Orchestral Saxophone: How to Land the Gig

with Michael Holmes

Interview conducted by John R. Hylkema


What is the role of a classical saxophonist in a symphony orchestra? 

Michael Holmes: This is a difficult question to answer because the saxophonists role within the orchestra changes greatly depending on the piece. We are the great hybrid instrument and many composers utilize the saxophone to bridge the gap between the woodwind section and the brass section; however, there are also many times when the saxophone is added to the mellow color of the string section. Sitting on stage with an orchestra is unlike anything that most saxophonists have ever experienced. Many orchestras (including regional orchestras) are made up of people that play together on a very regular basis. As the saxophonist, you are the guest on the stage and have to keep your eyes and ears open at all times - and you must be prepared to quickly fit into the core sound of the ensemble. I think it is also important to mention that one needs to be aware of tuning when they are performing with an orchestra. Many orchestras tune to A442; however, I would recommend if you were going to be performing with an orchestra that you contact the personnel manager to double check what tuning they use. This is very important for your individual practicing. Also, I would highly recommend that you practice your Orchestral excerpts seated (not standing) because this is how you would be performing them in the orchestra. Finally, be sure to get a copy of your part prior to the first rehearsal because not all orchestral excerpts books contain all of the excerpt.


You’ve amassed a wealth of experience performing in world-renowned orchestras, how did you make this happen?

Michael Holmes: I have had the great fortune to work with many orchestras as well as some incredible conductors. I count myself very lucky to get to sit on stage with these incredible musician and I am always honored to represent the saxophone family. My first experiences of performing with orchestras were mostly local orchestras that were doing “pops” concerts; however, over time I began to get called to perform with regional orchestras and was able to learn most of the repertoire that called for the saxophone.

In 2005 I took an audition with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to be on their saxophone sub list. This was a “blind” audition where you had a to prepare 3-5 excerpts on alto saxophone along with a concerto of your choice - I chose the Schmitt, Legende. You also had to prepare 3-5 excerpts on a secondary saxophone… I chose the soprano. This audition took place on the stage of Powell Hall in St. Louis, MO. I vividly remember walking onto this beautiful stage where there was a black curtain placed on one side of the stage and a single chair and music stand. I was told not to speak and that there would be a moderator that would ask for each excerpt. I never saw the panel of orchestral musicians sitting on the stage, but received a letter in the mail a few weeks later that I had been added to their saxophone list. I started receiving emails to perform with this incredible orchestra shortly thereafter. I was even fortunate enough to join the St. Louis Symphony on their European Tour in 2012.

After a few years I started to receive emails from other orchestras when they were in need of a saxophonist who had experience performing with orchestras. This was all word of mouth and thanks to my years of working with the St. Louis Symphony. Most recently, I have had the honor to perform as principal saxophonist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra. In January of 2017, I was able to take part in a three-week European tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Riccardo Muti – sold out performances were held in the Philharmonie de Paris in Paris, France; the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany; the Musik Haas in Aalborg, Denmark; the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy; the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria; and finally the Festspeilhaus in Baden-Baden, Germany.


Do you have any tips for other saxophonists aspiring to do what you’ve done?

For those saxophonists that are interested in performing with orchestras, I would recommend that you contact the personnel managers (or whoever is in charge of hiring musicians) for local orchestras and start to learn the sound and feel of playing in and with an orchestra. It is imperative that you do your homework: score study; know who you are playing with and how you fit into the sound at that time; always keep in mind that you are not a soloist… you are a member of the orchestra who potentially has solos from time to time.


What are some “must learn” pieces for orchestral saxophone?

For "must learn" pieces, here is a brief list:

- Mussorgsky: Pictures from an Exhibition

- Gershwin: An American in Paris

- Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue

- Ravel: Bolero

- Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances

- Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet

- Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

- Prokofiev: Lieutenant Kiji

- Britten: Symphonia da Requiem

- Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

This is not an all inclusive list by any means, but these are some great pieces to know.


Do you see any trends in the classical saxophone world? If so, what is happening?

One of the things that I love most about the classical saxophone world is that we are still defining our path forward. By this, I mean that we are always looking for new avenues to explore our instrument whether it is new venues, new music, new chamber ensembles, etc… I am constantly inspired by the saxophone community and although I can’t say for certain that I see any specific “trends,” I can say that saxophonists are continuing to push our instrument forward into the classical world.


Could you please tell us a bit more about your experience as a music department administrator?

Along with my teaching position at the University of Illinois, I held an administrative position at the Director of Enrollment Management for the School of Music. This position bridged together my background in performance, marketing, communication, and networking. I worked with an incredible team that managed all daily functions and responsibilities of the Music Admissions office; including recruitment, financial aid and marketing. I was also a member of the executive administration and served on School of Music as well as campus level committees where I was able to collaborate with our students and my faculty colleagues. I am now Head of Woodwinds at Roosevelt University Chicago College of Performing Arts. In this position I have the opportunity to work with the executive administration, the admissions office, and my faculty colleagues to make sure that everything within the woodwind division is running smoothly for our students.


How do you feel your diverse amount of positions in music have benefited you? Have these experience changed the way you perceive the music industry?

Absolutely, when I was younger I had a preconceived notion that the only way to make a living as a saxophonist was to teach or perform; however, these are only two ways that modern saxophonists make a living. I have had the opportunity to work in many different positions in the music industry and although I now make a living as a teacher and performer, I still have my hands in many other areas including marketing and administration. As a teacher, I can use my multi-dimensional knowledge of the music industry to better prepare of students for careers in the arts. I find this to be extraordinarily helpful when working with young saxophonists.


What projects are you currently working on?

I am fortunate to make a living teaching and performing - so my schedule is always a little chaotic; however, I love what I do. Currently I am working on forming a trio in Chicago that is comprised of percussion, guitar, and saxophone. We are commissioning new works and hope to incorporate stage design. Recently, I co-founded the Chicago Saxophone Day with Taimur Sullivan - we had our first event on March 12, 2017 where Fred Hemke was our guest. The day was a huge success and I look forward to planning the next event. I am also busy with the initial stages of helping with planning the 2018 North American Saxophone Alliance (NASA) Conference, which will be held March 8-11, 2018 at the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. As the Director of Marketing for NASA, I am always very involved with this biennial conference I look forward to seeing what we can accomplish for the 2018 event. Finally, I am looking forward to spending most of the summer in San Francisco with my fiancé Brad. I will be doing lots of teaching, performing, and practicing, as well as spending time in Sonoma sipping wine… one of my other great passions.

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