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An Interview with Christopher Bill

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Christopher BillChristopher Bill has taken YouTube by storm, which is no small feat for a solo trombone player! Based in New York City, Chris has been playing piano since he was 6 years old, trombone since he was 10, and he has been composing/arranging since he was 12.

Chris is best known for his all-trombone arrangements of popular songs. His YouTube Channel has been gaining popularity since the summer of 2012 when he posted his version of Owl City’s “Fireflies” for six trombones. More recently, a cover of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” where Chris uses a looping station to compose the song on the spot went viral in the spring of 2014. His videos have since amassed over 3.5 million views and a following of over 35,000 subscribers. In April 2014, Chris independently released his first cover album, Breakthrough.

He studied classical trombone performance at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music in New York. While at the conservatory he studied with critically acclaimed trombonists Weston Sprott (Metropolitan Opera), Denson Paul-Pollard (Metropolitan Opera), John Fedchock (Grammy Nominated Jazz Trombonist), and the absolutely incomparable Timothy Albright. 

DG – You are a classically trained freelance trombonist who has discovered a niche performing “pop” music in an interesting fashion. Briefly describe your background and how you stumbled into your current direction.

CB – I studied classical trombone performance at the Purchase Conservatory of Music just outside of NYC. After going through a typical public school system, it just seemed like the thing to do in order to learn how to be a musician, no matter what style of music I’d end up playing. I focused on just classical music for about two years and then started branching off into jazz, reggae, funk, and of course straight ahead pop. The music I create now is the result of a stream of me doing everything I possibly can, and then picking what worked and doing that again.

DG – Many of your videos are shot in your home and not some exotic location? Do you get to travel much?

CB – I just graduated a couple months ago and moved a little bit further out of NYC. For me, my home is an exotic vacation because it’s not associated with any school or work (yet!) My YouTube popularity has been taking me to some big music locations like Texas and California, but it seems like this is still just the very beginning. With any luck I’ll be traveling quite a bit and reaching new audiences this fall.

DG – What is your favorite/coolest venue or city you have ever performed in?

CB – I just played in Dallas and the audience there was incredibly enthusiastic, which is always appreciated. My favorite venue would have to be Birdland in NYC. So much history and in an intimate performance setting.

DG – What sort of things do you want to do that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?

CB – Most of my creations are methodically picked apart and put back together until it’s the “perfect” recording that I’ll hopefully be happy with years later. Recently I’ve been getting more opportunities to perform live. It’s a completely different scenario and I can’t wait to do more of it! I’d also like to get an actual trombone quartet together to do some sort of a tour in the near future. I feel like I’m too young to be picky!

DG – You obviously rely on technology for what you do. How hard is it to do a live performance of one of your arrangements?

CB – I have a few different ways I perform live, but the looping techniques aren’t very forgiving. Every mistake is heard over and over again, and once in a while a knob or button out of place can make something catastrophic happen. It’s at that point that I have to be a performer/entertainer first and a musician second. If all goes as planned, I can just make music. The other techniques for performing live is with pre-recorded videos of my “clones” that I play along with live or with a standard trombone quartet (sometimes with a rhythm section). The latter options need more preparation, but when it comes time to perform are much less scary.

DG – Who is the most influential musician/performer you have studied or worked with?

CB – My trombone professor at Purchase, Tim Albright. I studied with many great trombonists over the years, but he was the only one that proved to be both versatile and knowledgeable through many genres. He got me to be independently critical of myself in the practice room from day one, which makes progress just a matter of time/will. Tim also has two huge qualities that many of my teachers only had one of: one, he’s performing music he wants to for a living; and two, he truly wants his students to succeed. 

DG – And the most influential performer you have NOT had the chance to study or work with.

CB – I’m going to have to go with Reggie Watts. He’s managed to combine great music with comedy and an entertaining show. My ability to loop comes directly from watching him do very similar things with his voice, rather than a trombone. For me he’s kind of the essence of creativity when it comes to one person on a stage entertaining a crowd.

DG – You obviously care about the music you play. Describe the difference between performing pop music and classical/orchestral music. What can both worlds learn from each other?

CB – I end up talking about this topic a lot with music educators. A trained musician ends up bashing pop music because it’s too basic, not meaningful, or is completely money-driven. While I often don’t disagree, it’s important to note that millions of people are exposed to it, so if we can use it to our advantage we can promote a more meaningful discussion. Performing both classical and pop I can say that the biggest parallel I’ve found is the deliberate decision to convey an emotion. Much of the classical music I perform doesn’t have an obvious story or program to it, so it’s up to the performer to tell a story through the melody provided. Pop music is often the same way when a stale melodic line or rhythm needs to come alive in order to convey anything. It’s also important to note that generalizing these genres as “pop” and “classical” is useful to categorize, but carries a cultural stereotype that I usually try to get rid of. Some of the most moving and meaningful music where the melody and lyrics tell the same story, both having drama and tension, has been pop music. On the other side of a very different coin, I’ve heard some really awful recordings of great classical compositions. I don’t think these are even options in the minds of the kids growing up in America today. Music on the radio is “dance music” and classical music is “pretty/soothing” or hopefully “moving music” while they can be completely flipped depending on the performance. These preconceived notions turn off the listener’s mind and they passively listen, rather than allow themselves to be moved, no matter the genre.

DG – What do you see yourself doing 5 years from now?

CB – It would be great if I were still touring around, maybe performing with a live group and playing mostly original music. I’d also like to start my own summer music program for young trombonists. That being said, I’m super happy to be performing at all for a living- YouTube or otherwise! My goals have always been just a few steps ahead. It gets me working harder right now and not disappointed in the future.