An interview with Joe Alessi - Principal Trombonist of the New York Philharmonic
The master of trombone talks about his life growing up in a household of musical influences, his challenges and breakthroughs in regards to playing trombone, and...his dream car.
Joe Alessi has been principal trombone of the New York Philharmonic for over 30 years. He's taught at Juilliard for nearly that long, and is widely considered to be one of the best trombonists in the world — if not the best in history!
We’re honored that we were able to sit down and talk with Mr. Alessi in this episode of Brass Chats. You’re bound to learn something that will inspire you to get yourself into the practice room and make some headway in your own playing.
What’s the most challenging part of playing trombone?
Trombone players are like place kickers or field goal kickers. Most of the game you’re sitting on the sidelines. You might warm up a little bit, but then you have to get up and hit the game-winning field goal.
I think that’s a little bit like what we do.
As you know, trombones sit around a lot. And then we have to come in on something like the Rhenish or Brahms First or something like this - and it’s very exposed.
I would say that the toughest part of the job is staying very calm and executing these beautiful little chorales perfectly.
What’s the most challenging part, for you personally, of playing with the New York Philharmonic?
At this point, thirty-one years has been a long time. So, keeping the job interesting is a challenge. I’m very lucky because I have great colleagues - such a great brass section - and the trombone section is just wonderful. But, for me, it’s challenging to just keep it interesting every day. Especially when playing a piece you’ve played a thousand times before. I always love when a conductor comes in and asks for something different.
So, I think it’s a bit monotonous sometimes. Playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth for the 150th time — I would say that part of it is challenging.
But just the sheer talent that’s on the stage of the Philharmonic is motivating. Everybody’s doing their very best. That’s something I want to match — all you have to do is listen to three or four bars of something and you get motivated.
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Why did you pick trombone?
I’ve told this story many times. I was a trumpet player first. My dad was a trumpet player.
I started playing trumpet very early — so I was getting quite good with technique. By the time I was eight — after playing trumpet for three years — I was already wanting to do harder solos. I’d gone through a lot of the basic books already. The next step was to play more challenging things and that meant higher ranges and so forth. But, at eight years old, I didn’t have much of a range.
I just needed development, I was only eight. But, my father could see that I was getting frustrated — so he brought home a trombone. He felt that that it would fit me better.
He knew what he was talking about with the mouthpiece and so forth — it seemed to fit my face better. I reluctantly gave in and tried the trombone and, of course, the first note I played was a high B flat. That’s a tuning note on a trumpet. That convinced me somehow to play the trombone — and that’s how it all went down.
Your dad was a professional trumpet player and your mother was an opera singer with the Met. I’m wondering what elements of this background made their way into your trombone playing or your musical approach overall?
Yeah, my brother was a trumpet player also. We would all be practicing at the same time. The dog would be barking and my mother would be singing — it was kind of a noisy household.
My mother had a beautiful voice, you can hear her on my website, I have a link dedicated to her.
She had an amazing voice and her phrasing was world class. I guess I must have picked up something from listening to her vocalize and sing. My dad was a real brass technician. He knew about embouchure, he knew about air, he knew about support. So, if I had to ask any questions, I’d just go to them. It was very simple.
My mother came in one day while I was practicing — I was having trouble with something and getting frustrated. She said, “You know, if you just simply sing that phrase it’ll work.” Sure enough — I just used something different in my mind in order to sing it, and it made me look at the passage in a different way. It came out nice. I will tell students the same — put the horn down when you get frustrated and actually vocalize or conduct a little bit so that you can free yourself from the instrument. That’s so important when you practice.
If you’re getting frustrated and something’s not happening. Don’t play. Don’t practice it anymore. Simply sing what you’re trying to play and just focus in on the music. Then pick up the instrument and try it again.
How did you “get good”? Talk about some of your work ethic. Your routines. How long would you practice?
I’m always reluctant to talk about how long you should practice. Some people practice a long time and they do it wrong. It’s not the amount, it’s how you do it.
I was pretty organized with the practice as a student. I liked to plan it ahead of time. For example, one of my students just sent me his practice plan. He did it by the clock. He said five minute he’s going to practice flexibility. Ten minutes he’s going to practice Bordogni. Five minutes he’ll practice soft playing. I had a similar plan. You can practice something too much and then you have no time to practice the rest of your material.
The great thing about practicing is that you can always come back the next day and do the same thing. I think that’s important — the daily visits to a particular area. If you don’t accomplish your goal one day, there’s no need to panic. You always can come back the next day and try again. By doing it on a daily basis — let’s say over two weeks — you can practice something for two hours. It’s actually better to practice something in a shorter amount of time, step away from it and then come back again later. Maybe even later in the day.
Hit it hard. Rest. Get your mind get off of it and then come back later and try it again.
What’s your favorite kind of music? What really speaks to you?
I love to listen to great jazz from bone players. I can name a ton of them. If I had to re-do my whole life, I would probably be a jazz trombone player. One of these days I’ll surprise people. I’m going to show them that I can do it and do it well.
What are some breakthroughs you’ve had in your playing? What techniques or elements gave you revelations along the way? What helped you improve the most?
I would say a couple of things.
One is doing regular, physical activity. For me it’s swimming. Doing half a mile or a mile in the pool and then going to perform in a concert — that was a revelation for me, I would say. Because you’re really relaxed after a good workout.
