Susan Harris will be the piano soloist for the at our next performance, playing Turina – Rapsodia sinfónica, for piano & orchestra, Op. 66. We asked Susan some questions in a fun and spirited exchange.
- When did you start playing music and was it always the piano?
- When did you know that you wanted to be a professional or a teacher?
- Which role you like best: Soloist, accompanist, and playing with an orchestra or rhythm section?
- What’s your connection to the Kirkland Civic Orchestra?
- What are your impressions of the Turina, your solo piece? Any insights for other musicians?
KCO: When did you start playing music and was it always the piano?
Susan: Yes, it was always the piano, well, no. Let me stop. I started playing when I was seven.
Both my parents worked and so I was collected from school every day by a friend’s mother. She sent both her daughters to piano lessons. And of course, I went with them. I just sat there and waited and every time we came home, I went and practiced everything they had just been taught. Because I would look and watch. To the point where the friend’s mother said to my mother, it’s a waste of money sending my girls to piano lessons, when your Susan is the one who’s actually taking notes and practicing!
That’s when my parents started sending me to lessons. And I loved it! Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have started piano lessons.
KCO: I ask was ‘it always the piano’ because most of my accompanists were people who played piano and other instruments. That’s why I was curious about that.
Susan: I did try other instruments. I think we all had recorder lessons at school, didn’t we? I tried the clarinet for a while because I was trying to get to an orchestral instrument. Being a pianist is a very lonely job. So I tried the clarinet. I wasn’t very good, and I wasn’t very enamored. My lip went numb, and I just didn’t want to stick with it. Piano is easier.
Then I started violin lessons. The teacher asked me at the end of the term, “are you going to continue?” And I said, “yes, please.” And she said, “I wouldn’t bother if I were you. ” Okay! I really enjoyed playing the violin, but I was obviously dreadful. I did one term. I didn’t even do a year. I was that bad.
KCO: That’s crazy about the teacher. You think of them as encouraging.
Susan: Exactly! You know what? That is why I always remember that, and that’s why I’m passionate about teaching. You’ve got to encourage. You’ve got to encourage a love of music.
Everybody has their favorite and least favorite composers. But, you don’t push that onto your students. I don’t tell them which composers I don’t enjoy playing because I don’t want to color their view. I want them to have the experience of playing all different types of music. I’m just so passionate about sharing that excitement in music.
KCO: When did you know that you wanted to be a professional or a teacher?
Susan: Well, it never really crossed my mind that way. Music has always been a part of my life. My mother, when I was first born, she just played Beethoven’s symphonies over and over. I could “la-la” all the themes, but I couldn’t tell you which symphony was which, because I just knew them inside out on the old record player.
Then my dad would come in, in the evenings, and put on Bing Crosby.
KCO: What a contrast.
Susan: Yes! Beethoven and Bing. That’s what I was brought up with. Then Frank Sinatra and all that stuff that my Dad played to me, which I just loved.
I just loved Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. There was my mother with Beethoven and Sibelius. She used to conduct the orchestra in the lounge. She used to close her eyes and pretend she was the conductor. So, that’s what I grew up with. Music was always there.
As you go through school, you’re accompanying and you’re doing the competitions at school and the music festivals, and going around the country. You get to an age, well I did, I got to an age of about 14-16 – I got all my grades, all my exams – and I didn’t get any better. My mother thought I was going to be this amazing concert pianist. And she was very disappointed. So thought I’ll go do a music degree then!
KCO: Well, that’s still good. I bet you did get better, but it’s hard to see that sort of thing.
Susan: Yes. I was very good at a young age, and then I just petered out. And life came up. It wasn’t just all about practicing. One, I just wasn’t that good to be a professional concert pianist and also, life comes along. You know, your friends, going out, boys, oh, dear.
KCO: Right. There’s more to being a musician than just a concert pianist.
Susan: Absolutely. I did my music degree. I did my performance diploma. I had to wait until I was 18 to do a teaching diploma, because that’s the youngest you’re allowed to do it in Britain. You can’t be a teacher until you’re 18.
