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. 🙏