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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

The Brass Junkies: Michael Nickens aka Doc Nix

Andrew Hitz


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TBJ117: Mike Nickens, Director of "The Green Machine" pep band at George Mason University on being unapologetic about who he is and leading by example (while carrying a scepter). He has built a gig for himself which allows him to be fully him while enabling his students to do the same.

Don’t miss this one! Doc is one of my dearest friends and he has blazed a creative path across the music business that is a great model for us all.

Summed up, the dude is a badass!

You can check out the complete show notes including all of the links mentioned during TBJ117 over at Pedal Note Media.

The work we do when no one is around

Andrew Hitz


It is amazing to me that Seth Godin, who isn’t a musician and never writes specifically about being one, hits the nail on the head about so many things related to our profession. It just goes to show that succeeding in one field generally requires the exact same approach and execution as any other.

Here is a brilliant blog post by Godin on two different kinds of marathons. One has lots of people around. The other is all by ourselves.

Guess which one does more to get you to the top of whichever mountain you are aiming for in the music business?

And of course, it’s the more difficult of the two (which is good or everyone would get there.)

Also worth noting: As with most of Seth’s brilliant blog posts, it will take you literally 30 seconds to read!

Godin: The solo marathon

In Tribute to Sam Pilafian

Andrew Hitz

Yesterday, people flew to Tempe, Arizona from all over the country to pay tribute to the legend that was Sam Pilafian. Being asked to speak at the Celebration of Life of my mentor who was like a second father to me is an honor I will cherish forever.

Trying to sum up what Sam meant to the world in only 10 minutes felt like an impossible task. Here is the video of the celebration cued to my speech (although every one of them was wonderful) as well as a transcription of my words.

I love you, Sam.

Never meet your heroes, they say.

Not sure where I first heard those words. You’ll be disappointed if you actually get to know them, they say. It’s better to keep your idealized vision of them from a distance.

I don’t know who first uttered those words but they sure as hell weren’t talking about Sam Pilafian.

On a hot July morning in 1988 I got to do just that, meet my hero. I was still a few weeks shy of becoming a teenager and the Empire Brass had just blown my mind with an intimate performance at Tanglewood. My parents encouraged me to go up to Sam afterwards and introduce myself. I was scared as hell but really just wanted to shake his hand. Maybe if I got just a little closer to him I could figure out how he was able to play the tuba with that much personality. I’d never heard anything like it.

My mother actually snapped a photograph just moments before the encounter that would change my life forever. My back is to the camera, my shoulders are slouched and I’m looking up at him with complete amazement. For the record he was wearing robin egg blue pants and totally rocking them! He could have just looked at me and said “Thanks for coming” and immediately moved on to the next person and I would have cherished that moment forever.

But I was about to meet Sam Pilafian so you know that’s not what happened. He spoke to me and even looked at me in a way I'll never forget. Like we already knew each other. Like I, some random gobsmacked kid, was destined for greatness just like him. He seemed as excited to meet me as I was to meet him. I suddenly felt like I had a friend who happened to be a tuba god. And because of how he spoke to me that day, I didn’t think, I knew, that I could play in a group just like Empire Brass someday. That’s the kind of gift parents would pay just about anything to give their kids at that age. And he gave me that gift just because he could. That was Sam.

If Sam never accomplished anything in his career except playing the tuba, he would still be lauded as a legend. The guy played with Pink Floyd, Lionel Hampton and the Metropolitan Opera. That’s the absolute pinnacle of the rock, jazz and classical worlds. No one in the history of the tuba has ever had that kind of career.

But it wasn’t just his versatility. When he was playing in a Dixieland band, he sounded like Kirk Joseph or Matt Perrine, someone who had been gigging in New Orleans their entire life.

When he played in the back of an orchestra, he sounded like Chester Schmitz or Gene Pokorny, someone who had been sitting back there full-time for decades.

I once saw him play a free jazz gig at a sleepy bed and breakfast in the Berkshires on a Sunday morning. This gig was way out there! Again, he sounded like a full-time experimental jazz musician from New York City or Berlin.

