Interview with Dennis Monk, a trumpeter turned academic

Dennis Monk

Interviewer’s note: unlike most interviews on Trumpet Journey, there is no preliminary bio or equipment list for Dennis Monk. His interview is, essentially, his bio.

The date of this live interview was February 20, 2018. The interviewer is Stanley Curtis, who was a student of Dennis in the 1980s at the University of Alabama.

SC: Dennis, thanks for agreeing to sit with me and talk about music, your life, your career—and maybe a little about the trumpet along the way!

DM: It’s my pleasure! I often think of my career in terms of the story of the Fox and the Hedgehog from the fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” Me? I could never be the hedgehog, but I was a pretty good fox.

SC: Tell me about your childhood. How did you get interested in music? What was it like growing up in South Dakota?

DM: I grew up the descendants of homesteaders in a little town called Olivet in S.D.—population of about 500, mostly Norwegian-Americans. I was the child of immigrants, who were recruited by the railroad from countries like Denmark, Ireland, Hungary, Poland and Germany.

My father’s family had a home orchestra. He played several instruments, including the trumpet, and my mother played the piano and saxophone. And every village in SD had a good-quality town band. My grandfather had become an owner of a bank. He closed it every afternoon at 3pm to conduct the local high school band. My grandparents so loved music that they would walk five miles to a railroad spur and take the train to the nearest city (50 miles away) to hear a touring opera star or an orchestra or a band, and then after the concert and get back on the train and back home in the morning.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression destroyed the family bank. My father had to do something, so he became, without any degree in music education, the high school band director, choral director, basketball coach and principal. In a band in those days, the most important person was the first-chair cornet. I say cornet, because the trumpet might as well have not been invented, yet—they were considered pea-shooters! My father began grooming me to be the first chair cornet player starting when I was in Fifth Grade. I played a Reynolds cornet with a Bach 7C mouthpiece. Starting in the Sixth Grade, I was his first cornet player for 6 years. I thought I was pretty great. I played in a polka band in high school, playing “dawn dances” (in the summer), so-called because they started at midnight and went to sunrise.

But the “Fox” of Archilochus took over. I began to be interested in theater, debate, choir and “original oratory,” which is a competitive event. I was one of three democrats in the school. Outspoken doesn’t come close to what I was!

SC: What did you do after high school?

DM: I eventually came to realize that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was on the cornet.

Dennis Monk’s trumpet during his Navy Years: a Benge.

I had to decide between going to college at Michigan State (I had been offered a little scholarship there) or joining the Navy. In 1955, you either did your obligatory military service before went to college or after you went to college. If you got drafted after college, you might become an Army grunt and sleep in foxholes and get shot. Whereas the Navy offered me the opportunity of hot meals, sheets, and expanding my musical experience (there was a school of music in the Navy). So, at 17, I enlisted, and spent two and a half years in the Navy. I became the director of a 30-member boot camp band, at age 17, in Great Lakes. We played the “Star Spangled Banner” at morning colors and “Anchors Aweigh” marching back to the band room. That was the total repertoire of the boot camp band. Before going to boot camp, I had seen only one black growing up in South Dakota. That all changed with my experience with the Navy Band program.

After boot camp, I spent a year in Navy School of Music at Anacostia Naval Station, in Southeast D.C. I was smart, and I could type, so they kept me on the staff.

Dennis Monk (far left) with the band of the USS Bennington

Then I was shipped out to sea for the remainder of my enlistment. In the Navy, I played in a big band on the USS Bennington. On this ship I went to Sydney, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Hawaii. There was a jazz trumpeter named Jerry van Blair, who went on to play with Bill Chase. The band on the Bennington was made up of draftees. Many were college music majors.

SC: After your time in the Navy, what did you do?

DM: I discovered after a year at sea, I wasn’t getting any better, and I was discouraged. So, when I was discharged in 1958, I decided I would study music education. The best college at the time in music education was San Francisco State. My tuition was $37 a semester.

