Although there is well over a month left of summer for me, I've already had so many memorable experiences. In June, I had a fantastic vacation to Europe for two weeks that was a great way to forget about the trombone briefly and unload some of the tension from a long season. Following that was a little time to get back in shape before heading back to South Africa for the 9th annual Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival.
Just as last year, this year's festival was very special for me. I had the opportunity to further some really important relationships with students that I had begun last year. It was a real pleasure to see how much some of them have progressed since last year and how much enthusiasm they have for making music and learning more about the trombone. Furthermore, as a teacher, it was great to be in a place where so many people understand that although we are in the business of making music, we are even more in the business of helping people.
Being a teacher at a festival for only ten days out of the year is a touchy thing. You want to help, but you don't want to change too much and not be around to see someone through to the conclusion of developing a particular skill. On the other hand, you know that your time is limited, so you want to give everything you can while you can. At the end of the day, there are only so many tools you can provide in such a limited amount of time, and sometimes a few of those gains may come unraveled in the following months because you are not there to watch over the student until the changes become permanent.
However, there IS something you can give that has true staying power. Inspiration. As the old saying goes, "Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime." Is it important that we talk about pitch, rhythm, phrasing, and technique? Absolutely. Nobody in our business makes it far without those things, but they also don't make it very far without a burning desire to deepen their knowledge base. In my opinion, that desire stems from first having a belief that you are capable and worthy of success.
I was very fortunate as a student to have three important teachers push the "you can do it" button inside of me. We have all seen inspirational speeches and self-help books, but for there to be real lasting effect, there needs to be a personal relationship that is defined by respect for the messenger and compassion for the recipient. There is responsibility on both ends. Once that relationship is established, the teacher's first goal should be to push that button. After all, it's nearly impossible for a person to accomplish more than they actually believe they can. There is no need for long winded sermons or mass pomp and circumstance. It's simple. Let someone know that you believe in them, and if they will believe in themselves and make every effort, the rest is history.
Frederick Douglass said, "Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation." It can't be said any better than that, and it's something we should all think about whether our position as an inspirational figure is as a teacher, a parent, a big brother or sister, or just someone's friend. Long story short, everybody wants to do something great. If you have someone's ear, remind them that they can. The joy of seeing someone take the good news and run with it is incredibly rewarding. If they take a tuner and metronome with them, even better.
On another note, the festival was filled with great concerts. All of the faculty performances were exceptional. I was introduced to some fantastic string repertoire that I previously didn't know, and it was played marvelously. As great as all those performances were, I have to say that Anthony McGill's performance of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet stood out to me as one of the most beautiful things I've EVER heard. It really had everything. That's one of those performances that no one in attendance will soon forget.
The student concerts were exceptional. I was particularly proud of the trombone sextet that put in a lot of hard work to present a really great concert. The student orchestra concerts were fantastic as well. As I listened to the student concerts, I found myself in a very joyful emotional place. There were some wrong notes and pitch inconsistencies, maybe a missed entrance here or there, but there was always a commitment to the phrase and the emotional intent of the music. The technical inconsistencies are often times the things that professional groups freak out about. It occurred to me and some of my colleagues in attendance that what some professional groups should be freaking out about is what these students have that they don't. Perhaps it's a result of only playing a few concerts a year or maybe it's that they are amongst friends or they want to impress their teachers and parents.... Most likely it's all of the above and a few other things I'm forgetting to point out. One way or another, they've managed to put joy in the sound. The joy in the sound is unmistakeable and it moves everyone that listens. The audience explodes with a raucous ovation not because everything was in tune, in time and with a good sound. That all helps of course (and it IS important, don't get me wrong), but what matters most is that it was played from a place of love for the music and that feeling is so overwhelming that it bleeds into the audience. People cant help but be moved by watching a group of young people so wholly committed to a cause. It's a powerful and exciting thing to witness. One of my colleagues commented, "If we played in smaller halls and had the energy of a youth orchestra, we wouldn't have a problem selling tickets." I agree.
In closing, there are two stories that are definitely worth noting. First, a student of mine at SICMF, Angus Petersen, was awarded a scholarship to attend a summer music festival in Linz, Austria next year. Also, another student of mine at the festival, Ash-Lee Louwskieter was given a Bach 42 trombone as a gift/donation from Ken Thompkins, Principal Trombonist of the Detroit Symphony. In a conversation a few months back, I mentioned to Ken how much I enjoyed the festival last year and how there are so many hard working students that are in need of any help they can get. Ken offered to donate a trombone to a deserving student, and I gladly agreed to take the horn and find a worthy recipient. Thanks to Ken's great generosity, Ash-Lee, at age 27, is now the owner of his own instrument for the first time in his life. Angus, as a result of his industriousness, will now have a great opportunity to travel to Europe for studies. Ash-Lee spoke about how he wants to use music to minister to people in the many impoverished communities in South Africa and Angus was so moved that he couldn't speak at all... Well, not for twenty minutes or so. The genuine gratitude for these blessings displayed by these two men was something to behold. It's a beautiful thing to see hard-working, deserving individuals without any sense of entitlement have their efforts rewarded. I'm not often enough exposed to people who have had enough lows to truly relish the highs. Just another example of how the more you give, the more you receive. My heart was warmed for sure, and although some people swear they saw tears from me, I'll stick with the line one my best friends used after we both saw the great movie Antwone Fisher years ago and left the theater sobbing like little girls.... "Nah man. I wasn't crying. I just got some popcorn grease in my eye." Heaven forbid we get too soft. We brass players have an image to maintain! :-)
I’m a huge fan of Wynton Marsalis. In my opinion, he is the standard bearer for great musicianship in our generation. When it comes to playing, pedagogy, communication, and advocacy of the craft, it’s hard to imagine that anyone is really his equal. I take time out of my hectic schedule as often as I can to hear him play, most often with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and they NEVER fail to impress. Even more than his playing, I am always enamored by Wynton’s ability to speak to people in way that is relatable to them. In person, he has that rare ability to make you feel like the most important person in the room. He also has this affect in his writing. For those who are unaware of his book Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, I would highly recommend it!
