Harmony of Coming Home

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Frost alum and Miami native returns as teacher: Sam Pilafian brings his diversity and experience back to where it all began.

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Sam Pilafian, third from the left, plays trombone with a Dixieland band comprised of Frost classical brass students.

He has recorded and performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Duke Ellington Orchestra, and Pink Floyd. He has built successful music programs at Arizona State University and Boston University. He’s even played live on Soviet television with the Empire Brass quintet to more than 160 million people in 11 time zones. For renowned tuba artist Sam Pilafian, B.M. ’72, these achievements are part of a lifelong musical journey that has come full circle.

“Even 40 years ago the Frost School was known for its progressive faculty, individuals who had the ability to rethink things, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, they set me down this incredible path,” says Pilafian, a Miami native who studied tuba with professor emeritus Constance Weldon, B.M. ’52, M.Ed.

By age 5, Pilafian, of Armenian descent, was playing improvised Armenian folkloric music on the accordion. At age 10 he wanted to join his elementary school band but was told to select a different instrument. “A volunteer suggested I play tuba because I would always have friends if I played it. He was right!”

When his alma mater called in 2012 about a tuba faculty opening, Pilafian interviewed within 24 hours. He enjoys being part of what he calls a “renaissance of educational ideas” at the Frost School—a world-class music curriculum combined with a broad liberal arts education.

“I get goose bumps thinking about this new type of student,” he says. “You might come here to be the greatest classical violinist in the world, but you’re going to learn a few more things on your way out the door.

Known for his technical prowess on the tuba, Pilafian is versatile in both classical and jazz genres. He is also an arranger, composer, and recording producer. With tuba virtuoso Patrick Sheridan, he co-authored Breathing Gym and Brass Gym, a series of bestselling pedagogy texts on the duo’s research-based breathing method. They won an Emmy in 2009 for their instructional video on the technique.

Today, he runs a live “Breathing Gym” every weekday at 6:30 a.m. After 30 minutes of intensive breathing warm ups, Pilafian and his bevy of low brass students play complex musical patterns designed to build stamina and technique, along with beats and loops the students have composed and dubbed with entertaining names such as “Shawarma.”

The breathing pedagogy began when Pilafian first studied with Weldon in high school.  He was smaller in stature than most other tuba players, and “it became evident that I was not going to grow large and have massive amounts of air to play the tuba. Connie started me on an odyssey of discovery about how to become an efficient breather on the tuba.” Low brass players around the world are the beneficiaries of his findings.

Pilafian often travels on the weekends to perform, but when in town you might find him boating and fishing on Biscayne Bay. His enthusiasm for teaching and knack for challenging students to think outside the box is making a lasting impact. He recently formed an ad hoc Dixieland band with Frost classical brass students, complete with an accordion and a washboard player.

“I owe this school so much,” he says, crediting UM Frost for bringing a wonderful diversity to his musical life during his student days. “So a big part of why I came back was to give back.”

By Lisa Sedelnik, M.A. ’00

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