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They're With the Band (Continued)

A Brace of Bassoonists, A World of Winds

Like Willoughby with flutists, former Oberlin professor Kenneth Moore produced many of today’s finest orchestral bassoon players. One of his students, Wilfred Roberts ’63, eventually became principal bassoonist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where many of his fellow wind players are Obies. Still in the principal’s chair today, he may have held the title longer than any orchestral bassoonist in the world. “It’s so close, we would all have to get together and compare notes,” Roberts says.

Roberts was the rare student who had his sights focused on playing in an orchestra early on; he had fallen in love with orchestral music many years before attending the Conservatory. While helping him reach his goal, Moore encouraged Roberts to enjoy “a great life experience” and study abroad in Salzburg. “He was a very practical teacher, dealing mostly with the fundamentals and the discipline of playing an instrument,” Roberts says. “Oberlin was always my first choice and Moore was a wonderful teacher for me.”

Eric Arbiter - Houston

(Photo courtesy
Bruce Bennett)

Moore can also take credit for boosting Eric Arbiter ’72 to his current position as acting principal bassoonist of the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Arbiter studied with Moore privately and sought out every ensemble he conducted. “He was amazing,” Arbiter says. “We started playing excerpts right away. I think that’s why a lot of his students ended up with orchestral jobs. He was probably more wonderful as a conductor. He was interested in making musicians.”


E. Barr & W. Henigman - Dallas

(Photo courtesy
Keith Wood)

Moore’s influence even extends to other instruments. Eric Barr ’67, principal oboist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, cites Moore, along with oboe instructors Wayne Rapier and DeVere Moore as the professors with whom he bonded. Incidentally, Barr is one of three Oberlin oboists who now play in Dallas. He sits alongside Erin Hannigan ’94 and Willa Henigman ’87. Barr’s fondest memories from Oberlin are the Conservatory-sanctioned trips to hear the Cleveland Orchestra. “That is probably the single biggest influence on my career and how I think about things,” he says. “I was so overcome on a regular basis that it made me branch out.”

Alex Klein - Chicago

(Photo courtesy
Louiz Ceguinel)

Alex Klein ’87, AD ’89 was principal oboist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1995 until 2004, when focal dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary muscle contractions, forced him to retire from the rigors of an orchestral playing schedule. These days, he’s conducting, playing solo concertos and chamber music, and directing sociocultural music festivals around the world. At Oberlin, where he studied with Professor of Oboe James Caldwell, Klein says he had a chance to establish his own parameters. “Oberlin gave me the flexibility to develop my self-expression. Later in my professional career, the biggest advantage I found from this Oberlin approach was that I feel at peace with uncertainty. I know how I can fit in, because I was given so many ways to fit in at Oberlin.”

Oberlin-trained low brass players also are populating orchestras throughout the country. The Conservatory produced at least two of today’s leading orchestral trombone players: Milton Stevens ’64, principal trombonist of the National Symphony Orchestra, and Demian Austin ’92, principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Demian Austin - Metropolitan Opera

(Photo courtesy
Demian Austin)

Stevens considers himself lucky to be in the nation’s capital and to have played under two great conductors, Leonard Slatkin and Mstislav Rostropovich. “There’s a lot of attention drawn to the arts here,” he says. “There are also some great artists passing through. I’m very fortunate to be in this orchestra.” The teacher who got him there was Thomas Kramer. “He presented me with everything I needed and I did my utmost to please him,” Stevens says. “It was an intense experience.”

Austin, a former student of the late Raymond Premru, says Oberlin offered him a balanced range of learning opportunities, of which music was just one aspect. This cornucopia of course offerings contributed to his success as a musician. In fact, according to Austin, Oberlin’s range of classes may be its greatest legacy.


Sound Advice from the Pros

Samuel Bergman - Minnesota

(Photo courtesy Minnesota Symphony Orchestra)

Because they learned their own lessons well, Conservatory alumni are more than happy to reduce the learning curve for upcoming graduates about to face that most daunting prospect, the orchestral audition, an unpleasant process that the Minnesota Orchestra’s Samuel Bergman says is akin to “being naked and unable to see the people interrogating you.” They suggest that young musicians seek instruction from an active orchestra member, play with personality and conviction, and focus on basic musicianship.

“If you believe in your sound, the right orchestra will pick you,” says Robert Ward of the San Francisco Symphony. Then again, “Wrong notes will weed you out immediately,” says the Cleveland Orchestra’s John Rautenberg. The Chicago Symphony’s Richard Keith Graef says that 90 percent of candidates are cut because their rhythm is incorrect, their intonation is rough, or their pulse is unsteady. “That’s a message,” he says. “Master your fundamentals.”


Orchestral positions are fiercely prized, and auditions are much more competitive now, says Roger Fratena ’71, associate principal bassist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He advises practicing thoroughly—“If you can’t play it slowly, you can’t play it fast”—and joining as many ensembles as possible. Performing in Oberlin’s orchestras imbued him with a crucial survival mentality. “I was awestruck at the level at which the others played. You are brought up by your peers as well as by your teachers. That makes you sink or swim. It makes you work to be worthy of the group.”

Other advice includes taking multiple auditions for the experience, listening to oneself on a recording, and lining up a range of career options. Aralee Dorough of the Houston Symphony also reminds younger players to be aware of their physical health. Repetitive stress injuries are common and potentially lethal to musical careers. She recommends that students perform yoga or other stress-relieving exercises and that they follow the Alexander Technique.

Seth Low ’82, a cellist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, thinks a lot about his former mentor, the late Richard Kapuscinski. “His teaching was the big thing that prepared me,” Low says. “I think that’s why I got into an orchestra—his work on articulation and on my bow arm.” Before Baltimore, Low played in the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. He reminds prospective players there’s nothing wrong with starting in a second- or third-tier orchestra. “Your whole career does not ride on the exams,” he says. “You don’t have to be the best. And the first audition doesn’t have to be Boston. The future may seem fearful, but as you approach it, it diminishes and becomes manageable.”

Alumnus Donald Miller, a former chairman of the Cleveland Orchestra’s negotiating committee, sounds a warning to would-be orchestral players to weigh financial realities and to be prepared for long-term commitment. “There is no ladder,” he says. “This will probably be the job you’ll have the rest of your life. If you reach the highest level, it hits you that 40 years later you’ll still be doing the same thing. That can be extremely difficult for some young people to accept.”

The ability to learn music quickly is essential in the real world, says Jack Bell of Atlanta. “Percussionists don’t always have much to do when the orchestra is playing Mozart, but they’re on the hot seat when there’s only one rehearsal to prepare an entire percussion-heavy pops concert.”

The National Symphony Orchestra’s Daniel Foster has this advice for audition-takers: Playing in an orchestra is a “great option” for a violist, but anyone vying for a job needs to adhere to an independent standard of excellence. “There’s a big disparity in levels of playing,” he says. “Don’t evaluate based on what’s around you. Aim super high. Think, ‘Would I want to hear 12 people together playing exactly as I’m playing?’ That can give you a sense of being on the right track.”


Demian Austin of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra reminds students of Oberlin’s wealth of riches and advises them to take advantage of everything Oberlin has to offer. “Be a well-rounded person. You can learn everything about music and still be a musical idiot. The one who is the more interesting person will almost always play better.”

Zachary Lewis is a freelance music journalist based in Cleveland.

For a more comprehensive listing of Oberlin alumni performing in orchestras, please visit www.oberlin.edu/con/divinfo/.

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