Author: Douglas Yeo

Take “The Acrobat Challenge” and help Stephen Sykes beat cancer

Take “The Acrobat Challenge” and help Stephen Sykes beat cancer

While I don’t use Facebook and other social media platforms (WHY I don’t use them is a subject for another time), I recognize their power to help do many positive things.

Yesterday, Bob Thompson, a friend of mine in England, told me about “The Acrobat Challenge,” something that is going viral on Facebook to help raise money to help 26 year old trombonist Stephen Sykes beat cancer. Stephen is the son of Steve and Joanne Sykes, friends I met many years ago when I was in England helping to raise money to build a school in Ethiopia through a great effort called Brass Band Aid.

Young Stephen has been diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma and is in need of treatment that is not covered by Britain’s national health insurance program. Through the power of social media, nearly £100,000 has been raised in one month, an extraordinary show of support for this family.

You can read about Stephen and his story HERE. And here is a photo of Stephen at Royal Albert Hall in London with Sting, just before he became ill.

Stephen_Sting

The word about this has been getting out through people taking “The Acrobat Challenge.” It’s a fun little project for trombone players – and any musician, for that matter – to make a short video playing “The Acrobat,” then make a donation in any amount to Stephen’s gofundme fund to help pay for his treatment, and then nominate three more people to take “The Acrobat Challenge.”

Click HERE to join “The Acrobat Challenge” Facebook group and upload your video. Everything you need is there, including the music to “The Acrobat.” You can also make a donation to help Stephen without making a video; just go to his gofundme page by clicking HERE.

Since I don’t do Facebook, I uploaded my video to YouTube and you can see it below, or by clicking HERE to open the video in your web browser. I also made a donation to Stephen’s gofundme account; I assure you that this is a fine, honorable, trustworthy family and your money is going to a very, very good cause. I decided to mix things up a little and I recorded “The Acrobat Challenge” on my 19th century buccin, a dragon bell trombone made in Lyon, France by the maker Sautermeister:

Please join me in taking “The Acrobat Challenge” and help young Stephen Sykes beat cancer. When you look at the videos that have been posted, you’ll be very happy to join with people around the world in this worthy effort.

 

Announcement: a bass trombone concerto with orchestra

Announcement: a bass trombone concerto with orchestra

It is always a great day when a bass trombonist gets an opportunity to stand up in front of a symphony orchestra and play a concerto. Such solo opportunities for orchestral bass trombonists are relatively rare, so I am VERY happy to celebrate and help spread the word that my good friend, Gerry Pagano, bass trombonist of the Saint Louis Symphony, will be soloist with the Saint Louis Symphony (conducted by the orchestra’s music director, David Robertson) on Friday, April 28 at 8:00 pm in Powell Hall in Saint Louis. Below is a flyer about the performance. If you’re anywhere near Saint Louis on April 28, take an opportunity to hear Gerry play James Stephenson’s “The Arch” in its new version with symphony orchestra accompaniment. Bravo, Gerry!

CapriccioItalien_flyer

Residency at Bowling Green State University: serpent, trombone and a face cake

Residency at Bowling Green State University: serpent, trombone and a face cake

I have just returned from a residency at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), College of Music Arts, in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Plans for this residency were first laid in July 2014 when I received an unusual request. BGSU had recently received a gift of a 19th century English military serpent and they wanted to know if I would be willing to come to the University to introduce the instrument to the community. And thus began a very interesting journey.

01_Yeo_Varney

It seems that Dr. Glenn Varney, BGSU Professor of Management (Emeritus), shown with me in the photo above, had gifted a 19th century serpent to the BGSU College of Musical Arts. This instrument, an English military serpent with four keys that was probably made around 1830, had been in the family of his late wife, Ruth P. Varney for many years, having been purchased from a dealer in London who said the serpent was last used by a musician in a regimental band during the Boer War (1899-1902). Over the years, the serpent had suffered some accidents  – then again, wouldn’t YOU be in rough shape if you were nearly 200 years old? – and some needed restoration was done by J.c. Sherman of Cleveland. The University contacted me to ask if I could give some kind of a program at BGSU that would feature the serpent.

Now, those who know me know that I have played the serpent since 1994.  I’ve played many historical instruments in museums around the world, but before I could commit to playing a concert on an instrument I had never seen – let alone played – I needed to hold it in my hands and spend time with it. So last year, BGSU shipped the Ruth P. Varney Memorial Serpent to me so I could get to know this instrument.

