An Interview with Jon Whitaker

February 6th, 2014 by Christan Griego

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I’m thrilled to announce that Jonathan Whitaker has returned to the Edwards family. Jon is the Assistant Professor of Trombone at the University of Alabama. Roll Slide has become a trombone powerhouse in recent years. In addition to his studio duties, he also manages, teaches, and conducts for the Alessi Seminar every summer. He’s comfortable in venues as varied as Avery Fischer Hall (where he has performed with the New York Philharmonic) and the Super Dome (where he was the featured soloist with the Million Dollar Band at this year’s Sugar Bowl). Jon recently released a solo recording titled Nature’s Gift, which is available for purchase on his site.

Jon and I sat down to talk shop last week…

CG: Thanks for taking the time to visit with us, Jon.

JW: Absolutely!

CG: 2013 was a busy year for you. Can you take us through the highlights?

JW: It sure was… filled with tons of fun projects. But I must say, the highlight of 2013 was the birth of my son, Garrett.

The top of the musical list for me would have to be giving the world premiere of Jim Stephenson’s Three Bones Concerto written for Joseph Alessi, Peter Ellefson and myself at Alabama and then performing it at the 2013 Eastern Trombone Workshop. Joe and Pete are my heroes on the instrument and I am so honored to be able to share the stage with them in this project.

Editor’s note: You may watch the premiere performance here, here, and here.

I also enjoy performing and teaching at the Alessi Seminar each and every year it is in the US. 2013 marked my fifth consecutive Seminar!

In addition, some other highlights would be performing the Leopold Mozart Concerto with the National Music Festival Chamber Orchestra and the release of two recording projects!

I also really enjoy the successes of my students — competitions, successful recitals, completion of degrees, etc.

CG: How do you balance performing and teaching?

JW: That is a tough one. There are many weeks where this is a real challenge — balancing 23 students, studio class, trombone choir rehearsals, countless committees, family and practice. I like to keep myself busy and I always try to have some sort of playing project on the books all of the time. I also try to play a little in every lesson I teach, just to keep things working on the horn throughout the day. I arrange my schedule so that from 7 – 10am is “my time.” I go to the gym most mornings and then practice a healthy dose of fundamentals before I start teaching.

CG: Many young players are laser focused on performance. What advice do you give these players as you groom them for careers in music?

JW: I think it takes a special type of student to be successful in a performance career. I don’t think that a student necessarily needs to be the most talented player at a young age to be successful (although it doesn’t hurt). The students that I feel like are the most successful are the ones that have the best work ethic and that do the right thing, the right way, at the right time… all of the time. This is something that I preach all of the time to my studio! They may not all get the message but the ones that do will have a great chance at being successful.

CG: What is the best advice you’ve received from your teachers and mentors?

JW: I have been fortunate to have so many great teachers and mentors throughout my life. From my early college years, Ray Conklin at Murray State University instilled the importance of playing with a good sound and was insistent on correct fundamentals. I can’t remember many lessons with him in which we didn’t spend some time on fundamentals. Tom Ashworth at the University of Minnesota was an incredible role model because of his versatility and virtuosity. Many of my most important moments in lessons with Tom were when he was demonstrating… always inspiring. At IU, Dee Stewart instilled an ease of production that leads to a resonant sound. This was always the message and I couldn’t hear it enough. Midway through my career at a DMA student at IU is when I met Peter Ellefson. There are too many instances to count where his playing, teaching, advice, counsel, and wisdom left a lasting impression me… still does to this day!

Another important mentor is Ray Cramer (long time Director of Bands at IU). His advice about teaching is something that I think about each and every semester. He told me to, “take every student as they are and make them better every time you have them in the studio. Everything they have done up to that point is out of your control.”

CG: You played Edwards in the 90s before moving on to Bach, Greenhoe, and Shires (all of which are professional, American-made instruments). We’re happy you’re playing our horns again. Talk about this instrument journey you’ve been on. How can people learn from your experiences?

