A life of keen observation and experience may lead to wisdom, take Matthew Guilford. Orchestral aplomb and soloist expertise yield to teamwork and heart-felt finesse. As others seek to deepen existing trails of chamber music, Guilford emerges with a powerhouse brass trio, and recording. Join “Seven Positions” on a trip from a garage in Boston to the Kennedy Center in Washington D. C.. Enjoy….
1. How did you develop an interest in the Russian language, and where has it taken you?
I attended public schools in Middleboro, MA where I grew up. At that time, two foreign languages were offered, French and Russian. While I did study French for a year or two, I enrolled in Russian language studies from 8th grade through my senior year. The Russian teacher, John Sullivan, was the head of the foreign languages department as well as one of the finest instructors of any course I have ever taken. His consistency of approach and high expectations of his students made a deep and lasting impression on my academic career and helped to shape my own teaching style.
Although I have graduated with two degrees from New England Conservatory, my undergraduate studies began at Boston University where I majored in music performance with a minor concentration in Russian language. You have to remember that the world was a very different place at that time, the early 1980’s. The cold war was being waged and the iron curtain was firmly in place. Government jobs requiring Russian language skills were abundant and I could see a possible departure in that direction if I were to change course. My preparation under John Sullivan was adequate enough to place me into a more advanced section of Russian studies, but by the second semester of my sophomore year, the writing was on the wall that I would be transferring to N.E.C., so my formal studies in Russian ended there.
Since joining the National Symphony Orchestra, I have had the opportunity to tour Russian on two occasions, 1993 and this past March of 2017. On both trips, my skills were adequate enough to hold basic conversations, order meals, hail a taxi, and so on. My son was able to join me on this latest tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and those language skills certainly came in handy as we did a fair amount of sight-seeing and touring apart from the orchestra.
2. How did your mom come to love the trombone so much?
My parents were not trained musicians per se, but they each showed a deep love of music that was perceptible to me from an early age. Music in one form or another could usually be heard from somewhere in our home. As a child in the late 1960’s, I remember that they formed a folk group with a few friends and would have rehearsals in our living room covering hit tunes by groups such as The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary.
There were a number of jazz albums in our home as well, mostly swing era or Dixieland in style. Arnold McKenzie. My mother loved to sing along and still does. The sounds of Tommy Dorsey were no stranger to me at a young age. Buddy Morrow’s ballad playing as well. Truthfully, she heard a trombonist in a band that played weddings and concerts in the Middleboro, MA area when she was a young girl. The trombonist in that group was Arnold McKenzie, a trombonist whom I never had the opportunity to meet but who’s playing certainly made an impression on her. You might say that Mr. McKenzie was equally responsible for my career!
Of course, she went on to become an even bigger fan of bass trombone playing! Whenever she attends one of my concerts, she tells me that she can always pick my sound out from the rest of the orchestra. That’s a good thing, right?!
3. Who are your influences?
I grew up in a working class family in a blue collar New England town. The masculine influences in my early life were from men who worked with their hands. My grandfather built most of his home by himself and grew enough produce in his garden to feed a family of seven. My father was a diesel mechanic in the Coast Guard, a career firefighter and could fix just about anything. That I became an artist and academic…it is so far removed from their lives, but their heroism and self-sufficiency made a lasting impact.
Jerry Shaw was not my first trombone teacher, but he was probably the most important teacher. My first few years of playing were with Luther “Sonny” Churchill, who gave me the basics of slide positions and technique. My parents bought me a nearly new Conn bass trombone a few years later (age 13), and that is the time that I began my lessons with Jerry Shaw. Jerry had graduated from music school in Lowell, MA, took lessons with John Coffey (Boston Symphony 1941-’52), played in the U.S. Army Band overseas, AND played bass trombone as well, the same model Conn as mine, the 73H.
A more dedicated trombone teacher I have never met, and while I would like to imagine that Jerry favored me, I am quite sure that he gave equal attention to all of his many students. Let me put it this way: he taught me how to play the trombone in such a correct and thorough fashion that I constantly ask myself when working with my own students, “What would Jerry say now?”. The details of my lessons with Jerry are many and honestly deserve an entire article of their own.
Finally, and this is a “what” rather than a “who”, an early and important influence was my participation in team sports. Around the same time that I blew my first notes on a trombone, I was involved in sports. In no particular order, I was a team member of many a swim, baseball, football and basketball team. When you are able to ascertain what your own personal strengths and weaknesses may be, you gain the knowledge of how you can best help your team. There is a direct correlation to orchestral playing in this regard, and I am convinced that my early connections to team sports have guided me toward being a better team player.
I have coined a term, virtuoso team player, that might be expressed best as a meshing of personal excellence and artistry in a seamless fashion into the greater good of an ensemble. This has nothing whatsoever to do with virtuosity as commonly conceived vis-a-vis solo artists, their technical prowess, pyrotechnics and so on. Imagine that same level of skill directed not outwardly/individually as a soloist must, but inwardly to the team of orchestral colleagues. There is a virtuosity in the milli-seconds of reaction required in every orchestral rehearsal and concert that is very much the equal of the soloists aim, but it creates a different kind of internal energy that fuels the ensemble.
