Summer Trombone Workshop 2006

The following was contributed by Scott Ruedger.

For ten days in July, the beautiful 117-year-old Romanesque Building housing the Crouse College of Fine Arts and the Setnor School of Music on the Syracuse University campus played host to a unique event. Sixteen Trombonists along with eight auditors gathered for an intense 10-day experience in elevating the art of trombone performance. The sound of trombones in the warm air permeating the relative summer calm of the Syracuse University campus signaled that the Summer Trombone Workshop ‘06, led by Haim Avitsur, was underway.

Haim Avitsur, professor of music at the University of Virginia and Queens College, as well as an active soloist, is the Seminar’s Artistic Director. The esteemed faculty also included: Nitzan Haroz, principal trombone of the Philadelphia Orchestra; David Taylor, well known first-call New York City freelance bass trombonist. Collectively they are known as Trio Hidas. This year they were joined by Bill Harris, principal trombone of the Syracuse Symphony.

The workshop participants were chosen by tape or live audition. Enrollment was limited to sixteen to insure maximum time with faculty members and a low student-to-faculty ratio. Haim stresses that the participants are actually true participants. Participants were allowed to take an active part in all events and ensembles, and encouraged to ask questions. Participants were treated as professionals in a collaborative effort, not mere students assigned tasks. Participants were assigned to perform in four thirty-minute master classes, once for each of the four faculty members. In addition, participants received one-hour private lessons with Haim Avitsur, Nitzan Haroz and Dave Taylor. Participants were also assigned to one of four trombone quartets, which were coached by Mr. Avitsur. Participants also performed in the large participant’s trombone ensemble. The quartets and large trombone ensemble were assigned compositions to be performed on the workshop’s final evening concert. The faculty members were quick to comment on the extremely high performance level of this year’s participants. In essence, participants had unlimited access to the faculty, both on and off stage, creating an incredibly intimate atmosphere.

In addition to the participants, eight auditors attended the workshop. Auditors were welcome to attend all master classes and recitals, and were invited to perform Bruckner’s Ave Maria on the final concert in the auditor’s trombone ensemble. Auditors also joined the participants in a combined trombone choir for Gabrieli’s Canzona XIII on the final evening’s concert finale.

Participants and auditors spanned a wide range of abilities and performance levels. High school students, undergraduate and graduate students and professional trombonists were represented. Participants came from throughout the US and from as far away as Taiwan. Although a wide range of abilities existed among the players, the atmosphere was geared to improving each player’s musical level and the camaraderie of working together toward a unified goal allowed quick friendships to develop.

The schedule was extremely intensive, beginning with trombone ensemble rehearsal at 8 am each day. Haim Avitsur, who also performed in the choir, coached the trombone ensembles. Haim stressed ensemble development of the members by having the groups perform without a conductor. Musicians typically perform with conductors to lead them, but Haim wanted to develop the player’s ears and listening skills in the ensemble. This was an especially daunting task in one of the selected pieces, Events by Verne Reynolds. This work relies heavily on listening to the various solo interjections, and knowing not only your part, but also each of the other parts. I have to admit, I had my doubts that the choir would be able to perform Events, but I was quite surprised on the final night after a stunning performance. The choir also performed J. S. Bach’s Little Fugue in g minor. The interplay between each part and the constant running sixteenth notes presented a challenge at first, but once participants begin to listen to the other parts, the work started to come together. The sound created by sixteen trombonists performing a Bach fugue surely rivaled that of the huge 1950’s Holtkamp Organ behind the performers in Crouse College’s Setnor Auditorium during the workshop’s final concert.

The majority of the schedule included daily master classes from 10am to 12pm and 1pm to 3pm by the faculty members. Trombone quartet coachings were from 3 to 4:30pm. Private lessons were also scheduled throughout the day. The evenings included solo recitals by Haim, Nitzan Haroz, and Dave Taylor, and a concert by Trio Hidas, the faculty ensemble-in-residence. In addition, Katherine Miranda presented an evening seminar on the Alexander Technique about breathing and posture. Bill Harris presented an emotional lecture about the renowned Eastman trombone professor, Emory Remington. The busy schedule offered little time for individual practice, so participants and auditors came in early and stayed late to work on the finer details of what they learned in each master class. Each of the quartets also needed time to rehearse, so participants worked around their already busy schedule to find time to rehearse the quartet repertoire prior to Haim’s coachings.

