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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Tag: Mallory Thompson

You must do the work

Andrew Hitz

Mallory Thompson 1.jpg

Dr. Mallory Thompson is one of my mentors. She is one of the best musicians I have ever worked with in my career. She has ears for days and the ability to convey what she wants as a conductor not just through words but through looks, gestures and body language. It is a pleasure to play under her baton. Any time she is even in the room she challenges me to be my absolute best.

This past summer, we welcomed her to Shenandoah Conservatory for our Instrumental Conducting Symposium. I visited for a day to see her and to recharge my musical batteries. While sitting in the ensemble I jotted down close to 50 quotes from her that I will post here in their entirety soon.

At one point, Dr. Thompson was working with a conductor on their two-pattern. She mentioned that a staccato two-pattern is like a “V” and that a legato two-pattern is more like a “U”. She then encouraged this person to write a large U and a large V on a piece of paper, tape it to the wall and mirror the letters with their baton.

Then she said something which will stick with me for a long time:

I did this. I put a piece of paper up on the wall and mirrored it. If you want to do this, don’t think you can do it without doing the work.
— Dr. Mallory Thompson, Director of Bands at Northwestern University


Like basically all great teaching, this is nothing revolutionary. This has been said thousands of ways by thousands of teachers throughout history.

But Dr. Thompson always finds a way to put things very succinctly. She didn’t simply say do the work. She quite specifically told this conductor to not expect the results she got from doing the work without doing the work themselves.

So obvious and yet something that is rarely put that clearly. That’s putting the dots awfully close together.

Her quote reminded me of something David Zerkel once told one of my students in a master class. He told them that if they practiced lip slurs every day for two full weeks, “The lip trill fairy will pay you a visit.” It’s really not complicated.

This also reminds me of a Facebook post I made a few years ago that said mentioned how hard it is to play in all registers at all dynamic levels with a great sound. My tuba professor from Northwestern, Rex Martin, commented on that post with something to the effect of “It’s actually not that difficult. It just takes an enormous amount of work.” He’s right.

Without exception, the people who can conduct, play the clarinet or speak to a crowd better than you can have spent more time than you have improving their craft. It is all about sustained and focused effort over an extended period of time.

Literally everyone who pays $400 to attend a conducting symposium will go home and practice a few of the things they learned for the first couple of days. But I wonder what the numbers are for the people who are still doing the aforementioned paper on the wall trick 15 days later. Or 30 days later. Or 45 days later.

I bet the drop off is steep after just a few days.

For those of us who want to conduct like Dr. Thompson, we have to do the work. Thank you for the reminder, Mallory.

Insights on Playing from Mallory Thompson

Andrew Hitz

"I think that….wherever you are in your career, it’s all the same…you’re working on the same things…making good attacks, making good releases, playing musically, showing a wide dynamic range, and not taking anything musical for granted."

-Dr. Mallory Thompson (Director of Bands at Northwestern University)

Dr. Thompson is probably the best conductor I've ever played for in my career. I had the privilege of being in her first band at Northwestern on the heels of being in John Paynter's last band there.

The beauty of her as an educator is that she demands the exact same things of everyone in front of her, like the list above.

Pleasing a set of ears like Mallory Thompson's is not complicated. It's just a lot of work long before you sit down in front of her.

Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble: Monday YouTube Fix

Andrew Hitz

I was lucky enough to play in the Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble under both John Paynter and Mallory Thompson.  Those performances rank as some of my most cherished in my career.  The level of musicianship that was demanded of me by both conductors as well as the colleagues I was surrounded by was intense and exhilarating.

Filling the shoes of John Paynter, an absolute legend in the band world, was no easy task.  Mallory Thompson stepped in from day one as if that job had been waiting for her all along.  She remains one of the most rewarding conductors I have ever played for.  Nothing gets past her ears.  Nothing.

This is a fantastic recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" arranged by Donald Hunsberger.  As with all great university wind ensembles of this caliber, it is hard to believe these are college kids.  And Mallory Thompson's interpretation is, as always, spot on.