“The Pursuit of the Truth in the Music, above all Else…”",”

Posted by ConnorHailey on June 10, 2011 at 3:05 PM

This is a great interview that the S.B.O.(School Band and Orchestra) did on two of the most inspiring Tuba players/Musicians I know, Sam Pilafian and Patrick Sheridan! Please take a second to read this and you will understand why!

A founding member of the Empire Brass Quintet and the large brass ensemble Summit Brass, Sam Pilafian is likely the world’s most well known virtuoso on tuba. In a storied professional career that is soon to enter its fifth decade, he’s collaborated with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, the Boston Symphony, Duke Ellington, and Pink Floyd and also created the duo Travelin’ Light with renowned guitarist Frank Vignola.


As well as being a lifelong student of tuba and music, in general Sam has held positions at Boston University, Tanglewood Institute, and Arizona State University, in addition to instructing numerous younger players individually.


One of Pilifian’s former students, Patrick Sheridan is a well-known solo artist in his own right and is now one of Sam’s musical and professional collaborators. Patrick is a former member of “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band and has since embarked on a number of diverse musical projects. His virtuosity has lead to well over 3,000 concerts around the world and appearances on such programs as NBC’s “Today Show” and NPR’s “All Things Considered.”


SBO recently spoke with Sam and Patrick, co-authors of the popular pedagogy books, The Breathing Gym and The Brass Gym (Focus on Music), about their experiences as performers, scholars, and teachers of music.



Sam Pilafian & Patrick Sheridan: At a Glance

Web sites:,,


Sam Pilafian Discography: Meltdown, Getting It Together (Summit); Makin’ Whoopee, Travelin’ Light, Christmas With Travelin’ Light (Telarc); Cookin’ With Frank & Sam.


Patrick Sheridan Discography: Lollipops, Bon Bons (Summit).


Awards & Accolades: Sam Pilafian – the Walter Naumberg Chamber Music Award, the Harvard Music Association Prize, the University of Miami’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the Brevard Music Center Distinguished Alumni Award, and the annual Outstanding Teacher Award for the College of Fine Arts, Arizona State University.


SBO: Sam, can you talk a little bit about growing up in Miami and the impact that had on your evolution as a musician?

Sam Pilafian: Miami was an interesting city because it is a cultural melting pot. Growing up in Miami meant growing up with classical, Latin, and jazz music. It was a great soul-music town as well. I heard James Brown and the Fabulous Flames at Miami Stadium warmed up by Sam and Dave on a Saturday afternoon and that same evening I heard the first act of “Die Walkure” with the Miami Philharmonic.

SBO: Eclectic.

SP: You could say that. I remember being very confused at the end of the evening, but I knew that I had to go into music.


SBO: Who were some instructors who had a significant impact on you?

SP: I was very lucky to have Constance Weldon, who was a legendary queen of the tuba, as my tuba teacher. She was my instructor from 13-21 years old. She had studied with both Arnold Jacobs and William Bell and was the perfect synthesis of the New York and Chicago schools of playing. She remains the cleanest BB™­ tuba player I have ever heard. What a model!


Jerry Coker was the jazz band director for our all-city high school group. My influence in jazz and creative music was Jerry Coker (The author of Improvising Jazz). He was my theory teacher, improvisation teacher, and jazz band teacher all throughout college and really opened up creative music to me.


Those two people were the reason I decided to go to the University of Miami to stay in Miami and grow in those different cultural directions. The cultural diversity of Miami made it the hometown of many creative musicians. My high school generation included Jaco Pastorius, Will Lee, Mark Egan, and Danny Gottlieb from the world of jazz, as well as many people who went on to play with major symphony orchestras. From this description you can sense the environment was set for all of us to develop a great deal of musical growth.


Frederick Fennell was also extremely influential in my upbringing as a musician because he was constantly exposing us to all kinds of great music in many styles. Of course he was the great conductor of both the University of Miami Wind Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra, but I was also on the crew of his 32-foot racing sailboat (it was called the “Ching-FFoom”). We spent hours on that boat talking about music. It was like hearing stories from a sailor who had been around the world many times.


SBO: Patrick, can you discuss your own introduction to the tuba?

Patrick Sheridan: I grew up in the Twin Cities [Minneapolis/St. Paul] in the 1970s and early 80s. At my elementary school, every third grader was brought down to the band room to be asked if they’d like to join the band. I was eager to be a drummer, but we were brought to the band room in alphabetical order, so my last name beginning with •s’ didn’t give me much of a chance to have first pick. When I got to the band room and professed my desire to be a drummer, the band director told me he already had 11 drummers, but nobody playing the tuba. Had my mother married an •Adams,’ I’d be a drummer [laughs].


SBO: The drumming world’s loss was the tuba’s gain. Here’s to arranging students by alphabetical order! As I asked Sam just a second ago who were some of the instructors who had a lasting impact on you?

