I met William Fielder in February, 1988 and over the next twenty years he was my teacher, mentor, friend, and confidant. Bill to all of his friends and colleagues, Fielder was known affectionately as Prof to all of his students in deference to his depth of knowledge and his dedication to teaching. He had studied with Adolph Herseth and Vincent Cichowicz throughout most of his adult life and was well versed in the Song and Wind concepts associated with the Chicago sound. He was a giant among trumpet teachers and his advice and instruction was sought after by classical and jazz trumpeters from all over the world.
I began studying with Prof at Rutgers in the fall of 1988 and after a tumultuous few years at the beginning of our relationship, I eventually graduated with my master’s degree from the Mason Gross School of Arts in 1992. After graduating I returned to Los Angeles and we continued to see each other several times a year, as he enjoyed travelling during the breaks in his schedule at school. I saw him less frequently after 2003 when I moved from Los Angeles to Orlando, but we continued to talk regularly by telephone. Most times, he would greet me like a long, lost friend, but occasionally he would scold me like a neglected parent who had waited to long for a call home before our conversation turned to more pleasant things, like the machinations of envious trumpeters and the ongoing intrigues in academic politics.
So it was with some dismay when I didn’t get responses from any of the calls and messages I left for him during the summer and fall of 2008. By December I was very concerned about his well being and sent an email to in the Music Department office asking for information on Professor Fielder’s whereabouts. At the same time, I decided to look up one of my former classmates who taught at the University of Central Florida to see if he knew anything — I found him as he was coming out of a midday class and he immediately asked me, “Have you heard about Prof?” I replied that I had not and was concerned that he hadn’t returned any of calls in recent months. He asked me to come into his office and closed the door as he proceeded to tell me that Prof had been fatally diagnosed with lung cancer in its advanced stages and was currently in a hospice facility in Edison, NJ. I was shocked at the news of his condition and immediately called my wife who counseled me that I must go to visit him as soon as possible. By the next day, I had received a reply to my email from the music department with information on how to best contact Prof at the hospice and began making arrangements to visit him the next weekend.
After a short flight to Newark, and a relatively uneventful drive down to Edison, by 7pm on Friday evening I found myself on the ward where he had been recuperating from chemotherapy treatments. When I entered his room, I found him asleep facing away from the door, so I just sat beside his bed for a while and waited for him to wake up. After about 35 minutes he rolled over and I whispered, “Hi Prof. It’s me, Eric!” He opened his eyes and exclaimed with all of his usual warmth, “Eric! Man, how did you find me down here? You know I got sick and they sent me down to Jackson (Mississippi, his home town) and they got me in this hospital and won’t let me go home!” He had lost a lot of weight and a lot of hair, but it was the signs of dementia that I had seen so vividly in my mother’s recent decline due to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease that almost brought me to tears, to think that he too had it. We talked intermittently as he wandered in and out of sleep, and as usual, he wanted to know what he could do for me to make my life and my trumpet playing better before dozing off again.
About an hour later someone entered the room and I turned to recognize Terell Stafford, my graduate school classmate from the early 1990s at Rutgers. After exchanging greetings, Terell informed Prof, much to his delight, that he had brought his trumpets as requested. We sat and talked together for a while longer before Terell and I attempted to excuse ourselves, but Prof insisted that we take him with us to get some dinner and to just hang out and have some fun together. We pretended we were going to bring the car around to pick him up later in order for him to allow us to leave without too much complaint. As we continued our reunion over dinner, Terell explained to me some of the circumstances surrounding Prof’s condition. It was disheartening to hear about how such a proud and vibrant man was reduced to a shell of his former self as he was ravaged by the symptoms of cancer due to its spread throughout his body and accompanying bouts of dementia.
Overnight, as I sat in my hotel room, I began to dread what might happen when I came to visit for what I knew might be the last time. It was not an easy trip to the hospital that afternoon, but when I got there Prof was his usual gregarious self and greeted me like an old friend before launching into a tirade about how poorly he was being treated by the nurses and doctors on his ward. He then asked if his trumpets were safely hidden from any prying eyes and insisted that I take him up to the sixth floor of the building where he could find a room to practice. He refused to accept my response that this was only a three-story building and demanded that I take him to the “sixth floor” so he could practice. So I rustled a wheelchair and performed a bit of deception as I rolled him around the ward before taking him to the visitor’s waiting room just beyond the door of his own room. I faced him towards the wall and announced that we had finally arrived at the “sixth” floor where he could play his trumpet in peace. I then placed his trumpet case on his lap and he took out his mouthpiece and began his usual routine that I had seen evolve slightly over the previous twenty years — form the embouchure to fit the mouthpiece, blow air vigorously from the lungs, toot a few notes on the mouthpiece, stick the mouthpiece in the horn, and play a few flow studies. In a brief moment of clarity he confirmed Terell’s account that it had been nearly three months since he had last been able to play but if he followed these simple, common sense principles, it didn’t matter how much time had passed. He then proceeded to play one of the most beautiful interpretations of What’s New that I had ever heard. People started coming out of their rooms to listen to him play. One lady was so moved, that she approached me and asked, “Who is he? Is he famous?” I replied that he had only been teaching at Rutgers for the past thirty years and had taught some of the best trumpeters in the world!
