Craig Gosnell (BM-97, MM-98) is a talented multi-instrumentalist whose skill on the trombone has earned him a steady stream of gigs backing up some of the biggest names in show business. In addition to being an in-demand session musician, he’s been a regular member of the Dancing With the Stars orchestra since the show’s beginning in 2005. Mr. Gosnell took some time out of his busy performance schedule to talk with us about his time at UNC and how he got his start in show business.
How did you first become interested in studying music and making performance into your profession?
Back in fifth grade, an elementary school band director in our area dropped by one day to show us a film demonstrating all the different musical instruments. We got to see and hear a bit from each instrument family, but I immediately found myself drawn to the brass. There was something exciting about the brilliant, powerful sounds they made. The trombone in particular stood out to me among the rest—it had a slide instead of buttons to push. Something about the trombone’s unique look and sound convinced me that I wanted to give it a try myself.
There was a lot to learn initially, so starting my training as a musician was a bit rough. The director of the first jazz band I ever played in told me that I couldn’t count my way of a paper bag - in other words, I couldn’t read the rhythms on the page! But that initial shock lit a fire under me. I wanted to learn the proper way to produce sound from my instrument and to be able to do the quick math necessary to correctly decipher the written page. I took my lessons very seriously and gradually started to make progress. By the age of 14 I was playing my first gig—an anniversary party for a trucking company that took place in a huge loading dock near Stapleton airport. Even though our sound wasn’t perfect, when the audience applauded, you could tell that they actually appreciated what we were doing. At that point I knew that I was hooked.
And how did you continue your musical development as a student at UNC and beyond?
Professor Buddy Baker was a huge influence on my decision to attend UNC. I had the opportunity to take lessons with him in high school and he’s been an amazing mentor to me ever since. When I was starting to consider colleges, he told me that if I came to UNC, he would be willing to delay his retirement until I was finished with my studies.His level of commitment caught me off guard at first, but it was a huge comfort as I progressed through my musical training. Buddy is a very systematic teacher: if you follow his curriculum, you’re almost certain to get the results you’re looking for. With him there to guide me, I knew that if I was going to do a music degree in Colorado, it had to be at UNC.
UNC is also where I decided to adopt the bass trombone as my primary instrument. I had found myself drawn to those basement-low notes basses played on the recordings I was listening to, but I didn’t actually get a chance to play one until my Freshman year in college. After that, I found myself gravitating (no pun intended) to the bass trombone more and more often. I also noticed that I was getting called for gigs and accepted into ensembles more often when I auditioned on bass, so by my Junior year I was playing it almost exclusively.
After moving out to LA, I began to concentrate on diversifying my skill set. Being competent on a number of instruments increases your chances of getting work out here, so I eventually returned to playing some tenor trombone, andpicked up the tuba, contrabass trombone, and even a bit of euphonium. I’m certainly not trying to take work from musicians who are specialists on those instruments, but marketing yourself as a multi-instrumentalist is something of a practical necessity for a freelance player.
When did you know you were really starting to break into show business and how did that lead to your gig on Dancing With the Stars?
My first big break came in 2003,when I was introduced to the legendary composer and arranger Bill Holman by one of my instructors at the Henry Mancini Institute, an amazing trombonist named Andy Martin. After rehearsing with his band twice, Bill asked me if I’d like to be the regular bass trombonist—which I enthusiastically agreed to! This was the moment that probably most validated my presence in L.A. Here’s this 28-year-old kid that’s just come to town (musicians are typically considered young until around age 45), and Bill Holman thinks enough of him to bring him onto his band? Maybe he has something to offer!
After another year-and-a-half of meeting and playing with other musicians on various rehearsals, I started getting calls from certain contractors. One day, I got a call asking if I’d be interested in playing on a short, six-week trial run of a TV show called “Dancing With the Stars” that had seen quite a bit of success in other countries. It turned out that Andy Martin was the one who had recommended me for the position, something I will always be extremely grateful for! I was being presented with an offer to do my very first TV show, so accepting was pretty much a no-brainer.
What are some of the most challenging and exciting aspects of working on DWTS?
DWTS is a fabulous gig that I’m so thankful to be a part of it. The show is mid-way through its 17th season now and there are so many different departments that have been perfectly coordinated to keep this ship sailing smoothly.
As for the musicians, we have a lot of activity packed into a very brief window of time. We horn players rarely ever see the sheet music until our morningrehearsal on the day of the broadcast, so that’s our only time to check the arrangement and see if there are any small edits that need to be made. All that while sight-reading our parts! After lunch and a full dress rehearsal there’s just one more small break and we go live to the entire country!
The part of this gig I was most worried about initially was knowing that millions of people would be listening to our performance as we were playing. But I’ve found that as long as I’m focusing on the music in front of me and consciously tuning out the audience and the dancers, there doesn’t seem to be any time to worry about nerves. 1 1/2 minutes later and you’re done, moving on to the next chart!
It’s inspiring to work with such an amazing team of professionals: from the musicians who create our arrangements each week to the conductor, Harold Wheeler, who has an amazing talent for adapting each song to fit the dancers’ needs. It’s a beautiful thing to see a large ensemble playing on live TV twenty weeks out of the year. And in such a wide variety of musical styles too! It’s practically unheard of nowadays to have so many live musicians performing on a primetime show, but thankfully DWTS is bucking the trend, and hopefully inspiring other shows to do the same!
Beyond DWTS, you’ve recorded for or performed with a mind-boggling list of celebrities: Quincy Jones, James Taylor, Julio Iglesias, James Brown, Beyonce, Kanye West, Daft Punk, and on and on. What are some of your favorite experiences collaborating with these big-name musicians?
I consider myself very fortunate to have been called upon to provide accompaniment for so many different artists. A recent collaborator that comes to mind is Seth MacFarlane, who I had the pleasure of backing up as he hosted the Academy Awards. Seth is a total “renaissance man” of an entertainer. He’s the creator behind a whole slew of animated comedies: “Family Guy,” “American Dad,” and “The Cleveland Show.” He had the entire orchestra rolling with laughter during rehearsals! Seth is also a talented vocalist with a great respect for how important music is to any big production, so he never cuts corners or sacrifices quality.
One other performance I’ll mention is when I got to back up Peter Gabriel at the Hollywood Bowl in 2010. Peter had just released the album “Scratch My Back,” which consisted of all-orchestral covers of other artists’ works. It was a special experience to be playing those works with such a talented group in front of 18,000 fans. Peter was very appreciative of all of the musicians involved. After a number of curtain calls there was a long standing ovation and he went around to every individual in the ensemble to shake our hands and thank us. Very much a class act!
Whenever I’m supporting a big name, I go in with this mindset: I’m grateful to be one of the musicians selected to back this person up. As an ensemble, we are going to give them the framework they need to perform to the best of their abilities. When all of the elements of the performance are coming together perfectly, that’s what makes the whole experience worthwhile.
A big thanks to Mr. Gosnell for sharing his story with us! To see a more comprehensive list of his impressive performing credits, click here.
If you’re interested in tracking the accomplishments and successes of UNC’s Performing and Visual Arts alumni, be sure to check out the College’s website and official Facebook page. For a chance to see our talented PVA students in action while supporting scholarships for the next generation of UNC performers, be sure to get yourself a ticket to their upcoming Gala Benefit.
Are there other distinguished alumni you’d like to see featured on the Bear Den? Tell us about them in the comments section below or email our editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.