Super excited to share with you the duet Scott Agster wrote for me as part of his Minneapolis Trombone Masterclass video series! It’s a trad-jazz inspired romp, complete with dogfight, that should get your toe tapping!
And stay tuned for my interview with Scott discussing the inspiration for the video, our history as colleagues, and my projects in the region.
Last fall, the director of the Hamline University Wind Ensemble, Dr Janet Greene, approached me with a proposition. She was to take a sabbatical semester in the spring and needed an interim conductor for the band. She thought I’d be a good fit, citing the few times I’d coached or conducting brass ensembles at Hamline, and wanted to offer me the opportunity. Needless to say, I was honored, but, initially, skeptical and mildly terrified of the idea. She encouraged me to think about it and I promised I would.
It’s not that, as I noted above, that I haven’t conducted before. Chamber groups, brass choirs, etc, have all been a part of my experience. I know which direction to wave my arms in various meters, and I can run a solid rehearsal. My trepidation stemmed more from the doubt that I could be musically inspiring to a group of college kids, that I could evoke a connection to the music and their colleagues that so many of the best conductors I’ve worked with have done.
Janet was not to be put off my fears, and assured me that most of the work would be organizational, and rehearsal-oriented (“You don’t have to be Leonard Bernstein. You just have to be there for them.”). Then she mentioned the salary increase and I had a much harder time saying no.
So I was hired. I was caught up on the admin needs, given direction on how to pick repertoire, and granted access to the roster and the list of students that might step up if there was a need. Hamline is not a big university, and the music program is tiny. I’ve been lucky to have at least one student per semester in my low brass studio, and in the fall I had none at all. Most of the ensemble participants are not pursuing musical degrees, and there are many different levels of playing ability. Somehow, we managed to pull together a band with at least one person on a part (minus bassoon, which we went without, and trombones and oboe, for which parts we hired ringers).
With such a small ensemble, and uncertainty in what parts could be covered, it was hard to pick repertoire. I knew for sure we would attempt Ticheli’s An American Elegy, in honor of the 20 years since the Columbine High School shooting. I wanted diversity on my program, and found a copy of Folk Suite by William Grant Still in the library. With a little money available to purchase new works, I grabbed a copy of John Zdechlik’s A Centennial Fanfare for brass, and a new-ish piece by New York composer Carrie Magin called And the Nightwatchers Awake. The woodwinds were game to play an arrangement of the Overture toIl Re Pastore by Mozart, and a quirky Herbert Hazelman piece called A Short Ballet for Awkward Dancers rounded out the program. Later I would be asked if the Percussion Ensemble could perform, and was delighted to add a brand new work (i can’t believer it IS butter!) by Hamline student and composer Leah Hunter to the program.
The start of the semester was hard. I was nervous, the students were struggling to get back into the flow of things, the weather was AWFUL and kept people from making rehearsal all the time. I wasn’t sure who was going to show up. Not having a full trombone section was painful to me (Alex, a former student of mine, has been gamely playing with HUWE for years even as he attends college elsewhere, so he was always there at least. But dang, you really need at least 2 trombones, 3 is preferable, to make a band sound good). An hour and 15 minutes twice a week felt both too long and stressful and too short to be effective. I worried constantly about whether they liked me, about mistakes I had made or weird things I’d said (no one loses complete access to their vocabulary like I do when I’m anxious), while at the same time being frustrated that things didn’t seem to get practiced in the off hours.
But we started to find a groove. I made a few personal revelations:
It’s okay if they don’t like you. They may like you more if you stop trying so hard to be nice.
The program has gaps in instrumentation and ability that exist for many different reasons. None of them your fault. Your responsibility is to provide a semester of learning and musical experience.
I’m a product of 2 (and a half) big university music programs where the wind ensembles were the crowning glory of the college, and I have always enjoyed playing in wind bands more than other large ensembles. At Wisconsin, James Smith asked so much of us, and gave us so much in return, he was like our own local Lenny in many ways. I probably don’t need to tell you what an honor it was to play under Eugene Corporon at North Texas. The caliber of that band was some kind of magical. And working with Emily Threinen at the U showed me what a woman, poised, direct, and intelligent, looks like on the podium. In all of those programs, though, you had a group working to play at near professional levels to present an end product as polished as it could get.
Hamline is not those places, and its players are not those musicians. Make no mistake, though: it is in no way inferior. The act of making music belongs to all of us, regardless of level, and while we can hope to have the best concert possible, what matters more than anything is the process. What are we learning as we go? What inspires us and sticks with us? I remember very little about the actual concerts I’ve played, but there are little details – phases spoken, techniques learned, jokes bandied – from rehearsals that I will never forget.
