Behind the Scenes at Alessi Seminar III

by Chris Branagan

NYACK, NY – The Alessi Seminar is now in its third year in the US. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Joe Alessi to discuss his motivations for doing a festival of this kind, and to gain a little insight into what goes into a workshop of this size and scope. My first question was what was the inspiration for the Alessi Seminar?

“Well, first of all, I love to teach. I haven’t been to too many events like this, I was a student in Snowbird, Utah, years ago and I’ve been to the ITA Festival.”

“I have a lot of confidence in my methods now, and I want to share those methods and pass them along to others. I also can run this in the way I want to run it. I think the forum of listening to other players play, even if you’re not up there playing yourself, you can learn so much by seeing and hearing others, player after player. I think the curriculum is designed to do that, so that people may not be up there participating themselves, but there observing what’s going on and I think you can learn a lot from that.”

Alessi Coaching Andrey Kharlamov“The bottom line is that I just love to teach. I love working with players and being a sleuth or an investigator and I enjoy trying to pick the right phrase or adjective to help that player. My teaching has changed in that I to look at the complete picture. If you strike a nerve with a player, in a good way, it can be a catalyst to change other things, and I try to find that one key thing.”

This is the third time the Seminar has been held at Nyack College, on the Hudson River just north of New York City. I wanted to know if there had been any changes that have been made to this year’s seminar.

“Well it’s always a work in progress, so of course I’ve learned more things this time than last time. The one thing that has really helped me is hiring an administrator [Roger Floreska]. Now I can focus on teaching and playing more efficiently.”

“Giving auditors and participants more time to practice I think is a very positive thing. We need to find more ‘chill’ time. I know some people want that. I feel more relaxed this year, mainly because I have somebody helping me, but I think people like the intensity. I don’t want this to be a vacation, I want it to be a really intense thing, and I think people like that.”

“But to improve it from here, we’ll need to question the facilities we have here. I know the college is trying to improve the facilities, and in two years this may happen.”

“As far as the teaching experience is concerned, I would like to improve trying to find more time for coaching trombone quartets. I think people enjoy that. It’s missing this year, but there’s only so much you can do. Ten days is the absolute limit, you can’t go any longer than that, or people will go crazy. Adding more days is not the solution.”

“The classes are important. We have to have all these classes, that is the focus of the whole seminar, to get together in a forum. I’m totally confident in Chris Houlding teaching the auditors, now I’ve found more time to get with the auditors and had a nice session this morning.”

The auditors are an important part of the seminar, and Joe makes it a point to spend time with them.

“Yeah, that’s important, I have to be there with them. The only other thing I’ve thought of, but it would be an enormous amount of work for me, is to give everybody a private lesson before the seminar starts; for instance, if I taught the lessons in four or five days prior to the start of the seminar. But that doesn’t work because I have to get ready to perform. Really I don’t see how I could improve it that much from the way it is now. I’m always interested in hearing what people have to say at the final meeting, and I listen very closely. I know people are going to say, ‘I wish the food was better.’ You know, if you have time to eat and you’re going to take two or three hours to eat, you’re not going to eat in the cafeteria anyway, you’re going to go to a restaurant. Unfortunately, there are no restaurants up there. I’m sure I’ll get other comments regarding the living situation in the dorms. But we’re here to work; it’s not a vacation. We’re here to think about the trombone and how to be better players.”

Joe keeps a demanding performance schedule throughout the seminar, presenting six different concerts of exceptional quality. One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of the seminar is that Joe encourages attendees to record all concerts and master classes. I asked Joe for his thoughts on this important aspect of the Alessi Seminar.

“Well, this is a seminar. This is not some recording session. If it were a session like that, it would be different. It’s designed for people to learn. People are going to miss notes and we’re all going to make mistakes. It doesn’t bother me at all if people record it, I think they want to and they need to. I think if I were to not permit that, it wouldn’t be a seminar. A seminar is place where you exchange information, and that’s what were doing. This is not something where people are going to go out and make money on what I’m saying, people are going to take it home and study it.”

The Alessi Seminar takes place in the US every other year. In the off years, Joe takes the Seminar to Italy. I wanted to know if it was more fun to hold the seminar in a place like Italy.

“It’s fun in different ways. It’s fun here because I control the whole thing – I’m the artistic director. There, I’m not really the artistic director. I run my classes, and basically, we do similar things, but I don’t design the exact schedules and so forth. It could be that it might turn into that over there, but to be honest, I don’t know if that’s going to happen every year. And to do it every year, is a little hard on me. I enjoy doing this at home every two years would be fine.”

The biggest change in this year’s seminar is the addition of Roger Floreska as the Administrative Director. The task of organizing an event like this is monumental, and Roger has done an excellent job with a multitude of details involving scheduling, travel, accommodations, and music, to name a few. I asked Roger what he felt was the most difficult aspect of organizing this year’s seminar:

“I would say that would be maintaining contact between all the attendees — over 60 people. We figured out the most efficient way of doing it was through email. Keeping in fairly consistent contact with everyone has been the most difficult part. Everything else, once you start, tends to run itself. Of course, maintaining communications as the seminar approached was important as well. When someone asks a question, you have to get back to them in due time, and when you have ten questions and they’re all different, and trying to juggle the priority of each, I guess that’s the toughest thing.”

