Now residing in London, former Sydney based trombonist Colin Philpott plays regularly in musical theatre, studio and television bands, and he spoke with Jamie Kennedy about his show work.
Jamie: What is your playing background and how did you come to be playing regularly in shows?
Colin: I was given a trumpet when I was 8 years old, found a teacher through a family friend and joined a brass band. The bandleader was a trombone player and he was starting off a youth big band, he needed trombones and said he’d teach me for free. There was something about the trombone I’d always liked… little did I know! Having started on valves, he put me on a baritone in the brass band to understand the concept of the bigger horn.
When I was sixteen, instead of completing my HSC (Years 11 and 12) I was accepted into the NSW Conservatorium of Music Jazz Course, headed by Don Burrows. What an education! Don was brilliant – a great mentor and very understanding of my “greenness”. James Morrison was my teacher in the first year and George Brodbeck in my second year. Shortly afterward I met Bob Johnson, who later became a valued teacher and dear friend, and I have always been in awe of his incredible musicality and craftsmanship. Both George and Bob were instrumental in deciding where my future lay – either as a jazz soloist or commercial musician. I was a far better ensemble player than soloist, and so I simply took these strengths (and weaknesses!!!) and worked hard at them. I’ve always felt that musical theatre orchestras are to commercial musicians as opera and ballet orchestras are to classical or orchestral musicians.
I started playing amateur shows whilst I was studying at the Con and it was an environment I felt very comfortable in. I did loads of them – I remember playing five different productions of West Side Story in one calendar year. After doing some depping on 42nd Street at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney, I got my first professional show playing 2nd trombone in the 1988 production of Anything Goes at the State Theatre. I was booked to play lead on 42nd Street for the tour to East Berlin (funnily enough, to dep for George Brodbeck), but only weeks before leaving, the Wall came down, the tour was cancelled and we got paid in full.
In 1991, I moved to London to “grow up” and was depping on Starlight Express, Cats and Cotton Club. When I returned home in 1993 the phone started ringing and eventually found myself playing on most shows that passed through Sydney, one after another. I worked out that I’ve played on about 36 Australian Productions as a full time player and about another 10 as a dep. Now back in London, I’m depping on Miss Saigon, The Lion King and The Book of Mormon.
Jamie: Do you do other kinds of playing or work outside of the pit?
Colin: Yeah I do and really, you have to! To start with it’s hard to survive on just a theatre salary alone as shows in Australia have a limited life. It’s good when one of the biggies comes along for a year or so, but generally they run for 3 to 6 months (if they don’t close much sooner than expected, which some unfortunately have), so you’ve got to create that “minimum wage” via other gigs or teaching.
My schedule in Australia ranged from conducting primary & secondary bands, tutoring in schools, mentoring, and playing in recording sessions and orchestras/bands/ensembles backing Australian and international artists. It’s a varied life but that’s the very reason why you need to work outside of the pit – to keep the creative juices flowing, as well as the income. We’re very lucky that we can actually take performances off to go and do other things. Companies often prefer we didn’t (and shouldn’t) as it would make their administrative life easier and because, they say, no one else can send in a sub, so why should we? It’s great that we can, and it should always be respected as a privilege in my view.
Apart from the theatre work, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing people and projects that remind me why I wanted to do this for a living. Some of those highlights have been playing with Frank Sinatra in Monte Carlo, recording the CD Diorama with Silverchair, playing all of the low brass on James Morrison’s Olympic Fanfare (which we recorded a month out from the 2000 Olympic Games), being James’s entire trombone section when we recorded his Gospel CD, being a casual on Channel 9’s Midday Show, and playing in the bands for Maria Schneider, Bobby Shew, Bob Mintzer, Tom Burlinson, Ricky May, Tommy Tycho, Sammy Davis Jr, Natalie Cole, Anthony Warlow, Bernadette Peters, Dame Shirley Bassey, Barry White and Diana Krall.
Colin playing with Tom Burlinson in the “Sinatra at The Sands” show
Jamie Kennedy explains how psychological theories can help us work on our playing and teaching.
In the first article in this series (can you have a series of two?), we saw that Psychology is a branch of scientific knowledge, and, like the other branches, is roughly divided into investigations and theories. We’ve already looked at an investigation that suggests some effective ways to go about memorising something. As I’m sure you’ve deduced by now, that leaves theory to be the subject of this article.
