It was a cold, winter morning in Minneapolis. Saturday, January 13, 1969. The time was 11:00 AM and the place was the music education building at the University of Minnesota. I knocked on the door and a roundish, friendly man came to the door and said, "Hello! I will be with you in a few minutes." I remember feeing a little embarrassed that I interrupted him in a lesson he was giving. Five minutes later, he opened up the door and said, "Hello! I'm Steven Zellmer. You must be Norman." I said, "Yes!"
He then introduced me to his student, who was a college student by the name of Jim Taylor. Jim said, "Hello, Norman. I heard you a couple of years ago at the St. Paul Philharmonic Summer Music Camp playing 'Morceau Symphonique' with orchestra. It was very good." I responded, "Thank you but I've improved a lot since then!" Jim looked at me warmly and said, "Haven't we all!"
I'll never forget that first lesson. Mr. Zellmer was so friendly. He heard me play and said, "That's very unique and unusual playing, but if you want to get a job in this country, you'll have to sound a bit more like everyone else."
He was a great teacher--always looking to see that the quality of sound was even and consistent throughout all registers. We worked a lot on basics and orchestral excerpts. He had a profound love for the orchestral literature and the trombone's role in the orchestra. Sometimes, he would give me half of my money back at the end of the lesson and tell me to go buy this recording or that recording and to listen to it carefully.
Mr. Zellmer himself had a very pure tone with a beautiful high range. I remember hearing him do Beethoven's Fifth with the Minnesota Orchestra. He would come out at least a half hour before the concert and warm up his high notes on stage. His high D's, E's and F's had great clarity and they sounded easy. He played these on his Conn 8H and Bach 6-1/2AL mouthpiece.
Steven Zellmer was a wine collector, stamp collector, gardener, investor and an avid astrologer! In fact, after I played for him at my first lesson, he asked me, "When is your birthday?" I told him it was January 17th and he said, "You're a Capricorn! Many great trombonists are Capricorns." That was my introduction into astrology!
I called him on his 70th birthday, which was November 28, 1995. He was so delighted and touched. He said to me, with deep emotion and gratitude, "You remembered." He passed away exactly six weeks later.
He left in his will a large sum of money for the Minnesota Orchestra to start the Zellmer-Minnesota Orchestra Trombone Competition. I was commissioned to write two solos with piano accompaniment for this competition. The tenor trombone solo is called "Morning Walk," which is about his life, and the bass trombone solo is called "Sagittarius2," which is about his astrological and numerological influences.
Almost every day, I play his favorite etude, "No. 45" from P. Bona's "Rhythmical Articulations." I play this while looking at his picture, mentally giving him thanks for all his warmth, love and encouragement.
You can hear sound clips from "Morning Walk" and "Sagittarius2" on the iTunes page for my "Occurrences" CD or on our website.