by Douglas Yeo
Regular readers of The Last Trombone may notice something is missing. A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for this blog, After 40 years of college teaching, the times they are a-changin’, in which I announced I was stepping away from institutional teaching. Ever since I served as director of bands at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Edison, New Jersey (1979–1981), I’ve been a teacher in a host of educational institutions. From St. Thomas Aquinas I taught at Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University (1982–1985, during the time I was bass trombonist of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, 1981–1985), then New England Conservatory of Music (1985–2012, while, during that same time, I was bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Arizona State University (2012–2016), Wheaton College (starting in 2019) and, for the 2022–2023 academic year, a one-year appointment at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. When the spring 2023 semester came to an end in the first week of May, I announced that I was putting down this over 40-year season of life in academia to turn my attention to other things, including writing several books I have under contract.
So it was that I packed up my belongings that occupied my offices in Wheaton and Urbana and brought them home. I received congratulatory messages, high-fives, some nice notes from several students, and even a farewell thank you gift and party. For a few days, I caught up reading back issues of The New Yorker and The Atlantic that had been piling up on my bookshelf, spent more time reading my Bible, visited my 91-year old mentor at his home in Idaho, and took a deep breath while I began mapping out my next steps.
Then something happened.
Over the last five months, University of Illinois had conducted a search for a new full time, tenure track trombone professor. I had been filling in at Illinois for a year between their previous trombone professor (who abruptly retired in May 2022) and when a new full-time professor would join the faculty. I greatly enjoyed my year at Illinois where I engaged with a studio of hard-working, talented students, collaborated with superb faculty colleagues, and was a part of the flagship university of the state of Illinois. I was not on the trombone professor search committee (since I was a not a permanent, full time faculty member myself; neither was I candidate for the full time position), but my students, colleagues, and I all assumed the search would be successful. As things turned out, it wasn’t. The search failed. It’s the outcome nobody ever wants in a search but sometimes it happens. So, Illinois will try again and mount a new search this fall in hopes of bringing a new trombone professor to campus in fall 2024. Watch The Last Trombone for the announcement of the search.
As this news sank in, my announced plans began to morph. Instead of thinking ahead, I thought back, to the students at Illinois with whom I worked last year and who had anticipated the beginning of a new era for trombone on campus this fall.
Together, we had worked hard to instill a new sense of esprit d’corps in the Illinois trombone studio. Among several things, I asked my friend, Lennie Peterson, to design a logo for our trombone studio, and, thanks to the contribution of a generous donor, we printed t-shirts and stickers to promote the work we were doing.
A few months ago, when I learned that University of Illinois School of Music had given the Robert E. Gray Trombone Award to a deserving student each year since 1992, I delighted to be asked to choose this year’s recipient. I was honored to teach at Illinois last year in the footsteps of Dr. Robert Gray. His legacy is an important one. Gray studied trombone at Eastman School of Music—where he earned his masters and doctoral degrees—under Emory Remington; taught trombone at Illinois from 1955–1991; founded the University of Illinois wind ensemble; was president of the International Trombone Association from 1984–1986; was recipient of the ITA’s Neill Humfeld Award for Excellence in Teaching; and was choir director at First Presbyterian Church in Champaign. Robert Gray was interested in far more than simply teaching trombone students. He was interested in the education of the whole person, in serving people, in caring for them. I came across something he said that resonated deeply with me:
Take your time in your work. Don’t always push and do what is expedient. Develop an understanding of life and humanity in your degree work. It will make you a better person.
In this and so many other ways, Robert Gray and I share similar views of the role of a teacher. I was grateful to serve for a year in the very same position he occupied at University of Illinois for so long. I wanted to do something more to highlight his work and legacy, and pay forward—in a new way—the generous contributions made to the Robert E. Gray Trombone Award fund by so many of his former students, friends, and family members that made this award possible. Anyone who has ready my books and articles know that history is important to me, and I saw an opportunity to keep Robert Gray’s work in front of future members of the Illinois trombone studio. First, I installed a photo of Robert Gray in the trombone studio. This photo appeared on the cover of the Winter 1992 International Trombone Association Journal in which a tribute to Gray appeared on the occasion of his retirement from University of Illinois. I wanted current and future students to make a connection with this exceptional person.
The cover of the Winter 1992 International Trombone Association Journal, featuring a photograph of Dr. Robert E. Gray
Then, I made a donation to the University of Illinois School of Music to produce a plaque to hang in the Illinois trombone studio, a plaque with the names of all of the past recipients of the Robert E. Gray Trombone Award—with room to engrave the names of future recipients. My donation also provides for a Robert E. Gray Trombone Award medal that is now given to recipients (in addition to the financial award the Gray Award fund generates each year) who can wear it at graduation and then have as a keepsake and ongoing reminder of their connection to Robert Gray and the Illinois Trombone Studio.
The 2022-2023 recipient of the Robert E. Gray Trombone Award was Poorna Kumar, a sophomore at University of Illinois who is double majoring in community health and trombone performance. Poorna is also a drum major with the University of Illinois Marching Illini, and while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average, plays in many musical ensembles in the Illinois School of Music. She is a most worthy recipient of the Gray Award; she embodies Robert Gray’s ideals of excellence and service.
Poorna Kumar, recipient of the 2022–2023 Robert E. Gray Trombone Award. University of Illinois Trombone Studio, May 4, 2023.
Two previous recipients of the Robert E. Gray Trombone Award were also among my students at Illinois in 2022-2023. Charlie Hall, a senior, received the award in 2020–2021, and Jerry Min, a junior, received it in 2021–2022. Since we worked together at Illinois last year, I wanted them to have Gray Award medals as well. Earlier this month, Charlie was the first student to wear his Gray Award medal at a University of Illinois graduation ceremony.
Charlie Hall and Douglas Yeo, University of Illinois School of Music Convocation, May 14, 2023.
This was what I was leaving at Illinois—a vibrant educational community with students who were making a difference. I looked forward to handing off the Illinois trombone studio to a new full time professor but when the search failed, I thought of the students who would have another one-year appointee as their trombone professor. That didn’t sit right with me—some of them would then have a different trombone professor for every year of their time at University of Illinois—and after a lot of thought and prayer, I offered to return to Illinois for another year if the School of Music was interested in having me back, to provide continuity to the program as they mount another search for a new professor who will build and grow the trombone studio as Robert Gray did for so long. My offer was accepted and I’ll be returning to campus in Urbana in August for another year. With having made some other changes in my regular commitments, I’ll still have time to work on those books and other projects, too. But it seems good and right to invest in these students for one more year. And I deleted my previous blog post about stepping away from teaching. I had a change of plans.
When evaluating goals, aspirations, and dreams, I always encourage my students to hold them with a loose grip. Yes, one’s grip needs to be tight enough to invest deeply in things so you know if they are truly desirable, realistic, and achievable. But our grip should be loose enough that something else can be put into your hand, something you hadn’t thought about. A few weeks ago, completely leaving institutional teaching seemed the right thing for me to do. As it turned out, it was—until it wasn’t. Something else got put in my hand that I didn’t expect. Sometimes we are tested in our willingness to let things go, only to find that there is yet more to be done even if we think a certain work is finished. That openness to flexibility has me heading back to University of Illinois for another year of teaching trombone lessons, teaching trombone literature and trombone pedagogy, leading trombone choir, and advising students on their college and career path—and, like Robert Gray, on the path of life. I’m back.
The sign outside of the University of Illinois Trombone Studio, Music Building 3040