So it became my goal not to worry so much about the product. I had to take a lesson from my own pedagogical book: it’s not the how, it’s the what and why. Can I express to these students what makes the music so vital to their current experience? Can I help them problem solve, work together, play from the heart? Can I be honest with them about what scares me, what I’m learning to do, as well as what I already know, what I can offer from my own experiences?
There were still frustrations as the semester went on (would they ever just WATCH ME when an ensemble moment was critical?!?), but more and more, as I relaxed into my role and the students warmed up to me, rehearsals left me with a feeling of warmth and accomplishment. I could hear the music coming together, I could feel my effect on their interpretations. I felt- dare I say it? – right at home on that podium, with their attention focused on me.
Concert day arrived! The rest of the trombone section was present at the dress rehearsal, and suddenly, the ensemble sounded READY. They were excited. It was time for hard work to pay off, and for the music to be let loose into the world, enjoyed.
I didn’t feel nervous anymore, as we took to the stage. I remember a few tricky spots that wavered, but more importantly I remember some glorious moments – especially the Ticheli, which these young people who were either just babies or not even born when Columbine happened played so tenderly I actually cried while conducting. Overall, they triumphed. And I can take credit only for my small part in it. These are dedicated and kind humans, who love music, who love the process. I am so humbled to have worked with them.
April 6, 2019, is not a day I’m going to forget any time soon.
It was a day that reaffirmed my two professional loves, pedagogy and performance.
Freelance musician/educator life is constantly in flux- long periods of moderate or low activity, short bursts of busy busy busy- and our states of mind can often match those highs and lows. February and March were relatively slow months for me, performance-wise, and as often happens when the balance between teaching and performing is so heavily weighted in the direction of teaching I was feeling distressed and burnt out. There were many things on the horizon, but there was also the slog to get there, through long days of lessons and rehearsals, and no small dose of a trauma anniversary relating to my time at the U.
In a word, I was feeling stressed, crispy (that stage just on the edge of burnout), and worried. But I have faith in my abilities, my knowledge, and my experience, and I knew I had to power through, so I got to work.
And having goals? That means everything. A huge component of my pedagogy is helping people find Flow- find that place where distractions and worries slip away, and they work in the moment toward musical communication. It’s an inherently healthy state for our minds to be in. In a focus-challenged society, Flow States help us balance anxiety, depression, and stage fright; they help us do something for the sake of itself and gain reward from the result. I’d been losing track of my own Flow lately. Too much time trying to manage a social media presence for both my personal and professional life here, a healthy dose of staring out the window willing the flowers to come up there.
So back to those goals. Number 1: Present my pedagogy in an hour-long clinic at Twin Cities Trombone Day. Be convincing, be engaging, let the science prove itself. Sitting down to refresh myself on the source material took away almost all my worries. Being honest with a few folks about the struggle I was having to create an introduction to the clinic led me to some awesome suggestions that ultimately let the whole talk tumble forth fully formed. And walking around all week reciting, “You are an expert, you are the boss” certainly helped.
Guess what? That presentation rocked. The audience, a mixed crowd of professional, student, and amateur trombone players, was so open-minded and supportive, asking good questions and giving great feedback to the young folks who came up to help me demonstrate. Afterward I talked with so many people whose eyes were opened to a new way of thinking, and took a few cards to follow up on taking the clinic on the road.
Goal Number 1 had a bonus effect on Goal Number 2: Rock the bass trombone parts on the AMO charts. Bass trombone, and in particular my 1970s Holton 180 BEAST of a bass trombone, sometimes feels like driving a U-Haul through the Rocky Mountains with one arm tied. It’s hard. I’ve been working for a year on improving my air efficiency, my intonation, and my control over the lower register.
In getting back into the research, the thinking behind my natural learning-based pedagogy, it reminded me that I have been overthinking the hell out of approaching the bass trombone. I was letting all the little things I didn’t hear myself doing well ramp up my anxiety, and man, the self-talk was DIRE. But coming out of a funk, remembering why I do what I do, and getting back into Flow made all the difference.
So how was the show?
There have been numerous times in my life that have been tremendously musically rewarding. Almost nothing can compare to the act of finally putting something out into the world that people can hold in their hands, an album, and celebrating the artistic labor of love that went into every second. I’m just a tiny part of the AMO, but when it all came together, it felt like no moving piece was too small. We were all working together to put Adam’s incredible music out into the world, and enjoying the collaboration.
And to have an appreciative audience. What a joy. The act of sharing art, and feeling the reciprocation back. Music requires an audience, and communication goes both ways. We give what we have, the audience tells us how that makes them feel, we give more, etc…the loop feeds itself and everyone is better for it.
