Donna Parkes is Principal Trombone of the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, USA
How it all began
I was fortunate to grow up in Canberra – yes my Aussie friends, you read that correctly! I began trombone at nine in a fantastic band program run by the ACT government school system that had been put in place by Keith Curry – instruction was provided by a phenomenal American music educator Earl Winterstein. There is no question my love of music and understanding of commitment to excellence started from this point. I attended the Canberra School of Music as a scholarship student at age 12 and had the benefit of study with outstanding teachers including Simone De Haan, Ian Perry, and Michael Mulcahy. This is a great opportunity to thank those teachers because they set such high standards and truly laid the strongest possible foundation for my development as a trombonist. The brass department at that time was world-class and the level of trombone playing unusually high. As I finished high school I got to play regularly with what is now the Sydney Symphony Orchestra section – Scott Kinmont, Nick Byrne and Chris Harris – as well as with Tom Burge. Those were the sounds that helped form my concept of trombone playing. During my undergraduate studies with Ron Prussing I started my professional career and vividly remember a chance to play Bruckner 7 with the Sydney Symphony during that time. Other opportunities at home including playing with the Canberra Symphony, Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Australia Opera and Ballet Orchestra meant I got valuable experience that exposed me to the excitement of symphony performance at a high level.
It was clear to me that job opportunities were few and far between in Australia and I was keen to study with the pedagogues that had inspired my teachers. Between my third and fourth year of undergraduate studies I planned an extensive trip to the States to have lessons and hear great orchestras live. Sitting in a room with Arnold Jacobs, playing for Joe Alessi and Mark Lawrence and hearing orchestras like Chicago Symphony and The Met live was pivotal for me. I was inspired, motivated and ready! I applied for grants and scholarships to help fund my pursuits and the Queen’s Trust funding, among other sources, was a huge help. Once I had completed my Bachelor’s degree I could not get on a plane fast enough to pursue my Master’s degree. I remember having a backpack, my horn and not nearly enough money due to the Australian dollar being worth a dismal 55 cents to the US dollar. Arriving in January from a gorgeous Australian summer to a seriously cold winter in Chicago was a shock on many levels.
In O’Hare airport I began what was become a long stretch of language miscommunications while living in the USA – I started by asking the airport staff for a trolley, a streetcar in the states and not regularly found in airports. I eventually found a “cart”, looked for the bus on the correct side of the road and was off. Undeterred, I plunged headlong into my new life in Chicago – first on the agenda was buying a coat fit for January in the windy city.
Training in Chicago and Miami
That year I studied primarily with Charlie Vernon (Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and immersed myself in a vibrant music and particularly brass-filled scene. I became a member of the Civic Orchestra, a training orchestra that plays in the Chicago Orchestra hall and is led by many of the great conductors that come through that city. As a Civic member, I got to play a tribute concert to the legendary Bud Herseth – standing on stage with the current Chicago Symphony brass section and Arnold Jacobs was surreal and inspiring. Another inspirational moment was rehearsing Bruckner 4 with Maestro Barenboim and thinking how incredible that opportunity was – that this was music making at a level I had only dreamed of attaining. The chance to play under Barenboim, Boulez and Rostropovich was awe-inspiring for me. Rehearsing Shostakovich with Rostropovich conducting, he said something to the strings after a solo I played and they were all greatly amused. Concerned what the laughter was about I was relieved to later find out that he was confused to look up and see me, not the rotund man he had expected to see sitting in the back row.
Civic Orchestra section (L to R) – Donna Parkes, Steve Hammerschmidt, Maestro Boulez, Paul Pollard, Jacomo Bairos
Chicago offered me an incredible chance to be exposed to legendary brass players and to be around many fine musicians. There is nothing more motivating than being surrounded by excellence. I have to add here that Michael Bertoncello (previously trombonist with the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) was also in Chicago at this time and as two Aussies we became friends. I was blown away by his work ethic and dedication and although we were both horribly broke, some of my great memories of that time are with Mike and the other brass players in town.