I spent the summer of 1979 practicing. At this time of year my thoughts often go back to those months. Other summers run together in my memory, but I always know what I was doing that summer.
I had just finished my freshman year as a music major at the University of Southern California. It hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped it would. I aimed to do something about it.
As a trombone player in high school I had been pretty hot stuff. I had moved up in the ranks to become section leader of our large, award-winning school band, as well as in our orchestra and jazz ensemble. I was first trombone in the All Southern California High School Honor Band, then first trombone in the All Southern California High School Honor Orchestra. I was taking lessons from a teacher at Long Beach State. I auditioned for and made a small, elite high school jazz group headed by Art Bartner, the longtime leader of USC’s marching band, and, one thing leading to another, ended up with a full scholarship to study music at USC.
You know where this is going. Arriving at USC in the late summer of 1978, I immediately found myself at the bottom of the heap of some 12 to 14 other trombone majors, most of them older than me. It didn’t help that during the rigorous marching band boot camp run by Bartner — outdoors, in heat, dust and smog, prior to the official start of the school year — I suffered a severe asthma attack. I had had asthma since I was child, and you don’t get over such attacks right away. This one stayed with me with me through the first auditions of the semester, during which we were placed in various performing groups. Not wanting to make excuses, I arrived and played for the first time for my new teacher, Terry Cravens, without telling him of my affliction. I remember he had me play “The Ride of the Valkyries,” a piece I had shockingly never so much as seen before and in five sharps to boot. I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t breathe.
Cravens subsequently found out what was going on and things sorted themselves out, but I ended up near the bottom of the trombone class, with the consequent performing assignments in the bottom-rung ensembles, playing second or third trombone parts. It wasn’t what I had envisioned.
Jump ahead to the end of my freshman year. I believe it was Cravens who gave me the idea of practicing eight hours a day. I don’t think he prescribed it; he told me about someone who had done it. At any rate, I decided to do it. I didn’t have a job during the summer of ’79. And as chance would have it, someone asked me to house sit that summer. So I lived by myself and practiced eight hours a day — I think six days a week, and I think for three months. I even blew off the “Tusk” recording session the USC Marching Band had with Fleetwood Mac that summer in Dodger Stadium. I felt it was beneath me, I’m sorry to say.
I would begin each day with an hour or more of warm-ups and flexibility exercises, long tones and arpeggios quickly flipping between registers. Sometimes I went in for extended periods of long tones alone, which became like meditation. Cravens had told me that if you just played long tones long enough, focusing your embouchure just right, you would actually be able to hear sympathetic overtones ringing high above your note. So, if you played an E flat, say, in the middle of the bass clef, for 10 minutes, you could hear a high G glowing like a halo above. Then you might move onto the E natural. Anyway, I did it.
I practiced etudes, orchestral excerpts (including “Ride of the Valkyries,” “Bolero,” “William Tell,” Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, etc.), Bach cello suites and bel canto singing exercises (Rochut’s famous, or infamous, “Melodious Etudes for Trombone”). I watched the clock. Took breaks. Ate lunch and got back to it. Occasionally, during periods of pure rote practicing, I might flip on a baseball game with the sound off, and watch as I played (I had heard Itzhak Perlman did this.) But I put in my eight hours faithfully. Afterwards, friends came over for cards. We played Hearts and drank beer.
The upshot of my summer of practicing is that when I got back to school in the fall of ’79 I was vastly ahead of where I had been. I was no longer at the bottom of the trombone heap. I was someone who could compete, someone to pay attention to. Most importantly to me, my performing assignments improved. Chalk it all up to lots of practice. And you know what? It was kind of fun.
Photo: The author with beer in 1979. Photo by Mark Osborn.
Ahh youth — when you can practice playing music eight hours a day! Great story Tim. Now I know why you’re such a great trombone player!
Used to be, Tom.
Great story, I didn’t remember that! Also, the summer of 1979, you and your Dixieland Jazz Band were a huge hit at my wedding reception!
Yeah, that’s right. That was the same summer. I have that whole season wrapped up in a neat package. But do you know … I can’t remember who I house sat for?
I had a school year like this in 1978-79 as a pianist. Only I was actually making money playing 28 hours of modern and ballet classes a week at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. By the end of the first semester I could sight-read fly specks on staff paper and improvise in the style of Adolphe Adam. I also gave myself a nasty case of RSI. But I was working around attractive young women wearing skintight clothing, so the pain was a trifling price to pay.
I knew I was missing something during those practice sessions … dancing girls!
Fascinating story. I’d left SC in 1951 (MM), but stayed with the school helping with Alumni relations and all that and when Bartner showed up helped with starting an Alumni Band group – you and I may have accidentally had contact although I think we tagged up a couple of years ago at a Segerstrom event. I guess you know Terry is still there and when I get my act together I’m going to see if he can play, or have played, one of my two trombone pieces that were quite popular back in the 1950’s, 1960’s.
A very good and forthright story of the benefits of practicing. No getting around that you have to put in the hard work.
It also seems to me that you have hardly gained a pound since 1979!
You’re right, Tim hasn’t gained a pound since high school and I hate that about Tim.
You must have been living next to very understanding neighbors then (or big trombone fans) … 🙂
Maybe I just missed it, but I didn’t see “Message to you, Rudy” on the practice list. I mean, in an 8 hr practice session, you had to be able to squeeze in 5 or 10 min for some ska.
Great story, Tim. My school days instruments were clarinet and oboe, piano earlier, singing and choral directing in college at UCSB. Close to your era at USC, I did a stint as Assistant Dean at USC’s School of Performing Arts from 1974-77, working for Dean Grant Beglarian. In ’74 we got the Schoenberg Institute secured and within a year the bauhaus building was up and a dandy construction it was. I’m sure you saw it in your college days there. Now it is gone, gone, gone. Demolished to make way for the Lucas-Spielberg Cinema complex of today, which operation sans those new buildings was under our domain in the earlier period. I am still in touch with USC music staff of that era, though we are all retired now, except that I write music criticism, which is almost a retired profession in itself. Cheers! Rod
As it happens, Rod, I performed my senior recital in the Schoenberg Institute, and a great place it was for it.
Practiced, played cards and drank beer – sounds like a perfect summer to me. Thanks for sharing and best regards.
Love this, thank you.