I enjoyed playing but was always in the middle of the pack in band class. In the seventh grade, it was decided that I needed to see the family orthodontist, Dr. Marquis de Sade. This put an abrupt end to my days in the trumpet section and my band director suggested that I switch to the tuba.
I complied without too much fuss and checked out the school tuba. The switch was a good one for me and I progressed pretty quickly. By the time that I was finishing high school, I knew that I wanted to be a musician when I grew up. I applied and was accepted at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Peabody was a great experience for me.
I was thrust into an environment where it seemed that everyone knew more than I did and everyone worked harder than I did. I figured out pretty quickly that I could change both of those things, and got to work. My teacher at Peabody was David Bragunier, the tubist from the National Symphony Orchestra. He was a great teacher of music and instilled in me the notion that playing musically should take precedence over everything else.
I am thankful that I had a teacher who preached this message as it has shaped how I perform and teach. In my sophomore year, a good friend suggested that I enter the Peabody Concours, a recital competition open to every student in the Conservatory. Much to my amazement (and apparently the amazement of the pianists and violinists in the competition!), I won. This was my first inkling that perhaps I could be a musician when I grew up! By the time that I had reached my senior year at Peabody, I had placed in the finals at some auditions for smaller orchestras, but had no hot job prospects.
So, I rifled through the Graduate Assistantship file in the placement office and started applying for graduate schools. I had heard good things about the tuba professor at Illinois State University, Ed Livingston, and packed my U-Haul for Normal, Illinois. ISU was good for me in a different way than Peabody was. At ISU, I had the university experience that I had missed by attending a conservatory. I went to lots of athletic games, had a great time and soaked up the big campus atmosphere.
I had never known anyone as full of life as Ed Livingston. His influence on me was huge and immediate. He taught me life lessons about working as a musician and really helped me to become a more positive person. While at ISU, I met my beautiful wife Sara and landed my first gig- a position with the United States Army Field Band. As a kid growing up in a very liberal household (I was the only fourth grader at my school with a McGovern button on my shirt.), the idea of entering the military never had a whole lot of appeal to me.
But, both Dave Bragunier and Ed Livingston had started their professional careers in the Field Band (as did Ron Bishop, Ev Gilmore, Bob Tucci and Harvey Phillips), so I took the plunge, figuring that at the least it what be a great place to start. I enjoyed playing in the band. The mission in the band was to serve as “musical ambassadors” of the Army, which entailed being on the road for about 120 days a year. In my three-year hitch, I visited 47 states, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Korea and India.
It was a great adventure and I have wonderful memories of playing in this group. While I was in the Field Band, I began to study regularly with David Fedderly of the Baltimore Symphony. His teaching had a huge impact on my approach to playing. My mentors to this point had taught me a lot about making good music on the tuba, but Mr. Fedderly taught me how things worked and how to approach the instrument physically.
He revolutionized my ideas on tone production and really helped me to find my “voice” on the instrument. During my third year in the Field Band, my wife and I discovered that we were expecting our first child and all of a sudden the idea of 120 days a year on the road didn’t seem too sexy. As fate would have it, there was an opening down the road in the U.S. Army Band. I took the audition and won, essentially trading my bus seat for a sousaphone.
As a member of the Ceremonial Band, ninety percent of my playing was on the Sousaphone, playing at funerals, Pentagon ceremonies and parades. Even though the repetition of the job could be mind numbing at times, the move to TUSAB was a good one for me professionally, as I began to get some really good freelance work in Washington and Baltimore and was able to complete my Master’s at the University of Maryland. After seven years at TUSAB, I started to get a little itchy to be doing something more fulfilling. Perhaps my parents set me up for this with that McGovern button, but many aspects of my life as “Sergeant Zerkel” started to gnaw at my conscience. After some soul-searching it dawned on me that the people who had impacted my life the most dramatically, both professionally and personally were my mentors- my teachers.
I had always enjoyed teaching at my adjunct positions at American, George Washington and VCU, but knew that the impact that I had on my students for the two or three hours a week on campus was minimal. So, armed with my Chronicle of Higher Education, I began to actively search out full time teaching positions. This might be a good time to extol the virtue of perseverance. I’ve probably taken about fifteen auditions for orchestra gigs. Sometimes I would come very close to getting the gig, other times I did not.
My initial pursuit of college gigs was both encouraging and discouraging. I found that I was getting interviews at big schools, but wasn’t making the paper cut at smaller schools. The moral of the story here is “Don’t Quit”. My break came when one of my old mentors, Ed Livingston from ISU, announced his retirement.
I applied for the position, interviewed and was hired. It was a pleasure to teach at ISU, a school that I consider to be an undiscovered gem. I had wonderful colleagues and very good students who were both patient with me as I cut my teeth as a full time teacher. The pleasure that I got from teaching was, and still is, very rewarding. Upon the sad news of the untimely death of David Randolph, I was encouraged by some colleagues to take a look at the position at the University of Georgia. Even though I was happy at ISU, I applied for the position.
After visiting the campus, hearing the students and tooling around Athens, I was very impressed. I was surprised to be offered the job, and was presented with a win-win situation. My family decided that we had one more move in us, and we packed the U-Haul one last time for Athens. It is a pleasure to teach at the University of Georgia. The facilities are extraordinary, the students are bright and talented and the Esprit de Corps of the “Bulldog Nation” is infectious.
I have been very fortunate to have followed two professors that had established excellence in their studios long before I knew a lick about teaching. It is an honor to teach and I count myself as lucky to do something that I love to do everyday. Thanks for reading my little story. If you’d like a more in-depth look at my professional background, I invite you to take a look at my resume. Read more on Last.fm.
User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
show me more