Below, I would like to point out a handful of quotes from the book that I found particularly interesting. These selections are just the tip of the iceberg and don’t even begin to capture all that he’s talking about in the book, but I thought maybe some of you might find them interesting. I really considered making a blog posting out of each quote and spreading the information over a longer period of time, including my personal thoughts on each, including experiences that relate to each quote. However, I think for the time being, it would be better to drop them all on you as many of them speak for themselves. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section and perhaps begin a discussion.
“In music and life, serious listening forces you to recognize others. Empathetic listeners almost always have more friends than other people, and their counsel is more highly valued. A patient, understanding listener lives in a larger world than a nonlistening know-it-all (no matter how charismatic).”
“Playing reveals the authentic you. If you’re impatient, it will show in your playing; you just won’t wait. If you’re slow, if you don’t think quickly, everybody will hear it. If you’re shy and it’s hard for you to project your personality, you may have great ideas but they won’t come out, or you might overplay to compensate. If you’re self-centered, you can’t play with other people – they have to back you up or lay out. Of course, you can survive like that, but it’s not fun to play with you – especially if you play the drums.”
“Whether you like it or not, you’re always in some kind of real or imagined competition with the best in your field. In jazz, the standard is very high. That’s why many would rather forget all about the past: Tatum, Bird, Prez, Pops. ‘Damn,’ somebody thinks, ‘what about me?’”
“The most sophisticated musicians should consider it a challenge to try to communicate with the most inexperienced listener. You can’t be ‘too hip’ for the people. When you lose the desire to communicate with an audience that hasn’t been exposed to your music, you begin to step away from the humility required to develop your artistry.”
“The best musicians know this music isn’t about ‘schools’ at all. Like my father says, ‘There’s only one school, the school of ‘Can you play?’ It’s about the individual men and women who honestly answer yes to that question.”
“Kids seek education for the chance to be one of the greats, not to learn from them. They don’t consider the possibility that there could be something of substance in the music itself that merits study.”
“I always suggest youngsters consider the value of playing well, rather than worry about whether they will be come another Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington. There is power in achieving your personality and projecting it. The whole world may not imitate you, but you’ll be satisfied. You have to play well before you can play great.”
“Some contemporary trends aside, art forms actualize the collective wisdom of a people. They represent our highest aspirations and our everyday ways, our concept of romance and our relationship to spiritual matters, as well as how we deal with birth, death and everything in between. In short, the arts focus our identity and expand our awareness of the possible. They offer tools for survival with style in times of peace and war. If they are insightful, if they are well crafted, if they are accurate enough, they stand as testaments to the grandeur of a people across epochs.”
“I believe that to know the essence of a thing requires returning as closely as possible to the origin of that thing. The passage of time tends to quietly erode meaning and enthusiasm. The farther you move away from the sun, the colder it gets.”
“We all know that civilization requires a supreme effort. Our technology will become outmoded, but the technology of the human soul does not change. We still read Homer, but we’re not that interested in using ancient Greek technology. We’re not interested in returning to the aristocratic governments of Beethoven’s time, but we still listen to his music because it still speaks to the depths of the human soul. He spelled it out for us in the Ninth Symphony. His music in its original form lifts our souls, today, right now. And while people in each era believe their times to be the worst times ever, there is always much to celebrate as well.”
This past week was definitely one of the most musically and personally satisfying weeks I’ve had in a long time. So, I thought I would share the details of it with you all. People always tell me that I’m “living the dream” and after a week like this one, I think they might be right.
On Sunday, I had the pleasure of being the guest artist at Montclair State University’s annual Trombone Day. The event was a full day of fun and hard work. We started in the morning with a warm-up session before moving on to a masterclass and a full recital. I am thankful for once again having the opportunity to share my love of music with a lot of aspiring trombonists. Many thanks go to Tony Mazzocchi, Dillon Music and Antoine Courtois/Buffet Crampon for making this day possible.
Monday began my week of double duty with the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Without going into the details, I can say that week included several hours of teaching, rehearsals of Gotterdammerung and Faust at the MET, 4 rehearsals and 3 performances of Shostakovich 7 with the PO, performances of La Boheme at MET, and a lot of time on the train or bus, sometimes nervously checking my watch to make sure that it could all work out. Thankfully, I made it to everything on time. The only close call was Friday. A late bus and two sold out trains made getting from a 2PM performance in Philly to a 7:30PM curtain at the MET a little too close for comfort!
The great thing about the week was not simply that I got to be in ten places at once. Rather, it was the feeling of so many wonderful parts of my musical life coming together at once. I’ll start with the educational part of the week. My students from the Juilliard Music Advancement Program took part in Trombone Day at Montclair State University. For most of them, this was their first opportunity to have a full day of immersion in trombone surrounded by older, more mature players. A camera crew that is filming a documentary on music education, with a focus on Juilliard MAP, followed us throughout the day. For a trailer of the documentary, click here. Later in the week, on Thursday, I had the opportunity to work with the brass students from Play on, Philly!, a Philadelphia music education program based on the El Sistema model from Venezuela. The program they have established in Philadelphia is really great. The students get 3 hours of after school instruction 5 days a week. That’s a REAL commitment. Over the course of a couple of hours, I spoke with the kids, played for them some and gave suggestions and demonstrations as needed. It was a lot of fun and definitely a worthwhile thing to do. I’m proud to say that several of my friends are heavily involved with the program and they are, on a daily basis, making a difference in the lives of Philadelphia’s youth. My buddy Stanford Thompson, who took over my room in Philadelphia after I graduated from Curtis, is now the executive director of the program. My friend Joshua Popejoy, a former Indiana University classmate, teaches trombone. Thanks to those guys for welcoming me in to spend some time with the kids. If more cities had programs like this, the world would be a far better place. For more information on the program, click here.