I was doing my degree and then after my degree, I did my post-grad in music education because I just found this is the way to go. I really want to share this. My friends in college were going on to play in orchestras. I played with them, performed and everything, but, piano playing is a lonely job.
KCO: Well, I’ve seen you in the back of the orchestra. You seem to like to be the piano player with the orchestra.
Susan: I do. I do like that because I can be part of something. Once in a while, an orchestra would need a pianist, and just the one, otherwise, you’re performing alone.
KCO: Which role do you like best: Soloist, accompanist, and playing with an orchestra or rhythm section?
Susan: All! I think I like being an accompanist the best. When you’re an accompanist, well, the word says accompanist, as in accompanying. But really, it’s a duet. That’s what I love.
I was just at Central Washington University performing with one of the soloist state finalists. And that was fun, because I could really discuss the music, helping them with the rhythm, helping them with their ideas, spotting what they were doing, interpreting the music.
I remember saying, did you know you did a crescendo here? It’s not in the music, but it fits really well. Let’s do that. Let’s make something of that. And it’s that sort of collaboration that I love. You can do that as an accompanist, or even a member of a chamber music trio. There’s three of us that can discuss it. I love that you can say, well hang on, I’m equal parts here. This is what I think should happen.
KCO: What’s your connection to the Kirkland orchestra?
Susan: I got married to Steve about 5 years ago. He’s American Canadian. We needed to go back to the Seattle area. I’ve got to leave England, have I? And he introduced me to a couple of friends. He knows the Truhers: Jim and Kathy.
I started to attend the Kirkland Orchestra concerts. I was so impressed. Even when my parents came over to visit, I made sure to bring them over. I said, “come and listen to this orchestra. They’re amazing.” Jim found out I played the piano and listened to me. Thankfully, he thought I was good enough to offer: would you like to help us out? I leapt at the chance.
KCO: What are your impressions of the Turina, your solo piece? Any insights for other musicians?
Susan: Well the first time I heard it, I just loved the harmonies. That is my sort of music. I gasped. It reminds me of the Albéniz and the Granados that I used to play when I was younger. Oh, those harmonies, they’re luscious. It is those jazzy chords, and it’s those Spanish rhythms.
Turina is just one of those classic Spanish works where you might go “oh we’re going on holiday to Spain aren’t we?” You can hear it. That’s the beauty of it. I love those types of rhythms and those changes in tempo all over the place. It is so typical of Spanish music. I love that. I just fell in love with the sound of the music first, before I’d even seen the score. And I thought, yes, I want to learn to play that. Yes, Maestro, please.
KCO: Did you choose it or did Jim?
Susan: It was a collaboration actually. He started playing a few pieces to me and as soon as I heard the Turina…I just loved it.
It’s very dramatic, isn’t it? It’s a rhapsody. It’s got loads of dramatic bits, highs and lows. We’re going to change bits here, there everywhere. All encapsulated in about ten minutes.
It sounds as if Turina thought, “oh, I’ve just thought of this old melody I heard when I was young. I think I’ll just throw that in now.” It does connect though. It’s been quite challenging to learn it, but so rewarding. When it comes together, I’m counting and counting because it’s that 6/8 versus the 3/4. Between the bars, and between the parts at the same time. I am furiously counting one and ah two and ah, against the orchestras one and two and three and, at times, and vice versa.
And I’m trying to think this is the part where I’ve got to go, and you get dragged along with the melody that the orchestra has got. Then there’s my part underneath, these luscious chords. I really hope that the audience and other musicians can feel that and hear it.
Interview on May 10, 2017
by Francis X. Langlois – tuba player in the KCO
J.c. Sherman will be the solo tubist for the Ralph Vaughan Williams tuba concerto at our next performance. We asked J.c. five questions during an interview. He was nice enough to give us his thoughts on these questions.
- When did you start playing music and when did you start playing the tuba specifically?
- When did you know that you wanted to head in toward being a musician as a profession and what drove that for you?
- You have a connection with the orchestra. What is your connection besides guest soloist?
- The Vaughan Williams is probably the most well-known tuba concerto. What’s your take on it?