07_rehearsal

No two serpents are alike and it took me several months to understand the unique qualities of the Varney serpent. My friend, Phil Humphries, a serpent player in England who plays in the London Serpent Trio and the Mellstock Band, likes to say that every day before he picks up his serpent, he looks at it and says, “Well, what kind of mood are you in today?” In time, I managed to come to grips with the playing characteristics of this particular serpent to the point where I could commit to use it in performance. I organized a program of chamber music that had been written to include the serpent, a program I had given in 2011 in Rouen and Paris, France: marches by Christopher Eley, Samuel Wesley and Josef Haydn, and a Divertimento attributed to Haydn that included the famous “St. Antoni Chorale” that Johannes Brahms famously used as the basis for his “Variations on a Theme By Haydn.” The concert that we presented – the group was superb, featuring a mix of BGSU faculty, students and other local players – was enthusiastically received by the audience. The group included Nermis Mieses and Jana Zilova, oboe; Derek Emch and Erin Cameron, clarinet; Andrew Pelletier and Kristen Running, horn; Greg Quick, Alex Meaux and Jack Smolenski, bassoon; and Charles Saenz, trumpet.

05_Yeo_concert

I titled the concert, “The Ruth P. Varney Memorial Serpent: A Conversation and Concert Led  By Douglas Yeo.” In this, I was able to engage the audience with information about the serpent, its role in music – from its important work accompanying chant in the church in France from the 16th century through its introduction into military bands, chamber music and the symphony orchestra – and the generosity of Glenn Varney in donating this extraordinary instrument to BGSU in memory of his late wife.

06_Yeo_seminar

While at Bowling Green, I also had the opportunity to lead a music history seminar that discussed the serpent. The class, taught by Dr. Arne Spohr, provided an opportunity to discuss how the serpent was part of musical culture in France, Germany and England, and its particular role and sound in large and small performance spaces. This was a very stimulating class with great discussion and questions from the students.

03_Yeo_trombone_class

In addition to a masterclass for the BGSU tuba/euphonium studio – the photo at the top of this post was taken in that class as I was demonstrating the serpent (if you receive posts from The Last Trombone by email and can’t see that photo, click on the title of this post to open it in your web browser where you can see the photo) – I also gave a trombone masterclass where I worked with several students on solos, heard a low brass section play excerpts from Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, and also a trombone quartet. These were talented students and working with them was a great pleasure.

04_Yeo_cake

And, hey, it’s not every day you get to see a face cake with a serpent on it. Following the concert, the College of Musical Arts hosted a reception in honor of Glenn Varney and his gift of the serpent in memory of his wife, Ruth. On the cake was a famous image from the British Museum of the Duke of York’s Band, c1790, with serpent front and center. Seriously!

Yeo_cake

My time at BGSU generated some nice articles in the local press that you can read here:

Musical serpent to be celebrated at BGSU (BG Independent News)

Serpent performance to send BGSU back in time (Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune)

Over the years, I have conducted many residencies at colleges and universities around the world. This residency at Bowling Green State University was one of the most diverse I’ve ever conducted and it was exceptionally well organized and very satisfying in every way. I owe a big “thank you” to BGSU Dean of the college of musical arts, Dr. William Mathis, tuba instructor David Saltzman, adjunct associate professor of trombone Garth Simmons, associate professor of horn Andrew Pelletier, and associate professor of musicology Arne Spohr for all they did to organize my various activities during my visit. And I must also thank Lindsay Gross, manager of Public-Community Relations for the BGSU College of Musical Arts who was of tremendous help in making everything during my visit work so smoothly.

Most of all, I left Bowling Green with gratitude to Glenn Varney, whose gift of his wife’s family’s serpent was the driving force behind my visit. Thank you, Glenn, for providing me with this rich opportunity to engage with students, faculty and the BGSU community and to bring the serpent to the fore in a very unique and special way.

[NOTE: All photos in this post were taken by Lindsay Gross.]

The trombone and words: Duke Ellington

The trombone and words: Duke Ellington

When most people think of Duke Ellington, they remember the superb jazz musician – composer, arranger, pianist – and the great players who worked with him in his bands. Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Juan Tizol, Lawrence Brown – these are names imbedded in the jazz lore of trombonists. This is reason enough to remember Ellington, but most people aren’t as aware that Ellington was also a deep thinker, a brilliant man who had a lot to say about music and music making, and many other subjects.

