Navigating Life After Music School: Betting on Yourself with Louis Setzer
The Indiana Wind Symphony audition in the fall of 2016 was disappointing for me. BUT there was a bright spot and that bright spot was meeting Louis Setzer. Louis is an excellent trombonist and educator. Even more importantly he is a thoughtful and kind human that I am grateful to have connected with. It has been inspiring for me to learn more of his musical story and understand the hard work and thoughtful persistence that has taken Louis to where he is today. This interview is a little bit longer than others on this blog but I think you will find the wisdom and fun anecdotes make it well worth the read.
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do.
LS: I would say my musical background originates with my grandfather, whom I am
named after, Louis Colombo. A buddy of his gave him a “great deal” on a piano, so he bought
it and decided that all four of his daughters would learn to play. That piano still sits in my
mother’s home, and all three of her children took lessons starting in kindergarten. My
grandfather was always singing. He loved Frank Sinatra, and as an Italian, I feel like we all
believe we’re natural singers - that there is a little Pavarotti in our blood. I joined every
musical ensemble I could growing up, although my mom preferred that I wait until 4th
grade to pick a “band instrument” instead of starting on a string instrument. My older sister
played violin and flute, and my mom must still have some string PTSD from my sister’s
elementary school concerts/practice sessions.
I “chose” the trombone in 4th grade by signing up for my elementary school band.
The band interest sheet had 2 questions on it: 1. Pick your top 3 preferred instruments in
order (for me that was trumpet, sax, drums) and 2. Do you own an instrument? I quickly
found out that question 2 was the most important question, as I was assigned trombone…
in 5th grade. In 4th grade my sheet never made it back to the band director. This was
probably my fault. I’m assuming I didn’t turn it in, but I also think my older brother was a
pain in the butt in band class, and I think there’s a 50% chance that Mr. O’Donnell didn’t
want to deal with another Setzer on trombone (smart man) and “lost” my form. I like that
story better anyways even if it isn’t true.
Even though I played in every musical ensemble possible, I never really considered
going into music until senior year. I never took trombone lessons, and to be honest I was
probably a better singer or piano player than trombone player, but I decided I wanted to be
a band director so I auditioned to be a music education major with trombone as my focus.
I am currently the Lecturer of Low Brass at Northern Kentucky University, just
across the river from Cincinnati Ohio. I teach the low brass studio, as well as aural skills
and music theory. It’s a great school, and I love that I have the chance to interact with a
wide range of our music students in addition to running the low brass studio.
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school?
LS: Music is a collaborative activity, so while it’s incredibly important to hone your
skills during music school, you also need to build relationships and create your own
musical network. My colleagues from music school have composed pieces for me,
recommended me for gigs, presented at national conferences and formed chamber groups
with me, and I even work with a classmate of mine from both Penn State University and
CCM. The music world is an extremely small one, so work your tail off, and be kind. You
never know who you’re going to be working with one day.
At Mansfield University I joined every single ensemble possible. One semester I was
a member of the jazz ensemble, orchestra, wind ensemble, trombone choir, (British style)
brass band, marching band, a student-run brass quintet, trombone quartet, and even a
barbershop quartet. I even took organ lessons for a semester (I still have the shoes to prove
it). As you can imagine, that was way too much to take on, but I was all in and I tried to take
advantage of all the musical opportunities Mansfield had for me.
In the summers I applied to professional workshops and music festivals to learn
more and continue to develop my musical network. The Summer Trombone Workshop
hosted by Haim Avitsur was my first of many eye-opening professional development
experiences. Haim, Dave Taylor, and Nitzan Haroz were the trombone faculty the year I
attended. Nitzan gave a recital that I will never forget that pushed me to take my playing to
the next level. I think these summer workshops/festivals are important because they allow
you to meet people your own age, from different backgrounds and networks and learn
from each other. I also spent two summers playing in an orchestra at the Pierre Monteux
Festival, with two of your former interviewees (Brian Johnston, Laurie Blanchet), and I am
still close to many of the musicians I met during those summer workshops/festivals to this
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school?
LS: My biggest challenge after graduating from music school was building a music career for
myself in a new state without any connections. I’ll elaborate more in a later question, but I
had to figure out how to build a music career from the ground up. I worked hard and tried
to create opportunities for myself. I was extremely fortunate to link up with the “Mighty
Avon” Community School Corporation, who just so happened to be looking for a low brass
instructor to teach some afternoon students.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed?
