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Sliding to Happiness

Professor Nathaniel Brickens — making the world better, one trombone at a time

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If you’ve never heard a trombone choir before, please click here. Or here. Or on this one you might, possibly, have heard before. Either you get it now or you don’t, and if you don’t, nothing can be done to help you.

One person who definitely gets it is Nathaniel Brickens, since 2000 the director of the UT Trombone Choir and one of two winners of this year’s Regents Outstanding Teaching Award at UT Austin.

All instruments have their charms, but few are as versatile as the beloved trombone. It can be mellow or brilliant, tender or strong, earnest or, of course, humorous. Come to think of it, all those words also describe professor Brickens.

The son of a maid and a high school biology teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Brickens got his first trombone in the seventh grade. “I had two cousins who played trombone, and I just loved the sound of the instrument. My dad had purchased a set of LPs called World’s Greatest Music, and I just remember being attracted to the sound of the trombone, its closeness to the human voice.” (He explained that in the Renaissance and Early Baroque periods, trombones were popular for their ability to blend with and reinforce voice parts.)

Also, there was its extreme versatility. “There was the orchestral connection, and also you’d find them in cartoons. As a kid, that really attracted me! Of course, the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher is a trombone.”

Brickens marched in his high school band and for a couple of years in college. “I tried playing in some rock bands in high school and college (mostly Motown cover bands). It was a lot of fun,” he remembers, “but what I found was that the pay was really bad! And the hours were awful. We wouldn’t start playing until 10 or 11 at night, and as a student, that’s kind of rough.”

Midway through his bachelor’s degree, he decided to change his major from music education to performance, which would allow him to teach at the college level. And does he ever teach: 20 hourlong private lessons a week, a weekly studio class, and UT Trombone Choir, which rehearses twice a week. When students are preparing for competitions or job interviews, they schedule extra sessions to get ready.

Teachers are important in every discipline, but arguably nowhere are they more influential than in the arts. Performance majors, in particular, frequently choose their college because of a single faculty member under whom they hope to study. And in what other field does one routinely list teachers on their bios and resumes? Brickens’ own bio reads, “His teachers include Paul Adams, Glenn Smith, David Waters and Donald Knaub.” Behind every accomplished artist lies an invisible lineage of teachers that in some cases can stretch back over centuries, connecting students today to august masters. Perhaps this makes a teaching award in the arts even weightier.

But Brickens hasn’t always taught. For nine years, he worked solely as a freelance trombonist in Houston. He played up to 70 concerts a year with a brass quintet. He played with the Houston Symphony, the Houston Grand Opera and Texas Opera Theatre. He’s also performed in many Broadway shows, such as “A Chorus Line” and more recently “The Book of Mormon.” He remembers “Chicago” fondly because the orchestra got to sit on stage instead of in the pit.

But even as he burnishes his contemporary bona fides, he also loves the early stuff and plays a replica of a 16th century sackbut, a sort of a proto-trombone, in an early music ensemble in Austin.

Naturally, Brickens recognizes the influence of his own teachers in the way that he plays and the way that he teaches. “My high school band director was a saxophone player and had the most beautiful sound. Oh my God — he was just such an expressive musician, and for me, it created a desire to focus on tone quality. I tried to imitate his tone, his vibrato.”

But perhaps the most influential thing his high school director did was to bring in directors to substitute for him, and one was the trombone teacher at nearby Southern University. Brickens recalls, “I would always go to the band hall to practice at lunchtime, so I met this guest band director. He listened to me play, and he actually brought his horn the next day so we could play together. I asked him what he did for a living, and he said he taught private lessons at the university and freelanced on the side. That was amazing to me — that somebody could be paid to do that! So I pretty much latched on to that idea as a profession.” Brickens followed him to Southern University, where he got his bachelor’s degree.

After earning his master’s at Michigan, Brickens was studying at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, when he met a teacher named Donald Knaub and wound up following him to UT for his doctorate. “At the time, I was looking at music school rankings around the country, and Eastman (School of Music in Rochester, New York) was one of the top schools. Before coming to UT, Donald Knaub was the professor at Eastman, and there were quite a few UT faculty members who were former faculty members at Eastman, so I said, ‘Boy, I can get an Eastman education for Texas prices!’”

As with most Regents Outstanding Teaching Award recipients, this is not his first honor. It joins the 2019 International Trombone Association’s Humfeld Award for Excellence in Trombone Teaching, the College of Fine Arts Distinguished Teacher Award, a Dads’ Association Centennial Teaching Fellowship and a Texas Exes Excellence in Teaching Award. He’s doing something right.

As a freelance trombonist, Brickens has performed with symphonies in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri, and — not to bury the lead — he has played behind Ray Charles (as well as Lena Horne, the Temptations and Andrea Bocelli). He has performed at festivals in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Puerto Rico, Russia and the Netherlands.

Does he hear a lot from his former students? “All the time, all the time! We just had a master class here yesterday with a guest trombonist in the Boston Symphony, and some of my former students came. Some of them pop in from time to time for a lesson. With the reliance on Zoom,” he says, “we’ve been able to host some of our former students for our studio class to talk to students about what they do for a living — how they progressed from UT to making money as a trombone player.”

Over the past two decades, he has been responsible for a lot of stamps in a lot of students’ passports, and music lovers in Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Brazil have heard the UT Trombone Choir live.

COVID, of course, brought all that to a screeching halt. But the teaching never stopped. Student and professor used Zoom to see each other and the app Cleanfeed for their audio. To continue ensemble classes, they had to get creative. “We would do virtual Trombone Choir performances where everyone recorded separate videos and we’d combine it. Luckily I had a student well versed in that technology who was able to put those together.” Something students really took to was making ensemble videos with just themselves playing.

When they finally were able to start meeting again, they rehearsed in the San Jacinto Parking Garage, great for reverb but not so great for playing over the sound of cars. “The students were real troopers. They were very understanding and stayed motivated, and we made it through it.” This past summer they played at the International Trombone Festival in Georgia. “We were just so excited at that opportunity. We basically had been dormant for a year and a half, so I brought the students back in town for a couple of days, we rehearsed, then flew out to Georgia.”

When asked how teaching trombone benefits society, he contemplates the question for a few seconds, then, in his mild-mannered way, says, “In the broadest sense, what we try to do is make life better for everybody, create an atmosphere where people can come and hear something that makes them happy, makes them feel good or in some small way touches them. I think we’ve been pretty successful at that!

“I get email all the time from people who have attended our performances and really enjoyed them,” he continues. “That’s basically what it’s all about. The students are really committed to excellence and really enjoy using music and the trombone as a way of communicating and helping make the world a better place.”