PS: I remember very well my first trip to The International Music Camp. My tuba teacher at camp was Dr. William Winkle and he was my first teacher who was a tuba player. He was a wonderful man and teacher! When my parents bought my first tuba, I chose the same instrument as Dr. Winkle. He is the reason I started on E™­ tuba.


My teacher at Interlochen Arts Camp in 1985 was Dr. Jerry Young. He challenged me to explore the edge of my imagination in order to expand the limits of my instrument. He is still one of my most trusted mentors. When I face challenging career choices, I always bounce things off of •Doc.’


My teacher at home in St. Paul, Minnesotta was Ross Tolbert, the principal tubist of the Minnesota Orchestra for many years. He was very caring and gentle teacher. He connected me with the fantastic worlds of symphonic music and was a constant supporter of my solo explorations in high school.


In the summers I often worked with Harvey Phillips. He was the person who looked me straight in the soul and told me to do whatever I wanted to do in music. For me, he still stands for great artistry, great time, great humanity and most of all, perseverance.


In college I studied with Arnold Jacobs, Dan Perantoni and Jim Self. While studying in Chicago I worked for nearly three years with Arnold Jacobs. His influence is the cornerstone of my studio and large ensemble teaching philosophies. He combined an in-depth knowledge of human anatomy and physiology with a wonderful approach to artistry. He spoke a phrase to me that keeps me running back to the practice room to this day. At the end of a particularly excellent lesson, Mr. Jacobs looked at me and said, “Just remember, Patrick… tonight when you put your tuba away, remember that someone somewhere else is practicing for another hour!”


Mr. Perantoni and Mr. Self were my teachers for a fantastic year at Arizona State University. They prepared me to go out into the professional world as a player. Both helped me raise my standard for artistry and at the end of my year with them, I was fortunate enough to win a position with “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band.


SBO: Sam, can you tell me about working with Leonard Bernstein?

SP: The most striking thing about working with Leonard Bernstein, which started in the college summer when I was a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center, was the excellence of his teaching. He was able to give a private lesson to a 106-piece orchestra. Everything he taught or conducted felt like he was focusing completely on each individual within the group. We nicknamed him “The Rabbi” or “Teacher.” When anyone performed at the highest level for him, he would scream with joy, “You’ve gotten out of school! You’ve graduated!” Usually his joy had to do with people that changed music easily in the direction he suggested. He carried a box of t-shirts that were emblazoned with “Lenny’s flexible cats” and would throw them to individuals who successfully changed for him in rehearsal.


SBO: Sam, you’ve played with a number of renowned ensembles discuss Summit Brass, Empire Brass, and Travelin Light?

SP: It was always my dream to play in a great chamber ensemble and that dream came true one summer at Tanglewood with the birth of The Empire Brass. The group was formed as a student ensemble, which was formed by Bernstein to coach and perform Gunther Schuller’s Brass Quintet, which was coached by Mr. Schuller. From that day on, and for 21 years thereafter, my first concentration was the growth of this fantastic piece of chamber music chemistry that we called the EBQ [Empire Brass Quintet]. The relentless pursuit of excellence for 21 years with the Empire Brass changed me as a musician. Also, traveling that extensively became the ultimate graduate school!


On beginning my career at Arizona State University as a professor, I was asked by colleague David Hickman to join the Summit Brass, which was quite an experience to go from pursuing excellence in a quintet to a 20-piece ensemble! There were several concerts which felt exactly like Summit Brass was the Empire Brass…there was a signature group sound, great group rhythm, and extremely refined rubato ensemble playing.


Ever since growing up in Miami I’ve been a student in jazz improvisation, and I had the opportunity in 1990 to form Travelin’ Light: a jazz combo that featured the guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola, stride pianist Mark Shane, and myself on tuba. The first of our six CDs was a big success on jazz radio and received such wonderful reviews that we started touring in Europe and the United States in equal amounts to The Empire Brass. The most memorable experience was performing in a European tour with Lionel Hampton.


SBO: Patrick, you also have an impressive performing resume: The Grand Rapids Symphony, the Estonian National Orchestra, The U.S. Army Band, et cetera. How do you become connected to these groups? What do you find most rewarding about such ensembles?

PS: I chose to steer my career in the solo direction after my tenure in the Marine Band. I had finished graduate school [University of Michigan MBA •95] and felt I needed to follow my dream of working as a soloist. Sam Pilafian has been my friend and mentor since I was nine years old. He encouraged me to embark on a solo career, building on the opportunities that had been extended to me while I was a member of the Marine Band.


My solo career has brought me around the world many times over to work with pianists, orchestras, wind band, brass bands and jazz bands. I’ve been very fortunate to find a voice in the music world and an audience that enjoys it!


SBO: What do you feel makes for a successful artistic collaboration?

