The first time we hosted a workshop with trombonist Nick Platoff, in January 2020, we were able to play together in person at the Drew School in San Francisco. We had so much fun that we’ve invited Nick back to lead an online workshop for low brass players on February 27. We reached Nick in Philadelphia, where he’s been temporarily living with his family while working on new musical projects.
You were appointed associate principal trombonist at the San Francisco Symphony in 2016, when you were just 23. Obviously you had an early start in music. What’s your musical background?
I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. My dad, John Platoff, is a musicologist, and he introduced me to a lot of classical, pop, and world music. As a family, we’d sing together, mostly in the car. This was around the time that minivans started to have TV screens and my friends were all watching SpongeBob. My parents did not want us to do that, so we sang—mostly rounds, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” I started playing the recorder in third grade, and around that time I went to a local high school’s jazz band concert. They played a James Bond medley that I thought was the coolest thing ever. So in fourth grade I started studying trombone with Jim Fryer and Terrence Fay at Neighborhood Music School in New Haven. Jim Fryer made it all about having fun from the very beginning, so that was super awesome.
The better teachers have taught me to see and hear differently. Michael Mulcahy was my primary trombone teacher at Northwestern University. He stressed the importance of listening—I heard him play a lot. He also encouraged me to have lots of teachers, to take lessons from different kinds of musicians. As a teacher myself, the number-one thing I want to impart is that music is a joyful and human thing, not just an exam or a contest. It breaks my heart when people get too stuck on their intonation or their sound quality, or some other thing that some person told them that’s getting in the way of them loving this profound, special, magical thing called music. If my students don’t become professionals, that bothers me a lot less than them having a bad, twisted, perverted relationship with music.
You’ve performed at Burning Man. What was that like?
It was totally life changing! I was there in 2017 and 2018. The first year I played Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with a group called Art Haus. Our dress rehearsal took place during a duststorm that knocked out all of the electricity we were using. We were mic’ed up and plugged into a board, and the board went down 15 minutes before we were supposed to start. The conductor, my friend Brad Hogarth, told us, “Let’s not freak out and tell everybody that the board is down. We’ll just pray that it goes back on.” They say at Burning Man that “the playa provides,” and sure enough, by some crazy playa miracle the board went back on and we had a spectacular performance. Something like 10,000 people were there. Some of them knew the music, but probably most of them didn’t. That’s something that’s really appealing to me: taking the music in its purest form, outside of the context of tuxedos and concert halls and expensive tickets. It was very raw and cool.
How have you been spending your time during the pandemic, now that touring and in-person performing are out of the question?
I’ve used the time in two areas. The first is focusing on my health in every aspect—nutrition, exercise, sleep, meditation. [Watch Nick’s video about overcoming cellphone addiction. Warning: Not for the prudish!] The other big pillar of the pandemic for me has been working on my own composition projects. The craziest thing I did was a song-a-day challenge last April. It was more music than I’d written in my whole life. I was living with some friends in this hippie cryptocurrency commune in Silicon Valley, with no quiet studio space. But my friend Joel owned a limousine that wasn’t going anywhere, so I brought my laptop and mini-keyboard and Zoom recorder out to the limo and sat there every day in April and wrote songs. I’ve been working ever since on developing those songs into an album, which I hope will be ready sometime this year.