As Thomas Sleeper battles a major illness, his reputation as teacher, conductor and composer endures

By David Fleshler and Lawrence Budmen

Thomas Sleeper, longtime conductor and teacher at the University of Miami Frost School of Music, is battling ALS.

The conductor Thomas Sleeper stood before the University of Miami’s student orchestra and prepared to lead them in what any informed observer would consider a likely train wreck.

They were about to perform Richard Strauss’s Don Juan. A ferociously difficult work, Strauss’s tone poem is a perennial audition piece for professional orchestras, with aspiring applicants required to make solo runs of its Allegro molto gantlet of triplets and sixteenth notes.

Even though he was leading students, Sleeper demanded they play it at full speed, and as it turned out, there was no train wreck. They nailed Strauss’ runs and figurations. There’s no need to get carried away, and no one would have mistaken them for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But the young musicians brought off the 2012 performance with real Straussian sheen and swagger.

As a composer, Sleeper has produced operas, concertos and symphonies, a huge body of work that has been favorably received by critics. As a conductor, he had the singular honor of leading the belated Chinese premieres of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

But the Oklahoma-born bass trombone player has made his biggest mark in South Florida as a master teacher and conductor for the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music (from 1993-2018), with an uncanny ability to demand the best from his students without bullying them.

“You couldn’t meet a finer man, but he has high standards, and everybody knows it,” said William Hipp, retired dean of UM’s Frost School of Music, who hired Sleeper. “He doesn’t get in their face. Everybody I know loves Thom Sleeper.”

An imposing man with the long, swept-back hair of a 19th century Romantic composer, Sleeper, 65, is now suffering from ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Long known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is an incurable illness that causes the progressive loss of nerve control of the muscles. He speaks more slowly than he used to, taking time to gather his words. As he and his wife Sherri have coped with his condition, messages of support flowed in from across the country from the vast network of students whose careers he influenced.

“He’s a huge man who loves his work, loves his students, loves his family,” said Zoe Zeniodi, a former star conducting student. “He’s a man who works for his students, works for his children to make the world better after him.”

Sleeper, who was diagnosed in April of 2019, is handling his illness with a level of class and fortitude that would surprise no one who knows him.

“He’s more courageous than you can imagine a person being,” said his wife, the visual artist Sherri Tan. “He’s quiet. He works hard at what he’s supposed to work hard at and he keeps going. He does not complain.”

Although he isn’t composing, he responds to requests for copies of his music from musicians who want to perform it. He does physical therapy and respiratory therapy. And because he rarely says anything about how he feels, his wife has to ask him.

“Getting through the day is extremely taxing,” she said. “To get through the day is a lot of work, something that takes up every bit of energy. But he is not a complainer. He just does what needs to be done.”

Sleeper in his favorite element rehearsing young musicians, here the Florida Youth Orchestra.

He has influenced countless students. When Zeniodi came to the University of Miami, she intended to study piano. But he spotted talent she didn’t know she had and persuaded her to switch to conducting.

At first, she refused.

“I’m a woman. I come from Greece and women don’t become conductors,” she told him.

“You can,” she recalled him saying. “You’re in the U.S.A.”

Conducting classes took place largely in silence. Zeniodi would stand in his office and lead an imaginary orchestra in Beethoven or Mozart or Stravinsky. The point was to maintain a firm vision in her head of how she wanted the work to sound and impose that on the orchestra, rather than to passively ride on the sounds any competent orchestra could produce.

“He would stop me in the fourth bar and say you didn’t hear the violas here. And I’m like, ‘How the hell did you know?’ And he’s like “Because I could see that. I know what you hear.’”

Like the winning football coach all the players hate, excellent conductors can be tyrants (see Arturo Toscanini). But Sleeper is not. He achieves his results largely through the inspiration he gives musicians, a dedication to his art and a composer’s knowledge of the instruments of the orchestra.

“The way he connects with the musicians is really what separates him as a conductor,” said Sage McBride, a talented young violinist who would go on to study in New York with Pinchas Zukerman.

“Some conductors are just super harsh and it’s not very inspiring. He really knows how to inspire the musicians and bring the best out of them. I was just so inspired by him after every rehearsal I would just go and practice to be an even better musician than I was.”