He went over a variety of playing concepts, with as much clarity as he did in our first lesson. He even asked me about developments in my understanding of jazz lines from a lesson that he had given me nearly 15 years earlier and demonstrated some of the melodic possibilities based on his approach. I was somewhat amazed to think that, in the midst of his own challenges at that moment, he still found a way to give me one last lesson during our visit. He later became upset as I attempted to leave and demanded that I take him with me, as he tried to enlist my help as an accomplice in his planned escape from the hospice. But there was little I could do to leave without leaving him with a feeling of abandonment.
I didn’t see Prof again after I left the hospice that evening. He passed away during the summer of 2009, but the memory and meaning of my last “lesson” haunted me for several years afterwards, as I struggled to comprehend his message. It was as if he was fulfilling the promise that he made to me when my father had asked him over dinner, “Professor Fielder, do you think this boy will ever be something?” Prof extended a few polite Southern homilies of dedication and hard work to assure my father that I was on the path to success. But as I drove him back to his hotel that evening, he chuckled slightly and repeated my Dad’s question before answering me more directly, “You better be successful or I’ll beat your ass!” Still my last trumpet lesson with Prof Fielder left me with questions that I was unable to answer.
I have spent a lot of time over the past twenty years trying to understand how we play the trumpet and whether or not the process is the same for all of us. In that time I have studied the physics of brass playing, respiratory physiology, and the physiology of facial muscles that form the embouchure. I have used the information gained in my studies to shed light on some of the important ideas, concepts, and techniques that I have gleaned from many notable brass teachers and trumpet players. As I began to connect the dots between theory and practice I recognized that there were many things that I seemed to have overlooked from my lessons that now make sense in light of my experience and study of the acoustical properties of horns, the actions of the facial muscles, and the action of the respiratory system. In that time I have concluded that almost every concept that any of my teachers have ever deemed a significant part of their instructional methodology has a correlation in acoustical physics and/or respiratory physiology.
Eventually, my memory returned to an earlier lesson that came near the end of my second year in graduate school at Rutgers University. Prof was notoriously difficult with all of his students, but he was a gentle tyrant to all, as we all struggled to make an impression that might earn even the slightest praise before the eventual, “No, no, no! Play it again and do it right?” Or, “Son, use your head for something other than a hat rack!” Most of us ended our lessons with his weekly admonition, “I don’t know WHY I waste my time trying to help you all when you don’t listen to what I TELL you to do. Go ahead and play your way if you want to and see where it gets you.” That was my experience all too often during my two years in graduate school at the Rutgers University, until the day I decided to change my life around with a commitment to my future success that started with getting up early in the morning on the day of my lesson and giving myself a good chance to warm-up and practice before my next encounter with Professor Fielder. I stopped at Dunkin Donuts for breakfast on the way to school from Red Bank to New Brunswick and ordered a couple of solid donuts and a cup of coffee to fortify my resolve before I entered my 11am lesson on this particular Thursday. I found an empty practice room and began warming up almost two hours before my scheduled time. However, as I was playing through my flow studies I noticed a pronounced twitching in the ring finger of my right hand whenever I pressed the third valve down. It got worse as the time for my lesson approached and the twitching in my finger increased in direct proportion to my growing anxiety.
I arrived at Prof’s office a few minutes before my scheduled time and I could tell it was not going to be a good day for me. I could usually count on one of my classmates to give me a “heads up” or “thumbs down” as we passed in the hallway on the way to my lesson, so that I might steel myself to withstand Prof’s mood. This morning I was on my own, as I made my way to his office. I stood outside his office and listened as he snapped at one of my hapless classmates, “No, no, no! Don’t move your embouchure! Use your air! And don’t hesitate on the breath! Just let it go!” I waited for Prof’s tirade to subside before knocking on his door to announce my presence during an interlude between my classmate’s playing. He opened the door slightly and demanded, “WHO IS IT?” I replied meekly, “It’s me, Eric.” “Well just wait until I am done!” he said.
If you arrived at your lesson early you could usually gauge his mood by peeking in to see how many empty coffee cups and corn muffin wrappers were on his desk. It seems we all used the same tactic to get into his good graces before our lessons began by offering to fetch his favorite midday snack, a cup of coffee and a corn muffin (“Yes. One cream and two sugars! Tell them to cut the muffin in half and heat it on the grill with butter. But make sure they don’t use a knife that has been used to cut onions! I’m allergic to onions and garlic and if they cut it with the onion knife my throat will close up and I’ll die!”) So I asked, “Would you like me to get you a cup of coffee, Prof?” while sneaking to get a peek at the detritus on his desk in order to assess the damages from the previous lessons that morning. But this time, he only said, “Just wait until I am done!” before closing the door. Shortly afterwards the door opened again and my classmate emerged looking none the worse for wear, but giving me a slight grimace as I prepared to take the hot seat.