I set foot on a college campus and thought I had died and gone to heaven. I decided that I would never leave a college campus, and, as it turns out, I never did. I took courses in English, Art and Philosophy, but I remember my advisor eventually said to me, “You know, Dennis, if you’re a music major, at some point you’re expected to take classes in music.” So, I started studying conducting, and I decided I wanted to be an opera conductor. I finished my degree without going to many of the classes, because they were so easy. Then, I got a job starting a band and a jazz band at a Jesuit prep school in San Francisco. I conducted musical shows. Then they hired me at the University of San Francisco (also a Jesuit school). There, I started conducting musical shows. That’s when I discovered that going to college was one thing, and teaching was entirely different. I was more excited to teach. “Music Man” was the first show. At the same time, I was taking graduate courses at San Francisco State in music history, because I needed to know more about classical music, since I wanted to be a conductor. True to the “Fox”, I discovered I really liked music history. And I liked the idea of teaching in a college.

SC: What did you do after you graduated from San Francisco State?

DM: I got married in 1962—my bride, Kay, and I eloped. Soon she was pregnant. Even though I was really busy and sleep-deprived, we packed up and moved to Los Angeles. There I started working toward my Ph.D. at UCLA. I studied conducting with Zubin Mehta’s dad, Mehli Mehta. I was the assistant conductor of the UCLA symphony and the UCLA opera, and soon became a father. Because UCLA didn’t have a doctorate in conducting, I got my Ph.D. in musicology as an alternative to conducting—my residency lasting only two and a half years.

SC: What did you do then?

DM: I accepted a job at a junior college in Washington State. Now I had a family to support. But then I heard about Fulbright Fellowships. The “Fox” came calling once again. I could not resist the temptation of applying for a Fulbright to Vienna.

SC: Had you already learned German?

DM: I had already learned how to read German, but I couldn’t speak it. Much to my astonishment, I received the Fulbright award. I rescinded my teaching position, before I got there. I moved to Vienna with my family (my three-year-old daughter, Kimberly, learned to speak German almost immediately and could translate for my wife during shopping trips). I began doing my dissertation research on the 18th-century symphony: how the style had changed between Bach and Haydn. I felt that up to this time there was the lack of scores to help in this research. So, I went to archives in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and photographed orchestral parts, in order to re-compile them later into a score for study. I got my Fulbright extended by a year, and by this time, I was moving my focus away from the symphony to the quartet, because it was easier to collect only four parts for a quartet.

When I returned to the U.S., after I made scores from the parts, I could analyze them to see how the style changed between Bach and Haydn. I looked at about a dozen composers, such as Johann Baptist Vanhal and Franz Asplmayr. I published some of my editions.

After I got my doctoral degree in 1972, I got a phone call from dean of Oberlin (a UCLA grad), he had a temporary position, so I began teaching musicology. As this temporary job was about to disappear, I took a job at Central Michigan University. There I started an early music ensemble. I got a chance to conduct Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea.” I was their first music historian. But, like many times before, the “Fox” showed up in my door again. I got invited to take a year’s internship in the Vice President’s office, followed by being appointed Chair of Music Department. It was a really good music school. I liked the place and it was growing. I even helped to design a new building there.

Dennis Monk, early 70s

But the damned “Fox” showed up again. I got very active with the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). I had the reputation of being very active but a little weird. I gave a lot of papers to them that were quite visionary.

SC: But you didn’t stay there, did you?

DM: No. I was sitting at my desk at CMU, when the Dean at the University of Alabama rang me up. , He said, “We’re doing a chairman search and we have stalled. We’re on the 2nd year and the faculty won’t agree.” I told him, “Let me think who might be a good person for Alabama.” “No, you don’t understand. We want you!” I told him I didn’t want to go, but I went anyway to interview there.

