The secret lives of our profs

Naveed Islam

Lee Tomboulian first began to figure out the piano “at the age of seven or eight,” before his curiosity was turned into his discipline by his instructors and into his profession by his university. However, even now when he returns to the piano he still enjoys the unique sounds made by striking each key as though he were once again a child discovering this new art form. In a career that comes full circle each time he takes his place before the piano, he has taught at a number of the country’s best music institutions and played next to some of jazz music’s most well known artists.
Professor Tomboulian describes his relationship with the piano as a “sort of falling in love process.” His parents met at a Music Appreciation class and always had music going on in the background. “They were very open-minded,” said Professor Tomboulian who grew up in a home surrounded by classical music, Broadway, The Beatles, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Dixieland.
After lessons at home and with a variety of classical and jazz piano teachers, Lee Tomboulian got his B.A. in Composition, with a Minor in Theater Arts, from the University of Arkansas. He went on to earn his M.M. at the University of North Texas. There, he was a member of the world-famous One O’ Clock Lab Band. “It’s an astounding experience,” said Tomboulian about his time with the group, “to play a series of chords with the trombone section and have every note be absolutely in tune so that you don’t know if you’re playing or the trombones are playing.”
After getting his Master’s degree, Professor Tomboulian became “employable” and joined the faculties of a number of different schools teaching jazz, classical piano, jazz singing and music appreciation. Between 1997 and 2005 he taught at North Central Texas College, Texas Wesleyan University and the University of Dallas in Irving. “Being a full-time Professor now, as well as a performer has really given me insight into what my teachers were going through with their students,” he said. “It has been a very enlightening experience — humbling too.”
Moving to Appleton was kind of a decompression period for Professor Tomboulian who had grown tired of “the Texas rat-race”. However, he has grown to love it here and has found a new appreciation for the four seasons. “The autumns here are just astounding.”
At Lawrence, Professor Tomboulian is currently teaching advanced jazz piano and improvisation and hopes to refine his curriculum in the coming years, teaching Functional Jazz piano which is on Moodle now. “It should be noted,” Professor Tomboulian said, “not every technology is appropriate for every class or part of every class. Right now, I’m very interested in seeing where this technology can take us in terms of the convenience and making this difficult process easier because it IS difficult and there is no getting around the basics.”
When he is not teaching at the Con or giving lessons, he is usually practicing and creating music working with the faculty trio, his quartet and his wife Elizabeth Tomboulian, “a wonderful singer.”
In what little free time comes with his university position, Professor Tomboulian enjoys reading Oswald Chambers and the works of Rumi. He is also working on some articles for a number of different publications, which have to do with either jazz or rock. He is working on an article which takes a closer look at Keith Jarrett’s album “My Song” as a jazz version of a concept rock album and another focusing on the resemblances between Frank Zappa’s “We’re Only In It For The Money” and Sgt Pepper’s “Lonely Hearts Club Band.” When asked about what music inspires him, Professor Tomboulian noted works by Bach, Coltrane and Roxy & Elsewhere.
Of the greats he has shared a studio with — Larry Coryell, Eddie Harris and Steve Swallow to name a few – -it was Nat Adderley who gave him the best advice. As a young jazz musician, Lee Tomboulian was absorbed in Adderley’s tunes and began to imitate the artist, to which Adderley stopped him and advised the young Tomboulian, “just finish your idea that you are in the middle of because it is important for us to hear your idea and then if you want to compliment what I just did, then do it.”
Professor Tomboulian adds, “We all care about the music and the greats care about it most of all and they want to help”. When asked what advice he would give to his students and the music majors here at Lawrence he replied, “Listen to everything. Listen to the whole history of music because there is so much to enjoy out there and everything I have learned has come back to be useful. Everything.