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
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.