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A grand piano inside Glidden recital hall at Ohio University, Feb. 13, 2024 in Athens, Ohio.

A day in the life of a music performance graduate assistant

At universities, graduate students have a unique perspective of academia by having the opportunity to experience both sides: teaching and learning. According to the university’s financial aid website, there are approximately 1,500 graduate, research and teaching assistantships for graduate students in a degree program at Ohio University. 

It is common for undergraduate students to interact with graduate students and maybe even receive instruction from them. However, not many undergraduate students are familiar with the responsibilities of the position. 

Doug Shaffer, a second-year graduate student studying music performance on trombone, shared his perspective on what that kind of life is like. 

Shaffer completed his undergraduate degree at West Virginia University, studying music education. He shared that music was not his first career choice, but is one he is happy with. Shaffer says he was inspired to follow the path of studying music by his dad, who is a band director and fellow trombone player, and his musician friends. 

The push to enroll at OU was from a fellow band director colleague who played trumpet, who encouraged him to audition for the OU School of Music master’s program. Shaffer also met the trombone professor, Dr. Lucas Borges, at a Trombone Day event in Cleveland a few years ago. After making the connection with Borges, Shaffer auditioned and was selected for the program. 

Shaffer says on a typical day, he starts his day by warming up on his instrument. Warming up is important for musicians because temperature changes can affect the tuning. The purpose of warming up is to ensure the components of the instrument are functioning correctly and the instrument is in tune. 

“Usually I do a warmup session with things like fundamentals and playing,” Shaffer said. “Then any classes I have, I try to break up my practice sessions in between classes. My schedule is different each day.” 

When the trombone studio does warm-up sessions during the week, he also participates in those. On days Borges is not present to direct studio warm-ups, Shaffer is given the task of directing the studio through their warm-up session. These typically include scale exercises and glissandos, a slide in pitch between notes, to warm up the studio together. 

Following warm-ups, Shaffer is an instructor for the low brass methods course. This course teaches music education students how to play instruments that are not their primary instruments. 

In brass methods, Shaffer instructs instruments like trombone, euphonium and tuba for the low brass section of the course. He says he enjoys the educational side of the course and applying what he learned in his previous courses to give students the guidance he has been given. 

After instructing low brass methods, Shaffer attends the trombone studio class. The studio courses are broken up by instrument, but in this case, it is only students whose primary instrument is the trombone. The studio course differs from instruments in the School of Music, but the trombone studio typically runs with students performing pieces of music in front of their fellow classmates. 

The next portion of Shaffer’s day is attending Wind Symphony rehearsal. The Wind Symphony ensemble’s membership is selected from among the finest wind and percussion performers in the university. According to Shaffer, these rehearsals can run for about two hours. 

Concluding his day, Shaffer adds another practice session after completing his wind symphony rehearsal and completes course homework tasks. He said Mondays and Wednesdays are his busiest days of the week, and it can be challenging trying to fit time into his day to practice or finish homework. 

While his days are long, and the time commitment can be overwhelming for some, Shaffer said he loves having the personal one-on-one relationships he has created with the professors. He said the professors are supportive and always there for their students. 

“There’s always good and bad days, and just sticking to the structure can be difficult,” Shaffer said. “That’s a really good skill to be able to learn how to do that. Sometimes just turn a negative thing into a positive thing.”

Shaffer said with the goal of becoming a serious trombone player, one must learn the balance of their time commitment. Balancing the time for practicing and studying can be difficult, and it is something one must learn to do quickly in the School of Music. 

Shaffer advised anyone interested in pursuing the career of a musician to make sure it is something one is passionate about and to take every day to enjoy the opportunity one has. 

“What we (music students) are doing is a privilege and we should appreciate that,” Shaffer said. “Even though there are hard days and you don't really feel like getting up early for practice or doing your homework, just have perspective and realize that we're lucky to do this.”


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