Of course, playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra was incredible. As a student at Curtis, I think I only missed three of their programs in three years (and those were because I had to be out of town). Basically, seeing the orchestra was like religion. The sound of Philadelphia is firmly engrained in my ear and it is the professional sound I admired during my most important years of training. When you’re a student, you lionize the members of the orchestra that you love most. The players become your heroes, and rightfully so. Their musicianship is worthy of extreme admiration. To share the stage with them is always a musical and personal pleasure. I liken the experience of playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra to eating your mom's home cooking. I was musically raised with that sound, so it sounds like musical home base to me. Granted, I play with a world class orchestra and I hear other great orchestras all the time because I live in New York, but I think the analogy holds true. You can find the fanciest restaurant in NYC and spend a thousand dollars a plate, but when you go home and your mom makes gumbo or sausage and biscuits in the morning, nothing can take the place of that. For me, it was a blast to play Shostakovich 7 with the orchestra, not only because the concerts were uniformly excellent, but because so many of the people I went to school with have now become members of the orchestra. It was really great to look up and see so many of my classmates scattered throughout the orchestra, often times in titled positions. Also, I had the great pleasure of sitting next to former classmate Shachar Israel, who is now a member of the Cleveland Orchestra. He sounds even more fantastic than I remembered, and it was a joy to sit next to him and Matt Vaughn throughout the week. Outside of the rehearsal, we had the opportunity to chat about our students, upcoming solo performances, our home purchases, etc. It immediately struck me how surreal it is that we’ve all grown up so fast. It seems like only yesterday that we were arguing over chamber music assignments or who was playing too loud in low brass class (If you’re wondering… yes, those battles were epic!). Now, only a handful of years later, we’re on the other side of the whole thing. We’re playing in Philly, Cleveland, and the MET and teaching and giving classes. The musical child inside of me is still asking, “Did that really happen? Wow!”.
Meanwhile, at the MET on Friday night, we had opening night of La Boheme. Having played in Philly earlier that afternoon made for quite a day. I think it is a rare privilege to perform with two of the world’s finest orchestras in the same day. The two groups are extremely different, but equally incredible. I recall sitting on stage at Verizon Hall during the Shostakovich thinking, “Man, it really doesn’t get any better than this!” Six hours later I’m in the pit at the MET thinking the exact same thing! What an awesome day to have those two experiences in such close proximity to one another.
For the performance of Boheme, my Curtis classmate Matthew Rose made his MET debut in the role of Colline. A former poker buddy of mine, Dmitri Pittas sang his first leading role at the MET, Rudolfo. Again, that warm and fuzzy feeling came over me. The cool thing about seeing so many of my friends having great successes is that I know their path. I was a first-hand witness of much of their hard work and dedication. I remember Joseph Conyers, now Associate Principal Bass of the PO, playing excerpts in my living room. I remember playing ping-pong in the student lounge with Matthew Rose. They are all normal people doing extraordinary things. They are a reminder to me that the dream is alive and well for our generation and that the light at the end of the musical tunnel really is that bright at times for those who are fortunate enough to make it.
I've now returned home after a two week trip to Spain. The first week of the trip was spent in Salceda de Caselas, Galicia, where I was teaching at Curso Internacional Semana Musical (CISM). This five day intensive course attracted brass players from all across Spain of all different ages. I had 14 students ranging in age from 12 to 35. The other featured instruments were tuba, trumpet and clarinet.
Each day consisted of six hours of masterclasses for each respective instrument, followed by faculty recitals in the evenings. This was quite an intense schedule! Usually teachers will give a masterclass for 1 1/2 or 2 hours, but six hours a day for five days in a row? That was a little different. It was quite a lot of work, but at the end of the day I think it was worth it. Every student at the course had the opportunity to play two or three times, usually receiving 30-45 minutes of attention each time. I'm sure that by the end of the week, they all had a pretty clear idea of what it is that makes me tick and how I think they can improve, and I suppose that is the whole point.
Overall, I was very impressed by the level of brass playing by the students. Everyone exhibited a high degree of musical intuition and a desire to improve. A handful of players already play at the professional level in Spain. I was previously unaware of the band culture in Spain, but a couple of nights out on the town in Salceda (the village only has about 3000 people) made it clear how much the people appreciate the music. My same students who had been in class from 10A-6P were blasting away in the park well after 2AM, and they sounded great.
Following the course, I had the opportunity to be a real tourist and visit Barcelona and Madrid, seeing the great architectural accomplishments of Gaudi, flamenco shows, the Prado museum and Picasso's Guernica at the Reina Sofia museum. It was a really fantastic vacation. I indulged in the usual tourist traps that attract foreigners. Looking back on this, I am really grateful for the time that I spent in spent in Salceda, where I got to see how small town Spanish people live. Even though most of our time was spent working very hard to improve musical standards, there was enough time left over to get to know the people and excellent food of Salceda a little bit and take part in their way of life. To me, this was the most memorable part of the experience.
Each night following the recitals (which began well after 10PM and often ended close to midnight), we would go out for food and drinks and socialize with the students, other faculty, and townspeople, including the mayor, who was very supportive and sat near the front row of every performance. I'm now a huge fan of pimientos de padron and whatever it is they do to their pappas fritas that make them taste like they came directly from heaven. It was interesting for me to see 10 year olds in the square kicking around a soccer ball at 1AM on a Tuesday night, completely unsupervised. There were elementary aged children enjoying ice cream at the bar at 2AM on a Wednesday, right next to people who were throwing back their 5th beer of the night. There isn't a hint of concern for their safety. Everything will be fine. There are no police to be found. Their job is probably similar to that of the Maytag repair man. They are probably asleep at the station, in a food coma from eating too many churros, but who cares? Nothing is going to happen. How many places in the world can you see something like this? It got me thinking about the stark contrast between Salceda and the townships of Cape Town, where I heard the story of a girl who practiced the flute constantly, not only because she loved to play, but because she didn't want to leave the confines of her home for fear of being raped. What a difference ten hours on a plane could make for her.
