Friday, January 16, 2015

Remembering Michael

Obituary of Michael Whitcombe

He was the right teacher, in the right place, at the right time, when I most needed somebody to guide me and to support me. Literally, everything important in my life exists because I met this man and studied saxophone with him for two glorious, wonderful years. My teacher and my mentor passed away, and I'm mourning for him. Michael Whitcombe taught me saxophone - and so much more - from September 1995 until June 1997, at Rutgers University. That was my senior year and my fifth year at college.

To say that I had had a rough time in my first three years would be an understatement. I was studying a discipline - classical saxophone - that was basically unknown at Rutgers at the time, with only one other person in that major before me. I was directionless; worse, I did not know what questions I needed to ask. My teacher before Michael was not the right personality for what I needed. I had been put on artistic probation twice, thrown out of the performance program, and was struggling with my direction in life in general. I was on my last legs as a music education student, and I was searching for any kind of answers or guidance.

When Michael was hired to teach the saxophone students (classical, not the jazz guys), my life instantly changed direction. He helped me find focus and guided me towards the answers I was seeking. He showed me that there was an amazing world of music out there, once you left the shadow of central New Jersey, and he showed me how to access it.

He helped fix my sound. He taught me how to practice. He showed me where to find saxophone recordings. This was before the internet was The Internet, and you had to know where to search. I found out about the record stores in New York City that carried classical saxophone, and the music stores in New York City and Iowa City (don't ask) that carried classical saxophone music, and about great saxophone quartets (like the PRISM Quartet), and about modern music (post-1980), and about the wondrous Mecca of saxophone called the University of Michigan, with Donald J. Sinta, the master, presiding.

I had a Purpose. I was practicing 10-12 hours per day, and I was happier than I had ever been.

I'm fairly sure (but was never able to confirm) that the biggest reason I made it into the University of Michigan as a graduate student was because he called Mr. Sinta and told him about my drive and my desire to play - a diamond in the (very) rough. But, a year and a half after I met Michael, I was accepted into the University of Michigan School of Music to study saxophone performance.

Without Michael, I don't go to Michigan. I don't learn about music and life from Don Sinta and Marianne Ploger. I don't meet my wife, get married, and have these three wonderful boys and beautiful house in Pittsburgh. I don't learn the musical lessons I need to learn to become the barbershopper, director, and teacher that I've become.

Even my social interactions are influenced by him: his email address was "michaelsax(at)," and I have used that formula of email address ever since. My Facebook page address, my YouTube channel, all have my first name and "sax" afterwards. To show his influence, even my wife's email address is her initials and "bass" at the end, in the same formula.

I've been blessed through my life with wonderful, wonderful teachers. When Paul Larsen passes, or Michael Tomczak, or Donald Sinta, or Marianne Ploger, or William Berz, or James Tapia, or any one of a few dozen teachers that I could name, I'm sure I'm mourn similarly. But, Michael, unlike any of them, was exactly the right person at exactly the right time in exactly the right place. My life is utterly and completely altered because of him.

The worst part about this whole thing was that he passed away two years ago, in February of 2013, and that makes my mourning somewhat more difficult. Not that I would have been able to attend his funeral, but I could possibly have gotten a nice note to his partner about how much Michael has meant to my life. I owe him more than he likely knows.

I haven't seen or spoken to him in more than ten years. I had exchanged a few emails with him over the years, but he was never a very communicative person, digitally. I guess, like always, I figured that I'd be able to reestablish contact with him eventually.

Thank you, Michael. I hope you're proud of me and what I've accomplished. My life is richer and happier for having known you.

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