Photos: Courtesy of Tim McAllister
“He’s the man!” These words cut through the frigid Michigan morning and jolt me back into reality. They come from one of Tim McAllister’s students, who is joining us on our way to the Conn-Selmer factory. This particular morning, McAllister was filling a multitude of roles including teacher (helping his student find a soprano saxophone), artist/endorser (selecting instruments for Conn-Selmer’s Artist Selection program), and tour guide.
Much is known about Tim McAllister as a saxophonist. Arguably one of the most recognized figures on our instrument, he has been at the forefront of classical saxophone for decades. Be it his circus-like technique or his singing tone, McAllister’s recordings have been studied, copied, and placed among the greatest recordings in classical saxophone history. So, I guess one could say he is the man.
It is early and I am exhausted, with no patience for hero worship. Despite my haze, it is clear to me that this was not going to be like other interviews. Gone would be the formulaic question/answer format as it didn’t feel right. I soon realize my job is to serve more as an observer than an interviewer. I made sure my questions were not planned, rather coming from my curiosity as a teacher and musician. Personally, I wanted to learn more about the man and discover if there is any myth to go along with the legend. I want to observe the nuances because, as you will discover, Tim McAllister lives in a world of details.
He is remarkably at ease and friendly in person. I don’t know why, but I somehow expected someone of his accomplishments to have an ego. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, I don’t recall him talking about himself unless asked a question. He is certainly aware of his worth and knows how to play the game, but he isn’t the slightest bit interested in selling you on Tim McAllister. I find that refreshing, as too many people spend a lot of time telling me how amazing they are.
His baritone voice is calm and direct, with a hint of his Texas roots poking through every now and then. Simply put, Tim is a likable guy. But there is something different about him. At first, I can’t put my finger on it, then it becomes evident. There is a directness and economy to his speech. Gone are the common stutters found when a person attempts to formulate a thought. There are no pre-sentence warmups (“as is commonly said”, “as people are prone to do”). No, if you ask a question you get a direct, intelligent answer that gets to the point. The economy of speech is as present as the quality of content and I really am staggered at his depth of knowledge, not just musically, but on a variety of subjects. But let's face it, Tim McAllister is a saxophone geek and we all know how much I love geeks.
Born in Dallas, Texas and raised near Houston, he attended renowned Clear Lake High School. He is a product of the musical traditions of Texas, and his former director, the late Richard “Dick” Bass, was a legend in Texas Band history. He recalls, “Dick was a unique man. He was very good at what he did, but he was from that generation that used toughness in his teaching. You hated him and loved him at the same time.” I can tell that early on McAllister learned what works and what doesn’t from this experience with Bass.
McAllister was the musical equivalent of a blue-chip athlete, but he’s quick to give credit to the Texas State music system for his success. “Yes, I was a good musician, but to show how high the level of playing was in the State of Texas, I only made All-State once.” It was at the famed Texas State UIL Solo and Ensemble Contest that he would discover his future.
“I have to say that UIL is mighty impressive. Look who I was exposed to. One year, I had Debra Richtmeyer as my solo judge and Dale Underwood as my quartet judge. In other years, I had Vince Gnojek, Steve Mauk, and Griffin Campbell as judges. It’s amazing, and I still draw upon those connections I made through the Texas State system.”
But it was an encounter with Donald Sinta, assigned as a quartet judge, that would change his life forever. “My little quartet went to UIL in 1989 and played for Sinta. When we got done, he looked at the group, and with the wave of his hand looked at the other three players and said, ‘Thank you, you three may leave.’ He pointed at me and told me to stay behind. He talked to me about my playing and asked me if I had ever heard of Interlochen. He told me I needed to attend Interlochen Summer Arts Camp and on the way back to Texas I needed to stop by Ann Arbor for a lesson. He also told me I needed to go Evanston and take a lesson with Hemke and Bloomington to take a lesson with Rousseau.”
