For eight days earlier this month I participated in the biannual Alessi Seminar, a workshop for trombonists headed by Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic. It was an intense schedule of rehearsals, performances, and master classes; when the event was over I had 54 pages of handwritten notes. While many of my readers would no doubt like to see a full transcript of those notes, you will be disappointed—if you want that much information, you need to shell out the $2000+ it costs to attend (including travel, etc.)! Still, I will gladly offer these ten reflections, written as I am still sort of processing things myself.
- There are lots of fine trombonists out there.
When I learned that I had been accepted into the Fellows Class (i.e. the “second group,” taught primarily by former Seattle Symphony trombonist and now Indiana University professor Peter Ellefson) at the Alessi Seminar I was both pleased and a little disappointed. After all, who doesn’t want to be in the “first band,” especially after seeing that most or all of the members of the higher class are younger than you? I was mostly pleased, though, and was reminded that not too many years ago I was that young up-and-coming trombone player that was practicing a ton and successfully competing with more experienced players for jobs and opportunities. Despite my conflicted personal feelings, what I found at the event were two auditioned classes plus more than 50 “auditors” who were supremely dedicated to their craft, and all working to better themselves and one another. It was an intense and productive time for everyone involved, with little egotism to be found.
- The instructors were dedicated, sincere, very direct, but never unfriendly.
Prior to the Seminar, I knew both Mr. Alessi and Mr. Ellefson primarily by their world-class reputations and through performances and recordings. I had seen little of their teaching, much less experienced it myself. One would expect musicians of that caliber to be intense and demanding—and they were—but underlying all of that was an evident desire to improve the individual’s playing and the level of trombone playing generally. They were often challenging but never mean, making receiving and applying instruction sometimes difficult but never unpleasant.
- Diligent practice of playing fundamentals is very important.
I have always taught , have usually practiced, and have often written about the importance of daily, extended practice of playing fundamentals. Nevertheless, when reading some folks “pooh-pooh” the notion of such practicing in various online forums, I have sometimes questioned whether my approach to practicing in this way has been too tedious and repetitive. Hearing Mr. Alessi and Mr. Ellefson play and discuss what they do to prepare to play each day has renewed my dedication to this kind of practicing. Lesser musicians may spend less time on fundamentals, and there are always a few super-talented folks out there who can get by with less than the rest of us, but if two of the greatest trombonists in the world need to keep practicing fundamentals to stay at the top of their game, that should say something to the rest of us.
- I would do well to make some refinements in my sound.
For as long as I can remember, I have made the pursuit of a big, full sound a central part of my practice and playing. While I am happy to be able to play with such a sound, I was reminded in one master class (again, in a direct but not unfriendly way) that this approach is not always needed. Not everything has to be played with the most massive sound possible. This will be a hard lesson to apply, but given the physical limitations imposed by my ongoing back pain issues, the added flexibility that a more compact sound provides, and the frequency with which I get “the hand” from conductors(!), cultivating a more compact approach may not be a bad idea, provided that I make sure to retain the ability to bring lots of power when needed.
- Mr. Alessi’s suggestions regarding performance anxiety.
I have been honest with my students, my fellow musicians, and even on this blog that after the physical difficulties I experienced a few years ago I developed more severe performance anxiety than I had ever had. Working out of this has been challenging, and the psychological difficulties suffered after an injury (Mr. Ellefson called this “broken brains” as compared to “broken chops”) can take more time to resolve than the physical ones. Happily, the steps I have taken in recent years to curb the physical manifestations of performance anxiety have been effective. I was only truly nervous for a few minutes the entire Seminar, and even then was able to keep the physical effects of this to a minimum.
Mr. Alessi added two suggestions to what I was already doing to help with this. First, he said to “have no ego.” After all, why would you be nervous if you weren’t concerned about your reputation? That comment smarted a little bit (as it was spoken directly to me), but it was on target. As musicians, we should seek to serve our audiences, to serve our fellow musicians, and to pursue beauty and refinement in our craft for its own sake, as well as to reflect and glorify the beauty of the Creator. Egotism is distasteful at best and harmful at worst.
