At any given time, there are a handful of universities that seem to be the most desired destinations and training grounds for young, accomplished trombonists; Northwestern University (NU) and Indiana University (IU) seem to be perennially at the top of this list. Can you imagine what it would be like to teach in BOTH great studios? At the SAME time? Peter Ellefson Has…
And now, (along with IU and UNT in Denton), NU has adopted a team studio approach for trombone. In recent years, they have boasted some of the greatest symphonic players from the great symphonies: Chicago’s Michael Mulcahy & formerly Charles Vernon (and now Christopher Davis), San Francisco’s Timothy Higgins, and Detroit’s Randall Hawes. Could you imagine having the “fly on the wall” vantage point? for ALL of the lessons, with ALL of the teachers? For several years? And how about playing in THAT trombone quartet? Peter Ellefson has…
If you ever imagined playing in a great symphonic hall, or with a fantastic orchestra, imagine playing in SEVERAL of these great halls, with a NUMBER of exciting orchestras. Peter Ellefson has done this, too…
At the apex of teaching music to young trombonists AND performing great orchestral music on trombone, is Peter Ellefson-a trusted colleague, tasteful musician, and dedicated teacher. 1385 tm, the tenor trombone interview series, is delighted to establish the arc and scope of our series, with this third interview of tenor trombonist Peter Ellefson. Enjoy!
1. What was the most important aspect of your playing that was influenced by each of your trombone teachers? How did they approach it?
Warren Baker………….Consistency of attacks, bodies and releases. I learned to hear differently and to not give up until it was correct. He also gave me the gift of sincere encouragement at a critical time in my development.
Mark Lawrence………….The first world class trombonist I encountered. Free and easy approach and effortless upper register. I sat behind him for weeks during the Empire Brass Quintet Seminar at Tanglewood during the summer of 1982, absorbing his resonant sound, virtuosic slide technique and elegant musicianship. He remains my primary solo influence.
Frank Crisafulli………….My primary orchestral influence. That sound! I always made sure I began each lesson with a duet so I could be in the same room with that sound. It was contagious in a very positive way. Nothing fancy, just take a breath and blow.
Dee Stewart………….The magic of easy air and that “work effort does not necessarily equal decibels.”
Joe Alessi………….Although I have only had a couple of formal lessons with Mr. Alessi, I have learned volumes from listening and playing with him as well as watching him teach at the Alessi Seminar. He probably wouldn’t claim me as a student but his influence on me is profound. In my opinion, he set a new standard for orchestral trombone playing and his solo recitals are spectacles of virtuosity.
2. What are the biggest musical adjustments you make when preparing excerpts as opposed to solos? Mental concepts, strategies, musical approaches, etc..
Excerpts are about execution.
Consistent, predictable execution of masterful fundamentals within the style of each composer. Thank goodness I don’t need to prepare excerpts anymore but I do need to teach them to students who claim that they wish to play in an orchestra. There are five aspects I stress in every lesson, whether I have heard the student a hundred times or am hearing them for the first time. I also listen to the same five things during auditions and they guide me in my own practice:
1. Sound– playing with a great sound in all registers and in all dynamics.
2. Intonation– it’s either in tune or out of tune.
Being “a little out of tune” is like being “a little pregnant.”
3. Articulation– playing with appropriate articulation
to enunciate the music stylistically.
4. Rhythm– the ability to keep a consistent pulse
as well as accurately execute the rhythms within the established pulse.
Given all of the fundamentals above, what is produced?
The paint is mixed. Now…what to paint?
Solos are about telling a musical story.
Too many people play solos like orchestral excerpts. Music is about communication. Identifying what we have in our hearts and brains and sending the message via pitch vibration through our brass megaphone, which is then captured through the ears of our audience and received in their brains and hopefully accepted into their hearts. We trombonists are generally “musically challenged.” Unfortunately, we listen mostly to other trombone players who are similarly challenged. We listen to the greatest players to hear great fundamentals but rarely do we encounter great music. We need to take the chance to INTERPRET. We seem to be deathly afraid to put ourselves out there because we have no experience being creative and we are too worried about what other people think. I urge students to take a chance! I try to convince them that a bad decision is better than no decision.
3. NU under your tenure was famous for not only consistently excellent student experiences, but innovative studio logs that encompassed each studio. How did these come about? Which student reports of solutions did you find most intriguing drawn from the methods of your colleagues?
When I was fortunate enough to begin teaching at NU, the “quality ball” was already rolling very powerfully and distinctly. I just joined in and tried to learn as much as possible from my colleagues as well as teach the terrific students. Of course it was an honor for me to go back to my alma mater and share with them what I have learned since graduating in the mid-1980s.
The lesson reports you mention are a very effective way of getting the students to revisit their lesson throughout the week as well as keeping the teachers on task, knowing that the direction would be heard again—and read by colleagues. The summaries were in place before I arrived, I think. The ticket for admission to the lesson was a written summary of the last lesson.
One of the fascinating aspects was to read what my colleagues said to the students but perhaps even more fascinating was to read what *I* had previously said. I would go back and read the student lesson summary, often weeks after the actual lesson and think, “Wow, I said that? That is pretty good advice!” This is not meant to toot my own horn but to underscore the magic that transpires in lessons when the teacher and student are both “running on all cylinders.”
It was also curious to read how the students interpreted our words and what they chose to include i the summary. When I began, there were three of us: Michael Mulcahy, Charlie Vernon and me. When Charlie made an exclusive commitment to DePaul, Randy Hawes returned to NU. After a couple of years, as the numbers were climbing, Tim Higgins, the terrific principal trombone in San Francisco (and NU alum) joined us, which led to the faculty quartet in which I was honored to participate.
