An Interview With Gail Williams

reprinted from International Musician
October, 2001

Meanwhile, Back on the Farm...Gail Williams

Horns have been a common theme running through Gail Williams' life -surrounded by them every day on the Holstein dairy farm where she grew up, and surrounded by them again for more than three decades in one of the word's greatest orchestras.

At first glance, Associate Principal Horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra might seem a rather unlikely place for a former Western New York State farm girl to wind up. But listening to Gail, it's easy to believe that a dairy farm is actually seriously good training for a life in music: both involve a love of what you do, tremendous dedication, and sheer hard work. Add to this the fact that Gail was the only girl in her family, surrounded by older brothers-not too terribly different from being the only woman in the Chicago brass section in 1979, the year she joined the orchestra—and it's obvious that her farm upbringing really was excellent preparation, after all. "Growing up on a farm and working with men," Gail recalls, "I was expected to go into the barn and work, just like my brothers, and I never thought anything about it. My father would say `go out and do your chores,' and I just went out and did them. I never thought, `well, I can't do that, because I'm a girl."'

It's a mindset she simply transferred to playing in an orchestra. Familiarity with working in a traditionally male dominated environment, allied with her formidable ability on the instrument, easily acquired Gail the respect of her colleagues in the Chicago Symphony colleagues including legendary CSO trumpeter Adolph Herseth and tuba player Arnold Jacobs, both of whom she cites as her biggest mentors in the orchestra-and Principal Clarinetist Larry Combs, whom Gail eventually married. "From the moment I started," she says, "there was a great working relationship with the orchestra."

Reluctant Role Model

But surely it must have been a little tough for her...? Pressed, Gail finally sighs in mild exasperation at the persistent question-one she's heard a million times. She seems slightly hesitant to be identified with the character of female role model-or maybe it's just the label, rather than the idea, that doesn't sit well. "I guess I had to become a role model. I never thought I would be in that kind of position, but it sort of came with the territory. It's funny how everyone always asks me what was it like to work with men." One can almost see her rolling her eyes, because she feels it really shouldn't be an issue: "What's the point to saying ‘oh, I'm a girl, I can't be expected to do this sort of thing?"' she asks. "I think the biggest thing we as women musicians can say, actually, is not to say anything at all. We should let our playing speak for itself, rather than the other way around."

Not unlike farm work, then, Gail insists that making music is really a straightforward matter, and it should be the same no matter if you're male or female. "Playing is something I'm expected to do. And I love doing it, so I just go and do it."

Just Do It

That saying from a popular footwear company might well have been invented with Gail Williams in mind. Any attempt to write a resume of her career becomes more a case of what to leave out, rather than what to list: principal player and soloist with countless orchestras, founding member of half a dozen chamber groups, recitalist and clinician at conservatories around the globe. And that's just scratching the surface. Her discography includes three solo CDs (another in the works), and numerous recordings with the acclaimed Summit Brass.

Some of the solo pieces are commissions, since she is a firm proponent of original music. This is especially important in the case of the horn, which, while luckier than other brass instruments, still has a fairly slim body of music when compared to, say, the piano or violin. "I guess I've always taken an active role in expanding the horn's repertoire," Gail says. "I think it's vital that we play literature which has been written specifically for the horn, and not just arrangements." To that end, she is commissioning Ithaca College composer Dana Wilson to write another piece for horn and piano. "We recorded his earlier one on CD a while ago. I'll also premiere a new horn concerto by Anthony Plog next year." All this activity is crowned with an honorary Doctorate of Music from Ithaca College, Gail's alma mater.

Far from relaxing after it all, Gail then packs herself off to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the summers, to play Principal Horn in the Grand Teton Music Festival. She retired from the Chicago Symphony in 1998, but even now, despite being a full time professor of horn at Northwestern University, Gail-a member of Local 10-208, Chicago-still plays as much or more than she did in her orchestra job. "Grand Tetons lasts eight weeks. That's basically my whole summer. So I can't say I really miss orchestral playing after twenty years in Chicago, because I'm certainly still doing enough of it!"

Mentors, Mountains, and Motherhood

For someone with such tremendous musical achievements, it's amusing to hear Gail admit she landed with the horn almost by default. "My mother was a music teacher," she says. "We all played instruments, but we had a house rule: you couldn't play the same instrument as anyone else-and no double reeds, or strings. So, the flute was out. When you have a brother who plays clarinet and another brother who plays trumpet, there's not much left." Um, tuba...? "No, that was my father, and my mother was a percussionist. It had to be the horn. And besides," she adds dryly, "I'm left-handed."

Years later, Gail unhesitatingly names retired Ithaca College professor John Covert (Local 132-314, Ithaca NY, resigned) as her biggest musical influence, something she shares in common with dozens of other horn players making music around the world. "Jack is an amazing teacher, and an amazing person. He influenced my decision to go into music full time--quite a switch, because I was originally going to be a phys ed major at Ithaca.

Physical fitness is still something Gail incorporates in her daily life, readily referring to herself as "kind of an exercise nut." The horn has a notorious reputation for difficulty, and she is adamant that you need to be in shape to play it well. "I've done a couple of marathons," she says, clearing her throat modestly, but you can clearly hear the pride in her voice as she deflates the stereotypical image of the out-of-shape, beer-swilling brass player. "I also have a photo of me playing an alphorn at the top of the Grand Teton, which I just climbed back in Wyoming." In fact, she feels the AFM's most valuable contribution is that it safeguards musicians' physical well-being. "The AFM makes working conditions so much safer," she says. "Some employers don't understand the physical difficulties of men and women playing instruments for long hours, and they'd really prefer their players rather never take a break. So from a physical point of view, I think it's not healthy to be non-unionized."

Of course, not withstanding talk of women being no different from men in the orchestra, Gail will be the first to admit that the two will necessarily experience the job in some very different ways. Gail joined the CSO as Assistant Principal Horn, and was appointed by Sir Georg Solti as Associate Principal Horn in 1984 when she was six months pregnant with her first child.

"I'm often asked what it was like to be a pregnant horn player in a major orchestra," she says. "This is definitely something women have to think about. My answer is that you don't say, `Oh I'm so huge, I can’t breathe anymore,' because over the nine months, it happens so gradually. You just have to accommodate." Gail even tried to attack the subject from a purely scientific viewpoint: "I wanted to get Arnold Jacobs to measure the loss of air capacity throughout my pregnancy, but he just laughed, and refused. He told me that I didn't want to know what I didn't have."

Pregnancy offered a few other surprises. "It's a spectacular feeling when a baby moves to music," Gail says. "I'm sorry you men will never get a chance to feel that. The baby just floats when you play Mozart or Brahms, but then it's amazing what happens when the trombones come blasting in behind you in the middle of a contemporary piece: the baby absolutely jumps, and twists and turns, inside of you." Some children, however, appear to be true in vitro music critics. It was Jack Covert who offered a characteristically dry-witted prophecy prior to the birth of Gail's second child: "With my first one, my due date was June 1st, and I played my last symphony concert May 30th. My son Michael was a different story. I was playing an obscure piece of chamber music by Sperger, which has extremely high horn writing. I asked good old Jack if he knew the piece, and he told me, `Gail, you're gonna’ knock that baby right out of there!' Sure enough, I went into labor early, and the Doc put me to bed.

"I don't know if that's what happened, or whether my son Michael just said, `okay, that's enough horn, I'm done!"'

She laughs wickedly at the memories, but two decades in an orchestra, two marathons, and two children later, reluctant role model Gail Williams doesn’t just sit and look back on it all. She looks ahead to more.

Gail and her alphorn


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