Kristina Mascher-Turner: Tawnee, you are a woman of many talents - it’s hard to know where to start! How about at the beginning? How did you come to play the horn in the first place, and how did you first start your career as a horn player?
Tawnee Lynn Lillo: If I could describe my unique prowess to the reader, it’s that I’m excited about everything. To some people, this must sound exhausting :) After dabbling in running, tennis, sports, piano, flute and some violin, the horn pretty much called my name in band one day in 8th grade. My family of 7 lived on 80 acres of land so that my father could have an airstrip to fly his planes to/from work. We “temporarily” (1988-2006) used a diesel-powered generator for electricity. Watching Independence Day with my family at home during generator hours was when I was first sold on the horn!! The student model F horn we all start out on came home with me, and I taught myself how to change the sound from a dying elephant to something more enjoyable that summer (I had a cockatoo at the time who would sit on the bell and bob his head up and down to my beats). As for my career, I feel I am smack dab in the middle of it as we speak and am doing everything I can to stay focused, alert, aware, happy, and smiling, helping and inspiring as many as I can along the way. After studying at the University of Arizona with Keith Johnson as well as at USC with legends Vince DeRosa and Richard Todd, I started playing small jobs around campus and the surrounding areas. From there, all kinds of adventurous opportunities arose. Every SINGLE person I started my Masters degree with at USC is playing at the highest level and mostly teaching at colleges/universities!
KMT: While at music school, we are often captivated by the idea of winning that big orchestra audition and settling into a stable routine (and salary). So often, destiny takes us in other directions. How important is it for us to keep our feelers out for alternate paths?
TLL: Being in that principal horn spot, especially (on any part) full time in a symphony is an accomplishment for the history books and really takes a badass individual. Preparing, staying focused, being a team player who works well in this setting, having the proper balance, etc. is something many dream of while some naturally have that talent/skill. With all kinds of talent in our industry, and with the whole entrepreneurial picture, now is definitely the time to learn, research, develop and incorporate other skills that allow our musical abilities to grow and expand. It’s pretty incredible getting the opportunity to do what I do as I’m sure most of you reading can relate to on some degree. Being surrounded by and getting to hang out with, make music, perform, laugh, and have deep/important conversations with such skilled colleagues, friends and mentors alike is an incredible gift. Having the opportunity to sub more with the San Diego Symphony has been a highlight, and preparing my student for the professional world has been a reminder of how well I was taught/guided!!
KMT: You first got into contracting through your association with an opera company - can you tell us about those early key moments?
TLL: I was approached about playing horn for Center Stage Opera, a newly formed company at the time. It seemed natural that there would be a paid “training” opera orchestra as there is with The American Youth Symphony or The Debut Symphony in Los Angeles. After my first time playing with the company, the talent of the singers and the conductor blew me away! The orchestra, on the other hand, needed some assistance. I offered to help them with their next production. That turned into approximately 7 seasons with the company. I worked to have a small budget incorporated for my work, to raise the pay for the musicians, and to make sure to buy, prepare and cook healthy meals for up to 30 people on our long rehearsals. A key moment for me will always be the very first Sitzprobe rehearsals when the orchestra and the vocalists were in one room together playing. The sound immediately reminded me of why I had just worked so hard to put the orchestra together. That feeling is magic. I think this is when my natural entrepreneurial spirit was born in music!
KMT: How did you get yourself set up as a company? What was your learning curve at the beginning?
TLL: This all came about simply by demand. After my experience with the opera company, I started getting calls, often for favors or just a few extra recommendations for a job. Then a PBS special came along where I was hired to put musicians together for tenor Nathan Pacheco. As this was live television, I had the opportunity to hire make-up artists, work with craft services people, producers, management, the whole 9 yards. Soon thereafter, IL VOLO’s management company reached out to me, and this began the unexpected process of starting my own corporation. During this time, I also gained a lot of experience as a building/apartment manager. At one point, I thought why not manage a property while living in it and earn free rent, so I did that. Was it a lot of work? YES!!!I believe to truly succeed, to be of value or to grow ~ KEEP AN OPEN MIND (or die trying) throughout the process, don’t be afraid to try new things. AND, pay attention to the things that already exist and see where you can fit in.
KMT: How do you balance your business with staying in shape and performing?
TLL: This is a constant learning process. A lot of efficiency for one! I’d like to coin this as “let the universe decide”. There have been times I walk by my horn 20 times a day, thinking how badly I want to pick it up and don’t because of the constant moving and changing of the day’s events. Now, I just pick it up and play. SIGHT-READING, recording myself, learning symphonies, playing along with recordings, having friends come over to play trios/quartets (LOVE), practicing with a drone/rhythm, etc. Staying in shape physically has so much to do with all of it. I always find the time to work out. I have even at times incorporated some of the Julie Landsman buzzes with squats and hamstring/leg lifts. It’s all pretty entertaining if someone were just to watch me for a day. I’m sure people would be tired just watching! I have a pull up bar in my place and can almost do 3 of them. I often do this in between practicing.
KMT: What is involved in music contracting? How do you build the relationships that bring performers and venues together?
TLL: These are really two separate questions, but I tend to combine them naturally. It’s like putting together a human puzzle, connecting the dots/people. Again, it’s all about efficiency!! I genuinely like people, and I love talented people. Aside from the technical and imperative aspects such as SOUND quality, a venue is just a venue - the lights and decorations make it visually appealing, but the music is always what brings the magic. It’s pretty cool getting to put together magic for different events. It’s an even better feeling knowing you are helping to create a pleasant working and PAID environment for so many magical musicians.Knowing contracts is a super important part of contracting: unions, rules, learning about different types of people/personalities, etc. This is why at times I have wanted to change my business to a music services business rather than just contracting. I always want to expand; there is always so much to do!! Interns are welcome - this is a learned career for sure. I’m looking for an apprentice who wants to take this to the next level.
