About Me

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Atlanta, GA, United States
When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Lessons from Elliot

Elliot Chasanov, teacher extraordinaire
Although I am now a guitarist, one of my main influences is Elliot Chasanov, professor of trombone at the University of Illinois. I first met Elliot when he was teaching at Kent State University. I was in the middle of my second year of teaching, and I was miserable. I was in Cleveland at the time. I remembered that two of my University of Illinois classmates had been private students of Elliot's in high school, back when he was playing in the Air Force Band in D.C. I recalled that he was now teaching at Kent State, which wasn't too far from Cleveland. I called Elliot out of the blue, telling him that I was planning on getting out of teaching and back into trombone performance. I asked if he might have a graduate assistant position available. As it turned out, the current grad assistant was getting his degree and moving on, so the spot was indeed open. I drove to Kent State to audition, and next thing you know, I was the the graduate trombone assistant at KSU, working toward a Master's in trombone performance.

As a jazz guitarist, I have developed a vastly different skill set than I learned from Elliot, yet he continues to be one of my main influences even to this day. No matter the musical style, Elliot's lessons hold true. Here are a few highlights from my days as Elliot's student.

Play with intention.

I'll never forget my first lesson with Elliot. We spent an hour picking apart the first phrase of the first etude in 60 Melodious Etudes for Trombone. It wasn't that I was missing any notes. I played the right notes, and I played them in tune with good phrasing. What was missing was the intention behind the notes. There was a certain fire that was missing in my playing, and Elliot was trying to draw it out of me. It was an incredibly frustrating lesson for me. I knew that he was giving me an important lesson (even if he was ticking me off!), but at the same time, I didn't "get it" just yet. It took me a few more lessons to learn how to stoke the fire and play from my heart. I finally started to develop some fire when we worked on the Grøndal Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra. I recall playing the first section in a lesson. He stopped me and said something like "that's not the way I would have played it, but it works great for you." I was on my way to finding my own voice. As a trombonist, I developed an intense style that served me particularly well in orchestral playing. My guitar style is more subdued. As a jazz guitarist, I prefer playing quietly, and I leave a lot of space in my playing so that there is room for others to contribute to the groove. The fire is still there, but it doesn't burn as fiercely. Elliot taught me to play with intention. Just as I found my own "trombone" voice with Elliot's help, I am gradually finding my own voice as a jazz guitarist.

There is a place for you.

Elliot is very encouraging. On more than one occasion, he told me that as long as you're a good musician and a good person, there is room for you in the music world. Thankfully, I've found this to be true! Most of my contemporaries have been playing guitar since they were young. I, on the other hand, began learning the guitar just over a decade ago. I have a lot of catching up to do! In spite of that, I have managed to carve out a place for myself in Atlanta through performing, teaching, music engraving, and as a part time music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation. It's a far cry from the classical trombone path I had originally chosen, but it's working for me.

Walk the talk.

Elliot leads by example. He teaches younger trombonists how to be good musicians, and he himself is a terrific trombonist.  Just like Elliot, I'll continue to be the best musician I can be, not just for myself, but as an example for my students.

Listen to yourself…literally.

If I could only take one idea away from Elliot, it would be his insistence that students record themselves when they practice. Listening to yourself on tape for the first time is a humbling experience. (I sound like THAT?) Once you get past the initial shock, recording yourself is the fastest way to improve. Your own perception of how you sound is often very different from how you actually sound. As you continue to record yourself, you will make adjustments that bring you closer to playing with your own ideal voice. When I was Elliot's student, we used portable micro-cassette recorders. These days, I'll play a section of music into a looper and then listen right away to the playback. With a recording session coming up, it's doubly important to listen to myself. If I can fix most of my problems at home instead of the recording studio, I'll save time and money!

Be true to your friends.

Elliot was not only a teacher, but he is a great friend. I never told him this, but I once went to knock on Elliot's office door. I don't remember if I wanted to talk to him about something or if I was going to ask him if he wanted to get some pizza. Before I knocked, I heard him talking on the phone. I couldn't help overhearing, and like a little sneak, I listened for a while. It sounded like he was talking to someone who had called him as a reference, and Elliot was singing his praises, telling the person on the other end that this student was an unbelievably good player, hard worker, great teacher, etc. If I were on the other end, I would have hired that person on the spot. I snuck away after half a minute, feeling guilty for eavesdropping. The next day, Elliot told me that a university had called, asking for a recommendation to fill in a trombone teaching spot that was soon to be open. It was then that I realized he had been talking about me. That really floored me, and even though I didn't get that job, I still remember hearing Elliot sing my praises to someone else. It wasn't so much the things he said (although they were flattering). It was the fact that he was going to bat for me and doing whatever he could to help me out. I try to follow Elliot's example. I'm a loner and don't have many friends, but for those few who are close to me, I would do anything.

I feel fortunate to have had Elliot Chasanov as a teacher. I've taken a different musical path, but his lessons will stick with me forever.

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