The three part series of articles about Ellington by Richard O. Boyer that appeared in The New Yorker magazine in June and July 1944 is “must reading” for any student of music. Part 1 is available to read online; click HERE to read it in The New Yorker archives. Unfortunately, parts 2 and 3 are only available to subscribers of the magazine but you can find back issues in many libraries.

But there is one small thing in part 3 that got my attention in a big way. Boyer wrote, speaking of Ellington,

New acquaintances are always surprised when they learn that Duke has written poetry in which he advances the thesis that the rhythm of jazz has been beaten into the Negro race by three centuries of oppression. The four beats to a bar in jazz are also found, he maintains in verse, in the Negro pulse. Duke doesn’t like to show people his poetry. “You can say anything you want on the trombone, but you gotta be careful with words,” he explains.”

Richard O. Boyer, “Profiles: The Hot Bach–III,” The New Yorker, Vol XX, No. 21, July 8, 1944, p. 27.

Oh, wow. There is a lot to unpack in these sentences, but I want to particularly draw your attention to Ellington’s quote about being careful with words. I wrote about this subject – being careful with words – on The Last Trombone several months ago (click HERE to read my article from August 2016 about the importance of words). As I keep working on several book projects, I keep Ellington’s quotation in front of me at all times: “You gotta be careful with words.” Now, I LITERALLY keep Ellington’s words in front of me, thanks to a nice little bit of artistic work by my friend, Kevin Mungons. Kevin and I are collaborating on a book for University of Illinois Press about Homer Rodeheaver, the trombone-playing song leader for evangelist Billy Sunday in the first third of the twentieth century. When I shared Ellington’s words with Kevin, he was so taken by them that he made up a poster that I now have hanging up in my home office (see the photo that appears at the top of this post; if you’re reading this by email and don’t see that image, click on the title of this post to see this article, including the featured image, in your web browser). I love it. Kevin made this poster in the style of an old Blue Note jazz album.

Ellington Trombone Quote

The next time you sit down to write something, remember Ellington’s words. He’s right: with a trombone in your hands, you can say anything. But words? You gotta be careful. Very careful!

Musical instruments in Hamamatsu: Their voices are alive

Musical instruments in Hamamatsu: Their voices are alive

Among the great joys of my life is time spent in many museums around the world, particularly museums and parts of museums that are devoted to musical instruments. I write about these from time to time because musical instruments are such an important part of my life, and I enjoy seeing, hearing and playing instruments both old and new.

I have had a nice friendship for many years with Kasuhiko Shima, Director of the Musical Instrument Museum in Hamamatsu, Japan. The Museum in Hamamatsu is the only museum in Japan that is devoted to musical instruments and I have visited there many times over the years. in 2015, I gave a recital there, playing many of the Museum’s instruments for an enthusiastic audience that was so eager to learn about old instruments and what they sound like.

Yeo_Shima_2014

This is one of the things I like about the Hamamatsu Museum in particular: they give regular programs where many of their instruments are played. Also, most of the museum’s instruments are not under glass or in cases. Rather, you can get very close to them and examine them from many angles. Audio and video guides help visitors to better understand the instruments as well.

I’ve been asked to write a Preface to a new book about the Hamamatsu Musical Instrument Museum. I could have just written, “The museum is terrific – come and visit!” But I used this invitation as an opportunity to talk a little more deeply about my views of creativity and music. Yes, please do visit the Musical Instrument Museum in Hamamatsu. But no matter where you see or hear instruments, I hope this little essay will give you a new sense of perspective as we think about WHY musical instruments are so important in our lives. This catalog will be published later this year and I will let readers know when it is available. For now, here is my introductory essay. . .

•  •  •

People often ask me why I chose to play the trombone. I tell them that I didn’t choose the trombone. The trombone chose me.

When I was nine years old, my school gave me the opportunity to play a musical instrument. Like most of the boys in my class, I wanted to play the trumpet. It was small, shiny and loud. But by the time the school band director got to people whose name was at the end of the alphabet – like me, whose last name begins with “Y”, the next to last letter in the English alphabet – the trumpets had already been given to other students. I was very disappointed when I was handed a trombone. Very disappointed.

