Donna Parkes

During my time in Chicago I auditioned for the New World Symphony, an orchestra directed by Michael Tilson Thomas in South Beach, Miami and moved to accept that position after a year and half in Chicago. New World provides a unique situation where you live, work and perform with your colleagues and each musician is working towards securing an orchestral position. It was an inspiring and exciting place to be and the ideal place to be working hard and auditioning. This is precisely what I did for two years. The benefit of New World was that I could attend master-classes with any visiting artist and faculty and some of the most impactful lessons were learnt from non-trombonists during this time. There was always something to absorb or learn and my mission was to do just that. I also developed a serious love for the café cubano that got me through many long practice sessions.  My brass colleagues from that time are now in amazing orchestras such as the Metropolitan Opera and Philadephia Orchestra and I think how fortunate I was to play with so much talent in one section.  In my second year in Miami I was offered two different positions – one in Galicia, Spain and one in the Virginia Symphony. My decision to accept the job with the Virginia Symphony and stay in the States really shaped the next part of my career.

VSO section

Virginia Symphony Orchestra section (L to R): Scott McElroy, Donna Parkes, Rodney Martell

Gigs

During my time with the Virginia Symphony I received a phone call from Michael Tilson Thomas’ secretary, who asked that I call him at home. After speaking with him I learnt that Mark Lawrence, the then Principal of the San Francisco Symphony, was taking a three-month sabbatical and they were asking if I would be interested in playing a week to see if I would be a good fit for that period on second trombone. Given that the San Francisco Symphony was one of my favourite orchestras and that the low brass section was just incredible, I was beyond thrilled to be asked. This led to many opportunities with that orchestra and a one-year appointment in 2007-8 that will remain as a musical highlight for me. Playing alongside Mark Lawrence, Paul Welcomer and John Engelkes was awe-inspiring and to top it off they are all fantastic people who treated me with such kindness.  I am proud to call them my friends. Having the privilege to play in a section and orchestra of that calibre was so gratifying and I felt that simply sitting down to play there I became a better musician. A personal highlight for me was having my mum and Aunty come to hear me perform with San Francisco in Carnegie Hall.

SFSO section

San Francisco Symphony section (L to R): Paul Welcomer, Donna Parkes, John Engelkes, Jeffrey Anderson

I then won Principal of Louisville Orchestra and have held that position since 2008, although I spent the 2012-13 season with the Utah Symphony on a one-year contract as Associate Principal/second trombone. I also perform as Principal Trombone for the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder each summer for around six weeks. During February, one of the coldest months here in the States, I escape to Arizona for a week to play with the Arizona MusicFest, a great orchestra; this year the section also included Doug Wright (Principal in Minnesota) and David Ridge (San Francisco Opera) and we played four different programs in a week. I travel each year to Sitka, Alaska in December to play a Holiday Brass Concert.  It’s an amazing gig with wonderful musicians and Sitka is a gorgeous town. With only three hours of daylight at that time of year it’s quite the adventure. Hands down the most delicious seafood (of which I eat a lot in Sitka) is freshly caught Alaskan king crab.

Thoughts on auditions

The advantage of living in the States has been that there are regular auditions and a greater number of opportunities. Almost all orchestras here have screened auditions. Playing auditions is such a distinct experience from our normal performance setting and preparation needs to be extensive. I have found that having a routine, to determine how you can feel the most comfortable and ready, takes time to develop. I am a huge proponent of the mock audition and have learnt many valuable lessons from colleagues (of all instruments) when playing for them. I feel it is important to strive to represent the musician you are and have the strongest possible concept of your musical ideas.  The most important facet for me is for the emphasis to be on improving and developing as a trombonist, whether you win the job or not. Comparisons of all kinds are futile and your energy is best invested on variables you can control, how you think, prepare and play. In preparing for auditions I have found the more I record myself the faster I can address all of those issues – playing back at half speed is particularly shocking and revealing! While I was in the New World Symphony I was lucky to work with Don Greene who is a sports and musician psychologist who specializes in optimal performance. I found learning to harness the energy we all feel when performing and finding new techniques to improve my skills was extremely helpful. In addition Dr. Noa Kageyama is another terrific resource in this field I have worked with and his website bulletproofmusician.com is fantastic.

Having just listened to 83 tuba players auditioning for my orchestra I though it might be helpful to mention what deems success from the other side of the screen. The answer is frighteningly simple – great sound, great time, great intonation and a musician who has something to say. When listening I wasn’t concerned if a note was chipped or a slip up occurred – I really just wanted to hear solid fundamentals and beautiful phrasing.

So you’re a female trombonist?