The after recital activities following the recital given by Pasi Pirinen (Principal Trumpet, Helsinki Philharmonic) and I, were really something else. I think every person in Salceda can play the bagpipes. After a long series of traditional Galician drinking songs, which assured everyone was well inebriated (except for me, still a teetotaler), people began dancing and singing and, of course, passing the bagpipes. First, Franc played the bagpipes while a small group danced. People applauded and then he passed them on to someone else. At this point, I'm thinking, "That's cool! These two people both know how to play!". Before long the bagpipes had circled what seemed like nearly half of the room, and EVERYBODY knew how to play. Pretty neat tradition they have there! Next came the quemada, a traditional alcoholic drink that seems to be more about festivities surrounding its preparation than the drink itself. An enormous pot is filled with alcohol and sugar, and then slowly burned creating a visual spectacle of flames, kind of like a long lasting Spanish flambé. They turn off the lights to increase the visual aspect and ancient spells are read to ward off the evil spirits. If I hadn't been wearing a button down shirt and suit pants, I would have sworn we were in medieval times. Much more fun ensued. Let's just say that by leaving at 5AM, I was able to retain my usual status as the responsible one, because I was the first to leave. For those people who told me that the tradition of the Spanish people staying out until the wee hours of the night is no more, you're wrong. If you're not, I can't imagine what they used to do!
I had a great time in Salceda. The people were wonderful, the students were great, and the recitals were excellent. I made many friends that I hope will stay in touch for years to come. I am thankful to the people of this village for treating me so well and making me feel incredibly welcome in their home town.
It has truly been an awesome summer of traveling, learning, teaching and music making. My body hates me for traveling NYC - Nagoya - Tokyo - Kyoto- Tokyo - NYC - Cape Town/Stellenbosch - Nelspruit - Johannesburg - NYC - Salceda - Barcelona - Madrid - Dallas - San Antonio -NYC all over a span of nine weeks, but I wouldn't trade in the experience for anything. They say that you should explore and have fun when you're young, and I'm trying my best to do that while a have a little bit of youth left. I could write a million blogs about this summer, the great people, cities, cultures, food, sight-seeing, concerts, classes, activities, etc. I played video games in Shinjuku, petted a cheetah in South Africa, visited the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, taught lessons and played recitals all over the world, and of course, had good ole Tex-Mex food all in the same
A closing thought... People are always talking about how classical music is dying. I'm not so sure about that. Sure, Brahms and Beethoven don't get as much play as Britney and Bieber, but that doesn't mean it's disappearing. Our music will ALWAYS be alive. It's simply too good and too meaningful not to be. In a world where people are always searching for the latest and greatest, I'm proud to report that there are still people, young people too, who understand that just because something is old doesn't mean it's not good. That's precisely why it is called classical music. It is classic. Look up the definitions of classic.... 1. of the first or highest quality, class, or rank: a classic piece of work. 2. serving as a standard, model, or guide 5. of or adhering to an established set of artistic or scientific standards or methods: a classic example of mid Victorian architecture. 6. basic; fundamental 7. of enduring interest, quality, or style: a classic design; classic clothes... My favorites are the first and the last mentioned here... "of the FIRST or HIGHEST QUALITY, CLASS, and rank" and "of ENDURING INTEREST, QUALITY, or STYLE".
This summer, I met people young and old, from every corner of the earth, who love this music and are scratching and clawing to learn more about it everyday. They care about learning and preserving the craft. Even as far as Nigeria, where there are no real professional orchestras or significant funding for music education, there is a fire burning for the craft. These people will carry the torch long after I am gone and they will pass it to someone who will then carry it to the following generation. Maybe it costs $50k a year to attend a first rate conservatory in the US, maybe the government is cutting funding for the arts, and perhaps the board of your local orchestra has decided it no longer wants to treat its musicians like the first rate specialists they really are, but it won't be enough to completely stamp out people's desires to hear music that engages the intellect, speaks to the heart and elevates the spirit. At the end of the day, people need more than food, water, shelter, a monotonous job and Monday Night Football to live a life that is full. A large enough percentage of them will find their way to a concert hall or opera house in search of something with greater substance that will add depth and richness to their lives. Others will go to an art museum, a Broadway show or a local play house. Some will come on their own, some more will come if we have appropriately reached out to them. We need these people, but they need us too. Relax, we aren't going anywhere any time soon. Cheers!
PS - I'm not cutting down Monday Night Football. I LOVE football and especially the Philadelphia Eagles. If anyone knows where I can get a good deal on Super Bowl tickets, please let me know ASAP. I'm pretty sure the Eagles will be there this year. Even from abroad I was getting pumped up about the signings of Nnamdi Asomugha, Cromartie, Vince Young, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Ronnie Brown and Steve Smith. Did I mention we already have Michael Vick? OMG! :-)
Also, if you interested in seeing the quemada, look here. For a recipe for pimientos de padron, click here.
I am now done with my three week trip to South Africa. My participation in the Stellenbosch International Chamber Music Festival (SICMF) is now complete and I am getting closer to the pure vacation portion of my summer. Many many thanks go out to the organizers and supporters of SICMF. I had a truly remarkable experience, and I look forward to returning as often as they will have me. Looking back on these past few weeks, I could find tons of interesting things to expand upon... great concerts, new friends, amazing views from Cape Point and Table Mountain, safari experiences at Aquila game reserve and Kruger National Park (and maybe I will expand on those later because they are all AWESOME)... but something on my mind has been far more inspirational and enlightening than all of those things combined.
While working at SICMF, I came into contact with students of many different backgrounds, ages and ability levels. The first day of the festival began with auditions for ensemble placement in one of the two festival orchestras. Rik Ghesquiere, Belgian trumpeter and conductor, and I listened to the trumpet and trombone auditions. By American or European conservatory standards, the requirements were very standard. Students were required to play a portion of a solo piece and selections from Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony and Nutcracker Suite, two of the pieces to be performed by the festival orchestras. As usual, the students performed with varying degrees of refinement and competence. Rik and I were informed that a group of Nigerian students would be arriving a little late but would need to be auditioned. Soon afterwards, a Nigerian trumpeter and euphonium player arrived for their auditions. They had significant difficulty getting through the assigned excerpts, and we had concerns that we would be unable to place them in an ensemble for fear that their deficiencies would hold back even the weaker players at the festival.
