Nearly a year-and-a-half ago I was contacted by James Fellenbaum, conductor of the University of Tennesee Symphony Orchestra and a former teacher of mine, about going back to my alma mater to perform a concerto with the UTSO. I was very excited about the idea, and we began a months-long process of working out what eventually developed into a five-day residency that included not one but two concerti, a solo recital, and several master classes.
Fourteen months of planning finally came to fruition in the form of the University of Tennessee Trombone Symposium, which took place February 8th-12th, 2011. It turned out to be an unbelievably awesome week. It was fun, fulfilling, and an incredible learning experience for me. I got to see and hang out with lots of people I hadn’t seen in years, but also got to meet some new people who will undoubtedly become lifelong friends. So much happened in such a short span of time that I will have to use several separate blog posts to describe it all.
So, here goes!
I flew into Nashville rather than Knoxville so that I could spend a couple days with my folks in Warren County, and it turned out to be a very good thing. I was able to get over the worst of my jet lag, have some nice quality time with my parents, and pick up the vehicle that they let me borrow for the week.
I drove up to Knoxville on Saturday, the 5th. I made good time and arrived earlier than I expected, so I made the decision to use the extra time to do a bit of driving around. I took a couple detours and scenic routes, and it turned out to be a very special drive down ‘memory lane’. I went by the church Kristi and I attended when we first got married, now nearly 7 years ago. I drove by some of our favorite restaurants, many of which we frequented on Kristi’s trips to Knoxville while we were dating, 9 or even 10 years ago. I took a tour of the UT campus, noticing the many changes since my graduation day in 2005.
As I wound my way around town on that lazy and sunny Saturday morning, I felt a rush of emotion. Besides the fond nostalgic memories of people and places from my 5 years in Knoxville, I felt a sense of overwhelming joy and gratitude for the path my life has taken since then. I thought about all the hours of work & study on that campus that helped me get where I am today, and about the dedicated and wise teachers who guided me on the way. I found it difficult not to smile, and even more difficult not to weep, as I passed by the site where the UT Music Building once stood, now demolished to make way for a gleaming new facility. I thought of all the late nights spent practicing in the “Coke lobby” and how I never imagined in all those nights that in just a few short years I would be invited back as a guest artist… a real ‘professional’ and member of the Vienna Philharmonic.
More than anything, I noticed that the closer I got to campus the less nervous I felt about the week. I had felt some butterflies all the way up from Warren County, but as I pulled into my parking spot on the UT campus I felt them melt away. I felt only excitement at the great musical and personal experience to come.
I had three rehearsals that afternoon and evening. First up was my first rehearsal with my accompanist for the solo recital, UT staff pianist Judith Bible. It was a pleasure getting to finally meet Judith, a kind and sweet person who just happened to be a wonderful musician, too. We ran through my recital program and rehearsed some spots, and I enjoyed every second. It had been almost 4 years since I played a solo piece with a pianist (if you don’t count hymns for offertory at church), which is a staggeringly long amount of time for someone whose previous musical existence was so wrapped up in solo literature.
After that, there was a run-through scheduled Michael Daugherty’s Rosa Parks Boulevard. Director of Bands Gary Sousa found the piece and thought it would be a great addition to my concerto with the Wind Ensemble. The piece is for three trombone soloists and wind band, and Dr. Sousa had the idea that I should play it with current professor of trombone at UT, Dan Cloutier, and my trombone professor while at UT, professor emeritus Don Hough. It turned out to be a fantastic idea! It was a great chance to spend some time with Don, the ‘man who taught me everything’, and also to get to know Dan, whom I had never met. We spent most of our rehearsal time chatting rather than playing, but somehow managed to get through the piece.
My last appointment of the day was a quartet rehearsal. I had the idea several months ago to involve the Tennessee Trombone Project in some of my events, mostly because I’m good friends with two of the members: Jon Walton and Joe Christian. The rehearsal was at Joe’s house, which also gave me the opportunity to unpack my bags because Joe and his wonderful wife Megan were my hosts for the week! We had a great rehearsal in Joe’s ‘man cave’, and again I enjoyed every nanosecond. We were joined by Brian Jennings on bass trombone and played for well over two hours before our chops screamed, “NO MORE!” The idea was to have me be the 4th member of the quartet for the evening event on Tuesday, but then bring in Jeff Mize for my solo recital to form a quintet, with me performing as a soloist with quartet accompaniment.
We scheduled another quartet rehearsal for the next afternoon, but in reality we played together much earlier. On Sunday morning I attended Sevier Heights Baptist Church, where Joe, Jon, and Brian all play in the orchestra, and where Kristi and I attended church for a year before we moved to Texas. It was one of the highlights of the week for me to be able to worship with those guys. I love that the four of us spent the night before playing Bruckner, Strauss, and Brahms, and the following morning playing “Revive us again” and “Jesus Saves”. I spent lots of time hugging folks and catching up with people I hadn’t seen in way too long. We went out to lunch at Jason’s Deli (highly recommended) and spent the afternoon playing music with bellies full of muffalettas, salad, and soft serve. Sunday evening brought another good rehearsal with Judith, after which I crashed on the Christians’ cozy armchair and watched Super Bowl commercials while jetlag kicked in.
I was a bit anxious about Monday because it would be my first day rehearsing with the large ensembles. I felt confident about my playing, but was just a bit unsure what to expect from something I had never done before. First up was the Ewazen with the Wind Ensemble.
I walked into the temporary makeshift band room, which is located just across the street from the empty pit where the old building was, and had a nice reunion with Dr. Gary Sousa (even though I had rudely interrupted his 9 o’clock conducting class). The rehearsal went well in general, but I was thrust into my first big learning experience of the week. As we ran through the concerto, I found myself instinctively being a bit passive rather than active and soloistic. It was a struggle to remind myself constantly that I was the soloist and not just another ensemble member. Once I truly grasped that concept, the timing, intonation, and balance of the piece improved exponentially. I took that morning’s experience with the Wind Ensemble into my rehearsal of the Grøndahl concerto with the orchestra later that afternoon, which also went quite well.
In both of the large ensemble rehearsals I experienced something encouraging that would become a theme during the whole symposium. It seemed that when the pressure was on, I was still able to do two things that I had been concerned about; I was able to navigate the difficult technical passages and yet also play musically. A few things would go wrong in pretty much every rehearsal and performance, but in the end effect I would be pleased with my performance of the most challenging things and I would feel that I had said something musically in spite of the things that went wrong.
That Monday evening, I had dinner with some friends from our days at SHBC, the Cormacks, and then afterward I caught the tail end of a Knoxville Jazz Orchestra rehearsal at the Bijou Theater. It was great to hear some real jazz from such a great group, of which I was a member for two or three years while in Knoxville. After rehearsal I conned the trombone section into coming out with me.
|Don Hough, me, Jamie Warren, and Brad Mcdougall|
The week was off to a great start, and the symposium hadn’t officially even started yet!