Performing and Teaching in Mexico: An Interview with Claire Hellweg
At last year’s International Horn Symposium, I had the opportunity to reconnect with several alumni from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We had a wonderful time performing and reminiscing together with our teacher Douglas Hill, and my only regret is that I did not have more time to speak with everyone about their experiences over the past several years. When I met Claire Hellweg in the fall of 2002, she was pursuing her undergraduate degree, and I had just begun a master’s degree. At the time, she was already playing the horn at a high level, but it was Claire’s work ethic, positive attitude, and friendliness that made the biggest impression on me. Since then, Claire has won professional orchestral auditions in Mexico, studied with Frøydis Ree Wekre in Norway, organized an international brass festival, and become a mother. Needless to say, we did not have nearly enough time to discuss any of these experiences in detail last summer in Los Angeles. However, I asked Claire if she would be willing to share some more information about her life and career in an interview, and she graciously agreed.
James Boldin: Where are you currently performing and teaching?
JB: Could you talk briefly about your background, and how you arrived in your current playing and teaching positions?
CH: I did my undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Douglas Hill. I was freelancing in the Midwest when I moved to Mexico in 2006 and started playing low horn in the Yucatan Symphony. In 2008 I took a contract playing third horn in my current orchestra, and about a year later moved to Norway to pursue my masters degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music with Frøydis Ree Wekre. I came back to Guanajuato in 2012 and won the principal horn job and was eventually offered the teaching jobs after that.
JB: Have you always been interested in teaching?
CH: Yes! For me, teaching fills me up and orchestra empties me. I love playing in orchestra and I wake up every morning excited to do it, but at the end of a rehearsal or a concert I am usually tired and once in a while somewhat disenamored of music. Teaching is the opposite – I always think I don’t want to go do it, but every single time I leave full of energy and totally inspired. Teaching is a very important part of staying inspired as an artist for me.
JB: What is the music education system like in Mexico? How does it compare to music schools in the United States?
CH: There are no instrumental programs in public schools in Mexico and very limited musical education in public and private schools. So all music teaching happens outside of schools and there aren’t really music educators or people that focus on just teaching music. Most music teachers are active performers, even youth orchestra conductors and teachers of beginners. This is beginning to change as the number of musicians is starting to outnumber the amount of available performing work and as more and more music schools have bigger and bigger budgets. The biggest thing that is expanding are the government run music programs in low-income neighborhoods, based somewhat on the Venezuelan El Sistema. These programs are totally free for the kids and provide them with instruments, music, spaces, teachers, etc.
JB: What is the audition process for orchestras in Mexico? How does it compare to the audition system in the United States?
CH: There is not a standard audition process for all orchestras in Mexico. Some orchestras still operate without auditions, just based on contacts and conductors having the final decision. Most orchestras do have auditions, however, and they are similar to American auditions, although often much less notice is given for the audition (a month to even two weeks is typical). Few auditions use piano accompaniment, and the focus is mostly on excerpts. I don’t know the details for other orchestras, but our orchestra has an audition committee comprised of the director, concertmaster, one elected representative for string auditions and another for wind auditions, the principal of the section, or co-principal if necessary, and an invited expert on the particular instrument (a respected performer or teacher within the country). The candidates play behind a screen and each member of the committee has one vote. The trial period is two years, and at the end of the two year period the musician has to play a final audition (not competitive against other candidates, just them, not behind a screen), and from that, and review of their work in the orchestra, is granted tenure or not. For some auditions they have accepted videos for a first round or as a substitute for a live audition (this was somewhat controversial and won’t be done again).
Let me mention here that the classical music scene in Mexico is much more extensive than many American musicians realize. There are at least 20 full time orchestras and around four full-time youth orchestras. While orchestras around the world are folding or facing cuts, there are actually new orchestras being created in Mexico!
JB: Are there any other differences you’ve observed between life in Mexico and life in the United States?
