Ross Holcombe | Principal Trombonist, Spokane Symphony Orchestra
Ross Holcombe is the principal trombonist of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, and also holds the position of associate principal/second trombonist of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. Ross has also given performances with numerous other orchestras, including the Seattle Symphony, Utah Symphony, Oregon Symphony, Bellingham Festival Orchestra, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Albany Symphony, Boston Philharmonic, Boston Landmarks Orchestra, and the New World Symphony. Solo engagements include performances with the Spokane Symphony of John Mackey's Harvest: Concerto for Trombone. Ross currently serves on the faculties of Eastern Washington, Gonzaga, and Whitworth Universities, and earned his Bachelor's of Music and Master's of Music Degrees from the New England Conservatory where he studied with Norman Bolter. Ross has also received fellowships to attend the Tanglewood Music Center, National Repertory Orchestra, Pacific Music Festival, and the National Orchestral Institute. More information about Ross can be found on his website at www.RossHolcombe.com.
Ross's TYO Experience
"I was a member of TYO (at the time TSYO) from 2000 to 2006. I joined when I was in 7th grade thanks to the trust that Dr. Alex Jiminez put in me. I was VERY young, and had only been playing trombone for a year when he decided to give me a shot at playing in the orchestra. I'm so thankful that he saw through my inexperience and decided to give me a chance, because that first year was a big growth year for me! In large part, it was due to the fact that I was able to be around older musicians with great regularity. They had been playing for much longer than I had, so I got to see what I could sound like in a few years if I practiced hard. That's one of the most important things for a young musician -- being able to hear an example of what your instrument can sound like when played well. It's really easy to ignore the great sounds that you might hear when you buy a CD of someone professional on your instrument, because their level of greatness is so abstract and so far away. You might be that good...someday...somehow...in about a million years. But the sounds that a senior in high school is making are directly relatable to you! You could make those sounds in just a few years! So I think the aspect of getting to be around so many other young musicians was such an important thing for me at that time in my playing life.
I decided to pursue a career in music from a very early age. Honestly, I had decided by the time I finished my first year of playing trombone. Something about it just spoke to me, and I had more fun with music than I had ever had with sports, math, science, literature, or anything else. I got bitten by the "bug" really early, and it definitely helped me to stay focused and practice really hard throughout my time in middle and high school. I would come in early in the mornings to practice in the band room before school. I would sneak my lunch during the class before our actual lunch break so that I could spend lunch practicing in the band room. And I would usually spend at least an hour after school in the band room practicing as well. I guess I probably shouldn't use the word "practice," because what I was doing wasn't really practicing. I learned how to actually practice when I got to college. But at the time I just had pieces that I really loved to play, and I would pull them out and play them again and again and again. It was fun for me to try to sound as good as the person on the CD that I had. I didn't really know how to target my practice in order to work on my weaknesses yet, but the mere fact of having the trombone in my hands for so many hours a day was what helped me build a solid foundation. You absolutely can't make a career in music unless you love it. And those hours of playing fun music at a young age were what made me love it in the first place. Then you can take that feeling and carry it through to all the "work" you have to do once you get into college and beyond. It doesn't feel like work as much when you realize that you're doing it because you love it and couldn't picture yourself doing anything else.
My favorite memory from TSYO was actually from my very first year in the orchestra. I was the only middle school student in the wind/brass section. All the others were from high school. At one of the first rehearsals we were playing a piece that was in a very strange key...it had four sharps! To a middle school brass player, any key with sharps is totally foreign, and E major, with four sharps, was absolutely unheard of. Eventually, the inevitable happened, and I played a big fat G-natural where I should have played G-sharp. One woodwind player (who I won't mention by name, but he was a senior in high school, and thus, VERY intimidating to me) then turned around, glared directly at me, and said loudly, "who let that KID in the orchestra??" Needless to say, I was mortified. But in a strange way, it really motivated me to practice my music really hard so I wouldn't make any dumb mistakes anymore. For the rest of the year, that particular woodwind player never said another word in my general direction, which I took to mean that I had finally passed muster! I don't tell this story in order to say that getting yelled at by older kids is the best way to motivate a young musician, but to say that in a certain way, realizing that I'm part of a TEAM, and that just because I'm young doesn't mean I'm allowed to be a weak link, was just what needed to happen to me at that time. It doesn't excuse the older student being rude, but it sure did make an impression on me!