As a violinist in the Florida Youth Orchestra, McBride played under Sleeper for years. His most memorable experience was a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in a side-by-side concert of his youth orchestra with the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra.

“The way he works with the kids to bring them to such a high level of artistry is really amazing,” he said. “I owe a lot to Mr. Sleeper for the musician I am today, both for internal artistry but also as an orchestral musician.”

At the University of Miami, Sleeper’s primary goal was to give the young musicians a well-rounded education in orchestral music. “Thom always has in mind a four-year curriculum, so by the time they graduate they will have covered a certain amount of repertory,” Hipp said. “He doesn’t repeat the same works, but a breadth of style, periods and composers.”

Sleeper’s success with the orchestra comes both from his knowledge of the music and his personal style. “When he gets on the podium, he knows every aspect of the score in front of him, and he’s able to communicate the essence of that to members of the orchestra,” Hipp said. “He’s not intimidating in style. He’s reinforcing the players’ best efforts to render the highest level of performance of which they’re capable. He has everybody play above their heads, in other words.”

Sleeper speaking at a Frost Symphony Orchestra concert.

Asked how he drew such results from a student orchestra, Sleeper gives a technical answer that reflects a man who doesn’t let a single note or rest pass without thought.

“I would do sectionals, just for winds, just brass, just violins,” he said. “You can balance the section within itself. Make sure the sound isn’t just coming from the front row. Make sure it’s in tune and the rhythms are the same.”

“They start together, take rests together, approach the rest the same way. Sometimes you need to crawl to the rest, sometimes you take the rest, sometimes you need to calm the sound down to the rest. It depends on the music.”

He motivated the students to broaden their perspectives beyond their own parts. He allows sections of the orchestra to critique each other, asking the brass, for example, what they thought of a passage in the cellos. He allows students to try their hands at conducting.

He sprinkled top players throughout the strings, rather than engaging in the weird and petty ranking common in orchestras that clusters the best players toward the front. At concerts, he asks everyone to stand who had something to do with performance, teachers, administrators and support staff.

But with this generosity of spirit comes an insistence on high standards. Sleeper recalls his own audition for UM, when he stood before the student orchestra. A woman in the back raised her hand and asked about his grading policy.

“It’s easy,” he told them. “You show up to every rehearsal and concert, you get an A. Miss one, you get a B. Three, you get a C. Four, you get a D and you fail.”

As a teenager, Sleeper listened to rock and jazz and played the trombone (“The only instrument you can play with your fists,” he observed).

“When I was that age, I thought Brahms was a wimp,” he recalled in a 2001 interview. “He would never get to the point. Give me a climax quickly in a two-minute piece. But I grew up eventually to appreciate the finer arts.”

He studied at Southern Methodist University, where the local conducting eminence gave him an early example of the teacher he didn’t want to be.

“The one lesson was him sitting there at home drinking scotch and yapping at me about his life,” he said. “That was the whole lesson.”

Sleeper’s own approach to teaching conducting involved no scotch and took place largely in silence. But his methods worked.

Zeniodi’s conducting career, which wouldn’t have existed if she hadn’t met him, would take her to the podium of Florida Grand Opera, to Carnegie Hall where she led the New England Symphonic Ensemble and to the podiums of orchestras across Europe, Asia and the Americas.

“I owe him my life,” she said. “He is the most generous human being I have met,” she said. “He could be harsh. He’s not a soft person who will be sweet and who will accept things. No. But he’s the most giving, direct and honest, with a total sense of integrity.”

(David Fleshler)

Thom Sleeper and wife Sherri share a laugh with Sleeper’s four children via a 65th birthday Zoom celebration earlier this year.

________________

The Music of Thomas Sleeper

An early photo of Sleeper conducting.

Thomas Sleeper’s immense contribution as conductor and educator for twenty-five years at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music has tended to over shadow the depth and variety of his work as a creative artist. 

Sleeper’s compositional output is prolific and remarkably diverse. Adhering to no single stylistic agenda or trend, Sleeper’s works reflect his vast performing experience in their fluency of instrumental and vocal writing. Often his scores have brought fresh life to such time-tested musical forms as the symphony, concerto or song cycle.