McAllister was long groomed to attend Indiana University. His private teacher was a former student of Eugene Rousseau and felt this path was the best one for the young saxophonist. The stories about Donald Sinta being a tough and direct teacher are legendary. But the truth is important to McAllister and it was this sense of truth he found, in a performance by Sinta, that changed everything. “I heard him play the Denisov Sonata on an Interlochen faculty recital one summer and it completely blew my mind. I owned the music but had no clue what to do with it. I didn’t have a recording and I had never seen music this hard. What does 13/32 mean? How is this supposed to be played? Then I heard Sinta play and that was it. I was going to Michigan to study with him.”
As we arrived at Conn-Selmer, we put our discussion of the past on hold. We both had a job to do and the day was moving quickly. We parted company; he went off to test Selmer saxophones in one building while I got to know the WO line of Yanagisawa saxophones in another. When I meet up with the group later that day, I had the opportunity to watch him help one of his students try out soprano saxophone necks. This was the first time I had an opportunity to not only witness the depth of influence McAllister has, but his awareness of it.
As he sat quietly listening to his student, he had his leather Wiseman case open by his side. Suddenly I noticed that all of his students had the same case. Then I noticed that they all seemed to have the same type of instruments, neck screws, and ligatures. Suddenly, out of the blue, a soprano saxophone tone cut through the air with brilliance and directness. His student had moved from the gold-plated necks to a silver one. The difference was palpable and elicited a positive reaction from everyone in the room. Yet the student lamented that the neck wasn’t gold-plated while looking down at McAllister’s soprano sitting in the case. “It doesn’t matter what I play, it matters what works for you. You can’t focus on anything other than that.” McAllister declares. The moment was poignant and to the point. You have to be true to what works for you and you have to find your voice. Later, when we are alone, I ask McAllister if it bothered him that he is emulated to such a degree. “Yes, but then I have to remember that it shows that at least they are listening to someone. Then it is my job to steer them to other sources for inspiration and to help them discover who they are.”
Our next stop was to Culver’s restaurant for butter burgers. It's a time-honored tradition and I had the sense that nothing was going to interrupt it. Following lunch and a lively discussion of the state of Michigan and Nebraska football programs, we are off to Meridian Winds Music. Time was of the essence and, as I would learn, Tim McAllister doesn’t waste time. He is economical with it. Waiting for someone to get out of the restroom yields time for a couple of tweets or a returned email. We talk about the new world of social media and how everyone is trained in its ways. “Oh, it’s part of the package now isn’t it? The era of the humble brag.”
As we arrive at Meridian, we return our discussion to Donald Sinta. As we pose for a photo on the famous red “Sinta couch”, now a permanent fixture in the music store, I think about McAllister’s role, not only in Michigan saxophone history but in the larger, global view of our instrument. As I look at the couch I confess my nervousness in meeting his teacher.
McAllister has graciously set up an interview with Sinta for the next morning. He assures me I will enjoy talking with him but asks if he could also take part in the interview. Since his retirement, Mr. Sinta values his privacy and doesn’t know who I am or what my intentions are. You can tell Tim is mindful of this and is somewhat protective of Sinta. He clearly cares for his teacher, but you won’t find any sappy emotional outpouring as part of our discussion. No, I get a sense that his personal feelings for Sinta run deep and are intensely private. I asked Tim what was the final straw that made him choose Michigan. Again, it was Sinta’s sense of truth that drew McAllister to Ann Arbor. He recalled, “My lessons with Sinta could be cutting and direct, but they were always truthful, and what needed to be said was said. Sometimes that is what the student needs. I wasn’t really into the grandfather type of teacher. For some reason that type of teaching made me feel like saying, ‘What are you not telling me that I need to know?’”
He added, “I believe you have to push the students to go further, but it has to be done with more awareness of empathy and nurturing than what we might have experienced. Let’s face it, our teachers would probably be fired by today’s standards. But then again, we wouldn’t be where we are.” Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of our discussion of his study came when I asked him to recall a memorable lesson. “I remember I was in a lesson, I was a freshman and I was not happy with how I was playing. I was really upset and I started to cry. Professor Sinta calmly asked for me to sit down and he said, ‘What do you need from me? Do you need to know that you are good? Well, you are good. Now that is the last time I am going to tell you that. You should know it to be the case from now on, okay?’” As he recounts this story, I notice the look of pride he has on his face. It’s not from the fact that Sinta said he was good, but the manner in which he told him. He appreciates truth and directness.