I recall walking home from school that day feeling sad. The trombone seemed very large and heavy in my hand. But then something happened. Something wonderful and surprising happened. When I opened the case and put the trombone together and produced my first note, my whole world changed. With one note I my eyes were opened. One note! If one, could there be two? Yes! And then three! Notes came forth at my command. In time, with a great deal of work and a lot of guidance from people who cared about me, I learned how to play scales and songs. I sat in a band and then in an orchestra and a jazz ensemble. I realized that with the trombone in my hands, I could say things that I could not say with my voice. I could speak of love and pain, joy and sorrow. I could sing about sunrise or sunset, of a turbulent sea or a calm mountain lake. These were things the words from my mouth could not adequately express.

003_Douglas_Yeo_November_1964

Since those days long ago, I have used the trombone as my expressive voice in one of the great orchestras of the world, the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Under the skilled baton of inspiring conductors like Seiji Ozawa, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, Simon Rattle and Bernard Haitink, the trombone has taken me around the world, all over the United States and to Africa and South America, Europe and Asia. And especially to Japan, a land with a people who have a rich, abiding love for music and music making. One of the great joys of my musical life has been my exploration of old instruments, the predecessors of the instruments that I use in the modern symphony orchestra. This interest brought me to learn to play instruments with strange, curious names, like the serpent, ophicleide, sackbut and buccin. Once completely unknown to me, these old instruments have now become my friends, and these friends are often found in museums around the world–including the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments–where I have been privileged to give talks and concerts to teach others about their mysteries.

Yet not everyone understands the most important thing about musical instruments.

Several years ago I was in Germany, presenting a scholarly paper at a conference about musical instruments and playing a recital on the serpent, an ancient musical instrument that was invented over 400 years ago to accompany the singing of chant in the church in France. One of the conference participants, who was the director of a well-known museum in Europe, scolded me: “Mr. Yeo, your serpent is 200 years old. It should be in a museum! Why are you playing it?” To which I quietly replied, “Because it was made to make music.”

Yeo_Michaelstein_Chapel

The modern idea of a museum dates only from the eighteenth century, and most museums are places where objects are preserved and displayed for the enjoyment, edification and education of the public. They are important repositories of pieces of the cultural history of the human race and the natural history of the world we inhabit. Preservation of artifacts is a role that all museums share and we are the grateful beneficiaries of the care that museums take to restore and display objects that inspire, challenge and inform our views of both history and the future.

Yet when we see a musical instrument hanging on a wall in a museum, we are often left with more questions than answers. How do you hold it? How was it constructed? What does it sound like? Why does it look like that? What is it made of? Is there anything on the back of the instrument? We can – and do – admire the instrument’s beauty as an object of art, like a statue or a painting, the product of a skilled craftsman. But to do so greatly limits our appreciation and understanding of a musical instrument, and if this is all that a museum can offer to the visitor, then the museum has become nothing more than a graveyard, a final resting place for the bones of something that was once vibrant and alive but now is silent and dead.

When observing a musical instrument, we are faced with even more fundamental questions: what is music? Is it sound? Or is music simply the dots written on a piece of paper in a kind of secret code, with clefs and notes and flats and sharps? Is it the idea of a vibration of a column of air before it is heard? Is all sound music, or is all music sound? Or all of these? Or none? Can music be touched or can it only touch us? Can music exist without a physical mechanism of some kind to push it from thought to idea to reality?

In our modern time, we often observe that music, however we define it, is everywhere. We hear sounds of different pitches – high and low – and in different dynamics – loud and soft – in the cry of a baby, the playground song of a school child, the voice of an opera singer, the utterance of the kabuki performer. All of these use their bodies to create sound, and the organization of these sounds one after another becomes, in a way that science cannot fully explain, something we call music. Museums cannot hold this sound; it cannot ever be replicated or made again in exactly the same way. Music like this has been with us since before recorded history, and the diversity of sounds that have come from human voices are as many as there are sands in the sea.

Applause

But somewhere, at some time now lost to the ages, someone had an idea. Not content to simply make sounds with his or her voice, someone made a discovery. It was probably, at first, the clapping of hands. Or perhaps it was the snapping together of fingers. A new sound came forth, something that did not require the use of lungs and vocal chords. Voice and body now produced two sounds from the same person. But while related, these sounds were very different, unlike each other.

