No newsletter devoted to IHS48 would be complete without hearing from Ithaca College’s most famous horn graduate, Gail Williams. In a career that has included the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Summit Brass, the World Orchestra for Peace, and professorship at Northwestern University, to name just a few highlights, she has shared her formidable musical expertise as a performer and clinician all over the world. In this interview, she treats us to reminiscences from her time as a student at Ithaca College, tells us what we have to look forward to in the natural beauty of Ithaca’s surroundings, and gives excellent advice on many aspects of a successful career and balanced lifestyle. Enjoy! -KMT
Kristina Mascher-Turner: How did you come to choose the horn in the first place?
Gail Williams: My mom suggested I try the horn since I was left-handed. She had a rule that we (my two brothers and I) all play different instruments…so I got the horn.
KMT: Can you tell us about your teacher at Ithaca College, Jack Covert? What was it like studying with him?
GW: Mr. Covert was the most important person in my musical upbringing. He taught me the technique of the horn and the history of our instrument, exposed me to great horn players and great repertoire. But most importantly, he structured my horn playing by building a strong base. I had never had a horn lesson till my first lesson with Mr. Covert!
KMT: Ithaca, New York, is situated in a place of natural beauty, and you have a love of the great outdoors. Did this love begin while studying at Ithaca College, or had it always been a part of you?
GW: I have always loved the outdoors. Growing up on a beautiful Holstein farm in western New York State, Ithaca was a BIG city for me!
KMT: Do you have some special memories of your student days at IC that you can share with our readers?
GW: Ithaca is where I really fell in love with music. I had never really heard an orchestra or chamber music before then. On the first recital Mr. Covert gave during my freshman year, the program was the three B’s: Berkeley, Banks, and Brahms! I do also have to tell you that because I was new to “music life,” I balanced my life in Ithaca by spending time with my friends from my Holstein upbringing at the Cornell campus and their football games!
KMT: While you were a student at IC, you already started successfully taking auditions. How did you prepare?
GW: I didn’t really study any excerpts while I was at IC. I had to learn music and horn first! Too many students never learn the correct technique before beginning to play excerpts. I am so grateful to Mr. Covert that I played many etudes to form my background, my long base, so that I could pull from that base for orchestral playing.
KMT: You’re from upstate New York and have been in the Chicago area for a long time now. That means you’re used to getting your chops to work in extremely cold conditions. I know many people who have a difficult time playing in the cold! What advice can you offer?
GW: You must use some protective gel. Many different ones work – just try to keep your chops protected!
KMT: What are some of your favorite things about the town of Ithaca that IHS48 symposium participants will also enjoy?
GW: Going outside and seeing the beautiful state parks and few wineries in the area.
KMT: A lot of horn players are also marathon runners, as you are. How important a role does fitness play in your musical stamina and ability to play at peak level?
GW: To have a peak performance, your base must be very long, as in running marathons or any other sport. There are many forms of exercise that will help develop the mental strength one can use in performing.
KMT: Is there a magic ingredient in a successful principal horn player’s psyche?
GW: CHAMBER MUSIC…In your head you are playing with others!
KMT: During your tenure in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, what were your favorite pieces to play? Who were your favorite conductors?
GW: Conductors – so many to remember: Solti, Abbado, Boulez, Kubelik, Barenboim – hard to stop. As for repertoire: all the big rep of course but especially the performances of great solo works with great soloists.
KMT: You’ve had a grueling tour schedule for decades. What’s your secret to staying healthy and energetic, not to mention sane?
GW: Balance…horn, exercise, many miles of walks with my dogs, and especially family time!
KMT: If you had to choose between playing chamber music and orchestra, which would it be?
GW: Boy…that is a hard choice. I would say chamber music, but actually I try to play chamber music in all my orchestral performances. That keeps me sane and totally involved!
KMT: You have returned to Ithaca College many times over the years to teach. What has changed since your student days, and what has remained the same?
GW: The music school has grown with the new additions to the building, but the true interest in the students’ growth is the most profound aspect of the School of Music at IC. The biggest change is that all of my teachers have retired ☹
KMT: What, other than music, currently gives you joy?
You can hear Gail Williams in action in this wonderful clip from the 2010 BBC Proms, playing the Scherzo from Mahler’s 5th Symphony, with the World Orchestra for Peace