Valgene “Val” Phillips was many things to many people, and the following tributes were kindly shared with me to celebrate his memory with you:
Fred Tempas: I first met Val as a naïve 17-year-old Humboldt State freshman. Like many others, I was looking for what it was that I would be doing there. I had no major, just a vague sense of direction and an interest in playing tuba in the college band. Val was the band director and we soon connected, and I started taking lessons from him. He was not a tuba player but was a fine hornist and an excellent brass teacher. I made progress and soon he asked if I was interested in becoming a music major. That sounded like fun to me, so I began the process my second year. I was part of a wonderful group of fellow students, and we became like family.
In those days, the student to teacher ratio was low and students and professors became very close. At this time, Val also asked me to join in a brass quintet made up of professors and students. I discovered such joy! This was the best kind of music making I could imagine. In one form or another I played quintets with Val for more than 20 years. Chamber music continues to have a profound effect on my life.
I approached another crossroads as an upper classman. Val encouraged me to consider music education and teaching. He saw in me what I didn’t know I had — a passion and skill for teaching. I applied for and got a job teaching elementary school music in Arcata. Val was on the interview committee. Good luck? Absolutely.
Val was a creator. He saw a need in the community and put the solution together. In the 1970s, there was a jazz program at College of the Redwoods, but not at HSU. The music department was very against the idea of jazz, so Val organized a jazz ensemble that met in the evenings when no other faculty was there. Now, the jazz program at HSU is thriving.
The Humboldt Brass Chamber Music Workshop, begun in 1974, is an intense, one-week event each year where dedicated amateur brass musicians (and some professionals) spend all day, every day playing in small groups. Chamber groups have no conductor, so players learn to lead and follow each other as a unit, trusting their eyes and ears. I participated in the workshop almost from the beginning.
Here was the place where it all came together — my love of tuba, chamber music and teaching. Val’s skill at organizing and leading the workshop became a model for me and many others. I moved from participant to staff to associate director to director. I followed his model (with a few changes) for the 12 years I was director. I am still a staff member as the workshop approaches 50 years.
More recently, Val established the Chamber Players of the Redwoods, a nonprofit organization that produces concert programs for local chamber musicians. We just celebrated our 10th year as an organization. This was a much-needed way for local musicians to perform in public without having to worry about venue, insurance, advertising, etc. Again, Val’s organizational skill, leadership and vision brought about just what was needed to bring our local music community together.
For me, Val was a teacher, mentor, colleague and friend. He and I were partners on many projects for nearly 50 years. He guided me in my professional life and career. I could always go to him for advice (and, occasionally, he to me!). His work with so many musicians in Humboldt County, from elementary school through college and adults, Eureka Symphony, All Seasons Orchestra and others will resonate for years to come. Rest in Peace, dear friend.
Jill Petricca: Val was a friend, colleague, fellow brass player to my father, Richard Stroud. This means my earliest memories are as a child. He laughed more then, reserving numerous smiles and sparkles for the young of age. This friend transformed into mentor, serious as I reached my teen years. Musician rosters all over the region had Val at the top of the list as a hornist. I wonder way down deep about how he was still mentoring and guiding me in 2020/2021 and during a pandemic with the ensemble I work with. May his journey continue to a fuller joy.
Phil Kates: I first met Val in the fall of 1951 when he showed up in the music room at Salinas Union High School, acting just a bit shy, saying he played French horn and was there a place for him in the school orchestra. Of course, there was.
And that was the start of what turned out to be a lifelong friendship, actually, a very close friendship. We got our music teaching credentials at San Jose State, taught in neighboring public school districts, were co-founders of the Saratoga Woodwind Quintet, both got professorships at HSU, led the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop together, and the list goes on and on and on.
Early fall semester of 1972 at HSU, Val handed me a piece of music, clearly on manuscript paper, and said that this is for me. On the front cover is √441, on page one of the music at the top it says, “for Phil.”
Well, fall of 1972 was 21 years from when we first met, and he wrote a duet for oboe and horn to commemorate the occasion, actually dated Aug. 5, 1972. We performed it later that fall.
As in all of his compositions, fortunately he wrote quite a few, it is creative, inventive, interesting, forward looking, appealing. I could write a whole book on all we had been through together, but √441 is definitely the most touching for me.
My copy with all my funny little marks in it is sitting right here by my computer. Looking at it makes me smile and choke up at the same time.
I retired early from HSU and moved out of the area, but we spoke on the phone periodically, certainly not often enough. He was a very talented, highly intelligent human being. Miss him greatly.
Craig Naylor: I’ve been fortunate to have had many teachers in my life who made me a better musician, writer, person — and who (later in our lives) became a friend and mentor. Valgene Phillips, one of my professors for my undergrad at HSU, was one.
When he passed away, it left a hole in my heart. My life is better because of Val, and I feel blessed that our lives crossed. Soar high, dear friend.