With a festival of this size, there had to have some unexpected that came up in the preparation process. Roger was surprised to see that coordinating the music turned out to be a little tougher than he had intended. “I’ve never been an orchestra librarian, and I had my own picture of what it would be like, but it was nothing like I thought. It was infinitely more difficult, in the sense of voicing all the particular parts to all the particular people. And it had to be right, because we have no time to readjust, and say “okay, you can play first instead of you. I have to assign all that before the Seminar starts, so I have to know all the individuals. I had to do background on the individuals so I’m giving the parts that are right for them.”

“By the time they get here, there’s no time to change parts. So I guess that’s the toughest thing, knowing where to put everyone as far as the music is concerned, and then sending all the parts out electronically. All the parts had to be scanned, put into pdf format, and sent via email. There were a few people with computers that couldn’t open the files, so I had to send a link to download Adobe Acrobat. So I guess the library duties and voicing the parts were by far the biggest surprises. I only gave myself two weeks for that and thought it would be a walk in the park, that I could do it in two days. But next time, I’m going to need two months for that.”

One of the most daunting aspects of organizing a Seminar like this had to have been choosing the performing participants. This year’s Seminar featured players from some of the country’s leading orchestras, students and professors from prominent music schools, and several international invitees. Roger spoke about the selection process:

“We received about 40 recordings, most of which were on CD, with the exception of those from Asia where the standard format is minidisk. I would say the level of all the entries was very high, and in some ways, Joe had a more difficult time than he had ever had in picking the right people. So there were a lot of runners-up. For every spot there were two or three stand-bys. We established a first, second, and third place for each of the 17 participant spaces. So if this person couldn’t make it, we would call the first on the list. I would say maybe about 35% to 40% of those runners up are here as auditors. So it was good in the sense that we knew there were a good number of auditors at the same level, making the auditors’ classes more interesting. And you can certainly hear that in some of the auditor quartets.”

It took a tremendous amount of planning to put together the Alessi Seminar. For Roger, one of the most rewarding aspects of working on a project like this is to see it come together in a seamless way.

“My favorite part of the Seminar was seeing master classes starting when they were supposed to and ending when they were supposed to. Everyone knew exactly when he or she was going on and who was next, and we didn’t have to worry about any of that. Everyone had a schedule two months in advance. It was good that once we started everyone knew what to do. So I guess seeing the schedule come to fruition has been the best part. That took a long time, because there are a lot of things Joe wanted to cover. We gave ourselves a seven-hour window per day for master classes. So in those seven hours, we had to divide that time between seventeen people, over the course of eight days. So whatever big chunk of minutes we had, we would divide that by 17 twice over, and made some time for groups and so it was a matter of fitting everyone in. We’ve found the value of taking the time to do that. Had we not done that, had we just had blocks of time and not assigned people specific times, it would have been a mish-mosh. Everybody knew when they were going to play, no matter what.”

Joe Alessi has made a career of putting quality first in his performing and teaching. I asked Roger what is was like to have such an accomplished and quality-driven artist as a boss:

“He’s been a buddy. I’ve had to stand my ground on a few things that he might have wanted to change last minute for musical reasons or for scheduling conflicts that he had. But there were a few times where I said ‘we have to end now, or this person has to be finished because the next person needs the same amount of time.’ He was always really good about that. I believe artists like Joe are on a different level than most, as far as how they’re thinking. They’re thinking about totally different things than I may be, as an organizer, at a particular point in a master class. It may be obvious to me that something needs to be taking place in the master class in terms of the schedule, but he’s thinking on a totally different plane and it may not be obvious to him. So I have to make it obvious, so when he doesn’t realize it, even though it may seem difficult, because I know that he’s in a different zone it makes it easier. I’ve had to deal with that with a few other people who are at the top of their field. I know Wynton Marsalis very well and work with him a lot. He’s kind of the same way with scheduling or certain things that have to be done, he’s just not thinking about that. You have to remind him, ‘you know to come down to earth for a second.’ So that’s kind of how Joe is, because he is who he is. If he skipped lunch to continue the master class everyone would just sit here, because everyone wants to hear what he has to say. Our personalities work together well, too. We’re very similar in terms of how we look at things. I didn’t realize that so much as I did in the last ten days. When something happens we kind of have the same reaction, and that’s good. I know when he’s getting frustrated. I didn’t know we were that a kin.”

This year’s seminar was a remarkably successful event, and was made more so by the great work done in preparation before and execution during the festival. The Alessi Seminar is an ambitious endeavor put together by one of the world’s finest musicians, and continues to be on of the most comprehensive festivals the trombone world has to offer. To read a full review of the concerts and master classes by John Whitaker, see the latest issue of the ITA Journal.

I offer my congratulations to Joe and Roger for another outstanding Seminar, and would like to take a moment to say thank you for their professionalism and hospitality.