LS: I think your musical experiences shape your career goals and your musical journey.
It’s only natural that your goals/aspirations change as you grow and have new musical
experiences. Before I heard recordings of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I don’t know
how motivated I was to learn orchestral excerpts, or sub in a regional orchestra, but
hearing that low brass section was a life-changing moment for me. It would be fair to say
that my career goals changed numerous times while I was a music student.
As an undergraduate, my career goal was to be a high school band director, because
at that point in time those instructors were my biggest musical influences. My student
teaching experience confirmed that I could have a very fulfilling career as a music teacher
in the elementary, middle school, or high school (phew). Even as I started my Master’s
Degree at Penn State University, my plan was still to teach in the public schools for my
career. During my time at Penn State, I was given the privilege of serving as the Teaching
Assistant for Mark Lusk. Mark gave me every chance to experience what life was like as a
college music professor, and he actively created opportunities for me during my time there.
He had me teach the trombone methods course, conduct the trombone choir, and work
with trombone music majors and minors as an instructor. After that year my goals had
changed and I was sure I wanted to pursue a career in higher education, which meant
getting my doctorate. From that point on my goals were pretty much the same (trombone
professor/higher education), but it has been anything but a straight line to get to where I
am in my career from that point.
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up?
LS: Just one? I have so many friends who graduated and were fortunate to find gainful
employment right out of school. I didn’t realize that this is much more the exception than the rule, and most people take years before they finally find the right job situation. I applied to 35 jobs (higher education jobs in music looking for your specific skill-set don’t come up very often) between 2016 – 2018 before someone gave me an opportunity. That was really discouraging at times, but I kept working. The feedback I was getting was clear: you’re not ready yet. You can get mad, or you can do something about it. Every time I found myself feeling sorry for myself, I decided to turn it into something positive for my career. I organized recital tours, I arranged music, and I looked for musical activities to keep my creative flame going. I was fortunate that I had the support of my friends and family, and I decided that if I kept applying and improving my materials, something would work out for me.
One thing that really helped me keep going was to think about the people in my life
who inspired me to start down this musical path. There are a number of recordings that I
listen to when I need inspiration, that help remind me how great it can be to have a career
in music. I think everyone who pursues music as a career has a few of those moments that
they will cherish for the rest of their lives. It’s important to keep a few of those ready for
the tough times. At the Cleveland Trombone Seminar in 2012, I had the opportunity to
conduct my teacher Mark Lusk and a trombone choir of Penn State alumni in a
performance of “The Chief.” Listening back to the music that Mark made that day still
makes me smile anytime I hear it, and I’m glad I was able to be a (small) part of that recital.
It’s never a bad time to listen to the musicians who inspired you to pursue a career in
music, and it always helps me get through the tough times.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful?
LS: If you googled “Louis Setzer Trombone” in 2016 the first search result was the
personal website of “Louie Setzer and the Appalachian Mountain Boys” (no relation). While
I’m sure they’re great, I realized I should probably take some steps to up my social media
presence so that when people googled me during a job search, they would actually find my
information. I didn’t have a website at that point, so I created one and made sure to put quality examples of my performances online. I updated my YouTube page and made sure I removed anything I didn’t want available. Quality control is extremely important when it comes to social media, because no one is forcing you to share those performances. It’s only out in the world because you put it there, so make sure it’s something you’d be happy to be associated with you.
I think I also had this misconception that the only thing holding me back from
getting a job in higher education was the fact that I had not yet completed my doctoral
degree. When I walked across the stage and received my diploma, I was elated, but the next
day I got up, and nothing had really changed. That’s because to be successful in higher education, you need to take steps to establish a multifaceted career AND earn your diploma. The degree alone does nothing for you, and I don’t think I really got that at first. I applied to so many jobs that I needed to make a spreadsheet to keep them all straight. It lists every job I applied to dating back to 2014 (which was way too early in my career to be seriously considered).