Susan Bicknell: We (the All Seasons Orchestra) are deeply saddened by the passing of our good friend and musical director, Val Phillips. Val is well known throughout Humboldt as a conductor, a hornist and a tremendous resource and wealth of knowledge for anyone needing advice about all of the aspects of making music.
He had a long career as professor of music, department chair and dean at HSU, leading its chamber music workshops. He also co-founded the Chamber Players of the Redwoods and had a longstanding interest in music as an essential element of the community.
In his retirement, he coached individuals and ensembles large and small. He encouraged all of us to strive to improve our skill as musicians. He clearly loved music, and he loved the people who made music with him.
We were fortunate to have captured his interest for the last several years. He attended our rehearsals regularly and offered advice and guidance whenever he suspected we had the patience to listen. He helped us to improve our overall sense of being an orchestral ensemble. He gently coached and encouraged us as we struck out on our own to become an independent nonprofit organization. We are grateful to have been his friends, and we will miss him.
Franklin Stover: I got to know Val near the end of his time at the HSU music department, and more intimately around the years I edited for the Humboldt Beacon, which ended in December 2011. A chamber musician myself, for a while I was in a unique position to help promote Val’s favorite pastime, the Chamber Players of the Redwoods through the paper.
We started getting together to discuss upcoming concerts, and as I got bolder, I started sharing my chamber and orchestral scores with him over coffee. Always very kind and gracious, Val showed genuine interest in what I was up to, made insightful comments and boosted my morale, which always needed boosting.
Val was highly considerate of others and was motivated to do good for the artistic community. I liked how Val was always thinking up ways of making the chamber music experience more accessible to the average person. His dedication to the Chamber Music Players of the Redwoods is a lasting testament to his work in this area. I will miss Val Phillips greatly.
Ronite Gluck: Val Phillips is a reminder to all of us of how the positive effects of one person’s good deeds continue to ripple out to the future in ways that person may never know.
I first met Val on an impromptu visit to the HSU Music Department when he was the department chair at a time when I was exploring where to continue my musical studies. His encouraging follow-up letter to me was a big part of why I chose to come to HSU, and I had the benefit of studying horn with him while I was pursuing my degrees in music performance and education.
He had performed in the Bay Area and Humboldt many of the great horn solo literature works, symphonic works and chamber music, and had a deep understanding of brass pedagogy, all of which he generously shared with his students. After he became a full-time administrator and I began teaching horn at HSU, I knew I could rely on his support whenever needed.
I will be forever grateful that he extended the summer chamber music workshops to include one solely for brass players (the Brass Chamber Music Workshop), a workshop I first attended in 1994 and almost every summer since. This event is a highlight of the summer for many, and folks return year after year, so we all consider ourselves part of an extended family that Val started. Imagine, all of these friendships formed with folks from all over the nation and the world, because of the seed that he planted to start this workshop.
Likewise, he began the Chamber Players of the Redwoods to encourage the sharing of chamber music year-round, and I have many fond memories of preparing for, and participating in, these events.
I witnessed Val continually supporting music in Humboldt through his attendance at concerts and performances. Always with a kind word to the musicians — the type of feedback that was the most valuable because he understood music-making so intimately himself.
Val was extraordinarily generous with his time, expertise, resources and instruments. I count myself fortunate to have known him, grown under his mentorship and to have been part of his musical community. His memory will live on in our music-making!
Ken Biggs: The loss of musical colleagues is difficult to bear; there is no more music to play with them. So, it hit me hard when I learned of the loss of one of my teachers, mentors and friends, Valgene “Val” Phillips. (His mother named him after Jean-Valjean of “Les Miserables,” her favorite book.)
He was my first trombone teacher. And when I graduated high school and attended HSU, I continued my studies there with Val where he was a professor.
You could often tell where Val was by the smell of his pipe tobacco. He would occasionally sit on the steps outside the music building and smoke, lost in thought. I would sometimes join him, often asking questions about this or that, while at other times enjoying the silence.
After graduation, I moved away from Humboldt, but often heard about him from people who were still there.
Others will remember Val differently, depending on which facet of life they interacted with him. Upon learning of Val’s death, my friend, Bodie Pfost, posted on Facebook: “Val was one of the kindest, gentlest, warmest souls I ever met. I will miss him.” I already miss him.
Toni Skelton: Val Phillips was one of my music education professors at HSU. More than that, he was a friend and mentor, who took all of those roles seriously and led by example. His boundless curiosity embodied a value for lifelong learning, which he brought to the classroom and reminded us that music education doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Val had a knack for finding the strengths in each of his students and encouraging them, while devising ways to supplement the areas that needed some attention. I remember once, in a secondary music methods class, he discovered that our entire group was lacking in a particular area of instrument pedagogy.
He scrapped two weeks’ worth of his syllabus to reteach the basics because, in his words, “I can’t let you graduate without knowing some basic technique, because your degree will say that you do, and future employers will expect it.”
