While orchestras are mainly comprised of string instruments, AYS trombonist and recent UCLA graduate Cole Davis explains how brass players make up an equally important part of the ensemble. His interest in the arts and orchestral trombone playing is made clear as he explains how his youth and training shaped his devotion to music. He is not only passionate about music, but also appreciates different forms of art and is an advocate for funding arts programs. Read on to learn more about AYS trombone player, Cole Davis.
When I reached fourth grade, my elementary school in La Crescenta, California had an orchestra and band program where we selected an instrument we wanted to play. My eyes were set on playing the trombone from a year or two before. I would probably attribute my interest in the trombone with wanting to learn how to slide. I didn’t have any prior music experience and was discouraged because of that, but I was so excited to join because I wanted to start playing music. My parents were both theater majors in college so they are creative minded. At a very young age, my parents had music playing all the time in the house, anything from Mozart to rock-and-roll bands like Led Zeppelin. Because I was hearing music at home, I’m sure that had something to do with my initial interest. My dad especially tried to develop my taste in cinema at a younger age and a lot of that has amazing music, so I was pulling from all these areas of my life. At first, my parents were the ones showing me music and now I’m the one showing them music! My parents have always been super supportive of my professional playing career.
When I started the trombone, I immediately found that I was practicing it all the time. It was one activity, unlike anything else I had done, that my parents didn’t need to ask me to do. A couple of months after I started in the beginning band, I was immediately moved up to the advanced band class because I was practicing all the time. My elementary band director also recommended to my parents to enroll me in private lessons. Around the same time, my dad bought me a bunch of music books filled with popular film scores from movies like Star Wars and Harry Potter, that were beyond my skills. However, I would always try to play them and keep them for inspiration.
At the age of 10 I began my private lessons with Noah Gladstone, who was the principal trombone in AYS years ago and manages the Hollywood Scoring space in Los Angeles. Noah’s main objective during our lessons was to develop my trombone musicianship from a place of love and interest rather than rules. He taught me to always be inspired by music, which is something I still practice to this day. He is still my mentor and has always been a giver of advice. He’s seen me grow up from a child, and I’ve seen him transition into being a father. We still play together and keep in touch!
I didn’t actually imagine myself going to university—I’ve never liked school. UCLA was the only school I applied to for conservatories and I ended up going there because first of all, it was located in such a convenient place being close to home, and secondly, the faculty at UCLA. The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music faculty is full of members of the LA Philharmonic, including the associate trombone. Furthermore, not only are there a lot of really dedicated musicians in the program, but I also had a community outside of just the music school. There were a lot of people I met when I was living on campus and in my extracurricular classes. You meet totally new people through mutual friends who you wouldn’t have met and you learn about other things they are passionate about outside of music. I saw people work towards their own goals, just as I was working towards mine in music. As far as academics go, it was really tough for me. Last year was a total grind, I completed all of my music classes for my degree in the first two years and had the general education classes still to finish. I took a bunch of different classes such as linguistics, Asian studies, astronomy, and writing classes.
I heard about AYS when I was 15, probably from my teacher Noah Gladstone who was an alumnus. I first auditioned in my junior year of high school and didn’t get in, but then I made the substitute list my senior year and played as a sub until my junior year at UCLA when the trombone position became available. I knew it would be my last chance to make it into the orchestra as a member, so I prepared as much as I could. Luckily, it paid off and I became an official AYS member in 2019.
It was important to me to play with AYS because, on a musical level, it’s one of the highest performing orchestras for training professional musicians in the area and the country. This meant that I could play with extremely talented musicians that are around the same age as me and have similar interests. What was also so appealing about AYS was that we could play in prestigious venues like Walt Disney Concert Hall and Royce Hall. I also wanted to learn more about orchestra brass playing and AYS made it seem like the perfect situation for me and my growth.
The first difference between the brass section and strings or woodwinds section is that we don’t play as much as them. We’re not in the texture of the piece because brass is used to serve functionally to create a bigger or more grand style or sound. Although brass isn’t used as much as the orchestra, when we are used it’s for a very important reason. That means we sit a whole lot, but when we are playing and there are loud or soft parts, we all serve a huge importance. A lot of times brass is written to signify a religious meaning or a dark, bombastic image. Brass is all used to depict imagery. For that reason, brass is used the most in finales and it fills the orchestra and concert hall up.
Both my playing and social maturity grew through the trombone. I’m not sure why but the stereotype for brass players is that we’re more outgoing and funny. I don’t know if that influenced how I grew up because it’s not something I would’ve known when I was 10, but I think that they both inform each other. As a result, I play a brass instrument and I love talking to people and making jokes, it just so happens that they’re connected to each other and it matches my personality.
I always look forward to the concerts we play at Walt Disney Concert Hall. I’ve only done one myself in February 2020, but I think it’s a very special experience and gives us the opportunity to play in one of the best concert halls in Los Angeles. That concert was my first time playing in Walt Disney Concert Hall, and was definitely the most memorable AYS concert for me thus far. I also always enjoy concerts where the programming has a piece that I really enjoy, and playing the Organ Symphony in February 2020 was no exception. I’ve been listening to that piece for years, and to hear that amazing organ fill the whole hall with the orchestra was incredible.
