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Dee Stewart: Sports, Pinwheels, and Bass Trombone

Summer Collaboration

Every summer, students from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music join forces with professional musicians to perform three concerts as part of the Festival Orchestra. It's an opportunity for students to perform with their professors and to see what it takes to make music at a high level.

One such professor is bass trombonist Dee Stewart. He makes his living playing and teaching bass trombone, but he's played just about every instrument in the low brass family, including bass trumpet, alto trombone, tenor trombone, bass trombone and tenor tuba.

Career Path of a Trombonist

But when he was growing up, he was more interested in improving his jump shot than practicing music.

"I didn't really care for trombone at first, or music or anything else," Stewart says. "I grew up on a farm and liked to play basketball. But, I had sung in barbershop quartets and things and in church. So, we just decided that I'd go to music school."

After earning degrees at Ball State University and Northwestern University, he went on to play 18 years with the Philadelphia Orchestra before joining the faculty at Indiana University in 1980. With this experience playing in a top-five American Orchestra, Stewart says he learned all about the importance of his colleagues in creating a cohesive low brass sound.

Uniquely Brass

"The trombone section is a section, and we pride ourselves in the section." He goes on to explain that each person has a role. The principal trombonist is the leader while the bass trombonist provides the low foundation for the section and really the entire orchestra. He calls the second trombone "the meat of the sandwich. Nobody really, after a concert, is going to compliment the second trombone player, but if they compliment the section, that's because the harmonies and all that middle was there," he explains.

Since their instruments can be played so loudly, trombonists, as well as the other members of the brass section, are more exposed than any other section in the orchestra.  If a trombonist makes a mistake in concert, often times the audience will know.  When asked if he gets wrapped up in playing perfectly, Stewart pauses.  "I think it's very similar to sports actually because nobody bats 1.000," he says.  "Your mind of course is critical to it. You develop the talent – your body can do it – but it's your mind that gets in the way."

Through his work with the Festival Orchestra, he teaches his students this lesson.  "I think it's good for them to hear us not always be perfect," he says. "Sometimes we miss a note, but how do you recover from that. We've just seen the World Cup soccer, for instance, and there's a lot of recovery in soccer. Those passes don't always go where you want them to go."

Pinwheel Pedagogy

Just like playing sports, Stewart says that performing music requires as much mental training as physical training. But sometimes musicians can get carried away with their preparations.

And that's where the bucket of pinwheels he has in his office comes in.

"On a brass instrument, the whole concept is that the air passes through the lips and the lips vibrate, make a buzz," he demonstrates. So, the main thing is simply that the air flows over the mouthpiece. Now, how it gets there is pretty simple really."  He rationalizes that a baby can breath, and a young child can blow a pinwheel.  "So, if I can get them to blow a few times on the pinwheel and then just pull up the horn without thinking about it, they play much better immediately."

More Information

You can see videos of Dee Stewart's pinwheel pedagogy and find a list of his recordings on his website.

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