Later that day, the Nigerian trumpet player asked Rik if he would be willing to help him work on the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, which he would be playing the next day in a student concert, accompanied by a chamber orchestra of his thirteen friends from Nigeria. Rik agreed to help him, but as you might imagine, there was a healthy amount of skepticism about a student who struggles to play four bars of The Nutcracker Suite standing in front of an orchestra to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. Well, the skepticism was soon hushed when the young man showed up to his coaching and showed that he could play the piece. I attended the performance the next day and was incredibly moved. If I were to measure his performance in purely technical terms, there was a lot left to be desired. However, if I were to measure it in terms of integrity, commitment to excellence and a pure passion for making music, I'm not sure there's anything I've ever witnessed that can compete with it! Here was a student who has probably never received a proper trumpet lesson, never heard a professional classical musician live, never had a high quality instrument, never this, never that.... the list of disadvantages too long to continue mentioning... Here he is, playing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto with orchestra, from memory, and all things considered, doing a pretty damn good job. His friends are playing too, and they are moving their bows together and nodding their heads excitedly along with the music in the same manner a seasoned professional would. It was immediately clear that this is not a case of lacking talent or desire, simply a shortage of proper teaching and equipment. With proper instruction, these guys would be spectacular by any standard. I can't imagine doing anything near the level of what they did with the resources that they have.
It seems that often times there is a direct relationship between the desire to learn and the lack of an opportunity to do so. I have found in many instances that the people who desperately desire to improve themselves are the ones who lack privilege, while the ones who are given every opportunity in the world are often complacent and take for granted how lucky they are to be born into advantageous circumstances. I suppose there's no real new information there, but my recent experiences provided further clarity on the subject. For the most part it was easy to tell which students came from money and which ones didn't.
SICMF had faculty concerts every evening, and I have to say that the performances were all of a very high professional level and worthy of being attended. The general public of Stellenbosch was very enthusiastic about the performances, and other faculty members attended regularly even on evenings when they were not performing. I noticed that attendance by the majority of students was up and down depending on the repertoire being performed or whether or not their teacher was playing that night. The one constant was that the Nigerian students attended every concert and were enthused about them all. I talked to the students all the time. Some of the conversations with a more privileged student would go something like this...
Me: Hey! You coming to the concert tonight?
Student: Maybe. I'm a little tired and people are talking about going out tonight. I may take a nap first and see how I feel.
Conversation with the Nigerian student would go something like this....
Me: Hey! You coming to the concert tonight?
Student: Of course! I go to every concert and masterclass. Why would I not go to the concert? That's what we came for!
The difference between those two conversations made me think quite a bit. It's a classic case of the haves and have nots. I got to thinking about all the students I have already had in my 6 years in New York. They have a teacher who provides them with a standing open invitation for free standing room tickets at the Metropolitan Opera, thought by many to be the world's greatest classical music institution. Many of them come once or twice a school year. Some come a little more. Some come less. They often times think they have better things to do. Too tired. Long week at school. Not a big trombone part. Takes too long to get into the city. You name the excuse, I've heard it. The humorous part of it is, many of the students who are least committed to hearing the music as often as possible are the ones who act confused when they don't progress as quickly as they had hoped. Long story short, I wish I had the resources to personally bring several of the students I met to America and pay for their musical education. They could give some of our guys and gals a crash course on work ethic and commitment. Also, the lack of age and racial diversity in the MET audience would be fixed immediately! If anyone has a wealthy friend looking to do a good deed, let me know... I've got just the person you're looking for, and he won't let you down!
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that EVERYONE born into privilege is a lazy bum or that EVERY poor kid has a steely work ethic. I was born into some degree of privilege and I've always prided myself on my work ethic. I've never really concerned myself with where my next meal is coming from or whether or not the lights will come on when I hit the switch. As a result of a good foundation at home regarding the value of hard work, I developed an intense work ethic that has served me well. That, combined with a real love of music and a passion to improve my craft, has led to the opportunity to lead a pretty charmed musical existence.
Growing up in upper middle class America makes it very easy for someone like myself to say, "Yeh. I deserve it. I worked my tail off to get where I am." To a certain extent, perhaps that's true. When I was a student, I practiced when others partied. I missed three Philadelphia Orchestra programs in three years. I practiced like a demon possessed. The sad part is that the successful among us often forget just how lucky we are to have had the opportunity to have our efforts pay off, or how lucky we were to have someone instill in us the values of hard work at an early age. Not everyone is so fortunate. Our former president, George W. Bush, re-popularized the saying "pull yourself up by your bootstraps", a saying that I wouldn't abhor so much were it not so often used in a completely ignorant context. Well, what about the people who don't have straps on their boots, or don't have boots at all, or don't have a paved road to walk down? How do they help themselves?
It pains me to think of all the great world leaders, politicians, scientists, musicians, athletes, artists, etc who were lost in the genocide in Rwanda or who are currently living in a township with no running water or electricity in Cape Town, South Africa, only fifteen minutes down the road from their wealthy countrymen and tourists who are enjoying a week of touring the wine farms. Instead of developing into contributing members of the world who are given a fair shake, they are relegated to begging in the streets or staying indoors for fear of being raped. At a time when gold sells for $1500 an ounce, the second most productive gold mining country in the world has nearly 50% of it's population living in these conditions with an unemployment rate of 40%. What's wrong with this picture?
At any rate, anyone can pontificate about how awful life can be for people in certain parts of the world. There are plenty of neighborhoods in America, the richest country in the world, where people grow up in poverty and never have a real chance. The difference with a place like South Africa is that the poor are much poorer and the percentage of people living in those conditions hits you square in the face no matter how hard you try to look away. Sadly, on a mass scale, there is nothing I can individually do about it. As a musician, I can teach those who desire to learn as much as I possibly can and be generous with my time. I can donate money and food to those in need, perhaps changing their lives for the better in the short term. On a much smaller scale, perhaps at some point I will be blessed with the means by which to sponsor an aspiring musician who otherwise would have never had the chance and watch him/her blossom into a real professional. On a personal level, I can renew my commitment to become the best I am capable of becoming. I can continually remind myself what someone with the disadvantages previously mentioned would do with the opportunities I have been given. It's easier said than done when you have grown accustomed to a certain way of life, but I do intend to try.