- You also repair instruments and build them from scratch. They are beautiful. Which gives you more satisfaction playing or building instruments?
When did you start playing music and when did you start playing the tuba specifically?
I started when I was ten with piano lessons; my first band instrument was the flute. I took flute lessons for six years. The tuba came into the picture from the lack of social acceptance of being a male flautist, and at a certain point – around 8th grade – I went to the band director and begged for anything else. She handed me a “baritone,” a nice little Olds euphonium.
When we moved to Washington, I already knew how to play a flute, some clarinet from my sister, a little saxophone, a little horn, a little euphonium… so when the band director asked, “what do you play?” I answered “what do you want?” And my mom backhanded me for being cocky.
But he gave me a small tuba YBB-103 (Yamaha) tuba. I locked myself in a room to practice for a few days. I started to realize that the kid who was helping me wasn’t really going to be of that much help. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about the tuba; I kinda liked it. The first kid I knew who played tuba when I lived in California, before moving to Washington, was a great player for his age. I was one of the better flute players in the band to start, and I had every reason to expect that I should come out playing the tuba at the same level I played the flute. And – apparently – that was novel idea.
I didn’t come out of the practice room until I could do everything on the tuba that I could do on the flute. Nobody gave me any preconceived notion that the tuba is anything but an absolute equal to the flute.
Apparently, that is a unique opportunity that I was given.
When did you know that you wanted to head in toward being a musician as a profession and what drove that for you?
In the end of my junior year, in Woodinville, Washington. A group of schools put together a trip to Europe every few years. My little sister and I went on the trip. At the time, I was entertaining the idea that I would be an architect or something of that nature.
I was already playing in the Everett Symphony [now Philharmonic] with Paul-Elliott Cobbs. And I had the occasional gig in a big band here and there. But for whatever reason my brain didn’t consider it.
When we were traveling in Hamburg, I forgot my comb on a little boat that we took on a tour of the canals. I ran back to get my comb, the most inexpensive and useless thing to go back for, and the bus left without me.
One of the conductors realized that I hadn’t made the bus and got off to come get me. His name was Tam Osborne. I don’t know if he is still working in the area, but I got to ask him questions like “Why did you decide to be a professional musician?” And he gave me the best answer, “You don’t go into music because you want to. You go in because you have to!”
I hadn’t really thought of that in those terms. I had also just come from having one of the most moving musical moments ever, seeing an actual mass at Notre Dame (cathedral) in Paris with a full choir and the congregation singing, and that amazing pipe organ of Notre Dame ripping my hair out by the follicles! Getting to hear this music and thinking about how hard wired for music I am… my father sang around me all the time, there was music around me all the time… I realized I’m not going to be happy unless I do this!
It just had never entered my mind, but getting to ask Tam Osborne, “Why did you do this? Are you glad you did it,” was a turning point. From then on, I got a good horn. I focused more. And with a lot of help, I got into Oberlin.
You have a connection with the orchestra. What is your connection besides guest soloist?
Matt Stoecker (1st trombone KCO). We met at Oberlin where he was year ahead of me. He was a microbiology and trombone major. I went to and played on his senior recital; he came to my junior recital.
Kirkland (the city) I remember because it’s right down the street from Woodinville, where I went to junior high and high school. It was Northshore Junior High School, but the last time I was in the area it seemed to be razed. There may be a new junior high now. Kirkland was one of our focal points. My father loves Izumi Sushi so I know the area well.
But Matt Stoecker and I have known each other since 1989 and shortly thereafter he managed to get me to buy a J.W. Pepper “Surprise” trombone from him. We both had this love for old instruments. If you know Stoecker as I know you do, you know that he is a persuasive man!
He’s the only person I know who had 40 people on his senior recital! He played Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, which is a 40-part motet. Matt arranged it for 16 trumpets, 16 trombones and 8 tubas. In the tiny little town of Oberlin, whose tuba studio consisted of 3 people, getting 8 tuba players together … not only did he just assume he could, but he did! We’re talking alumni, the electronic music teacher, my teacher, an English student… he found all these people and managed to materialize an ensemble twice the size of the conservatory’s resources for his recital.
