May 9, 2005

My early years

I thought it might be interesting for my readers this month to chronicle my start in music back in the horse and buggy days (almost). I want to let my readers know that when the deadline for these articles approaches I say to myself, what the heck am I going to write about this month and at the last minute I sit down and force myself to come up with something hopefully interesting. My excellent webmaster, Ben Coy, always warns me when deadline time is approaching and he is very helpful on advice to keep things rolling along.

I was born in Chicago in 1939, and when I was five or six my father died, and I when to live with various relatives who didn't quite know what to do with me. My father's side of the family was very much into the arts: one was a ballet dancer, one was an opera singer, another a violinist. I used to sing because I had a nice kid's voice. I soon wore out my welcome at the various family homes and my mother shipped me off to a military school because she was working two jobs and said she "didn't want me running the streets." As far as I can remember, there were two kinds of kids at that military school; half were the kids who weren't quite bad enough to go to reform school and the rest were kids like me, scared little runts whose parents obviously didn't want them around anymore. That school was for grades 1-8, so there were kids there who were barely out of the toddler stage. I entered that school in 1948 when I was 9 and in 4th grade. In the 5th grade they announced a "distinguished cadet award" that was to be given out at the end of the year. They used to have what they called "competitive drills," which was a series of commands given out to the entire company of cadets which numbered 150. The idea was to make the commands fast and complicated so they would trip up people and knock them out of the competition. I must have been a fast thinker in those days (unlike now), because I won 18 of those competitive drills and won the distinguished cadet award. That year I also went to the band director and said I wanted to play a trombone or trumpet. I remember he said "I need a baritone player" and "you can start on that and switch later." I remember the night before my first lesson, I dreamed about making a sound on a horn, I was so excited. That school was something out of Oliver Twist. The owner of the school had a big heavy cherrywood paddle that he'd bring out every once in a while and nobody in that school would escape without getting whacked. They used to line up everybody in the gym and it would take a good hour before everyone got their's. He used to hit some of the bigger kids so hard that even though they had never cried in their lives, they're eyes watered from the sheer force of the blow. There were also some instructors in that school who would be in jail now for fooling around with little boys, but in those days things like that were never talked about.

I played baritone until I graduated in 1953. Let me tell you, when you're nine years old and you're in a military school for 5 years, you think you'll never get out. Afterwards, I went to a public high school in Chicago and played in the band during that time. I also went to some solo contests. I was a very ordinary player, just better than most others. I didn't study privately because I had no exposure to serious instrumental programs. Then in my senior year, my band director Mr. Walter Dubyk said he wanted to arrange for me to study privately. He sent me down to something called the Chicago School of Music to take lessons with someone by the name of Vincent Cichowicz. At that time, a half hour lesson cost four dollars. I studied with Cichowicz for my senior year and when the rest of my classmates said they were going into Physical Education, I decided I had better go into music because that was all I knew. I told Vince I wanted to play trumpet thinking it was the closest thing to baritone, but he said the embouchure was more crucial and I should switch to trombone. I remember they went to the back room of the school and came back with an Olds "Ambassador" trombone. Vince said that he wanted me to play a Bach mouthpiece. I think I started on a 7C. I enrolled at Roosevelt University and studied there for 6 months, but felt I wasn't getting enough out of it so I returned to study with Vince. After 6 more months he told me I needed a trombone teacher, and arranged for me to study with John Swallow, who was in the CSO at that time. John was and is one of the most original thinkers I have ever met and I still use many of the things he taught me today. I studied with him for a year and a half.

A word must be said about my early influences. Besides the trumpet and trombone players in the CSO who were gods to me as a student, and going to CSO concerts, which may have been the single most valuable learning tool in my development as a player, the one person who I tried to emulate although from afar was Gordon Pulis, former principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic. I met Louis Van Haney, 2nd trombonist N.Y. Philharmonic and section mate of Pulis, when I was a student and became lifelong friends with him until his untimely death. I used to quiz him about everything he could tell me about Pulis and I was lucky enough to get copies of old tapes of Pulis and his group playing trios and quartets. I even had compiled a collection of every recording or performance I could lay my hands on featuring Pulis, whether playing solo's with the Air Force Band or the Mahler 5th with NY. I never heard him live, although I met him twice, but I tried to put together a picture of his playing through spoken commentary and the aforementioned recordings. His was a story that should be the subject of a biography; suffice it to say he was a source of inspiration to a lowly ex-baritone player trying to be a symphonic trombonist and his playing and influence will live in my memory forever.

