Sub Standards

This entry is the culmination (thus far!) of a decade of experience working with orchestras and chamber groups alike, both as a full-time member and substitute player. While I do not profess to be an expert, there are many things I have learned along the way and feel worth sharing in this installment. At some point, each one of us has — or will — walk the narrow path that is subbing in an ensemble. It is a skill that demands sensitivity not only as a musician, but also as a person, and is too often overlooked in our formal education.

In gathering my thoughts for this post, I considered the position of both the substitute and the full-time player. They are two unique standpoints that can vary as much as the personalities that occupy these roles, and it is easy to lose sight of the others perspective. Subbing with many top orchestras around the country, and also hosting subs next to me in my own orchestra, has forced me to consider these unique perspectives in order to make the most positive situation possible – both in terms of camaraderie and musical product. Horror stories about the treatment of subs, and likewise, horror stories of substitutes behavior, are great entertainment for the post-concert beer amongst friends, and can be hilarious! However, you never want to be one of the antagonists in that story!

For starters, you want to build relationships and make sure people in the position to hire you know you and your playing. Many people simply send a form email to Personnel Managers, stating they are available and would love to play, then attaching their resumé. Nice idea, right? Not really. The people making the hiring decisions are the sections themselves, and often the Principal player. They are the ones who tell the Personnel Manager whom to call, and if they don’t know you or are unfamiliar with your playing, why would they call you?! There are plenty of impressive resumés out there, but a resumé doesn’t say how you play or if you are an astute, adaptive player and respectful, attentive colleague. Contact the section or individual player and let them know you are interested in subbing. Better yet, ask them how to get on the substitute list. Even better, ask for a lesson. A lesson not only demonstrates your playing, but how flexible and easy to work with you are. Be prepared to pay for the lesson – in fact, ask up front how much their fee is. Never expect anything from anyone for free, and always be prepared to pay in cash. Now and then, someone will cut you break, which often means they like you 😉

So, let’s imagine you’ve been contracted to substitute with an orchestra. It doesn’t matter if it is the Chicago Symphony or a part-time regional group; there are certain rules of professionalism to which one should adhere. This may seem obvious, but make sure the schedule is correct. Communication can easily be obscured, and no one can fault you for double- and triple-checking the dates/times. Even if a miscommunication is someone else’s fault, you will be the one with pie in your face if you get it wrong. Plus, schedules (especially rehearsal schedules) can change last-minute, so be savvy and make sure you have the right information.

Secure music in advance, and if you are using your own, make sure it’s the correct edition! With the proliferation of music on the internet, there is almost zero excuse for unfamiliarity. Most music libraries will happily send you scans if you are geographically unable to pick up the folder. Kindly send them an email, tell them you are subbing, and ask if it’s possible to have music emailed to you. In the event that it is a thick book (ie Pops show), they may be too busy to make all those scans. At minimum, secure the repertoire list and listen to the tunes. Odds are that most of the players in the orchestra will have only scanned through their folder, or even be sight-reading, but guess what? You don’t want to be that person – especially as a sub!

Make sure you have the proper equipment. Find out what kind of mute the section prefers, and do your best to get one. At least ask if there is one to borrow.  Some orchestras are militant about using particular mutes (usually the ones that pay more) so go the extra mile and get the right gear. At least you can use it again, plus it is a tax write-off! Also, depending on the repertoire, you may be asked to scale down to a smaller instrument, or even play an orchestra-owned instrument. If you think this may be a possibility (ie Mozart mass, Beethoven, Schubert, etc), contact the Principal and ask.

Attire: if you are going to be a professional musician, dress like it. Sure, most of us have nasty, yellow pit-stained tux shirts, but you don’t see that from the audience! The audience will, however, see the ratty shoulder stitching on your tails, or if you are wearing black Velcro sneakers rather than proper dress shoes. You don’t have to wear Hugo Boss, but you do need appropriate attire. Also, when it comes to tuxedoes, make sure you double- and triple-check if it’s black tux or tails – and bring the appropriate bow tie. Many orchestras have a different dress code depending on day of the week, type of service, and time of the concert. The Personnel Manager should send you this information, but again, double-checking saves you embarrassment.

Arrive early and be warmed up. This gives you time to double-check music, scope out the venue, and generally get comfortable. Plus, it also assures your temporary colleagues that you appreciate the opportunity and take it seriously. Arriving 5 minutes before a service means you don’t “have it together” and this can make your colleagues stress out. Even if your playing is stellar, being undependable will keep you from coming back!

Feeling comfortable and at ease is great – but, don’t get too comfortable. You will undoubtedly hear comments, jokes, and gossip that may sound inviting for you to jump in and add your thoughts. Unless you have a secure, established history with your colleagues, don’t do it! Remember that these folks have earned their place in the ensemble, and a familial environment – albeit dysfunctional at times – has developed over years. You may hear someone make an off-color remark about another colleague at some point. Leave it be! This is where being a person with common sense and consideration comes into play. Some sections/orchestras are pretty stuffy, and create an “all business” environment. Other places are on par with kindergarten recess. Be sensitive and know your place.

Do no damage. This should actually be Rule #1 in a subbing situation. Do not draw attention to yourself. Don’t hang over on cutoffs, don’t play louder than the guy next to you, and adjust pitch to the ensemble – even if they are playing sharp or flat! A phrase that comes to mind is “When in doubt, leave it out!” and it has kept me from stepping in holes on several occasions. Most folks will appreciate you applying discretion rather than trying to be the hero. The ‘do no damage’ principal also applies to non-playing aspects, such as talking, dropping mutes, creaking chairs, and loudly turning pages.

Be a chameleon. Listen. Adapt. Adjust. If the player next to you is playing longer note lengths, adjust. More front to notes, adjust. Zippier or warmer sound, adjust. Etc etc. I’ve always been amazed at the number of fantastic instrumentalists who don’t use the most important tools we have: EARS! Avoid being so set in your ways that you can’t adapt. This is part of being a musician.

