Things I Did in College Which Most Prepared Me for My Career in Music: Got Out of My Musical Comfort Zone (5 of 5)
I was raised as a classical player. I still consider myself a classical player who happens to be able to play some other styles of music. Growing up I wanted to be the tuba player in a major symphony orchestra. In fact, I wanted to be in only the Boston Symphony. It was a great plan but before Chester Schmitz retired I was called by Boston Brass to fill in at the last possible minute on a gig. When I got there, half of the show was jazz which included walking bass lines, playing a solo and even singing a tune. Thankfully, I had teachers along the way that had made me encounter all three of those things in performance before I was asked to do them in front of 1200 music educators with Boston Brass. When I arrived at Northwestern University, I already had a very wide range of musical tastes. In fact, in high school I listened to just as much Led Zeppelin as Tchaikovsky. There was a very large disconnect however between the number of styles of music that I listened to and the number that I played on the tuba. This was not any sort of conscious decision but simply a product of being raised as a classical player.
I was lucky enough to try playing a little bit of jazz in both middle school and high school. I played the bass trombone parts in jazz band down an octave which did a lot for developing my taste for jazz but my performance of it was still very limited. My middle school band director, Bob Mealey, did introduce me to improvisation in a brilliant way which I will write about in a future post. But my exploration of non-classical music did not expand outside of jazz band rehearsals and performances.
That is until I got to college. Once I got to Evanston I was surrounded by music all of the time. Chicago is one of the best cities in the world for live music and I was suddenly introduced to a whole new set of friends with their own tastes and CD collections. It was an exciting time.
One of the best decisions I ever made was to formally pursue learning how to improvise. I ended up getting the number of a fantastic tuba player and teacher in Chicago named Dan Anderson. I took the El down to DePaul and took a few jazz lessons with him. This is where I really started to get the new language of jazz in my ear. Just like learning how to speak any other language, you have to immerse yourself in it. Dan showed me the different articulations, weights and note lengths that are all a part of "speaking" jazz. I only took a few lessons with him but they were invaluable to me moving forward.
Next, I enrolled in Jazz Improv class with Tony Garcia at NU. He had a very organized and systematic way of teaching the art of improvising which I responded to well. Even if the class had only been listening to the examples he played for us and discussing them it would have been one of the most beneficial classes I took during undergrad.
I also began jamming with my friends with some frequency. It didn't matter what instrument combination we could come up with. We would all pile into a practice room and play. Sometimes it was over a chord progression like the blues and other times it was just free improvisation. The ability to express myself through different sounds, even when they were completely off the wall and unconventional, ended up helping all aspects of my tuba playing. All you have in free improvisation is your storytelling. There are no right notes or wrong notes. No in tune or out of tune. Just a story. And most students of classical music (like me) can learn a lot from that.
Probably the pinnacle musical experience of my undergraduate studies was the last tune on my senior recital. It was an arrangement of Bathtub Gin, a song by the band Phish, for trumpet, trombone and tuba. My dear friends John Butte, Ben Denne and myself had one simple plan. We had arranged the "head" to start the tune. We would then let the music go any direction it wanted to go and then we would bring it back around again to the head. We hadn't planned the length or anything else about it.
It ended up being 10 minutes long and it was BY FAR the audiences favorite part of the recital. Afterwards, my teacher Rex Martin was as excited about that piece as he had been about anything I had played for him in my almost four years at school. It was an amazing experience and a wonderful way to put a bow on my studies at Northwestern.
Next, I went to graduate school at Arizona State. Sam Pilafian, my teacher there, was already a very accomplished jazz tuba player and he wanted to get me exposed to it as well. His guitar and tuba duo, Travelin' Light, was one of my favorite bands ever. I think I literally wore out their first album. When I got to school Sam told me that I was playing in a Dixie band called the Dixie Devils. He didn't ask if I wanted to play in it. He just said I was. Even though I was terrified because I had never done anything like it I simply opened my mouth and the word "okay" popped out. What an experience it turned out to be!
I was forced to read changes, navigate the road map of tunes (which would change on the fly!) and be ready for a tune to end in any of five different ways. There were hand signals at the end: stop on a dime, firehouse ending (four bars of tonic instead of one at the end), repeating a II-V turnaround. The first rehearsal required more 'thinking on my feet' than the previous 13 years of playing combined. I messed up a lot. And I played it right a lot. It was a very freeing experience to be forced to not know exactly how a tune was going to go.
It was also invaluable to be in an ensemble where I was BY FAR the greenest member. Everyone else was used to playing in jazz combos and other Dixie bands. The best and fastest way to learn as a musician is to surround yourself with people better and more experienced than you. I was forced to raise the bar constantly just to keep my head above water. I have never found a way to improve my musicianship on more levels and at a faster rate than by playing with the Dixie Devils. I wouldn't trade in that experience for the world.
You never know what direction your career will take and I sure am glad that I was prepared for that day in 2000 when Boston Brass called. And since Mike Roylance is both young and awesome, I don't think the Boston Symphony will be calling anytime soon. Luckily, I was prepared for my opportunity through preparation and being forced out of my musical comfort zone.