Sleeper’s early works tended toward musical expression that was dark and angst-ridden while more recent pieces burst forth with a sense of optimism. His instrumental lines ring with conviction and he has repeatedly created works that display the performers at their best while remaining ingratiating to the listener. Often written for fellow Frost faculty members, Sleeper’s compositions consistently revel in the sheer command of the player’s instrument and display an eagerness to share that sense of wonder and excitement with audiences.

For Frost Wind Ensemble conductor Gary Green’s valedictory performance in 2015, Sleeper created a masterful Chamber Symphony that brims with neo-classical invention and graceful instrumental felicities. His Violin Concerto (“Hypnagogia”), written for violinist Huifang Chen in 2012, is both rhapsodic and terse, a virtuoso display piece in the great tradition of mid-20th century concertos for the instrument. (Chen and Sleeper have recorded this superb score.) Sleeper’s song cycles Xenia (2010) and Through a Glass Darkly (2011) traverse Berg-ian arioso and sprechstimme in moody thematic patterns.

The hard-edged astringency of the Concerto for Alto Saxophone (2010) and the exuberance of the Horn Concerto (2000) and Trumpet Concerto (2003), available on recordings and Youtube, reflect Sleeper’s enthusiasm for creating works for instruments that lack a large solo repertoire. The vast Adagio slow movement in Sleeper’s Symphony No. 1 is Mahlerian in scope and pathos. In the opera Alcedama, Sleeper took the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel and traced it through the centuries to the Holocaust and modern day civil conflicts with music deeply searing in its emotive impact. (Sleeper has recorded the work on Albany records with a cast that includes Russell Thomas and Sandra Lopez, Miamians who have sung to acclaim at the Met and internationally.)

Sleeper’s output also has a lighter side. What other composer would conceive a Concerto for Flute and Flute Ensemble? Sleeper’s 2012 gift to former Metropolitan Opera principal flute Trudy Kane and her students abounds in kaleidoscopic colors and shifting moods. Leylie’s Dance, celebrating his daughter, abounds in the insouciance of Satie. The Sapphire Overture (also known as Hana’s Day Out) suggests Leonard Bernstein in his high-stepping Broadway mode. Even the psychological drama of the brief operatic vignette The Sisters Antipodes is cast in the flowing melodic strains as well as cynicism of early Stephen Sondheim (a la Company and Follies). The jazzy finale of the Suite for Baritone Saxophone is quintessential Americana.

Sleeper’s music can be accessed on his website, sleepermusic.com. Also a search in the SFCR archive will bring up reviews of his works, many in their premieres.

Thomas Sleeper’s output has greatly enriched the solo instrumental, vocal and ensemble repertoire. The energy, vibrant theatricality and depth of feeling in his scores will continue to resound on concert stages and recordings with their consistent sincerity and vibrancy of musical expression. 

(Lawrence Budmen)

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22 Responses to “As Thomas Sleeper battles a major illness, his reputation as teacher, conductor and composer endures”

  1. Posted Jul 01, 2021 at 2:35 pm by Gary Green

    Thom Sleeper is a major persona in the world of music. At the University of Miami he was a person that would go beyond all limits to help colleagues and students. He was a constant inspiration for me while we were together at UM. He gave me so much to think about and to care about every day!

    I know the same was given to countless musicians throughout the world and in South Florida. He is a giant among teachers and artists and he is even more giant as a great human being. We, that are fortunate enough to know him well, are blessed by his being our mentor and our friend.

  2. Posted Jul 01, 2021 at 3:27 pm by Frank Cooper

    Thom: Excellent colleague, significant conductor, inspiration to students AND a real composer. His energy was high-output! Everyone liked and admired him at our School as well, I understand, as wherever he was as guest conductor…as far from here as China.

  3. Posted Jul 01, 2021 at 4:27 pm by Alan Johnson

    Thank you South Florida Classical Review for this must-read feature story on Thom Sleeper, and the years of press coverage dedicated to the music and conducting of this towering musician and transcendent human being.

  4. Posted Jul 01, 2021 at 9:10 pm by Andrea Szarowicz

    An amazing musical talent. The world is so lucky to have Thom Sleeper in our lives. ❤️

  5. Posted Jul 01, 2021 at 9:18 pm by Virginia McKnight

    Before Thom went to Miami, he was at Stetson University in DeLand, where my husband and I were colleagues. Even though Stetson is a small school (bigger now) and there is no graduate school, he would lead that orchestra to amazing performances!