Close your eyes and travel back to that moment, the instant where voice and hands first came together. There was now more than melody. There was an accompaniment to singing, something that could provide rhythm, even harmony. Close your eyes even more tightly and imagine the next moment. The moment when the hands picked up two sticks or rocks and a musical instrument was born.

sticks_together

Born! From the mind came an idea – pick up two sticks or two rocks. Why? What was in the mind of man that caused him to do this radical, new thing? The idea conceived an action – strike them together. Why? This had never been done before. Would it be pleasant or dangerous? Was it done with anticipation, or joy, or fear? The action made a new sound, never before imagined but now there was no turning back. The simple act of striking two natural objects together blossomed. Who first found a conch shell on the beach and, after eating the succulent snail, thought to cut off the tip of the shell and blow air into it past his vibrating lips to create a note that resonated across the shore to a distant place? Now man had done another new thing: he changed a natural object with his own hands to make it something never before seen nor heard. Another musical instrument had come to life.

conch

But one note was not enough. If one note could be made, surely there could be two. Thought, trial and error, accident, intention, practice, and skill – these all combined to bring forth another new idea: tighten or loosen the lips while they vibrate. With no knowledge of physics or what we now call the overtone series, higher and lower notes came from the shell. What is this? One object but now two sounds? If a shell, why not carve out a sounding chamber of wood? If sticks could be hit together, could they strike something else? Strike a rock, a tree, a bone. And what if the tree was hollow? Would that make a different sound? Imagine! IMAGINE! Could an animal skin be stretched over a bowl of wood and then struck and still another new sound come forth?

hoopdrums

Who was it that discovered that a vine stretched and then plucked would make a sound – a harmonious tone? And imagine you were there when for the very first time the vine was stretched more tightly and plucked once again and yet a different tone came forth. One tone, then two, then three, then more. And why did this all happen?

The explosion of music had begun. Instruments came forth in all cultures, fashioned in myriad ways all around the world. They were blown, struck, plucked and bowed. Vibrations came from lips, strings, membranes and reeds. Ivory and bone, turtle shells and rope, wood and clay and pottery, iron, copper, silver, gold, glass and brass. All of this was put to use in the service of music – an idea, a thought, a concept, a need – that somehow spoke to the heart of mankind and expressed something that words could not say.

Hamamatsu_Mus_1

But there was yet more. It seemed it was not enough to simply fashion an instrument for the purpose of creating a new sound. No – now you must close your eyes again; yes, really close them – there had to be more. The sound was a sound of wonder, and wonder beheld truth and beauty, joy and pain, love and hurt. The instrument needed to reflect the imagination of the sound. And so the craftsman appeared. Instruments began to exhibit beauty for their own sake. They were curved and rounded, sometimes straight and angular. Jewels and pearls decorated them; designs both simple and complex appeared on them. While these shapes and adornments sometimes changed the instrument’s sound, they mostly brought pleasure to the eye and the eye brought imagination to the brain. Images were carved into them, of deities, of children, of mythological beings. They took fanciful shapes of animals both real and imagined, and those who played them were greeted with wide-eyed and open-eared wonder. Instruments were given names like Heike-biwa, gamelon, lur, ocarina, bagpipe, euphonium, harpsichord and violin. Some took the name of the one who first imagined them, like Saxhorn or Heckelphone. In time, instruments evolved and changed. New materials were used, new methods for shaping them were devised, and new ways were envisioned to use them. Old instruments were discarded in favor of the new. As musical instruments took on a role as more than simply sound-makers or sound-amplifiers, as they spoke of beauty and wonders, invoked God, as they inspired the very soul of men and women with both their sight and sound and the technique of those who brought forth their sounds, another idea was born.

Hamamatsu_Museum_02

We must preserve them. More than that, we must remember why these instruments were made, what they were used for. We must understand how they were put together, what they sounded like. And above all, we must keep them alive to allow them to continue to sing their songs of the ages to those of us living in a new time.

Into this idea of preserving, of restoring, of displaying, of understanding and of keeping alive came the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments. At the time it was opened in 1995, it presented a radically new idea for a museum. It was not the first museum in the world devoted to the display of musical instruments. But at its heart, the mission of the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments was not simply to restore and display musical instruments for the enjoyment of the eye. The Museum’s mission – from the very beginning – was to recognize that instruments were made to make music.