And he was of course the greatest brass quintet tuba player to ever live and if anyone disagrees with me I’ll fistfight them in the courtyard after this service. But seriously, he wrote the book on how to hold down the low end of a chamber ensemble. Like Mischa Schneider in the Budapest String Quartet or Bootsy Collins in Funkadelic, Sam was the glue, the swagger, the style, the drive that made Empire Brass so magical. I’m in awe of the legacy he left for the rest of us who followed in his footsteps.

My question is this: How can any musician always sound like they are playing the exact style of music they were put on this earth to perform? If you can play any one style as well as Sam played them all you will have no problems paying your bills as a musician. And yet he did it all. He was a musical chameleon the likes of which this world rarely ever sees on any instrument. And he was a tuba player! We in the tuba world got to claim him as our own. A true musician’s musician. Equal parts inspiring and mystifying.

Then there was Sam, the teacher. A master pedagogue. His ability to push students out of their comfort zone while simultaneously making them feel safe and supported was the essence of his teaching.

There’s a reason why so many people who only spent a master class or two with him still feel such a strong connection with him to this day. He had an unwavering passion for teaching that permeated every encounter he ever had with a student, no matter how brief. That always present passion was contagious and it ignited something in you when you were around it.

As with all great teachers, he always taught the student in front of him. Not just the student, but whatever version of that student happened to walk in that day. We all strive for that but it is hard to pull off 100% of the time. He just always seemed to know exactly what to say and when to say it.

Sam was also an incredible entrepreneur. He was of course one of the founding members of the Empire Brass, one of the most successful brass groups of all time. He founded Travelin’ Light with Frank Vignola. They were so good he made the world realize we had been lacking a completely smoking tuba/guitar duo the entire time and just never knew it. With his main partner in crime, Patrick Sheridan, they turned decades of breathing teachings into a wildly successful line of products called The Breathing Gym.

He was the consummate example of a musical entrepreneur long before every school of music started throwing the term around. I never once heard him utter the word entrepreneur while I studied with him. He didn’t talk about it. He showed me. That’s the best possible teaching. He was always cutting edge no matter what he did. As a player, as a teacher and as a businessman. And he always led by example.

I could stand up here until Tuesday listing the incredible things he achieved in his career, but I think what sums up the unbelievable impact Sam had on the world best is that there are literally hundreds of people who could be standing up here today delivering a tribute to him. And I don’t just mean people who looked up to him as a musician and an artist. I mean people who he fundamentally changed as humans.

Those people posted tributes on social media from all over the world as soon as news spread that Sam had passed. Here is a small sampling of those tributes:

"I miss him already. Met him literally twice. Changed my playing and my life."

"Even more than anything he taught me about tuba playing or music, he was a model of positivity, passion, purpose, and a can-do attitude."

"The world is forever different because he was in it. A true giant of a human being and musician."

"He epitomized everything that music means to this world."

"The world was a better place because of you, your passion for teaching, your commitment to your art and just your talent to lift and inspire anyone who was around you. You are a special soul and your legacy lives on."

"He taught me not just to play, but to play with enthusiasm and passion. But he was more than a teacher; he was a friend, mentor, even a make-shift therapist during some of my most confused days of youth."

"Having only met you twice I can say that you fully redirected my belief of what a consummate professional and musician should be."

"In a time of my life when I thought I was a terrible musician because of insecurities this spectacular person of high esteem made me feel legitimate."

"Never has anyone influenced or impacted my direction as a young musician more than he."

"The world just lost one of the most genuine, amazing, and generous human beings ever, and we are all better people for having known him.”

So the next time someone tells you you shouldn’t meet your heroes, tell them about Sam Pilafian. And rest assured, if you didn’t ever have the privilege of meeting him in person, he would have made you feel special too, just like he did for me as that awkward kid at Tanglewood over 30 years ago. That’s just what he did. That was Sam.

Rest easy, Sam. You left the world a far better place and we’re all better for having known you.