So how am I feeling this week? Incredibly, incredibly lucky, but also satisfied. I’ve done the work, I’ve sought the knowledge, I’ve walked the walk. Owning one’s strength is not egotistical, even if it can sometimes feel that way. I’m learning to overcome that learned impulse and walk into every room with confidence that I belong there- because I do.
Stay tuned for more photos & videos from the AMO CD Release show. Meantime you can order the album here.
Trite though it may be, I’ve been indulging in the annual ritual of looking back on a year of work, as well as thinking forward to what 2019 may bring. I’m not huge on resolutions, but I do like setting some intentions for the year and putting some of my needs out to the universe. And so, in the spirit of the season, here are my reflections on 2018 and my goals for 2019!
In 2018, a lot of amazing things happened for me, professionally. I had general goals of working on big projects, like my clinic package, and building my business in new ways. Here are some highlights:
Hired as adjunct trombone instructor at St Cloud State
Played countless gigs, offered hundreds of lessons and clinics combined, showed up to jam sessions and pushed my creative limits
Learned how to better develop a healthy outlook on work and play that allowed me time for rest, productive periods, and fun
It was sort of a rough personal year, with the loss of fur friend Gatsby, but it was also full of fun: trips to Costa Rica and Scotland, kayaking, hiking, and camping with good friends, a warm house, regular meals. I have much to be grateful for.
2019 promises to be something entirely different than 2018. I’m feeling less motivation to come up with big ideas and projects, but more motivation to practice and perform the things that I love. I want to take the work I’ve done in the last few years and leverage it to have more name recognition, more performance opportunities, and more financial security. Here are some of the things I’ve been starting to focus on this year:
Continuing to improvise, arrange, and compose- looking for pathways to make this a bigger component of my career
Developing a modular recital program I can use for artist-in-residence and clinic visits
Filling in gaps in my pedagogy (the big one here is: teaching articulation in a holistic way)
Buying a wireless mic, for Brass Lassie, but also use to experiment with effects and looping
Becoming proficient enough at piano to accompany students on basic repertoire and improvisation
Making the clinic package as viable and desirable as possible to get bookings
Determining what the future might look like from several different angles- what work do I want to be doing in 5 years? 10? 20?
And here are some of the exciting things that are already in the books for the year:
Conducting the Hamline Wind Ensemble while regular director Dr Janet Greene is on sabbatical
On a personal level, I hope for 2019 to be a year of joy, balance, and passion for what I do and experience. My word for the year is ‘fire’- I want to acknowledge the things that have burnt out for me and reignite what I still have value and love for. Fire can be destructive- but it can also be cleansing, life-saving, and necessary. I have been ‘water’ for a long time- flexible, adaptable, constant- this year I feel the need for change, for energy and warmth.
What are your 2019 goals and dreams? What happened in 2018 that motivates you still?
So things tend to come in threes, and this post full of exciting professional announcements is no exception!
My new clinic, “Ear on the Prize: A holistic approach to effective brass instruction” is now available for booking. Check out the link in the name for more information- I’m really excited to begin offering this clinic to schools in the region!
~TWO~Brass Lassie’s album is DONE and ready to be released! We are having a party and concert to celebrate the new album for local folks on September 7th. Details here! The album will be available to purchase in physical form or digital download on our website September 7th as well.
I am extremely pleased to announce that I have accepted the adjunct trombone instructor position at St Cloud State University starting this fall. I am joining a faculty of incredibly talented musicians and educators, and I cannot wait to meet the students of this fine music department. Look for some great events, concerts, and opportunities coming from this direction throughout the academic year.
Hi all, It’s been a while since I’ve had an opportunity (or the inspiration) to write…I hope you haven’t missed me too much.
July was a month of travel and adventure, and lots of positive change. I spent two weeks exploring Scotland and London on vacation, taking in all the beautiful landscapes and culture. I took Brass Lassie with me, as you can see:
And someday I’ll come back with the whole band on tour.
Upon returning to Minnesota I got back to work teaching and performing, with some notable highlights:
-Brass Lassie performed at the Scottish Fair in Eagan on my birthday, July 21st, and it was a marvelous day of love and music all around.
-Subbing in for the TC Latin Jazz Orchestra at Jazz Central- truly a great group, great music, and a supportive crowd!
-Rebecca and I traveled up to St Cloud State to perform a few works (A Caged Bird and Loveletter, Postmark San Jose) and talk with the students at the Athena Band and Leadership Camp. I had so much fun answering the intelligent and insightful questions of these future musical leaders. I will have some more thoughts on what I learned from this day soon.
-I played in the live orchestra for MNKINO’s Film Score Fest on July 28th, joining a small orchestra in playing scores for about 20 short, independent local films.
Next up is a busy August: lots more Brass Lassie, a heavier teaching schedule, and trying to soak up all the remaining summer free time I can!