Scholarly Advice from an Orchestral Musician

An Interview with David Howard of the L.A. Philharmonic

Date Posted: April 16, 2018

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Interview conducted by Michael Tran

As a musician, you have had many opportunities to travel to different cities and perform at many venues. What are some of your most memorable performances while traveling abroad?

David Howard: Boy, that’s not easy. You know the Philharmonic tends to take one or two tours per year; sometimes it is domestic and foreign. You know one thing that just pops into my mind is going to Hong Kong, because it’s really like being a kid in the candy store. It’s fun; in our orchestra we tend to go to a lot of the same places, because we have relationships with certain festivals. For example, we are considered a partner in the Barbican in London and we are a part of an ongoing festival in Paris, so we go to a lot of the same destinations. Going to Asia is less and less frequent, but the time I went to Hong Kong was for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s last tour with the orchestra as music director. We were there for about 4 nights. Every night like clockwork after the concert, a group of us would go to the night market, where the action was in town, to wander through and pick up various… knock-offs. It was just kind of a thrill. There is enough downtime in touring where we get a chance to explore. When I was younger I could do a little bit more exploring during the day and play a concert at night. At this point, I have to behave a bit.

On the road, when you are somewhere for several days to a week, what is the daily preparation like?

DH: Well, first of all, we are lucky if we are in one place for that long. In my history with the orchestra we have only done a few extended stays. We were in Paris for a month. That was “tough work.” We were in Salzburg for a month. We’ve been in places for maybe a week at a time, but if we are in a place for four or five days that is an awfully nice situation.

We may have acoustic rehearsals before concerts. They tend to be only half an hour and right before the concerts. Sometimes we have it the morning before an evening concert. Usually if it is a concert program we have played, it is an acoustic rehearsal in a new hall, in each city.

When I first got into the orchestra, we did not always have acoustic rehearsals while on tours. My favorite “no acoustic rehearsal” story was during our United States tour in 1984 when we visited Boston and played in their symphony hall. We played Mahler 9 under Sir Andrew Davis. I hadn’t played in Symphony Hall before and I don’t think any of the other members had played there either. We did not have an acoustic rehearsal. The review in the Boston Globe the next day was “Nightmare Orchestra of the Future, Pedal to the Floor.” This is a perfect example of how a home hall’s acoustics shapes the sound of an orchestra.

At that time we did not play in Disney Hall. We were across the street in our previous hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It was basically a sound eater; you really had to scream to be heard. Well, Boston Symphony Hall is pretty much exactly the opposite. It’s so sensitive you could whisper and it comes out so clearly. So clearly we blew the roof off the place, and if we’d had an acoustic rehearsal, we might have been able to do something a little more refined. In fact, we played in Boston not that long ago, for the first time since the original performance. We did have an acoustic rehearsal, and Gustavo Dudamel said, “this place can be very loud.” I said, “uh huh.” The corollary to that is that the Boston Symphony, shortly after that original performance, came to Los Angeles on tour and played in our hall. It was great, because we could see them playing, but we couldn’t hear them. It tells you everything you need to know about how a hall shapes an orchestra, and shows how you need a good place to play.

What was it like going to Venezuela with your colleagues, and teaching master classes to the students in El Sistema?

DH: In El Sistema, there is a huge age range, and we were dealing with college age and older. They were fabulous - a high level of playing. A few were preparing for a European concerto competition; they played through some of their material for me, and it was amazingly good. They are so receptive. I had a translator, which is good, because I do not speak Spanish. There was no difficulty about things getting lost in translation.

It was memorable to be down there. One of the funniest things that happened there was that it wasn’t always clear on a day-to-day basis what our responsibilities would be. I went down with a woodwind quintet contingent. They told us that they wanted us to do a sectional rehearsal on The Rite of Spring. And to conduct a rehearsal, you kind of have to be able to conduct [the piece]. So, all of the sudden, I’m being asked to conduct The Rite of Spring. I made sure to get some photographs of me doing that. We traded off portions, thankfully, between the five of us. It was one of the most insanely nerve-wracking experiences - one which I was completely underqualified for. I’ve got to say, I am much more forgiving of conductors now, with that experience. Maybe conductors all should have to play bass clarinet in The Rite of Spring, so they can be more forgiving of me.

There are number of fine clarinetists that have come up through the program and have ended up in the US right?

DH: We have done a lot of stuff with the Bolivar orchestra, and it is some of the same guys who I have seen multiple times, and they are fantastic, so good. As a matter of course, their training includes two things I was never taught, circular breathing and double tonguing. Both of those things have seemed like stupid pet tricks, until I heard them done really well. Then I was thinking, “Please teach me now!”

How was the culture of El Sistema different to the culture in music schools in the United States?