Truth is a common theme that seems to run throughout our time together. Our conversations include a discussion of a variety of players, teachers, and educators of the saxophone. He never talks negatively about anyone, yet only reserves a complement for those who seem to earn it. Somehow, our conversation turns to the subject of jazz and it's here that I am reminded that great players are not limited strictly to the idiom in which they perform.
“I have tremendous respect for jazz players. I love the excitement and spontaneity they bring to performances and it is that energy and excitement I want to bring to my playing. Jazz saxophone players don’t think about trying to sound like everyone else.” He adds, “At this point in my life, I’m not going to lay down changes, but I’ve walked that path in school and studied it hard. I believe, as a saxophonist, you need to be conversant in that world to play today’s music. I also feel my study of jazz has found its way into my pedagogy and playing in a number of ways.”
A MICHIGAN MAN RETURNS HOME
The phrase “he’s a Michigan man” dates from the early 20th century, but really made its impact on the lexicon in 1989 when the athletic director and former head football coach, Bo Schembechler, fired then head basketball coach, Bill Frieder, on the eve of the NCAA tournament. It seemed Frieder had secretly signed a contract with Arizona State. It was this betrayal that was the impetus for his dismissal. When asked why Schembechler would fire the head coach on the eve of the tournament, he stated, “A Michigan man will coach Michigan!”
So when Donald Sinta decided to retire, it was obvious that the school would be looking for someone who understood the culture, respected the history of the program, and upheld the high standards set by Sinta and his predecessor Larry Teal. Though there were many qualified candidates, it was clear that one name stood out. In 2014 Tim McAllister was named the Associate Professor of Saxophone at The University of Michigan. Donald Sinta’s most prized student returned home as only the third saxophone professor in the school’s history.
The University of Michigan is one of the first programs to offer a degree in saxophone in higher education and is literally the academic birthplace of the saxophone in the United States. But to see McAllister as the logical choice for the job simply based on pedagogy would be superficial. He might be from Texas, but everything about him screams Michigan. I can’t remember a photo or instance when I was with him that he wasn’t wearing a piece of clothing with the familiar “M” emblazoned in maize and blue. Even his watch, a Shinola, is made in Detroit.
As we drive up the road to the school of music, he points out key landmarks and discusses the history of buildings like a campus tour guide. He is meticulous as he points out the various hallmarks of the campus, right down to the architect and the type of brick used in the construction of the music building. The devil is in the details, and ability is only as deep as the knowledge one possesses.
When I walk into his office, three things grab my attention. The first is a painting of Larry Teal that hangs above the grand piano, surveying the room like a sentinel. Next, is an autographed poster of Donald Sinta made out to “my friend Tim” and below it, a framed certificate of McAllister’s Grammy award for his performance of City Noir by John Adams. This is a serious room and it is here that I realize the tremendous responsibility that rests on his shoulders. I can’t describe the feeling, but it was as if this office still has the ghosts of its past embedded in its walls.
He freely admits that Michigan was his dream job. “Sure, it was a dream school and a dream job. We all have fantasies about following our teachers, but there was a wealth of talent to consider when the job opened. It certainly drove me to be in the discussion when the job opened.” McAllister has been criticized in the past for job hopping. Some say he did so strategically to place himself in the position when Sinta retired. To this end, McAllister admits both truth and fiction. “Maybe I was, along the way, job hopping. Let’s face it, I did have a number of positions. But it was always done with the goal of finding an environment that was like the one at The University of Michigan. I wanted to be somewhere that if I didn’t get the Michigan job, I would be totally satisfied.” Just as it appeared that McAllister would be a permanent fixture at Arizona State University, fate intervened. He states, “My wife and I both loved our time in Tempe. They were creating a tenure-track position for her and she was really growing there as a teacher and a composer. Then things changed.”