I took a look at my CV to see which areas were lacking. Chris van Hof (Professor of Trombone, Ball State University) has a presentation on his website about the steps he took
to become successful in academia. Living in Indianapolis I was only an hour or so from Ball
State, so I emailed him asking for a lesson that included reviewing my CV. He made me feel
good about the content I already had, but also pointed out areas where I could improve. He
encouraged me to apply to present or perform at ITF, and just one year later I had
performed at both the International Trombone Festival AND the American Trombone
Workshop. I made a list of professional goals I wanted to achieve in January of that year
(publish my book, present at a conference, perform at ITF or ATW, commission more
music, arrange more music and publish them, record a CD) and it really motivated me to
keep going. The biggest surprise was that I accomplished most of them in that next year. It
really focused me in on what I wanted to accomplish, and let me see more clearly what I
needed to do to make it happen.
I made a list of every school in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois and Kentucky that had a music
school and I looked up their faculty to see who was teaching low brass. Adjunct jobs don’t
always get listed, so it’s important to build connections in your community to be
considered for your first job. I sent a letter of introduction with my CV to a lot of music
departments in the region, and just said if you ever need someone, I would be thrilled to
work for your school. Most people did not respond, and honestly I wasn’t expecting them
to, but sending an email doesn’t cost you anything but your time. Believe it or not, that is
how I first connected with my boss at Marian University, Kathy Spangler, who just
happened to be looking for a low brass person. I actually knew Kathy already because we
played in the Indiana Wind Symphony together, but I don’t think I would’ve gotten the job
without putting myself out there and emailing her first. I always think about how crazy it is
that one email helped jump-start my career – you never know how it’s going to turn out,
but if you don’t advocate for yourself, no one else will.
ER: I know that when you moved to Indiana it was a new place for you where you had no previous connections. What was that experience like? What advice do you have for building connections and finding work in a new place?
LS: To be successful in music you have to create opportunities for yourself. When I
moved to Indiana, the only Hoosier I knew was my girlfriend, who taught middle school
band. She was new to the area as well, so she didn’t have any real connections there other
than the private lesson instructors at her school (who she did introduce me to). I reached
out to one of my old roommates from CCM who completed his masters degree at IU to see if
he had any suggestions of people I should try to connect with. I also looked for
opportunities to keep performing because for the first time in my life, I wasn’t regularly
playing in ensembles like I had been during school. It was so strange to go from playing
with musicians on a daily basis, to playing long tones in an apartment by yourself, so I tried
to change that ASAP. You and I actually met at the Indiana Wind Symphony audition back in
2016! I remember one of the other members auditioning (Frank) remarking at how amazing
he thought you sounded in the warm-up room. Frank is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,
but I think you had him shaking in his boots!
Life in Indiana was tough at first, but I sought out opportunities to meet other
musicians in the area, and caught a few breaks that led to more opportunities. I started
playing with the Wind Symphony after the audition, which was a great way to meet a
number of freelancers and band directors in the area. On the advice of my old roommate, I
reached out to Rich Dole, an all around great guy and trombone freelancer in Indianapolis.
He was directing the Indy Trombone Choir and invited me to play with them. That was an
incredible experience. In the three years that I played with the Indy Trombone Choir, I
basically met every trombone player in Indianapolis. Towards the end of my time with the
Indy Trombone Choir, Dee Stewart was driving up from Bloomington to direct us, AND he
usually brought cookies!
I got my start teaching in the community through a fortunate series of events right
after moving to Indiana. One of the private lesson instructors at my girlfriend’s school
mentioned to the director of the Indy Brass Choir that I played trombone, in case they ever
needed someone to sub. The director called me one day and asked if I could attend a
rehearsal that night. I agreed and we chatted a little bit during the rehearsal. He thanked
me, and the very next day he emailed one of the band directors at the Avon Schools saying
that “if you’re still looking for a low brass teacher to take on some extra students, you
should call Lou – here is his information.” I was able to grow my studio at Avon, meet more
freelancers and teachers, and start piecing together a career in Indiana despite being very
new to the scene.
My advice would be: put yourself out there right away. If I hadn’t connected with
Avon so quickly, I probably still would have emailed them to introduce myself and say I
would be interested in teaching low brass if they ever needed someone. By the way, I
taught all low brass. When I started I had 10 students, and most of them were tuba or
euphonium. I made extra money accompanying choir students at the Solo and Ensemble
District Festival. It’s important to have a diverse set of skills, so you can say yes to any
musical opportunity. You never know where it’s going to lead, and who you’re going to
ER: What sparked your interest in trombone and harp repertoire? It’s a genre that many people may not be very familiar with. What would you like people to know about it?
