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An interview with Music Alumnus Gene Berger

Alum talks about his musical career, his new teaching job and his goals as a performer with music student Chris Calloway

By Chris Calloway (B.M. Performance ’12)
Gene Berger (M.M. ’98 – Horn Performance) has performed with the Dallas Symphony, been a member of the Cincinnati Symphony and Florida Orchestra, and currently performs with the Southwest Florida Symphony in addition to serving year-round as instructor of horn at the world-renowned Interlochen Arts Academy. He recently accepted a teaching post at Ball State University in Indiana. Berger talked about his career in a recent interview with sophomore music student Chris Calloway.

Your bio says that Frederick Schmitt was the man who inspired you to take on music as your career. Who is he, what is he like, and how was it that he led you into music?

Frederick Schmitt was one of the founding members of the New York Brass Quintet. Before returning to New York in 1954 he was principal horn of the Indianapolis Symphony from 1945-1954. He retired to West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1976. I started to study horn with Mr. Schmitt in 1979 when I was in the 6th grade. He was a true inspiration and gave me the direction I needed for a career in music. Sadly, he passed away in September 2009.

You have had performance experience with the Dallas Symphony. Were you able to play on occasion with the orchestra while studying at SMU? Have you played with them since?

The first time I performed with the DSO was during a pops concert. Greg Hustis (principal horn of the DSO) had just come back after being ill for a month and had a coughing episode during a rehearsal. He left the stage for about 30 minutes and I moved over from the assistant horn position to sit in the principal chair. When the concert finally came, I ended up performing for the first time with a professional orchestra as principal horn. In the next year, I performed and recorded the Shostakovich Symphony #7 with the DSO. Seven years later I returned to Dallas and played a few weeks in the summer while Mr. Hustis was out of town and James London (former principal horn player) became ill. I sat in as substitute principal horn for two weeks. On one of the concerts, I had to sight-read the Oberon Overture. For those who do not know, the horn is quite an unpredictable instrument. Trying to produce a pure tone at the beginning of every note on the horn can be similar to making free-throw shots in basketball. Practice builds aim and consistency, but there are still factors that make this feat difficult, such as when there is a lot weighing on whether you make the shot. Oberon Overture starts with nothing but a soft announcement from the principal horn. Sight-reading this work on the spot as the principal horn player is like coming off the bench in an NBA playoff game to make the deciding free throw shot in place of LeBron James in the last seconds of play.

When did you win your first professional horn-playing job with an orchestra?

I won my first job playing assistant principal horn with The Florida Orchestra, based in Tampa, at the beginning of my second year of grad school at SMU, in the fall of 1991. Winning the job on a Monday afternoon, I had to start the next day. Because the orchestra did not have a principal horn player at that time, the third horn begged me to play that week’s concert series. After finishing the concert series, I flew back to Dallas the following Saturday and was received by the horn studio, which threw a party for me at my apartment. That evening, everyone helped pack my trailer, and I was in Tampa again playing with The Florida Orchestra on Monday.

Since you won your first job midway through your masters degree, how did you finally complete the degree?

In order to teach at either the university level or a top organization such as the Interlochen Arts Academy, I would have to have my masters degree regardless of my professional playing experience. Fortunately, SMU was accommodating in allowing me to transfer credits from the University of South Florida, during my time playing with The Florida Orchestra. I was able to finish my education at USF and obtain my MM from SMU. Ultimately, I finished the degree in 1998, eight years after starting it.

How did studying with Mr. Hustis at SMU help prepare you for The Florida Orchestra job?

Studying with a teacher who performs and wants to teach is a must if you want to win an audition. It is all about the priorities of the teacher. Mr. Hustis is constantly engaged in preparing, rehearsing and performing. This provides exactly the kind of role model a student needs. After all, Mr. Hustis is doing what most of the students want to do. The most important part is that he has the passion to teach after his long week as a performer. Few teachers can balance teaching, performing and solving other people’s problems.

You moved to the Southwest Florida Symphony in 2007 to take the principal horn position and you will be performing Mozart’s Second Horn Concerto this year. Do you perform often as a soloist? What opportunities have you had with solo playing with professional orchestras?

A month after winning my position in The Florida Orchestra in 1991, I had to perform Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante, K 297b. Also, The Florida Orchestra horn section performed Schumann’s Koncertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra, op. 81 on numerous occasions. This past year I performed The Glass Bead Game by James Beckel with the Interlochen Academy Band.

How do you balance teaching at Interlochen and your current position playing with the Southwest Florida Symphony on a regular basis?

The Southwest Florida Symphony has a limited fall/winter season of about 12 weeks and it is a four-day week. The shortened week allows me not to miss too much of my normal teaching schedule. Generally, I do not have to fly more than one time in a week. I usually fly out on a Wednesday evening and return on that Sunday.

What are your responsibilities as horn professor at the Interlochen Arts Academy?

I co-conduct and teach the brass ensemble with the trumpet and low brass instructor. Along with this, I coach various chamber music groups. These groups include woodwind quintet, brass quintet, horn quartet and other combinations. In addition to weekly horn lessons, the students have a weekly studio class. Studio class involves sectionals for orchestra and band, guest artists and preparation for the students’ various performance endeavors. I spend considerable time with my students each week. I dine with them in the cafeteria, socialize in sponsor groups and basically act as a substitute parent while they are on campus. It has been great to be part of such a close community.

What has it been like teaching at Interlochen for the past couple of years? Do you find teaching the students there similar to teaching at the collegiate level?

The last two years have been terrific. High school students learn quickly in the Interlochen environment. They have time to warm up in the morning and incorporate music throughout the day. It is truly like having a professional job on top of still attending high school. It is similar to a college environment with long days and being independent of parents. Most students that attend Interlochen come only for their senior year and I can only teach materials focusing on their college placement auditions.

Do you participate in any chamber groups?

I have participated in a variety of chamber music activities in Interlochen, Tampa, and Cincinnati and with the Pegasus Wind Quintet at the University of Central Florida. Both orchestras had educational outreach programs that used woodwind quintets. In addition, I would program various musical combinations that use horn for solo and chamber music recitals.

Recently, you accepted a job teaching at Ball State University. What were your incentives to take this new position?

Ball State has many benefits: location, a new music building with recording facilities and a professional wind quintet in residence. In addition, I will be principal horn of the Muncie Symphony Orchestra while still being able to travel down to Florida to play principal with the Southwest Florida Symphony. Furthermore, BSU also offers terminal degrees in music so I would be able to teach high level horn students on the brink of their professional careers.

What goals immediate and long-term do you have for your horn playing?

It is my desire to maintain a high profile as a performer. I want to be able to play more concertos, recitals and chamber music. In the future I would like to record a solo and chamber music CD as well as continue to perform orchestral music. I feel that it is important to continue to live in a performance mindset. Everything is a balancing act now, teaching, recitals and obligations to the profession.

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