CH: Pretty much every single aspect of life is different in Mexico than in the US, but I’ve been here so long that I don’t even notice it anymore. Now when I go back to the US it seems strange there. A big one is that there is no climate control (indoor heating or air conditioning) and the temperature can range from 55 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In general, people have less money and are just used to that so everyone carpools as much as possible, uses and reuses things and gets them repaired instead of buying new ones, and generally just lives somewhat simpler than in the US (for example my family has one car, no dishwasher, no dryer, no microwave, etc.) The pace of life is much more laid-back – it is typical to arrive 5 or 10 minutes late to events (rehearsals do start on time) and things tend to change at the last minute but people don’t get upset about it.
Family and good food are the most important things, and the food is amazing! The cheaper the better, and you can find really good, fresh food on almost every corner. People really take the time to prepare and enjoy great flavors.
It has taken some getting used to, but I really appreciate the Mexican way of life now where people have time to stop and chat with you and are always offering to help and support you.
JB: In addition to studying with Douglas Hill at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, you also studied with Frøydis Ree Wekre at the Norwegian Academy of Music. Could you talk about your experiences in Norway, including any advice or logistical information for those interested in studying abroad?
CH: Frøydis is a whole separate interview (I wrote an article in the Fall 2011 Horn Call about studying with her.)_ My biggest advice to those interested in studying abroad, or whatever you’re interested in doing, is have your dream and then just stick to it. Talk to everyone you know about it, make all the connections you can, apply for every scholarship and grant, learn the language, hone other skills which you can use when you’re there, write to teachers and tell them what you want to do, get yourself out there. If you keep your eye on your goal and stay open to all the possibilities of how to do it, it will work out.
It was my dream to study with Frøydis ever since I met her my freshman year at UW-Madison. When I finally was ready to do it I just wrote her and told her that. Then I went to Banff one summer to work with her for the first time. Then I started applying for grants. I applied for the Fulbright twice – once I was rejected and the second time I was an alternate. I planned to audition for the Norwegian Academy of Music one year and it didn’t work out (I got really sick and had to cancel my trip) but then the next year I was able to stay 6 weeks and work with Frøydis to prepare the audition. I was put on the waiting list (only two students were accepted to the masters program in horn) and then at the end of June they called and asked if I wanted to come in August. I sold my car, quit my job, and just went. I cleaned Frøydis’ house the first year for cash and then started getting a few gigs. Then I started to get grants: from the American-Scandinavian Foundation, the Sons of Norway, the Norway-America Association, and then I started to get much better at the horn and do well at auditions and then finally everything just fell into place. My point is it definitely did not work out at first for me, but I continued to look for possibilities and stayed true to what I really wanted to do.
It was amazing studying in Europe as an American. In my horn class there were people from Norway, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland and France. I got to hear so many different sounds and styles. Frøydis wasn’t attached to a particular way of playing just as long as you had a great sound and a very convincing musical plan. She was hard on us but it paid off. It’s also great to do auditions in Europe because you realize how much more interested they are in your complete musicianship rather than just technique and not missing notes like in the US. Auditions are much more of an art than a sport in Europe. This focus has really helped me continue to grow now that I have a job and continue to stay excited about what I do.
JB: Who have your major musical influences been, horn playing or otherwise?
CH: Aside from Doug and Frøydis, the four main people that have inspired me and influenced me in my current job most are Chip Williams, Ryan Gruber, Jesse Durkan, (Ulster Orchestra) and Julius Praenevicius (now the horn teacher at the Norwegian Academy of Music). Chip was my high school band director, a terrific musician, and the reason I got into this all to begin with. He saw something in me and didn’t keep quiet about it and started me out on a very satisfying path for my life. Ryan, Jesse, and Julius are the three principal horn players I got to play with a lot as a younger player and I really learned a lot from observing them. The biggest thing I learned from them is that they said very little to the section. This is hard for me to do but really important I think. They all just focused on playing great and leading by example – very inspiring. Other than that I would say Ani DiFranco, Alison Krauss and Hector Lavoe.
