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Performance and Pedagogy Blog

A blog about the performance and pedagogy of music.

Filtering by Tag: Sam Pilafian

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.

#yeahman

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. 🙏

The Brass Junkies 100: Sam Pilafian

Andrew Hitz

TBJ100-promo.jpg

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TBJ100: The legendary Sam Pilafian on Empire Brass, Leonard Bernstein and life-threatening pedagogy

We made it to 100 episodes which is completely insane! An ENORMOUS thank you to everyone who has listened, become a Patreon patron, shared an episode with a friend, posted about it on social media or any of 100 other ways people have supported us in this crazy journey. THANK YOU!

I don’t even know where to begin when talking about this interview with my mentor, Sam Pilafian. As you will hear, I met Sam when I was only 12 and he has been an huge influence on me in more ways than I could ever articulate.

This episode starts out with some lighthearted banter about a couple of times that I poked the bear as one of his let’s just call it “precocious” young students back in the day! But this conversation gets really serious really quickly right after that.

Sam has just come out the other side of a battle for his life with an aggressive form of cancer. His story is hard to even believe. There are tears (and lots of them) in this episode. Some sad ones and some happy ones. There’s also lots of camaraderie between three humans who have been through a whole hell of a lot together, both personally and professionally.

I will always cherish this conversation, even though I’ve had thousands with Sam. This one made me awfully thankful to be alive and to be making music for a living.

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

Sam Pilafian on the Importance of Pushing Limits in the Practice Room

Andrew Hitz

"If we over-train via the literature like method and etude books, we're going to know more than we need to know in order to be able to cover the parts that are put in front of us."
-Sam Pilafian

The above quote was taken from Sam's fantastic interview in A Band Director's Guide to Everything Tuba: A Collection of Interviews with the Experts.  It is a good reminder to us all that we have to encounter everything we'd ever need to do on stage (and then some!) in the practice room in order to be truly prepared.

The best bands perform full run throughs of pieces and entire programs when they are mentally and physically exhausted, yet hold themselves to the same high standards.  The people most prepared to win an audition have played the excerpts during their preparations in every possible order including the worst ones for their chops.

Anyone who makes performing look easy has a secret.  It is easy compared to what they made themselves do in the practice room.

Empire Brass on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: Monday YouTube Fix

Andrew Hitz

Growing up in Boston in the 1980's I was exposed to countless professional brass quintets.  Empire Brass, Atlantic Brass, Paramount Brass.  The city of Boston had the most thriving brass quintet scene in the country and for this young tuba player that was invaluable.  To get to hear my instrument featured in a chamber setting showed me what was possible and inspired me to get to work.

I will never forget the first time I heard Sam Pilafian play.  (When I was 11 and hearing him play for the first time I certainly never dreamed he would take over a gig for me as he did with Boston Brass earlier this year!) His playing was virtuosic, he was completely approachable, and he made me think that I could someday do what he did.  That's a great thing to be exposed to at such an early age!

The Empire Brass appearance on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was a collision of two worlds for someone my age.  Seeing Sam along with Rolf Smedvig, Charlie Lewis, Dave Ohanian and Scott Hartman on the same television screen as Mister Rogers is still kind of crazy to me.

But the best part of this is Sam giving Mister Rogers a tuba lesson.  The other best part is when Mister Rogers asks if it helps to be friends and there is an uncomfortable laughter...

Enjoy!

Abraham Lincoln's Insights into the Music Business

Andrew Hitz

"I'll study and get ready and be prepared for my opportunity when it comes." -Abraham Lincoln

Whether you are an aspiring band director or trying to earn a living as a player, real opportunities don't come around all that often.  And when one does, you must be ready to pounce.

Sam Pilafian Student Abraham Lincoln

Ask yourself this question: if your dream job were to come calling today, are you ready? The key word is today.  If the answer to that question is in any way no, ask yourself what exactly you are not ready for and plan a course of action to address it immediately.

The Chicago Symphony doesn't call you two weeks ahead of time to let you know that someone will be sick and need a sub.  Your ideal school district you've been trying break into won't necessarily call you a month in advance to let you know they need someone to fill in for the rest of the year.  You need to be ready for opportunities like that right now since they don't come around very often.

When I was 14 years old, Sam Pilafian told me that to make it in the music business you need three things: a lot of talent, a lot of hard work, and a lot of luck.  He explained luck as being in the right place at the right time.  You have to get that call in the first place to show people what you can do.  But he stressed that the hard work part of that equation tended to create a lot of that "luck" and made you prepared when the time came to show your skills.

It sounds like maybe Abraham Lincoln studied with Sam Pilafian at some point in time...

The Art of Musical Deception

Andrew Hitz

"That diminuendo ought to be a deception. We all know it's coming but the audience doesn't." - Sam Pilafian

This was something Sam said to the Boston Brass All-Star Big Band during our rehearsal at Strathmore earlier this month.  We hired members of The Army Blues, The Airmen of Note, The President's Own Marine Band and The Navy Band.  The band was absolutely smoking, one of the best we've ever put together in almost 10 years of doing the show.  And yet we all still needed to hear that advice.

So often I hear my students begin a crescendo just a little before they are supposed to by allowing the volume to inadvertently creep up just slightly.  This also goes for tempo changes which accidentally begin just a touch early.  While I'm not as bad about it as I used to be, I frequently hear myself doing the exact same thing when I record myself in the practice room.

It was truly impressive how much more effective the passage Sam addressed was after he had us keep that diminuendo a deception.  The difference in actaul execution was small but the difference in the effect was enormous.

And if members of the best service bands in the world need to hear that from time to time, it's safe to say that the rest of us do as well.

