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My Lessons From Herb Pomeroy

Jazzed Magazine • January 2008Lessons Learned • January 9, 2008

Herb Pomeroy Like thousands of other musicians, I was deeply saddened when I heard of the passing of Herb Pomeroy in August 2007. Herb was perhaps the most influential jazz educator of the last fifty years inspiring and mentoring generations of the top musicians from the Berklee College of Music. The lessons that I learned from Herb have helped make me the teacher and person that I am today. I would like to take the opportunity to share these lessons and sage advice with other educators, and to reminisce about some of the good times along the way.

After retiring from the Massachusetts State Police, my father took a job as a campus police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On a part of his regular rounds, he would walk through an auditorium where the M.I.T jazz band rehearsed and take a few minutes to listen to them practice. On these regular rounds he met and shared regular conversations with the band’s director, Herb Pomeroy. I still feel embarrassed when I think of how my father would have proudly told Herb about his son “the saxophone player,” but luckily for me, these two men of the same generation somehow struck up a casual friendship that benefited me in ways that are hard to measure. I met Herb Pomeroy when I was fifteen years old and had the privilege of learning from him for the last twenty years. Throughout that time, he never stopped asking my how my father was doing every time we met.

There are so many facets to Herb that should be remembered: his always tasteful playing, amazing writing, and inspired teaching of composition. But my experiences with Herb and the lessons that I took most to heart were his approaches to working with big bands and student musicians. When I attended the Berklee College of Music, I was honored when Herb invited me to play in his various student ensembles. The five semesters that I spent playing in Herb’s bands were the most intense learning experiences that I had during my time at Berklee. Frankly, I was terrified of disappointing him and I never played or listened harder in my life! Once out of college and teaching, I was lucky enough to watch Herb work with many of my students in high school settings and see his teaching style transform ensembles and help students excel. Many educators consider Herb to be their mentor. But, for those of you who were never fortunate enough to work with him directly, I would be honored to share my thoughts on the lessons I learned from Herb that help make me the educator I am today. For high school teachers, there are some excellent lessons to be gleaned from attending a rehearsal with Herb.

Before joining Herb’s bands at Berklee, my big band experience had consisted of playing in Buddy Rich style and professional swing bands. At the end of my first rehearsal with Herb, I knew I was in for a completely different experience. I was shocked at how quietly the band played! The band rehearsed in a small room with very limited sound treatments. The tendency for all bands in these rooms was to overplay. This was never allowed when Herb was in the room. He always taught the importance of listening in difficult acoustic situations. Herb’s job was to listen to and carefully evaluate student compositions. In order to do this, he needed to hear every part and every harmony. The band’s job was to play in perfect balance, sight read the charts as close to perfection as possible, and follow all dynamics to the extreme while adding appropriate style.

When everyone in a band is listening intently, big bands become almost like living, breathing organisms. Hearing the balance within a sax section, the hum of vibrato, and the interaction of how lines move between winds and brass is almost a meditative experience. Though I had been playing in extremely good big bands for years, I had never heard anything like this. Imagine, a second tenor player, clearly hearing the 4th trumpet part within the balance of the trumpet section, trying to listen to match intonation, and being frowned at by Herb if the intonation wasn’t perfect. That was me.

Of course there are times when bands play loud. But as we were always reminded, a forte is only as loud as a piano is soft. Exaggerating soft and mid range dynamics gives a band more room for dynamic growth and the ability to shape lines and phrases within a composition.

Student big bands at the high school level should learn this lesson well. Dynamic shape and phrasing is far better executed by exaggerating soft volume levels instead of loud. It creates a more dynamic sound for a band and better musicianship by encouraging students to listen to others and understand how their part works within a composition.Too often, high school bands try to use volume alone to convey excitement and intensity. In many cases, the volume can simply mask underlying intonation, balance, and execution problems that exist within in a band. By rehearsing at a quieter volume, directors may notice many problems that they may not hear at loud volumes. I recommend not having a high school jazz band play forte until they are close to mastering a composition. It’s easy to get kids to play loud, but it can take months of hard work on balance and intonation to get kids to play loud well and musically.

No one I’ve ever met needed to be told to show respect to Herb Pomeroy. For crying out loud, the man played with Charlie Parker before many of us were even born! What always surprised me, and what was one of the greatest lessons I learned from Herb, was the enormous amount of respect and kindness he showed to the musicians he directed and worked with. There were two facets to this respect. One was a general respect and appreciation for fellow musicians and students and the other was a common respect for the integrity of the music being played.

From a personal perspective, Herb always had a smile, a remark, a question or advice. His calm demeanor was infectious in rehearsal settings. His groups were relaxed, humorous, and intensely focused. From a musical perspective, anything less than excellent execution and musicianship was unacceptable. When I played in Herb’s bands, sometimes individual players just wouldn’t work out. A musician might be there for a few rehearsals and then they’d be gone. But it was never personal; it was always about the music and was always honest. Often the players would be back again after a semester or two and their level of musicianship would be immensely improved. There is no greater motivation for practice than to know that you’re being evaluated on your merits and musicianship alone. To this day, I can’t think of any sentence that would make me work harder to improve than “#149;.Ya know I really like you. But your playing just isn’t up to the level of this band.”