JW:Well, I have recently wondered why I took the journey to begin with. I have always been drawn to the sound of a Bach trombone. That is the sound I grew up listening to. I have always been in search of an instrument that I could make that sound on but with a little effort as possible. When I played the Greenhoe for the first time I was drawn to the sound and it was a great deal easier to produce than on a stock Bach trombone. The Shires was a step further in the direction of ease. But something still wasn’t right with it. This current setup is a great balance between ease of playing and getting the sound that I have had in my head for years and years.

I also think that we change as players, both in concept and as well as physically. Over the course of the last couple of years I have lost around 125 pounds and I feel like I have had to adjust my approach to some things from a technique standpoint. These type of adjustments lead to my need for different equipment.

CG: I have to be honest… I’ve learned a lot from working with you (and Pete Ellefson, too — an avid Bach junky). You play tested the early Getzen 4047DS against your Bach. Now you’re playing the T350-HB. What makes that horn work for you?

JW: I was actually a bit sceptical of the Thayer valve with the harmonic brace when you first sent it to me. My initial setup before coming to the factory was built for stability, which is what I was needing — a horn that was stable and that slotted perfectly on every partial. But, it was a very tight blow. Once making the trip to get fitted, I found that the HB was a crucial part of the balance of this instrument for me. I am always amazed at how the valve affects the way the horn plays on the open side. I have always loved how open horns tend to blow with a Thayer valve but I also love the stability of a horn with a rotor valve. For me, the T350-HB is the perfect balance of ease, stability and resonance.

CG: Your new CD Nature’s Gift is now available. I’m sure our readers would love to know more about what it takes to record a CD, from the creative to the technical. Can you share some details about this recording project?

JW: If you want to learn about yourself as a player, record a CD!!! The process of recording requires such great concentration, endurance and consistency! All of the rep on this project (except for the Demos) are works that I have performed many times and I think this is an important part of the success of the sessions themselves.

I also choose to do all of the editing and post production on this project myself. At times I thought I was crazy for doing so, but in the end I am glad that I did. I certainly learned a great deal from the process that will help me in future projects.

The title track of the CD is a piece written for me by my good friend Anthony Barfield. Anthony and I first met at the 2007 Alessi Seminar and have collaborated on a number for projects over the years including two other commissions, one for Stentorian Consort and Joseph Alessi and the other a version of his piece Here We Rest for solo trombone and band that was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 2012. We have also collaborated on a recording project of his piece Red Sky with the University of Alabama Wind Ensemble.

This piece was written in dedication to my daughter, Ainsley! In the piece, Anthony captures the real joy and emotion of becoming a father and just how much of a gift children can be in a person’s life.

The commissioning of Eric Ewazen’s Visions of Light has proven to be an extremely important part of my career. While a DMA student at Indiana University, I was very fortunate to conceive and administer the commission of this fantastic work for trombone and wind ensemble. The work was written for Joseph Alessi and the Indiana University Wind Ensemble (Ray Cramer, conductor). We were extremely fortunate to be able to offer the world premiere at the MidWest Clinic in Chicago in 2003. This project began a long friendship with one of my true heroes, Joseph Alessi!

CG: Tell us about what we can expect to hear from you in the next year.

JW: I have 4 solo performances scheduled for this semester:

  • Red Sky by Anthony Barfield with the UA Wind Ensemble on February 8
  • Colors by Burt Appermont with the UA Symphonic Band at CBDNA on March 1
  • Three Bones Concerto by Jim Stephenson with Joseph Alessi, Peter Ellefson and the UA Wind Ensemble at the American Bandmasters Association Convention on March 5
  • Hymn to a Blue Hour by John Mackey with the UA Trombone Choir

I have also commissioned a new work for trombone quartet and saxophone quartet by Nick Demos to be premiered at the 2014 National Music Festival with the Mana Saxophone Quartet.

There are also plans for me to perform Red Sky at the Manhattan School of Music next year. And I will probably start working on ideas for my second recording project.

CG: What are three things our readers may not know about you?

JW: I am an avid bass fisherman… I just wish I had time to do it. There are very few things that are as relaxing as a day on the water.

I actually wanted to play the clarinet in grade school. My band director said, “Nope. You are tall. I think you should play trombone.”

I love a good cigar!!! Actually, that is no secret to many of your readers.

CG: Thanks for taking the time to share with our readers, Jon, and thanks for playing our horns. We look forward to hearing great things from you and your studio.

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