My trombone teacher during my freshman year of college at Indiana University (1973-74), Keith Brown, died today after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Keith Brown’s name is certainly known to thousands upon thousands of trombone students and professionals. If one did know that he had been a member of the Indianapolis Symphony (1957-58), the New York Brass Quintet (1958-1959), the Symphony of the Air (1958-1959), the Philadelphia Orchestra (1959-1962), the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (1962-1965), the Aspen Festival (1957-1969) the Casals Festival Orchestra in Puerto Rico (1958-1980), Professor of Music at Temple University (1965-1971), and Professor of Trombone and conductor of orchestras at Indiana University (1971-1997), one certainly knew him from his dozens of publications for International Music Company, including ten volumes of orchestral excerpts. “The Brown Books” were known to players by the color of their covers. “See you at 7 o’clock for excerpts; bring the red, yellow and blue Brown books” was often heard coming from the lips of college trombone players. Everybody had them.
His editions of the Kreutzer Violin Etudes, and the K. Stephanovsky Bass Trombone Etudes are on my music stand every day. Every day.
Those I bought in my first weeks of studying with him along with Richard Fote’s edition of selected studies by G. Kopprasch; the photo below shows the first page of my Kopprasch book. His students will recognize his handwriting at the top of the etude with the date he first assigned it to me: 9/26/, the first semester of my freshman year.
I met Keith Brown in Boston in January 1973. I was a senior in high school, and by virtue of my being first chair trombone in New Jersey All State Orchestra in 1972, had been selected to be a member of the All Eastern Orchestra in 1973. The orchestra – made up of students from the states of Maryland northward through New England – met in Boston and Keith Brown was the conductor. My trombone section included Doug Elliott, the renowned mouthpiece maker, and trumpeter Dennis Alves, who is now Director of Artistic Planning for the Boston Pops; I played bass trombone. It was actually the first time I had ever played bass trombone, and the program consisted of Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide,” Dvorak Symphony No. 8 and Brahms Symphony No. 3. Mr. Brown spoke to me several times during that week and he encouraged me to apply to Indiana University and come to study with him. So I did.
I learned a lot from Keith Brown. A lot. It was with him that I really started working seriously on the bass trombone. During my first semester, I played in Orchestra 4 at IU, in a section along with William McElheney who became a very close friend; he later went on to be a trombonist with the Vienna State Opera (Vienna Philharmonic) for many years. It was with that orchestra I first played Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 5. With Keith Brown conducting.
By my second semester, I was playing in IU’s top orchestra, the Philharmonic, where I played Alban Berg’s opera, “Wozzeck.” As a freshman. It was a heady time for me, plowing through repertoire with Mr. Brown, developing my low register, learning orchestral repertoire. His students formed a trombone choir that played at his church on Easter Sunday 1974, followed by a dinner at his home. We called him “Coach,” and we referred to him among ourselves as “K.B.” Long before NIKE had adopted the slogan in 1988, Keith would tell me, in lessons, “Doug, just do it.” He even gave me a button with that slogan.
He was kind, generous, and helpful (even if he did sometimes have a cigar in his hand during a lesson!). This photo below shows Keith Brown and me at my last lesson at IU, May 3, 1974. Earlier that year, I had decided to transfer to Wheaton College in Illinois. Not because I was unhappy at IU, but because there was this girl going to Wheaton in the fall. My high school sweetheart, Patricia, and this August we will celebrate our 43rd wedding anniversary. Wheaton also brought with it the opportunity to study with Edward Kleinhammer, bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony. But that is a story for another time.
Over the years, I kept in touch with Mr. Brown. He was always happy to hear my voice on the phone, and when he started a sentence with, “Well, very honestly, Doug. . .” I knew I needed to pay attention. I went to IU in 2010 to give a masterclass and spent an afternoon with Keith at his home. We had a great time remembering old times, and he was so proud of my long career as a member of the Boston Symphony (1985-2012).
In 2010, the Boston Symphony trombone section consisted of Toby Oft (principal), Steve Lange (second) and myself (bass). As it turned out, all three of us studied with Keith Brown at Indiana University, at least for a time. So in 2011, Toby, Steve, and I got the idea to invite Keith and his wife, Maggie, to the Boston Symphony’s summer home, Tanglewood, to hear three of his former students play together in one of the world’s great orchestras. The program: Tchaikovsky Symphony 6. Seeing Keith in the audience, front and center, grinning from ear to ear, standing and cheering for Toby, Steve, and me, is something I will never forget.
After the concert, everyone came with their families over to our home for a cookout. It was a wonderful time of conversation, remembering our lessons with Keith, talking about the orchestra business. It was a beautiful day. Memorable. It was the last time that I saw him.
[Photo above: Steve Lange, Toby Oft, Keith Brown, Douglas Yeo – July 11, 2011]
Keith and I would talk on the phone from time to time in the years that followed. But Parkinson’s Disease began to ravage his body and he little by little slipped away. Today, he breathed his last. I’m glad he was a part of my life, as he was a part of so many lives. Part of me is who I am today because of Keith Brown.
[Header photo of Keith Brown from his LP recording, Keith Brown: Trombone, Golden Crest Recital Series RE 7043, recorded c. 1972]