An Interview with Paul Bryan

Get to know your fellow alumni beyond their Notations in Overtones! Curtis launches a series of mini-profiles and interviews designed to dig deeper into the Curtis alumni experience. To kick things off, William Short (Bassoon ’10), former Alumni Network Executive Committee member and Curtis Storytellers project leader, shares this interview with Curtis Dean Paul Bryan (Trombone ’93), who also continues to teach and perform as a trombonist and conductor. Find his full bio here.



William Short: How did your association with Curtis begin?

Paul Bryan: I auditioned for Curtis in spring of 1989 for Glenn Dodson and [members of the trombone studio]. This audition was the most personable of my college auditions, with extensive conversation, and I played really well. However, when I was accepted and I talked to [one of the Curtis trombone students] on the phone, he told me: "The main reason you got accepted was that Mr. Dodson really felt that you would be the best personal addition to our section." And I was so disappointed, because I wanted him to tell me I was the greatest trombone player they had ever heard in the history of Curtis. But I really appreciate now, being on the other side of it and having been here for 29 years, the importance placed upon being a good and dependable citizen within the trombone section.

While you were a student, what were your defining experiences and relationships?

My student colleagues really defined my time at school and those relationships continue on in my career. The high level of my colleagues was so important. [In] my first year, my section mates and I formed a trombone trio and we made semi-finals at Fischoff. We created a brass quintet my junior year, and coached with Mr. Dodson and Mr. Kaderabek. 

My first lesson with Mr. Dodson was in the middle of September on the third floor. It was way too hot, and I was all dressed up, sweating like crazy. At one point he said, "Listen, my job is not to make you a great trombonist." Of course I must have looked at him with confusion. He responded, "My job is to enable you to become a great musician and we all choose a different medium. Yours happens to be this instrument, but really that's not what we're here for. Everybody at Curtis can play, but that's not what we're really here to do. We're here to make art."

And how do you think he went about doing that?

He was constantly trying to get me to not worry about the technique, not to over-self-analyze while playing. Sometimes he was extremely blunt, but it's like he had a syllabus in his mind of every single thing I was working out. He knew the end goal and exactly how to get me there.

Why was the level of your colleagues so important and so influential?

To me, it was amazing to be around people who all played better than me. Mr. Dodson would have these “bone bashes” in an old warehouse that he had converted into his house [with Curtis students and professional players from the region]. I remember sitting there my freshman year—and there's 16 trombone players playing double octets, imagine how loud that was—and thinking to myself, "I am the worst trombone player in this whole room." And [also thinking], "This is awesome."

And that was not discouraging?

Friends and I would [attend Philadelphia Orchestra concerts] and Mr. Dodson would sound so good. In my mind, I was thinking: "I can't wait to go practice, because now I know what I should sound like."

How does your Curtis experience influence what you do now? You still teach and are musically active, in addition to being part of the administration. 

Having been a student here makes it really easy to understand what my focus is. I understand the pressure that students put on themselves. People talk about competition; I don't know about you, but I didn't find Curtis to be internally competitive. I found that everybody competed with themselves: your teacher sets a very high expectation, and the competition is, "Can I get myself there?" I think students feel that Curtis, the institution, expects them to be perfect. And, of course, we don't. I think that the students need to realize, and we need to realize, too, that they're students, and that sometimes they learn through not doing something well. [Liberal Arts Chair] Jeanne McGinn and I talk a lot about learning by failing, instead of learning by doing.

So how do you cultivate a busy, but not overwhelming, atmosphere?

When cultivating opportunities for a productive environment, I think of vitamins as an analogy. You should take your daily vitamin, but taking a whole a jar of vitamins every day is not good for you. A big challenge of my job is saying no, in order to regulate the school atmosphere, maintaining its positivity and productivity. It is especially hard when a faculty member requests new opportunities. This new added thing to a student’s schedule, that's like throwing in the rest of the jar of vitamins. They're not going to get out of it what you want them to get out of it, because they can't benefit from it.

In your 29-year relationship with the school, what is Curtis’s biggest change in your mind?

To generalize it: Curtis [used to be] an internal network, with students existing primarily in the practice room and rehearsal hall. Now Curtis is about taking what's inside and engaging externally, even globally. We want people outside of Curtis to know what we're doing. We want our students to be noticed. We want them to be aware of what they're doing. But also, to show them that you can't stay inside the practice room during your life. Once you leave here, you have to be comfortable outside, connecting with the community.