Filling the Back Row
Trombone professor sparks student interest in low brass instruments
When Eileen Meyer Russell joined the Southwestern music faculty four years ago, the university had only one student interested in taking lessons on low brass instruments, which include the trombone, tuba and euphonium. Today, there are nine.
Much of this can be attributed to Russell’s infectious enthusiasm for the instruments – an enthusiasm she gained at an early age from her father.
“My father was a chemical engineer, but he played trombone as a hobby,” Russell says. “One day he assembled his trombone and explained how to play a note. The first note I attempted to play came out, it made both of us happy. Even at age 12, I already had long enough arms to reach the last slide position, I could distinguish the different pitches, and I could buzz the notes, so the instrument was a good match for me.”
At first, music was just a hobby for Russell as it was for her father. She was interested in becoming a veterinarian or pursuing a career in writing, which is what her mother did. However, a summer job at a veterinary clinic convinced her that wasn’t the career for her. So she began thinking about music, especially teaching at the college level.
Russell earned an undergraduate degree in trombone performance from Indiana University and then received a master’s degree in trombone performance from the University of Northern Iowa. She landed her first teaching job at Vincennes University in Indiana after receiving her master’s degree and pursued a Doctor of Music in brass pedagogy at Indiana University while she was teaching full-time.
As part of her doctorate program at Indiana University, Russell had the opportunity to observe a number of well-known brass teachers – an opportunity she says has “helped her every step of the way” in her own teaching career.
After completing her doctorate, Russell had two job offers for tenure-track positions – one in Erie, Pa., and the other in Corpus Christi, Texas. She chose the position in Texas because her mother had just decided to spend her winters there. Russell taught at both Del Mar Community College and Texas A&M – Corpus Christi before joining the Southwestern faculty in 2006 as the university’s first full-time low brass instructor.
Since coming to Southwestern, Russell has done a variety of things to interest students in low brass instruments. In 2007, she started a “Tuba Christmas” program in Georgetown. This is an international annual event in which Christmas carols are played by ensembles consisting solely of tuba and euphonium players.
In 2008, she started a trombone choir for the Austin/Round Rock/Georgetown area. The group practices once a month on Sundays at Southwestern and will present its second concert April 5 at 7 p.m. in the Lois Perkins Chapel.
Russell also has brought a variety of guest artists to campus. Visitors to date have included James Miller, associate principal trombonist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; David Waters, bass trombonist with the Houston Symphony Orchestra; Brian Bowman, retired euphonium soloist from the United States Navy Band and the United States Air Force Band; and the tuba-euphonium ensemble Sotto Voce.
This semester, she is hosting Abbie Conant, the first and only female trombone professor in Germany. Conant attracted worldwide attention in the 1980s as a result of her long-lasting lawsuit against the Munich Philharmonic, which wanted to demote her simply because she was a woman. She eventually prevailed, but left the orchestra in 1993 to accept a prestigious tenured position at the State Conservatory of Music in Trossingen. Russell hopes Conant’s visit will be the beginning of a relationship between Southwestern and the State Conservatory of Music in Trossingen.
Conant’s visit is part of a series Russell is organizing that features various generations of women brass players. The first guest artist in the series was Susan Rider, who is a trumpet player in the “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band.
Future guest artists in the series include Jamie Lipton, an emerging euphonium soloist who came to international prominence after winning two solo competitions in 2006; Deanna Swoboda, a tuba and euphonium professor at Western Michigan University; and Lin Foulk, a horn professor at Western Michigan University. In addition to performing, Foulk will discuss recent research that shows how women’s assimilation into orchestras has implications for women’s assimilation in other traditionally male-dominated fields.
While the field of low brass instruments is still overwhelmingly male (as recently as 2000 the international professional association for tuba players was called the Tuba United Brotherhood Association), Russell says she rarely felt discriminated against as a female trombone player.
“I am thankful for my successes and very aware that generations of women didn’t have the same opportunities that I have had,” she says.
Now, Russell is trying to make the opportunities she has had available to the next generation of low brass players. Junior Ann Alston is among the students that Russell has worked with at Southwestern.
“Dr. Russell is very enthusiastic about low brass and really cares about her students,” Alston said.
Alston and Russell are working on a student-faculty research project about how to recruit and retain low brass players. To conduct the research, they sent surveys to all the low brass professors and all the low brass students who are members of the International Tuba Euphonium Association.
Lois Ferrari, who conducts Southwestern’s Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, is among those who are grateful for Russell’s work at Southwestern. “Eileen has been a wonderful addition to the Southwestern music faculty,” Ferrari said. “Not only is she a consummate professional performer, a terrific colleague and an excellent teacher, but she’s also a first-rate recruiter. When she arrived, the Wind Ensemble had one tuba player, one euphonium, and one trombone. Now we have a full back row of eight low brass performers and we’re actually running out of instruments for the interested students she continues to attract to our program!”
Unfortunately, Russell’s father did not live long enough to see his daughter become a successful trombone player and teacher. He died the summer before her junior year in high school. “I think he would be really proud of me,” she says.