Yeo_7_bell

Look around the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments. What do you see? Instruments hang on walls and are displayed on tables. But they are not behind glass. You can examine them very closely; you can see their extraordinary detail. So you first can appreciate them as objects for the eye. But there is more. Oh, there is so much more. Dozens of video screens show how the instruments are held and played. The instruments come to life, breaking free from the walls on which they are displayed to make music once again. In the hands-on room, you can play instruments yourself; nobody will tell you not to touch them. In its regular series of concerts and classes, instruments are put into the hands of skilled performers who make them sing again, as they did many years ago. In this, the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments – The Space of God, Prayer and Beauty – speaks to all people from all countries and all cultures. There each person on earth finds something familiar, something from which they came, a respect for their ancestors and the past while inspiring us as we all move into to an ever more complicated and uncertain future. The instruments are restored to their glory as if they were made yesterday but their sounds are heard once again, speaking deep into our lives, our imaginations and our souls. The Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments has banished the glass case in favor of accessible instruments, live concerts, educational programs, video screens and audio samples played through headsets that ensure every visitor leaves having had a comprehensive experience. Let other museums put their instruments in graveyards. Musical instruments in Hamamatsu are alive! Come, learn, enjoy and be inspired.

Yeo_buccin_Hamamatsu_2015_sm

Monteverdi. And A Trace of Grace

Monteverdi. And A Trace of Grace

Last week, a good friend of mine was singing Claudio Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, the Vespro Della Beata Vergine (Vespers of the Blessed Virgin). This is an extraordinary work, one that I have loved since I first heard it many decades ago. I was very fortunate to have an opportunity to play the Vespers in 2003 as a member of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society. This was a unique performance that was semi-staged (statues of the Virgin Mary were plentiful at those performances) at the Colonial Theatre in Boston’s theater district. The photo below shows the winds of that performance (clockwise from bottom left): Michael Collver , Paul Perfetti and Kiri Tollaksen (cornettos) and myself, John Faieta and Robert Couture (sackbuts).

monteverdi_band_01_blog

All of this thinking about Monteverdi has had me listening to a lot of his music in the last few weeks, and I turned in particular to my favorite recording of the Vespers, that by Boston Baroque conducted by Martin Pearlman. Here’s a short video with highlights from a Boston Baroque performance of the Vespers from 2014. If you can’t view the imbedded video below, click HERE to view the video on the Vimeo website.

Most people, if they know Monteverdi’s music at all, know the Vespers. But he wrote so much more.

One of my favorite Monteverdi pieces, one I never tire of listening to, is his aria, Si dolce è il tormento. It is a haunting, plaintive melody of an irregular length that is sung over an interesting, even curious bass line. It has been sung by many of the world’s finest singers. Scored for singer with continuo – it has been performed with a host of accompaniments –  it seems most effective, to me, when the accompaniment is simple rather than complex. Here is a performance by Anne Sophie von Otter. If you can’t view the imbedded video below, click HERE to view the video on the YouTube website.

Von Otter is one of my favorite singers, and she had a lead part in one of the most memorable concerts I played when I was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,  conducted by James Levine. These were performances of Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz where von Otter had the role of Dido, the Queen of Carthage. It was electrifying, stunning, unforgettable. The Boston Globe‘s review is glowing but words cannot really express that beauty and power of those performances.

But I take nothing away from Sophie von Otter when I say I have particular affection for a performance of Si dolce è il tormento that my good friend, Michel Godard, organized. Michel is an exceptional player of the serpent, an instrument I’ve been playing since 1993. He is also a man of unusual and special creative abilities, and he has recorded many albums of music that features his playing serpent. These albums are classical, jazz and what Gunther Schuller referred to as “third-stream,” a synthesis of classical music and jazz. His CD, Monteverdi: A Trace of Grace, includes a remarkable performance of Si dolce è il tormento. Guillemette Laurens has a deep, rich voice with a unique timbre, and the combination of theorbo, violin, serpent and electric bass accompaniment is beautiful to behold. I am not such a purist (read: snob) that I cannot enjoy creative treatments of classic works. Treated with respect, love and care, great music can live in many forms. Michel and his collaborators bring all of that and more to this beautiful performance.

Fortunately, Michel’s recording session was captured on video and you can enjoy it below. If you can’t view the imbedded video below, click HERE to view the video on the Vimeo website.

Monteverdi. A Trace of Grace, indeed.

[The photo at the top of this post shows my serpent d’église by Baudouin (Paris, c. 1812). The photo was taken in my room at Kloster Michaelstein, Germany, when I was there presenting a paper and giving a concert at the symposium, Der Zink: Geschichte, Instrumente und Bauweise, in 2009.]