Have a pencil.

If you are in need of feedback, don’t ask, “How am I doing?” but rather, “Can I do anything differently for you?” or “Does that feel comfortable for you?” Avoid inviting criticism, but show you are considerate and flexible. “How am I doing?” makes you sound unprofessional and unsure of yourself, as well as thinking selfishly. The other questions show a team attitude and confidence that you can adapt.

One of the best compliments you can get is from a member of another section. “Your section (or you) sounds great!” is a nice one to get, especially considering that most of our egos are terribly fragile. When someone goes out of their way to compliment you, they usually mean it. Say “thank you”. Of course, the supreme compliment is being invited back.

Added after original publication, courtesy of Ken Wolff:

Spending more of my time teaching young eager students than subbing myself, these additional comments are more for the inexperienced player who may be offered chances to sub early in their career. I would add just a few additional comments if I may for those young players specifically.

Be gracious and appreciative of the opportunity and keep your opinions to yourself. Your suggestions are not welcome unless solicited and still you should be careful here. If you have traveled to play, don’t expect to be entertained by your section mates during off hours. If they invite you to hang out by all means do so but don’t intrude. They have lives to attend to. And finally, personal hygiene is very important. Not only should your attire be clean, so should you.


Play what you love

A couple weeks ago, I had the honor and pleasure of being a featured guest artist at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. Hosted by the gracious Dr. Mark Hartman and his enthusiastic studio of 20-something trombonists, I was treated to some soul-cleansing experiences in my masterclass, piano rehearsal and recital with the fabulous David Heinick, and in private lessons with some of the students. On my 5-hr drive back to Buffalo, I kept catching myself humming and whistling some of the tunes from my recital. This is a bit abnormal, as usually when I finish a program, I put it out of my head and move on to the next project. I tend to program each recital from scratch rather than recycle most of the program, so my preparation is fairly involved starting a few months out. Hence, I’m usually ready to “turn the page”, so to speak.

However, this time was different. The melodies from my program have been sticking with me. The answer can really be found in the reason I chose these works to begin with: I LOVE THIS MUSIC!! I usually program music that I at least like, so why, this time around, are the melodies still welcome in my head after the performance is over?

As students and professional musicians, the bulk of our repertoire is chosen for us: by our teachers, our music directors, the contractor, etc. It is our job to bring these works to life, and we must take the role of an actor in sound, regardless of if we like the part or not. A great musician can do just that. But aside from a very select few soloists and chamber musicians, most of us do not get to choose the repertoire we perform. Even in many solo situations, the soloist does not have carte blanche over the choices, whether it’s a student programming a degree-required recital, a soloist with an orchestra/band, or someone hired to perform a specific type of music for a specific audience.

When I am engaged to play a recital at a university, I think about what the students will enjoy, what I enjoy, and to what music they should be exposed. As an undergraduate at Ithaca College, I was quite fortunate to hear many guest artists. It was also the height of popularity for a few certain pieces (Ewazen and Sulek Sonatas, in particular) that EVERYONE was playing — students, teachers, and guest artists alike. While I love these works, there is such a thing as overkill! For my programming, I almost always ask the hosting professor what compositions have been very popular within the studio and amongst guest artists. I then avoid these works, as we don’t need to hear more of it when there are so many other great pieces! I also have to consider what pieces can be put together rather easily with an accompanist on one rehearsal, so that rules out quite a few works, as well. Finding the balance between music that is rewarding for myself and the listener but also can be put together with a total stranger in a relative short amount of time can offer quite a challenge. There are plenty of works I would absolutely love to play that need more than a 1-hour piano rehearsal to make a program feel at least somewhat comfortable. So, I usually start with a long list of works I love (sometimes it’s the equivalent of 3-4 recitals!) and whittle it down based on practicality, audience, and rehearsal time.

Where we often run into trouble when programming a solo performance is choosing music we do NOT love. Often, there are pieces we think we should play because they are a staple, or because someone we admire recorded it, or because we may eventually need it for a contest or an audition. I think it’s safe to assume we’ve all been in this position. In my travels, I hear many young players who play a solo for me, but they clearly are not into the piece at all.  My question is, why waste your time?  Sure, there are pieces we all should know to some degree — David, Hindemith, Grondahl, Dufaye, etc — but there seems to be arbitrary reasoning for choosing to practice and perform much of the repertoire. Again, I must assert that whatever we play, we must sell it like we love it. However, it’s tough to do that when one rarely has the chance to perform what they truly love.

Perhaps there is also a learning curve involved. Since the goal (and job) is to play any given piece like it is the “Holy Grail” of compositions, we should have the experience of playing works about which we truly feel that way! It is essential to have the experience of playing music we have chosen because we love it.

I acknowledge and respect the fact that we must all be introduced to the “standards” during our study, and ideally, work them up to some degree of proficiency. However, what I do not advocate is playing them arbitrarily, or because they are determined — often by a teacher or other outside factor — to be the next logical course of study.  My love-hate relationship with the David rests on this principle. I began working on this piece at a musically immature phase of my development, and I played it because a classmate played it and I thought I had to be able to do it, too. I was not obsessed with the piece, was not listening to it non-stop and whistling the themes walking between classes, as I usually do when obsessed with a piece.  Looking back, I approached it very much like a technical study. Any time I’ve had to prepare this work for an audition, it has been a chore. I don’t love it, and the challenge is to sell it like I do!

Humorous anecdote: the day I received tenure in the BPO, I actually went home and burned my copy of the David in the grill. No joke. It felt so good to watch those old demons go up in flame.  But, I subsequently felt guilty and knew that I should at least have the music in my library, so I ordered a new, “clean” copy…..wah wah.