Know Your Band
Directors need to know the strengths, weaknesses and experience levels of each section in their band. When choosing music for a group or creating arrangements, make your decisions based on the band you have, not the band you wish you have. It’s important to challenge students and encourage them to excel, but it’s also important to do this in a gradual way that builds skills, musicianship, and confidence. I often see high school groups that choose extremely difficult music, even though the level of musicianship and experience in their band isn’t extremely high. The process these bands go through to play the music often requires months of grueling rehearsals. In the end, the bands end up playing the pieces fairly well, but one needs to ask if the students might have been better served by a different approach. Is it better for students to have the experience of playing ten or twenty different pieces per year to gradually develop their musicianship and skills or is it better to spend time trying to master three extremely difficult pieces for performance? Every band director has the right to answer this question differently, but in my time with Herb, I learned that one of the best ways to respect students is to offer them consistent and gradual opportunities to succeed and improve on their own.

Respect the Person, Teach the Musician
Every student in a band should be given the respect and encouragement due any person. But students need to earn the respect of a band director for their individual musicianship through hard work and perseverance. Students should understand this critical difference. It’s possible to like and respect someone on a personal level, but they still may not work hard enough to be a positive contributor to a band.Criticism to groups should never be personal in nature and, in my experience, anger is never a constructive force in rehearsal settings. Directors should set high, but attainable, expectations for musicianship, behavior, and work ethic in groups. I’ve often seen band directors get angry, lecture, or even storm out when their expectations are not met or when individual disruptive students distract rehearsals. I’d suggest a different but simple approach: remove the problem player from the band. Set the tone for excellence early in the year by limiting distractions during rehearsals and base all decisions regarding students on an expectation for musicianship and professional behavior. Appreciate, respect and love the kids you work with, but demand professionalism and respect from them at all times.

I’ve often encountered bands where directors were hesitant to remove musicians because they felt they needed them to fill a section or complete a band. I can say, from personal experience, that it is much better to have an incomplete band than allow a disruptive and negative influence into the group. All of your good students will appreciate and respect you for the decision.

Be the Expert
During the very first rehearsal I ever had with Herb, the band was playing a chart with lush sustained backgrounds during a solo. Midway through the section, Herb, with his eyes closed and his head tilted for listening, abruptly stopped the band, pointed to the third trumpet player and said something like, “My God, you’re holding out the flat 13th of the chord and you’re playing it sharp. How can you possibly play that note and be sharp#149;”

I was shocked. When I was playing my part at that time, I could rarely tell which degree of the chord I was playing, yet Herb was able to distinguish each individual player, in lush orchestration, and hear precise intonation, without even looking at the score! His level of expertise instilled complete confidence in the band and helped all of us aspire to improve even more. Furthermore, nothing he said was ever questioned, he was simply the smartest guy in the room.

For many of us, this level of expertise is completely unattainable. But for high school band directors there are still important lessons to learn from Herb. Directors should know their music and scores before they begin to teach the music to students. They should identify difficult areas within a composition where intonation, phrasing, style inflections, dynamics and rhythmic feel might be a problem for students. Directors should both study their scores and listen to recordings of the music so that they have a complete picture of what they want a composition to accomplish. In short, they should aspire to be complete experts on the music that they aim to teach. There is an old saying among music education majors- just staying one chapter ahead of the students can make the teacher look brilliant, but the reality is much different.

Directors need to bring professional expertise, confidence, and vision to their groups. Students will intuitively understand and respect directors who take the time to develop expertise and to communicate it to the group. Any band director can attain this level of expertise. If a director simply studies scores, listens to music, and asks questions, expertise and vision for a group will inevitably follow.

Like thousands of his former students, I feel immensely blessed to have been so strongly influenced in my teaching by Herb Pomeroy. His many innovations, skills, and teaching techniques could fill many books, which, now, unfortunately will never be written by him. This one tiny facet of his overall teaching, his ability to work with groups of students and bring out their best, has been an enormous influence on my own teaching and I feel honored to be able to share a few of the lessons that I learned from Herb. I hope other educators will find them as important and influential as I have. In the course of writing this, there is now one thing of which I’m sure wherever great musicians and beautiful souls go after death, there is now one smokin’ band rehearsing new music every week, and there is one of the greatest educators, musicians, and personalities of all time fronting the band.

Brian Kane has been a music educator for fifteen years and is presently an active teacher, clinician and author. Brian’s books on jazz include Creative Jazz Sight Reading, the Jazz Style and Technique series, and the new series Constructing Melodic Jazz Improvisation, available for all instruments, which demonstrates an innovative new pedagogy for understanding and playing the language of jazz. Brian can be reached and his books can be seen at

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