At this point I was anything but prepared, as I had spent the past hour and a half trying to figure out why I had acquired “a case of the palsy” in the third-valve finger on my right hand and had completely lost sight of whatever practice outcomes I had hoped to achieve by preparing carefully before my lesson. I was overwhelmed with anxiety as I sat down to take my trumpet out of its case. Prof said something about the general sad state of his current trumpet students that I pretended to ignore knowing that we were all struggling to grasp the concepts of Song and Wind that Prof was trying to impart to us. Eventually, he gave me the command to begin playing the first exercise from the Vincent Cichowicz Flow Studies. As expected he stopped me immediately and demanded, “Why did you hesitate on the breath? Don’t hesitate on the breath! Let it go! Now, try it again!” On the next try I was somewhat more successful and made it until the end of the phrase before the critique came again — “Why did you have a bump between the E and C? Don’t move your embouchure, move the air! Play the next one!” As I played the next phrase at a half-step below I was praying that my twitching ring finger would have settled down but it only twitched more wildly as I tried to play G# and D# and there were more than enough bumps on the other notes to expect the worse from Prof. But instead he asked in the most genteel tone that I could have imagined, “Son, why is your hand shaking?”
I almost started crying as I searched for a suitable excuse to explain my predicament. I told him that I had really wanted to prepare for this lesson to prove to him that I was making progress in my studies, but perhaps the caffeine from the coffee or the sugar from the donuts was making me jittery. I confided that I was completely at a loss when it came to understanding the concepts of Song and Wind and I wasn’t sure if I would ever quite get it. On top of all of that I couldn’t understand why I was having such a hard time and was beginning to doubt if I would ever have any success as a trumpet player. As I went on and on about the state of my despair, he said gently, “Son, put your horn down.” He then appeared to search for the right words to console me in my moment of crisis as he grabbed a napkin from the top of his desk and rolled it into a ball and casually tossed the wad of paper into the wastebasket across the room from where he was sitting. At that moment, time sort of stopped for me because I was pretty sure I had just witnessed a miracle.
You see, anyone who didn’t know Prof Fielder was legally blind would not think this was an important feat. As a result he had almost no peripheral vision at all due to complications from advanced glaucoma. It was not uncommon to be with him in public when someone would reach out to greet him and he would not respond to the outstretched hand until I whispered in his ear, “Prof, he wants to shake your hand.” Prof would then extend his right hand into the space between them and feel around until he made contact. So I was still trying to figure out how he could see my finger trembling when he “made a basket” from across the room. It was a pretty big deal to me and I let him know by exclaiming, “What did you just do?” He asked, “What do you mean?” I said, “You tossed that piece of paper into the wastebasket like it was nothing and we both know that you cannot possibly see it well enough from where you are sitting to toss it into the wastebasket once, even if you tried it a hundred times!” His explanation was that it should not be a big deal as the custodian of the building knows of his medical condition and knows how he likes things placed in his office after it is cleaned. Therefore he simply expected the wastebasket to be where it belonged when he tossed to wad of paper and because of that it only made sense that the wad of paper would land in the basket. It went where he wanted it to go because there was no place else for it to be in that moment! “Just like playing the trumpet,” he said, “If you know what you want to play and how you want it to sound, you just do it without thinking about it and it will happen.”
Knowing his poor vision was more than matched by his lack of athletic prowess, I was unconvinced of the circular reasoning behind his argument and remained skeptical as he returned to the matter of my twitching finger. He said, “Put your horn down,” and then asked, “What is really wrong?” I opened up and let him have it with all of my pent-up frustrations, “First of all I come in here every week lessons and sometimes on weekends too and practice until the lights go out in the building every night. And all you ever say is, ‘No, no, no, that’s not it! You have to have the “basic” trumpet sound!’ What the hell is a ‘basic’ trumpet sound?”
He explained that an ideal trumpet sound should have the qualities of clarity, depth, and brilliance on every note in every register. He responded by telling me of a similar time in his own development many years earlier during a lesson with Vincent Cichowicz, when he had his own near breakdown as he struggled to grasp the meaning behind the concepts presented as “the basic trumpet sound” and “blowing air like wind” and, especially, Adolph Herseth’s critical metaphor about playing the trumpet “like a violin bow.” As he spoke, I realized I was walking along a similar path to that which he had traversed many years before me in search of the basic trumpet sound.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was getting a lesson in “letting go” and allowing the music within to come forward as I play. It was about letting go of the analytical process and getting out of the way of the musical objectives I wished to achieve. Like he always used to say, “What the mind can conceive, the body will achieve!” Ironically, this was a mantra espoused by all of my teachers from Mario Guarneri to Uan Rasey and over the years I heard it repeatedly in one version or another from all of my favorite trumpet players: “Freedom is control, control is freedom!” It was usually positioned as the mystical hump that separated good trumpet players from great trumpet players and yet the meaning remained elusive until recently in my life when I recognized what Prof demonstrated that evening, not too long ago, with such simplicity and depth of feeling, as he played for me one last time was to simply imagine the sound that you want to hear and then play the sound that you have imagined.
Best lesson ever!