I extend a huge thank you to the people of South Africa for giving me such a wonderful experience. I received a full dose of friendship, musicianship, history, nature, good food and good company. The thought provoking and heart warming experiences are far too numerous to mention. To the people of Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Soweto, thanks for helping me keep it real. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
For photos from the festival, click here.
I just returned two days ago from the MET's 3 week tour of Japan. Unfortunately, I'm now suffering from what will likely become a summer flu. I'm pretty sure this is a result of traveling and sleep deprivation and not the result of over indulging in radioactive sushi. Let's keep our fingers crossed that it's the former.
I had a really great time in Japan, and I think most of my colleagues felt the same way. As a result of the recent events in Japan, there were a lot of concerns and paranoia surrounding our trip. My observation was that, for the most part, life is going on as usual in Nagoya and Tokyo. I can't speak for the towns further north where we didn't visit. The Japanese people, as usual, were extremely hospitable to us and the audiences were very thankful for our performances. There were multiple instances where I would be walking out of the pit following the final bows and someone would approach me from the audience and say, "Thank you so much for coming! Thank you!". Many companies have cancelled their scheduled trips to Japan. These moments really make you feel like what you're doing is worthwhile. Despite the numerous cast and conductor changes, the performances all went great. The program for the orchestra concert was significantly changed and finalized only a few days before the performance in Suntory Hall, and it was one of the best concerts I've ever been apart of. Putting together the Norma Overture, Till Eulenspiegel, Forza Del Destino Overture, Don Juan, the Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut and a handful of arias in less than 6 hours of rehearsal is really something else. I think it says a lot about the great MET Orchestra and its ability to not only play accurately and inspired, but to adapt to last minute changes, no matter how significant. This is also a major credit to maestro Fabio Luisi, who in addition to being a great musician with a fabulous conducting technique, displayed a rehearsal technique with extraordinary efficiency. Working with him is really a pleasure, and I'm glad that we'll being seeing him even more often at the MET. For those who aren't familiar with his work, I encourage you to check him out.
I also had the pleasure of sharing a recital in Tokyo with my colleagues Paul Pollard and Demian Austin. Some photos from this event are posted on the photos page. The staff at Buffet Crampon/Antoine Courtois treated us like we were kings. The recital went really well and the audience was incredibly receptive. The hall was completely sold out and the seats weren't free. I only mention this because there are so many times that I've seen great trombonists in the USA give free recitals where only a handful of people show up. The state of arts appreciation in our country can be saved for another discussion. At any rate, the recital was fun, and the post recital sushi/sashimi dinner was even better. I was treated to a number of things I'd never tried before... abalone, sea urchin, raw shrimp and mackerel, and sushi rolls the size of your palm. It was pretty spectacular. Many thanks to everyone at Buffet Crampon Tokyo for a wonderful experience.
The day after the recital, I taught a handful of lessons to students in the Tokyo area. I have to say that all of them play at a very high level and it was a pleasure working with all of them. Keita Kimura translated the lessons for me. Apparently, Keita was a student at Indiana only a year after I left and was roommates with one of my close friends, Richard White. The music world really is small!
Summer adventure #1 is now officially over. I'm now looking forward to adventure #2... South Africa! I'll make sure to give an update at the end of July when I get back.
The NYC to Japan version of jet lag has found me waking up at 4AM in the morning. I'm used to getting up at 9AM after a late night at work, so this is definitely out of the ordinary for me. The good news is that you can't practice in the hotel at 4AM in the morning, so this has left me time to catch up on emails and even make a blog posting about a recent experience I had.
About five or six years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Wycliffe Gordon play live for the first time. As you might imagine, I quickly learned that if you have a night off from work and Wycliffe is playing, you should get to the box office as fast as you possibly can and get a ticket. The price of admission will never outreach the value of entertainment and inspiration that he provides. A few weeks ago, I saw Wycliffe's "Jazz a la Carte" at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. It was advertised as a variety show of sorts and the tickets were only $10 a pop. I took my last personal day of the season to avoid having to play two operas on the final Saturday of the season (the first show of the day was Walkure, took the second one off!). I thought seeing Wycliffe would be a great way to close out MET season #6, but because the program was so unconventional, I didn't really know what to expect.
As it would turn out, this show was quite possibly the most entertaining thing I've ever seen. There was comedy. There was music. There was dancing. There was singing. There was virtuosity. Wycliffe was the music director of the show and he was accompanied by the Temple University Big Band with special guest appearances by several singers, young instrumentalists, and group of dancers and none other than the tap dancing sensation himself, Savion Glover. Watching Wycliffe trade solos with Savion Glover was incredible. The audience was so moved at many points that people stood up to scream and hoot and cheer in the middle of the performances. Unlike many other venues, this enthusiasm was welcome and encouraged, and it seemed to inspire the artists to even greater heights. Now, I know what many of you will say. That's the Apollo Theater. They have a history and tradition of a more outwardly expressive audience. This is true, but I would submit to you that the performances were so completely elevational that even the audiences at Carnegie Hall or Augusta National would be itching in anticipation of an opportunity to shout.
I truly hope that Wycliffe will put on a show like this again some time soon, and I hope that many of you will get a chance to see something like it. After yet another long season at the MET that concluded with 7 performances of Walkure, one of the most physically draining shows in all of music, Wycliffe's Jazz a la Carte sent me into summer completely charged up about the possibilities available when talent, hard work, inspiration, artistic freedom and a love for people meet. Thanks Wycliffe!!
