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Choosing a Trombone Studio
Brent Phillips

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Brent PhillipsTrombonists who decide to study music have an overwhelming choice of where to attend school. Each school and trombone studio has unique strengths and weaknesses, and which degree and studio you choose is an important decision and will affect your future choices. This article explores the difference in the two main degrees available to music majors, survey results of important criteria in choosing a school and trombone studio, and important things to consider when approaching the audition process.

Degree Programs

The Bachelor of Music (BM) in Trombone Performance prepares students to aggressively audition for full time work in an orchestra, military band, to be involved with a professional chamber group or pursue a solo career. The BM student has always had a desire to compete and gains a sense of thrill from the prospect of auditioning. He or she wants nothing more than to sit in a professional orchestra or ensemble and is prepared to risk certain social freedoms for this cause. This kind of student develops a terrific sense of accomplishment from long hours in the practice room and looks forward to their moment on the stage. The BM candidate must be able to handle rejection frequently and with tenacious confidence. This degree candidate usually continues on to graduate school in hopes of increasing his or her chances of winning an audition for a professional ensemble.

The second major degree option is the Bachelor of Music Education (BME) with an emphasis in trombone. There are basically two types of BME students. There is the very talented performance oriented trombone player who chooses to play trombone seriously but fulfills the necessary requirements to become certified and teach so that upon graduation at the very least he or she is marketable and can earn a living. There is only one problem with this kind of rationale. If in fact the student does take a teaching position and never really wanted to teach in the first place, than he or she may feel trapped and become frustrated. The second type of BME candidate may not be the most talented and competitive trombone player but simply has a passion for teaching. The desire to teach and make an impact on the lives of young people takes on an almost missionary zeal. This person must become very broad in his or her approach and be able to accomplish many smaller goals very quickly. This degree requires the candidate to methods courses, conducting, marching techniques, classroom management skills and should be proficient at arranging.

Criteria for Choosing a Music School

If you consider a survey of professional musicians on the East coast taken in 2004, the primary responses given by students in considering a music school were grouped into these categories, and in this order of importance:

  1. Teacher: 56 out of 65 respondents surveyed
    The reasons behind choosing a teacher are; professional experience, approach to the instrument and the personality of the teacher.
  2. Major Ensembles
    Respondents are basing their decision on where to attend school based on the reputation and performance of the orchestra and or wind ensemble
  3. Quality of the Instrumental Music Faculty as a Whole
    Respondents are choosing music schools based on the overall quality of the instrumental applied music faculty.
  4. Reputation of the Music School
    This was very close to numbers 2 and 3 above and illustrates the significance of a long standing of excellence in teaching.
  5. Chamber Music Potential and City or Location of the School
    At this point in the survey respondents began to acknowledge several criteria almost equally significant and found it difficult placing the importance of chamber music over where he or she would spend the next four years.
  6. Scholarship Availability
    This is an important factor when choosing a music school along with the cost of living in the city where you will be studying. Major decisions are made in regard to where a person will study based primarily on this financial aspect. Do not simply choose a school or a teacher because you received the best scholarship money. It is in your best interest to find the best teacher that will help you grow musically and hold you accountable. A thriving and vibrant trombone studio that is engaging and competitive will reap huge rewards down the road.
  7. Core Curriculum and Academic Excellence
    These two reasons almost tied with regard to selecting a music school. It is likely that those individuals pursuing trombone with an emphasis on landing a college teaching job would place this criteria higher in their list of priorities.
  8. Conductor
    Typically most young trombonists seeking acceptance into a studio don't even know the name of the conductor. However, the role of the conductor has changed over the years. It is now more common for the wind ensemble director with established contacts in the area and state to take a more active role in recruiting students that will ultimately bring success to the ensemble. Band directors seem to have this network of friends and often recommendations come from each other as to a trombone player who has potential from a solid band program. The orchestra conductor is responsible for being active in the community and furthering the vision of the school of music.
  9. Potential for Free Lance Work
    I was surprised to learn that this really is not a factor when considering a music school. Frequently there are excellent trombone studios in relatively small towns. The world of trombone extends much further than the local school of music and city and only becomes smaller as your experience and visibility increase. For those considering graduate and or doctorial studies I would think a little more priority would be given to this area.
  10. Ability to Double Major
    It is not surprising that most successful musicians who have made a living as performers at some point in their study decided to jump in feet first and commit to music. In all honesty it has been my experience that most students attempting to double major will usually run into personal conflicts of interest. The desire and passion for making music remains while the more practical or popular pursuit of money pulls at their pocket books. I have friends who after years of success in the .com industry came back to music following the collapse and explain how much happier and satisfied they are in music than they have ever been in business.
  11. Social Atmosphere/Boyfriend/Girlfriend/Significant Other (not a good reason)

