Although born into a family of successful musicians, Thomas Leslie's mother advised him to be a dentist. He'd make much more money, she reasoned.
Fortunately, money wasn't a motivator for him, and a C+ in biology didn't bode well for a career in health care. So, instead, he opted for the life of a musician and conductor, and now Leslie serves as the director of the UNLV Division of Wind Band Studies and professor of conducting for the university’s wind orchestra. Leslie has been with UNLV for 38 years.
"I never had any doubts about becoming a musician or a conductor,” he says. Or about not becoming a dentist.
What did you do prior to coming to UNLV?
Before coming to UNLV, I taught high school band in Iowa, Indiana, and Arizona for 11 years. During this time, I was fortunate to work with inspired and hardworking high school students, enabling us to win seven state championships and two national championships with those amazing high school marching bands. These experiences led me to UNLV, and it was (former) UNLV President Robert Maxson who made it possible for me to come to Las Vegas and build a band program at the university.
What inspired you to get into your field?
I was fortunate to be born into a very musical family. My grandmother was a music professor at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. My mother studied music from the time she was a small girl at the conservatory until she won a national talent competition. The winning prize for this competition was an invitation to travel to Hollywood, California, to film cabaret scenes for black and white movies made in the late 1930s. After that time, she was a working professional musician, singing in operas, stage shows, and in night clubs.
When I was born, these activities were curtailed in order to motivate me and teach me how to become a musician. In essence, she became a stage mom, driving me to the University of Iowa to study French horn from age eight and accompanying me to Chicago to see major performances of symphony concerts, ballets, and opera performances throughout my school years. It only seemed natural to follow through to study music in college as my sister had done before me.
While at the University of Iowa, pursuing a bachelor's degree in music performance, I discovered the joy of teaching. During my summers away from the university, teaching became as much a passion, even more than performing. Today, 49 years later, I still love going to the classroom every day. The students are now my motivators.
What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?
Although my close colleagues know of my passion for a specific cartoon character, most people would be shocked to learn that I can speak like and love Donald Duck — my alter ego.
The biggest misconception about your job?
The biggest misconception about the life of a conductor is that we stand in front of a musical ensemble, wave our arms, and the music just happens naturally, as if by magic. Truly, the music happens through dedicated teaching by the conductor and dedicated learning by the musician.
Name a person (or group of persons) on campus you’d like to thank.
The successes that we have experienced in the division of Wind Band Studies would never have been achieved without the significant work and support from my colleagues in the School of Music and across the campus. Additionally, I have enjoyed wonderful support and respect from Nancy Uscher, dean of the College of Fine Arts, and her incredible staff in the CFA.
Most importantly, we have achieved significant goals because of a great teamwork between Associate Director of Bands Tony LaBounty and visiting professor of conducting Zane Douglass, who are my most valued colleagues in our division.
What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?
- Become a dentist.
- Be careful not to take risks.
- Try not to be different.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Study harder than ever before, sacrifice as much as possible for your students, and become the best musician you can be.
Tell us about an object in your office and what it represents to you.
Several years ago, during the President’s Concert, a university photographer snapped a picture of me in the biggest moment of the performance. That photograph has garnered an incredible response from colleagues and musicians internationally. Recently, a former student presented me a canvas print of this memory for me to display behind my desk on the wall of my office.
I love that photo for multiple reasons, the first of which would be a remembrance of the students involved in making music during that concert and a special memento presented to me by this very caring and wonderful student.
When you’re traveling, what’s the biggest misconception you encounter about UNLV?
Originally when I moved to Las Vegas, colleagues and friends throughout the globe asked me if I lived on the Strip in a hotel. They actually didn’t believe that Las Vegas had homes, schools, and businesses unrelated to the casino industry. Additionally, I was asked about performance opportunities in Las Vegas and on the Strip for myself and my students. My reaction was, “Of course, many of my students are professional musicians on the Strip and making greater salaries than myself."