Prof. Mulcahy is a master of words and motivation. Prof. Hawes is a master of simplicity. Prof. Higgins embodies/espouses Prof. Mulcahy’s philosophies distilled through youth and practical application. I always learned from the summaries. I still have them all…hundreds of pages of gold. One thing I initiated was scanning all of the summaries. After removing as much identifying information as possible, I would make all summaries available to all parties. Pure gold. There were no luckier students than the ones at NU. What they received from us…and I am sure that which continues today, was the most pertinent information from some of the most active and important players and teachers in the country. I chose to leave in 2013. I had just turned 50, was still teaching full-time at IU and life was going by much too quickly. It was a very, very difficult decision to leave Northwestern. I think they have five teachers now!
4. What DIFFERENCES have you noticed as a listener/participant in the wonderful orchestras of Seattle, Chicago, New York and others? (Tendencies, priorities, approaches?)
I always try to be a “contributing chameleon” wherever I play. I never really consciously think about the differences, only what I must do at the moment to be a good musical citizen and contributor.
Upon reflection, one of the biggest differences involves volume of sound. I could never play in Seattle the way I have had to in Chicago and New York—although sometimes in the opera pit for The Ring, we hauled it out quite well. Much of that difference has to do with the size/quality of the hall and the size of the orchestra. Boston has such a nice hall that, in my few BSO visits, I never felt that I had to push the sound. Similarly, Seattle’s Benaroya Hall is newer and much more efficient than the halls in Chicago and New York. It is easy to hear on stage and easy to blend dynamically due to the hall’s sonic feedback. It is more like chamber music there. The greatest challenge for me in Chicago was being able to hear across the orchestra and playing ultra softly. That orchestra (and the low brass in particular) has an incredibly wide dynamic range.
The CSO guys play really, REALLY softly.
Another difference is the timbre in different dynamics.
I find that the NYP section maintains a very similar timbre from their softest to loudest. The sound is still very broad at highest dynamics with very little “sizzle.”
The CSO section tends to change timbre at the highest dynamics. It gets pretty “fiery” in the red-zone. I believe that is at least partially due to the equipment they prefer…lightweight bass trombone slides for the tenors and a proportionately larger slide for the bass as well. To be a good citizen, most of the time, I would change slides when playing in the CSO. The last difference I’ll mention is note length and shape. Chicago has a lot of energy at the attack and not a lot of sustain.
New York has less emphasis on attack but lots of sustain. At this point, in case I seem overly analytical, I must declare that it is always the highest honor for me to play with these orchestras. You astutely ask about the differences which are very few, especially when compared to the similarities, which are many. These are the best trombonists in the world!
5. Your Umbrella is a beautiful conceptual and visual aid. How do you use it to address student progress?
That was a concept I developed in my first or second year of teaching at IU to help students quantify their product. Thank you for finding it and noticing its value. I might change it ever-so-slightly now but the components remain the same. Student progress is about basic awareness and merely making them cognitively aware of the most important fundamentals immediately improves their product. I would add stress to the subjects of contemplation and focus. Currently, “Device Distraction Disease” is an epidemic, hindering the progress of every student I encounter.
6. What is your approach to a great legato on trombone?
It depends. For me, legato is not legato is not legato. It differs from style to style.
I have a different approach to legato than most. I will suspect that many people often find my legato too “smeary.” When I listen to singers, I hear portamento connections, not a “notched” articulation from one note to another. The trombone is better able to imitate a vocal approach than any other wind or brass instrument. I used to be sensitive about my “smeary” legato. Now I embrace it as espressivo. I can play cleanly (really, I can!) but often it is a conscious choice to play more vocally and lyrically. I don’t hear it so much from behind the horn as I am merely reproducing what is in my head but I do hear the portamento when reviewing a recording of myself. I am not sure I would recommend my style of legato to others because of the stigma of the smear but it works just fine for me. I also mix natural slurs and legato tongue, for variety, however, I have no set dogma as to when to use which. I just play. The above description applies to solo literature or other repertoire that allows for freedom of personal interpretation. When preparing excerpts, there can be no portamento in the legato. Clean wins.
7. What is your theory on Frank Crisafulli’s ability to maximize a players potential during a lesson? How would you describe his sound?
Humble, self-effacing demeanor combined with obvious joy of interacting with students. He was able to make us falsely believe as though we played better than he did. He was encouraging while still gently pointing out what needed out be improved upon. I accept that there are big differences in teaching styles but I have never been able to understand the “teaching by humiliation” approach that I know exists elsewhere. In my own teaching, I have completely adopted his style of positive reinforcement. He somehow knew what was most important at the time and what could be addressed later. I also believe that he had an instinct for what he knew we would fix on our own. He trusted us. I played my best during that hour each week and the rest of the time I was trying to recapture how well I played in those lessons—or at least how I perceived that I played.
His sound was like no other I have ever encountered. Compact yet wide and very “meaty.” His sound was full, pure, direct and filled with overtones. He played relatively small equipment (by today’s trend) but he had a huge sound. I like to describe the ideal trombone sound as narrow and deep rather than wide and shallow (a la baritone horn). I believe that the narrow and deep sound is what projects and he certainly projected with apparent ease. I sensed that his air was slow but so well placed. There was nothing flashy, just the facts. His slide movement was a study. Slow but never late. How can that be? Even watching the videos of the CSO (what treasures!), one sees how he seemed to never move quickly but it was always in the slot.
c. 2016 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved. www.davidbrubeck.com
Photos courtesy of Peter Ellefson
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