The arts are constantly under fire in our country. The recent wave of orchestra managements coming down so hard on the musicians is a really frightening occurrence. There is no example more glaring than the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It's really a shame to see that the city of Detroit has lost an entire season of symphonic music because the management is actively trying to strong arm the musicians. I understand that union busting is in style at the moment. The citizens of Wisconsin can tell you all about it. At some point, however, you have to question the sincerity of owners/managers who say they desperately need concessions. Even the owners of NFL franchises are crying poor immediately following the conclusion of a season that produced eight of this year's top ten most watched programs on television and the most watched television program in American history. If I remember correctly, those Super Bowl commercials are pretty expensive and the networks are paying a pretty penny just to get the rights to televise the games. Please note that's not paying to televise the game, that's paying for the right to televise the game. That's like paying $20 to get into a dance club, then having to pay another $14 for each drink. Lucky you!
Just as NFL owners figure that the public will not sympathize with an athlete who makes millions (not all of them do, but not everyone is aware of that), managements, especially in a place like Detroit, assume that the public will not sympathize with a musician that makes a salary that is above the national average. They are hoping that the combined effect of a lack of public sympathy and a lack of other opportunities will result in musicians cracking and playing for less. By less, I don't just mean a lower salary. How about watered down health care, eliminating the pension, and tenure too! In Wisconsin, they don't just want to take money off the table, they want to take away the right to bargain collectively. It's sad.
One of the problems most classical music organizations have is a lack of vision. So many organizations in our industry fail to attract and retain audiences because they can't see past six months from now. Many of them also fail to retain their most talented musicians. I'm under the impression that when someone first joins the board of an arts organization, they do so because they have a genuine interest in the art form and want to personally see to it that it continues to thrive in the community. Perhaps those people are now thinking they can get the same thing for less. I HIGHLY doubt it. This mentality shows the lack of vision and foresight that has gotten many organizations in the hole they are in now. However, let's just play devil's advocate for a moment and say they could. Let's pretend that every orchestra in America agrees to concessions and still retains their talented musicians. This would never happen (note that the Detroit Symphony now has ZERO percussionists), but we are in the land of pretend for the moment. Congratulations management! You just got superior talent at a lower price! Sounds like a great deal. Fast forward 20 years. The orchestras won't be nearly as good as they are now because the most artistically talented youth in our country will choose to do something else. It won't be just because of the lack of arts education in the schools, which is a completely different and even more longwinded discussion, but because kids will realize that the light at the end of the tunnel just isn't that bright.
Now that I've started teaching more, I've gotten the opportunity to see the hopes and dreams of aspiring professional orchestra musicians entering conservatory as bright-eyed freshman from a completely different perspective. It was only ten years ago that I was in the exact same position. I remember my first days at Curtis and seeing a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra and hanging out with the musicians after the performances. I had the feeling that these musicians were individuals whose extraordinary talent and hard work had afforded them the opportunity to lead a lifestyle comfortable enough to focus on furthering their craft without losing sleep over the rent. Despite the long odds of getting one of the great jobs, there was the sense that if you could run the gauntlet of orchestral auditions and find yourself in the winner's circle, things would be pretty smooth from that point on. I hope this will continue to be the case. If it doesn't, it is my opinion that a lot of the best and brightest will take their talents to a different craft. When I was 17, if someone had told me that even if I made it to the Chicago Symphony the salary would only be $50,000, I can assure you I would have taken my parents' advice and gone to business school. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE LOVE LOVE making music, but that thought makes "living the dream" seem a lot less cool, especially when you consider that 99% of students won't get to live that dream. So what's left for them if the ceiling is already relatively low? If you lose the dream of the top level being worth the risk, you risk losing the pinnacle of the craft in your region altogether.
Take a look at soccer in America. Every World Cup season I hear somebody tell me about how much Americans suck at soccer. The truth is the best American athletes just don't play soccer because it doesn't seem cool and because they don't know of anybody that plays soccer and makes money. They do see football, basketball and baseball. So that's where they go. Most Americans haven't heard of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Can you imagine if Lebron James had been playing goalie since he was five instead of basketball? Try kicking the ball past a guy who is 6'8, 260 lbs with over a 40 inch vertical. The same thing could potentially happen with music if people are convinced there's nothing in it. Maybe the next Gustavo Dudamel uses his leadership skills to do something else. Perhaps the next Jim Markey goes to the Duke School of Theology instead of Juilliard (To Jim if he reads this... I don't know what you would do, but just taking a totally wild guess). Who knows.
At any rate, I hope it never comes to that. Perhaps our industry will make it past this rough patch relatively unscathed as a whole and we can get back to the important business of improving the craft with some of our nation's best on board. It's vitally important that we do. Our world needs math and science, but it also needs music. As Wynton Marsalis, one of my heros, said... "Art is what makes life sweet." You can accomplish a lot in life and you can accumulate a lot of things. You can also be overrun with disappointments and heartbreak. Either way, the ability to make the emotions of those experiences culminate into something that elevates people and provides a truly visceral experience in life is the responsibility of the musician. I hope we get to keep doing this for a long time to come.
I was recently asked to contribute to a book titled "Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Musical and Athletic Performance" by Bernie Williams, former All-Star outfielder for the New York Yankees. Unknown to most is the fact that Bernie is also a classically trained guitarist who was recently nominated for a Latin Grammy. I was really honored to be asked to add my two cents along with much bigger names like Paul Simon, Jon Faddis, Dave Weckl, and Bruce Springsteen. The title of the book is pretty self-explanatory. Perhaps how that relates to a trombonist in the MET Orchestra is not. The following is an excerpt from the book, to be released in July 2011.
"Imagine too what it feels like to spend the entire day in the outfield having seen no action—and it’s now the bottom of the ninth and your pitcher has a no-hitter going when suddenly—crack! The ball is flying out into centerfield and the no-hitter hangs entirely on how quickly you can react. For three hours, you’ve been standing; now you’re sprinting like a gazelle.
Baseball is unique in this way—it’s perhaps the only sport where defensive players spend the majority of their time concentrating, anticipating, expecting, and strategizing. Great defensive players have impeccable mental concentration—an ability to block everything out and focus on the one thing that matters most: that ball passing over the plate.