    Not only did he do sectionals, he worked with students individually. He was tireless. An amazing man.

  6. Posted Jul 01, 2021 at 9:43 pm by Brian Powell

    As exceptional of an artist as he is, both as a conductor and a composer, he has been an even better friend to those who have had the privilege to work with him. I am glad to see this article celebrate his legacy- it is much deserved.

  7. Posted Jul 01, 2021 at 10:13 pm by Yamilka Gomez

    Thomas Sleeper was not my professor while I studied at UM, but I discovered his music and was immediately hooked. I performed his piano quartet and recorded (and performed live) his piano concerto with the UM Wind Ensemble under the direction of the amazing Gary Green.

    As a composer he is pure talent… a visionary for sure. As a person he is one of the best human beings I’ve ever met. I am very proud of his many accomplishments, but what I’m most proud of is his friendship. Thank you, South Florida Classical Review for recognizing his career.

  8. Posted Jul 01, 2021 at 11:32 pm by Trudy Kane

    For the 11 years that I taught at the Frost School, Thomas Sleeper was a huge and wonderful presence. His orchestral concerts – produced with so much intelligence and so much love – were always exciting, special events.

    He was a great colleague from the moment I arrived at Frost, friendly, encouraging and appreciative. His Concerto for Flute and Flute Orchestra was not only a wonderful gift to me and to my students, but to all musicians everywhere. A wonderfully symphonic piece, it uses more colors than one can imagine. I was thrilled to premiere and record Ellen Zwillich’s Concerto Elegia with him conducting. He also wrote a wonderful Sonata for Flute and Piano at my request.

    Always inspiring, I treasure the time I worked with him, and am so happy to have Thom and his family as friends. He is going through this time with the strength and selflessness he has done everything. We all wish him well.

  9. Posted Jul 01, 2021 at 11:37 pm by Colby Leider

    Thank you, David Fleshler and Lawrence Budmen, for this well-written piece about Thom. A consummate composer, conductor, and human, Thom welcomed me as a new professor at Miami in 2002, where in my 15 years there, he contributed so much to me professionally, my program there, and most importantly, the students. I look forward to reconnecting soon!

  10. Posted Jul 02, 2021 at 1:05 am by Myra Weaver

    As President of the now 34-year-old Florida Youth Orchestra, I had the honor of working with Mr. Sleeper for 26 years in his position as our Principal Conductor and Music Director. FYO’s young students were forever changed by him. Although only ages 8-18, the musicians knew they were in the presence of brilliance, giving him 100% of what they had to offer. Thom Sleeper’s kindness and warmth define him. I’ll love this man forever.

  11. Posted Jul 02, 2021 at 3:41 am by Cheri Rose Katz

    Thom is the most wonderful conductor, artist, composer and an overall great human being. I would never have made so many leaps in my international singing career without Thom. He always was so encouraging and a genius with selecting roles and pieces for my voice. We last worked together in 2014 at The Festival of Miami performing Mahler’s”Das Lied von der Erde.”

    While studying at UM he really took the time to mentor me. Always letting me know I could do whatever I set my mind and heart on, as long as I kept working hard. Most of all he is one of the kindest people I have encountered in the music industry. What a gem for UM and the world. Thank you Thom and thank you South Florida Classical Review for this beautiful article.

  12. Posted Jul 02, 2021 at 12:18 pm by Gordon Hilgers

    My sister sent this to me this morning, and I’m saddened to learn of Thom’s illness. He and I were high school classmates here in Dallas, Texas, both of us lucky to be members of one of the finest high school symphonic bands in the country at that time. Fellow trombonists (Thom played bass trombone), he and I sometimes catted around after school, listening to Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” and imagining ourselves to be Aqualung himself.

    I remember Thom as an intensely imaginative friend, a precocious mind, and one of the more entertaining people I knew in high school. I remember taking him to my church youth group one evening, mainly because I knew he was looking more than twice at one of the young women in the group. Of course, that experience with him was something I remember as if it occurred just yesterday.

