Category: University of Illinois

Thankful for farmers

Thankful for farmers

by Douglas Yeo

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. George Washington, in his Thanksgiving proclamation of October 3, 1789, reminds us what this day is for:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness,” now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—that we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks.

There is much for which we can be thankful. Last night, my wife and I went to a Thanksgiving Eve service at our church, New Covenant Church of Naperville, Illinois. About halfway through the service, we sang a hymn that I have sung more times than I can count, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”

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Last night, the hymn had new meaning for me. Because this year, I am especially grateful for farmers.

Each Wednesday since the end of the August, I have gotten up early in the morning to drive south to Urbana, Illinois, where, for the 2022–2023 academic year, I am serving as Clinical Associate Professor of Trombone at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I’ve made this trip 13 times this semester, a 159 mile, nearly three hour long drive. After two days of teaching at Illinois, I get in my car again and make the same drive home. When I first mapped out my drive, I made a decision. I could have taken interstate highways all the way from our home in the Chicago area to Urbana. Interstate 355 to 55, then 57 all the way to Urbana. But I on that first trip in August, I decided to try something different. I decided to take the back roads through the cornfields.

The decision was, as I first thought it through, a pragmatic one. Interstate highways are fast, fast roads. Speed limits mean little on interstates. A speed limit of 60 or 65 miles per hour means many—if not most—people are driving 70 or 75. Or faster. I thought the drive on back roads would be more peaceful. Fewer trucks, less noise, and perhaps I could take in a nice view along the way. I wasn’t prepared for what happened.

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The view on Illinois 115 near Cabery, Illinois, August 22, 2022

On my first drive south on August 22, I turned off Interstate 55 to Illinois 31, the first of several state roads with a posted speed limit of 55 mph that took me straight south from the Chicago area to Urbana. State Routes 31, 18, and 115. 55 miles an hour, that is until I came across a small village (which happened several times) when the speed limit dropped to 40 mph for a minute while I passed a village with a population of 250. Or fewer. There certainly were fewer trucks on the road. In fact, there were NO trucks. In fact, there were no cars, either. I had the road completely to myself. So much so that I stopped in the middle of the road and snapped this photo, above. And you can see what I saw for hours: endless cornfields.

In August, the corn was high. And as far as my eyes could see, I saw thousands of acres of corn. Corn that went on to the horizon and beyond. I was fascinated by the endless stalks of corn, gently undulating in the breeze. I saw farmhouses and silos that dotted the landscape. As the weeks went on, I witnessed the ritual that’s done by farmers around the world: harvest. Massive pieces of farm machinery appeared in the cornfields. Stalks were cut down, and the corn was separated from its husks and shot into huge trucks. In recent weeks, with the fields shorn of their stalks, I’ve seen new pieces of huge equipment plowing the fields. The fields will lay fallow until the spring when I will see another ritual: planting. And the cycle will go on again, just as it’s been going on since the first humans walked the earth. The hymn reminds us that this cycle applies to us as well:

First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear.

Lord of harvest, grant that we, wholesome grain and pure may be.

These drives through the cornfields—I have two more trips to campus this semester before the Christmas break and then I will repeat this driving ritual next semester—have given me a new appreciation for farmers. Farming is hard work. I never thought about how much time it takes to harvest hundreds and hundreds of acres of fields. Now I do. It’s not a one day job. And farming requires a lot of trust and faith. These fields rely on the rain that God showers down from the sky. The right balance of sun, heat, and rain means a bountiful harvest. When that balance is off, the harvest is compromised. Farmers trust, hope, and pray.