4. Aside from all of the excellence in common, what distinctiveness have you noticed in some of the different orchestras with which you have performed?
My first tenured position was with the San Francisco Opera orchestra. While I had played a few operas as a student and freelance musician in Boston, I had not previously played in an orchestra who’s primary function was operatic performance. The first opera of my first season was Verdi’s Falstaff, and what struck me immediately was the style in which the orchestra played Verdi. Many of the sounds and interpretations I was hearing from my colleagues were not indicated in the parts or score, but were born of experience and years and years of Verdi performances. I began to latch on to this concept and by the time we began Othello in the middle of that season, I was clued into the Verdi vibe. The same could be said of the way they performed Puccini, Leoncavallo, Boito and Mascagni.
When I arrived at my current position with the National Symphony after a couple of seasons playing opera in San Francisco, the difference of styles, operatic vs. symphonic took a period of adjustment for me. Opera orchestras, for the most part, are serving the needs of the stage action. When a soprano decides to linger on a high C, or a bass may be fighting a cold, or it takes Seigmund a little longer to pull the sword out of the stone one night, the orchestra must have the flexibility to react to those very real possibilities.
Symphony orchestras have more of a luxury of serving themselves in their repertoire. Sure, they need to be flexible and sensitive to soloists, choruses, narrators and so on, but not to the extent that opera orchestras must. I find it very satisfying and necessary that my orchestra typically plays a few operas every season. It improves our reflexes and makes us a stronger ensemble.
I have been fortunate in that several orchestras in the USA, and at least one foreign, have asked me to join them as a guest or extra performer. The closest association that I have with any of these organizations at present continues to be with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In recent years, I have performed with them in Boston’s Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall and at their summer home, Tanglewood. The fact that they continue to have me as a guest is immensely gratifying to say the least, especially given my history with that orchestra going back to 1986 when I began subbing with them as an NEC student. I feel that I truly learned how to play in an orchestra through those early experiences as an extra player, sitting beside my teachers Norman Bolter and Douglas Yeo.
5. What is your secret to a great legato?
As the years have gone by, the main take-away for me is the realization that great legato playing is much more about air and much less about tongue. As beginner trombonists, after learning where to place the slide we are taught the two basic tongue strokes for “TA” (non-legato) and “DA” (legato). A usual starting point for introducing legato tongue to a student involves using the “DA” articulation on every note in a legato passage to help foster consistency of response and familiarize the student with a new tonguing concept. That is all fine and good.
The next step toward great legato playing (and the several steps that follow) should, in my opinion, gradually relieve the tongue of its duties as legato enforcer. We already have several means of legato playing that use no tongue whatsoever: natural slurs within the same position/overtone series, cross-position playing that ascends or descends (cross-grain), and deploying and releasing the valve(s) are the most common. Many players, myself included, use no tongue within the same partial but are able to achieve a clean legato by means accurate slide technique and an unwavering air stream.
I have a graphic that I use with my students which illustrates my idea of articulation differences based largely upon the decibel meter.
Graphic unresponsive, please check back later.
Using the above graphic, substitute decibels with the following articulations:
• 0 – 50 uses “TAH” tongue
• 50 is tenuto
• 51 – 99 uses “DAH” tongue
• 100 is glissando
For purposes of legato, 51 would be the hardest and heaviest form of legato tongue. As you move in the direction of 100, by necessity you will use less legato tongue. That gives you exactly 49 possibilities of legato before you hit glissando. That stands in stark contrast to the 1 “DAH” legato tongue I learned to master as a young trombonist. Some students are visual learners, and the articulation meter is often on the white board of my teaching studio at the University of Maryland as a reminder of the spectrum of possibilities in the world of articulation.6. How does having so many great military players in DC change the musical scene, as compared with Boston or San Francisco?
It makes for one helluva trombone ensemble! The Washington Trombone Ensemble was formed a number of years by U.S. Army Band solo trombonist Sam Woodhead and has been going strong ever since. They have made frequent appearances at the American Trombone Workshop and have produced a few recordings as well, including The Road Not Taken. All branches of the elite D.C. service bands are represented within the ensemble and the wealth of talent and ability is truly astounding.
Aside from trombone players, military musicians all kinds help to make DC a very rich musical destination. While one can listen to their concerts for free at venues such as the U.S. Capitol, Wolf Trap or the National Mall, you can also hear them subbing with the National Symphony and National Opera at the Kennedy Center.
7. How did you become interested in Christopher Brubeck’s Bass Trombone Concerto? What are your favorite aspects of the piece, and presenting it?
I was first made aware of the piece when Douglas Yeo performed it with the Boston Pops. A few years later, one of the NSO staffers (who knew Chris personally) suggested that the work be performed on an NSO Pops series. Marvin Hamlisch was the NSO Pops conductor at that time (2005), and I performed the concerto on three separate evenings with him and Barbara Cook as the headliner.
