Trombonist Melissa Gardiner’s Empowerment Through Music

Trombonist Melissa Gardiner has performed with several legendary musicians including Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Geri AllenWycliffe Gordon, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, Dave Matthews Band, and Vulfpeck. As a bandleader, she has released three albums, Transitions (2011), Second Line Syracuse (2016), and Empowered (2019), which features prominent jazz women Tia Fuller (Beyonce) and Ingrid Jensen.

Gardiner has won several awards as a bandleader including first place at the International Jazz Competition in Bucharest, Romania, and two Syracuse Area Music Awards (SAMMYS) for Best Jazz Album. In addition to an active performance career, Gardiner has teaching credentials at Syracuse University, Le Moyne College, and Cornell University. In the past two years, she was inducted into the Liverpool High School Fine Arts Hall of Fame and into the SAMMY Hall of Fame as Educator of the Year. Gardiner received her BFA from The University of Michigan and MM from The Juilliard School.

Melissa Gardiner’s Gear

BAC Musical Instruments Artist, BAC Custom Trombone

Melissa Gardiner Marketplace:

The Melissa Gardiner Story

Interview with Melissa Gardiner

Chuck Schiele: You’re an accomplished trombone player comfortable in the various traditions of playing your instrument. Please tell us about your approach.

Melissa Gardiner: Thank you! I have been playing trombone since I was 9 years old, and was lucky to have some amazing teachers throughout the years, which helped me establish a strong foundation and then branch out from there. At Liverpool High School, I was a full-on band nerd, and I played in concert band, orchestra, pit orchestra, marching band, jazz band, and even a jazz combo, so I had a really great educational experience that set me up for success.

Melissa Gardener

In undergrad at The University of Michigan, I actually initially went to study classical trombone because I didn’t think I was good enough at jazz to pursue it professionally. Luckily, I had a great support system there and was encouraged to switch to jazz as my major. I started to branch out to other styles, including hip hop, salsa music, and funk while jamming out with the guys who you now know as Vulfpeck, (we played a sold out show at Madison Square Garden last year).


After Michigan, I went to Juilliard to get my masters degree in jazz studies. In NYC, I was pretty hardcore about jazz because I felt that just as classical trombone was a foundation for my trombone technique and helped me succeed in jazz, jazz would be a foundation for all other genres of music. In the past 10 years, I have been playing all styles of music, and feel I have been given the tools to participate in any genre, which can be really rewarding. I also believe being versatile and well rounded is an extremely important key to making music your career.


Chuck Schiele: What does life as a musician mean to you?

Melissa Gardiner: It means freedom! Freedom of expression, freedom with my career, freedom from society, you name it. Making a living as a musician can be extremely challenging — and it sort of forces you to get really creative with how you approach everything. Not only do you have to perfect your craft, you have to become an entrepreneur and find a market for yourself and your music. As a bandleader, I have a ton of responsibilities, but I also have complete control over the creative process and the business process as well, and if I want to make something happen, I have the tools to do it. The skills I have learned in this setting translate positively into every other aspect of my life as well. I feel empowered, I know I can do anything I set my mind to. That can be very rewarding.

Chuck Schiele: What makes you interested in working with any particular artist or project?

Melissa Gardiner: Music alone can inspire and completely change my mood, so if listening to an artist or project motivates me, I am already convinced. I also look to see if they are on the same page as me in terms of passion, drive, and success. In a business sense, I want to know that it is a professional environment and we are all working towards a concrete idea or result. I don’t have time to aimlessly rehearse or jam out anymore — I have a lot on my plate and I am also balancing family time, so I have to make sure it is an opportunity in every sense of the word.

Melissa Gardener

Chuck Schiele: Please tell us a bit about your instruments, and the gear associated with them.

Melissa Gardiner: I play on a BAC custom trombone, which I had built for me just a few years ago, with a Conn 3 mouthpiece. I went to the BAC factory in Kansas City and tried out different bells, tuning slide crooks, and lead pipes made out of different metals, until I found the perfect fit that sounded and responded the way I liked. I ended up with a combination of yellow brass and silver nickel, and a custom counterweight, the triquetra, which for me represents unity and female empowerment.

Chuck Schiele: Are there things that happen in your off-stage life that factor into your onstage world?

Melissa Gardiner: Absolutely! As soon as I became a mom, everything changed. First of all, it raised the bar significantly in terms of the opportunities I was able to take, and so I had to learn to say no to some things if I didn’t have the time or money to pay a babysitter, etc. What surprised me about this was that it actually created space and opened the door for even bigger things. Also, when I improvise and compose, every song has a story to tell, and that directly comes from life experience.

Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you take the stage?

Melissa Gardiner: Ideally, nothing! But of course it depends on the day and the situation. Sometimes I come into a gig with stress or concern about details like the timing of everything, the sound system, the audience turnout, etc. In a perfect world, once the music starts, all that washes away.

Chuck Schiele: What is the number one thing on your mind as you practice?

Melissa Gardiner: I try to come into every practice session with a plan, otherwise I can get really sidetracked. It always starts with a good warm-up and then some technical exercises that relate to what I am working on. Then whatever tunes I need to work through. Honestly, I practice a lot of tunes without the horn too, by actively listening and singing along; its more about internalizing than it is about technique after a certain point. Once you’ve mastered an instrument, if you can hear something you should be able to just play it and it becomes an extension of you.
That being said, it is also very important to keep feeding the technique and language and internalize that to add to your mastery. I am currently taking “text lessons” with Chad Lefkowitz-Brown so I can keep challenging myself to get better. That is what inspired me to start my own virtual lessons studio, with a similar approach, where students can work at their own pace. I really like this new asynchronous way of learning and teaching. Students can check in whenever they want and get feedback as they go, and it takes some pressure off too since they are checking in whenever they do practice instead of cramming for each lesson!

Chuck Schiele: What would you say to a kid interested in picking up the trombone and music in general?

Melissa Gardiner: First of all, congratulations on picking the best instrument ever! When you are first learning a new instrument, be patient and trust the process. Take it one step at a time and don’t try to get it all at once. Just set one or two goals for the day and then allow yourself to be proud of what you accomplished that day. If you stay consistent, you will make tons of progress in no time!

Melissa Gardener

Chuck Schiele: The importance and art of listening. Please discuss.

Melissa Gardiner: Listening to music that you are working to master is absolutely KEY to the process. Learning something like jazz is just like learning a new language. If you spend all day reading and writing Spanish without ever hearing anyone speak it, do you think you will get the accent right? In order to get the right stylistic feel and to be fluent, you have to integrate listening into your routine. Also, active listening can help you internalize the notes and progressions, in the same way that repeating a phrase can help you memorize something. Singing along or listening and going through the motions will help to create the connections in your brain and make it a lot easier for you to implement. And the best part, you can listen to music just about anywhere!

More links on Trombone

Play Your Best: Take a Tip from a Trombone Master

PBone Plastic Trombone

How Trombone Is Similar to Electric Guitar

Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, producer, editorialist, artist, activist and music fan. He still plays every day.

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