I also have thought about these farmers and how I have a relationship with them. One way or another, their corn finds its way into the global food cycle. I have certainly eaten food that has been made, either directly or indirectly, with the fruit of their land and the work of their hands. And every now and then during my long drives through the cornfields, I see a sign stuck in the ground that offers a simple message, lest we forget:

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Today, on Thanksgiving day, my oldest daughter, her husband, and our two grandchildren will come over to our home for our annual Thanksgiving dinner. We’ll be joined by some friends from church. There will be laughter in the house. We’ll watch some of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, something we do each year since I marched in that parade with the McDonald’s All-American High School Band on Thanksgiving Day, 1972. Later, we’ll have a football game on television in the background as we wait for the food to be ready. Then, days of preparation and cooking will culminate in a moment when we sit around the table with a feast before us (with three pies—blueberry, apple, and pumpkin—waiting their turn in the kitchen). It is a feast that I have been reliving each year since my earliest memory, a feast I suppose I’ve always taken for granted (with gratitude to my mother, mother-in-law, wife, and daughters who have done so much over the years to prepare the feast). We will look at this bounty before us, we will hold hands, bow our heads, and I will pray. I will pray and thank God for the many blessings He has given to us over the last year. I will thank God for His faithfulness through the year, through the cheerful days and through the storms of life. I will thank him for church and school and work and love and life. And I will thank Him for farmers who do the back-breaking work that puts the food on our table. Backbreaking work that most people never see.

I’m very glad for my weekly drives through the cornfields in Illinois. Because today, these words have new meaning for me:

Come, ye thankful people, come. Raise the song of harvest-home:

All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.

God, our Maker, doth provide, for our wants to be supplied:

Come to God’s own temple, come—raise the song of harvest-home.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. We have so much for which we can be thankful. And before you put a fork to your mouth today, thank God for farmers.

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The view along Illinois 115 near Piper City, Illinois, November 22, 2022.

Orange and blue: University of Illinois trombones and me

Orange and blue: University of Illinois trombones and me

by Douglas Yeo

My favorite colors are orange and blue. Why? Well, they’re the colors of my undergraduate alma mater, Wheaton College (Illinois). I graduated from Wheaton College in 1976, and I’ve been the College’s trombone professor since 2019.

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Compact disc recording of the Wheaton College Trombone Quartet, 1974–1976 (released 2022), Like a River Glorious. James Roskam, Eric Carlson, William Meena, and Douglas Yeo, trombones.

Orange and blue are also the colors of the Chicago Bears. My wife and I are season ticket holders to Bears football. There’s a lot of orange and blue in our family’s wardrobes.

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Douglas and Patricia Yeo at Soldier Field, Chicago. Minnesota Vikings vs. Chicago Bears, September 2019.

In November 2016, I traveled to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to give a lecture at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, give a trombone masterclass, and participate as guest soloist at an Illinois football game halftime show with the Marching Illini Band. You can read about those memorable days by clicking HERE. And, what, you may ask, are University of Illinois’ colors? You guessed it: orange and blue.

In May of this year, I took part in the All-American Alumni Band reunion in Ohio. That was fun, and you can read about it by clicking HERE. Although I represented New Jersey when I was a member of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band in 1972-1973, I wanted to show a little Illinois pride at our recent reunion, so I pulled out the polo shirt that Dr. Barry Houser, director of the Marching Illini Band, gave to me in 2016.

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Little did I know that just two months later, that shirt would have a lot more meaning for me.

Last week, University of Illinois School of Music announced my appointment as its trombone professor (Adjunct Clinical Associate Professor of Trombone) for the 2022–2023 academic year. At the end of May, the University’s trombone professor abruptly retired, and the School of Music reached out to several people including me to ask if we would be interested in applying for a one-year position. I was intrigued by the idea so I tossed my hat in the ring, not at all sure that everything could possibly come together to make it happen on my end even if the University turned out to be interested in me. As things turned out, they were interested in me and after several interviews, I was offered the position. After a lot of thought and prayer, I decided to accept, and in a few weeks, I’ll be in Urbana each week working with a trombone studio of talented players, and working alongside my good friend, Jim Pugh, who is University of Illinois’ professor of jazz trombone and composition.

