Month: July 2016

Celebrating student success

Celebrating student success

I began teaching trombone lessons in 1974, when I arrived at Wheaton College (Illinois) as a transfer student from my freshman year at Indiana University. Wheaton’s Conservatory of Music had a Preparatory Department where young players could come to take music lessons; students at the College were often the teachers. Because there were a number of students who wanted to take trombone lessons, I was asked to help with this. And thus my teaching career began.

Over the last 42 years, I’ve developed a manner of approaching the art of teaching, some of which I learned from the example of my teacher, Edward Kleinhammer. There are well-known teachers who try to get the best out of their students by treating them harshly, by getting angry, employing guilt and humiliation, setting students in a studio in competition against one another to “toughen them up.” I’ve never gone down this road. I have very high standards for my students. But I have found that when I lead by example and work with them in a way that both encourages and challenges them, we build a relationship that leads to good results all around.

When Edward Kleinhammer died in 2013, I wrote a tribute to him for the International Trombone Association Journal. For part of the article, I asked several of his students to write a few words about how they would remember him. Eric Carlson, second trombonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra–Eric and I also were students together at Wheaton College and played together for four years in the Baltimore Symphony–wrote this:

I had an hour train ride home after every lesson. During those rides, I formed the habit of writing down everything I could remember from my lesson, so I would be sure to practice properly in the upcoming week. By the time I finished writing, I would usually have a page or two of notes about things I needed to fix. I remember thinking at one point, “With all of these criticisms, how come I always feel so confident after my lessons?” With time, I realized it came down to two things: I always knew that the severe critiques came out of Ed’s desire to see me succeed. And, towards the end of every lesson, Ed would find a problem small enough to fix right then and there, so I always finished the lesson feeling like we had solved at least one problem that day.

“Ed’s desire to  see me succeed.” Yes. That is a very important thing for teachers to communicate to their students. There is nothing like offering encouragement along with a challenge to fuel a person’s desire to continue working to a goal.

Last week, I received an email from a student in Japan. I’ve been to Japan over a dozen times, both on tour as a member of the Boston Symphony but also to teach and give masterclasses. Many of these teaching opportunities have come at the Hamamatsu International Wind Instrument Academy and Festival where I have been on the faculty on six occasions. Last week’s email came from Yuta Aoki who was in my class at the Hamamatsu Academy in 2014 and 2015. He told me that he had formed a trombone quartet made up of students who had been in my class during those years and that they had recently taken 4th place in a trombone quartet competition; their debut concert will be in September. I was so happy for their success, but also so pleased that they wanted to share this news with me. Even though we are 6000 miles apart, they know that I rejoice with them. To (left to right in the poster above) Yusuke Nishi, Ayaka Watanabe, Noriyuke Komatsu and Yuta Aoki, I send congratulations again, and I wish you well in your upcoming concert. Bravi! And to teachers who are reading this, don’t forget to celebrate the success of your students, no matter how small. Your encouragement is part of the fuel that drives them.

The Trombone in Advertising – 1

The Trombone in Advertising – 1

Advertising is a curious thing. When you think about it, advertising is designed to make us unhappy with what we have, and believe that we would be happier with something else. With this in mind, it’s no surprise a lot of people – like me – fast forward through all commercials when you watch a show on your DVR, or mute commercials in live TV, or have an ad blocker on your phone or tablet. I know what I want to purchase and where I want to get it; advertising rarely influences me to do something, especially to do something that I wouldn’t do without the ad.

But advertising is everywhere, even in the trombone world. Of course we’re all familiar with ads that are designed to sell trombones. Sometimes trombone ads use well-known players. Other ads tell you about new features, metal alloys, the latest valve and improvement. I don’t know anyone who buys a trombone just because she’s seen an ad – any sensible player will try before buying – but ads are out there, trying to persuade us that the trombone we’re playing just isn’t good enough for how good you are and, oh, how much better you’ll be if you’ll switch.

