Weston Sprott - Trombonist, Metropolitan Opera
Woodwind & Brasswind: When did you first begin your commitment to music? Was it right away?
Weston Sprott: I started playing trombone in 6th grade. I'm a product of the Texas music education system. I grew up in Spring, TX, a suburb of Houston. Music education is really serious business down there. I never took private lessons regularly, but I always thought that playing in the band was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it a lot, and I practiced a ton right from the very beginning. I never had to be reminded to practice. It was just something I always loved to do, and as a result, I ended up getting pretty good at it. As far as when I started getting serious, I'd say that my junior year of high school is when I turned that corner and started having professional aspirations.
WWBW: And how did that manifest itself?
WS: Texas is a very competitive place for band. My junior year was the first time that I made the Texas All-State Band. I placed very well and had a really inspiring experience. We played some great music in the All-State Band that year. I remember thinking that it was incredibly fun, and I could really see myself doing this forever. The whole experience opened my eyes to joy of working with other musicians who were industrious and enthusiastic.
WWBW: In your collegiate studies, you started at Indiana University. Was that the Jacobs School?
WS: At the time, it wasn't called the Jacobs School, but that changed a handful of years later. The Jacobs family has contributed tens of millions of dollars to the Indiana University School of Music, and I'm glad to know that first-rate music education will be continuing there for a long time to come!
WWBW: But it existed as a music concentration at Indiana?
WS: Yes. I was a music performance major at Indiana University for two years. After my second year, I transferred to The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and I was there for three years.
WWBW: Was there an overriding strategy for that? Just try to get closer to New York, or was something else in play?
WS: Not at all. When I was a high school student, I didn't have a musical mentor who made suggestions for music schools. I determined which schools to apply for based on the rankings in US News and World Report, believe it or not.
Many young musicians have a regular private teacher who gives them advice, and they travel in advance to these institutions, take lessons with teachers, and get a feel for the school. This is a more thorough way of making an intelligent choice than my process at the time. However, I didn't have that awareness. Despite my lack of knowledge, I ended up in a great place. I studied with Carl Lenthe at Indiana. He was, and still is, a fabulous teacher. We got along great and I learned a lot from him.
After a couple of years at the school, I realized that I wanted to be closer to a major orchestra, because that's what I wanted to do for a living. I felt the need to be somewhere where I could hear people doing what I wanted to do on a more regular basis. As a student at Curtis, you have the opportunity to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra on a weekly basis.
There was an opening there, and I applied for it. Luckily, I was the person that got in, and I studied with Nitzan Haroz. In three years of studying at Curtis, I attended all but three Philadelphia Orchestra Concerts. It was like religion for me. The experience of total immersion in listening to great musicianship was as important for me as taking lessons and being at a great school. I encourage all of my students to attend as many professional performances as possible. It's impossible to overstate the value of this part of a musical education.
WWBW: Speaking of college, when I was in college, I had a part-time job mopping the floor in the cafeteria, and you had a part-time job playing principal trombone with the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra. Just funny to remark that.
WS: [laughs] Yeah, I've been fortunate in that way. I've never really had a job outside of music. Actually, the summer before I started college I was the guy who swiped your card and handed out towels if you were trying to get into the YMCA. Outside of that, it's been all music.
WWBW: I'm sure you've heard the old joke about the tourist asking the New York City cop how to get to Carnegie Hall. Cop says, practice, practice, practice. Having made your own Carnegie Hall debut in 2007, of course you'd agree that the cop was right, right?
WS: Absolutely. [laughs]
WWBW: What's your current practice routine?
WS: It's hard for me to say that I have a current practice routine, because practice changes a lot depending on what's needed. But I do have a pretty consistent first 45 minutes to an hour of each day. Truth be told, it's really pretty simple, and it's a lot of the same basics that I've been doing since high school and college. I do Remington routines, mouthpiece buzzing, long tones, lip slurs, and lots of scales and arpeggios. Most of my etude work comes from the most basic books like Bordogni/Rochut, Arban, Schlossberg, and Kopprasch. My feeling is that there are a handful of basic things that you need to be really good at to be a successful trombone/brass player. It's important to just continue deepening the roots in those fundamental areas. My practice sessions, for the most part, even that first hour, never really get too extreme. I like to keep things simple.
WWBW: They don't call them fundamentals for nothing.
WS: It's a lot of repetition of basic, fundamental concepts for me. Of course, if I'm preparing for a recital or there's something particularly difficult in the orchestra, then my second session of the day will include those things so I can make sure I'm comfortable and familiar with the notes and the rhythms.