A change came in the form of a new position that garnered both praise and criticism of McAllister. He was aware of the history and stature of saxophone at Northwestern University, but he wasn’t a part of its history. Being the chosen successor to the legendary Frederick Hemke seemed too great an opportunity to turn down but also one he didn’t imagine he would get. “I never dreamed of anything that would present itself like Northwestern. I put my hat in the ring but didn’t think anything would come of it. I wasn’t trained in that tradition or pedagogy, but the Dean was a Michigan grad and knew of me. When I was offered that position I certainly thought that would be my final destination. I had also reconciled myself to the fact that I would be recruiting against my old teacher and my alma mater. I really figured that if I took the NU job, that I would never go to Michigan.”
Well, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Such was the case when, two years after accepting the position at Northwestern, the University of Michigan job finally came open. McAllister reflects, “I certainly thought Prof. Sinta had another 5-7 years in him. If he had stayed, I would have been so ensconced in the job at Northwestern that leaving would have been near impossible. I loved Northwestern, but Michigan was my family.”
It is hard to turn down family, but McAllister did experience apprehension returning to Michigan. “I really felt there might have been too much pressure to continue Sinta’s legacy, but there was also my wife and her career to consider.” McAllister’s wife, renowned composer Roshanne Etezady was also awarded a position on the faculty at Michigan, where none existed at Northwestern. The opportunity was simply too great to pass up. Certainly, the saxophone is respected at Northwestern, but it was clear to this observer that Michigan has a different type of respect for our instrument. “There is a feeling among the faculty that it is as if the saxophone was born here. Certainly, this is the case as an academic discipline. The saxophone is an equal at The University of Michigan. ” explains McAllister.
TRUTH IN TEACHING
As part of my visit, I had the opportunity to observe five straight hours of applied lessons during my time in Ann Arbor. Once again, the truth was front and center. The first thing a student must do when they enter McAllister’s office is present him with a typed list that states what they have prepared and what they are working on. If you put it in writing, you best intend to deliver. He is direct and honest, but not harsh. After a student’s less than stellar performance of scales in 4ths, he simply looked at them and says, “Don’t you feel this element really belongs in the ‘work in progress’ section?”
Pitch and technique are not left to the students to study on their own. No matter how skilled or experienced a player is, the foundations must be studied. Students are regularly quizzed on the proper finger combinations to affect the pitch of a note, history of the work, or a musical term. After one lesson, I asked a first-year Masters student what it was like preparing for lessons with McAllister. She confided that she had worked on technique in her past studies but not to the level of intensity that she does at Michigan. “I think I spend ¾ of my practice sessions working on scales and technique. But then you hear people play around here and you understand why.”
I was really captivated by McAllister’s level of critical listening. As a student performed Berio, I was regaled by the musicality and technical prowess of his playing. Then I looked at Tim to see an intense look of concern. “You are not bringing out the shape of that line. You have to look at the totality of the line, not just the notes. Let’s do it again, please.” Students don’t leave until they have grasped and performed the concept. Lessons are intense, but there wasn’t one instance when I detected disappointment from the students. Rather, it was a business-like understanding that one has to do one’s job.
THE DARKER SIDE OF SUCCESS
It has been a long day, I am exhausted, yet McAllister is still going. The day began with a two-hour interview with his mentor, followed by five hours of exhaustive teaching, answering more of my questions, and he still had an evening rehearsal with his pianist. Be reminded that the day before was spent at Conn-Selmer and the weekend before that was spent in L.A. performing the Adams City Noir with the L.A. Philharmonic. It is a daunting schedule for even the most skilled professional, but this is his life and it has been this way for years. And if it wasn’t enough being one of the most in-demand saxophone soloists in the world, he is celebrating his 18th year as the soprano saxophonist with the renowned PRISM Saxophone Quartet, a juggernaut of its own.
I get a sense that he is always on, but whether or not it is his choice is another question. For three days I have this nagging question in my mind that I finally ask, “Do you ever feel a pressure to be Tim McAllister?” “Absolutely,” he answers. “I feel it all the time. You’re being observed all the time and there are certain expectations being put upon you. You’re expected to be superhuman. People expect you to sound like a recording you did 15-20 years ago.”
At 45 years of age, Tim is far from being old and certainly has his best playing ahead of him. But as the old saying goes, “If mother nature doesn’t get you, father time will”. And even a player like McAllister is not immune to the effects of getting older. “We are getting older and we slow down. I was playing in L.A. and doing a piece I’ve played a number of times. Suddenly I was making mistakes and I was wondering, ‘Where is this coming from? Is it concentration? Is it something physical?’”
