Vandoren Artist Profile: Jan Berry Baker

by Vandoren

When did you decide you wanted to be a musician?

I think in 8th or 9th grade. It was pretty early on. Really nothing brought me the excitement and happiness that performing did, even at that young age, playing in music festivals and honor groups and things like that. By the time I got to high school, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be a music major in college.

I was pretty narrow-minded, I must say, from the very get-go. I just wanted to get my doctoral degree, teach at a university, and perform. I did all three of my degrees in performance – not one of them in education. I never wanted to be a band director. I always wanted to experience the thrill of performing and have my own studio at a university. That was a goal from 11th or 12th grade.

Did you start on saxophone?

I started as a pianist when I was four. I played through my second year of university, taking piano lessons and saxophone, and I just couldn’t keep up trying to do both at a higher level. I was never going to be a pianist but I enjoyed taking lessons and studying it.

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Who are the most influential people in your life?

All of my teachers have been highly influential in developing my career. I came to Fred Hemke at Northwestern at the most critical stage: doing my master’s and doctoral degrees and preparing for getting that university job I was seeking. He is a really big influence still. I think about his teaching and what I learned about music from him and how I can, as he calls it, “continue the legacy” with my own students.

I was also influenced a lot by my first university teacher, Bill Street, whom I studied with at the University of Alberta.  I learned many things about our repertoire and made many connections at the U of A that I will always cherish.  Bill led me to study at Northwestern and also provided me with an opportunity to study with Londeix for a summer.  I certainly cannot fail to mention my very first teacher, a woman named Barb Lorenz.  I studied with Barb throughout junior high and high school, in the middle of nowhere, on a farm, in northern Alberta. There were no saxophone teachers where I lived. Barb lived on a farm and my dad would drive me two hours to her home to have lessons every week. She was a huge inspiration to me. It was unusual, that in that remote location, there would be a saxophone teacher and that she would be a woman. I didn’t realize how spectacular that was until later!

Who are some of your musical inspirations?

I’ve always been inspired listening to my teacher, Fred Hemke, perform. Of course, all the great saxophonists, the legends of our time: Eugene Rousseau and Donald Sinta. They’ve all left so many legacies, their teaching, the music they’ve brought into this world by working with composers. Truly, I’m inspired by all of my female colleagues – current and the ones that have come before me for leading the way in what is a pretty male-dominated field. I feel inspired by them and love to see what all of them are doing, both their successes in their own studios as well as their collaborations and performances.  

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What are some of the challenges you’ve face as a musician?

Playing the saxophone, less so now, in a fairly male dominated field has always presented its challenges.  While I didn’t have to go to school back in the 60s when there were few, if any, women in the saxophone studios, I was surprised to find out how few women there really were in the professional saxophone community. But today, more and more women are just getting out there and doing it! Showing everybody it really matters not who you are but what you do. What you put you mind to and what you create for yourself. There are just so many adventurous and entrepreneurial woman who have accomplished amazing things. You just have to keep doing it!

Any memorable performances?

I remember my first orchestral experience, as I had never really played in an orchestra in college. I got a wild hair and decided I wanted to take an audition to play for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. All of a sudden, I had two orchestral performances lined up. I had never played with an orchestra before! I was hired to play Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninoff with Symphony II (which is now the Chicago Philharmonic) and I was going to play Werther with the Lyric Opera. My heart was in my throat thinking ‘This is it. It’s make it or break it. If I mess this up, I’ll never play with an orchestra again.’ It was one of those critical performances. Performing with an orchestra is much different than performing in a band and I was very nervous. Thankfully, it went well and I even received a nice review in the Chicago Tribune! I’ve played in every single opera with saxophone that the Lyric Opera has put on since 2003. I’m so very thankful to be performing with them and with the Chicago Philharmonic.  Those performances really began my career as an orchestral saxophonist.  Since then, I have performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Grant Park Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Opera, Atlanta Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Paris Ballet Theater, American Ballet Theater, and many others.  I never imagined I would call myself an orchestral saxophonist, but these performances are some of the highlights of my career.

I also remember playing Carnegie Hall for the first time. I went there with my duo partner, Stuart Gerber, who is a percussionist. We run Bent Frequency, a new music ensemble based in Atlanta. We had a piece written for us called R.I.P.T. by Dorothy HindmanWe were so excited to play, because it’s a big deal to perform in Carnegie Hall as soloists! This piece, however, required us to speak the lyrics from Lil’ Reese’s Beef on stage.  So, rapping in Carnegie Hall, that was pretty memorable…

What has been the most fulfilling aspect for you as a musician? 

Truly, getting to travel all over the world performing is quite fulfilling as my goal has been, since I was young, to perform and to teach. I find that I feel very fulfilled by not only the performances I’ve given all over but the fact that I have a successful and supportive saxophone studio at Georgia State University. I’m thankful to have that position and be living my dream.  Seeing my students succeed, performing and competing all over the country, being successful teachers in their own right, and being successful at their own auditions (military bands, regional/local orchestras), that is really quite fulfilling. It is an amazing thing to see your students get out there and create something for themselves, living their own dream. Thinking about the dreams I had for myself, when I was in 10th or 11th grade, I feel grateful and proud that I have been able to make them become a reality.


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