Skip to main content

Trombone takes Yeo around the world, then to ASU

April 18, 2013

When Douglas Yeo was a fourth grader at Hewlett Elementary School on Long Island, he was offered the chance to play a musical instrument in school. He wanted to play the trumpet, but family history conspired against him.

Since his last named started with a Y, he was the last student to get an instrument. It was not a trumpet, since all the trumpets had been chosen.

“I was unceremoniously given a trombone,” Yeo said.

With the trombone, Yeo also got a lesson that has stuck with him all his life, and one that he works to impart to his students at ASU: Have dreams and goals, but hold them loosely, since there might be “another road.”

Had he refused to take the trombone, chances are that he never would have been a member of the Boston Symphony for 27 years, played on the soundtrack for “Schindler’s List” and other films with John Williams and the Boston Pops, or made best-selling solo recordings.

Yeo, who is completing his first year as ASU’s trombone professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, fell in love with the trombone after he had played it for a bit. “I learned that you could do things with the trombone you couldn’t do with other instruments. I realized that composers have used the trombone in unique ways,” he said.

“The trombone brings a particular kind of color to ensembles. It can speak in the range of the male voice.”

Yeo likes to quote the composer Hector Berlioz, who wrote in his “Treatise on Instrumentation” of 1843/44, “I regard the trombone as the true leader of the race of wind instruments which I have described as ‘epic.’ It possesses nobility and grandeur to a high degree and it has all the solemnity of high musical poetry, ranging from a calm, imposing, devotional aura to the wild clamors of an orgy.  

“It is up to the composer to make it chant like a chorus of priests, or utter threats, then muffled groans, then a subdued funeral knell, then a resounding hymn of glory, then a piercing shriek, then a mighty fanfare for the waking of the dead or the death of the living.”

Yeo majored in trombone performance at Wheaton College (Illinois), with his sights set on playing in a major symphony orchestra. But he first had other paths to follow.

After graduating from Wheaton, he moved to New York City where his wife, Patricia, was finishing her degree at Columbia University. He looked for trombone jobs, and finally took an office job, along with his part-time trombone gigs, to help pay the bills. After a year, he decided to go to graduate school at NYU and then teach high school music.

Yeo writes in an essay titled “The Puzzle of Our Lives” ( that he continued practicing all the while, still focused on playing for a symphony orchestra. In 1981 he won a chair in the Baltimore Symphony, then four years later auditioned for the Boston Symphony and was, at last fulfilling his dream of playing bass trombone with a major ensemble. But that wasn’t the last piece in the “puzzle” of his life.

“Professionally I had achieved a significant goal. To be playing in that great orchestra has been a great privilege and joy, but while I've enjoyed a measure of success as part of the Boston Symphony, I believe there is a lot more to life than getting the right seat in the right orchestra, and there was more to my own story than I have just outlined,” he writes in his essay.   “The important thing for each of us to realize is the answer to the bigger question I talked about earlier: 'How do we put together the puzzle of our lives?'”

For Yeo and his wife, the next step was “life after the BSO,” which they began thinking about several years ago. “I didn’t want to be playing in the Boston Symphony until I could no longer hold a trombone,” he said.  “We began earnestly seeking what we felt would be the next season of our life. I knew there were other things I wanted to do and that God wanted me to do.”

The Yeos first decided to move west, away from the cold weather. “We have been vacationing in the West since we were married, and we settled rather quickly on the idea of moving to Arizona.”

The first step was to find a church they could call “home,” Yeo said, in the area they wanted to live in. Then, they bought their house in Goodyear, in the foothills of the Sierra Estrella.

Meanwhile, Yeo had been talking with Kimberly Marshall, then the director of the Herberger School of Music, about teaching part-time at ASU. Suddenly, the talk turned to a full-time position on the faculty, and Yeo accepted.

In the months since he set up shop in the Music Building, Yeo has turned his neat-as-a-pin office into a veritable cheering section for student trombonists. Everywhere the students look there are inspiring photos and trombone memorabilia – posters from tours with the Boston Symphony and Pops, photos of famous trombonists, original cartoons about the trombone by noted artists, and a first pressing of the 78 RPM record of Tommy Dorsey’s, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.”

His bookcase is filled with books about music, life, the arts, which he encourages his students to read – and loans to them ­ – such as biographies of composers, books on how culture intersects with art, such as Jacques Barzun's “Darwin, Marx and Wagner” and “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life,” books on how to play music such as “Dance and the Music of J.S. Bach.”

Also available for borrowing are his recordings, ranging from one-of-a-kind LPs to DVDs and CDs, such as a video of Mstislav Rostropovich playing the Bach "Cello Suites" and John Elliott Gardiner's concert performance of the Berlioz "Symphonie fantastique" on period instruments.

Behind it all is his great desire to motivate students to be their very best. “Excellence” is one of his favorite words. He wants the students to think beyond today and imagine themselves as successful musicians, to consider carefully the impact that acts of youthful rebellion, such as body piercing and tattoos, will have on them. “An orchestra, for example, will want to hire you for a very long time and they want you to fit in. Remember: the people interviewing you may very well be from your father’s or grandfather’s generation.”

Yeo said his primary act of youthful rebellion was growing his hair long. He soon decided he looked silly and cut it. It was a reversible decision.

During his career with the Boston Symphony, Yeo did much more than just sit in his chair and play the music. He practiced, of course, but he also taught at New England Conservatory, explored historic brass instruments such as the serpent, ophicleide, bass sackbut and buccin, performed and recorded with the serpent, led the New England Brass Band, soloed with the Boston Pops and much more. He describes himself, aptly, as an “Energizer Bunny.”

Yeo also is a prolific writer, turning out articles and dictionary entries about the trombone and historic brass instruments, and he is now writing a comprehensive book on the trombone.

Yeo also writes essays and commentaries for his personal Website,, and is an oft-invited chapel and commencement speaker.

Underpinning his career and life is his belief that God has a plan for his life. He cites his audition for the Boston Symphony, which easily could have been a failure for a key missed note.

He writes, “I thank God that I did not play a perfect audition when I was seeking the Boston Symphony job. Being hired in spite of imperfections (in the natural sense, can you imagine a conductor hiring a player who not only missed but completely slaughtered the high "b" in “Hary Janos” in a final round!) showed me that it was not my talent alone that put me in the BSO but rather it was the ordained plan of a Sovereign God.

“How could I ever think that a missed note would keep me from accomplishing God's will if it is what He wanted me to do?”

(To read Yeo’s essays, see photo galleries from his musical career, and learn more about his faith and philosophy, go to Also visit