Anyway, back to my point. While the idea is to love (or at least fake) any piece we play, this author feels we should at least start by playing the things we truly love, and studying those that we don’t. Many folks out there discourage playing art songs as legitimate performance pieces. Why?? They are some of the BEST repertoire we can play as instrumentalists, as they teach us to sing through the instrument and find a way to express the emotion of the text through sound color, intensity, articulation, nuance, etc. [Another blog post on this topic is coming…]. I’m saddened when I see people only performing repertoire written for the trombone, as while there is plenty of it, it limits exposure to truly great music, and tends to be a dogmatic approach to programming.

The moral of my long-winded post: play what you love! Embrace it, even if what you love is not the ‘standards’, and play them like there’s nothing else you’d rather play.

Closing anecdote:

When I auditioned for Ithaca College as a senior in high school, I visited Hickey’s Music Center. I purchased Christian Lindberg’s “Romantic Trombone Concertos” CD and immediately started listing on the drive home. After hearing the Gunnar de Frummerie “Sonata”, I was head-over-heels in love with the piece. I called Hickey’s as soon as the CD played through and asked them to pull the sheet music and tell me the range. My heart sank when I was dealt the news, as I knew it was over my head technically. That didn’t stop me from buying the piece and tinkering with it from time to time, and eventually (about 10 year later) even performing some of it. My love of the piece fueled me to work on the technical challenges in a musical way, and I eventually became pretty comfortable with it. Now that I’m thinking about it, I should go pull it out of the stacks again….

Excerpts: teaching to the test?

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I’ve been dormant on this blog for the last few months, mainly because life has been busy (who’s isn’t) and I’ve been giving considerable thought to this posts topic. This month’s blog is an offshoot of the January 2015 post regarding the (im)Practicality of Audition Lists, and I will warn you that it’s a long one! A reader shared his views with me concerning the alarming frequency at which orchestral excerpts are a requirement of undergraduate auditions in the USA, which quite frankly, I share. I have never been in favor of high school (and younger) students working on excerpts, unless they were performing them with their youth orchestra or advanced enough to be auditioning for top conservatories.

This is not to say that young students should never work on excerpts, but that the motivation and logic behind this study is too often flawed. Standardized tests have been under fire lately in this country, mainly due to the concept of “teaching to the test”. Students are prepared to do well on a test, rather than prepared to assimilate and demonstrate working knowledge on a subject. I pose that a direct parallel can be drawn when it comes to young players preparing orchestral excerpts. The bulk of this excerpt training is simply to fulfill an audition requirement (i.e. college), not necessarily to prepare students for an orchestral career. Even more egregious is the fact that many students are simply learning the notes with no consideration of style, historical context, or musical logic. Yes, there will be plenty of exceptions to this statement, but for the most part, it is this bloggers opinion that students are being taught to the test.

A respected professional trombonist and educator recently commented on a previous post of mine saying “I hear so many talented, enthusiastic, ambitious young trombonists who can play an amazing Saints-Saens Cavatine at the beginning of an audition and then a lifeless, line-less Tuba Mirum or Hungarian March, often with pitch, time and sound that don’t come close to what they do on solo repertoire.”         (full post here:,84717.0.html)

I have had a similar experience many times when working with older high school students and college students: the solos/etudes sound pretty good, then it’s as if they left the room and sent a life-less drone back in to play excerpts.

These observations pose two glaring questions:

1) Why are students preparing excerpts at a point in their development that it may actually be detrimental to their overall musicianship?

2) How/where does the disconnect between music-making and excerpts happen?

Let me address these questions one at a time. The study of excerpts is not a negative thing; in fact, I think it’s a great thing even for the non-orchestrally ambitioned player. They teach how master composers treated our instrument, and often offer a window into the evolution of our instrument and its role in the orchestra. However, where the negative aspect enters is when students are taught excerpts when they lack the musical and technical maturity to make informed decisions as to HOW THEY GO! I can comfortably make such a bold claim, as this applies to me. While I didn’t play my first excerpt until my college sophomore year, I was still musically not prepared and I still carry many of those skeletons with me. By this, I mean that some of the simplest, “beginner” level excerpts challenge me the greatest, as I have negative baggage from musically immature study. Perhaps ‘baggage’ will be a future blog topic….

Deviating slightly off-topic, etudes seem to be a vehicle for learning that many students have abandoned, and I wonder if this is a result of their teachers’ abandonment of etudes. There is not a skill or style in any excerpt that cannot be improved and mastered through study of etudes. Well, I might be hard-pressed to think of an etude to help prepare The Miraculous Mandarin, but it’s safe to say that the bulk of the orchestra repertoire can be greatly aided with etude study!

I also hold the opinion that many teachers (primarily those of pre-college students) are ill-equipped to be introducing excerpts to their students. Having visited many colleges over the last few years as a guest artist, I’ve had numerous conversations with professors who frequently share stories of students auditioning for them, and playing excerpts that seem to have zero bearing: Tuba mirum blasted and non-legato, The Ride of the Valkyries in 7/8, Bolero without the ownership of any notes above F4….the list could go on. Why are students being allowed and encouraged to demonstrate this ignorance? I theorize that many teachers simply don’t have the knowledge of, or experience with, the excerpts, and therefore blindly pass this ignorance on to their students.


Is this really the early teachers’ fault, or the fault of a system that requires students to be practicing Bolero and Ride of the Valkryies at junior high and senior high school age? Like I said a few paragraphs ago, there are always exceptions and the phenoms who buck the norm. This blog is not about those select few, but rather the multitude of students who learn to play the notes without any consideration of what the piece is about, or how their part fits into the grand scheme of the work. The shame of this truth is that this is the next generation of musicians that we are cultivating. I’ve heard plenty of audition-winning caliber players who can play the snot out of their instrument, and could repeat a passage perfectly 10, 20, 30 times. While I’m envious of this technical ability and consistency, something is often missing in the form of personality and flair. Where does this disconnect happen?

