Under the Influence of Music: College Years (Part II)


The choice of a college, university or conservatory is critical to a music student’s ultimate success. Major factors such as faculty, student population, school reputation, and location all come into play. For many, the cost of the institution is the deal breaker. In short, there is a great deal of information one must absorb prior to applying for entrance to any school of music. In today’s information age, a prospective admissions candidate can amass a great deal of material about a school on the Internet and e-mail faculty members for additional inside information not found in glossy brochures. Many candidates will audition their own future teachers during a trail lesson in order to ascertain if this teacher is the right one for them.

I applied to four schools: the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Eastman, Boston University and Dartmouth College. Dartmouth College?! Do they have a music degree program there? Not at the time I was applying, but my interest in Dartmouth lay with its Russian studies department. Russian language was my “fall-back” in case music did not “work out”as they say. More on that concept later, but in short, I studied Russian language for four and a half years before entering college and was nearly fluent at that time. I was accepted at the University of Massachusetts with a full tuition scholarship. Boston University accepted me with limited financial aid and no scholarship. Eastman rejected me due probably to a poor audition, played one day after blowing my brains out at an All-State Festival. Dartmouth rejected me as well, because although I had a good GPA and SAT scores, I did not have Dartmouth level GPA and SAT scores. I chose Boston University over U-Mass because of the faculty, location and quality of the student body in the School for the Arts. My parents were understandably upset to see me turn down a free education, but open minded enough to allow me to choose what I knew in my heart to be the right thing for me. Bless them for giving me the tools to think as an adult and having the wisdom to allow me to act as an adult.

Boston University was not a complete unknown to me as an incoming freshman. I had traveled to the BU campus nearly every Sunday for two years while a member of the Greater Boston Youth Symphony (GBYSO). This had acquainted me with the campus, some of its’ students and specifically the School for the Arts. I knew that Boston Symphony trombonist Norman Bolter was on faculty, and I had heard him play live with the Boston Pops and the Empire Brass Quintet already. I chose him as my instructor based upon my impression of his playing and his reputation as a stellar teacher. After a few lessons with him, I realized I had made the right choice and I also had a new hero who could probably kill a man with a high D at 20 paces. I was impressed beyond words by Norman’s abilities. He taught in a loose, spontaneous style which was new to me, yet highly effective. He would tailor lessons to me and my needs, not according to a prescribed method of study—something I do with my students today with great success. He was young, moody, ethereal, hilarious and complex—nothing at all like me with my tight-lipped, stoic Yankee upbringing. Somehow, this unlikely marriage provided me with a rock-solid bed of fundamental trombone playing. It made no difference that he did not play the bass trombone. He was and is a supremely gifted artist who teaches and plays with absolute conviction. Who would not learn well from that?

The first few years of an undergraduate music education should answer any questions about whether or not you have chosen the right field of endeavor. Unlike many liberal arts majors, music students enter school already knowing their major degree program, but the rigors of a musical education tend to separate the men from the boys rather quickly. The classical music world is largely a meritocracy and it becomes clear very quickly who is good and who is not. Music school teaches us to listen with a critical ear and we are listening very carefully while we are there. Those who achieve some early success have a leg up on the rest of the student body. Thick skins will develop as a coping mechanism for many, which is ironic given that most artistic types are by nature sensitive to criticism. As a student, I was diligent in my studies and progressing at a steady rate, but was not considered in any way a standout trombonist in my first years of study. I did have faith in myself and enough security to believe that I had what it took to succeed as a music student over the long haul.

My circumstances changed in my second year at B.U., and I found myself as the only bass trombonist enrolled in the school of music. I was instantly a big fish in a small pond, a situation I thought I had side-stepped by choosing B.U. over U-Mass. I learned a great deal during that second year as I was thrust into the top ensembles of the school. It was sink or swim for me, but I felt as if I was treading water for most of the year. How could I know how good I was if I had nothing to compare myself to? I was frustrated. Adding to that was the weakness of the orchestral program at B.U. at the time. I was receiving fabulous performance experience and coachings with members of the Empire Brass, but my goal was not to be a chamber musician. My feeling was that I not only lacked a sense of where I stood as a bass trombonist, but that I also felt undernourished in my orchestral pursuits. It was time for a change.

The New England Conservatory is in the top four of best music conservatories in the U.S., along with Curtis, Eastman and Juilliard. Why, in retrospect, I did not audition there as a high school senior is beyond me. I had clearly overlooked it. Plus, I thought that I liked the idea of having a minor concentration, Russian language, just in case my lips fell off. My heart was clearly with music and not academics at this point. I desired complete immersion in musical study. The idea of a “fall-back” career sounds good in concept, but it often makes for mediocrity in two separate fields. Mediocrity was not an option for me. My goal was to play bass trombone at the highest level possible in a major U.S. orchestra. After two years at B.U., I had enough of the academic drain on my practice time, plus the previously mentioned doubts concerning my music studies there. In the spring of my sophomore year, I went across town and auditioned as a transfer student at New England Conservatory. I was accepted and entered there as third year undergraduate that fall.

My folks were not in a financial position to pay for a college education as expensive as Boston University or New England Conservatory, both being extremely expensive private institutions. I financed my education through a combination of student loans, financial aid and sheer elbow grease. Throughout my academic career, I was working at odd jobs here and there. I did well working summers at the Ocean Spray bottling plant in my hometown, making Teamster’s wages while working the late shift stacking cases of CranApple, CranGrape and so on. I worked in restaurants as a host, busboy, waiter and bartender. I was a stock boy in a furniture store. I was a lifeguard for a pool at a condominium complex. I delivered mail within the M.I.T. library system. In retrospect, being responsible for putting myself through school gave me a great sense of pride and independence. It also made me intimately aware that my scholastic success was up to me and only me.

With great joy, I entered N.E.C. and found a bevy of excellent trombonists and bass trombonists. Although I did audition for and gain entrance to the school’s top ensembles, the bass trombone duties were shared. It was great to have competition, but the spirit of competition was tempered by a sense of brotherhood within the trombone studio. Learning from your peers, in terms of both positive and negative experience, is valuable to the extent that it is not in the abstract. It is very much in the here and now. Applying what I was learning in the lessons with my teachers and absorbing the knowledge of my trombone student peers helped to pave a smoother, wider path of my musical education.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra had been without a full-time bass trombonist since my first year of undergraduate studies. Finally, in my fourth year of study, Douglas Yeo became bass trombonist with the Boston Symphony and bass trombone instructor at N.E.C. I became one of his first students at the school and I quickly learned after a few lessons that I still had much to learn about the bass trombone. His teaching style was a model of efficiency and tact. No time was wasted in assessing problems, and all efforts were concentrated on achieving results. A gentle criticism from him spoke volumes and I found myself not wanting to displease him with my playing. I once heard someone say, “You are only compared to the best.” At last, I knew where I stood because I felt that I was listening to and studying with the best, which was simultaneously exhilarating and humbling. Douglas Yeo set me on a path to be an orchestral bass trombonist with focus and intent, leaving no stone unturned in terms of preparation. I listened to him play weekly with Boston Symphony—a lesson in itself. I was studying orchestral scores and librettos, reading composer biographies, listening critically to hundreds of orchestral recordings and practicing like a fiend. This was the kind of education I had imagined for myself. It felt thorough, practical and it produced results. Douglas Yeo taught me how to become an orchestral bass trombonist in a major U.S. symphony orchestra and with his guidance, my ultimate goal was achieved—but not until after graduate school. Stay tuned.