Another time, during a lecture on professional behavior and demeanor, he made it a point to address our individual “quirks” that would not serve us well in job interviews. One of my friends (who went on to become a school superintendent) learned that “professionals do not begin sentences with ‘like’ and end with ‘you know.’”
Val worked to clean up my Midwestern drawl that I didn’t know I had. All of this was accomplished not with heavy criticism, but with warmth, humor and genuine determination to help us succeed.
His own public school teaching experience, generously shared, provided the practical examples that we novice teachers needed to hear. The best advice I ever received came from Val: ‘The principal doesn’t run the school. Custodians and school secretaries do. Make friends with them and treat them well.”
After graduation, Val was a touchstone for those of us who pursued careers in music education. Rather than kick us out of the nest with a sink or swim attitude, he let us know that he would always be there to answer questions, be a sounding board, provide a reality check or just catch up as friends.
In 2014, we asked Val if he would arrange some Christmas music for our local Tuba Holiday Concert, and he welcomed the chance to improve his skills using complex music software with a setting of “Good King Wenceslas.” The following year, he agreed to add another arrangement to our performance, and we have used his setting of “Silent Night” every year since.
Val’s passing leaves such a hole in my heart, and I know I am not alone. I am grateful for having known him, and will miss the random, welcome messages from him that I have treasured over the years.
Still, when the Tuba Holiday audience joins in singing “Silent Night” with the tubas and euphoniums, he will be with us for a few minutes, yet again.
Guy and Judy Aronoff: (Guy had the pleasure of knowing Val as a retired colleague from HSU and Judy as her ever-patient and encouraging French horn mentor.) Valgene Phillips, proud “Sooner” from Northwestern Oklahoma, came to California with his family in the late 1930s. Graduating from college and securing a teaching job in the postwar era, Val came to HSU in 1967, teaching music for over 37 years, and served as the dean for undergraduate studies before retiring in 2005.
Val also worked with numerous musical outlets, the Eureka Symphony, Chamber Music and All Seasons Orchestra (mentoring numerous people along the way). His expertise and quiet, unassuming manner made all that knew him comfortable.
Especially pleasurable were the lunches we had with him at the Café Marina in Eureka. In fact, he was the last person we saw in the flesh before the pandemic separated us all. Val reminisced about his life experience as we were in the process of gathering information for a collection of oral histories of HSU faculty and staff alumni.
We were very much eager to resume our lunch meetings and pick up where we left off, but sadly, this is not to be. He will be fondly remembered by us, and the so many lives he touched.
Terri Miller: I got to know Val and his family as a participant in the HSU Chamber Music Workshop. On occasion, Val would get out his French horn and play with us. He was in an ensemble of a few horns that was beautiful. He told me that “heaven” was getting to be part of 210 French horns playing together. Play on, my friend.
Elizabeth Morrison: I met Val Phillips the first time I attended the Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop in July 1986. The workshop changed the course of my life, as it did the lives of many of us. Chamber music grew from an interest to an obsession. At home, I played, studied and wrote about it. I married a violinist. We showed up for the workshop every summer. In 1993, we moved to Humboldt County. I owe so much, not least the happiest of marriages, to Val and the workshop.
Val was the workshop director, and his personality was close to the center of our experience. He and the excellent staff did everything possible to make the workshop our favorite week of the year. Beyond the many organizational felicities and the quirky traditions, Val brought to the role a quality that gave the workshop, for me, a kind of magic. That is, he listened.
To appreciate Val’s feat of listening, you need to know that each workshop day ends with a concert on stage in Fulkerson Hall, where the participants play a selection of the music they have worked on that day. However, this is not a concert as we usually use the word. We only receive our music assignment at 9 a.m. and must scramble to learn it in just a few hours. We are amateur musicians, and none of us, frankly, is Yo-Yo Ma. It is, rather, a series of fraught, adrenaline-fueled performances to which we bring whatever skill and insight we can summon, along with our hope not to crash and burn too badly on stage. The concert is long, and with 20 to 25 groups each day and even with a five-minute limit on each performance, it can be grueling. At any given moment, most of the audience is either dozing, fidgeting, gossiping or surreptitiously checking their phone. But not Val. Every day, usually for the whole, seemingly endless concert, Val would sit quietly on the stage, so close and so absorbed in the music that it almost felt like he was playing it with us.
I hardly dare think of how many times Val had heard the very same pieces, mostly likely with the same mistakes. But in his listening, he fully embodied Arthur Miller’s commandment that “attention must be paid.” Val gave his full attention to every one of us at the exact moments when we needed it most, when, playing our desperate hearts out, we were as exposed we would ever be in our lives.
This was his gift, and this is what we repaid with our gratitude and our devotion. His passing leaves an enormous hole in all our hearts. I’m afraid no one will ever listen to us that way again. All we can do now is try to learn from his example and give our full attention to each other the way Val gave his to us. In that way we can keep him with us forever.