I can’t promise this will be painless – you may have to stare at a table for a few minutes. But it will hopefully be useful to you. I want to introduce you to Attribution Theory, a motivation theory that attempts to classify and explain how people attribute causes to something, such as an event, an action, a success or failure. “I didn’t pass my exam because I didn’t study enough” is one attribution of a cause. “I didn’t pass my exam because the teacher didn’t like me and the questions were unfair” is another kind of attribution for the same event.
This will be of interest to anyone who teaches, but personally I’ve found it immensely useful for myself and my own playing too, as it can help me to look at my own mental approach and question why things might be going wrong or how to make things better.
Before we go any further, we really should talk more about theories. Theories in Psychology are not quite the same as theories in Physics. They are developed in the same way – you observe what’s going on and come up with a general rule or pattern that describes it. However, they don’t really represent “reality” in quite the same way.
Take the example of the old introvert/extrovert personality theory. Personally, I find that some of the things I do might be described as introverted, and some of the things I do might be described as extroverted. Classify me whichever way you like, but I’m never just one or the other. Trying to use this theory to describe “reality” is not particularly useful, especially with a blunt tool like introvert/extrovert.
And here is that main point – the value of psychological theories lies in their usefulness. They are explanatory tools, and you can’t use just one tool for every job. We have to use our judgement to work out if a particular tool can be useful in any given situation.
So armed with that knowledge, let’s look at Attribution Theory, which is, as I said before, about how people assign or attribute causes to things. Now the majority of this research was done on people’s perceptions of success or failure. This doesn’t just apply to students and exams – this tool can be useful well beyond into anything that might be described as resulting in either a success, failure, or something in between. How about playing a solo in a competition, or preparing a student for an AMEB exam, or playing the chorale in Brahms 1, or playing something in a lesson?
Let’s face it – as brass players, every time we produce a single note, we have an opportunity to judge it as having succeeded, failed, or something in between. It’s part of being alive and conscious that we always try to understand our environment, so we make a connected judgement about what caused that success or failure
Ian Bell is a freelance trombone player in Melbourne and he spoke with Jamie Kennedy about playing in musical theatre.
Jamie: You count studio and TV work as part of your early working experiences, what’s your playing background and how did you come to be playing regularly in shows?
Ian: I moved to Melbourne from Geelong to do Year 11 and 12 at VCASS (Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School) and then into first year at the VCA studying with Roger Davies. Around this time, some of my tutors from past music camps and ensembles started to get me in on the odd recording session or TV show. The musical directors of these included Graeme Lyall, Pete De Visser, Kevin Hocking and Geoff Harvey (long time GTV 9 band leader). The Midday Show would occasionally be filmed in Melbourne and doing this led to me being booked for the annual televised Carols by Candlelight – a job I still do.
In the late 1980s there was a noticeable reduction in the amount of studio work from previous decades. Many of the excellent and well established players from this scene were attracted to the pay and regularity of the theatre scene. It was also a great way for some, who after years of playing, were at an age where they wanted to get a bit more into their super before retiring from regular work.
After spending a year playing in Brisbane during Expo, I came back to finish my VCA degree. I hadn’t necessarily planned to do show work – I was happy to do whatever was asked of me! I did a little bit of “depping” and was booked for my first long run, which was 42nd Street in the early 1990s. I assume that my studio and TV contacts from earlier had recommended me to the bookers.
Jamie: Do you count shows as a big part of what you do?
Ian: They’re a large part of the work that I do now and have made up the bulk of my income for quite a few years. 42nd Street ran for seven months and was a pretty big orchestra, which I enjoyed a lot. Chorus Line came in straight after that and I was booked to play in that as well. I learnt a lot about section playing and fitting in from the more experienced guys, and started to notice that if you play a show well and don’t upset people, you’ll get asked back. Sometimes there are breaks between productions but that’s the nature of freelance work.
Jamie: It sounds like the show industry has changed a bit in the last twenty years, can you give us an idea of what your working week and working year looks like these days?
Ian: I’m just coming to the end of a 9-month run of The Lion King, but have managed to fit in the occasional TV jingle, some episodes of Dancing With The Stars, backing tracks for The X-Factor, several one-off band or orchestra jobs, and I finish up the year with a 3-week tour backing Hugh Jackman.