LS: In the summer of 2014 I attended the Atlantic Music Festival. AMF had an orchestra
but it also focused on chamber music. As part of my fellowship, I was assigned a solo for
trombone and harp: Fantasy on a Theme of Gustav Holst by Robert Cuckson. I worked with
a wonderfully talented harpist named Naomi Hoffmeyer, and Robert Cuckson actually
coached us on his piece before the performance! It was a lot of fun to put together, and I
realized that in almost a decade of studying music collegiately (I was in my doctoral
program at the time), this was the first piece I had encountered for trombone and harp. I
thought there were two possibilities: either I had been living under a rock and this was
something everyone in the trombone world was familiar with, or this was a topic that
hadn’t really been explored much. As a doctoral student without a dissertation topic… I was
elated to find out it was the latter.
So my journey in music for trombone and harp started off by chance, but once I
started my research into this genre of music, I was absolutely hooked. The formation of my
trombone and harp duo was another “right place, right time” scenario. I was playing a low
brass chamber work on a composition recital at CCM and the piece directly after that was
for solo harp. It was literally staring me in the face. A few weeks after the recital I messaged
Mack LaMont (the composer from the recital) and told him about a project I was
working on featuring solo works for trombone and harp. Knowing he could confidently
compose for both instruments, I asked if he would consider writing a trombone and harp
solo for me. I also offered to professionally record the work and he connected me with Joe
Rebman, the harpist from his recital. We recorded his piece (Endless) and we’ve been
playing together ever since. Shortly after that first project, Joe and I formed JOLO Duo, and
even recorded a CD that came out last year, featuring all previously unrecorded works for
trombone and harp.
I would like people to know that playing music for trombone and harp is extremely
rewarding, and there are plenty of available works of which to choose. Some piano works
even translate to harp, but playability on harp can get a little complicated due to the pedal
system and a few other factors. So if you have questions like “would this work on harp?” I
would encourage you to contact a harpist. Usually songs (Faure, Debussy, etc.) work well on
If you want to find trombone and harp music to listen to, there are some amazing
trombone and harp duos that have recorded music for our enjoyment. I highly recommend
David Rejano’s CD called “Everything But Trombone” and Achilles Liarmakopoulos’
(Canadian Brass) CD “Obvious” for harp and trombone. Joe Alessi (ever heard of him?),
Brandt Attema, Norman Bolter and many others have recorded works for trombone and
harp as well. It’s great music, and if you have any questions about it feel free to reach out to
me. I’d be happy to help! I have a list of original trombone and harp solos on my website if
you’re looking for a place to start looking for this genre of music.
ER: Looking back, what do you consider to be the most important step that you took for your music career?
LS: I always bet on myself and my ability to do whatever it took to succeed. You have to
believe in yourself and have the discipline to take the necessary steps to be successful in
this field. Some days I really didn’t feel like playing through my fundamentals, but I knew I
had to stay sharp for upcoming performances and auditions.
You never know when the phone is going to ring. The craziest gig I said yes to was a
quintet tour on bass trombone (I’m primarily a tenor player). I was given 10 days notice to
learn three hours of quintet music for an educational tour. The first rehearsal was in six
days and I would be playing the tuba book. I even had to learn the sousaphone part from
Youngblood Brass Band’s Brooklyn (which was a great way to figure out I could do
multiphonics) for one of our concerts. It was an insane ask and I’ve never worked so hard
in my life, but it ended up being a great experience for me. Bet on yourself, and have the
discipline to put in the work necessary to succeed.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school?
LS: Don’t give up. It is completely normal to feel alone in this process. You don’t get feedback
when you apply for a job and you don’t make it to the next round, the same way you don’t
get feedback when you get cut in the first round of an orchestral audition – it’s up to you to
evaluate and try to figure it out. Surround yourself with people who are going through the
same process you are, or have recently been in your shoes. When I wasn’t having success in
my job search I sent my CV to friends to look at, I did mock phone interviews with them and
much more. Any success I have had in my career up to this point is because of the support I
received from my friends and teachers, who were always available to listen to me when I
had a question, or needed a letter of recommendation. Figure out what you want to do with
your career, and don’t stop until you get there.
ER: How can people find you?
LS: The best way to find me is by going to my website:
Facebook Fan page (for upcoming live streams):