I also really enjoy playing concerts out in the community with the brass quintet. One year, we played a few sets at LAX which was a lot of fun! I loved playing some holiday music for travelers and hearing live music fill up the terminal.
We also played at a Jewish music festival that took place at UCLA back in 2020.The quintet and I had to create a set and while it was a lot of work, at the end of it all, we played an hour of brass quintet music, which was a huge accomplishment. I was learning all sorts of brass quintet repertoire and really enjoyed it, that was probably one of my most rewarding AYS experiences. Everything with AYS has been awesome.
The first thing that comes to mind is how AYS introduced me to many like-minded individuals who have become close friends, collaborators, and confidants. The network has been the best and most helpful thing about AYS. The ways in which AYS has trained me professionally has also been prevalent because the orchestra is at a very high level. Everyone there influences me because I’m learning more and more about the craft of orchestral trombone playing and new repertoire. Being under the baton of Maestro Carlos Izcaray is so helpful because he is a professional conductor and the things he says about the music and playing is so influential and reminds me of the importance of the historical context of pieces and our responsibility to keep the legacy of the piece in its most genuine form. I’ve learned so much from playing with a high-level group and I’m going to carry that with me for the rest of my life.
Practice accounts are very helpful for people at different phases in their careers. I started the practice account to hold myself accountable to practice consistently. It organizes things a lot more clearly and gives you the opportunity to get advice from your peers and listen to your playing. Sometimes practice accounts can be destructive, I’d say it’s like a double edged sword because I know some people who have practice accounts and need to take a break. You’re constantly listening to so much information and hearing so many people playing, so your attention is being diverted a lot. A practice account mainly benefits, but I think it also depends on the type of person or what their goals are with posting themselves play their instruments. Practice accounts also serve as a very good network because you meet other musicians through their practice accounts and see them focus on the goals they want to achieve.
My first shorter term goal is to be able to make a living playing trombone in an orchestra. Everything that I’ve done in the last couple of years is all focused on winning a permanent position in an orchestra that financially supports me. Right now, I’m beginning to take any trombone auditions that are available. I’m taking every audition I can in hope of winning it or gaining experience. I’m going to be in New Mexico auditioning for the role of principal trombone at the New Mexico Philharmonic, and a few weeks ago I auditioned for the Boise Philharmonic second trombone position. There are not many trombone spots open in comparison to string sections, so it is extremely competitive. The Boise Philharmonic audition had 24 trombone players and one open position.
I’m also in the process of applying to some grad schools so that I can have another two years of training and education for that goal. Orchestral brass playing is a near goal of mine and further from that, I want to be in a place where I am doing that at the highest level I can and with a group I love and want to continue participating with. Another goal of mine is to branch out of orchestral music. I play all sorts of music, just not as much as orchestral, and I want to be able to play different styles of music. I am interested in composing my own music and making sure that I’m still being creative with the skills I have gained through classical training.
Image 1: Cole performing in the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra in the summer of 2021
Image 2: Cole performing with a Brass Quintet on top of Aspen Mountain at the Aspen Music Festival in the summer of 2021
Image 3: Cole Performing in the Kennedy Center in 2019 for the National Symphony Orchestra Summer Music institute
Image 4: Cole performing in the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra in the summer of 2021
Image 5: The AYS low brass after a 2020 performance in the Walt Disney Concert Hall
If people are looking to donate to a music-focused organization and want to see the value in what they are contributing to, they should donate to AYS. Some parents might be skeptical about having their children pursue something in the creative field, but I think art is so important. The arts bring us together and we forget about all the reasons why we’re friends with the people we’re friends with and all of the great humanistic qualities people have. I think it’s a real shame that all of this money is being lobbied for news and we need to support the arts more. We need the help of donors because orchestra music isn’t profitable. Art is such an important part of any human experience, so put your support in what you want to see more of in the world.
Cole Davis is a recent graduate at UCLA where he studied Trombone Performance with James Miller of the LA Philharmonic. In 2019, he won a three-year fellowship as 2nd trombone in the American Youth Symphony, a group that regularly performs in some of Los Angeles’s premiere venues including the Walt Disney Concert Hall and Royce Hall. In the summer of 2021, Cole attended the prestigious Aspen Music Festival on a fellowship where he played with the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra, Aspen Chamber Symphony, and was part of many chamber groups that performed all over the city of Aspen. At UCLA, Cole performed programs on tenor trombone, bass trombone, euphonium, and bass trumpet. Some other accolades of Cole’s include receiving the Adele Clark Philharmonia Scholarship at UCLA, winning a Fellowship in the National Symphony Summer Music Institute in 2019, and being named a YoungArts winner in 2018. Cole plans to begin his graduate studies in trombone in the fall of 2022. Cole regularly performs in the Los Angeles Sinfonietta and other freelance music projects in Los Angeles. His previous teachers were Noah Gladstone and David Murray.