A Student's Life: Tyler Bonilla

Jazz trombonist Tyler Bonilla '20 takes us on a tour through his busy life at NEC.

Blackboard with music symbols
Jazz chord symbols fill a blackboard in Jerry Bergonzi's ensemble rehearsal room.

Before I knew I wanted to play an instrument, I was set on becoming an astronaut. Like, legitimately! 

I researched a whole bunch of things, and I was ready for it. But, the funny thing is—the one thing that stopped me from pursuing that was that there was a height limit of 6'1", so that just totally was gone. But then I went to middle school; then I was introduced to music, and I really ended up having a passion for it. So, everything ended up working out. And I’m here!


The Jerry Bergonzi Ensemble

Jerry Bergonzi Ensemble rehearses
The Jerry Bergonzi Ensemble meets for a morning rehearsal.

Initially going into this ensemble, I knew nobody in there—besides [faculty member and saxophonist Jerry] Bergonzi, because I’d already taken lessons with him privately. They’re all grad students; I’m the only undergrad. The first rehearsal we went around and it was all: grad, grad, grad, grad, grad.

They’re all really awesome people to play with—and just people in general. I’m really glad I got to know them through this ensemble. That wouldn’t have been possible without NEC and the way they work things. It’s been a great group to work with. The dynamics between us, personality-wise and playing-wise, really work well together. So I feel like the group as a whole is pretty solid. And it’s also just a joy to play with them.


Trombonist Tyler Bonilla shares a laugh during a rehearsal


I was born in Queens, in New York. And even though I never played any instrument at all while I was there—which was from when I was born until about fifth grade—I always used to hear the classic stories from my parents about [my] dancing to the music whenever it came [on]. My mom told me I was in my walker, and I was dancing so much that I actually broke it! And she says, “That’s when I knew you were going to be a musician.”

Going into middle school, which was in Florida, I was introduced to actual instruments. I was like, “Oh, this is cool. Music is cool. I’ll give it a try.” And I ended up really liking it.

I had really wanted to play drums. But my music teacher needed to fill chairs in the band and persuaded me to take up trombone instead. And slowly I realized, as middle school was passing, my drum set was collecting dust and I was only playing trombone. And I ended up really liking it. I really owe a lot to my middle school band director who got me started on trombone.


Matthew Duveneck's Physical Geography Class

Matthew Duveneck teaches a Liberal Arts class
Professor Matthew Duveneck's Physical Geography class, one of NEC’s Liberal Arts offerings.

I just really like the way Matthew Duveneck teaches. I haven’t had a class yet that I haven’t enjoyed, that’s been taught by him. And next semester, actually, I’m taking two more classes with him. He’s very—he knows how to relate and still deliver the material.

I’ve always been interested in, for example, Marine Biology, and honestly, just the earth in general and how it relates to everything else. And a lot of the things he covers are about that very specific topic. Like climate change—that’s all about how we use our resources on earth, and different ways [the climate] has been affected over the years... things I am very curious about naturally. So, it’s great that I can study that as well here along with music. Because honestly, if I wasn’t a musician I would probably be a marine biologist. 

As you can tell by this picture, usually there’s a lot of smiles, a lot of laughter and jokes and stuff. But we still get the work done.


Jerry Bergonzi Studio

Trombonist Tyler Bonilla rehearses
Like many NEC Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation (CI) students, Tyler studies with faculty members beyond his own instrument.

I studied with [jazz trombonist] Luis Bonilla (no relation). He definitely helped me out with a lot of fundamental “trombone” technique, as you would imagine. And I feel like he gave me enough material to work on for the next few years. I can take that and use it as an opportunity to study with other instrumentalists, and almost not play like a trombone player.

I would rather create my own style of playing that doesn’t revolve around the fact that it’s a trombone. It’s more just the music. I feel like that’s what I’ve been going for.


Jerry Bergonzi studio
Tyler works one-on-one with saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi.

The teachers I study with, at this point, really have their own way of approaching things, which I really like because they give different perspectives on the same topic.

Which is why I picked them specifically. For example, Jerry Bergonzi—he’s the type of teacher you go into a lesson with literally anything you have a question for, or want to start learning, and he’s like a plethora of knowledge. He’s like, “Okay, here’s 20,000 things you can do with this!” And I’m like: Wow, that’s a lot to work on. And then I’ll take that and pick the ones that I feel like speak to me the most. That’s kinda how that works. And then I’ll take that back into the next lesson, and we kind of grow in that way.


John McNeil Studio

John McNeil Studio
Later the same day, Tyler works privately with trumpeter John McNeil.

John McNeil is also very amazing. I really like my teachers! I’m really grateful to study with both of them. Both of them are just incredibly hilarious, which is awesome. It’s great to have a teacher that you can also just talk to.