His second suggestion was to think “low and slow.” When nervous we tend to pull the pitch sharp and to cause various problems related to the airspeed being too fast. Instead, we should aim for “the bottom of the note,” and remember to keep the airflow relaxed and under control. This suggestion is simple, easy to apply, and of immediate benefit.
- Pursuing a position in a major symphony orchestra requires specialized preparation.
If I wanted to torture myself, I could speculate all day as to why my audition recording earned me a spot in the Fellows Class rather than the Participant Class. As I said before, I was pleased with the experience I had at the event and don’t want to spend too much time at this stage worrying about that. Still, in observing the teaching and playing that occurred in both groups over the course of the Seminar, as well as the critiques received regarding my own playing of orchestral excerpts both on my recording and in the master class, I was reminded that orchestral excerpts are not the place to display one’s individualistic approaches to musicality. You should play musically, of course, but much more within the limitations of the written page than in solo repertoire. My own training as a musician and teacher focused mostly on solo and chamber music, as well as teaching techniques for students of various levels of ability. While I studied orchestral repertoire, it was never a major focus of mine. It should have been no surprise, then, that in an audition consisting largely of orchestral excerpts any deviation from the accepted norm among orchestral musicians (and I had several in my recording) would be received negatively. I am thankful to have been reminded just what the expectations are in certain key excerpts, both for my own benefit and for that of my students. If I have any students who are interested in pursuing an orchestral career, I will make sure to direct them to graduate schools where they will receive that specialized training.
- I left the Seminar both secure in and happy with my place in the profession.
For more than a decade now, I have been primarily employed as a teacher of all of the low brass instruments in music departments serving mainly future music educators. I get to do some solo and chamber performing, some orchestral playing, and assorted other playing jobs, but mainly I am a teacher helping to train the next generation of secondary school music educators. During the Alessi Seminar I was able to think a bit about the lives lived by our instructors and musicians like them in high-profile positions, lives which include lots of time away from home giving concerts and instruction throughout the world. For an orchestral musician, even time not traveling means being out lots of nights! Some people revel in that kind of life, and good for them, but for a homebody like me, I’m content to teach in a smallish music department in my home state, performing fairly regularly, but mostly being at home at night, and able to visit parents and other family members regularly. I like being a musician; I love being a husband and father. In my current job, I get to do all of those things.
- I like playing bass trombone in a trombone quartet.
All of the Participants and Fellows at the Alessi Seminar were assigned to trombone quartets consisting of members who had not played together before, or at least had not done so regularly. I have normally played bass trombone in such groups, including in my current quartet, the Great River Trombone Quartet. However, for the Alessi Seminar I was assigned to play first trombone in the so-called Willamette Trombone Quartet. This was a healthy challenge, and we had a successful performance, but I’ll be glad to get back to the low notes!
- Trombonists are friendly, fun-loving people.
The Alessi Seminar ended with a party at a local restaurant with food and non-alcoholic drinks provided, as well as pool tables and shuffleboard. After eight days of intense music making, it was great to enjoy a steak, some red wine (which I paid for), and the company of 70-ish trombone players, all of whom know how to have a good time. I have a bit of experience with observing the professional gatherings of other groups of musicians, many of whom are uptight, unhappy people. We have those folks in the low brass world, too, but for the most part we are a jolly lot, which makes the challenging and intense nature of our work that much easier to handle.
- Will I do it again?
Will I attend the Alessi Seminar again, and maybe make a more informed stab at the Participant Class? Maybe. I’m still physically and mentally exhausted from this year’s Seminar, and the next event isn’t until 2017, so it’s a bit early to decide. Having not had a trombone lesson in over ten years, it was good for me to go and “have my butt kicked” for a few days, and I have no regrets about attending. Part of me thinks that my efforts will be better spent helping my students to earn a place in one of the two auditioned classes, but ambition might just get the better of me in a couple of years. Maybe I’d even be able to attend with a student, which would be cool. Maybe one of my students would even place *above* me in the audition. Believe it or not, I think that would be very cool, too. We’ll see!