TBJ100: The legendary Sam Pilafian


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TBJ100: The legendary Sam Pilafian on Empire Brass, Leonard Bernstein and life-threatening pedagogy

The legendary Sam Pilafian on Empire Brass, Leonard Bernstein, and life-threatening pedagogy. We talk about his life as a tubist, arranger, composer, educator, performer, producer, and mentor (and countless other descriptors) on our 100th episode.

Sam Pilafian is perhaps best known as a founding member of the internationally renowned Empire Brass Quintet (1971-1993). He has also recorded and performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Lionel Hampton, and Pink Floyd among others.

His long career has earned him an Emmy for Excellence in Instructional Video Production, the Walt Disney Award for Imagination and Innovation in Design, the Walter Naumberg Chamber Music Award, the Harvard Music Association Prize, the University of Miami’s Distinguished Alumni Award, the Brevard Music Center Distinguished Alumni Award, the Robert Trotter Visiting Professorship at the University of Oregon and the annual Outstanding Teacher Award from Arizona State University.

Sam is the co-author, with Patrick Sheridan, of the best selling pedagogy texts and DVD’s “Breathing Gym” and “Brass Gym”. Professor Pilafian previously served for 44 years on the faculties of Boston University, the Tanglewood Institute, Berklee College of Music, Frost School of Music at the University of Miami and is Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. 

In this fun and lively (and tearful) discussion, we cover:

  • The meaning of J

  • Andrew as a student of Sam "Up an octave" story

  • Life-threatening pedagogy

  • The amazing story of Sam's recent battle with cancer

  • Beating 3+ Million to 1 odds

  • How studios turn into family

  • Meeting Lance part 1, Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic

  • Meeting Lance part 2, Army Band Conference

  • Brass Band of Battle Creek

  • Scott Hartman fruit salad

  • Meeting Andrew, Andrew was 12 at Tanglewood

  • Meeting Andrew, Andrew was 14 at BUTI

  • The amazing array of young players Sam heard, coached and taught at Tanglewood

  • Hearing Michael Sachs as a young player

  • Leonard Bernstein and the beginnings of Empire Brass

  • Oak trees

  • Gunther Schuller, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Bernstein inspiring the beginnings of Empire Brass

  • Gunther Schuller and Eugene Goossens playing name that tune

  • Parallels with the Emerson String Quartet and how that inspired Empire Brass

  • Finding the nucleus in the music

  • Playing bass lines

  • Working onstage with Alvin Ailey Dance Company at the opening of the Kennedy Center (in brown pajamas)

  • Being Bernstein's daughter's bodyguard at the Kennedy Center reception

  • How Empire Brass become a full-time gig

  • Rolf Smedvig's playing

  • A major Empire Brass blowup at Tanglewood witnessed by Andrew in 1993

  • How Andrew got the gig with Dallas Brass while in a lesson with Sam

  • The line between obnoxious and oblivious

  • Scrapshoot

  • Winning the 1976 Naumburg Chamber Music Prize, the first brass group to do so, leading to being picked up by Columbia Artists

  • The Empire Brass recordings

  • Bernstein "Always go towards growth"

  • Seeing America on tour

  • Learning to talk on stage

  • His teacher, Connie Weldon

  • Coming up in Miami

  • Frederick Fennell encouraging Sam to diversify his career


Sam's site

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Expertly produced by Will Houchin with love, care, and enthusiasm.