If you listen to Chris’ recording of the piece, you will hear the style and energy that he brings to his performance. A performer needs to be well versed in many musical styles in order to pull off a successful performance, including jazz, rock, funk and classical. It also is demanding with respect to range, so bring your high chops as well as your pedal notes.
It’s a concerto that does not take itself too seriously, and I appreciate that. The audience reaction when I played it was quite warm and receptive, and I think that the pops format surrounding those performances was appropriate for such am eclectic work. While it is certainly a demanding piece from a soloist’s standpoint, it is not demanding on the audience and that is important.
8. The brass trio is an unusual genre, and you have found success there. What makes it tick, and how can a bass trombonist improve his odds of succeeding in the trio format?
The brass trio is a wonderful genre and I am incredibly fortunate in having my University of Maryland colleagues Chris Gekker (trumpet) and Greg Miller (horn) as chamber music partners. Our recording from 2010 may be the only stand-alone recording featuring works solely for brass trio. There are other recordings that include some trios as part of a musical compilation, but a pure brass trio recording is indeed a rare bird.
That recording project required several intense sessions and was simultaneously exhilarating, educational and fatiguing. There are three distinctive voices, there is nowhere to hide and there are precious few rests to be found in most of the literature for that ensemble. Those are the facts. I am sure that one of the main reasons we do not see more brass trios on the concert circuit has to do more with the fatigue factor than anything else.
The bass trombone, and I may be slightly biased in this opinion, can be a better fit than tenor as the bottom voice on much of the trio repertoire. I played tenor on one or two of the works on the Maryland Brass Trio recording and the rest were performed on bass. As a timbre, the bass trombone provides a thick base to the group and helps widen the separation between it’s own sound and that of the horn. It is that dissimilarity that makes the group sound a bit more colorful. With regard to range, I have not yet found any works containing notes too high for an accomplished bass trombonist.
9. Can you put into words the educational, musical and personal influence of Norman Bolter on your life?
Before I answer that question directly, I must state that Norman Bolter had a profound influence on me well before we had even entered into a student-teacher relationship. As a Christmas gift in 1980, I was given the Empire Brass album (yes, in vinyl) Russian Brass featuring the brass quintets of Victor Ewald. It has since become a revered classic recording, but at that time it was the very cutting edge of brass chamber music performance. Every player was a virtuoso. Being a trombonist, my ear bent in the direction of the trombonist, Norman Bolter. While I was most likely too young to understand what I heard in his playing that appealed to me at that time, I can say that it spoke to me and drew me in to learn more.
When I began my undergraduate studies at Boston University in the fall of 1982, I would walk to Norman’s brownstone home in Brookline, MA each week passing John F. Kennedy’s birthplace along the walk from my freshman dormitory. His home was warm, inviting and I felt very comfortable in those surroundings for most of our lessons, as others sometimes took place at Symphony Hall.
When I came to my first lesson, I could articulate “Tah” and “Dah” quite well indeed, but my attacks were limited to those two mainstays. He worked with me a great deal on articulation of all kinds, from the most basic of a tenuto up to lightening fast multiple tongue. Analogies played a big role in this methodology. His imagination is without bounds. For articulations, he imagined for me a painter’s palette of attacks from which to select, such as 10 kinds of staccato, 5 marcato, 4 tenuto….legato had the most possibilities from the hardest “Dah” tongue to an absolute glissando.
Norman also worked with me a great deal on other basics such as range-building and intervals. I tend to push both of those basic disciplines firmly on my own young (and not-so-young) students as well. I think that the time put into both of those endeavors tend to make for a more secure and fearless player. We did not spend an exorbitant amount of time on orchestral repertoire in the first two years of our three years together. My main take-away from Norman was a very firm underpinning in all of the basics of trombone playing viewed though a wide lens. The world of music-making and trombone playing was expanded though him.
Those who have studied with Norman over the years will probably agree that his fertile imagination and sometimes ethereal approach to teaching may have caught them off guard at one point or another. I was a sponge to take in whatever he had to offer, from the basics of articulation to creating a sound color that was purple. He is responsible for many of the tools in my trombone tool chest.
Since this question asked me directly about just one of my teachers, I think it fair to at least mention my two years of study with Douglas Yeo and my final year of study with John Swallow at NEC. In a nutshell: Mr. Yeo taught me how to win and keep bass trombone positions in major US symphony orchestras, and Mr. Swallow tipped everything I had learned to previous 5 years upside down and asked me to reassemble it all in my own authentic voice.
c. 2017 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved. www.davidbrubeck.com
Images courtesy of Matthew Guilford and Dennis Bubert.
Interested in more “Seven Positions” tm Interviews?
Charlie VernonJames MarkeyChris BrubeckDoug YeoJeremy MorrowTom EverettGerry Pagano Ben van DijkRandall HawesDenson Paul PollardThomas MattaFred Sturm Bill ReichenbachMassimo Pirone Erik Van Lier Jennifer WhartonMatyas VeerStefan Schulz