My time in TSYO really gave me a great foundation for what it means to be part of a group environment. Obviously, I'm still in an orchestra setting today, but I think that it would have come in handy even if I had gone into another field. The feeling of not wanting to let the rest of the group down is really strong in an orchestra, and it motivated me to always be my best. More specifically to my current career path, the fact that I was exposed to so many great pieces of music from an early age really helped me to get the sound of an orchestra in my ears. I would beg my parents to buy me a CD of a professional orchestra playing our current repertoire, and I would listen to it on repeat in my bedroom. I specifically remember playing Finlandia by Jean Sibelius and thinking that it was the most inspiring music I had ever heard. I started to realize that music wasn't just about sounding perfect. It could also make you feel different kinds of emotions throughout the piece. And I think that's what really drew me to love music. It's great to play the right notes and to be impressively good at your instrument, but if at the end of the night, you don't feel emotionally fulfilled, then you're not getting to the essence of music as ART. You're playing music like a SPORT. There's an element of that athleticism in music, and you have to be a great athlete, but you have to take it a step farther by having the message of the piece be the central guiding force to your practice and performance. So I finally realized that when I listened to a great orchestra, I wasn't just impressed with how great they sounded, I actually FELT what Sibelius was trying to say through the music. If it weren't for being so interested in the music we were playing in the orchestra, I might not have made that realization about what music actually is. It's not sport -- it's art.
To anyone in TSYO currently who's interested in a career in music, I would say 1) that a career in music can take many different forms, and 2) play your instrument a lot, every day. To elaborate about point number one: when I was in TSYO, I had this idea that I would go to the best music school ever, find a job in an orchestra before I graduated, drop out, move to a big, amazing city, and play principal trombone in an orchestra for the rest of my career while finding complete and total fulfillment doing so. The truth is that hardly anyone has a career like this. In reality, there are TONS of ways to make a living in music. To use myself as an example, my life right now has a lot of different musical facets besides just playing in the orchestra. I definitely love the orchestra, but I quickly came to realize that there are a lot of other great things to do in music besides just play the same orchestral masterworks again and again, year after year. I also teach, which I love equally as much as playing in the orchestra, and I do other musical activities as well, including composing and arranging music, playing chamber music, giving recitals, and conducting. Each of these activities fulfills me in a different way and helps to build a complete musical life. When I'm in the orchestra, I'm only able to affect my individual part. There's a certain kind of joy to be found in polishing your piece of the musical picture and offering your best to your colleagues. But it's a completely different kind of feeling when you have had the tenth lesson with a student, and you FINALLY find the words to express the concept you've been trying to impart. Their eyes light up and they GET IT. It's a really wonderful feeling. Or there's the thrill of being a conductor or composer and being not just one piece of the puzzle, but actually in much greater command of the sounds that will be created. In other words, you need a varied diet in order to be musically healthy. Too much of one thing in music, just like in food, can make you unhealthy. And these are just examples from my own path so far. Lots of my friends have branched out into different areas of music than I have. I have friends who play on Broadway, friends who play in jazz bands and combos, friends who teach things like music history or theory instead of performing, friends who play chamber music on tour all over the country, and plenty more. Basically, there's not just ONE music career. Find your niche. Explore what you love. And make yourself unique so that people will be interested in hearing you. Don't get an idea of success in your head and then feel bad when 10 years down the road you're not exactly where you thought you'd be. You might find that by working hard and trusting that things will turn out right, you'll find yourself right where you need to be.
Phew...now about the second piece of advice: you need to play your instrument a lot every day. You don't have to play anything in particular (though obviously, certain things will help more than others...consult your private teachers!), but you need to play a lot every day. Without exaggerating, I can say that during the time I was in middle and high school, I probably averaged about 5-6 hours per day of time playing the trombone. Not all of it was individual practice, but probably about 2-3 hours of it was. The rest was band, orchestra, lessons, and other playing opportunities. But when you're young, it's not so important to be the next great virtuoso. It's important to play a lot and figure out what works for you. Get a sound in your ear and try to make it come out of your instrument. Only by experimenting every day and constantly comparing yourself to your ideal will you get better. Luckily, at that time in your life, you'll probably make a lot of progress merely by putting in hours. If you learn how to practice really well, you'll even make faster progress! (In a nutshell: really practicing means breaking it down to an easier point where you sound AWESOME at it and then building step by step from there. But it's way too much to get into in this format!) The most important thing is to find some music you're passionate about, and play some of it EVERY DAY. Learn to love your instrument and the sounds you create, and you'll be right where you need to by the time you're looking to move on to the next step.