Another one, I would say, is embouchure. There’s not nearly as much tension in my embouchure as there used to be. When you’re a young student, a lot of times you set the corners really firmly and probably overuse things. My father said to just think of the letter “M” and just have sort of a neutral feeling on your face. That’s helped tremendously. When you’re a young student, you just tend to overuse everything. Over time you eliminate things that you don’t need.
What tips you can pass along to make sure that loud playing is still musical and pleasant?
If you feel relaxed when you play at louder dynamics, then it usually sounds good. If you’re feeling strained anywhere, that’s going to translate into something out of control with the sound. That’s the best thing I can say about that.
Phil Smith had a special way of playing that was very “singing”— and anything he did was always done in a singing manner.
If you’re going to sing something loud, it still needs to sound beautiful. In order for it to be meaningful, you don’t want it to lose the message. But if a vocalist overdoes it, it starts to sound like shouting. That’s the analogy here between singing and brass playing. It can never sound like you’re shouting. It should sound like you’re singing and it should feel like your singing as well.
You’ve taught at the Julliard school for over thirty years now, what’s your favorite thing about teaching there?
The main reason why I like to teach there is that it’s a place where I can really, really let it all hang out. All my concepts and all my ideas. I want the very best for every student that I teach there. When I walk in the building at Julliard, I’m there to give everything I can to every student. Any knowledge that I can hand over — that's the place I do it in the most caring way.
Of course, I teach other places and I give my advice and do it in a caring way, also, but I see these same students every week. My job is to train them to be the best that they can be. Every teacher’s hope is for their students to go out and be successful.
There was a gentleman who just won the principal trombone in Vancouver, Brian Wendell. You can tell he was ready to win something, because he had worked hard. He listened to what I said, and he did it in a way where he never questioned anything. He was very calm and quiet about it, and I like that. He was very interested, of course, but he was able to teach himself after a while.
Who was your favorite conductor to play under during your tenure at the NY Phil?
Probably Leonard Bernstein. He was an amazing man. His countless recordings, TV shows and tours. His way of explaining music at young people’s concerts. His amazing composing skills. He was the most famous conductor, I think, ever to live. Playing Mahler Third with him and the Mahler Seventh, and Mahler Two — that series. That was definitely a highlight of my career.
Recently, I was doing Mahler Third with Bernard Haitink—
Regarding the solo…some conductors really want it a certain speed, but I liked Haitink’s approach. We kind of matched on that.
Bernstein, a lot of the conductors follow you a bit, but I tend to do it a very predictable way. That was certainly a great experience.
Another non-Philharmonic related experience was when London Symphony wanted me to do a concert with them at Carnegie Hall. I had just finished playing the Jim Pugh concerto, when I got the call. Playing with Pierre Boulez, sitting next to Morris Murphy and the great brass section there, was wonderful. We played Berg Three Pieces and the Mahler Sixth Symphony on the same concert. That was just great.
THE MONSTER ROUND
A series of rapid-fire questions that must be answered with quick, short answers.
Who is or was the greatest trombonist who never played in an orchestra?
What is the hardest solo you ever played with New York Phil?
Melinda Wagner’s Trombone Concerto.
What's your favorite Olympic sport?
What's your biggest weakness on trombone?
Would you rather jump over 25 cars on a motorcycle or fly off a cliff in a wingsuit?
Fly off a cliff in a wingsuit.
What's your least favorite orchestral excerpt?
To play, probably William Tell. To listen to, I would say Mahler Three.
What’s the best book you read in the last year?
What instrument would you play if you didn't have lips?
What's one method book that you simply could not go without?
The Bordogni Vocalises.
What is the number one mistake you hear from players at an audition?
Playing too loud.
Does that hold true for trumpet, as well? Trumpet auditions?
What's your favorite non-trombone instrument to listen to?
Probably sax. Baritone sax.
Who is your favorite violinist of all time?
Glenn Dicterow, our former concert master.
In a word, what is the golden key to Bolero? One word.
Rhythmic preparation. Oh, that was two words — Rhythm.
What's the most difficult style of music to play?
If you could tell 16-year-old Joe Alessi one thing about trombone, what would it be?
If you could force Donald Trump to listen to one piece of music that might change his outlook on everything, what would it be?
What's your dream car?
(Interviewer’s note: Same dream car as Arturo! - see our Brass Chats episode #1).
Name the members of your dream brass quintet comprised of you and four other members. Only players who are no longer living.
Arnold Jacobs, Gunther Schuler, probably Bud Herseth, Fred Mills.
Besides J.J. Johnson, who is the greatest jazz trombonist of all time?
If your story was to be told on the silver screen, in the movies, what actor would portray Joe Alessi?
If you could choose, what would be the final piece that you play on your final concert with the New York Phil?
From the world of sports or film or journalism or anything, name a person who people might be surprised to hear is one of your influences.
What are the three most important characteristics of a perfect embouchure?
Correct positioning of the mouthpiece.
1. Not too high, not too low.
2. Not rolling in the bottom lip.
3. To have a puckered embouchure and not an embouchure that smiled too much.
On the 8th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...what?
A 911 Turbo.
Among conductors that you haven’t yet played for, who would you most like to?
MORE ABOUT JOE Alessi
The Alessi Seminar
The Alessi Seminar runs seven full days with daily masterclasses, orchestral sections, trombone quartets, trombone choir and recitals. This year's seminar runs from August 5-13, 2017 and will be held at the University of Oregon.
Alessi Music Studios
Exclusive access to orchestral parts for each excerpt, complete with written commentary and tips for you to incorporate into your audition preparation process.
Maria Leone Recordings
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