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 Greg Stephens, horn (and a multi-instrumentalist who has also learnt piano, violin, trumpet, and organ). Greg studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before venturing to Europe for post-grad studies in Germany; then Austria where he joined the alpine city-based Tyrolean Symphony Orchestra. While in Europe, he performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 in 2006 – exactly one century after the composer conducted the world premiere of the work.
Read on to learn how he got into the TSO (that is, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra – not Tyrolean), and what it’s like behind the scenes.
How did you make your way into a position with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra?
After finishing my music degree in Sydney, I played casual horn around the traps for a little while, then moved to Germany to do further study. It was there that I won my first job in a orchestra (a contract with the Essener Philharmoniker), then a full-time position in the Tiroler Symphonieorchester Innsbruck, Austria.
Almost two years later, the job in the TSO came up. I was lucky enough to win it, so moved back to Australia in 2008.
What did you imagine life would be like with the orchestra – and what’s it really like now that you’re living it?
I had already played with the TSO a number of times, firstly as part of a fellowship program, then as a casual, so I knew them quite well when I joined full-time. So life in the orchestra turned out pretty much as I expected: high-quality music in a friendly atmosphere. I also get to conduct the orchestra from time to time, which is an added bonus and a real thrill.
How would you describe your typical day backstage and in the rehearsal room?
I don’t think there’s ever a typical day. It all depends on the repertoire. Some days, we’ll be playing very demanding music – others might be light-on. But the concentration level always needs to be high. Plus, my eye is always on what’s ahead over the following few weeks. If there’s something particularly tricky or taxing coming up then that will require extra practice, which means trying to fit that in whenever I can – for example coming back into work in the evening, or on days off.
I also tend to plan my week around the day of days of concerts. That means thinking about how much practice to do and when, trying to get a decent sleep the night before, and watching what I eat.
Was there ever a time you thought the challenge of your role inside the orchestra would be too great?
When starting out, and playing certain works for the first time, it can be quite daunting. But over time, as you get used to the repertoire, familiarity helps build confidence. Also, the friendly, and supportive nature of my colleagues at the TSO is constantly encouraging.
What do you feel are the strongest expectations placed on you in this role?
While my position is as a tutti horn, I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to play all the roles in the horn section at the TSO at some point. But no matter the position I’m playing in, I feel my role is to blend with what is happening around me.
How do you cope with live performance pressure?
It’s a balancing act, with on the one hand wanting to play the best you can in front of an audience, but also not trying to amplify stress. A lot can go wrong when playing the horn, so after a while you learn to take a philosophical approach to it. Being physically and mentally fit helps, but also trying not to take things too seriously. There’s a whole world out there beyond the concert hall stage, so I’ll just try to keep things in perspective.
How would you describe the chemistry in your instrumental section, and how do you work to support each other in your small team?
There are four of us in the horn section, though with our regular casual Jules Evans, it’s quite often five. Often, it feels more like a social gathering than working. And our annual horn Christmas party is a highlight of the year.
What do you wish audiences could understand about what it means to play in the orchestra?
Well, the most obvious answer is to say that it’s a full-time job, not a hobby.
What is the thing you love most about life in the orchestra?
Probably the good atmosphere, and genuine friendships. I really enjoy going to work and playing music with friends.
What is one piece of advice you can offer young musicians looking to commence their orchestral career?
Playing your instrument well is only part of the story, in my opinion. Of course, do quality practice and be well prepared, but it’s also very important to give a good impression by showing collegiality and positivity.
Watch the musicians of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra perform Jupiter on November 25 in the Federation Concert Hall.
Do you have a burning question about what life is really like in the orchestra?