Matt has heard me play the Vaughan Williams when I was a rehearsal tubist for Dave Stull (current president of the San Francisco Conservatory). He had won a concerto competition for the symphonic band at Oberlin. Matt always remembered it. He loves all things brass and he and I have been dear friends forever.
At one point, he said “we have to get you out here.” He had told me about the Microsoft Orchestra for years. Matt mentioned that Jim Truher really likes English music, and again “we really need to get you out here.” I said that I would love it. I love the Vaughan Williams. I’d happily do that.
I credit Matt’s powers of persuasion.
The Vaughan Williams is probably the most well-known tuba concerto. What’s your take on it?
I’ll never understand the ire that people leveled upon it initially for having written the piece for tuba; they were almost mad at him for the second movement. Why he didn’t write it for a different instrument? But he was a capitalist, and also said that you can play it on cello and bassoon.
The second movement is definitely a highlight for me; it is just so lyrical! And as I am preparing it this time, I made a switch. Normally I play it on an Eb tuba; I’m a weird person and I always played it on that instrument. But I usually tour with my F tuba, and it’s written for F tuba, and this would give me a chance to take a fresh look at a piece that I have known since 1987. It was time to have a fresh look at it!
Looking at the second movement again, every recording I have is actually slower than the marked tempo. When you up it just a bit, you get something that is much more like an English Folk song, like someone who is almost singing with abandon with increasing passion, and I love that!
There’s an article written by the great Philip Catelinet, who premiered the work. It was published in T.U.B.A. magazine way back when. He talks about the jocular nature of the beginning. He said that the beginning tells its own story. In the beginning: yes, it’s a tuba concerto. You’re going to laugh, but it’s ok to do so. He very smartly takes that and slowly draws us into a more and more serious vein.
The last movement is something that is almost a difficult sell. It’s almost ferocious. It is incredibly technical, incredibly fast. More importantly, it is tiring due the range that it sits in. But, being in that range, it makes the tuba more clear, more tactile. It allows us to display our virtuosity with a little bit more facility for a listener to make out all the notes. It’s really brilliant in that.
The second movement is the highlight. Re-examining the piece all over again when I switched tubas, I’m picking slightly different tempi than I’ve done in the past. I’m really finding a new place for his usual folk song approach to it and not just in the second movement. The first and last movements have these moments where you can just burst into song. And it’s fun!
Switching tubas has made it a lot more fun to practice now.
You also repair instruments and build them from scratch. They are beautiful. Which gives you more satisfaction playing or building instruments?
I play almost all the ones I build. There is a certain joy to making an instrument speak for the first time, when you’ve made it. They are different kinds of satisfaction in some ways, but they are both art; they’re both personal expression.
Most of the instruments I make… occasionally I make them to order (somebody asks for an alto flugelhorn or a contrabass trombone – I’ve made many of those!). But when I get to say “I want to make something,” those are really, really rewarding moments because it brings both things to life.
I get the opportunity to be the first person to play this thing, and I am holding something that I, most likely, burned myself and bled into. Given my own nature in the shop, I seem to cut myself and burn myself regularly.
Many people would compare it to “this is my baby; I’ve brought a child forth,” or something. It’s a little bit different. I think it’s got to be akin to being able to sort of physically experiencing a painting you just made. You just created this thing from nothing. And then you get to go a step further. That’s really rewarding!
But admittedly, and in the next two weeks my wife will be able to verify, that I’m a bit of a diva when it comes time to perform. I love playing. I love being a solo tubist almost more than anything.
It’s funny; I play a lot of different instruments in an orchestra. In an orchestra, I almost prefer bass trombone, though most of my work is on tuba. But, my solo voice has always been the tuba. Ironically, it’s eventually why I faded away from the flute. I still love playing the flute; I still have several. Probably my most important influence as a tuba player is Jean-Pierre Rampal, the flautist, but now I express myself on the tuba instead of flute.
Every time you perform as a soloist on the tuba, it’s like you got something off your chest that you didn’t have any other way to say.
Interview on March 1, 2017
by Francis X. Langlois – “regular” tuba player in the KCO