The Brass Junkies 112: Matt Niess

Andrew Hitz


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TBJ112: Matt Niess on The Capital Bones, 3 x 3, and getting help from the "Trombone Angel"

My Shenandoah Conservatory colleague Matt Neiss joined us for Episode 112 of The Brass Junkies. We had been trying to get Matt for years but he is always playing gigs. Seriously!

He is one of the most impressive musicians I’ve ever played with. Every style he plays sounds like his main style. And he is an incredible teacher as well. And a hell of a nice guy.

Okay enough nice stuff about Matt.

You can check out the complete show notes including all links mentioned during TBJ112 over at Pedal Note Media.

The Brass Junkies 111: Tim Buzbee

Andrew Hitz


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TBJ111: Tim Buzbee on learning The Furies overnight, winning gigs in 8 countries and being put in a piece of metal

I had met Tim before but never really hung out with him. He is a riot!

The title of the episode is not an exaggeration. The dude has literally won auditions in eight countries! His wife won’t even let him take any more because she knows he’ll win and she’s sick of moving!

We talk about how a boy from a small town in Texas ends up a tuba superstar on the international stage. And we laugh a lot.

You can check out the complete show notes including all links mentioned during TBJ110 over at Pedal Note Media.

A lot of time in the practice room ain't necessarily cutting it

Andrew Hitz

“No points for busy.

Points for successful prioritization. Points for efficiency and productivity. Points for doing work that matters.

No points for busy.”

—Seth Godin from his blog post “Busy is not the point”

Just because you practiced three hours yesterday doesn’t mean you got a lot done on the horn. The same goes for score study or marketing yourself.

I am always challenging my students to practice practicing. I think back to college and can’t believe how much more efficient I am now in the practice room. I can get done in 15 minutes what might have taken me 45 minutes back in the 90’s.

Here are just a handful of the hundred things that are more important than just the total time you spend in the practice room:

  • Frequency of practice sessions

  • Prioritization of what needs practicing the most

  • Goal setting

  • Getting into the feedback loop by recording yourself

  • Your focus level during the session

The list goes on and on..

But while total time spent is not even close to the most important practicing metric, you’ve still got to put in the time. As a wise person once said, silence can not improve.

The Brass Junkies 110: Listener's Choice - How to Start a Brass Group, Part 2

Andrew Hitz


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The Brass Junkies 110: Listener's Choice - How to Start a Brass Group, Part 2

In this episode, Lance and I pick up where we left off in TBJ97 and do a deep dive on starting a brass group. We talk a lot about the successes and failures that we had while touring the world with Boston Brass.

My son is a big fan of this episode’s graphic which is courtesy (as they all are) of Will Houchin!

You can check out the complete show notes including all links mentioned during TBJ110 over at Pedal Note Media.

The Brass Junkies 109: Richard White

Andrew Hitz


TBJ109: Richard A. White, RAW Tuba on his life, his gig and his upcoming documentary

For episode 109 of The Brass Junkies we had a truly inspiring conversation with tuba player Richard White. Richard is the subject of a brand new documentary and his story will leave you on the verge of tears. His journey from homeless four-year-old in Baltimore to the first African-American with a doctorate in tuba is almost too much to believe.

He is an incredible musician, teacher and human and we were honored to have him join us.

This one will leave a mark!

You can check out the complete show notes including all links mentioned during TBJ109 over at Pedal Note Media.

Thank you, Sam

Andrew Hitz

What are the odds that in a time long before everyone always had a camera with them that my mother would snap this shot mere moments before my life was literally changed forever.

First Time Meeting Sam.jpg

This is a photo of me waiting to speak to Sam Pilafian for the first time ever. It was taken after an Empire Brass concert at Tanglewood in July of 1988. I was still a few weeks shy of becoming a teenager and had just had my mind blown by this guy. He then spoke to me in a way I'll never forget. Like we already knew each other. Like I, some random gobsmacked kid, was destined for greatness just like him. Like he was an ordinary guy just like me. He didn't have to do that. But he did.

