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!

Have Horn, Will Travel: An Interview with Lauren Robinson, Part 1

laurenrobinsonI recently reconnected over Facebook with Lauren Robinson, a friend and colleague from graduate school. I feel very lucky to have gone to school with some incredibly talented and hardworking musicians, who inspired me then and continue to inspire me today. Lauren currently lives in Denmark, where she plays Fourth Horn with the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra. Prior to moving overseas, she was an active freelancer in Philadelphia, performing as a regular musician in the Opera Company of Philadelphia, The Reading Symphony Orchestra, Symphony in C and the Ocean City Pops. She was also active as a teaching artist, working primarily for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s School Partnership Program. Lauren very graciously accepted my invitation to write down some of her thoughts about living and performing outside the U.S., freelance playing, and the life of a professional horn player. She shared some wonderful advice for students, teachers, and professionals alike. Thanks Lauren!

You recently won an audition for the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra in Denmark. Could you talk briefly about your background, and how you arrived in your current position?

Sure! I grew up in central PA, came through a good music program in high school, and ultimately decided to major in music at the University of Delaware, where I studied with Cindy Carr. After that, I got my Master’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I studied with Douglas Hill. After that, I decided to head back east and got a Professional Studies Certificate at Temple University, where I studied with Adam Unsworth (who now teaches at University of Michigan.) After all that, I won a one year position in the Calgary Philharmonic where I met my husband Jeff, who plays the bass. And after a few years of long distance relationship, we got married. Jeff took a sabbatical from his job in Calgary for the 2011-12 orchestra season and we both won positions here in the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra in May 2012.

What was the audition process for this orchestra? How did it compare to the audition system in the United States?

Auditions here are essentially the same as in the United States. There’s a screen, you receive the list ahead of time (although often you don’t receive the excerpt list until 2 weeks beforehand, which is quite different from American orchestras.) There’s a much greater emphasis placed on solo playing here, and there is almost always an accompanist provided at auditions. My first round was the Hermann Neuling Bagatelle for horn and piano. This is a very common piece on low horn auditions in Europe, but we almost never play it in the States. There were no excerpts at all on my first round. The second round was the entire first movement of Mozart 3 (including the cadenza) and one or two excerpts. Then the last round was entirely excerpts.

Actually, if I remember correctly, for the last round they just said “Play everything on the list that you haven’t already played for us, in any order you want.” I remember thinking at the time that I could really get into my own head and start arranging excerpts in the most convenient way, strategizing about which should be first, last, etc. (There were at least 10 excerpts left to play at that point.) But then I had this realization that the best thing to do was just go in order, start to finish. Realistically, if I didn’t know how to play the excerpts, I wasn’t going to trick anyone by playing them in a different order.

Generally, I think the committees are larger here. There were at least ten people on my committee for 4th horn. And principal positions are usually no less than 15 people. One major difference is that our music director has no say in the hiring of musicians here, so he is not even allowed to sit on committees. Of course these things can vary from orchestra to orchestra. I can only speak from my own experiences.

Are there any other differences you’ve noticed performing in an orchestra outside the United States?

Honestly, not really. Orchestras are all basically the same wherever you go. There are small stylistic things that I sometimes think are slightly more “European” but they’re hard to exactly put a finger on. I might have a better answer to this after some more time passes.

Since this is a horn blog, I’ll nerd out for a second here about equipment. There are 8 full time orchestras in Denmark, including the opera orchestra. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a single section with a preference toward equipment. In my section, we are a Cornford, Paxman, Lewis, and Hill. We all just play what works best for us, which I think is a valuable piece of advice for horn students: get the equipment that makes you the most comfortable, that works the best, and makes you sound the way you want.

 What about major differences between life in Denmark vs. life in the United States?

Well, I’m learning to speak Danish!! That’s sort of fun. We are a very international orchestra, with about half of the orchestra coming from outside of Denmark. And Denmark is a pretty small country, so we rehearse in Danish when we have a Danish conductor. But frankly, that’s probably fewer than 10 weeks a year. So at work, English is mostly the language of rehearsals. Orchestra meetings and correspondence are all in Danish, though. So it’s important to learn it just to keep up with what’s going on and feel like you are a full member of the ensemble.

I just read your interview with Daren Robbins (Part 1 and Part 2) and one thing he said about Thailand really resonated with me as an expat. While Denmark is certainly much more like America than Thailand is, living abroad comes with a lot of challenges. Work permits and immigration, being far from home in a new country… sometimes the smallest thing can turn into a big deal because of small misunderstandings. But if you’re the type of person who likes a challenge and is adventurous, there are a lot of great opportunities in orchestras outside of America.

You also have extensive experience as a freelancer in the Philadelphia area. Do you have any advice for players looking to get into freelance work?

I feel like a lot of people come out of music school expecting that they are going to win a big job in a big orchestra. And the harsh reality is that only a tiny fraction of those people will even come CLOSE to winning a full time orchestra job. So the rest of you are going to have to find a way to make a living making music. A lot of people treat freelancing like a crappy consolation prize, but I really enjoyed freelancing in many ways and miss certain aspects of it.

When you’re a freelancer, you certainly have less stability– you don’t get your schedule ahead of time and sometimes the money can get a little dicey. But you also don’t have to sit next to the same people all the time. You have more control over your schedule. There’s a much wider variety of things you find yourself doing and projects that you find yourself involved with as a freelancer. It can be a lot of driving depending on where you are, and it can be a really tough schedule with few breaks or days off. But keeping a good attitude about it can make all the difference. A few practical pieces of advice:

When you first start out, take EVERYTHING that comes your way. Even if it seems inconsequential, like a church gig that pays $20. You don’t know who you are going to meet at those gigs, and you have to start making connections somewhere. Eventually, as you (hopefully) climb the freelancing ladder, you won’t feel like you have to take everything and you can be more discerning. Every gig is an opportunity to make a good impression, both with your playing and your professionalism.

And speaking of professionalism… My basic rule for those just starting out (and those who’ve been in it for awhile, too!) is “Don’t be annoying.” Here are a few things that are annoying and should be avoided:

  1. Showing up late. Nothing says “this job isn’t important to me” like not showing up on time. Yes, things happen that you absolutely couldn’t anticipate. I’m not talking about those events. If you’re leaving Philly at 4:30 on a Friday, it’s a pretty safe bet that there’s traffic. Leave MORE than enough time to get where you are going.
  2. Playing with your phone during rests and tacets. I don’t care if regular members of the group are on their phone. If you are a sub, keep it offstage. Your Facebook can wait until break.
  3. Practicing your concertos and excerpts for your next audition while everyone else is warming up. Yes, you sound very nice on Pavane and Ein Heldenleben, but we’re playing a pops concert and you’re being annoying. Practice at home. Use the stage time before rehearsal to double check the parts you are actually playing and make sure you sound good on the things you’ll actually be judged on.
  4. Not knowing your part. Come on, people, in the age of iTunes and Spotify, you’re telling me you really haven’t heard it? There is no excuse for this. Period.
  5. Acting like you’re too good for the gig. Be nice, be friendly, be a good sport. I don’t need you to be a cheerleader, but don’t roll your eyes or complain.

Remember, once you’ve blown the chance to show someone that you are prepared and professional, you don’t get that opportunity back.

Know that you can be replaced. No one is obligated to call you, and there is always someone behind you who would be HAPPY for the work.

Check back soon for Part 2!

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