Kirk Ferguson: Reflections on music, meditation, and his new album

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2017.18 Season, Donor Profile, Support

Kirk Ferguson, the Milwaukee Symphony’s assistant principal trombone, is a cradle Lutheran, an adult Buddhist, and always on a journey into the psychological and spiritual aspects of music.

His influences show clearly in the CD he just released, Sacred Reflections, accompanied by his father, Keith Ferguson, on piano. The disc contains several Bach pieces, two tunes his father composed, one Buddhist piece, and two Japanese melodies that he got from MSO principal trombonist Megumi Kanda.

“We think of the sacred as something other, something we have to get dressed up for,” Ferguson said. “But everything we do – making a cup of tea, doing an interview, recording a CD – can carry a sense of purpose, a sense of respect for ourselves and others we interact with.”

But that sense of wholeness eluded him as a teenager and undergraduate, until he began dabbling in Buddhist meditation. He vividly remembers a moment when he was a graduate student in New York, staring at the sky between two office buildings, “and there was something in that experience I wanted to know more about.” Since then, the path of meditation “has been shockingly rewarding. It’s made me a more appreciative person, and it’s changed how I view the world and my career path.”

His career path has already taken him a long way, but Ferguson said, “When I was younger, I wanted to be the best orchestral trombonist in the world. Now I realize that all I wanted was the adulation. I wanted outside validation. But that wouldn’t actually satisfy me. I don’t need to be validated.”

Ferguson and his wife, Mary, a psychologist with the Wisconsin state correctional system, live in Mequon. When Mary spent a year at Western Kentucky University, he began attending the Shambhala Meditation Center of Milwaukee in order to give himself some social life. But the experience deepened his feeling for meditation, and he now serves on the board.

His journey to the Milwaukee Symphony may seem more remarkable when he talks about his background. He grew up in a tiny hamlet outside Punxsutawney, PA, where his father drove a coal truck for many years as his day job. Kirk wasn’t the best trombonist in the Punxsutawney High School band – he lost the first chair by half a point, which still rankles a bit – and he initially didn’t get into Duquesne University as a performance major. But he practiced four to six hours a day as an undergraduate, overcoming the bad habits formed by orthodontics in high school. “I was a workaholic,” he says. “Now I’m playing half an hour to two hours a day, and I’m playing better than ever.” He got his master’s degree from Juilliard and spent several years in smaller orchestras before winning the Milwaukee job in 2011.

Having given three recitals in central Pennsylvania with his father, Ferguson said, “I would like people to believe in themselves. It’s easy to believe that people in small places can only do small things, but I don’t think that’s true. When my dad is doing what he’s doing best, he’s playing on a world-class level. I want that recognition for my dad.” His father is a talented improviser – a useful skill for a church organist, which is his weekend job – and created some introductions to the Bach pieces on the CD.

For his part, Keith Ferguson chose as a teenager to join the family trucking business rather than go to college for music. But he has always played the organ at his home church, Mount Zion Lutheran, and others in the area. When Kirk and his brother, Kasey, were young, “we told them they had to go to college for four years, and after that, if they wanted to drive truck, we’d put them in a truck. And there’s nothing wrong with trucking, but there are better things to do out there.” Kasey is now an engineer in Punxsutawney, and “Kirk is still well grounded, even though he’s been all over the world playing, seeing things that his mom and I will probably never see. It’s beyond words, the thrill that Missy and I have. We’re very proud of both our sons for their accomplishments.”

During his summer break from the MSO, Kirk Ferguson did a week-long retreat on music and meditation in which the teacher “improved things in my playing that I didn’t think could be improved.” Like many classical musicians, he occasionally takes beta blockers, a prescription drug to reduce blood pressure, to calm his nerves. But this coming season, he doesn’t think he’ll need to.

His new meditation technique involves “contemplating your musical lineage, people who have helped you, people who have inspired you. Then you contemplate your own basic goodness and worthiness to play this music. Then you contemplate the worthiness of your audience to hear this music.” And at the retreat, “for the first time in my life, I could do that with an audience. I could watch them hear the music and adjust my own playing.”

He isn’t sure if that will work in the much larger space of Uihlein Hall, but his teacher suggested he could think of his colleagues onstage as his audience. “That’s kind of a scary thought,” Ferguson said, “but I feel really fortunate to be part of this orchestra. There are a lot of dysfunctional brass sections in the world. This isn’t one of them. I sit between Megumi Kanda and John Thevenet, and it’s the world’s nicest low brass section.”