© 2013 Andrew Hitz

Sam Pilafian on the Secret to the Music Business

Andrew Hitz

I am here in Clemson, South Carolina with the Boston Brass All-Star Big Band and just had breakfast with my good friend and mentor, Sam Pilafian, at a Waffle House here in Clemson.  Our conversation quickly turned to the music business and as always, Sam had some really great nuggets of wisdom. One thing he kept referencing in relation to the music business was the "fluidity of battle." He summed this up with the following quote:

"There is going to be change today.  There is going to be change tomorrow.  Will you embrace it or fight it?"

What we were sure of yesterday will not be exactly the same today.  What we think we know today will change by tomorrow.  Do you embrace these facts of fight them? I think we all do a little of both, but the most successful among us embrace these facts at every turn.

I guess Marty Hackleman, JD Shaw and Chris Castellanos will have to do.

(In case you missed it, check out these great quotes on chamber music from Sam Pilafian.)

The 5 Most Influential Concerts I Ever Attended

Andrew Hitz

I will list them in chronological order.  These five concerts were each life changing experiences for me.  I wouldn't be the person or musician I am today without attending each and every one of them. Empire Brass – Tanglewood July 1988

This was part of the Walks and Talks series that Tanglewood used to host.  The artists would lead a short walk around the grounds of Tanglewood while discussing their music.  It would then culminate in a performance for a small audience in a very intimate atmosphere.

This was the first time I ever heard Sam Pilafian play the tuba in person and it did nothing short of change my life.  I was simply awestruck by witnessing first hand what a tuba was capable of playing.  He has been my musical mentor since that day 25 years ago last month.

© 1988 Andrew Hitz

That is me in the blue sweatshirt looking on in awe! I have wanted to play in a brass quintet ever since that afternoon in the Berkshires.

Copeland 3 – Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra; Leonard Bernstein conducting – Tanglewood August, 1990

I have spent every summer of my life about a half an hour away from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony.  As a result, I saw my first ever BSO concert when I was only two weeks old! But just before my 15th birthday I saw this TMC concert and it was the first time I really, truly got it.

This was the second to last concert of Leonard Bernstein’s career and it was an incredible experience for anyone in the audience that night.  I had enjoyed many orchestra concerts before but had never been inspired by one like I was that night.

I waited for over an hour after the concert to meet Bernstein and get his autograph.  I missed my curfew at BUTI and got in trouble.  I’ve never had someone yell at me and be so happy about it!

Mahler 2 – Boston Symphony Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa conducting – Tanglewood July, 1991

This was the first ever Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert at Tanglewood.  It was just nine months after Bernstein had passed away.  There might not be a single human being that has left more of a mark on Tanglewood than Leonard Bernstein.  He had a very special bond with the place and with the Boston Symphony and that was evident from the very first notes of this performance.

I have been privileged enough to see over 200 BSO concerts in my life and I have never heard them sound better than they sounded that night in 1991.  It also didn’t hurt that Mahler 2 is my favorite symphony of all time (along with Beethoven 7).

This is the only concert of any kind that I’ve ever witnessed where a large percentage of the crowd was literally tearing up afterwards.  It was such a moving experience that it was an awful lot for someone not yet 16 to process.  I do know that it left a truly indelible mark on me and my musicianship.

Wynton Marsalis and his Septet – Skullers – Cambridge, MA May 1992

Wynton Marsalis and his Septet rehearsed the night before this gig at Boston University.  I happened to be there at the same time for a tuba lesson.  I was mesmerized as a I walked past the rehearsal room from which these magical sounds were emanating.  I also had no idea who was playing since the door was barely cracked open.

Excited I ran to ask my teacher who at BU sounded that good.  He smiled and said that it was Wynton Marsalis and asked if I wanted to meet him.  He had been friends with him for a very long time and actually interrupted their rehearsal to introduce me to the band.  Wynton then asked if I was free the next night.  When I eagerly said yes he said he would put me on the guest list since it was an 18 and over show.

Not only did he get me in but he spoke with me for 45 minutes in between their two gigs.  He took the time to introduce me personally to every member of the band as if we had known each other our entire lives.

I will never forget the mind blowing music I heard or the kindness and warmth that Wynton and his entire band showed me that night.

Phish – Worcester Centrum – Worcester, MA December 31, 1993

By the time I saw this show at the Worcester Centrum I had already seen over 50 rock and roll concerts.  But this one was different right from the start.  I did not know much of Phish’s music.  I had heard a couple of tunes and had enjoyed them but that was the extent of it.  My best friend Russell was getting tickets to this show so I asked him to get me one.  Little did I know that $26 ticket would change my life.

14th row dead center on the floor!

These four very normal looking guys walked out on stage without any explosions, fireworks, or hydraulic lifts.  I had always enjoyed the theater of big time rock and roll shows but there was something refreshing about four average Joe’s strolling on stage and letting the music do the talking.

They had me completely hooked on their very unique blend of everything from hard rock to bluegrass to barbershop quartet.  I have never heard any chamber ensemble that can play fluently in as many different styles of music as Phish.

I had no idea that I would go on to see the band over 170 times after that night during my freshman year of college.  They continue to be my favorite chamber ensemble of any genre performing music today.

As a result of Phish allowing the taping and distribution of all of their shows, you can stream that night’s music here.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that every concert I have listed occurred when I was between the ages of 14 and 18.  Those were very formative years for my musical tastes.

Feel free to leave a comment about the most influential concerts you have attended.  I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Note: This is an updated repost from the very short lived Boston Brass Blog which I ran for about a month.