JB: When balancing a busy performing and teaching schedule, do you practice any specific routines or exercises to keep your fundamentals in shape?
CH: Let me just say that having a busy performing and teaching schedule is a piece of cake compared to being a mom on top of that. Since my son was born in 2012 I honestly don’t have a lot of time to practice. For me the key has been my study of the Alexander Technique. The fundamentals of the technique can be practiced while reading a book to my son, walking from the car to the hall, sitting in rehearsal, just about any time, and it is what most makes a difference in every aspect of my playing. The other benefit is that the main exercise is laying down in “semi-supine,” laying on the floor with a book under your head and your knees bent, feet on the ground. But it actually requires a lot of mental attention to be done effectively. If I only have 10 minutes before a rehearsal I will do semi-supine instead of taking out the horn.
Besides the Alexander Technique, I think more important than playing routines is to work on having a very convincing musical plan, being present, being confident and keeping your ears open. These things can also be practiced in daily life!
JB: Do you have any advice for horn students who are interested in working in Mexico?
CH: Some orchestras in Mexico are starting to use musicalchairs, but still many jobs are just by word of mouth. The best thing you can do if you’re interested is find some horn players working in Mexico on Facebook and just write them and ask. There is a Facebook group called Cornistas de Mexico where people sometimes post auditions. Just get connected to as many musicians working in Mexico as you can. Oh, and learn Spanish!
JB: Any other projects you want to talk about?
CH: At the moment I am taking a break from projects…in January of this year my husband and I organized an International Brass Festival in Guanajuato-one week, 55 students, 4 international guest artists, 4 concerts, countless hours of work… It was extremely satisfying, challenging, and fun and I grew a lot as a person from the experience. However, it made me want to stop taking on a lot of extra work for a while and focus on my family. I recently played 2nd horn on Konzertstuck with my orchestra too, so I’m happy go sit in the back again. I just did a recital of all Norwegian music at Beloit College. I have an invitation to put together a recital of music for trumpet, horn and marimba (does anyone know any good pieces for horn and marimba?) and I would like to do a concert with my students, from the little ones to the big ones, and finally play [Buyanovsky’s] España for that. But for the moment, no big plans. I think it’s really important to do chamber music and recitals as an orchestral musician. It keeps you taking risks and making musical decisions and staying connected with listeners and why you are really a musician. Then when you get back to work, the “big solos” feel easy.
JB: Anything else you’d like to share?
I want to talk a little bit about working together as a section and creating a good working atmosphere in an orchestra. Nothing pains me more than to hear about a section that doesn’t get along and unfortunately you hear about it too often. I am very lucky to have a great group of people to work with and I hope how I’ve played my role has contributed to that. It hasn’t been perfect and I’ve definitely made some mistakes, but we continue to work well together. I want to say that I think there are four ground rules to go by.
1) Communicate. Don’t let even something that seems like it will pass go. You don’t have to have a 5 hour meeting about it, but a short apology or opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding can make the difference between a good working relationship and a lifetime grudge.
2) Give each other space. Don’t always ask to fix something or check something the first time. Trust your colleagues to do their best.
3) Work on yourself. Sometimes I find myself taking out my stress on my section (not smart!!). Continue to search to find ways to find more peace of mind, improve your confidence, grow as a musician, stay on your own path of development. This will keep you focused on you and how your attitude contributes to every situation and relationship, and keep you away from complaining about others and blaming them for your own stuff.
4) Focus on the music. Within a section, people will have different strengths and weaknesses and even opinions on what is most important. Especially as principal, stay focused on the over-arching musical ideas, the inspiring points that make you excited about the music. Those things can fix intonation, ensemble, and blend more often than not.
Thanks to my wonderful section-mates — Daniel Norman, Michelle Petit, Dario Bojorquez, and Jonathan Lusher — for teaching me some of these lessons and being great people and musicians and bringing that to work every day.
Thanks for the opportunity to share some of my experiences, James!