From active duty to the Atlanta Symphony — guest blog by Brian Hecht

Seeing that audition season is upon us, for both orchestra and military gigs, I thought it would be a wonderful treat to have someone with recent experience in both types of ensembles share their insight with us.  Brian Hecht, Bass Trombonist of the Atlanta Symphony and formerly of the United State Navy Band, graciously accepted my invitation to share his experiences and I am quite grateful to him for doing so.  Though still in the dawn of his career, Brian has assembled a rather impressive resume, including not only big audition wins (USNB and Atlanta) but professional experience performing with some of the most prestigious orchestras in the country.  You can read more about Brian, along with listen to audio clips, at his website.

Speaking of auditions, make sure you check out my opinion piece on auditions and audition repertoire from a few weeks ago.  It will be the next blog listed when you finish reading this one 😉

Next post: thoughts on approaching the alto trombone…

From Active Duty to Atlanta Symphony
by Brian Hecht

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I’ve been very fortunate in my career so far, to have had the opportunity to play in two very different and very talented ensembles; each with their own rewards that have given me different insights into the professional music world. Looking back on my experiences so far in both, I can definitively say that I would not have been successful in the Atlanta Symphony without the professional and musical lessons I learned during my enlistment in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C.

I joined the Navy Band after finishing my Masters degree at Northwestern in 2009. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into but, I knew that, because of the lack of bass trombone positions open in the country, it was either I join a military band or move back home and work at a bank.

After I won the audition it seemed like everything happened so fast! Before I knew it, I had a buzz cut, new clothes and a Chief Petty Officer screaming in my face about how much they hated looking at my ugly mug first thing every morning. Boot camp is one of those life experiences I never thought I’d find myself going through, and frankly neither did my family or friends. I wasn’t exactly the kind of person who liked following the rules or being told what to do. This is not a good trait to have as a bass trombone player, so I’m very thankful the Navy boot camp set me straight before I had to play in a professional section a couple months later.

The next two months would become the most miserable yet most memorable days of my life. From double days (48hrs of training with no sleep) to being tear gassed while our Petty Officers laughed behind a viewing window, to being fed a massive Thanksgiving meal then Intensively Trained until we puked because one member of our unit decided to get dessert. I remember the only things that got me through those 9 weeks were pictures of my family and a picture of my trombone (yep, that’s right) that I had taped up in my bunk. As a future musician in one of the Premier bands in DC, I was a rare recruit at boot camp, as were all my colleagues who were there with me, have been there before, and who will be there. Joining one of the Premier bands in DC is one of the few ways a US military recruit can shoot up the ranks the moment they graduate from boot camp. Everyone in the DC Bands comes out an E-6; for us that meant we were First Class Petty Officers. As cool as this was, this meant I had to actually stop acting like a child and grow up.

Once I left boot camp and joined the band in DC, I was eager to get to work. In fact, I’m probably the only person our Ceremonial Unit Leader has ever heard ask to be put on a funeral so I could get to work and start making music with my amazing new colleagues. For the next four years, I learned things, which cannot be taught in school. First hand professional experience is priceless! The bands in DC follow strict general military guidelines for all intents and purposes but once you get past being on time and looking clean cut in a uniform it truly is a fun and great place to be. Punctuality and cleanliness become almost subconscious habits that quickly define your practice discipline. I would arrive at rehearsal an hour prior to warm up just as I would arrive early to catch a bus to a day of ceremonial obligations that has become my routine and helped my preparedness for when I joined the Atlanta Symphony.

Aside from training in professionalism, the Navy Band was key in my development as a player. I was so green when I came in and learned countless lessons in musicianship and flawless performance from our Principal Trombone Jeffrey Knutson. These military bands are chock full of some of the best players in the country that require you to step up to their level or stick out like a sore thumb. I spent the entire four years there practicing to keep up with the best players in the DC bands. Even when I left I’m not quite sure I was successful in that endeavor. The guys and gals in each of those military bands are insanely talented musicians.

Performing as “professional last chair” in an orchestra can be very different to the same role in a band. For one, the size of each section is drastically different in each. In the Navy band we performed with anywhere from 4-6 trombones on stage, depending on the concert. In the ASO we use 3 trombones for most concerts. Having to perform with a larger number of players in your section means you have to blend more to perform as a single unit. Your volume has to match that of the other parts and your style must conform, further down the line, to present a singular product as a team. We would generally have two firsts, two seconds, and one on third. This often meant that I had to fill up my sound to try and match the breadth that two players could achieve. Though this task was near impossible, the process of it made me a better player. Having three players in a section, like in most orchestras, means you are given more of a solo role. Blend is equally as important but it’s different, in that each player is solely and completely responsible for the volume, color, and character of their part. Both roles can be a lot to juggle, but that is why rigorous auditions weed out the players capable of such complex multi-tasking.