DH: Again, I’m just comparing college age kids, but I did get to see some demonstration classes of very young kids, and it is astounding what goes on there. When you see a group of four year olds sitting in a circle in an ensemble of percussion instruments, perfectly together all cooperating to make a group sound, you think this is what should happen everywhere. Can you imagine how this will affect these kids on every level, socially?

That is the most important thing for me. A few of them may end up playing music, but to be taught at that young age to work together towards a common goal, I have never seen anything like that. As far as the older kids, I think they are just submerged in the training. I think it’s so much a part of the culture; it goes beyond what you would expect in a college age setting. They just live and breathe it, and it shows.

Are there less distractions perhaps?

DH: I think so, I think there is. I think it is because of the situation in Caracas and Venezuela, that the actual institution, the physical location is rather fortified. I think they are separate, more separated than kids would be here. Maybe not as integrated into the general culture. I’m not certain, but it’s kind of a separate state there.

What qualities do you look for when students audition for your studio?

DH: On a certain level, it is the same thing people should be looking for in their professional auditions. So many of the kids that come are technically proficient, but what is the separating feature is the student who has something to say musically - someone who can communicate ideas and has something special to share. We are lucky at USC because we are able to look for that: someone who can not only play the instrument really well, but has something substantial to offer musically. That is what we hope to do when people audition to play in the orchestra. That is always the trick. People are taught to play perfectly. Everybody thinks that is what you’re supposed to do, and if you are lost in that shuffle and never get to the point of exploring your own musical ideas, that is a real shame.

You hear that on every instrument. We have spectacular violinists and piano soloists that come in, for example. More and more they are integrating those things, but there are a lot that come through that are dazzling technically, but I’m not sure if they are sharing generous musical ideas. I mean, if you have to prepare the Rachmaninov 3rd piano concerto, that is just playing all the notes. If you can actually do that, it’s huge, and you don’t actually hear most of the notes all the time, so if you actually do that is nice, but it would be great to have more than that.

Going to Yale University, you majored in Russian Literature. What is it like balancing two contrasting subjects, music and Russian literature? What was your routine to be successful at both?

DH: Well I went to Yale because I wanted to pursue Russian, and they have a fabulous Russian department, but I knew there was a place for someone like me who wanted to play, even though there was not and still is not an undergraduate music performance program. There were a lot of people like me who took music very seriously and made it a parallel interest. The Yale Symphony was fantastic and there was a lot of chamber music.

My regimen was every night, I would walk to a classroom I arranged to grab for my practice and I practiced a couple of hours. I had to do it. It wasn’t easy to find the time. I knew that even though I did not know what I wanted to do professionally, I knew that if I wanted to fight for a musical career, I would be competing against people who were doing that in a more concentrated setting than I was. I knew that I had to work as hard as I could to try to keep up with them.

Do you have any specific advice or tips for students who want to pursue music in addition to other subjects?

DH: We encourage our undergrads to consider a double major. It’s not inappropriate, that’s for sure. It’s not easy, that’s for sure. I give those kids the advice that I have to take in my position. That is, in my time as a staff musician in a full time major orchestra, I don’t have a lot of time to practice, so I have to make the best use of my practice. I don’t have four hours to sit in a practice room. I have to make the limited time I have count. One of the ways I do that is slow practice. Some say it may be cliché, but it is not a cliché idea. I learn music faster, when I practice it slowly. That works when I sit at a motion picture call and someone puts the music on a stand, and three minutes later I have to look at it as slowly as I can to get it quickly. I have to do the same thing when I am practicing at home. The other thing is, these days there is every form of electronic distraction impinging on my consciousness. I would be wasting my time if I tried to practice with my cell phone next to me. I keep my cellphone with me because I have a metronome and tuner on it, but I turn the ringer off because I can’t multitask. Maybe some people can, but I don’t think anyone should when it comes to practice. You should shut the world out and be patient, taking things slowly to make the most of your time.

How has your life as an orchestral musician changed, if at all, over the course of your career?

DH: In the Los Angeles Philharmonic we are extremely fortunate. Our delivery system of music has not changed a whole lot, because we have been able to maintain an audience for what we do. Now having said that, I think we have been on the forefront of initiating a sort of specialty music festivals: festivals of Stravinsky, new American music festivals, all Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, Shostakovich symphonies, and all of Mahler symphonies, which we did switching off with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra. That is new and innovative in our life time, the concentrated bit of playing. It is challenging because you are turning over literature more often than you are used to. If it is difficult music like new John Adams music, or all the Shostakovich symphonies, it is very challenging. It is also stimulating, but you can also feel like you are being inundated in a bit. Other than that, I don’t see my life has musically changed that much, I think a lot of orchestras have struggled with marketing themselves, I do not think we are immune to that, but it hasn’t penetrated to our programming. I feel like we do not compromise what we do, and I feel very fortunate about that. We are lucky that we are able to keep our product in line with what we expect from a traditional symphony orchestra as well as the cutting edge new music festivals.

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