At this time I started one of the most important things ever in the development of my career, and that was forming a low brass section and playing together on a regular basis. And I mean we played together virtually every night. The group consisted of John Tafoya, Martin Fako, myself, and Bob Tucci, tuba. We played trios, quartets and excerpts almost every night for a period of about 4 years. Bob Tucci left to go to Europe during that time but the trombones continued to play together. I was in the Civic orchestra for 4 years and during that time I got a job in the Florida Symphony in Orlando. It was a 15 week season and I made 100 dollars a week. After that I would return to Chicago and play in Civic the rest of the year. I did that for 2 seasons, 1960 and 61. During the summer I would work on the night shift as an elevator operator at the Palmer House hotel. I would buzz my mouthpiece all night because there was nobody around and then go to bed in the morning, get up at 5PM and go to play our low brass sessions with my colleagues. I remember during my breaks in the middle of the night I would walk around the corner in front of Orchestra Hall and wonder if I could sneak in and practice on the stage all night. I must say I never imagined at that time getting a job in a small or midsize orchestra, much less the Chicago Symphony. During the winter season I was going to school part time, working and practicing 5-8 hours a day . To say I fluffed off school to practice is an understatement. Since I had no social skills because of little exposure to the outside world from the captivity in the military school, I had no social life and therefore no distractions from my complete dedication to developing as a trombone player. I was pretty far behind for my age because of the late start on the trombone.

The first symphony concert I ever heard was in 1957. I heard the CSO play Mahler's 1st Symphony with Bruno Walter conducting. It happened to be the day Toscanini died, so they played the Coriolanus Overture as a memorial. I didn't know who Mahler was and I certainly didn't know who Bruno Walter was. Once I started studying seriously I started going to every concert I could. Sometimes I would go 2 or 3 times to the same concert if I could get a free ticket. Meanwhile my time in the Civic orchestra was very productive musically. The conductor was John Weicher, former concertmaster of the CSO and of the best musicians I've ever known. He was an exacting task master and took apart every piece with surgical precision. I learned more from him than any other conductor.

When John Swallow left Chicago to return to New York, I was accepted by Robert Lambert as a student. I studied with him for 2 years and when Byron Peebles, who was assistant principal, left to go to Los Angeles as principal trombone, it was felt from my time in Civic that I was suitable for the position. I never auditioned for Reiner before the I got in the orchestra, but I did have an audition in front of the whole orchestra, and on Bass Trumpet! We were preparing an all Wagner concert at the end of my first year in the orchestra and I was playing Bass Trumpet, knowing full well that assistant first trombone was the most dangerous position in the orchestra. I had only assisted on a couple of pieces that year, so this was my first chance to play a part with the meanest conductor of all time. We started Siegfried's Rhine Journey and at the first tutti Reiner stopped the orchestra, looked back and said "who's playing Bass Trumpet? I can't hear you!" From then on he made me play just about every entrance by myself in front of the whole orchestra. The way you knew in those days you did good was you weren't fired!

My third season in the orchestra was interesting. Because of some embouchure troubles the principal, my former teacher, Robert Lambert had taken the summer season off and I had played for him at Ravinia, because in those days the assistants didn't play the summer season. When the fall season came we were going on tour with the Miraculous Mandarin and other stuff. I came and sat down in the assistants chair, but at the downbeat there was no one in the principal chair, so I moved over and started playing the rehearsal. At the intermission the manager came out and said, "by the way, you'll be playing first while the principal takes some time off." Well thanks for telling me! As it turns out I played the rest of the season and apparently impressed them to the point where they gave me the principal position, even while I was wondering if I would be allowed to audition for it. If I hadn't had the Bartok to play on that tour, which I have to say the trombone section nailed every night, I might not have had the opportunity to show what a cocky, fearless kid could do. The rest as they say, is history.

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