After visiting the Alabama campus and still being undecided, I flew back to Michigan, flying over the last dirty snow of the year. It was cold and ugly, so I walked through the door and told my wife to pack!

SC: I knew you when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. You were, by then, the music director of the school of music there. Was it easy to lead this music school at that time? How did you find Alabama?

DM: I had challenges right away. Because the dean of the college of Arts and Sciences didn’t want to fire anybody, he had simply removed three positions from the school because of budget cutting. This affected me: I didn’t have these positions in the School of Music, and I had thought I did. When it dawned on me what had transpired, I barged into the dean’s office with my hair on fire. He sat there smoking his pipe. “Well, we lied a little”. He told me that I would just have to work through it. So, I did as best as I could.

Dennis Monk with Itzhak Perlman in front of Dreamland Barbecue restaurant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama

I had also been promised that there were plans and money set aside for a new music building. I finally asked President (Joab) Thomas how much money had they set aside. He finally confessed that it was only $7 million. Well, you can’t build for that little—especially with a concert hall in the design! Joab (Thomas, the president) was only too glad to pull the plug on the project, but I saved the building. I started going to trustee meetings. The chancellor finally stepped in and, with his help, the building was finally funded and built.

Dennis Monk (center right) enjoying University of Alabama football with the Million Dollar Band

I stayed on as director for about eleven years. Then I went to work in the Chancellor’s office for a few years, but I didn’t enjoy it. Sooner or later, you’re libel to run afoul your boss. With a personality like mine, it came. The dean took an almost instant dislike to me. The law of jungle is that if you’re chairman and dean doesn’t like you, you have to resign. I resigned. I spent the last 10 years just teaching. And they were the most pleasurable of my entire career.

Now, I enjoy connecting with many of my students on social media, following their lives. It’s been a real pleasure. I just got an email from one of my students from the time I was teaching in San Francisco. He told me that he had recently named me as a music teacher that changed his life.

SC: What advice do you have for the younger generation? How can we improve our musical world?

Dennis Monk enjoying retirement in 2018.

DM: Be ready for change. Follow the fox. There are books out now that say that knowledge is useless. Because everything is changing. I have become very interested in the stoic philosophy of people like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. It has been a new interest. In a nutshell: the past is the past and there is nothing you can do about. The future you have no idea about. So, you must live for the present. In neuroscience, we have come to learn that decisions aren’t made consciously, but subconsciously. And the conscious mind simply recognizes the decisions. I trusted intuition, opportunity and danger. I think that was the right thing to do, and I would suggest that’s an important lesson for young people today. Over the years, I’ve come to embrace two favorite expressions: “I don’t know” and “I don’t know.” Both are very helpful.

Dennis Monk and his late wife, Kay.

SC: What kind of projects are you looking forward to in the future?

DM: Just recently, when my wife, Kay, died, I got an opportunity to work again on the scores that I had compiled in my doctorate research.


CD jacket for quartet project of Vanhal’s music, manuscripts of which were supplied to quartet by Dennis Monk


Someone in Canada who works with Tafelmusik and in a string quartet, asked me to help with some quartets that he was interested in. After he mentioned to me they were going to record some quartets by Asplmayr that I had edited, I was able to show him some later works that are even more interesting. Now his quartet is planning to do another CD. I’m past 80, and my work still seems relevant, and this makes me very happy.

SC: Dennis, your journey has certainly been an adventure, and I’m sure that some young trumpeters out there will find some inspiration from the paths that you took.

DM: I hope so. It was great to chat with you!





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Trumpet Happiness, month four

Me, in front of Op. 7 by Richards, Fowkes & Co. in Westminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, TN

Looking back on my trumpet happiness project up to now: 

December was focused on beginning my effort to get fit and to start blogging consistently.

January was the beginning of my attempts at meditation, hugging people and focusing on learning French. I did a recital. I also did an on-campus interview for a college trumpet teaching job. It turns out that I wasn’t the best fit for that place, so I didn’t get the job. But it was a great experience. More on this interview later.