In previous years, I’ve had the opportunity to play with Orchestra Victoria and their brass ensemble. The orchestral work most often involves playing larger equipment than in the commercial and big band scene – this versatility is very beneficial and it feeds back into the theatre work which recently has required more large equipment and bass trombone.
Ian playing in the stage band for the Logie Awards, 2012
Jamie: You mentioned Jingles, what’s involved in those?
Ian: Lately it’s become more about multi-tracking the trombone parts because people have moved to smaller studios and budgets have become tighter. I did one recently for Mt Franklin Mineral Water, which required recording three tenor trombones and one bass. There are two parts to the ad – a slightly cheesy Austin Powers-style dance band and something a bit more orchestral.
The lighter side of commercial work
For a few years I had seen social media photos of trombones gathering at the SliderAsia trombone and low brass festival in Hong Kong. This year I was fortunate to be able to go myself, thanks to the generous support of my QSO Chair Sponsors Francis and Stephen Maitland, along with four students from Griffith University, and a large group from Melbourne University with Don Immel. Overall, twelve countries were represented at the festival, with large contingents from Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, Thailand and China.
Hosted by the Hong Kong Trombone Society, led by Stanley Chen and with Artistic Director Denson Paul Pollard (Bass trombone at the Metropolitan Opera, New York), we had an action packed week of warm ups, masterclasses, trombone, euphonium and tuba choir rehearsals, and 28 different performances – all crammed into seven days. One of the big features of the week was an international solo competition for tenor and bass trombonists.
Many delegates and faculty members had come directly from the International Trombone Festival, this year held in Valencia, Spain, and others had come from II Projeto Bone international festival in Brazil. Guest composers were Eric Ewazen and Steven Verhelst, and their compositions were a central feature of the festival, both giving lectures/demonstrations about the performance of their music as well as their composing processes.
It all began with a Masterclass by Don Immel, in which he shared some of his personal trombone journey, and his three rules:
Air to lips; (2) Tongue exactly in time; (3) Move the slide later
Don also delved into performance psychology with practical tips on performing under pressure, referencing the work of Don Greene. This was followed by a Mass choir rehearsal led by Dr Denson Paul Pollard, and introduced some of the music we would play in our participant choirs. Opening concerts included spectacular concerts by the Melbourne University Trombone Choir and the Geneva Brass Quintet.
The next morning Brett Baker did a very practical masterclass on performance with some great tips and impressive demonstrations. He touched on maximising your ability to perform at your best, managing anxiety, keeping healthy perspectives on perfectionism, explaining our fight or flight instincts, and recommended the book The Inner Game of Music. He also spoke about the ‘Chimp paradox’ theory by Steve Peters exploring logic versus emotion.
Michael Szabo, recently appointed Principal Bass Trombone of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, offers some advice for orchestral brass players beyond winning an audition. Michael has previously held positions with the Sjællands Symfoniorkester in Copenhagen and also the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra.
Much is written these days about winning auditions, and rightly so! But what happens afterwards? Now that you’ve won the job, there is an arguably more difficult task ahead of you: you’ve got to keep it.
One year ago, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra held their audition for the position of Principal Bass Trombone. As a result of that process, I was awarded the position. I am more fortunate than most others who took the audition; I had lived in Melbourne for two years prior and had been on the casual list for quite some time. The low brass section already knew me, and knew what they were getting when they hired me after my pre-trial. This is usually not the case when you enter a trial situation. The MSO is my third orchestra job, and in both of my previous jobs, I was going into the trial blind. This can be a very stressful situation, and my aim in this blog is to give some ground rules for young trombonists about how to succeed during this delicate and stressful process.
Rule #1: Don’t be difficult
Why, you say, isn’t the first rule to play your best? Because your colleagues already know you can play your instrument: they heard you at the audition! What they don’t know yet is if you are a good colleague. Say hello and good morning when you arrive, especially to your section-mates. Don’t warm up a lot on stage when other musicians are around. When I was new in my first job with the Honolulu Symphony, the orchestra had an unwritten rule that brass players were not allowed on stage to warm up until fifteen minutes before the call started. This is a good policy to adopt so as not to annoy your new colleagues in the woodwind and string sections. One of your jobs during the trial is not to give anyone on the panel an excuse to say anything negative about your attitude or demeanour. You have no idea about the past baggage your orchestra is carrying around, so even a comment made by you in passing can have a negative impact on your job prospects. Be polite, humble, and respectful and you won’t have a problem. When in doubt, zip it!