Getting to Know the School and Studio

Before you commit to auditioning for a school of music consider the reasons you have for attending that school. Most of the reputable trombone studios have web sites that will allow you to access a syllabus or see a performance calendar. The studio as well as the teacher should be actively involved in the trombone community as well as giving frequent recitals and ensemble performances. Ask if someone can give you the contact information of a student currently in the studio and politely email this individual with a few questions you may have. Try and get a sense of how this program will benefit you. Consider what all of the major ensemble requirements will be for a given degree. Ask about the chamber music requirements and if this is largely a trombone quartet and trombone choir venue or is there the possibility of playing in a brass quintet regularly. Find out what topics are covered and how often the studio meets for studio class. If you are primarily focusing on winning an audition make sure the studio is holding regular mock auditions and is covering the repertoire on a consistent and systematic basis.

Perhaps you would be better served working in a studio that has a very selective audition process and narrows it's enrollment to four or five. This is a very focused and intense dynamic and will require the utmost professionalism which is very similar to actually working in an orchestra. There may be an individual in a small studio that is inflexible or unwilling to compromise and your patience will be required in this situation for the next four years. Maybe you would be better served being surrounded by twenty to thirty or more trombone majors in a university with two or three full time trombone faculty. You have many opportunities to play quartets and choir repertoire but the possibility is always there to become lost in the shuffle with less contact time with the trombone faculty. There are many competitive studios that accept anywhere from 10 to 14 which may provide the perfect blend of opportunity and individual contact with the faculty.

Many teachers regularly entertain prospective graduate and undergraduate students by letting them attend a studio class, class recital, inviting them to participate in trombone choir if they are in the area and make room for them to sit in the orchestra or wind ensemble section. Most college instructors prefer to teach any prospective student at least once before any scheduled audition. Remember that these lessons are in fact a very important part of the audition process so choose to be very prepared for a lesson with a potential teacher.

It Goes Both Ways

Remember that, when you decide to take an audition, the music school is also auditioning you. If you decide to take an audition it is assumed that you have done your homework and understand the direction of the studio. The audition is not the place to ask questions about degree requirements and responsibilities. This comes across as unprofessional and will give the faculty concern that perhaps you really don't understand what you want to do. I am surprised at the number of students who simply want to apply to the school and take an audition who have never had a lesson with me and understand very little about the school of music. Take the time to meet the trombone professor, open up a dialogue via email (not the phone) and schedule a lesson on his or her time. This shows that you are carefully considering all of your options and have put some thought into this process.

Two key characteristics in a prospective student:

  • Attitude
    Is the student teachable and quickly able to implement instruction into his or her playing? I will never be very impressed by a student who is verbally in agreement and appears to acknowledge how to change some aspect of his technique, tone and musical approach but then continues playing the same way. I accept only those students who exhibit an over all sense of enthusiasm for the trombone and will be an obvious boost and credit to the moral of the rest of the studio. I am preparing students to become accountable to themselves. Being your own teacher and being able to make an honest assessment of your personal playing is the key to growth. If the student is not able to listen attentively to what I am saying or chooses to remain blissfully ignorant of weaknesses in his or her playing then personally accountability will never be attainable.
  • Growth Potential
    Students only have four years to accomplish a very big task. I want to "grow" enthusiastic and successful trombone players. If the potential student is deficient in basic tone production, articulation, range and reading ability then I must ask myself how feasible it is to make the necessary changes in time to allow this person the potential of being successful. I take very seriously the business of accepting someone into the studio. I would never want to create a false sense of hope in a student and cause the student to waste valuable time, energy and money pursuing a dream that may never become a reality. I will never recruit just for the sake of numbers.