 

199: Perseverance and excellence

199: Perseverance and excellence

This article starts with football but even if you’re not interested in that sport, if you stick with it, you’ll see how football flows to music after a few paragraphs.

My students know that I often turn to sports – usually football – for metaphors about excellence, motivation and perseverance. My wife and I have been football fans for many years. We have season tickets to the Arizona Cardinals and we attended many New England Patriots games when we lived in Boston. I attended Super Bowl XXXVI (Patriots defeated the St. Louis Rams) where I played the National Anthem and pregame show as a member of the Boston Pops Orchestra, and my wife and I attended Super Bowl XLIX (Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks) here in Arizona just two years ago. Fun times. Great memories.

But there things in football that I turn to over and over as I work with students to help them develop the engine that drives their pursuit of excellence. One of them is the number 199.

When I would attend college football games, I often remarked that very, very few college football players ever end up in the National Football League. The NFL draft has seven rounds; there are 32 teams. That means there are 224 players chosen in the regular draft; several others are chosen as “compensatory picks” and some undrafted players are also signed by teams. The hard reality is that most college football players never play in the NFL. It’s an elite group. Like being a member of a great symphony orchestra.

In the 2000 NFL draft, there were 254 college players chosen in the draft. Number 199, chosen with a compensatory pick in the sixth round, was Tom Brady, from University of Michigan. Six other quarterbacks were drafted before him.

Brady, of course, went on to be arguably the best quarterback in NFL history; some analysts consider him to be the best PLAYER in NFL history. He has led the New England Patriots to five Super Bowl victories; he is a four time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.

But when the Patriots drafted him at 199 in the 2000 NFL draft, he was a long shot to make the Patriots’ roster. The Patriots had no idea if he would make the team. But Brady had ideas of his own. Brady knew he had what it takes to make a difference on a team. All he needed was a chance.

Tom Brady used the fact that he wasn’t picked until 199 in the sixth round as fuel for his engine. He wanted to prove everyone wrong. When he first met Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots, Brady said, “Mr. Kraft, drafting me was the best decision you ever made.” I’m sure Kraft’s eyebrows raised a little. But Brady knew he had something. And in his second year with the Patriots, thrust into the starting quarterback role when quarterback Drew Bledsoe was injured, Tom Brady led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl championship.

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One of my favorite t-shirts is one  by Under Armour that simply says “199.” It’s a reminder that sometimes you know you have something to offer but you just need a chance to prove it. The chip that Tom Brady carries on his shoulder, the chip that says, “You thought I was only good enough to be 199 but I will show you that you are wrong,” is a reminder that motivation to pursue excellence comes in many shapes and sizes, and from many places.

Tom Brady also has one of the most disciplined work ethics of any person I have known. He absolutely is the embodiment of a phrase I often use: “Success comes from delaying present pleasures for future rewards.” Brady is fanatical about caring for his body, his diet, his physical regimen, for getting the sleep he wants/needs, for engaging in mental stimulation. These things keep him from other recreational pursuits or dietary desires that would throw him off his disciplined routine. There will be time, when he retires someday, for those other things. For now, he remains disciplined to achieve his goals.

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by the website careersinmusic.com. The interview focused on what is required for a musician to win a position as a section member in a symphony orchestra. The result was a straight-shooting dialogue that I want to share with readers. In the interview, I talk about perseverance, the sacrifices needed to succeed, and the importance of two words that most people don’t really understand at all: Work. Hard.

Click HERE to read my interview on careersinmusic.com

Everyone has a ceiling. Not everyone will succeed at the highest level. Some people with tremendous talent don’t have the discipline needed to succeed at the highest level. Some people with a tremendous work ethic don’t have the talent needed to succeed at the highest level. But everyone CAN succeed at SOME level. The idea that you only need to work at something for 10,000 hours to succeed is foolishness. Practice doesn’t make perfect: practice makes permanent. If you don’t know how to practice something CORRECTLY, then you will get excellent at playing it poorly. And unless you understand the real meaning of the word “perseverance,”  you will never know where your talent and work ethic can take you.

Tom Brady found out. Number 199 became number 1. Not by accident. Not by getting “lucky.” He got there by combining his God-given talent with perseverance and hard work. He had what it took even when others didn’t see it. As my teacher, Edward Kleinhammer (bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony, 1940-1985) said:

World class trombone players do not just happen. Their talents are forged in the dual furnaces of determination and diligence.

 

199.