Master classes by each of the faculty members allowed the participants an opportunity to perform in front of their colleagues and for the faculty member to offer critical comments. Each of the four faculty members has reached the highest levels of trombone performance in their individual areas, so it was very revealing to hear the similarities and differences between such premiere artists. Their overall goals are all similar, but each has their own unique way of encouraging the participants to reach a higher level of performance. Several underlying themes were similar to each of the faculty member’s master classes. Among the many topics addressed was the importance of the musical line, relaxation, efficient breath control, and attention to the smallest detail in the performance.

One participant was playing the second trombone part of the Hungarian March from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust for Nitzan. After working for most of the master class, Nitzan said students could work for an entire week on this excerpt, and still see no improvement. This attention to detail can get frustrating, so Nitzan suggested mixing excerpts with repertoire that one likes to play. Dave Taylor related practicing to reading a book in his master class. When reading a book, sometimes you might forget what you just read on the previous page. If so, go back and re-read. The same applies to practicing; go back and review what you are practicing. Dave also related that we need to concentrate on the minutest detail in our practicing. He related the story about the size of the Planck Length. As Dave explained, this length is so small, it appears as 1/1,000,000 of an individual pixel from a computer screen seen from 10 blocks away. This represents the detail in which we should be critical of our performances. The minutest detail shows up in our playing, no detail is too small to overlook.

Bill Harris coached a participant playing one of the Bach Cello Suites. He noticed that there was an excess amount of body movement in the performance. Bill thinks that excess motion can create tension that is detrimental in trombone playing. Excess motion can be distracting and deter from the musical effect by causing tension. His goal is to get maximum results with minimal effort. Dave is not against motion, but it does concern him when the player uses motion to delineate beats in the music. Nitzan noticed excess tension in another participant, and said that tension is the enemy of brass players. While some tension is used in playing trombone, we should try to minimize the excess tension. Nitzan suggested we should try to relax while playing. Dave also touched on this point in his master class while watching a participant holding their slide like a claw. This excess grip on the slide can create wasted energy that one will need in their performance.

Each of the faculty members stressed the importance to the musical line in performance and practice. Haim listened to a participant performing the Sulek Sonata and taking awkward breaths. Haim advised that where the breath occurs is not important; it is what the breath does to everything around it that should be of concern. If the breath doesn’t detract from the musical line, it should be fine. In Dave’s master class, he said that if the breaths are going to break the musical line; we just have to be less obvious and figure out places that are best for us. Dave suggested listening to other artists performing the Bach Cello Suites so we can get ideas of several ideas for musical lines. He wanted the participants to get away from an “academic” performance, and go outside the box. Nitzan commented while listening to a participant’s performance of the Martin Ballade, that phrases are the most important thing. We should record ourselves and figure out where the phrases are supposed to lead.

Another similarity among the faculty concerned the stage appearance of the performer. Dave Taylor said the performer is in contact with the audience, and drama is part of the performance. Nitzan watched a participant frown after he finished a particular passage. He commented that if the audience sees you frown, or shake your head in anger, they will begin to feel uncomfortable for you. Most audiences will probably not be aware of the mistakes our hypercritical ears hear in our own playing. Nitzan added that the performance might actually improve if we seem to enjoy it. Dave noted that if we maintain the phrase or thought, we will be forgiven for mistakes. Listening to some participants, Dave would ask them to raise their horn or lower the stand so the audience can see the performer and more easily connect with the music.