Rule #2: Play your best
Notice I didn’t say: “play perfectly”. You can’t do that, and don’t expect yourself to. This starts every morning with your warm up. You should arrive early to work. I arrive almost without exception forty-five minutes to an hour before I have to play. This is so I can warm up and concentrate on my fundamentals. If you don’t have a solid fundamental routine, you probably haven’t gotten this far, so stick with it! Especially during your trial, run your fundamentals every day to keep your chops at their optimal level. This will also have a side-benefit: You will build a reputation as a reliable person who takes their job seriously. You will quickly realise that especially during heavy weeks (Bruckner, Mahler, etc); you won’t have chops left over after rehearsals to do much individual practicing. This is where your fundamental routine comes into play, and done consistently over the years, can extend your career by quite a while. If you get a good hour of playing in before you start work, then you don’t have to stress about practice time when you don’t have any chops left after work is finished.
Don’t stress out when you chip a note, everyone does it. I’ve chipped notes in every audition I’ve ever won (and not won!). As long as it’s within reason, you’ll be fine. Don’t allow a chipped note to put you off your game— in fact, don’t react in any way. Conversely, don’t react when one of your colleagues makes a mistake or chips a note: it’s very rude and it will be noticed!
Jake from The Eighth Position spoke with Ben Turner about his recent experience at the Lätzsch Trombone Festival. Ben Turner is a freelance bass trombonist living in Sydney. He has performed with the Sydney Symphony and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra and is preparing to move to Europe later in 2015 for further study.
Jake: You’ve recently been to the Lätzsch Trombone Festival in the Netherlands, can you tell us where it was held and what was on the program?
Ben: The festival was held right on the border of the Netherlands and Germany and was split between two border towns, Enschede in the Netherlands and Heek in Germany. The Lätzsch festival is held every three years and is a six day seminar of warm ups, masterclasses, ensemble playing, concerts and a competition to win a custom Lätzsch trombone. Oh, and a chance to indulge in a few weißbiers with plenty of other trombonists from around the world.
Jake: What were some of your highlights?
Ben: I was very lucky to witness and participate in some fantastic concerts given by the teaching faculty and local ensembles every night at the festival. There’s nothing more valuable than being able to listen to and play next to some of the biggest names in the trombone world.
Jake: Who else attended the festival and who were some of your tutors?
Ben: The festival was attended by many students and young professional trombonists (bass, tenor and jazz) from twenty different countries. The biggest contingents were from countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark. We were very lucky to be tutored by some fantastic teachers too.
Brandt Attema – Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra
Martin Schippers – Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Martin Van Den Berg – Conservatorium van Amsterdam
Peter Van Klink – Netherlands Symfonieorkest
Zoltan Kiss – Mnozil Brass
Dirk Ellerkamp – Dortmund Philharmoniker
Mayumi Shimizu – Southwest German Radio (SWR) Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg.
Jake: You’ve now finished your degree at the Sydney Conservatorium with Chris Harris as your primary teacher, did you notice any significant differences between the Australian teaching styles to those of the tutors at the Festival?
Ben: In my opinion, I think that teaching styles around the world are more closely linked than most people think. You don’t need to drop thousands of the dollars on flights around the world to have another teacher tell you that you’re playing out of time or out of tune.
Teachers impart their knowledge with a hope that something they say will stick in your head and then you can become your own teacher and make your own decisions. However, I would say it’s interesting to see how teachers around the world approach trombone playing and making music.
Jake: What activities did you take part in?
Ben: The activities at the festival were heavily aimed at collaborating with as many as of the other students and teachers as possible. So I found this a great way to meet all the students and teachers and get together to have a play through some quartets etc. The week was also tailored around preparation for the competition at the end of the week that was set up as a bit of a mock orchestral audition with a set piece and excerpts.
Jake: What were some of the key points you took away from your experiences?
Ben: I took away a lot of great ideas from the festival. However, some of the key points that really stuck with me were that when you pick up a trombone or any other instrument, the music should be the only important thing. Nobody cares about what mouthpiece you play on or what exercise you have been practicing. It’s always worthwhile taking a step back and looking at the big picture. The festival also offered up some pearls of wisdom from the teachers about heading down the path of being a musician.
“Stay hungry and stay in the fight. Take the punches but stay in the fight.”