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Tribute to Milt Stevens

0 Roger Oyster
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milt_stevens Editor's Abstract

As professional musicians, we all have had those one or two special teachers that really turned us on to music. If not, we probably wouldn’t be devoting our lives to this. The following by Kansas City Principal Trombonist, Roger Oyster is a tribute to his teacher Milt Stevens. As you read this I’ll wager that with some minor name changing you’ll find similarities with your own experience.

Ramon Ricker

Milt Stevens died sometime in the early morning of July 30th in a hotel room in Denver. He was the Principal Trombonist in the National Symphony, but he was in Denver attending the Summit Brass Conference, where he was going to be playing, teaching, even conducting. He had chest pains on his right side the weekend prior during a concert (he kept on playing anyway), but after researching his specific symptoms on the Internet, he concluded it was not a heart ailment. His symptoms returned the next day upon his arrival in Denver, and he was taken to the hospital, where it was discovered that he had had a serious heart attack. He had an angioplasty and, after a few days of observation, was released on the 29th; he was to travel back to DC the next day for more procedures back home. Always a team player, Milt attended the final concert of the conference that night, looking good and saying that he “felt fine.” He missed a doctor’s appointment scheduled for the next morning prior to his departure, and was subsequently discovered in his hotel room, still in bed. He had died peacefully in his sleep.

When Matt Guilford, the bass trombonist in the NSO, called me a few weeks later and honored me by asking if I would speak at Milt’s Memorial Service on Labor Day in Washington, D.C., he said that the intent was to have speakers from every phase of Milt’s professional life: someone who had been his student, someone who had been in one of the premier Military Bands stationed in the nation’s capital, where Milt mentored countless young professionals at the beginnings of their careers, and someone who was a peer in the orchestral world. As it turned out, I fell into all three categories.The most important role Milt played in my life was as a teacher, and while my first lesson with him was about twenty-five years ago, my last lesson—and the last I saw Milt— was just in April of this year in his Virginia home, when I had the opportunity to see both Milt and his wife Priscilla, whose partnership had as much honesty, integrity, and simple joy as any I have ever known.Milt, as always, was a careful, astute, and trustworthy listener.But it is also my good fortune that I saw Milt the month before in Lawrence, Kansas, on one of the NSO residencies, and it was there that I got to experience Milt in a fourth capacity: that of friend. For the first time in years, I had the opportunity to hear him play with the orchestra, and then take him to a nice local bistro and ply him with a number of martinis, all with unusual names and exotic colors not usually found in nature. This was a special pleasure; those of us who knew Milt well knew that a sort of Swiss-watch-like exactitude characterized his public persona and personal demeanor.And while one of Milt’s more admirable qualities was how at ease he was with himself, the great comfort he had in just being Milt, I must admit that drinking with Milt was quite fun, for the experience of seeing those impressive intellectual tolerances become…hyper lubricated, should I say?

I first began studying with Milt in the early eighties.As we all know, a private teacher is an absolute necessity to achieving success, the best teachers being part personal trainer, part artistic mentor, part life coach. My personal case was all the more unique because I didn’t play the trombone when I started studying with him; I played the Euphonium in the United States Marine Band. Sometimes called the “tenor tuba”, a good analogy for the euphonium’s stature in the classical music world would be “the lonely girl with the ‘great personality’ who never gets asked to the prom.” (And sometimes grows up to become the “crazy aunt” that gets locked in a basement somewhere.) I was unhappy with my career path, and started studying with Milt in hopes of changing jobs, maybe becoming a university professor, perhaps playing trombone professionally someday in some capacity.

Thanks to Milt, five years later I won an audition for Principal Trombone in the St. Louis Symphony. Milt’s instruction and mentorship didn’t end there; within a few minutes after I won the audition, I was on the phone asking him how one negotiates a Principal player’s contract, for my own negotiation with St. Louis was to take place a few minutes later. In the next eight months, between the successful audition and when I began in St. Louis, Milt began to teach me how to do the job that his instruction had qualified me to perform, but for which I had essentially no practical experience. He taught me how to play alto trombone, a required double for Principal Trombone players and an instrument I had never played before, how to use an assistant, how to maintain a good, cooperative relationship with colleagues, and how to stay in front of the massive amount of music programmed in a typical orchestra season, almost all of which I had not played before, while, at the same time, performing the music at hand with style and expertise.He did his job well, for after I got to St. Louis, my new colleagues there told me that it sounded like I had been playing in orchestras all my life.

Simply put, I couldn’t have done it, either won the job or done the job, without Milt.

Like all great teachers, Milt taught me many things over and above the specific skill set required to play the trombone. He taught me first of all the importance of mastering ones craft and to always, always be prepared. Milt was the Mr. Goodwrench of trombone playing: there was no aspect of playing the instrument that he had not considered in excruciating detail. He then took careful, detailed notes on each topic, dated them, and dutifully filed them away for future reference. There was an item in his studio that provided a good reflection of Milt’s approach to preparedness. When I began studying with him, he taught his lessons in his basement. Next to his bookshelves that housed his music, all carefully organized, and his volumes of 4 x 6 dated note cards, was a dartboard. It was older, having clearly been used at one time. But there were no darts in the dartboard. I never saw Milt play darts, nor did he ever discuss the game. Next to the dart board, however, was a yellowed sheet of typing paper, mounted on black construction paper. The heading on the paper was, “THE RULES OF DARTS”, which were enumerated below. At some point, Milt had researched, typed, and posted the definitive rules of the game; just in case the occasion might arise, he would be, in this as he was as a musician, utterly prepared.