KMT: How important is community service to you?
TLL: I have probably done twice the amount of community service work as I have paid work in my lifetime! This wasn’t always the intention of course, but I truly valued everything as a learning experience.I could have spent many a night reading to learn, but I’m much more of a hands-on person. I have found community service to be such an important aspect and necessity in our careers. Go to your community council meeting sometime with your band, or with some friends who love getting together and playing music. Head to the nearest church, contact the local police department, hospital etc. I just began recruitment for the Police Academy band, a community service-based band in Los Angeles. “If we as musicians are not giving back and making music relevant, then it will go away.” (Quote by Myka Miller, Oboe/Ex Director, Harmony Project.)
KMT: A lot of musicians don’t understand money, particularly how to save and invest it, and how to find creative ways to supplement their income. What tips can you offer?
TLL: There is this mindset that musicians need a full-time career in a symphony or full time in the “studios” to make a decent enough living, and only then can they benefit from things such as life insurance and a retirement plan. We all know freelance work comes and goes and does not offer either. Well, until this time comes in your life, I can’t be more adamant about STARTING NOW! In my opinion, life insurance is just as important as health insurance. A lot of people believe life insurance is not beneficial, but I’d really encourage each one of you to do some research on this extremely important topic. The younger we start, the more it will benefit us when we retire. I plan to incorporate this as a program into colleges; it would have been great for colleagues and myself alike to have had this when we were in school working to get our degrees. Start saving now, put away $10 from each gig, and it will start to add up. Contact me in 6 months to a year, and I will guide you where to go when you have about $500-$1,000 saved. You can do this!!
KMT: You have had the pleasure of performing on soundtracks and with celebrities. Do you have a favorite project, concert, or recording experience?
TLL: It’s always a magical treat when Michael Giachinno brings in JJ Abrams or different actors from his movies to conduct a cue. My all-time favorite celebrities I have performed with are definitely Josh Groban and Seth Mcfarlane. Besides being great performers, they are also very humble and funny dudes!! Little do they know, one of these days I may have to ask for some funding on something big ;) Then there was that one time Frank Sinatra Jr. told me I sounded just like Vince DeRosa but had a much better backside! But truly, it has always been an honor to get the opportunity to play at these studios that hold so much music-making history. Then, getting to customize professional musicians specifically for a project/artist, who all have character, know how to SHOW UP, perform on stage, and know how to travel together is a skill I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to experience. I hope to expand upon this in the near future!
KMT: Most of your activities focus on the greater Los Angeles area. This seems like quite an amazing playground to network, build your business and contacts, to grow a multifaceted career. Do you think all this would be possible in a smaller town or region?
TLL: Los Angeles is a playground indeed, but one where we can acquire some pretty bad scrapes. A place like LA has all kinds of people, both good and bad. I believe that success can happen anywhere at all. Although LA is where I reside, I absolutely love to travel. I hope to sub with many more orchestras and put together events around the world in the near future. I truly believe if you choose to “get involved,” whatever that may mean to you, you are that much further ahead of the game. Sitting around and waiting for the phone to ring is a sad day in my opinion. There is so much more magic we can spread together if we just open our minds, help out where needed, and get involved! All while keeping perspective, of course, my best advice is to do some research beforehand, ALWAYS. There is definitely a place for each of us on the playground. Often times, in having/owning a business, I can recognize how people get caught up on being the “first call,” or “first chair” and thinking: “why did that person get a call and I didn’t?” This is just wasting creative, restful space needed in our imaginative minds. WE/YOU must embrace time and place, always absorb like a sponge while still in school, the first 3-5 years of your freelance career, and then some. Pay it forward to those who are younger than you to practice your teaching skills/interests. It’s time to change that mentality, as we create our own future.
KMT: You are a very busy woman, balancing so many projects at the same time. How do you keep your peace of mind?
TLL: A phrase I’ve just coined this year is “chaotic balance.” As long as I am breathing, taking time off and not being so hard on myself, I will continue to dream big and do as much as possible to help grow this incredible industry for as long as I can. Since I was a baby, my Mama and everyone else closest to me remember me always being happy. I am so lucky! I have always loved to help others. My siblings are all so giving, kind, great at sending cards, planning, being parents, etc.I have a much bigger family now!! With 8 nieces and nephews, every time I get to see the family I incorporate music somehow and have taught each of the kids how to buzz on the lips, mouthpiece and horn. They all get it, sounding pretty awesome in my opinion. Again, exercise and eating healthy for me is HUGE. Also, having a 93-pound 5-year-old dog named Booker helps me keep things balanced and peaceful. He is what I like to call “my soul.”We are a team indeed, and he even sings with dynamics and pitch changes sort of like an opera singer would.
The love this dog provides me should be spread to those who truly need it. Going from a bird to a loving 93 lb living teddy bear isn’t too bad!!!
A native of Los Angeles, California, TAWNEE LYNN LILLO can be heard on Disney’s latest soundtrack and cinematic installment of Star Wars; Rogue One. Her professionalism, diverse musicality and dynamic horn abilities have allowed her such opportunities as horn soloist in the Tony Award-winning Broadway show, Blast, and participating in national music tours such as Shockwave and Josh Groban. Her company, Tawnee Lynn Music Contracting LLC, delivers to high-profile clients and is working to expand the reach of the music industry, allowing for more creative and streamlined opportunities for professional musicians. https://www.tawneelynn.com