Let’s address that second question, as if I knew the exact answer, I wouldn’t be someone who struggles with this myself! Listening to my own recordings, I have discovered many inconsistencies. One of the most prevalent (and frustrating) is when it is clear I’m just trying not to miss. What is the repertoire type that I most often have this experience? You guessed it: excerpts. The same syndrome seems to exist with many students.

As a community, I feel we put excerpts on a pedestal, and bind ourselves with the idea that they must be this flawless, rigid, unarguable, black & white, Holy Grail of playing that is separate from anything else we play. In the process, the flexibility of an open and musically logical mind goes right out the window. Sometimes we are trying so terribly hard to emulate our teachers, that we lose sight of making music. For example, years ago I was preparing the last movement of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler for an audition. Being Chicago-schooled, I typically use natural legato wherever there is a slur. A colleague pointed out to me that while my efforts were noble, it sounded sloppy. Well, I’ve heard Jay, Michael, and Charlie do this effortlessly and beautifully, so that’s what I have to do – right? I took my colleagues suggestion to try some light legato-tongue and the result was fantastic: cleaner, easier, and consistent. My point is that I was so self-bound to doing it the way I thought it had to be, that I missed an opportunity to try something different that ultimately worked much better for me.

Perhaps the concept that “an excerpt is forever, while an etude just gets checked off” has something to do with the musical disconnect. Does anyone take Kopprasch 15, Tyrell 10, Bitsch 8, etc as seriously as they do William Tell or Russian Easter? Theoretically we should, but those are things that we would never have to perform so why would we be accountable for them? So, perhaps we give ourselves license to have more fun, play with more flair, and experiment more with the etudes. When it comes to the excerpts, we transform to being rigid, authoritative, and perfection-of-execution oriented. Hmm, sounds like I’m describing a robot.

Listen, folks, I’m not claiming I’ve got this figured out, and a lot of this blog is an exercise in me trying to wrap my brain around something that has bothered me for years. If nothing else, it’s a chance to kick around some ideas and see if some of these opinions resonate with any of you. I would love to hear from you if you have any ideas/suggestions/counterpoints.

At this point I want to recognize my friends at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, one of the only schools I know of – let alone conservatory – that does not require excerpts for undergraduate admissions. Check out this link and notice how under tenor trombone auditions, incoming freshmen are excluded from the excerpt requirement.  The trombone department out there is on to something!  Kudos to Mark Lawrence, Paul Welcomer, John Engelkes, and Tim Higgins.  Another colleague of mine argues that the excerpts are an even playing field in which you can evaluate if a student has style and personality. While there is also truth to that, I counter that etudes and solos can serve the same purpose, without putting the undue pressure on kids to learn something for which they are not ready. Plus, it is one less opportunity to create baggage for their futures. Perfect segue to a future blog….

Thoughts on the Alto Trombone

A 2nd Trombonist airing opinions about the alto trombone!! How dare he! He must be a witch!!  Now don’t be getting your skivvies in a bunch just yet – at least read on a bit.

In the last few months, I have been asked by a number of college trombonists about my approach to the alto trombone. Naturally, I was quite flattered that someone actually wanted my opinion on something, and furthermore, on a topic that is near to my heart. I’ve put a few videos up on this site and on YouTube that apparently got some plays, so I’m thrilled that someone enjoys them. The alto trombone is something I am rather passionate about, and I often say the worst part of playing 2nd Trombone is that I rarely – if ever – get to play alto in the orchestra.

To be clear, this post is not going to be a history lesson, as there are numerous other resources for in-depth historical information: anything involving Jay Friedman or Ken Shifrin is usually a gold mine – check out this discussion between both of them:

The first point of my own concept that I’d like to address about the alto is that it is a separate instrument from the tenor. While it is still a trombone, it has its own unique voice, and this is something I believe many modern players overlook.  Each voice of trombone has it’s own pedigree and evolution, and I believe one must first acknowledge this before and during study of the alto trombone. It is not just a tool for playing high notes!  I’m sure you’ve heard/read people say that if you can’t play the range on tenor, it’s not miraculously easier on the alto.  Certainly, it makes some passages easier, but rather from a timbrel perspective.  More accurately, it makes many passages not necessarily easier, but appropriate. To repeat, acknowledging that the alto is not just a small tenor is the first step!

Listening to players who have a concrete, informed concept of the alto trombone is my next point. Just because someone is a monster tenor player does not make them a defacto alto virtuoso. As you would with any instrument, find multiple recordings and artists to sample, and evaluate why you like one over the other. Think in terms of sound, style, and nuance, rather than just technical ability. Does it sound like a tenor, or is there something different to the sound: smaller, brighter, more translucent, vocal, buoyant, etc. My personal favorite alto recordings (including YouTube) are those by Christian Lindberg, Jorgen van Rijen, Michael Mulcahy, Ken Shifrin, and Steve Witser. Each one of those players has a crystal-clear concept of the alto sound and style, and is unmistakable from the timbre of the tenor trombone. In 2005, I had the fortune of playing the Mozart Requiem with my teacher, Michael Mulcahy. He played first trombone, as well as the Tuba mirum (I did not mind one bit – it was inspiring!), and the alto playing left a timbrel imprint on my brain that I shall never forget. It has served me quite well as my model whenever I pick up the alto.

Note: I’ve actually had a few people compliment me in the past that my alto trombone sounds big; “like a tenor” was a phrase often used. At first, I was horrified, though I took the compliment graciously. Upon further thought and self-analysis, I realized that I always received that compliment when playing a particular instrument (more on that later), but also the fact that it was sound density they were hearing. The sound was still smaller than a tenor, but this particular horn – in conjunction with my concept of the piece – yielded a much denser sound than they may have been accustomed to hearing from an alto trombone. I digress.

My third point is in regard to gear. Finding an instrument/mouthpiece combination that matches your concept is critical, as it would be with any instrument. Often I see students with the small shank version of their tenor piece, or another small shank mouthpiece that simply does not compliment the horn. Get a pile of small-shank mouthpieces, and try them all. It might surprise you that the 12C on your shelf actually has a practical use!

