Southern Miss University Trombone Studio Day - Interview with Dr. Ben McIlwain
Updated: Apr 24, 2022
First published in the International Trombone Association Newsletter on 01/03/22: https://www.trombone.net/newsletters/
In February 2022, I caught up with Ben McIlwain to find out a bit more about the man behind the University of Southern Mississippi Trombone Studio and champion of the epic Trombone Day as advertised in our previous newsletter. This day was set to feature huge names such as Joe Alessi and Jeremy Wilson, the celebrated composer (and trombonist) Ricardo Mollá, accomplished commercial trombonist Nick Laufer (usually to be seen backing country star Toby Keith) and amazing manufacturers SE Shires and Greg Black Mouthpieces, as well as featuring the students of USM themselves.
Read his blog in his own words: https://www.frettedslide.com/blog/tromboneday-the-before
Quite the line-up, I’m sure you’ll agree!
Photo: Nicolas Ciraldo
Ben was so kind as to offer me some of his time, days before the big event, when he was right in the thick of last-minute preparations! He shared some of his process to that point with me, his journey working with Karen Cubides Agency and how the plans for the day nearly fell apart!
BP: Who are you and where do you come from?
BMcI: My name is Ben McIlwain and I live in Hattiesburg, MS in the south-eastern part of the US. Currently, I’m finishing year 12 of teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi. I’m originally from the south, went to high school in Tennessee but we moved around a lot; we lived in Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and I was born in Mississippi but moved away when I was a year old and only came back when I started teaching here!
BP: So what led you to the trombone?
BMcI: It’s a funny story! I originally wanted to play the saxophone. I had played piano growing up and taken some piano lessons, but in 6th grade I got to participate in school band. I wanted to play saxophone because I liked the Simpsons! Our band director at the time said anyone who wanted to play saxophone had to start on clarinet and I was like, “I don’t want to do that!” so I said, “well, the trombone makes really fun noises, and it’s unique” and I could reach, so I gravitated towards the trombone. It’s funny because I’m married to a clarinetist now and she just rolls her eyes at that story!
So, I started trombone about age 12 and I’ve been doing it ever since!
BP: So, do you think that was it, when you got into the band programme on trombone you never looked back to woodwind?!
BMcI: Yeah, most definitely. I also think the trombone community, even in high school band, we’re all so close and laid back and it’s a lot of fun so I found my niche.
BP: What is the best part of being a professor at Southern Mississippi University?
BMcI: My most favourite thing is the students; they’re just amazing! The culture that we’ve built here and the student successes that we’ve had here…
It’s a dream gig, you know, all I do is trombone! I don’t teach theory or history, or band or anything like that. I just teach applied trombone lessons and we have trombone choir and quartets and things but it’s a really fun gig and the students are awesome. For someone who didn’t want to teach, it’s funny how things work out and I couldn’t imagine doing anything different!
BP: Why did you choose college university teaching?
BMcI: Originally my undergraduate degree was in performance, and I went on to the Manhattan school of music and throughout that time I thought, “Oh Yeah, I’m going to be the next principal trombone of the Chicago Symphony!” (Funny thing, Jay Friedman is still there!)
After I finished my masters, I thought I never wanted to go to school again. I moved back to Nashville, TN and at that time there weren’t a ton of trombone players there and I was able to get some work and do some freelancing. I got a part time job as a band director, which I never wanted to do but I started doing that. I really enjoyed this combination of teaching and playing. The age of the students didn’t really fit so well but at the time I thought, maybe there’s something in this!
I enjoyed the hustle of gigs but my fiancé at the time (now my wife) started her doctorate at Florida State University and I just applied there for my doctorate too. I got a big fellowship and it made financial sense to move and do that. Still, I was like, “I guess I want to teach college, I don’t know?!” I was still gigging and taking auditions but after a few years of coursework I got the job here… This is now year 12 and the students are so eager to learn, they want to get better and the trombone studio we have here, the culture is great and the vibe is awesome.
Find out more about the Studio at Southern Miss University here:
BP: You recently organised the trombone day at the university, featuring special guests, masterclasses and recitals. How was that process and how did it all come together?
BMcI: It’s pretty massive! We’ve always had some annual trombone day event. It’s an opportunity for my students to work with fantastic guest artists but also as a recruitment event. We can bring young students onto campus, and they can hear my students, hear the guest artists and hopefully end up auditioning for here.
In spring 2020, we were meant to have Jim Markey, bass trombone of Boston Symphony and then in March 2020 we all know everything shut down, including our event. It was the first time we’d not had it! I think Jim ended up doing a Zoom masterclass, but this was early in the pandemic before anyone really knew how to do Zoom. Jim was awesome but my students were trying to play on their phones etc, and it ended up being a bit lame, from the technology standpoint. The following year, 2021, the pandemic was still raging, and we could not have people on campus, except the odd student. I wasn’t teaching in my office, I was teaching in a large studio, with the bell covers and masks, the whole 9! So, we had a virtual trombone day on Zoom, with guest artists such as Aubrey Logan, Nicole Abissi, John Romero, Achilles Liarmakopoulos and Nick Schwartz. All of a sudden there was this virtual component and we had people from all over the States, from England, Hungary and Germany that tuned in. That was pretty cool.