SP: I think the number one ingredient in successful artistic collaboration is mutual adherence to the highest musical standards. In such groups, rehearsals are quite frank when keeping the pursuit of the truth in the music, above all else. In such rehearsals there’s much more music played than words spoken. This seems to be what most great groups have in common.


SBO: Sam, you’ve taught at Arizona State University, Boston University, and Tanglewood what are your favorite things about teaching?

SP: My teaching philosophy is to catch people doing something right. When I hear someone do that, I often stop, celebrate, and have him or her restart to help grow that wonderful, positive moment into a whole performance. I also love to watch the lights come on, when somebody has that “A-ha!” moment. Teaching is the place where one utilizes all of their artistry, concentration, and powers of negotiation to explain, urge, or cajole others into a higher level of performance. Teaching is more fully engaging than any other activity in my career.


SBO: What about you, Patrick?

PS: I am currently on the faculties at Arizona State University and UCLA and I have had a private studio in my home for many years.


My favorite aspect of teaching is the joy of discovery. I love to see my students “get it!” I love that! I also really enjoy the journey. I remember all the peaks and valleys in the road of my own development, so now I enjoy being the shoulder to lean on during my students’ valleys and a big fan when they reach their goals. I came from a family of teachers and my teachers throughout my schooling were fantastic. How was I not going to end up a teacher and enjoy it?


One of the most challenging, and interesting, aspects of teaching is attempting to deliver a pedagogical message with a mechanism that will allow for understanding and progression when the student is on their own. I wish I could instill in my students all the experiential things I’ve picked up over the years of working as a musician. But that would be skipping the journey for them the path where they find meaning and understanding.


SBO: What are the benefits to, and differences between, teaching individual lessons and instructing an entire class?

PS: Private instruction represents the bulk of the teaching I do. It offers the student and teacher a place to “get real” in a safe environment. My sternest speeches from my teachers were always in private lessons. Private lessons allow for individual attention without distraction and small details can be worked out slowly.


Classroom and master class situations offer the group the chance to “group hear.” It gives the participant a chance to assess on his or her own and compare that with the assessment of the teacher. If the group participates in constructive criticism, it gives the teacher the opportunity to know what their students’ ears are hearing and how they express themselves verbally.


SP: Most of my career has been spent teaching privately and coaching chamber music. On tour I always teach in a master class format. Having said that, the area of concentration during the last 15 years for me in teaching has been to model private teaching ideas and chamber music coaching techniques into large ensemble rehearsal concepts. Good examples from our private teaching and coaching ideas that influence large ensemble ideas today are The Breathing Gym, The Brass Gym, group rhythm and tempo workouts, and activity based intonation studies.


SBO: Let’s talk about The Breathing Gym and the philosophy behind it.

SP: Pat and I have been working with the idea of macro teaching… large concepts to make sure that the basics of playing are strong in all large- ensemble members. The Breathing Gym is the first of six units of these macro-teaching materials to be published.


PS: Initially we were each looking for a place to train a macro subject in music and more specifically the tuba. To survive playing the tuba one needs to ability to move lots of air in a relaxed, tensionless body. In the beginning, this amount of air movement is not a normal occurrence. So in order to improve we developed a series of exercises which involve stretching, athletic breathing, and relaxed, tensionless breathing.


As we used these exercises for our students and ourselves, we found that musicians of other instruments were interested in our “movement therapy.” Our group breathing sessions were not only educational and fun, but also made individuals feel better after completing the work. As the years have gone by, my teaching of this subject has been with students of every instrument, as well as vocalists. Many use the exercises to develop a better body for breathing “better” being more relaxed and more coordinated. Others use these exercises as a direct application of how to play their instruments.


Our involvement with community organizations as well as collegiate music programs also brought about clinical opportunities to work with large ensembles. We have found that The Breathing Gym is an excellent teaching tool for large ensemble work. The process of the exercises unifies timing and sound concepts as well as creating better breathers. As students of our pedagogy develop, we find their ability to operate their instrument (tone color, intonation, articulations and releases, dynamics) better.


The Academy Drum and Bugle Corps and The Sun Devil Marching Band at Arizona State University are the large ensemble labs where we’ve been implementing The Breathing Gym first hand. The Breathing Gym is currently being used by over half of DCI’s Division I corps, more than 10 of the top 20 BOA Marching Bands, thousands of high school and junior high schools, and dozens of collegiate marching and concert band programs.


SBO: Any words of advice to your fellow music educators particularly those at the high school and jr. high levels?

SP: Stay in love with music! True fans of music listen to it and read about it constantly. Never strop training your ear your career will only go as far as your level of hearing. If at all possible, try to continue performing music with others throughout your teaching career.


PS: You are musicians. Your experiences as a musician brought you to teaching music, so stay a musician! Remain musically involved. You can only teach to the level your ears can hear, so stay on a path of musical growth to enjoy of lifetime of learning and teaching.

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