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Jim Pugh and Douglas Yeo playing Charles Small’s Conversation, University of Illinois School of Music, November, 2016

I also have another friend who teaches at University of Illinois—trumpet professor Charles Daval. Charles was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra during my first years in the BSO. This photo, below, shows the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa in a memorable performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 at the Philharmonie in Berlin, August 1984. You can see Charles on the far right and me behind him, playing over his right shoulder. Our second trombonist for part of that tour was Carl Lenthe, then principal trombonist of the Bayerische Staatsoper, and now Professor of Trombone at Indiana University. Ronald Barron is playing principal trombone. I plan to hang this photo in my office at University of Illinois, a reminder of how Charles and I find ourselves together once again nearly 40 years after we first met.

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Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa, performing Symphony No. 10 of Dmitri Shostakovich. Philharmonie, Berlin, August 1984. Charles Daval (far right), third trumpet; Douglas Yeo (behind Daval’s right shoulder), bass trombone.

When my appointment to the University of Illinois faculty was announced, flute professor and chair of Winds/Brass/Percussion, Dr. Jonathan Keeble, interviewed me for a press release. Here’s the interview, which tells a little more of this story:

What have been your favorite professional musical experiences?

Making a list of favorite musical experiences is like asking, “Which of your children do you love the most?” But if I had to choose a few from my long career, they would include performing Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 2 with Leonard Bernstein in the National Cathedral, Washington DC, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 with Seiji Ozawa in Berlin, Josef Haydn’s The Creation with Simon Rattle in Boston’s Symphony Hall, and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in Amsterdam with Bernard Haitink. And recording the film scores to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan with John Williams on the podium.

What pulled you away from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and into teaching when you moved over to Arizona State University?

After playing in the Boston Symphony for nearly 30 years, I had accomplished every dream I had imagined as a member of a great symphony orchestra. My wife and I decided to retire to Arizona—we love the landscape and diverse cultures of the Southwest—not knowing exactly what was next for us but we were ready for new adventures. Then, Arizona State University approached me about accepting their full time Professor of Trombone position; I could not refuse. Trombone students at a university are interested in a host of artistic expressions: performer, educator, arranger, author, and much more. I am a trombonist who has been involved in everything – from performing the symphonic canon, to actively participating in early music as a sackbut, serpent, and ophicleide player, to being a New York City jazz freelancer, as well as a high school band director, and author of numerous books and articles. It’s through this broad set of experiences that I can relate to and help students who have many different goals. Engaging with my students at ASU and helping them to become difference makers in society was immensely gratifying but in 2018, we decided to move to the Chicago area. Grandkids can do that to you.

What about University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) coaxed you to come out of retirement for the upcoming year?

In 2016, I came to the Illinois campus on two occasions. The first was to give a concert in the Krannert Center with Philharmonia Baroque (I played serpent on Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks). The second was to give a lecture at the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, and perform as guest soloist with the Marching Illini at a football halftime show. I was impressed with all I experienced on campus, and when the University approached me about its need for a trombone professor for 2022–2023, the idea was immediately appealing. Also, I played alongside UIUC’s trumpet professor Charles Daval when he was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s, and jazz trombone and composition professor Jim Pugh and I have been good friends for many years. The prospect of working with them and UIUC’s talented students was simply irresistible. I keep flunking retirement but I’m OK with that.

Indeed, it seems as though you’ve hardly taken a breath since “retiring!” What is it you find most gratifying about teaching trombone?

Watching a student have that Eureka! moment when a concept clicks. When a student understands that making music is more than a job but it’s a calling, the intensity of the student/teacher relationship kicks into high gear. I have been fortunate to have many students who are passionate about positively influencing the world with a trombone in their hands, and the joy of working with them is incalculable.

Who’s Professor Yeo when the trombone’s out of his hands?

I love to write. In fact one of two books I completed last year is published by University of Illinois Press (Homer Rodeheaver and the Rise of the Gospel Music Industry, co-authored with my friend, Kevin Mungons). My favorite non-musical thing to do is hiking with my wife, our favorite place to do that is Zion National Park in Utah, and we are Chicago Bears football season ticket holders. Our family bleeds orange and blue. That’s another reason why I’m very excited to be part of the UIUC community!

