EXPOSED! Life in the orchestra with Jonathon Ramsay, trombone

Behind the scenes with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE

 

Have you ever wondered what life is really like in the orchestra? Welcome to EXPOSED!

Throughout 2017, we’re teaming up with musicians and arts administrators from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to take you behind the scenes, and show you what it means to pursue a career in a challenging and fulfilling industry.

This week we chat with Jonathon Ramsay, who took the role of principal trombone with the orchestra in 2015. Jonathon had completed his Bachelor of Music Studies at the Sydney Conservatorium, and has performed with the Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide symphony orchestras. Also a master of euphonium, Jonathon has been named a finalist in the ABC Young Performers Awards several times, and has also explored Historically Informed Performance practice on the traditional sackbut brass instrument.

Jonathan is the TSO’s youngest musician.

 

How did you make your way into a position with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra?

I was in my third year of study at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music when the position in the TSO came up. A few months and one very gruelling audition process later, I began working in the orchestra.

What did you imagine life would be like with the orchestra – and how have you found the experience in reality?

Life in the orchestra is quite a bit different to how I imagined it. Hobart as a city is so very different to my home town of Sydney, and one of the hardest things for me to adapt to was the slow and relaxed lifestyle of such a small town. The TSO is an incredibly welcoming family of musicians, and everyone went out of their way to help me assimilate into Hobart life. There are, of course, some hurdles that I have had – or perhaps even still have – to conquer.

The ‘trial’ or ‘probation’ period for any orchestral position is quite a tough and stressful thing to have to go through. Every note you play, action you take, and conversation you have is being critiqued, whether consciously or not, by everyone around you. It’s not that anyone feels menacing, judgemental, or in any way hostile – it’s the simple fact that at any point in time, someone can think ‘I didn’t like that you said that’ and suddenly your hopes and dreams of playing professionally in an orchestra are shattered.

Coming into this job so young was probably the biggest hurdle I have had to face. In the music world, age and experience is often seen to be more important that talent itself. I owe a great deal of thanks to the now retired Robert Clarke, who single-handedly proved this notion to be false. For, at the time I joined, he had 40 years of experience with the TSO stacked up against my mere 20 years of experience in life, yet he was probably my biggest support through the tough trial period and was always open to explore the ideas that I was bringing to the table.

How would you describe your typical day backstage and in the rehearsal room?

On a rehearsal day, I will usually try to spend a couple of hours in the practice room before rehearsal, and a couple of hours in a practice room in the evening. Everything else in my day revolves around this plan. My own personal practice is a mixture of a few things, including my daily warm-ups and routines, preparing music for the coming weeks of TSO, preparing music for any upcoming projects outside TSO, and learning new repertoire for my own enjoyment. Alongside the obvious additions of eating and sleeping, I also try to fit in some exercise, listening, and teaching on the side.

What do you feel are the strongest expectations placed on you in the orchestra?

The strongest expectations placed on me in my role with the TSO are the expectations I place on myself, and I struggle on a daily basis to meet them to the level to which I strive. There is obviously an expectation to play the trombone to the highest of standards. This requires a great amount of practice every day.

As far as the trombone/low brass section is concerned, it is my responsibility to make sure that we are all thinking about the music in the same way and are making a positive contribution to the orchestra as a whole. Things like dynamics, note lengths, balance, sound quality, and style are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the things we often discuss and improve upon together in rehearsals.

Being a conscientious and respectful colleague to others is also of paramount importance. Playing in the TSO requires the cooperation of 50 passionate and opinionated – in a good way! – artists uniting in an attempt to convey one coherent musical message to an audience. You have to be able to adapt to what you are hearing around you, yet also try to shape the music in the way that you imagine it to be. Imagine being in a room with 49 other people standing around one small canvas, each of you holding a paintbrush with one single colour on it, and you are told to collectively paint a dog. I think you get the picture!

Was there ever a time you thought the challenge of your role inside the orchestra would be too great?

I enjoy the challenge of difficult music, I embrace the opportunity to be heard over the orchestra, and I am passionate about continuing to learn and improve so I welcome feedback; positive and negative alike.