When I began alto trombone studies, I had a Conn 36H and a small-shank Bach 5G. It took me a few years to realize the 5G was simply WAY too big for my concept, which would partially explain why pitch was never consistent! It’s OK to play a small mouthpiece – no one is judging you on size! I eventually replaced the Conn with a gold brass, dual-bore Glassl alto, which is one of my favorite instruments. I also have a sterling silver Glassl alto, which is the trombone that has the aforementioned dense sound. It is quite appropriate on Brahms Symphony No. 2 when you want some elements of the tenor sound, and on certain solo repertoire or trombone choir pieces. My colleagues adoringly nicknamed it “The Panzer” since it packs a punch when pushed. I use two different mouthpieces depending on repertoire: a Glassl 7C for most late-Classical/early Romantic orchestral repertoire and solos, and a Bach Mt. Vernon 11C for Mozart, Beethoven, and certain chamber music.

Continuing on the gear thread, there are a few players who advocate using the same rim on all your mouthpieces, regardless of what horn you are playing. Jim Nova, for one, is highly successful at this, and no one can say it doesn’t work for him! However, I find that downsizing everything helps me maintain the concept; a “match the instrument to the concept” approach. The physical stimulus of the smaller rim also reminds my brain that I want a smaller, more compact sound. Yes, the concept should always trump equipment and physicality, but why make it harder on yourself? Furthermore, a larger mouthpiece offers more ‘wiggle room’, while the smaller alto trombone affords less. I draw the comparison to beginner tuba players: they are all over the place without even pushing down the valves!! Of course, one must experiment and choose what works the best.

My last comment goes without saying…but I will anyway: practice the alto trombone (or any secondary instrument) like you do your main horn! This means all those scale, long tone, drone, articulation, slur, etc. exercises need to happen. It is very easy to break out the alto only when needed, but over time these skills atrophy. I’ve also found that some of the scariest passages in the repertoire often expose the alto trombone (usually soft, high or low chorales with awkward position shifts) and without regular exposure to scales, drones, soft slurs, one is setting oneself up for embarrassment. Being in shape chop-wise is also so very important, as many of the “alto-heavy” pieces are quite demanding on endurance: Mozart Requiem, Schubert Mass in Ab, Beethoven 5 & 9, and many of the lesser-known chorale works.

I found myself in an embarrassing situation once while performing the Mozart Vespers. It was a very heavy program of chorale works at a small church outside of Chicago about 10 years ago, and the trombone parts were quite demanding. Of course, the chorus was tiny so anything above a p dynamic was offensive to the conductor. Mid-performance, my endurance was sputtering and I literally started falling off notes. The tenor and bass trombonists starting laughing, and they started falling off notes since they couldn’t keep their embouchures together. This was, naturally, the point that the conductor noticed and shot us nasty glances. I look back and chuckle now, but man, I would have traded anything to be in better condition that day!

Thanks for bearing with me, and I hope my ideas resonate. Keep your eyes and ears open for a new sonata for alto trombone and piano over the next year: I’m initiating a consortium to commission an exciting young composer on such a work!

From active duty to the Atlanta Symphony — guest blog by Brian Hecht

Seeing that audition season is upon us, for both orchestra and military gigs, I thought it would be a wonderful treat to have someone with recent experience in both types of ensembles share their insight with us.  Brian Hecht, Bass Trombonist of the Atlanta Symphony and formerly of the United State Navy Band, graciously accepted my invitation to share his experiences and I am quite grateful to him for doing so.  Though still in the dawn of his career, Brian has assembled a rather impressive resume, including not only big audition wins (USNB and Atlanta) but professional experience performing with some of the most prestigious orchestras in the country.  You can read more about Brian, along with listen to audio clips, at his website.

Speaking of auditions, make sure you check out my opinion piece on auditions and audition repertoire from a few weeks ago.  It will be the next blog listed when you finish reading this one 😉

Next post: thoughts on approaching the alto trombone…

From Active Duty to Atlanta Symphony
by Brian Hecht


I’ve been very fortunate in my career so far, to have had the opportunity to play in two very different and very talented ensembles; each with their own rewards that have given me different insights into the professional music world. Looking back on my experiences so far in both, I can definitively say that I would not have been successful in the Atlanta Symphony without the professional and musical lessons I learned during my enlistment in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C.

I joined the Navy Band after finishing my Masters degree at Northwestern in 2009. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into but, I knew that, because of the lack of bass trombone positions open in the country, it was either I join a military band or move back home and work at a bank.

After I won the audition it seemed like everything happened so fast! Before I knew it, I had a buzz cut, new clothes and a Chief Petty Officer screaming in my face about how much they hated looking at my ugly mug first thing every morning. Boot camp is one of those life experiences I never thought I’d find myself going through, and frankly neither did my family or friends. I wasn’t exactly the kind of person who liked following the rules or being told what to do. This is not a good trait to have as a bass trombone player, so I’m very thankful the Navy boot camp set me straight before I had to play in a professional section a couple months later.

The next two months would become the most miserable yet most memorable days of my life. From double days (48hrs of training with no sleep) to being tear gassed while our Petty Officers laughed behind a viewing window, to being fed a massive Thanksgiving meal then Intensively Trained until we puked because one member of our unit decided to get dessert. I remember the only things that got me through those 9 weeks were pictures of my family and a picture of my trombone (yep, that’s right) that I had taped up in my bunk. As a future musician in one of the Premier bands in DC, I was a rare recruit at boot camp, as were all my colleagues who were there with me, have been there before, and who will be there. Joining one of the Premier bands in DC is one of the few ways a US military recruit can shoot up the ranks the moment they graduate from boot camp. Everyone in the DC Bands comes out an E-6; for us that meant we were First Class Petty Officers. As cool as this was, this meant I had to actually stop acting like a child and grow up.

