After school, I was usually occupied with either sports, music, homework or chores at home. I certainly was not hanging out at the mall or some fast food joint, playing video games, watching television or wasting my time in any of the various ways that so many kids do today. There was always something to do. I was encouraged to get involved in as many activities as my schedule could handle without going overboard, and I did so with relish.

My trombone teacher, Jerry Shaw, organized trombone quartets from the students in his studio and we rehearsed weekly. He often had us performing in shopping malls during Christmas time, in the school system or at his annual summer trombone/tuba picnic extravaganza. This was my first exposure to chamber music. As you can see, my teacher was deeply committed to his students and gave them every opportunity possible for growth as musicians. I can only hope that most young musicians of today are able to find a teacher of his caliber and dedication.

High School
I entered Middleboro High School and stayed on course with my musical studies and activities. There were much better trombonists there than in the junior high and I responded to this competition by soundly beating them at district and all-state auditions.

The spirit of competition is something which has always appealed to me, perhaps due to my early involvement in team sports(baseball, football & swimming). I had given up my team sports endeavours by my sophomore year so that I could pursue music with a higher level of commitment and focus, yet I retained this spirit of competition. I think this trait aided me immeasurably in auditions then and now by showing me how to be a strong winner as well as a gracious loser.

Like most high school students, I was into rock music. My record collection was heavy on Asia, The Beatles, Chicago, Led Zeppelin, The Police, Rush, Yes, The Who and pretty light on anything classical. My parents did have a number of jazz records, and I particularly liked playing along with The Dukes of Dixieland on “Lassus Trombone.” I had a decent ear, which I later discovered to be perfect pitch, so I often would memorize the jazz licks on these recordings so that I could play along with the music. An adjustable pitch button on the turntable enabled me to play in tune with the band, and I had a great time. This kind of self-experimentation was just clean fun for me. I learned a lot from these studio “gigs” in my parents living room, because they made music performance more enjoyable, accessible, and practical to me.

The first live performances I heard of music that I enjoyed at that time were the Maynard Ferguson Band and the Empire Brass Quintet. Great trombone playing from both but in completely different musical genres. I also had a chance to hear the Boston Pops once each Spring on a high school music department field trip—my first real orchestral exposure. I must admit to disliking the Pops concerts—the music seemed wimpy to me and the trombone was not as prominently featured as in the Maynard Ferguson or Empire Brass concerts. Coincidently, I went on to study with trombonists of the Empire Brass and Boston Pops.

Playing along with the Empire Brass Quintet on the works of Victor Ewald proved a bit more challenging than with the Dukes of Dixieland. The music was more structured and complex—not as easy to grasp after a few listens. This complexity of style appealed to me right away because I realized that this music had layers, and required your attention in order to fully appreciate its’ message. Jazz music can be as complex, if not more so, than classical, and I enjoyed performing it immensely, and I still do to this day. For some reason, classical music spoke to me directly and I decided to see where I could follow it with the bass trombone.

I joined the Greater Boston Youth Symphony (GBYSO) in the summer prior to my Junior year in high school. I had some quality experience under my belt already having played in the Massachusetts All-State jazz ensemble and band the previous years. Orchestra was something new to me at this point. I wanted to try it out, because it was supposed to be the ultimate in classical music making, but I had my doubts. After all, the trombone parts consist predominantly of rests—the jazz band and band parts had notes galore. In orchestra, the trombones were seldom allowed to cut loose because they would drown out the string and woodwind sections. I wanted to know where the fun was in counting rests and being subservient to instruments made of wood.

After playing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #5, I realized where the fun is. I had a chance to play very loud and very soft. There were accents, tenutos, staccatos, and articulations of all kinds. I played not only with the trombone section but with the entire brass section, I had to blend with the woodwind sound at times, and I often had to temper my strength so that the string section could bring forth the melody. There was so much information to take in, so much technical skill to bring to the table and so much fantastic music to wrap yourself in that I began to see what all the orchestra hoopla was about. After two years with GBYSO, I was convinced that playing bass trombone in an orchestra was my ultimate career goal.