One thing that does challenge me a lot, though, is when the orchestra as a whole is unable to connect to the music, or to each other. For us to connect to the music, the role of the conductor is so incredibly important – with the right leadership, we will follow without hesitation. Should that not be the case, suddenly it is as if you are herding cats. Likewise, if the musicians of the orchestra can’t connect to each other, which can happen for any number of reasons, it makes it so difficult to communicate and make music together. Fortunately, these things don’t happen very often, but when they do, I find it very difficult to stay in a positive frame of mind and enjoy the music. In these weeks, I find it helps so much to find something outside of the orchestra to enjoy or embrace, whether that is going for a run or hike, watching a good movie or TV show, or trying a few new recipes in a cookbook.

How do you cope with live performance pressure?

Preparation is the key to dealing with live performance pressure. There are, I guess, three main aspects to this: preparing your music, preparing your body, and preparing your mind. I could spend hours talking about each of these three areas, but as a general comment, it is essential to balance all three aspects equally. So many musicians spend hours in a practice room, but don’t have the physical or mental strength to cope with the pressure of a concert. Regular exercise has been proven to be incredibly effective at easing stress, anxiety, and depression, all of which are alarmingly prevalent in the musical world.

For some strange reason, talking about mental health in the professional music world seems to be a ‘taboo’ topic, yet studies have shown that musicians far more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression than the general population. In a recent study run by Help Musicians UK with over 500 respondents, nearly 75 per cent of musicians had experienced high levels of anxiety. In the world of professional sport, athletes have teams of support staff aiding them in every aspect of their lives, yet even they mentally struggle with the pressure of performing at their best. For musicians, we don’t have that breadth of support, and so it is up to us to listen to and identify when our bodies and minds aren’t in a healthy state and to find the help we need. It is also our responsibility to look out for our friends and colleagues, and support them when they need it most.

How do you work to support each other in your small team?

They say too many cooks spoil the broth. They also say many hands make light work. As a brass team, I think we live our lives on the very fine line that exists between these two worlds. We all have individual parts and always want to have our voices be heard, yet it is essential that we understand the moments when we can shine and the moments where we have to blend into the orchestral sound. It is so important for us to all feel valued and respected by our colleagues in the workplace, and in turn, it is our responsibility to show this same respect to others.

As a trombone section, we do a lot of work together outside the rehearsal schedule – playing through our parts together to consolidate musical ideas and to gain a better sense of ensemble with each other – so that when we join the orchestra, we can present our parts as a team and can simply enjoy being part of the music!

What do you wish audiences could understand about what it means to play in the orchestra?

I see and hear a lot of feedback from audiences regarding the way that we look, as opposed to the way we sound. I think it is so important that audiences listen with their ears, rather than their eyes. As musicians, we spend our lives thinking about sound. I also think it would be completely eye-opening – or perhaps, more importantly, ear-opening! – for audiences to hear what it is that we do in rehearsals. It’s not at all about learning the music – we already know how it goes. Rehearsals are for exploring these amazing worlds of sound that composers have created for us, and about creating an exciting and honest interpretation of each work. When you have 50 musicians all with strong opinions on how this should be done, you end up with some quite interesting and exciting rehearsals!

What is the thing you love most about life in the orchestra?

The music is of course the highlight of working in an orchestra. There’s something so incredibly special about sharing your deepest emotions, your ‘soul’, in the form of a musical collaboration. It is our goal as musicians to not only share this with each other, but with our audiences too. Pianist and educator Dr Karl Paulnack said:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at 2am someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8pm someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.”

What is one piece of advice you can offer young musicians looking to commence their orchestral career?

The life of an orchestral musician is not an easy life. It is full of many boundaries and barriers, many of which I have mentioned here, and many, many more which I have not. However, there is absolutely nothing in the world that I would rather be doing. It is worth every single second of doubt, pain and anguish; every tear and drop of blood. If you want to be an orchestral musician, I can tell you without a doubt that there is someone else out there who wants it more than you. My advice? Be that person. Want it. Need it. Devote every ounce of energy you have to it. If you do that, then you are giving yourself the best chance you possibly have to achieve it. There are no guarantees in this musical world, however you can certainly tilt the odds in your favour!

Jonathon Ramsay will perform in the TSO Master series concert Colours of the East, 7.30pm August 4 at the Federation Concert Hall.

 

Do you have a burning question about what life is really like in the orchestra?

 


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