While still in his senior year of college, oboist Zac Hammond was already a professional, serving as Acting Principal Oboe of the Syracuse Symphoria. Now the principal oboist of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Hammond was kind enough to talk with Classical Conditioning about his experiences as a young orchestral professional, advice for young people embarking on professional auditions, and what young musicians can contribute to the changes facing the classical music world.
CC: Tell us about yourself!
ZH: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and began playing the oboe when I was in fifth grade with my elementary school’s music program. I began lessons with a local musician when I was in seventh grade, but I didn’t really become serious about it until around my sophomore year of high school, when I began studying with Robert Morgan, the solo English horn and assistant principal oboist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. After high school, I did my undergrad at the Eastman School of Music, studying under Richard Killmer. I also studied Baroque oboe with Geoffrey Burgess and was a part of Eastman’s Arts Leadership Program.
I was very lucky during my senior year at Eastman to be asked to play Acting Principal Oboe with Symphoria (formerly the Syracuse Symphony). I was also a regular substitute with the Rochester Philharmonic and a few other groups in upstate New York. I was later offered an official contract with Symphoria and decided after I was done at Eastman that I would remain in upstate New York and continue playing with them. However, I also decided to begin taking more professional orchestra auditions, and I actually ended up winning the Principal Oboe spot with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra last fall. So, in January of 2015 I moved to South Carolina to begin my new job in Charleston, and I have been there ever since.
Some notable performances for me include playing part of the Corigliano Oboe Concerto at the Banff Centre in Canada while John Corigliano was in the audience. Also, in high school I played a side-by-side concert with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in Chicago with Gustavo Dudamel conducting. And there are probably so many more that I am not thinking of right now.
Fun facts: I have an intense love for pickles (and I love that fried pickles are really common in Charleston), and I played football (center, specifically) for many years growing up and into high school.
CC: How, if at all, has being a young professional affected your experience in the orchestra?
ZH: Being one of the youngest members of the professional groups that I play with has actually proven to be a pretty positive thing most of the time. I think with orchestras so eager to find ways to attract younger audiences, they are generally very receptive to working with younger musicians. Of course, being young and new in a group with musicians who have been playing together for decades requires you to be aware of the traditions and personalities of the specific members of the group. I find that a huge part of my job is related to getting along with people.
CC: There’s a lot of dialogue in the classical music world about making the genre accessible to younger audiences. What do you think young professionals can contribute to this dialogue?
ZH: I think young classical musicians are pretty crucial when it comes to increasing the accessibility of classical music. Because music is so easily accessed now via things like YouTube and Spotify, we need to start to shift the way that people listen to and experience classical music. It is our job to remind people that the music industry is drastically changing and we need to make sure that classical music changes with it and doesn’t remain stuck in the past. We also can help to make sure that the classical concert experience adapts to the times. I think the idea of getting dressed up and going to the symphony on a Saturday night to listen to a traditional program of classical music is quickly becoming outdated. Young musicians can help to push administrations to tailor classical music to things that actually appeal to younger audiences (current artists, mixing genres, allowing drinking/socializing/dancing, etc.).
CC: What advice do you have for young people preparing to take professional auditions?
ZH: A big piece of advice I would have is to not overthink it. While I was in school, I was constantly bombarded with different tips and tricks for professional auditions, but in the end all you really need to focus on is being prepared and confident about the music that you have to play. I have found that people get way too wrapped up in things like what they should eat that morning, how many days in advance to get to the audition, how many minutes of warm-up, what to wear, etc. All of that stuff is pretty insignificant if your excerpts aren’t completely solid in the first place. One thing I did that really helped me to prepare for my Charleston audition was to play for a lot of people in the weeks leading up to the audition. I basically practiced making myself nervous and playing a mock audition so when the real thing happened, it didn’t feel so strange. I also recorded myself quite a few times, which despite being really hard on your ego sometimes, was very helpful and informative.
CC: What have been some of your favorite experiences in the orchestra so far? What are you looking forward to?
ZH: In both Charleston and Syracuse, I really enjoyed getting to know my colleagues and hearing their stories. Orchestras tend to be made up of incredibly eclectic and interesting people, and working with them can be really entertaining and memorable. I have also of course loved playing principal oboe on some of the great pieces of orchestra rep. So many composers write great parts for the oboe. We actually just opened up our newly renovated hall and have a new music director here in Charleston, so I am excited about our upcoming season (getting to play Brahms 1 and Tchaikovsky 4 for the first time). It is going to be a very big deal for the orchestra and the community here.
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