So, here we go. In a few weeks, I’ll be in Urbana teaching at UIUC. Orange and blue. That same week, I’ll be also back in my studio teaching at Wheaton College. Orange and blue. And a few weeks later, the Chicago Bears will open their season and my wife and I will be in our seats at Soldier Field, Chicago. Orange and blue.

They really are my favorite colors.

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76 Trombones

76 Trombones

by Douglas Yeo

Last week I had the great pleasure of traveling to University of Illinois to take part in several immensely rewarding activities.

Over the years I have been a guest artist at dozens of schools, colleges and universities around the world. The opportunity to engage with students – whether in a lecture, performance, masterclass or, as was the case at University of Illinois, something completely different – is exceptionally rewarding and I always enjoy becoming part of the local musical culture when I am visiting.

The invitation to travel to Champaign-Urbana came from Scott Schwartz, Archivist for Music and Fine Arts and Director of the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music on the University of Illinois campus. Scott and I had met many years ago at the Great American Brass Band Festival in Danville, Kentucky, where I had presented a paper about the use of serpent and ophicleide in brass bands and I performed a solo on ophicleide accompanied by the Athena Brass Band.

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Scott asked if I would be interested in coming to Illinois to give a lecture/demonstration about early American trombone makers, their innovations and marketing strategies. The Sousa Archives had set up a very nice exhibit of six late-nineteenth and early-twentieth trombones as well as mouthpieces, catalogs, advertisements and other ephemera. In addition, we had selected six other instruments for me to play and demonstrate. Oh, and not to be lost in the moment is that the Chicago Cubs had just won baseball’s World Series and it seemed appropriate to make my Cubs hat part of the display.

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I always enjoy getting my hands on, talking about and playing old instruments, such as the alto valve trombone pictured above. The time at the Sousa Archives was very rewarding and was made more so because of the engaged audience and their great questions.

From the Sousa Archives I went to the University of Illinois School of Music where I gave a trombone masterclass. I worked with three talented students and also enjoyed getting together with my friend, Jim Pugh, who teaches jazz trombone and composition at University of Illinois. That was fun.

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I have known Jim for decades and have the utmost respect for him as a player and a person. Several years ago I reviewed his superb CD, X Over Trombone, and I consider him to be one of the most creative players – and composers – on the scene today. Despite our long friendship, we had never played together, so we started the masterclass with a performance of Charles Small’s duet Conversation.

The third piece of my University of Illinois trip was a performance with the Marching Illini Band under the direction of Barry Houser. As an event with another connection to my trombone lecture and masterclass, I led a group of 75 trombone players – both members of the Marching Illini Band and students from local high schools – in a performance of Meredith Wilson’s 76 Trombones to start the halftime show of the Illinois/Michigan State football game. 75 + me = 76 Trombones. That doesn’t happen every day. Click the video image below to see the whole halftime show; it begins with 76 Trombones, and continues with a tribute to the Chicago Cubs and much more.

Now, when you put 76 trombones on a football field accompanied by a marching band, that is one impressive sight and sound. My hat is off to the Marching Illini for inviting local high school trombone players to join with the 40 trombonists of the Illini Band to get us up to 76 trombone players. This is one fine band, and I was caught up in many of their great traditions. School spirit was alive and well; it was a great day of interaction for all of us and, hey, Illinois won the game. It must have been the trombones.

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I want to send a big THANK YOU to Scott Schwartz for making all of this happen, to Jim Pugh for his setting up the trombone masterclass and for playing Conversation with me, and to Barry Houser and all of the members of the Marching Illini Band for a great few days where we all came together in Illini blue and orange and celebrated the trombone. This was a memorable and very satisfying trip. Go Illini! I – L – L – – I – N -I !

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[And thanks to Scott Schwartz and Grace Talusan for the photos.]