Once I left boot camp and joined the band in DC, I was eager to get to work. In fact, I’m probably the only person our Ceremonial Unit Leader has ever heard ask to be put on a funeral so I could get to work and start making music with my amazing new colleagues. For the next four years, I learned things, which cannot be taught in school. First hand professional experience is priceless! The bands in DC follow strict general military guidelines for all intents and purposes but once you get past being on time and looking clean cut in a uniform it truly is a fun and great place to be. Punctuality and cleanliness become almost subconscious habits that quickly define your practice discipline. I would arrive at rehearsal an hour prior to warm up just as I would arrive early to catch a bus to a day of ceremonial obligations that has become my routine and helped my preparedness for when I joined the Atlanta Symphony.

Aside from training in professionalism, the Navy Band was key in my development as a player. I was so green when I came in and learned countless lessons in musicianship and flawless performance from our Principal Trombone Jeffrey Knutson. These military bands are chock full of some of the best players in the country that require you to step up to their level or stick out like a sore thumb. I spent the entire four years there practicing to keep up with the best players in the DC bands. Even when I left I’m not quite sure I was successful in that endeavor. The guys and gals in each of those military bands are insanely talented musicians.

Performing as “professional last chair” in an orchestra can be very different to the same role in a band. For one, the size of each section is drastically different in each. In the Navy band we performed with anywhere from 4-6 trombones on stage, depending on the concert. In the ASO we use 3 trombones for most concerts. Having to perform with a larger number of players in your section means you have to blend more to perform as a single unit. Your volume has to match that of the other parts and your style must conform, further down the line, to present a singular product as a team. We would generally have two firsts, two seconds, and one on third. This often meant that I had to fill up my sound to try and match the breadth that two players could achieve. Though this task was near impossible, the process of it made me a better player. Having three players in a section, like in most orchestras, means you are given more of a solo role. Blend is equally as important but it’s different, in that each player is solely and completely responsible for the volume, color, and character of their part. Both roles can be a lot to juggle, but that is why rigorous auditions weed out the players capable of such complex multi-tasking.

An aspect of playing in a military band that does not exist in the orchestral world is the skills it takes to successfully perform all ceremonial obligations. Though this can be a repetitive job, it takes knowing your body and what you are capable of under different weather scenarios and levels of stress. I’ve had to perform ceremonies where the President’s face was so close to my bell that I had to lower my trombone as he passed so as not to clothesline him with my slide. I’ve had to perform on funerals for active duty sailors who passed long before their time. I’ve been within feet of grief stricken family members as we honor their fallen hero. All of this required a certain level of focus and concentration that one builds being thrown into these situations.

At times, we were required to perform memorized music in below freezing weather only wearing the equivalent of a business suit. One quickly learns shortcuts to being successful in these conditions from conveniently placed hand warmers to battery-powered mouthpiece heaters. A solid warm up can also go a long way when you have to sit for long periods of time and then perform a soft lyrical passage or even a loud march.

Wind Band music has its gems but it’s not the Mahlers, Brahms, and Bruckners I grew up dreaming of playing. Sure, we did transcriptions from time to time, but that’s roughly the equivalent to someone saying, “Here, this kind of tastes like Blue Bell ice cream, but it’s not.” It only makes you want it more. It’s this constant craving that kept me practicing my butt off to win an orchestral job.

After fours years of having this craving teased and treated by subbing with National Symphony, Washington National Opera, and Baltimore Symphony, I decided I had to win an orchestral job of my own. The timing of the end of my enlistment lined up almost perfectly with a vacancy in the Atlanta Symphony. In the Fall of 2013, I took on a very challenging and exciting new chapter of my life as a one-year sub with the ASO. Thankfully, my experience in the band prepared me for the level of professionalism and musicianship required of each member in Atlanta. In my new position, I was able to continue my lessons in these two areas through the guidance of my friends and section mates Colin Williams and Nathan Zgonc. These two guys showed me what it takes to win and maintain a professional orchestral position at the highest level.

In my year and a half with the Atlanta Symphony I have never once stopped enjoying the experience I have been fortunate enough to earn. The upsides are endless and the downsides (which I’ve yet to find) I’m sure can be counted on one hand.

In hindsight, I’ve learned from my time in the military band and ASO to keep your mind open, and your ears open wider! Never consider yourself “above” any job that opens itself to you, as some budding players seem to do with military bands and other non-orchestral gigs these days. Yes, you are locked in for a minimum of four years, it’s not an orchestra, BUT it is a learning experience and an amazing career with amazing players and people if you open your mind to the idea of something you had not yet considered. Allow where you are in life, to help prepare you for what you want in life. Anywhere you are, there are always lessons to be learned from someone who has been there before or is doing what you are, only better.

If you work hard enough and practice your butt off you may find yourself in either an orchestra or a military band someday. Don’t let that be the last success of your career. Always keep fighting and raising the bar in your practice. Don’t let the advancement of your playing and education of what’s great ever taper. Stay hungry for achieving a greater understanding of music and mastering your instrument.

The (im)Practicality of Audition Lists

The subject of audition repertoire has been on my mind lately, and even though I’m not preparing for any auditions at the moment, I thought it worth the time to organize my thoughts for this blog. Co-mingling with thoughts on audition repertoire are considerations for what is required musically of us while on the job. Audition lists are stacked with the major excerpts that we hone endlessly in school and in audition preparation, but most orchestras are not playing that repertoire on a week-in, week-out basis. While it is imperative to learn the skills and styles it takes to perform these masterworks, I feel that audition lists often over-stress these pieces and leave out a significant amount of styles that we are required to play. Like I said, most orchestras are not playing Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Wagner, and Berg every week, but rather Pops of varying styles, light classics, rock concerts, chamber music, Broadway, movie scores, etc. etc. So why are audition lists grounded in the concept of asking only the ‘traditional’ orchestral repertoire, and often excluding a bulk of the styles one must be able to perform?

