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While score study and practice will go a long way toward making a fine trombonist, sooner or later you will have to make two big decisions that will help you with your quest of getting that orchestral position: You will need to choose a trombone teacher and you will need to choose a music conservatory, college or university.
Hypothetically, one should only need unlimited practice time to become a top rate player. However, to forsake a college education in favor of the practice room is a very shortsighted decision. The school environment contributes to your musical development in several important ways; it forces continued musical study even when you don't feel like it, it instills a sense of discipline in you life, not only in music but in other areas as well, it exposes you to music that you might not have chosen to explore if left on your own, and it surrounds you with competition and more role models - peers and elders - who can stimulate further musical growth. College is not a waste of time - don't allow your ego to say, "I don't need it."
Choosing a college is a highly personal decision, so after reading my suggestions below, be sure to talk over your decision with several people you know and trust before taking this important step.
There are many excellent colleges in the world. But there is one obvious advantage to choosing a school near a large city - large cities usually have full-time professional orchestras, and hearing a great orchestra on a regular basis should be near the top of your list of things to do. All things being equal, I would choose a college near a large city with a fine orchestra rather than one miles from nowhere.
Choose a school not on its reputation, but on the reputation of its trombone teacher, trombone students and trombone graduates. Remember, you are going to school to learn new insights about music and music making as they relate to your instrument. Unfortunately, many top conservatories are leaning more and more toward training students for solo and chamber music careers, somehow considering a career in orchestral performance to be second best. This attitude usually comes from high-level administrators, where the president or chairman of the school is usually a soloist who had no significant experience in orchestral playing.
Solo and chamber music careers on the trombone are virtually nonexistent (although there are job opportunities in those fields), so look for a school with a faculty that has an inspiring view of orchestral playing and one where you will have opportunities for frequent orchestral performance. If a school has 40 or 50 trombone players and only two or three orchestras, an awful lot of layers will have "excerpt classes" and "orchestral repertoire classes" as their primary orchestral experience.
For $30,000+ a year, you deserve better than that. Some schools rotate students through the orchestra each semester, but this is only a partial solution. I feel it is important to keep a section of three or fourplayers together for at least a semester so they can grow and interact with each other. When you audition at a school, ask about their ensemble policies, and find out how many trombonists they have. The player-to-ensemble ratio is an important factor, so be aware of it before you sign on the dotted line.
Of course, one of the primary factors in choosing a school is the trombone faculty. There are many things to consider depending on your level of achievement and ultimate goals. Large private and state universities usually have full-time artist faculty who often play in local regional and metropolitan orchestras and who are often retired full-time symphony players. Because of the high volume of students at such schools, teachers there are often extremely capable of diagnosing and helping to solve fundamental playing problems due to years of work with players on all levels. The perspective of a retired orchestral player is also extremely valuable and can serve as a tremendous inspiration.
Schools near large metropolitan areas, however, usually have part-time faculty drawn from the nearby full-time symphony orchestra. These schools are found near the big population centers in the East: Boston, New York Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C.; Midwest: Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Dallas; and West: Los Angeles and San Francisco. The attraction of studying with a full time symphony player is obvious - you will be working with a person who works at the kind of job you ultimately want. These teachers all won an audition to get in their orchestras and have probably sat on the "other side" of the audition screen as judges. Their insights into audition preparation and orchestra literature are invaluable.
However, a full-time orchestral teacher with a busy schedule may be more of a coach than a problem solver. Teaching is their second job, with lesson time take out of their time off from the orchestra. Some teachers prefer to teach only students with definite professional potential. These busy musicians sometimes do not give their quota of lessons each semester and make-up lessons are sometimes hard to arrange due to a full orchestra schedule. So the decision on what kind of school and teacher to choose is a complicated one and should carefully considered. Having said all this, I believe that an aspiring orchestral trombonist should concentrate on just that - performing.
Often a student will major in music education so as to have that to "fall back on" if a performing career doesn't work out. This is, I believe, terribly misguided reasoning, and often leads to one of two serious problems - an aspiring performer who, because he has a music education "parachute" doesn't devote himself with all diligence to his primary goal of performing and therefore fails to achieve it; or worse, a performer who, after failing in his primary objective as a performer, bitterly resigns himself to a career as a school teacher. Remember, a music education degree prepares and qualifies you for state certification. It does not automatically qualify you for a college teaching job, although what you learn may equip you to be a better college teacher should you continue toward that goal.
The market for full-time orchestral players is so minuscule (remember that there are only 30 full-time symphony orchestras in the US, ranging in salary from under $10,000 to over $100,000 per year) that it certainly pays to consider alternative employment options. My point is that the pursuit of an orchestral job requires a single-mindedness of purpose. A person training to become a primary or secondary school teacher embarks on a course of study of the greatest responsibility - the education and inspiration of our children. If you feel the "calling" to train in music education, then press on with all devotion to that goal. The education world cries out for people dedicated to teaching.
The option to teach if a performing career doesn't appear realistic always exists. If, after a number of years, you discover an orchestral job isn't for you, you can always go back to school for your certification credits, or go for another degree. But please, leave our children to those who love to teach. Teaching is a profession of the highest calling. Nothing is worse than looking at a primary or secondary teaching career as just a "job." The Bible cautions us to remember the important responsibility teachers have, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment." (James 3:1 NASB)
If you want to perform, then major in performance and go for it. If you want to teach, then major in music education and continue to perform, and resolve to be the best teacher you can be. Our children will thank you for the honesty of your decision.
One final word on the subject of college, as unfortunate as it may be. Having been involved in higher education for many years as a studio teacher, coach, classroom teacher, conductor and administrator, I have become distressed at the high level of squabbling and political maneuvering that goes on among many faculty at the college level. Caveat emptor! Faculty members would all like their students to play in the best ensembles and get the choice part assignments. In some cases, placement decisions are not always made strictly on the basis of auditions results - even allowing for the role seniority sometimes plays in placement. You as a student have the right to expect fair play and decency in all dealings with faculty - you are, after all, paying their salary.
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Douglas Yeo. All rights reserved.