Amazingly this still seems to surprise non-musicians and they are confused as to why I didn’t play the flute. There are larger numbers of brass-playing women in the States who hold great jobs than ever before. No doubt this will continue and before long it will no longer be a topic that needs to be addressed. I do find it ironic that my primary school brass band was 90% female and up until late high school I assumed girls played trombone more often than boys. I did attend a master-class of Rudolf Josel (then Vienna Philharmonic) when I was very young, perhaps 12 years old, and the question was posed whether women play trombone. I distinctly remember his look of confusion and him saying “absolutely not”. To my dad’s credit he explained that Europe was different to Australia at the time, and he turned to me and smiled saying I would have to show them. Thankfully that represented a previous generation and I have always strived to not make it an issue in my professional career, to simply try to be the best trombonist I can. In a curious turn of events at a festival I attended in 2001, the Principals of Vienna Philharmonic were performing alongside the students of the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra for Mahler 3. Their Principal Trombone was delayed arriving to Japan, and I got to play Principal for the rehearsals and one of the three concerts. The musicians from Vienna, including Ian Bousfield (Principal Trombone at the time) when he did arrive, were nothing but kind and supportive. I do want to make sure young women know that there are terrific role models for them and that thanks to successful women brass players the path is more accessible than ever before.

Travel bonus

Music has always been my love, which has facilitated my other passion, travel.  Even back in primary school when my band toured to rural country Australia, I realized that if I was excited to go Hay, NSW travel was probably for me.  I realized early on how much I enjoyed seeing new places and meeting different people. Music is the perfect vehicle for that. Music is the ultimate connector and despite language or cultural differences it has always served to make connecting with people easier for me. I have loved playing in overseas orchestras, particularly with the Singapore Symphony and the Malaysian Philharmonic. Performing in the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan for two summers was also wonderful. My most interesting overseas gig would have to have been performing with the Qatar Philharmonic in Doha. I was booked by the only American in the orchestra, James Kent, to play with them for two weeks.  It was my first venture to the Middle East and needless to say it was fascinating on many levels. Running outside in shorts and a t-shirt was not an option as a woman in that culture and as tempting as running in long pants and sleeves in 40 degrees Celsius was, I opted for the women-only gym which brings me to my next obsession.

Distance running and the trombone

No doubt there is a correlation between the hours I have spent in solitude in the practice room and the hours I have spent on training runs and the strange satisfaction I get from both. I discovered distance running through musician friends and it primarily started as a vehicle for time with friends. It grew into a really important part of my life and well-being. I started with shorter races but after my first half marathon I decided with friends that we should tackle the full marathon and we had a fantastic time.  However being a self admitting type-A personality I then challenged myself to run faster, and before you know it I was hooked. Now some twenty half marathons and five full marathons later I have most recently managed to run a 3:40 marathon and to qualify for the Boston marathon, which I will run in April 2015.  Nothing has come even close to being as challenging as the last five miles of a marathon and you discover strengths you never knew you had. It is all about believing your body will do it, even though what you desperately want to do at mile 23 is to collapse and never walk let alone run again. Running makes me a better trombonist  – I notice a huge difference in breath capacity and fitness and it makes me a happier, calmer person too.  Most of all, I love that even though I will never win a race, it’s always a challenge with myself to be the best I can on that day and enjoy it. Another similarity that is so fitting for music – it’s really about being the best musician you can be today and embracing the sheer joy of it. Nothing else is as important as that.

Post Marathon

Post-marathon with San Francisco Symphony staff (L to R) – Tim Higgins (Principal Trombone), Mark Inouye (Principal Trumpet), Donna Parkes, Rebecca Blum (Personnel Manager) 

Final thoughts

A recent interaction with John Williams reminded me that the truly great musicians are gracious and humble. After conducting an entire show of his music with our orchestra the audience were on their feet and wanted three encores. I can only imagine how many times he has heard his own music as probably the most recognizable in western culture today, and he looked like he was genuinely having the time of his life.

To do what you love and to be able to make a living doing so is amazing. It is easy to be become jaded or lose motivation, become frustrated with your current playing situation but at the end of the day I remind myself I have the privilege of doing what I am most passionate about. It truly is a case of finding the great facets of any situation, as I have seen musicians bitterly unhappy in the top five orchestras here. The variable is you, and how you can appreciate what you have. Having been in a situation where my orchestra was struggling financially as many are in the current economic climate, now that it is healthier it is a great reminder to be grateful. Of course we are all striving for higher levels of musicianship and opportunity but it is vital we remember to take stock of the fundamental gift we have. Most people are not doing something they love and as musicians we tend to take that for granted. I miss Australia greatly, especially having time with my family and friends there. I would be lying if I didn’t admit I breathe a sigh of relief and joy every time I land in Sydney. It has absolutely been worth the sacrifice of living away from home to be able to pursue my passion and be performing for a living. I feel grateful for the amazing adventure living in the States has been and will continue to be for me.

If anyone would like to get in touch with me my email is parkesdonna@hotmail.com, I would love to hear from you!

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3 responses

  1. I still remember hearing a tiny little 12 year old girl monstering the ‘Thieving Magpie’ overture by Rossini and thinking ‘This kid will go somewhere…’

  2. Thanks for yor inspiring blog! Our orchestra struggles are very similar. So important to keep our motivation and inspiration. Good on you!

    • Thank you Tim ! It was terrific to read your article and I love that we now have such an accessible format to share our stories – hope to bump into you at home sometime soon