The thing I enjoy most about my job playing in orchestras now is that while I might play the same piece many times over the years, I'm always a different person by the time it comes around again. I can know what I will always enjoy about that piece, but I can also ask myself how I'm different today than the last time I played it, and approach the piece accordingly. For example, the first time I ever played Pictures at an Exhibition, I was in college. I was a hotshot young trombone player, and I wanted everything to be LOUD. The louder the better! I played that piece so loud, the woodwinds and strings in front of me were covering their ears! But the most recent time I played Pictures at an Exhibition in the Spokane Symphony this past year, I remembered my first time playing it, but also realized that I'm a much different person now. While playing loud is great, I have more subtlety and nuance to my playing now. I find joy in many different aspects of playing other than just playing loudly. I was able to enjoy playing this familiar piece that I've had a relationship with for many years, but I was able to bring my New Self to it this time, and not just sound like the loud college trombone player I used to be. Music can be a sort of time capsule, where you remember where you were in your life the last time you played that piece. But it's important not to get sucked back into the past, and to remember who you are today, and let that person rediscover the piece as if for the first time.
The biggest challenge of my career so far has been realizing that everyone's path is different, and everyone finds success at their own time, and in their own fashion. Sometimes it can be hard not to compare yourself to where your teacher was at your age, where your friends currently are, or where you thought you'd be by now. Your drive for success has to come completely and totally from within. If you're taking the next audition because you want to be better than person XYZ, then you're putting your motivation outside your own Self. If you're feeling dejected because by the time he was your age, your teacher was already in the Boston Symphony, then you're putting your motivation outside your own Self. If you feel jealousy that a friend of yours just got a position in XYZ orchestra and you haven't yet, then you're putting your motivation outside your own Self. I used to be really bad about this kind of thinking, but I've slowly weaned myself off of it, and started to realize that nobody else is responsible for my feeling of Self Worth. You can't control what others do. You can only control yourself. And the roadblocks I've put in front of myself because I've been comparing myself to others have honestly been the biggest challenge I've faced. I'm a completely different person, and if I try to do exactly what someone else is doing, it probably won't work for me. I need to find my own path, and follow it, knowing that it's right for ME. Everyone should ask themselves if you're being the best that YOU can be today, and if today you're doing a little bit better than yesterday. If those answers are "yes," then you'll save yourself a lot of trouble by trying to fit yourself into someone else's version of success.
I think my greatest accomplishment so far has been finding my niche in the music world! It can be so hard to make a living at music. Many people barely scrape by while they try to chase this dream, so I feel incredibly fortunate to be spending my life making music. I keep very busy to make it all work, which in addition to my work in the orchestra and three universities in Spokane, also includes tons of travel to play with other orchestras in other cities, teach guest classes at other universities, and play gigs in other cities as well. Basically, the fact that against all odds, I'm still here playing my trombone every day and making my living at it is my biggest accomplishment. I had to work hard to find these opportunities, and I'm still working just as hard to make new opportunities happen in the future. But for where I am right now, this is what I feel my biggest accomplishment is.
Being in TSYO was a huge help to my education. I still remember all the coaches that I had during my time in the orchestra, and I definitely remember Dr. Jiminez, who was an incredible musical example to me. I learned something important from each person. Some of them were big, earth-shattering musical truths that still inform the way I play a piece today, some were a helpful hint about how to play my instrument better like how to play a passage with slightly less effort, and some were even something simple like watching a coach making a joke, and realizing that music is always supposed to be fun. Being in TSYO was a great foundation for me in particular, with my dream of being a musician in the future, but also in the ways it taught me to work well with others, practice and study hard in between rehearsals, and even in lighter ways like being able to have a fun activity to participate in with my best friends. I think these are all aspects that are important to someone's life education. You might find some of it at school, or on a sports team, but if that's not your thing, then youth orchestra is a great place to get it all.
To any students considering joining TYO, you have to ask yourself if you're a team player. Unlike sports, nobody sits on "the bench" in an orchestra. Everyone is important all of the time. You don't get a break until everyone gets a break. It can be frustrating. It can be exhausting. It can make your brain hurt. But the feeling of being part of an orchestra and knowing that your one part fits together with all the other parts to create this incredible work of sonic art is something you won't get from any other group you could join. You won't find it in sports. You won't find it in school clubs. You won't even find it in other kinds of art like painting, or writing. Music is something different and unique. You'll have the most difficult days of your life in the orchestra, but you'll also have the most fun and the most rewarding days as well. Join the orchestra if you're not afraid to step outside your comfortable box a little bit, if you love the idea of working closely with your friends to create something of beauty together, and most importantly, if you're looking for a way to HAVE FUN. Never forget that music should be fun!"