First, I must acknowledge that the skills learned through study of the orchestral masterworks and master composers are imperative and benefit us in ALL styles: time, pitch, sound, tone color, articulation, style…the list goes on. If one is to play in an orchestra, one must know the canvas regarding repertoire and styles. But why draw the line there? How practical is stacking the list with the repertoire of the aforementioned composers when 90% of orchestras are playing John Williams, Rogers & Hammerstein, Robert Russell Bennett, Leroy Anderson, Moncayo, and numerous other ‘Pops’ styles more often than the likes of Mahler, Bruckner, and Brahms?

Second, the culture of “excerpt obsession” that these audition repertoire lists have created does not necessarily breed good musicianship. There are tons of great instrumentalists out there – more than ever before – but often, you find folks who can play something incredibly well, but only one way: one articulation, one dynamic, one tempo, one tone color. When asked to change something, they are unable to modify their concept. I’m not saying I’ve mastered playing everything in every way possible, but I also was schooled to be open to different interpretations and be prepared to demonstrate. It is also a result of chamber music experience and learning to compromise on how a piece of music should go. Flexibility is a job requirement and trait of a good musician!

Third, auditions often don’t test the collaborative skills required on the job — ie. Section Playing – or give it the weight it deserves. A poignant tale demonstrating this comes from a good friend of mine who was taking a Section brass audition with a middle-tier orchestra. This person was a Finalist who played a section round, excerpt round, and solo piece round. The position was ultimately awarded to another candidate, though the committee told my friend that he hands-down played the best section round (he was told it sounded like he had been a member of the orchestra for years) but the winner played the best solo.   What I don’t understand is that for a Section position audition, the person who best demonstrated the skills most relevant didn’t get the job!

In continuation, I understand that the tenure process tests these collaborative skills, and often orchestras have trial periods before offering a contract. However, it is very common to hear about someone not passing the trial period or the tenure process because their collaborative (Section) skills are lacking.

Now that I’ve presented and critiqued what I would consider three of the main handicaps of audition lists, I should probably offer my humble suggestions for a remedy. I’m going to approach it from this perspective:

 What would I ask for if I were to be replacing myself in my own job?

  1. Wider styles of music. John Williams, Ferde Grofé, Rogers & Hammerstein, Robert Russell Bennett, Leroy Anderson, Andrew Lloyd Weber (gasp), Stephen Sondheim, Hans Zimmer….the list goes on forever. These are all composers with whom modern players must be familiar and who wrote tough stuff for our instruments. There are also inherent stylistic differences that cannot be tested through the classical masters: big band licks, movie scores, Broadway standards (76 Trombones…duh) that require a more diverse style. Not everything is played like Mahler or Wagner wrote it! Can you play light, tight, and bright? Can you make that .547 bore Howitzer of a trombone sound like a King 3B in a show pit, or Tommy Dorsey’s 2B?

Granted, every orchestra plays a different ratio of this repertoire, but at some point, you’re going to  play this stuff! The Mahler 3 excerpt is on every Principal Trombone audition, even though it might only come around every 20-30 years in some orchestras. I guarantee you’ll play 76 Trombones, March of the Toys, and Porgy and Bess with greater frequency.

  1. Musical personality and flexibility. Include a solo or two on audition lists (this is common for strings, not as much for trombone) that allows the candidate to demonstrate interpretation and personality. If a committee wants to hear a solo played in one way and does not appreciate another interpretation, don’t ask it! The solo doesn’t have to be the Creston Fantasy, but rather something simple, elegant and offer a variety of interpretation. Marcello, Galliard, Corelli, Bordogni come to my mind.

Regarding flexibility, I would ask a candidate to play their best excerpt a different way; perhaps with a specific comment to articulation or dynamic, perhaps more of a stylistic subtlety. I recently heard a story of a committee asking candidates to play Mozart’s Tuba mirum solo as if it were written by Shostakovich, just to see if candidates would make some sort of adjustment. It’s certainly a counter-intuitive concept, but sometimes things like this are required of us on the job.

  1. Section/Chamber playing. The best instrumental executor may not be the best listener and adjuster, and section playing exposes this. Balance, intonation, matching articulation and note-length, style, and generally knowing the role of the chair can be easily displayed in a section round.

I also like the idea of chamber music on an audition. Why not play a few duets, trios, or quartets, even if it’s simple sight-reading? Non-orchestral repertoire often removes the bonds of playing inside a particular box. This shows if someone is listening and adjusting, without any preconceived notion of how the repertoire goes. Maybe call it instinct testing.

While a student at Northwestern, I was initially frustrated that we didn’t have a course on preparing orchestral section excerpts, such as offered at other high-profile orchestral schools. My teacher, Michael Mulcahy, would often tell us that if we wanted to learn how to play in a section, we should play trios and quartets. I spent countless hours with my peers reading trios and quartets, and even won the ITA Quartet competition with my trombone quartet. The skills learned through these sessions tremendously benefited my section playing. I am very pleased to see that more and more semi-pro and professional trombone quartets are popping up, as these folks certainly understand the value of chamber music study and will be passing it along to their students.

Auditions are not a perfect system, but they are the best system we have. Could they be improved by making the repertoire more practical to the nature of the job?


Could this mean there would be significantly more variation from audition to audition?


Might this actually help cultivate more well-rounded players?


Closing note:

I recently heard about a clinic Jim Pugh is presenting on being a well-rounded player, and also a clinic in LA being offered as an introduction to studio playing. These are FANTASTIC ideas and should be taken seriously by players of all styles. (Please post any relevant links below in the comments area.)

Next blog: thoughts from Brian Hecht on military band vs. orchestral performance.

