Have Horn, Will Travel: An Interview with Lauren Robinson, Part 2

This Part 2 of a 2-part interview with Lauren Robinson, a professional horn player living and working in Denmark. Read Part 1 here.

You’ve been active in music education as well, working as a teaching artist for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s School Partnership Program. Can you talk a little bit about this program and your experiences with it?

First of all, I believe every musician should be required to read Eric Booth’s fantastic book The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible. Seriously, go read it. Now.

These days, it’s really not enough to just play great. We are all required to be ambassadors for our art. I do not know a single musician who doesn’t also teach and/or do some sort of outreach. I was lucky enough to teach for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s School Partnership Program on a weekly basis in various public elementary schools in Philadelphia. Over the four years that I worked in this program, I worked in three different schools with students in grades 2 through 5 doing engaging music activities every week. I partnered with the classroom teachers for this, which means that I was in their everyday classroom, not their music classroom. Students would come to Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, as well as other concerts in the Philadelphia area. We did all sorts of things– cross curricular activities tying orchestral music into something they were learning in their literacy classes, for example. Or learning the theme to Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony on the recorder. Students did a lot of group work with compositional techniques. The sky was really the limit, and I really got to be creative with my lesson planning.

This program is based on the idea that we must engage our audiences before we inform them. Get people of all ages involved in the process and they’ll be more invested in the result. Some of the work that I am most proud of as a musician came from working with these teachers and kids, bringing them into the world of orchestral music

I could go on about this program and the importance of audience engagement for quite awhile, but rather than me jabbering, why don’t you all just go buy the book??

Who have your major musical influences been, horn playing or otherwise?

I’ve been truly blessed to have some great teachers on the horn. Cindy Carr, Doug Hill, and Adam Unsworth are my formal teachers and I’ve taken a great deal from studying with each of them. I’ve also taken a lot of inspiration from Denise Tryon and Froydis Wekre. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Sarah Willis but she’s also someone I really admire.

Do you do anything physical (besides practice!) to keep your horn playing in shape?

I practice yoga and run. I enjoy the yoga because it clears my head and helps to stretch my body after long hours of playing. Studies repeatedly show that sitting is one of the hardest things for our bodies, and in an orchestra, you do a lot of it! Yoga can also really help with core strength, which just helps everything. It helps with sitting for long hours, it helps with holding the horn, it helps with awareness of your body. I would really encourage brass players to try it, and make sure you try lots of different teachers and styles of yoga if you aren’t sure about it at first.

I also took up running about two years ago. I’m not fast by any means, but I have found that cardiovascular activity REALLY helps my playing. I find that I breath more efficiently on my horn when I’ve been running regularly, even if I’m not going huge distances. I completed my first half marathon last year and run the occasional road race. I often put symphonic repertoire on my playlist while I run, so it has the added bonus of being a time to listen to some of what’s coming up. (This has mixed results, sometimes the slow movements just aren’t great to run to!)

 Any other projects you want to talk about?

In 2011, I started a chamber music festival in British Columbia, where my husband Jeff has some roots. I actually have ceded control of the festival to a colleague of mine since moving to Denmark, but I still want to talk a little about it because it ties in with a lot of what we’re talking about here.

When I started out freelancing, I didn’t feel like I got to play chamber music on a really high level. And I found, talking to my friends, that they felt very much the same. My husband’s family has a condo in Invermere, British Columbia and Jeff and I had remarked for a long time that it would be a great place for a summer music festival. So sometime in the winter of 2011, I decided to start a festival. I had no idea what I was doing because I’d never done anything like that before. But I just picked up the phone and started making some calls to the local arts organizations and to my friends who I thought might want to come play music and hang out on the lakeshore when we weren’t rehearsing.

I think, in hindsight, what happened was that I had become so wrapped up in auditions and working as a freelancer that I didn’t have much of my own direction. And I realized that if I wanted to play chamber music in the summer, then I couldn’t just sit around and wait for the phone to ring. No one else was going to start that festival, and I knew it was a great idea and there was an audience for it. And I was right. And it is a TON of work, but it was also fantastic, and rewarding, and it was MINE. I could program what I wanted, hire who I wanted, it was GREAT. Unfortunately, moving to Europe really made running the festival unrealistic, but I’ve been invited to play in a chamber ensemble here in Denmark that I’m very excited about that is starting up this summer. And I already feel like I’m able to take a lot of the things I learned from my own festival and apply them here.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Sure, as long as you’re giving me a soapbox to stand on, I’ll take it.

Winning a job in an orchestra is not easy. Preparing for auditions is a skill set all on its own. And you have to be intense about the process, and relentless for it to pay off.

Whether it’s because of the process or because of schooling, many musicians believe that winning an orchestra job is the be-all and end-all. They believe it is going to be the key to their happiness, that the world will just be a better place once they win that job. To be perfectly clear: I love my job. I have great colleagues. I love playing orchestral repertoire. Going to work is not a chore for me. But being in an orchestra also means that you have to give up a lot of control. You don’t get to choose the repertoire. You don’t get to choose the hours. It’s a grind and it’s a JOB sometimes. You are a cog in the wheel of an organization that has the potential to be MAGICAL. Playing Mahler or Mozart or Beethoven– it’s a gift. But that’s not always what an orchestra job is, week in and week out. I know a lot of musicians who are severely disappointed that winning a job didn’t suddenly solve all of their problems.

What I’ve noticed about both freelance musicians and those with full time orchestra jobs is that the ones that are the happiest are the ones who have many projects. For example, teaching, chamber music, playing in a band, non-musical hobbies, sports, WHATEVER. Find out what’s important to you musically, and find other people who also want to do that. Sometimes it isn’t something that you do for financial gain. (And that can be the great thing about an orchestra job– it’ll give you the security to pursue other projects outside of the orchestra.) My point, though, is that sometimes if things aren’t great at work, or you have a bad day teaching, or one project just isn’t coming together, you can still look to the other stuff for inspiration. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that an orchestra job will solve your problems. It won’t. But it’s a fantastic way to make a living.

Thanks so much for the opportunity, James! Hope I wasn’t too long-winded!

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Thanks for this interview! Lauren and I attended a Banff Centre program several years ago, and it’s great to see how well she’s doing. I’ll definitely check out Eric Booth’s book too…

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