Milt also taught me that, in music, Heaven truly is in the details. Milt considered the expressive quality of each piece of music he played with the same careful scrutiny as he did the nature of its execution. When he taught a particular work, he didn’t rely on flowery adjectives or complicated analogies many teachers often use, the context of which students often fail to grasp; rather, he did so by carefully explaining the technique and nuance required to bring about the music therein. In this way, he taught me another enormous teaching tool, namely the impact and power of “discovery”; when a student would play a passage with Milt’s musical choreography, his landscape of minute crescendos and diminuendos, his exacting suggestions for manipulating the pace and pulse, the student would suddenly realize that they were playing not just the trombone, but the music on the page—music that was as moving as it was crafted and intelligent. Trombone playing was the medium, but Milt taught by act and deed, that it was always music and musicianship that was the message.

Milt taught me the power of understatement. He was not an imposing guy, about 5’8”, built more for comfort than for speed, with pale blond hair and a wispy graying beard, and his teaching style was similarly unimposing. Milt was always genial at lessons, and there was a fairly short expressive distance from his most pleased (you knew you had done something really well when all Milt would say was, “Well, that was good”), and his displeasure, which was displayed mostly by a detailed description of what one needed to do to improve. This was a shrewd tactic on Milt’s part, because when he would push the envelope of his emotional range it was to great effect. Early in my study with Milt, I was being somewhat inattentive (code for “lazy”) to a particular aspect of playing. “You know,” Milt said, “I’ve been asking you to change this for a few weeks now and yet you continue not to do it, and I am at a loss to explain why.” He didn’t raise his voice, he didn’t swear, he didn’t jump up and down, choices lesser teachers routinely make; Milt didn’t have to do any of those things, and when it came to the technique in question, if you will excuse the double negative, I didn’t ever not do it again.

Milt taught concepts great and small through demonstration, always being tremendously prepared for lessons as well as concerts, as I observed when I eventually began to be hired to assist him occasionally in the National Symphony. But perhaps the most important lesson he taught by example was that of the nature of the ideal student/teacher relationship: when a student agrees to work with a teacher to the best of their ability and limits of their endurance, then the teacher returns, in kind, the investment in the student in ways musical and non-musical. More than how to play the trombone, Milt taught me this: you go to bat for your students, whenever, however, with whomever. Milt did this not just when it was easy, but also when it wasn’t, for I know that on more than one occasion, without my knowledge and without my having to ask, when there was nothing in it for him, Milt stepped up to the plate for me.

Finally, Milt taught me not just the necessity, but also the virtue, the inherent dignity in hard work and working hard. Milt was industry personified. The joke that Milt had a handout sheet of ideas, practice routines, suggested exercises, and etudes for any playing issue you could name was close to the truth. When he wasn’t putting these thoughts on paper for his students, he was teaching at Catholic Univ. as well as at the Univ. of Maryland, not to mention the occasional extra student asking Milt’s help for audition preparation.In what was left of his spare time, he also founded and conducted the Washington Symphonic Brass, which received a Grammy nomination last year. All this was on top of the enormous amount of practice and preparation required to do the difficult and demanding job of playing Principal Trombone in one of America’s premier orchestras.

I wish I could ask him how he managed to do it.

Having seen loved ones pass from this world in ways that were protracted and less than dignified, I know well that dying in one’s sleep is truly a blessing. But if anyone’s demise is poorly timed, Milt’s departure was exceedingly so. And on the precise logic of his premature, untimely departure, God is, as always, completely and resoundingly silent. If Milt could comment, though, he would, in his usually measured, genial tone, and with impeccable logic, suggest perhaps a change in our emphasis. Attempting to know the unknowable is, at best, an inefficient investment of time and effort. Far better would be to consider the value in a life filled with study, good works, and artistry, use its example as a teaching tool, for ourselves or others, and apply it in the future liberally and as required. In this way, Milt would point out; the lesson in his passing would ultimately be an affirmation, affirming not only of life but also the art and craft of living as well.

Milt died as he lived, working, playing, teaching—a more poetic departure could hardly have been scripted. Another great teacher of mine, my Dad, who passed away in 1996, gave me a love of poetry; he was a great, great guy, my Dad, and his neighborhood improved tremendously when Milt moved in at the end of July. This poem, one my Dad shared with me long ago, could have been an anthem for Milt, and I think is a fitting cadence to the life of this great man, inspired musician, and extraordinary teacher. It is by Edmund Vance Cook, and is entitled, “How Did You Die?”

Did you tackle that trouble that came your way
With a resolute heart and cheerful?
Or hide your face from the light of day
With a craven soul and fearful?
Oh, a trouble’s a ton, or a trouble’s an ounce,
Or a trouble is what you make it.
And it isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that counts,
But only how did you take it?

You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what’s that?
Come up with a smiling face.
It’s nothing against you to fall down flat,
But to lie there-that’s disgrace.
The harder you’re thrown, why the higher you bounce;
Be proud of your blackened eye!
It isn’t the fact that you’re licked that counts;
It’s how did you fight and why?

And though you be done to death, what then?
If you battled the best you could;
If you played your part in the world of men,
Why, the Critic will call it good.
Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,
And whether he’s slow or spry,
It isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts,
But only, how did you die?

Thanks for everything, Milt.

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