An aspect of playing in a military band that does not exist in the orchestral world is the skills it takes to successfully perform all ceremonial obligations. Though this can be a repetitive job, it takes knowing your body and what you are capable of under different weather scenarios and levels of stress. I’ve had to perform ceremonies where the President’s face was so close to my bell that I had to lower my trombone as he passed so as not to clothesline him with my slide. I’ve had to perform on funerals for active duty sailors who passed long before their time. I’ve been within feet of grief stricken family members as we honor their fallen hero. All of this required a certain level of focus and concentration that one builds being thrown into these situations.

At times, we were required to perform memorized music in below freezing weather only wearing the equivalent of a business suit. One quickly learns shortcuts to being successful in these conditions from conveniently placed hand warmers to battery-powered mouthpiece heaters. A solid warm up can also go a long way when you have to sit for long periods of time and then perform a soft lyrical passage or even a loud march.

Wind Band music has its gems but it’s not the Mahlers, Brahms, and Bruckners I grew up dreaming of playing. Sure, we did transcriptions from time to time, but that’s roughly the equivalent to someone saying, “Here, this kind of tastes like Blue Bell ice cream, but it’s not.” It only makes you want it more. It’s this constant craving that kept me practicing my butt off to win an orchestral job.

After fours years of having this craving teased and treated by subbing with National Symphony, Washington National Opera, and Baltimore Symphony, I decided I had to win an orchestral job of my own. The timing of the end of my enlistment lined up almost perfectly with a vacancy in the Atlanta Symphony. In the Fall of 2013, I took on a very challenging and exciting new chapter of my life as a one-year sub with the ASO. Thankfully, my experience in the band prepared me for the level of professionalism and musicianship required of each member in Atlanta. In my new position, I was able to continue my lessons in these two areas through the guidance of my friends and section mates Colin Williams and Nathan Zgonc. These two guys showed me what it takes to win and maintain a professional orchestral position at the highest level.

In my year and a half with the Atlanta Symphony I have never once stopped enjoying the experience I have been fortunate enough to earn. The upsides are endless and the downsides (which I’ve yet to find) I’m sure can be counted on one hand.

In hindsight, I’ve learned from my time in the military band and ASO to keep your mind open, and your ears open wider! Never consider yourself “above” any job that opens itself to you, as some budding players seem to do with military bands and other non-orchestral gigs these days. Yes, you are locked in for a minimum of four years, it’s not an orchestra, BUT it is a learning experience and an amazing career with amazing players and people if you open your mind to the idea of something you had not yet considered. Allow where you are in life, to help prepare you for what you want in life. Anywhere you are, there are always lessons to be learned from someone who has been there before or is doing what you are, only better.

If you work hard enough and practice your butt off you may find yourself in either an orchestra or a military band someday. Don’t let that be the last success of your career. Always keep fighting and raising the bar in your practice. Don’t let the advancement of your playing and education of what’s great ever taper. Stay hungry for achieving a greater understanding of music and mastering your instrument.

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The (im)Practicality of Audition Lists

The subject of audition repertoire has been on my mind lately, and even though I’m not preparing for any auditions at the moment, I thought it worth the time to organize my thoughts for this blog. Co-mingling with thoughts on audition repertoire are considerations for what is required musically of us while on the job. Audition lists are stacked with the major excerpts that we hone endlessly in school and in audition preparation, but most orchestras are not playing that repertoire on a week-in, week-out basis. While it is imperative to learn the skills and styles it takes to perform these masterworks, I feel that audition lists often over-stress these pieces and leave out a significant amount of styles that we are required to play. Like I said, most orchestras are not playing Mahler, Bruckner, Strauss, Wagner, and Berg every week, but rather Pops of varying styles, light classics, rock concerts, chamber music, Broadway, movie scores, etc. etc. So why are audition lists grounded in the concept of asking only the ‘traditional’ orchestral repertoire, and often excluding a bulk of the styles one must be able to perform?

First, I must acknowledge that the skills learned through study of the orchestral masterworks and master composers are imperative and benefit us in ALL styles: time, pitch, sound, tone color, articulation, style…the list goes on. If one is to play in an orchestra, one must know the canvas regarding repertoire and styles. But why draw the line there? How practical is stacking the list with the repertoire of the aforementioned composers when 90% of orchestras are playing John Williams, Rogers & Hammerstein, Robert Russell Bennett, Leroy Anderson, Moncayo, and numerous other ‘Pops’ styles more often than the likes of Mahler, Bruckner, and Brahms?

Second, the culture of “excerpt obsession” that these audition repertoire lists have created does not necessarily breed good musicianship. There are tons of great instrumentalists out there – more than ever before – but often, you find folks who can play something incredibly well, but only one way: one articulation, one dynamic, one tempo, one tone color. When asked to change something, they are unable to modify their concept. I’m not saying I’ve mastered playing everything in every way possible, but I also was schooled to be open to different interpretations and be prepared to demonstrate. It is also a result of chamber music experience and learning to compromise on how a piece of music should go. Flexibility is a job requirement and trait of a good musician!