What should I prepare for the audition?

By now you have met the teacher, taken a lesson and have a good sense of how the studio fits into your profile. If the studio does not specify exactly what you are to play at the audition then you should have spoken with the professor before the audition and asked his or her input as to what you should play. If you have taken a lesson with the professor it is not advisable to play exactly the same material you played in your lesson at the audition unless that was the teacher's recommendation. If the all state or area excerpts are truly able to showcase your ability then consider these etudes as part of your prepared audition repertoire.

You should prepare 15 to 20 minutes of solid repertoire, ranging from contrasting movements of standard concerti or solo work (David, Hindemith, Guillmant, Sulek, Larrson, Serocki, Martin or Bozza) several contrasting etudes, all major scales and be prepared to sight read. In addition to the solos etudes and scales, if you are a performance major and plan on taking auditions in the near future than you should include several standard orchestral excerpts such as Bolero, Ride, La Gazza Ladra, Hungarian March, Mozart Requiem and possibly William Tell. If none of these ring a bell then you need to have a serious chat with your private lesson teacher.

When you arrive to the audition be dressed appropriately and hand the committee three copies of a "Prepared Repertoire" sheet, which lists all of the etudes, solos and excerpts you are prepared to play. In addition to the "Prepared Repertoire" sheet, also include a comprehensive list of other solos etudes and method books you have been working but never include half time show marching music, pep band or pop music arrangements. The committee will most likely want you to answer a few questions. Be prepared to explain how you decided to study music, why you have an interest in that particular music school and what you see yourself doing in the future with the trombone. Answers should not include, "I don't know, I always enjoyed hanging out in the Band Hall" or "I want to play in the New York Philharmonic when I graduate."

Following the audition, thank the committee for their time and ask when you might expect a decision regarding your acceptance. Continue to be warm and friendly even if you feel you may have played the worst audition imaginable and be sure to shake the hand of at least one committee member if this is possible. When you return home, immediately write a short thank you note on real stationary, not email, thanking the teacher for his or her time and consideration and place this in the mail within 24 hours of your audition. After several weeks or months have passed it is then appropriate to follow up on their decision.

Parting Thoughts

Always have a back up plan and be prepared to assist your parents in how to deal with the financial aspect of studying music. You may need to make some difficult choices regarding the student loans and or part time work. You will never have these four years or so over again and you should consider this the most important investment you will ever make. The financial return of such an investment may remain unclear for years to come. A worst case scenario would be that two years into your study you realize that trombone is just not for you. Fortunately, you will still have plenty of time to change majors with little or no loss of credit hours and you will be much the wiser; able to plunge ahead into your next dream with the confidence of knowing you gave music a try.

The dedication, long hours and fierce independent work in the practice studio builds character and work ethic in a young professional that is on par with medical and law school. You will have developed invaluable skill sets along the way by the way you handle other people both artistically and creatively and the single minded pursuit of perfection that is associated with a musician. You will be extraordinarily marketable to any academic school. Many of my colleagues in the "President's Own" have gone on to highly successful careers in the private sector using the very same skills and dedication that landed them a winning audition in the Marine Band.

Remain true to your passion for music and good luck in all of your pursuits.


Brent Phillips is currently Assistant Professor of Trombone at Baylor University. Most recently, Mr. Phillips was a member of “The President’s Own” US Marine Band in Washington DC and is currently principal trombone of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra in Pennsylvania and principal trombone of the Waco Symphony Orchestra in Texas. Mr. Phillips is an active clinician and guest artist around the country at many colleges and universities and is an Edwards Artist and plays exclusively on Edwards trombones.

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