    I’d heard he had become a prominent Miami-area composer, and one of my friends on Facebook who happens to live in that area and herself is active in the classical music community, exclaimed to me once how much respect she has for Thom Sleeper.

    I’m saddened to learn of Thom’s illness. Yet I’m not a bit surprised he’s dealing with that experience with grace and fortitude.

  13. Posted Jul 02, 2021 at 6:02 pm by Laura Tan (O’Steen)

    Thank you SFCR for publishing this…Thom is special. Reading through this fairly comprehensive overview of Thom’s extraordinary career, generosity and accomplishments, followed by these comments, has brought tears to my eyes, (maybe others’).

    We love you forever, Thom.

  14. Posted Jul 02, 2021 at 8:45 pm by Astrid Nicastri

    He is an incredible and inspiring man. Thomas has such passion and love for his work as well as his family and friends. He is also wonderfully smart, I am still learning from him. He still really beats me at online scrabble which I love playing with him❤️.

    Thomas is always an inspiration to me in his encouragement in my own journey through life. His positivity throughout everything banishes the dark clouds hanging in my life.

    This article is wonderful and allows people to see the shining light in Thomas and the magic flowing from him and his music. I always have felt so happy when I have had a chance to spend time with him. I will always love him, and he will always be one of the beautiful rainbows in my life.

  15. Posted Jul 03, 2021 at 10:05 am by Charles Castleman

    A lovely, appreciative article and Thomas absolutely deserves every word of it

  16. Posted Jul 03, 2021 at 12:52 pm by Joy turnage

    God bless you and your dear family in this illness. I keep hoping for a cure to happen very soon. My 86-year-old mother battled ALS also. I understand that research has become more forward toward a cure. I am so impressed with your career in conducting, love of students, and composing.

    I was blessed to travel with the New York Philharmonic to the European festivals years ago, due to a high school friend’s invitation, who was head of marketing and pr.

    Best to you and your beloved family.

    Joy Turnage
    Atlanta Ga.

  17. Posted Jul 03, 2021 at 7:05 pm by JB Floyd

    First of all great strength to an amazing and profound example of how to live an intense and prolifically creative life that has affected so many of us, faculty, students and South Florida and the world.

    The Frost School of Music would not have its place among the stellar schools of music without the dedication of Maestro Sleeper! Never!

    There are few people in anyone’s life who can inspire you to try to reach your potential and certainly Maestro Sleeper has always been that person for us all! Keep fighting the way you have always taught us all to do.

  18. Posted Jul 04, 2021 at 11:44 am by Charles Norman Mason

    It is difficult to come up with words to express what a great man he is. As has been said, he is a great composer, conductor, intellect, and teacher… but he also has a huge heart. No matter what meeting we were in together or even now that he has retired, the focus is always on helping his students and helping his peers.

  19. Posted Jul 04, 2021 at 6:02 pm by David Brubeck

    Thom Sleeper is simply THE BEST: friend, colleague and musician! We love you, Tom, and your music and legacy will beautify and enrich the world long after ALS is consigned to the dustbin of history. What an honor to know you, collaborate with you and call you friend. Deepest thanks, respect and love. When I think of you I simply wonder, what beautiful thing is next?

    http://www.davidbrubeck.com/2021/02/thomas-sleeper-bass-trombone-concerto-no-2-world-premiere/

  20. Posted Jul 07, 2021 at 1:38 pm by Jodi Levitz

    Thank you for this beautiful article. It was one of the great privileges of my life to have Thom as my colleague (and office neighbor!) when I joined the Frost faculty. The beautiful viola sonata he wrote for my faculty recital remains one of my favorite works. A truly wonderful conductor, composer, and human being.

  21. Posted Jul 07, 2021 at 2:30 pm by Alessandra Salvati

    An immense artist, a gentle soul and a fine composer. A blessing for those who had the joy to work with him. My music was literally born in his hands and I learned more about composing during his rehearsals of my symphonic works than in my entire life.

    During our stay in Miami, my husband Enzo and I had the pleasure to spend time with his wonderful family as well. His kindness and love for his family, friends and students are a huge gift of life. All our love, dearest Thom.

  22. Posted Jul 19, 2021 at 3:31 pm by MYRNA DIXON

    Dearest Tom,
    We miss you and remember you often.
    Myrna

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