Defining your success as a musician — guest blog by Christopher Davis

This month, I’m featuring comments by a dear friend, colleague, and badass bass trombonist: Chris Davis.  Chris and I met in graduate school at Northwestern, and we became fast friends.  We would spend afternoons playing Adam routines on the music school lawn overlooking Lake Michigan, stay up late in the recital hall playing drones, duets, and excerpts, and play mock auditions for each other.  Of course, we’d hang out and drink beer, too.  What immediately impressed me about Chris was his work ethic.  I’ve met few people, if any, who have the work ethic that Chris exhibits.  At one point, I remember Chris working the door at a local bar from 9pm-3am, going home to sleep for a couple hours, waking up to work the stocking shift at Menard’s (like Home Depot), then STILL being the first guy in the practice rooms the next morning!!  Playing-wise, Chris’s sensitivity on the bass trombone, warmth of sound, and ability to play EXTREMELY soft was a constant inspiration, especially in our trombone quartet.

OK, enough praise to Chris — I’m sure he is turning red while reading this.  This month’s topic deals with how we define success as musicians.  In school — or at least my school — there was so much emphasis on winning a major orchestra job that it was easy to lose sight of other possibilities in the music field.  This emphasis mostly came from peers, not from the faculty.  I remember one particular conversation with a freshman trumpet player where he said “WHEN I win by big job” and not “IF I win my big job.”  (He’s now in the New York Philharmonic, by the way) Of course, this kind of confidence is necessary to succeed in winning an audition, but this culture is also a double-edged sword.  What happens if you don’t win a big job, or discover that there are other things that fulfill you just as much or even more?

The reason I asked Chris to contribute this month is that he has wrestled with this concept and has found complete happiness in a diversified career.  He has performed with some of the country’s top orchestras, including Chicago, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago Lyric Opera and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, been a New World Symphony fellow and a Pittsburgh Symphony African-American fellow, secured teaching positions at Northwestern University and Wheaton College, is a wonderful father, and also referees basketball.  Most of these opportunities were secured not by an audition on one given day, but from a career of auditioning everyday in the way he approaches playing, musical citizenship, and interpersonal relationships.  In my mind, this makes one MORE successful than winning an audition, because freelancing really is a matter of proving yourself every day.

Thank you, Chris, for your insights and taking the time to share them with us!  I wish I had this wisdom while still in school.

Defining your success as a musician

By: Christopher P Davis
Lecturer of Trombone at Northwestern University and Wheaton Conservatory

At one point in my life, the ultimate definition of my success was winning a job in a major symphony orchestra. I have had many peaks and valleys throughout my voyage and after a while the audition circuit can become tedious, often times breaking ones confidence in their abilities. After strings of advancing and walking at auditions, I was at a point where I was letting the result of an audition determine my worth as a musician. In the midst of self-turmoil, I honestly felt that I wasn’t successful because I had yet to win a job in an orchestra. It is at this point in my life that I had to ask myself, what is my definition of success?

I’ve come to the conclusion that success in any category of life is defined by the individual. In order for you to figure this out, one has to ask a course of difficult questions. For example, what are my motives for pursuing this field? What do I really want to do with my life? How long do I want to take to achieve this goal? What are the steps to achieving said success? How much will I have to sacrifice to succeed? Is this what I want out of my life? After a point of self-evaluation, I came to the conclusion that I was indeed successful and that my pursuit of the “orchestral dream job” was actually more about my ego than my genuine love for orchestral music. At this same time I realized that I was extremely fortunate and blessed to have done so much in my career and that there were people who hadn’t accomplished nearly as much as me.

I have friends and colleagues that feel that their definition of success is winning an orchestral job. I have a friend who is a college professor at a big named school. I also have colleagues that are happy teaching Jr. High or High School Band even though they would be a tremendous player. These band directors give 100% to the craft and they are extremely successful at what they do and are ultimately happy with their lives. One of my best friends defines his success by his marketing and podcast savvy to ultimately make a living in music and to start an online music school. Another friend is a fabulous flutist and she uses her music degree to teach general music and private lessons to travel the world during the summers. There is no right or wrong answer to your definition of success, as long as you as an individual are at peace with your decision. Just know that there are various career paths within music where you can be successful.

I have always had great educators present throughout my career, starting with my first band director John Weber at Brooks Middle School, Phillip Crews at Thornton Township High School, Dr. Thomas Streeter at Illinois Wesleyan, and Michael Mulcahy at Northwestern. All of these individuals were selfless when working with students and always pushed us to be our best. Throughout the years, I’ve always enjoyed sharing information with people and my students can attest that I am very generous with my time. I started to think about giving back to others just as my teachers did with me. My mindset has always been – “what’s next”? This is when I decided to try to add a branch to the tree of

the things that I have done. In my short career, I have had a great performance experience, studied with amazing teachers, and have been a few places. If I wanted to expand from what I had already done, I realized that I had to get my “paperwork” together. So I started by making my Curriculum Vitae, Teaching Philosophy, and Cover letter; explaining how to formulate those documents is a different article in itself.

I then applied for a couple of teaching positions and was surprisingly called back for 2 of the 3 jobs. These callbacks (success) taught me that, In the process of diversifying my career, I could do many things that I always wanted to do, for example, record CD’s, tour, perform recitals and teach. I realized that I still can perform and give back at the same time. To me, this is the ultimate definition of success. I’m not saying that I will never take another orchestral audition, but I’ve eliminated the extraneous stress in my life by embracing the many different successes that I have had while continuing to try to improve as a musician, trombonist and now educator. With this mindset, I know I will be happy and successful teaching and sharing music with others.

My only advice to you is to define what you feel success is, connect the dots of what you need to do in order to achieve said success, and be fearless in your pursuit of it. I was in a masterclass held by John Clayton (Jazz Bassist) while a member of the Disney Band in California in 2002 and he shared the most poetic but simple quote, “If you want to be successful in music, don’t quit!” John then proceeded to explain various degrees of success within music. If your ultimate success is to become an owner of a music store, a private lesson instructor, jazz mogul, or an orchestral player you can be successful in this if you just don’t quit.