Recently, I’ve gotten interested in trombone advertising. But not advertising to sell trombones. What I have been finding interesting is how many ads have used the trombone to sell OTHER things. I’ve collected so many of these ads that I’m working on an article for the International Trombone Association Journal about them. I’ll be posting a few of them on my blog. Like the postcard above. It’s from the St. Louis Zoo. Great zoo! They make postcards so you’ll buy one, write a note to friend and tell them how great the zoo is, and mail it off. You’re part of the zoo’s advertising plan. So what did they put on this postcard? The elephants? Lions? Tigers? Bears? Nope. Chimpanzees playing musical instruments. Including a trombone.

Now, my students will tell you that sometimes, when I am talking to them about working on their soft playing and how valuable that is as a player, I often start by saying, “Someday they’re going to train a chimpanzee to play the trombone. But the chimp will not be able to play softly. Because the chimp doesn’t have a human soul.” I believe this absolutely to be true. But I did not know, until I bought this postcard, that in 1950, the St. Louis Zoo had trained a chimpanzee to at least hold a trombone and perhaps make a sound from it. A postcard is mute, but I very much doubt that this little chimp band was playing Mozart.

As I work on my article, I’ll be posting a few of these ads that use the trombone. And when you see one, draw your own conclusions. Why does the trombone appear in the advertisement? Is the trombone being used effectively to sell the product? Is the trombone put together and held correctly? And what subliminal messages are going forth from the use of the trombone. I have ads showing the trombone being used to sell clothing, cigarettes, beer, brassieres (yes, bras), tires, cheese, milk, paper products, movies and much more. More to come.

Thanks be to God, he laveth the thirsty land

Thanks be to God, he laveth the thirsty land

It rained today.

Now, where you live, that might not seem like such a big deal. In fact, when I lived in Boston, when it rained, it usually meant that plans were spoiled and something had to be postponed. But where I live now, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, rain is a VERY big deal. We only get about nine inches of rain a year. Most of it comes in the summer which still leaves us with over 300 days of sunshine to do fun things outside. But since moving to Arizona, I’ve gained a new appreciation for rain.

This afternoon we heard thunder and watched as dark clouds moved in. We could hear neighbors opening their doors. Rain was coming. And when it did, my wife and I hugged and smiled. We haven’t had rain in weeks. While it’s great to have sunshine, we know how valuable rain is to life, to the land, to everything that is on earth. When the skies opened up and gave us a long deluge, we stood on our back patio (photo above) and thanked God for the rain. It was a beautiful thing, coming down from the sky, bringing new color to all of the green around us, the ground gratefully soaking it up.

It reminded me of our recent trip to Israel, were we found ourselves on the top of Mount Carmel, where the prophet Elijah dramatically confronted the priests of Baal, a false god. The story is told in the Bible, in the book of 1 Kings, Chapter 18. Take a minute and read this dramatic story. It is about drought, and the need for rain, and how God revealed himself to be true and Baal to be false. Most of all, it was a moment when God called His people to faithfulness, back to Himself.


On the top of Mt. Carmel (see  above, the statue of Elijah in front of the Carmelite Monastery on top of Mt. Carmel), as I looked out to the plain where the Prophets of Baal met their end after their god has been proven to be false, I turned to the west, toward the Mediterranean Sea. There I was reminded of how God provided rain. In the words of the Bible set to music to tremendous effect in Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, Elijah, a little boy looks to the west and says,

Behold, a little cloud ariseth now from the waters: it is like a man’s hand! The heavens are black with clouds and wind; the storm rusheth louder and louder!

To which the chorus replies, with great rejoicing, words from Psalm 93:3-4:

Thanks be to God, He laveth the thirsty land. The waters gather, they rush along! They are lifting their voices! The stormy billows are high; their fury is mighty. But the Lord is above them, and Almighty.

And so he does. As he did today here in the Sonoran Desert. Water for the thirsty land. Thanks be to God.