When I was a young student attending a music camp in Brevard, North Carolina, we would play in trombone choir every Sunday night out on the hillside. What a glorious sound! I was hooked and have been ever since. The trombone has a power that most people recognize, the kind that can shake loose plaster and deafen the bassoons and violas. It can sound heroic, as in the Overture to Tannhaüser, or play the softest chorale, as in Brahms' First Symphony or the end of Tchaikovsky's Sixth. It has a blending quality and can be serious, jazzy, or humorous.
The bass trombone is a larger version of the trombone and plays lower in register. The low sounds are the ones that we really live for. Being the bottom note on chords is to be the foundation that everything is built upon. I see trombone players as the blue-collar workers in the band: not a lot of notes to play, nothing flashy, just laying down the bricks. We get along well with double-bass players and percussionists, who also provide that solid foundation.
Sometimes during a concert, I get carried away by the beauty of the music, and I have to remember to come in at the appropriate times! Over the course of the season, we will present compositions that may use the trombones only occasionally. There are times when I wish we had more to play, of course, but somehow they manage to sound all right without us. One of my favorite composers is Prokofiev: No matter how many times I hear his music, it always seems fresh and surprising.
After playing trombone and performing for 20-plus years, my job as a musician doesn't end when I walk offstage at the end of a concert. Along with my duties in the Orchestra, I participate in the Symphony's Community Partnership Program. It is fun to go into schools and churches, taking my music to share with people. I play in brass quintets, trombone trios, and quartets, and have gone by myself to libraries, service clubs, and many others. It is so nice to meet people, answer their questions, tell them a little about us, and share something I love.
Most of the time I get as much from the audience as they get from me. The appreciation of our audiences at Powell Symphony Hall is gratifying, and the presence of a sold-out house is downright electrifying. But playing for someone in a nursing home who can't come down to Powell, and hearing them sing along on a Christmas tune‹that reminds me why I really do this.
My responsibilities don't stop there: I also serve on the Musician's Council, the Orchestra's 10-member leadership group. It is an honor to be elected by your colleagues, and I feel it is every musician's responsibility to spend some time serving on the different committees that help make things work.
Another duty we sometimes share is serving on an audition committee, and this season there are a number of auditions. It can be difficult to listen to so many good musicians. Often you hear some really good players who still don't make the grade for entry into the orchestra. Making it tougher is that for some instruments, such as tuba, timpani, or harp, there simply are fewer opportunities. There may be only one chair in the orchestra to begin with and, once someone wins a position, two or three decades may pass before it opens up again.
As you might expect, there is a lot of pressure on those auditioning. We ask for some of the hardest music for each instrument, and the applicants play each piece, one right after another, all onstage by themselves. It can seem brutal, but if you can come through it and actually win, it is a great sense of accomplishment.
I never take for granted being where I am. I know that few people make it onto the stage with this fine Orchestra, or any other major orchestra, and get to make their livelihood playing music. With all the financial challenges in the last few years, I hope and pray that the people of this community continue to support our art and find ways to provide for its future for at least another 120 years.
One reason I wanted to write this was to thank you, the audience, for making it possible to do what I love. Another is to share some insights into my life as a musician in the orchestra, some perspective from where I sit. I hope this article will help you enjoy your next concert a bit more. Perhaps you will see me sitting onstage and check to see if I'm ready to make my entrance! And if you see me in the parking lot before or after a concert, or anywhere outside Powell Symphony Hall, please say hello!
Gerry Pagano, trombone, joined the Orchestra in 1995 and lives in Des Peres with his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Emily.