Each of the faculty members were readily available to answer questions, and contributed to a positive learning experience and cooperative environment. A special round-table discussion was held in which participants and auditors could ask the faculty questions on any topic of concern. Questions asked included: what is on your I-Pod (or what music do you listen to); what teaching theories each of the faculty has; and, how do they balance the life of a professional career as a musician with their family (to which each faculty member quickly replied that family was first!). One topic of major concern to the participants still in school is what to do when they graduate. Nitzan echoed the sentiment of the faculty by encouraging participants to try and stop worrying about the future. He said: “Music is a passion, and definitely not an easy one, but if performing is what you want to do, you will find a way to do it.”

In addition to the daily master classes and rehearsals, the evenings allowed the faculty to present solo recitals. Each performer brilliantly displayed an exceptional level of artistry in their recitals. Notable high points from Haim’s recital included a gorgeous performance of the Bach Cello Suite No. 2 and the world premiere of Matthew Burtner’s AES/AER for trombone and computer sound. Dave Taylor’s recital was the purest expression of drama and musical art at the highest level. It is notable that the majority of compositions of Dave Taylor’s recital were either written for him or collaborations with the composer. Especially exciting was the microtonal composition Zelig Mood Ring, by Johnny Reinhard, composed for Mr. Taylor. As he left the stage demanding the wolf is at the door, we were witnessing true dramatic art. He returned to thunderous applause from the lucky concertgoers and performed a lovely ballad as an encore. Nitzan’s recital was an equal to the previous nights, as he opened with The Song on the Land by Ronny Yedidia. Nitzan, aware of the current struggles in Israel, dedicated this work to peace. A brilliant, clear performance of Grondahl’s Concerto left the audience wanting more of Nitzan’s incredible talent, and he did not disappoint. After intermission, he closed with Defaye’s Deux Dances, replete with a lyrical quality and musicality that emphasized the comments made in his master classes.

The high point of the evening concerts was the performance of Trio Hidas. This ensemble, made up of Nitzan, Haim, and Dave, had very little time to rehearse during the workshop with the already busy schedules, yet somehow managed to come together as an ensemble that sounded like they have been playing together for years. The drastically different styles of each player’s solo recitals were not apparent as the group eased through their demanding program which ranged from baroque to contemporary works. The program included a composition from the group’s namesake, Hungarian composer Frigyes Hidas’ 8 Miniatures for three trombones, recently premiered at the trio’s performance for the Eastern Trombone Workshop. An especially exciting moment was the attendance of composer David Fetter, himself a trombonist and faculty member at the Peabody School of Music, to hear his Trombone Opera performed by the trio.

Special mention should be made to pianist Kyle Adams, staff accompanist for the Summer Trombone Workshop ’06. Kyle’s artistry was evident in his accompaniment for all faculty solo recitals and for participants in the master classes, noted was the ease of his ability to follow the soloists in the difficult Hindemith Sonate and the Casterede Sonatine. Kyle has just been offered a position at the Indiana University School of Music; he will be an incredible asset to their program.

The ten-day workshop’s final concert included performances of the auditor’s trombone choir, the participant’s trombone choir, each of the quartets, and a combined trombone choir which included all the participants and auditors. The increased level of performance which each participant and auditor gained through the many hours of master classes and listening to faculty recitals was readily apparent; the appreciative audience responded with much appreciation and applause. The participants and auditors directed their applause to Haim for his countless hours of sacrifice and devotion to the workshop’s success.

After the concert, Bill Harris invited the participants and auditors to a local establishment for food and soft drinks. The newfound friendships and camaraderie of fellow trombonists was evident as the culmination of ten days of improving trombone performance and musicianship among the participants and auditors was coming to a close. The next day, the trombonists departed for their schools and jobs as much better performers and musicians.

Next year’s Summer Trombone Workshop ’07 promises to be even better than this years event. Haim has created a wonderful learning environment for trombonists of all abilities, and all of those in attendance are looking forward to next year’s workshop. I highly encourage all trombonists interested in becoming better musicians and performers to attend the Summer Trombone Workshop 07!!

Trombonist Scott Ruedger is a Staff Sergeant in the US Air Force Band of the Golden West at Travis Air Force Base in California. He holds degrees from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and East Carolina University. His primary teachers include Tony Chipurn, Don Knaub, and George Broussard.