Even though this is my seventeenth year teaching at the university level in some capacity (having begun as a wide-eyed twenty-two-year-old graduate assistant), in my mind I still identify as the “young professor.” That self-identity is crumbling, though, and at an increasing pace each year. It has been a long time since I was the youngest faculty member in the music departments in which I have worked, and even more importantly I am this year twenty years older than the incoming freshmen. When I first started teaching college students the students seemed to look at me as an older brother type of figure (when I was, in fact, older, as was not always the case); now my students call me Trombone Dad. The ever-greater frequency with which my pop culture references fall flat reminds me that there is now a small but noticeable generation gap between myself and my students. While most of these generational differences are innocuous and even amusing, there are some habits that my fellow undergraduate students and I had “back in the day” whose loss is an unhappy one for today’s music students. One of the most important among these is repeated listening to great recordings.
When I was an undergraduate student, internet access had only recently become widely available. Home connections were almost exclusively of the dial-up variety, and e-commerce was in its infancy. Although this sounds like the proverbial “uphill both ways in the snow” story to my students, I was either a junior or senior in high school when I first learned of the existence of commercial recordings of brass solo and ensemble music, and to obtain these recordings one had to write for a paper catalog and then fax or mail a paper order form to a distributor. As my university career progressed online ordering became increasingly common but there still were no services like YouTube, Spotify, or Pandora. In short, my fellow students and I expected to have to “dig” a little bit in order to locate and purchase recordings of great players, and when the coveted recordings were finally obtained they were listened to repeatedly—often in six-disc CD changers mounted in the trunks of our cars, in which changing discs had to be done before or after a trip. We didn’t know it at the time, but those of us who were listening to performers on our instruments, or bands, or orchestras, or jazz groups, or whatever were developing sonic concepts that would one day help us to build successful careers.
Fast-forward to today, when multiplied thousands of hours of the greatest players in the world can be located and enjoyed with only a few keystrokes, yet the majority of students rarely or never listen to solo and chamber recordings of their instrument, or great bands and orchestras, or the best jazz and popular ensembles. More than one of my students in the past week named *me* as the player they most often listen to for example and inspiration, and while that is flattering there are far better brass players than me in the world, and in any case listening to only one person’s example inevitably leads to an impoverished ideal of how one’s instrument should sound. (Ditto for future band and orchestra directors—listen to the greatest groups in the world to form a sound concept, not just your college wind ensemble or orchestra or jazz ensemble.) Seriously, how can you expect to have a fulsome vision of the kind of sound that is achievable by your instrument or group if you never listen to the very best performers in those genres? You can’t, and with the easy availability of recorded music these days you simply have no excuse to not do this. If you want to sound great, start by listening to and absorbing great sounds.
So, students where should you begin? First of all, make sure you are listening to quality recordings of professional players, not just “some dude on YouTube.” The internet has a lot of wonderful music, but you have to shuffle through a lot of garbage to find it all, and sometimes you actually have to pay money to hear it. But it’s worth it. Here are playlists of a few of my favorite albums to get you started. Hint: Check the suggested videos on these pages to find players and tracks that might be interesting to you.
Joseph Alessi: Illuminations
Alain Trudel: (Alto) Trombone Concerti
James Markey: On Base
Steven Mead: Euphonium Virtuoso
Øystein Baadsvik: 20th-Century Tuba Concertos
Harry Watters: Out of a Dream—Love Songs
Szeged Trombone Ensemble: New Horizons
Michael Davis, et al.: Absolute Trombone
Sotto Voce Quartet: Refractions
Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra Brass Sections: The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli
And just in case you are at all curious about the guy whose rantings you have been reading at this site all these years, here is:
Even better, join the International Trombone Association, the International Tuba-Euphonium Association, or the professional group for your instrument or ensemble type and start reading their magazines or journals. You’ll quickly get a feel for who some of the top players and groups are so that you can start listening to them. You might also join the discussions over at The Trombone Forum, TubeNet, or TubaEuph, or some of the various brass-related Facebook groups. There, too, you’ll start to gain a sense of who the top players are and where to find their albums.
Start listening. Start internalizing. Start copying. You’ll be surprised by how much your musicianship improves simply by listening to great players!