WWBW: You've played in a number of different orchestral environments. How would you describe the approach you take to section playing with the Met relative to other symphony environments? Is there any remarkable distinction?
WS: You've played in a number of different orchestral environments. How would you describe the approach you take to section playing with the Met relative to other symphony environments? Is there any remarkable distinction?
WS: I suppose the remarkable distinction in playing in the Met, or any opera house for that matter, is that 99% of the time you're playing a secondary role, even if it seems from looking only at your part that you're not. The vast majority of the time, even if your part is marked fortissimo with accents, there's something that's going on in the performance of even greater importance, and the balance needs to favor the voices.
If a similar marking occurs in a Mahler symphony, the intention is likely for the trombone section to be the center of attention. In the opera, you may be playing something that's really grand and fortissimo, but there's someone on stage above you who's also singing fortissimo, and the audience needs to be able to comprehend the text.
WWBW: The Met Orchestra is consistently rated one of the top-performing symphonic ensembles in the US. What would you say contributes to the orchestra's uniqueness, individual sound, and style?
WS: One of the biggest contributing factors to the sound of the Met Orchestra is that we play with the world's best singers all of the time, so the orchestra has a natural singing quality. As a result, people listen and follow incredibly well. Flexibility is a hallmark of the orchestra. If you ever hear the Met orchestra accompany a soloist in concert, you find the accompaniments have great sensitivity and there's always a beautiful ringing tone quality.
Another contributor to the Met Orchestra sound is the fact that we play an unbelievable number of hours together. The MET orchestra performs, on average, seven times per week, and many of those performances are nearly four hours long. By comparison to most symphony orchestras, even the busiest ones, we spend a lot more time playing together. There's a certain tightness and blend that comes from having that many more hours of familiarity with your colleagues and the music.
A major symphony orchestra might have four performances a week that are two hours each, while we have seven that are four hours each. The difference between 8 hours of performing time and 28 hours of performing time per week is significant. This schedule, albeit grueling and fatiguing, builds cohesiveness within the ensemble.
WWBW: Not everything can be notated. An intense familiarity with what your colleagues are doing, in the way they approach the instruments, I absolutely see what you're saying.
WS: Just imagine a chamber group that gets together four times a week, versus one that gets together seven times a week.
WWBW: I was in New Orleans three weeks ago. A thing I observed in the street bands, there, the kids are in their 20s. They'll do a parade in the morning. They'll do a 1:00 set with the hat out down on Frenchman Street. Then they'll move it over to Bourbon Street for 5:00 and they'll have a 9:00 club date. They'll do a street set at 8:00, play for 45 minutes, then parade whoever are watching them over to their club date. They're on the mouthpiece six and eight hours a day, too.
WS: Yeah. That's amazing, and I'll bet as a result of that, their show is pretty tight!
WWBW: It's ridiculously tight. The lead player, the lead trumpet player starts to move it a different direction, everybody hears it, and away we go. It's awesome to observe.
WS: I've seen some amazing things in that regard with the Met Orchestra. Of course, if you do a couple hundred performances a year with a company, a few mistakes are bound to happen. For example, there have been moments when a singer skips a beat or two, or even a bar. With amazing quickness, the entire orchestra catches it and just moves forward or back, making it work in real time in a way that's noticeable to the orchestra, but likely not to the audience. It's kind of remarkable that can happen.
WWBW: It must be a gas when it goes down and everybody reacts and covers everything. You just kind of look around, and say, "That was easy."
WS: It's amazing that 100 people can react that way at the same time.
WWBW: As is the case with many accomplished musicians, you have a deep affiliation with music education institutions. Briefly describe those associations and why you have felt compelled to establish and sustain them.
WS: I'm currently on faculty at Bard College, Mannes College, and Rutgers University. For the last 8 years, I taught at Juilliard's Music Advancement Program.
I have a real passion for teaching. It feeds my desire to help people. Every once in a while, you have some frustration with students who don't want to put in the effort, but for those students willing to give their all, it's a real treat.
I was very fortunate that all of my teachers were great teachers. I can't think of one teacher I had who was not a great teacher. That experience has inspired my effort to be a very committed, effective teacher for my students, as well. Even though I wasn't thinking about it when I started, I've selfishly found that teaching has made me a much more intelligent musician. I know more about the instrument now than I ever have, and you have to practice what you preach!
For more information about Weston, please visit his website at WestonSprott.com