Third, auditions often don’t test the collaborative skills required on the job — ie. Section Playing – or give it the weight it deserves. A poignant tale demonstrating this comes from a good friend of mine who was taking a Section brass audition with a middle-tier orchestra. This person was a Finalist who played a section round, excerpt round, and solo piece round. The position was ultimately awarded to another candidate, though the committee told my friend that he hands-down played the best section round (he was told it sounded like he had been a member of the orchestra for years) but the winner played the best solo.   What I don’t understand is that for a Section position audition, the person who best demonstrated the skills most relevant didn’t get the job!

In continuation, I understand that the tenure process tests these collaborative skills, and often orchestras have trial periods before offering a contract. However, it is very common to hear about someone not passing the trial period or the tenure process because their collaborative (Section) skills are lacking.

Now that I’ve presented and critiqued what I would consider three of the main handicaps of audition lists, I should probably offer my humble suggestions for a remedy. I’m going to approach it from this perspective:

 What would I ask for if I were to be replacing myself in my own job?

  1. Wider styles of music. John Williams, Ferde Grofé, Rogers & Hammerstein, Robert Russell Bennett, Leroy Anderson, Andrew Lloyd Weber (gasp), Stephen Sondheim, Hans Zimmer….the list goes on forever. These are all composers with whom modern players must be familiar and who wrote tough stuff for our instruments. There are also inherent stylistic differences that cannot be tested through the classical masters: big band licks, movie scores, Broadway standards (76 Trombones…duh) that require a more diverse style. Not everything is played like Mahler or Wagner wrote it! Can you play light, tight, and bright? Can you make that .547 bore Howitzer of a trombone sound like a King 3B in a show pit, or Tommy Dorsey’s 2B?

Granted, every orchestra plays a different ratio of this repertoire, but at some point, you’re going to  play this stuff! The Mahler 3 excerpt is on every Principal Trombone audition, even though it might only come around every 20-30 years in some orchestras. I guarantee you’ll play 76 Trombones, March of the Toys, and Porgy and Bess with greater frequency.

  1. Musical personality and flexibility. Include a solo or two on audition lists (this is common for strings, not as much for trombone) that allows the candidate to demonstrate interpretation and personality. If a committee wants to hear a solo played in one way and does not appreciate another interpretation, don’t ask it! The solo doesn’t have to be the Creston Fantasy, but rather something simple, elegant and offer a variety of interpretation. Marcello, Galliard, Corelli, Bordogni come to my mind.

Regarding flexibility, I would ask a candidate to play their best excerpt a different way; perhaps with a specific comment to articulation or dynamic, perhaps more of a stylistic subtlety. I recently heard a story of a committee asking candidates to play Mozart’s Tuba mirum solo as if it were written by Shostakovich, just to see if candidates would make some sort of adjustment. It’s certainly a counter-intuitive concept, but sometimes things like this are required of us on the job.

  1. Section/Chamber playing. The best instrumental executor may not be the best listener and adjuster, and section playing exposes this. Balance, intonation, matching articulation and note-length, style, and generally knowing the role of the chair can be easily displayed in a section round.

I also like the idea of chamber music on an audition. Why not play a few duets, trios, or quartets, even if it’s simple sight-reading? Non-orchestral repertoire often removes the bonds of playing inside a particular box. This shows if someone is listening and adjusting, without any preconceived notion of how the repertoire goes. Maybe call it instinct testing.

While a student at Northwestern, I was initially frustrated that we didn’t have a course on preparing orchestral section excerpts, such as offered at other high-profile orchestral schools. My teacher, Michael Mulcahy, would often tell us that if we wanted to learn how to play in a section, we should play trios and quartets. I spent countless hours with my peers reading trios and quartets, and even won the ITA Quartet competition with my trombone quartet. The skills learned through these sessions tremendously benefited my section playing. I am very pleased to see that more and more semi-pro and professional trombone quartets are popping up, as these folks certainly understand the value of chamber music study and will be passing it along to their students.

Auditions are not a perfect system, but they are the best system we have. Could they be improved by making the repertoire more practical to the nature of the job?

Certainly.

Could this mean there would be significantly more variation from audition to audition?

Absolutely.

Might this actually help cultivate more well-rounded players?

Hmmm…..

Closing note:

I recently heard about a clinic Jim Pugh is presenting on being a well-rounded player, and also a clinic in LA being offered as an introduction to studio playing. These are FANTASTIC ideas and should be taken seriously by players of all styles. (Please post any relevant links below in the comments area.)

Next blog: thoughts from Brian Hecht on military band vs. orchestral performance.