Little did I know that our paths would not just cross again but that he would become like a second father to me. In 1990, he helped to get me into Tanglewood even though I was still 14 and the minimum age was 15. He didn't know me by anything other than my audition tape but he helped get me off the waiting list and into the Empire Brass Seminar.

I was terrified when I got there. Everyone was older than me. I cried in my room the first day. The second day, Warren Deck visited us. I was already petrified and now Warren Deck was there too?! I think Sam saw how nervous I was. He was introducing Warren to everyone and got to me and said to Warren "This is Andrew Hitz. I put this kid on the wait list initially. You know why? Because I thought it was his %$*&ing teacher on the recording." That was the last time I ever even began to question whether I belonged with any group of musicians. What a gift to receive at age 14. He didn't have to do that. But he did.

The next summer at Tanglewood my parents asked Sam about whether I needed a new tuba. He told them that my horn at the time was holding me back and then said that if I had the right equipment that he could promise them that I would never have trouble putting food on the table as a professional tuba player. He didn't have to do that. But he did.

My senior year of high school I auditioned at Boston University. Sam told me very candidly that he almost certainly only had one year left there. He told me that if I came to school at BU that he would only accept his next position, wherever that was, on the condition that I could come with him. He instead suggested that I audition at other schools and in particular that I would really hit it off with Rex Martin. He then said that I was already accepted for graduate school at wherever he ended up. He didn't have to do that. But he did.

The next summer I had to get a job. It was on a farm for minimum wage. I got poison ivy all over my body the first day. After the second day, the phone rings and it was Sam. He wanted me to come work for him for the summer. It involved babysitting his son, Alex, and helping his incredible wife, Diann, with their move to Arizona. He paid me way too much. I felt like I was a member of their family. I got to run the recording gear for a Travelin' Light recording session. Got to hang out at Tanglewood all summer. Got to be surrounded by music and musicians all while getting paid way too much. He didn't have to do that. But he did.

Three years later during my senior year at Northwestern my phone rang and Sam asked how I was paying for grad school. I said I didn't have a plan. He asked if I wanted to come for free and get paid to be his Graduate Teaching Assistant. I laughed and said that sounded like a pretty good deal. He then thrust me into teaching and playing situations that got me out of my comfort zone regularly. What an incredible education I got there.

He told me I was in a band called the Dixie Devils. I asked him how to play Dixie music. He said "You'll figure it out." During my first ever Dixieland gig I was again pretty damn nervous and Sam could tell. Sam was playing trombone on that gig. As he snapped off the first tune, he turned around and said to me (loudly!) "If you tell anyone I was playing this thing in public I will $#*&ing kill you!" and then counted off Sunny Side of the Street. I laughed and wasn't nervous any more. He didn't have to do that. But he did.

When Mike Levine of Dallas Brass called Sam while I was in grad school looking for some recommendations for their next tuba player, Sam told him that not only was I the guy for the job but that Mike didn't even need to have me fly out to audition because he would vouch for me. I was hired on the spot. Mike later told me that Sam was literally the only human on any instrument who he would have let talk him into hiring a player he had never even heard a note of on just a recommendation. Sam really didn't have to do that. But he did.

A few months later Boston Brass called looking for an emergency sub. Luckily for me, Sam was busy. But he again recommended me so passionately that they bought a plane ticket for some 24-year-old kid they'd never heard of to play a big gig at CMEA for 1200 music educators. That gig led to 14 years of traveling the world with friends getting paid to play the tuba on four continents. He didn't have to do that. But he did.

This post is already way too long and I could include literally 20 more major things like this that he has done for me when he didn't have to. He has supported me as a player, a teacher and a father. He has been there for some pretty low lows. And he's been there for all of the highs. He's been like a second father, a crazy uncle, a friend and eventually a colleague all wrapped into one.

The craziest thing about him though is that you could spend just one master class with him and still feel like you had this lifelong connection to him. You know why? Because you did and still do. That's a special human.

I will always cherish this photo of the first time we ever met. I really can't believe it exists.

I love you, Sam. I could never pay you back for everything you've done for me. Thank you. 🙏