I can empathize with him, as I too have started to recognize the effects of age as I near fifty. It is at this point that he somehow sets me free by uttering what I have thought for some time, “I think we all reach a point in our lives where practicing is a bit of burden so you don’t lose what you have. Sometimes my practice sessions are driven more by a fear of not living up to expectations. But I also have to understand these things at this stage of my life and career and plan accordingly. Our profession is full of horror stories of those who didn’t handle things well.”
But the choices an artist like McAllister has to make can pit the heart against the head. “It is difficult because it forces you to make choices that take time away from your family and students. I would love to come to a student’s band concert, but tonight is the only time I have to practice before I have to get on a plane the next morning.” Add the role of husband and father to the equation, and it makes his quantity and quality of work all that much more superhuman.
“It is the darker side of the success for sure. We have to budget our time and manage being pulled in a million different directions. Yes, you are excited about saying yes to this gig and excited about saying yes to that gig, then you stop and realize there are two days of travel associated with saying yes, and you have to move all your teaching to the tail-end of the week. It’s tough.”
McAllister seems to have a sense of his limits. After 18 years with the PRISM Quartet, he has taken a year sabbatical, playing only those concerts in Michigan and on recording sessions. During his time with the quartet, he has made around twenty CDs and premiered hundreds of pieces. “PRISM is getting so busy, highlighted by a recent tour of China, that I just felt it was time for me to take a break. I think there is a point where one hits a ceiling, musically and physically.” He adds, however, “I’ll be back.”
THE ARTIST AND HIS IMPACT
For the better part of three days, I got to know Tim McAllister, and one thing seems evident: he doesn’t seem to be the slightest bit interested in the fishbowl that is the world of classical saxophone. This is not to imply that he has ill feelings toward it or contempt of any kind. There are simply two types of people in this world: those busy counting their baseball cards, and those who are trying to find a ball and bat so they can play the game. McAllister knows that this is his time and that his legacy demands a broader public than those found at a NASA conference. He also understands the limitations of our instrument. “For all PRISM’s success, there are still some presenters that are not going to book a saxophone quartet because they feel we can’t draw an audience of 3,000 listeners. There is a certain reality of the medium.”
His work as a soloist with an orchestra has been the newest idiom to conquer. His performance on John Adams’s City Noir garnered him a Grammy award and it is here that he feels he can make an impact. “I would like to believe I am making a difference in the orchestral realm, where the contact [with the audience] is so much greater. With each performance, you are playing for 1,500-3,000 people in the hall.”
Being renowned as a classical saxophonist isn’t his sole focus. Sure, that is easy to say about someone who has premiered over 200 works and has dozens of CDs to his name. No, it’s deeper than just being a saxophonist, it is about being viewed equally with renowned violinists, vocalists, or pianists. For most performers, the City Noir would mark the pinnacle of one’s career. But it is the future that excites McAllister most. “The commissions that are lining up for me will make an impact, along the lines of the Adams, and will bring exciting things for years to come.” He is tight-lipped, not even a hint of who might pen the next major work for saxophone. But the details of “who” is not as important to him as “what.”
“Maybe this is what I am charged to be doing these next 10 years. I like to believe these efforts have helped improve the state of our instrument to some degree.” If you think this might be another burden for him to bear, you would be right. But Tim McAllister is aware that if you want to be considered among the best in your field, it is not a burden but an obligation. He is quick to point out that while this may be his time in the spotlight, it isn’t all his doing. “I’ve seen conductors and orchestras recognize there are players out there who can play at the highest levels and they seek us out to perform our music. The efforts, started by Sinta, Hemke, Rousseau, Mule, and Rascher were done in a vacuum by today’s comparison. But we can see their efforts are finally paying off today.”
In this, you can see that McAllister is somewhat curatorial of his role as a saxophonist. “I want the state of the saxophone to be better, further along, than when I started. I would like to be able, when my career is over, to point to a list of, say, Pulitzer Prize-winning composers and to say that I got most of them to write works for our instrument. For me, that would be the pinnacle of a career in our profession.”