John McNeil Studio


With McNeil—he gave me some really great things to build my foundation on, and expand my foundation on, which is something I feel I really needed coming in. And he really helped me focus on my strengths and my weaknesses and what I should tackle, and how I should tackle [it].

That’s what I really like about it. He not only told me what I should fix, but how I can go about fixing it. Different options. And I feel like I’ve grown as a player a lot, because of all the teachers I’ve had throughout my time here.


Taking a Break in the SLPC

Students hang out in the Speed Dining Commons
Tyler chats with fellow students Dave Norville, Isabel Crespo Pardo, and Kebra-Seyoun Charles in the Speed Dining Commons, inside the Student Life and Performance Center (SLPC).

Everybody here is pretty chill. Especially the jazz department itself is very close because it’s small, compared to the classical programs. But as you can see here, we’re all just hanging anyways; it doesn’t really matter. In this picture, Kebra and Dave are classical majors, and Isabel is CI. It’s not as separated as other places, I would assume.

In a few years, we’re all going to be doing our own things; we’re all going to be experiencing life, and have our own goals and visions, and chasing after them. And it's cool to look back at this moment where we’re all sitting at one table and just having a good time, while we’re all trying to discover or work towards what our goals are.


The Art of Practicing

Trombonist Tyler Bonilla practices in the 33 Gainsborough building
Tyler works in a practice room at the 33 Gainsborough Street building.

One thing about practicing: You don’t want to sound good when you’re practicing. I feel like: you want to practice things that you aren’t already good at, that’s what I mean. And when you’re practicing things that you know you can do, it’s less about getting better and more—I don’t know, either having fun or feeding your ego. Because, you might have trouble doing something and you’re like “Aw, forget it,” then you do something else that you can do well. And it’s very hard to balance those two, because I definitely catch myself on either side of the spectrum. 

Sometimes I’m practicing things that are obviously new—and that’s what I think you should be doing at all times. And it’s really difficult and [takes] hard mental control. But it’s very rewarding once you pass that barrier and [are] able to focus on what needs to be improved.

I like to practice every day when possible. But I like to have one day out of the week when I don’t practice, just to not overdo my chops. Because I’m also having ensemble rehearsals and having gigs—outside NEC gigs and inside NEC gigs. I don’t want to overwork my embouchure, so I think one day out of the week just to not do anything, not only gives rest to the embouchure but gives you a few extra hours to do something else that you can work on. It works both ways.


Audio mixing software on a laptop computer
In addition to trombone, Tyler has developed skills with audio engineering software. Here he adjusts a Pro Tools mix on his laptop.

I think the key factor that pushed me to be curious [about audio engineering]—I was already naturally curious, but when I would hear back the recordings of myself playing, I’d be like “Huh! I don’t sound like that.” You know, you’d spend all these years perfecting your tone and working on your sounds and for it not to be portrayed… It just feels like all that work was not shown in the recording.

So, I would think: “Man, what’s happening that’s not showing my actual sound?” And that’s when I started going into it on my own time. I spent an entire summer just dedicated to Pro Tools, which is the program I’m using [above]. Then also started learning my own aspects of mixing and mastering.

There were so many moments that summer where I just hit brick walls like, “I don’t know what to do in this situation.” Because obviously the end goal is to blend all these different tracks of instruments in a way that seems natural, but also clean, like a professional recording. So I would hit all these roadblocks, like for example, having the kick drum of the drum set stick out and overlap with the bass guitar, because they’re in the same frequencies. Once I figured that out, I knew that no matter what walls I [encounter], I can always work harder and eventually overcome them. And obviously that applies in many other aspects of my life.


Mastering the Stock Market

Tyler Bonilla invests in the stock market on his laptop
Later that evening, while waiting for a rehearsal to begin, Tyler checks the stock market.

[The stock market is] my other passion. I was interested in it in high school; because, wow, you can really make money with money? Like, what is that? That whole idea just captivated me.

And in the beginning I had no—NO idea what I was doing. I downloaded Robin Hood and I was like “I’m doing finance now, like I’m so cool!” So I put money into a stock. I was in a music environment, hanging out with friends, and I put my money in and sold like an hour later. And I made $120.00. And I was like “Oh my Gosh! I’m so good! I’m doing it. This is so cool!" And then I did the same thing, and lost $300.00. And then I was like, “Okay, maybe there’s more to this.”

I’m seeing this as my way to financial freedom, and then using that to cultivate my passions as a trombone player, my musical passions, my audio engineering—being able to access different opportunities, you know. Which I feel is the goal for anybody.


Collaborating with Berklee Students

Trombonist Tyler Bonilla rehearses with a band at Berklee
Tyler rehearses with student-run hip hop ensemble for a "caf" show on Berklee's Jackson Browne Stage.

I’ve done multiple [cafeteria] shows at Berklee, and performances with Berklee students, and they are always a completely different experience than NEC. And it’s not that one is better than the other, more just a completely different set of cards. I really like what both schools have to offer.