I wasn’t successful in everything I set out to do in February, but I made some great headway in getting more sleep. I also was able to be much more consistent in my morning rituals:

  1. being grateful for something
  2. affirming something positive about myself
  3. thinking about what I liked from the previous day
  4. looking forward to what I would do for the rest of the day

These four rituals have kept me grounded.

Since December, I have gotten much fitter, physically (and lost some weight!). I have been doing a combination of walking and jogging three times a week, which is a huge breakthrough for me, since I had been suffering from shin splints for the past eight years. Additionally, I do calisthenics three times a week. Here are some of my cumulative numbers now: in one session, I do 180 push-ups and lunges, 230 sit-ups, 224 squats and 32 pull-ups (all of this over five sets).

Also, I am making huge progress in my French (I’ve just completed 600 straight days on Duolingo, and I am almost finished with Level 3 in Pimsleur French).

My performing focus is getting better (thanks to my meditation!)–my recent recitals were actually quite a pleasant experience. And I loved touring with the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble in Tennessee.

Unfortunately, I let a number of days go by without blogging at the end of February, but I felt I needed to recover a little from my blitzkrieg since December of last year.

What’s up for March? What are my goals?

  1. Ear training (working with the Online Ear Trainer).
  2. Orchestral excerpts, solo pieces and some jazz playing (I now have a student who wants to mainly study jazz with me, so I will need to stay ahead of the curve!)
  3. Getting my composition muse back
  4. Reducing my blogging to two or three times a week; looking forward to some nice interviews coming up this month.
  5. Keep working out, sleeping more, eating better.
  6. Keep improving in French–I want to get to level 20 in Duolingo French and get well into Level 3 of Pimsleur French.
  7. Keep hugging





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Trumpet teaching, new ideas

This blog is, if nothing else, a sounding board. So, I will sound out some of my more extreme ideas on what trumpet teaching could be for this blog post.

  1. What if trumpet teaching were done only as a group?
  2. What if students had to learn their repertoire only by listening?
  3. What if students had to submit a recording of their own efforts before their lessons?
  4. What if students directed their own study and their teacher adjusted exercises and advice to suit the student’s inclinations?
  5. What if teamwork were emphasized?
  6. What if teachers had an open-door policy for students to come at any time?
  7. What if students had to produce a professional-quality recorded track each semester?
  8. What if students had to write their own exercises?
  9. What if students had to earn $30 in a day by busking to pass their jury?
  10. What if students had to compose or improvise an original piece each semester?
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Five Things Friday: Teamwork in the Trumpet Studio

Trumpet Hang at the German court of Swerin (18th C.)

There is a trend that I am noticing in my life–there are fewer opportunities to hang out with trumpeters. Fewer opportunities to play together and chat about trumpet things. Nevertheless, there are big benefits to working together with other trumpeters, especially in a studio at a school of music. If you are looking for ways to get better, try getting together. Here is some motivation:

  1. Data points to significant health benefits to belonging to a group.
  2. When you combine group class, trumpet hangs, workshops and conferences to your lessons, you will learn more and be more motivated.
  3. When you’re hanging with other trumpeters, not even talking about the trumpet, you are building strong social bonds that help prevent burnout.
  4. You are a team with your teacher. Although online instruction is better and more accessible these days, you should put more importance into lessons with a real person.
  5. More experienced members of a trumpet studio help to mentor the less experienced–they get experience to help them become successful teachers. Less experienced members of the trumpet studio learn faster, because they get extra mentoring, and because they see the kind of workflow that goes with purposeful practice.
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On tour with the WCSE

Last Sunday marked the final performance of a small tour that I have been on with the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble (WCSE). We played twice in Chattanooga and twice in Knoxville (both in Tennessee).

We got a chance to play many times within the span of a few days, which helped us grow as a group.


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