Meet a Young Professional: Nikki LaBonte of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra

Nikki LaBonte, Acting Assistant Principal Horn of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Nadine Photography, courtesy Nikki LaBonte.
Nikki LaBonte, Acting Assistant Principal Horn of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Nadine Photography, courtesy of Nikki LaBonte.)

Nikki LaBonte is an accomplished French horn player with loads of accolades and opportunities under her belt, from an upcoming stint with the New York Philharmonic to her recent appointment as Acting Assistant Principal of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.  But LaBonte takes on these opportunities from a unique perspective: she only just finished her sophomore year of college this past spring.  LaBonte also happens to count among my favorite humans and closest friends, and kindly took time out of her burgeoning career to talk with Classical Conditioning about the challenges and advantages of navigating the classical music world as a young professional.

CC: Tell us about yourself!

NL: I’m originally from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and I started playing the horn in the fourth grade at my elementary school.  Now, I’m serving as the Acting Assistant Principal of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra based in Honolulu.  Because of that, I’m currently on a leave of absence from the Eastman School of Music, where I just finished my sophomore year of undergrad studying with W. Peter Kurau.  Additionally, I’ve subbed as an extra player with orchestras including the Rochester Philharmonic, Buffalo Philharmonic, New World Symphony, and Syracuse Symphoria.  In January, I’ll be participating in a fellowship program with the New York Philharmonic and will be playing side-by-side with members of the Philharmonic in a set of regular subscription concerts.  Fun facts: I’m a certified scuba diver, and I could watch episodes of Law and Order for the rest of my life and never become discontented.

CC: What are the challenges and/or advantages of being so young in the professional music world?

NL: I want to start by saying that I love the way this question is phrased.  So often, musicians can feel like there are so many challenges as a young player that we fail to see the many benefits of being a “newbie.”  I think sometimes we can let these disadvantages overwhelm us and don’t push ourselves to the level we ought to expect.

I’m not denying that there aren’t challenges.  It can be tough to balance your lack of experience with that of your colleagues who have sometimes been in the orchestra longer than you’ve been alive.  You have to do more homework to make up for not having played the pieces before.  Score study, rehearsing with a recording, mental practice.  And as tedious as this can seem when put into writing, the time spent doing this research is NEVER wasted.  You too will almost certainly these pieces many times in the future and thus, this work is more of an investment than a tax.

But, the advantages can far outweigh any of these “challenges.”  I think that with the benefits of the aforementioned experience, there can also come a side effect of disillusionment.  And we don’t have to be old to experience this.  Many a high school horn player has already grown accustomed to letting out an obligatory groan every time a Sousa march is put on their stand.  But, the first time we played this march, there certainly were no outbursts of passive objection.  So it is when you’re a young player in an orchestra.  Each piece is new and fresh and even the small victories of advancing in an audition or even making it through all the excerpts in a round before hearing the dreaded “thank you” are accomplishments worth a great deal of celebration.  As we get older, we can quickly lose the excitement and thrill that this music and these events can offer.  I think consciously, we have to reject that as we grow older and accumulate experience.  We must always remember that music is something far too spectacular to become boring. 

CC: Do you think music schools/conservatories prepare young musicians to succeed in the professional world?

NL: I don’t think its right for me to answer this question directly as I’d like to offer another perspective entirely.  I don’t think it’s the job of music schools/conservatories to “prepare” us for the professional world.  It’s impossible to create a curriculum that addresses all the complexities of each student’s preexisting abilities and learning needs.  Instead, the student is responsible for discovering the opportunities that are within the school and exploring each one of them thoroughly.  From there, you have to develop your own curriculum, emphasizing the activities that are most beneficial and minimizing time spend on all the others.  There are opportunities of all kinds at every school, and if enough persistence and eagerness is possessed by the student, then there is certainly enough material to prepare them for any position or occupation.

CC: What advice do you have for young musicians, such as recent music school graduates, preparing to take professional auditions?

NL: I’ll share the best advice that I’ve been given on this matter by Peter Kurau and William Vermuelen because it’s far better than anything I can offer at the moment.  Only go to an audition if you are “going to win.”  I don’t mean this in an egotistical way.  I mean that you should never take an audition “for experience.”  Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.  So, want something more.  Go to an audition with the sole intention of winning and accepting the position.  Anything less can lead to laziness or sloppiness in preparation.  With the goal of winning, both your practice habits and your mindset will be intentional and healthily motivated.  Your chances of success will be far greater when success is what you’re actually aiming for, instead of something that you stumble upon by accident.

CC: What challenges do you think classical music faces today?  What can young musicians bring to the table as the genre faces these challenges?

NL: I want to say first that classical music has faced challenges all throughout history.  The current struggles of classical music can seem very present and pressing because we are more directly connected to them, but these things are no greater than the difficulties that preceded them.  Many will say that nowadays, we are in a time of convenience.  They’ll say that people want things that are easily accessible.  And in turn, they will decry the distance of the classical music community, how attending a symphony concert requires a certain sense of decorum and becomes a bigger deal than it is.  People will say the new generation only wants things that give them immediate satisfaction and that the current global state of mind, with our fast-paced updates and instant communication, are just becoming incompatible with classical music.  That mindset is disrespectful to both classical music and the rest of the community, musicians and non-musicians alike.  We, as a community, do want things that are easily accessible, but we cannot be reduced to just that character trait alone.  People always have been, and always will be, interested in engaging with others who are sharing something they are passionate about.  Yes, classical music does have a sense of decorum about it, but that comes with centuries of tradition and importance.  We as a community must remember that tradition stems from a precedence of people who feel that what they are doing can change the world.  We cannot let tradition bog us down into self-importance.  Instead, as a community we must be able to share the reason why we first fell in love with classical music.  Every member of the classical music scene is responsible for that, not just the young people.  But each of us must remember, in the midst of the nerves and the technical struggles and the disillusionment, how music changed our lives.  And we can never be afraid to share that with others.

CC: What are you most looking forward to about your job?

NL: I’m actually writing this the day after my first performance with the orchestra.  And after a week, I’m really excited for what the rest of the year holds.  This experience is unlike anything I’ve done before and I know that I have a lot of work to do.  But, making music last night and getting the chance to play with this orchestra is making me excited to do this work.  I think the self-assessment aspect of it all will prove challenging but it’s also what I’m most excited about as I become my own teacher for long stretches at a time.  To be honest, that was what scared me the most about taking this job.  But this week, it’s become one of the most encouraging things as I’ve been able to watch my progress over the rehearsals of this first concert as I’m addressing difficulties and providing solutions.  With that in mind, I’m even more energized for this opportunity and ready to face the other challenges that will surely occur during the season.


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