It’s easier when conditions are good—the weather is optimal, you’re feeling good, you’re energized and those seven hours a week spent watching that ball fly over the plate from 350 feet away are reasonable. But when you’re tired, you’re ill, the weather is wreaking havoc, mosquitoes are having a picnic in the outfield—well, then it requires a level of perseverance that only a biblical Job could have. Yet great major league players do rise to the occasion day in and day out—but so do musicians.
If you want to witness intense concentration at this level by musicians, look no farther than the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is the busiest orchestra in the country, performing over 200 times a year—and operas at the Met can take on the time durations of a typical Yankees-Red Sox game, lasting upwards of four hours. The musicians in this orchestra are among the best in the world, and if you’re a violinist in the Met Orchestra, you’re fortunate to be playing the majority of the time. But not everyone is.
Take for instance a trombonist, who might have to count over 100 measures of rest and then play a critical fanfare right at the entrance of a new scene, after which they’ll rest for another 40 measures and then play another critical phrase. Throughout the opera, the majority of the time is spent waiting, counting, focusing and getting ready to play. The amount of time actually spent playing their instrument throughout the opera might be as little as five percent—maybe only twenty minutes total, yet they have to be tuned in and focused virtually all the time. On and off it goes like this for sometimes as long as four or five hours.
"Members of the trombone section definitely need an 'on-off' switch in order to execute their duties in the orchestra appropriately. I believe a prime example is the opera by composer Richard Wagner, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), a 5 1/2 hour opera that features the famous 'Ride of the Valkyries' that has been popularized in everything from the movie Apocalypse Now to Elmer Fudd cartoons. The show opens with a driving string bass line that is capped off by the brass who have just counted 72 bars of rests. Immediately following this, the trombone section then rests for around half an hour before being called upon to play an extremely delicate, soft chorale. On paper this passage is seemingly simple, but performing it accurately after such a long rest period is significantly more difficult than it appears to the audience. The members of the trombone section recognize this difficulty and breathe a sigh of relief after having done it well and not drawing too much attention to themselves. Just as fans at a baseball game may think nothing of a 'routine' out on a pop-fly, the outfielder realizes that it only appears to be routine because of hundreds of hours of practice making sure that he is correctly positioned, acutely focused and ready to spring into action after minutes or sometimes hours of relative inactivity."
—Weston Sprott (Trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra)
This is a seldom-made comparison between the outfield of a major league baseball team and the “outfield”—in this case, the brass section—of a major league opera orchestra. Both the ballplayer and musician in this scenario need to turn the concentration switch on and off, continuously, for hours at a time. So how do you develop the proper approach to this level of concentration over prolonged periods of time? How do you remain focused and ready for when the ball is hit to you? And it will be hit to you, eventually!
Every great major league defensive player has an “on-off” mechanism they’ve developed. When there’s no play, it’s vital you relax, take your mind off of things—even if it’s for a few seconds. When you see an outfielder looking up at the stands or the sky in between pitches, you can bet they’re not trying to spot a relative or friend—they’re purposefully taking their mind off of the game for a few seconds, lest they burn out from the intense level of concentration required."
For more information about the book, visit the book's following sites:
Last night I had the opportunity to hear the Curtis Symphony Orchestra perform in Carnegie Hall. The program was Hindemith Music for Strings and Brass, Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concert w/ Hilary Hahn and Shostakovich 5. What an AWESOME concert this was! Seeing so many young faces on that stage playing at such a high level conjured up a really great feeling in my heart. It made me think back fondly of the time that I spent as a student at Curtis and the great music I made with my friends there.
For those who have not had the opportunity to hear this orchestra perform, I would highly suggest that you do. It is really one of the great wonders of the musical world. The level of musical enthusiasm and energy is second to none. What the Curtis orchestra lacks in experience and fully finished technical precision compared to a major professional ensemble, it more than makes up with excitement of sound and depth of commitment from its players. The world's great orchestras (many of which are populated by Curtis grads) clearly have the advantage of players knowing the repertoire and having more years to hone their technique. While I'm sure the Curtis Orchestra could never handle the rigors a professional schedule, what they gain from playing only a handful of symphony concerts a year is the ability and desire to make a really special musical impact with the few opportunities they are given on a big stage like Carnegie. You can't tell me that the last stand of the second violins in a major orchestra consistently have the same level of commitment as those at Curtis, and how could they? It's hard to get up for the show with that same degree of intensity 150 times a year. People are tired, they've played Shostakovich 5 100 times, they had an argument with their wife before they came to work, their kids are sick....
I remember being a student and the infectiousness of excitement surrounding "the concert". I'm sure this type of thing happens at schools all over the world, but I think what happens at Curtis really is a special thing by comparison to almost all others. There are great players from every tradition of playing and future stars at almost every institution, but the sheer concentration of talent at Curtis is really something else. The combination of all that talent and commitment results in "The Curtis Sound" that I heard last night. Especially in the strings... there's just nothing like it! I'm sure I'm somewhat biased being an alum, but I think those of you who get the opportunity to hear it for yourself will agree with me. Needless to say, I'm proud of my school!
During my time in the Curtis Orchestra, I never knew exactly how things would pan out for all my fellow classmates. Kind of crazy to see how it's all shaking out. I graduated in 2005 and already my classmates have made their marks on great musical institutions all over the world. I can remember sitting in orchestra with...
Liang Wang - Principal Oboe, NYP -- Liz Koch - Principal Oboe, Atlanta SO -- Joe Conyers - Asst Principal Bass, Philadelphia Orchestra -- Shachar Israel - Asst Principal Trombone, Cleveland Orchestra -- Andrea Kaplan - Flute, St. Louis SO -- Dave Cooper - 3rd Horn, Dallas Symphony -- Andrew Cuneo - Principal Bassoon, St. Louis SO -- Harrison Hollingsworth - Principal Bassoon NYC Ballet -- Maron Khoury - Second Flute, Metropolitan Opera....
I could keep typing that list for the next few hours. It's pretty silly, and that's just during my three years at school there. So, next time you get a chance, check out this orchestra. It's your best chance to see the future stars of our industry while they're still young!