Late last spring, we heard we were opening up this academic year to allow guests back on campus and I thought I want to make this something huge. So, I immediately thought of Joseph Alessi. Last time he was here was 2013, before any of my current students, so I called him up and we managed to get everything arranged. The (New York) Philharmonic weren’t playing, so his schedule was very free! He was set to play the Albrechtsberger Alto Trombone Concerto and he agreed to play the Mollá double trombone concerto with me and make a whole day of it!
Previously, I had just led all these events [on my own] but I started working with Karen Cubides in May of last year and originally, I was working with her on recording an album but in one of our early meetings she said, “what else do you have going on?” and I told her about the trombone day and Joe Alessi coming down. She asked me who organised the day and ran the marketing and branding and logistics, and I said, “me?!” And out of that we started this partnership and it’s been amazing. She re-formatted how the vendors worked and the logistics and everything really. With Joe coming down and his recent switch to Shires, we were able to get Sam Lane of the Shires Company to come down and bring a bunch of trombones. Then we got Greg Black Mouthpieces to come and bring some stock. Nick Laufer was like, “hey I’m free!” as his tours had been cancelled. Finally, I reached out to Ricardo Mollá about coming and everything was proceeding really nicely.
Watch Dr. Ben and Jeremy Wilson in Action on the day below:
I guess it was around December, I had a voicemail from Joe Alessi saying, “Hey, call me back.” I was like, “uh oh” because I could just tell something was up. Long story short, he had developed some Bells Palsy and at the time he couldn’t form a seal on the mouthpiece. I can’t imagine going through that but he said he still wanted to come and conduct and teach. He just didn’t feel comfortable at that point in committing to play.
At that point I called Karen up and we were like, “oh my gosh, what can we do?!” and there was about 24 hours of stress and uncertainty, which I don’t handle very well! We talked about postponing but in the end, I knew we just had to do it, to line up with the dates and the university orchestra and figure something out. Then we discovered Jeremy Wilson had played the piece before and he was available at the time. I knew Jeremy Wilson from way back in the 90s when we both grew up in Tennessee and we’d competed for honour bands etc.
It all worked out, I rang Joe and he thought it was awesome so now we had to scrap the whole schedule and reformat it. So now, Joe is conducting the trombone choir featuring Jeremy playing Kevin Day’s Aurora, Nick Laufer is playing Eric Clapton’s Layla. Then I contacted my freshman student, who is also called Ben and does composition and told him I’d love to have something that Joe could conduct whilst Jeremy, Nick and I played and I asked him if he had anything like that and he said, “no but I’ll write something!” He came back with this piece which we will be premiering at the event, a great opportunity for him and us!
Joe is actually arriving 3 days before and he’ll just be teaching and hanging out. Jeremy will also teach some lessons and all of a sudden, my students will have access to not one but two of the best players and teachers!
The icing on the cake is that Joe called a few weeks ago and said he was feeling loads better and wanted to play something! He said he was back up to 80%, which for everyone else, is you know, pretty good! So, he will do a solo with piano on the day too and he said he’s returning to the NY Phil in March so that’s good news all round!
We’re expecting between 100-120 in person trombone players on the day, which is amazing, and a lot of that is due to the work Karen has done.
BP: It sounds like one of those situations, where the wheels could have totally come off, but actually it has ended up better than the original idea.
BMcI: Yeah, exactly.
BP: I have seen a lot of stuff being drip-fed through advertising about the day, just from being in the trombone world and it shows that the work is paying off as I’m on the other side of the world and I did kind of know what would be happening when, although I didn’t know what went into getting you there, so thank you so much for sharing that, it’s really interesting! Is there going to be any online aspect to the day, or will you be sharing stuff after the event, for those of us a bit further away?!
BMcI: That was one of the things, because of the success of our virtual event last year just with Zoom, that was something I told Karen, I really want to make sure we have some sort of virtual component. We have collaborated with our school of communications on campus; they will be spearheading the livestreaming of the event and you can register to attend virtually. Everything will be livestreamed to YouTube and it will also be available after the fact.
BP: Thank you so much for your time, I know you have a busy day, so I’ll wrap up with the final question - how would you describe yourself in 3 words?
BMcI: Genuine – I am very honest, to a fault sometimes! But integrity is important to me. Organised – something my wife sometimes gives me a hard time for, but it’s helped with the trombone day! Funny – I really like dad jokes, really lame simple jokes and unsophisticated humour, anything that makes you roll your eyes I find really funny!