Applications are still open for Arts Camp and Arts Academy. Programs fill quickly—submit your app today!

Seven questions with New York Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi

Alessi shares his advice for young brass players—including the importance of simple exercises, techniques for developing your musicianship, and the art of being your own teacher.

Joseph Alessi

During the 2023 Trombone, Tuba, and Euphonium Intensive at Interlochen Arts Camp, a young trombonist asked visiting artist Joseph Alessi for an autograph. Alessi was pleased—not just by the request, but also by the material he was asked to sign: A copy of the Arban Complete Method for Trombone & Euphonium.

“It’s a really good sign when a student is practicing Arban, Schlossberg, and things like that,” Alessi said. “It shows that the student realizes, ‘I need to practice my scales. I need to practice simple, little exercises.’ Practicing is not about going to the difficult things right away: it’s about putting everything in order and making sure you can do the easy things well.”

Alessi’s emphasis on the importance of simple exercises extends into his work with his students at The Juilliard School and his own daily practice. It’s an approach that has been proven effective by Alessi’s own success: The Principal Trombone, Gurnee F. and Marjorie L. Hart Chair of the New York Philharmonic, Alessi is widely regarded as one of the greatest trombonists of all time. In demand as a soloist and teacher, Alessi has premiered numerous works—including Christopher Rouse’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Trombone Concerto and Chick Corea’s Trombone Concerto—and has led master classes around the world as a clinician for the Eastman-Shires Co.

Alessi recently visited Interlochen Center for the Arts to teach master classes and perform a recital during the institution’s Trombone, Tuba, and Euphonium Intensive. During his visit, Alessi sat down for a conversation about the importance of disciplined practice, being your own teacher, and nurturing your musicianship.

How did you decide a career in music was right for you?
Being a musician has been kind of a dream come true for me from the very beginning. Having two very nurturing and very knowledgeable musicians as parents, I didn’t really have to think about it too much.

I started my career quite young. I joined the musician's union when I was 15 and was lucky enough to get a position with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. My mother said, “You have to go to school. You can’t stay in this job.” So I listened to her.

After college [at the Curtis Institute of Music], I was worried because I was not successful taking auditions right out of school, but I learned how to do it and got a job with a big orchestra.

Given your own experience as a younger professional musician, what advice would you give students about finding opportunities earlier in their career?
If you go into music, you have to be prepared for the fact that it’s not going to be an easy journey. My advice is to be realistic. If you’re talented, really go for it, and go for it while you’re in school.

Your best chance of succeeding in an orchestral audition is to audition while you’re still in school. That’s not to say you can’t find a position later, but it’s much more difficult. Once you’re out of school, you have the obligations of paying your bills. You might have to take a job outside of music to support yourself, which means you’re spending most of your energy elsewhere.

While you’re in school, work hard and change your attitudes early. Try to be very focused; you need to go all in, set up a practice schedule, and be very disciplined. At a conservatory, you get to study with great teachers, but the teachers aren’t going to give you everything: The drive really has to come from within yourself. You have to learn how to be your own teacher.

What advice would you give to a young musician about establishing a healthy practice routine and using your practice time more effectively?
Practicing is like a religion to me. I start over every day: I work on my breathing, my posture, and try to keep things really simple. You can take these simple ideas and make music—even difficult pieces—sound good.

Practicing is not about going to the difficult things right away: it’s about putting everything in order, making sure you can do the easy things well. One of the biggest mistakes I see young players making is playing a piece that’s too difficult. When a piece is too difficult for the student, they don’t use simple practice techniques. Instead, they will force and contort and do things they shouldn’t be doing, which actually makes their playing worse and creates other bad habits.

What are some things that high school-age musicians can do now to prepare them for their future careers?
I think it’s a really good sign when a student is practicing Arban, Schlossberg, and things like that, because it shows that the student realizes, “I need to practice my scales. I need to practice simple, little exercises.”

Don’t be in such a hurry to advance to the most difficult solos—especially those that have a tough high register. The high register is not the only thing you need to be working on: there’s also slide coordination, how to play legato on the instrument, and how to play in tune.

I correct intonation quite a bit. The instrument gives us a bad start with intonation because students will often touch the bell to locate positions—I did that, too! But eventually, you have to realize the bell does not necessarily indicate where the positions are.

You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you encourage your students to sing and conduct. How do those two skills help students become better instrumentalists?
Sometimes, we just operate the instrument: Play a note, move the slide, articulate the next note, and so on and so forth. That’s operating the instrument in a very primitive way. You have to operate the mind. If we don’t have any music in our mind, then when we go to the instrument, that’s what comes out.

It’s really important for students to remove the instrument to see what kind of musician they are. Are they someone who understands phrasing? Can they sing in tune? Can they keep rhythm? Sometimes a student will be a natural at phrasing or singing, but that’s rare. When I ask students to sing and conduct, I expect them to do it with interest—I want to see them really sing.

Singing and conducting are also important tools if you’re going to be a teacher. You have to learn how to show your student how something goes, not just by playing, but also by conducting and singing.

One of the challenges for low brass musicians in orchestral settings is that often, the parts are somewhat minimal (or even non-existent). How do you stay focused and motivated during long rests or tacet movements?
In the orchestra, trombonists are supporting cast members. During those times, I’ll listen to the music and say, “How fortunate am I to be able to hear this music?” It also gives me ideas that make me want to go into the practice room.

Sometimes I’ll say to myself, “Why do I need to sit there and just enjoy this music? Why can’t I play this?” The other day, there was an encore by Liszt that was played by an unbelievable pianist who recently won the Tchaikovsky Competition. I said, “I want to play that piece.” So I called my arranger; he just delivered the arrangement to me a couple of days ago, and I’m going to learn to play this piece.

What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I'm getting better at it. I’ve realized that a first-year student goes about their work differently than they will two years later. There’s an amazing thing that happens when you work with a student for one year, and then they have a summer break. When they come back, and every time they come back, they get smarter and more mature. They’re developing—just like I was when I was 18 years old.

What I have to do is push them and challenge them. I try to teach my students to teach themselves in the practice room. I’ll tell them, “See that procedure we just did? That’s exactly what you have to do in the practice room. You have to be your own teacher. You have to go through these same procedures and know what to listen for.”

When they continue this type of work in the practice room, they get better. That’s what makes me happy. It’s very rewarding.