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San Diego Symphony's No. 1 Trombonist Toots Her Horn for Feminism

October 08, 1988|KENNETH HERMAN

SAN DIEGO — Back in the heyday of magazine advertising, the slogan for a self-teaching piano course boomed, "They laughed when I sat down at the piano." When Heather Buchman actually sits down to play her trombone, no one laughs. But, when she mentions her profession at a casual social gathering, guffaws are not unusual.

Buchman is not merely a professional trombone player; the 23-year-old Canton, Ohio, native is the San Diego Symphony's new principal trombone.

In the brass corner of symphony orchestras, women players are few and principals rare. History buffs may point out that Dorothy Ziegler was the St. Louis Symphony's principal trombone between 1944 and 1958, but like many other wartime employment advances for women, her appointment started no precedent.

"Women in orchestras, and particularly women brass players is the up-and-coming thing right now. This is the time of expansion for

women in this particular field," explained Buchman. She attributed the change in orchestral hiring practices to the advances of feminism in general and to the current supply of able women brass players.

When asked whether she considers herself a feminist, Buchman instantly replied, "Ofcourse!" with an air of polite indulgence.

By some unspoken protocol, trumpets and trombones traditionally have been men's instruments.

"If you give masculine and feminine attributes to instruments, the character of both the trumpet and trombone is masculine: inherently loud, athletic, given to fanfares, and a tad aggressive," Buchman said. "Women tend to play with subtlety and lyricism, so I think I bring a new dimension to playing a brass instrument."

Buchman started playing the trombone at age 10, although she stayed with the instrument against her wishes. By the seventh grade she wanted to switch to the French horn, but her band director kept her on the trombone.

"I envied the glorious parts I heard the French horns play in Brahms, Mahler and Strauss. I guess that a good trombonist is a scarce commodity in a junior high band, so he put the interests of the band ahead of my future."

Buchman is confident without being cocky, exuding a wholesome Midwestern assurance that comes from talent fired in the crucible of discipline.

At the International Trombone Competition in Brisbane, Australia, held this June, Buchman placed second out of 18 finalists.

"I came in a close second there, which was encouraging. The fellow who won was Australian," she added.

Only a year ago, Buchman was enjoying the unfettered but low-budget existence of a free-lance musician in San Francisco, where she moved after graduating from the Eastman School of Music. While the desert and Southern California's other outdoor possibilities appeal to her, Buchman misses the San Francisco Bay Area.

"I miss the cultural activity of all different kinds going on there--it's a classy place. I also miss the intellectual and more politically aware atmosphere."

Buchman had not really planned to come to San Diego when she played the San Diego Symphony audition.

"I wasn't expecting to get this job. This was my very first audition for a real orchestra; I would have been happy to have made the finals and to have learned something about how to handle the pressures of auditions."

Although a few eyebrows were raised when the local orchestra awarded a first chair position to a player without much orchestral experience, Buchman claims she is ready for the challenge.

"Certainly there is a bit of anxiety, but, first of all, since everyone's been so supportive and shows a great deal of confidence in me, that's quite a help. Also, I'm going to make sure I'm up to the job, that I can play those parts."

While in San Francisco she played with a number of community orchestras, including the Berkeley Symphony under Kent Nagano. After she won the San Diego audition, her teacher, San Francisco Symphony principal trombone Mark Lawrence, made it possible for her to play with that orchestra on several occasions.

Buchman submitted to a reporter's questions last week at a lunch break from the "Swan Lake" orchestra rehearsal at Civic Theatre. It was, as she put it, her first day of the real season, although she had played half the pops season this summer with the symphony.

She stated that her acceptance as a woman principal by the other brass players in the San Diego Symphony has been complete.

"In this situation, it has been no problem at all. If I were in Europe, however, there it would be a hurdle. I wouldn't want to live there for that reason. Why waste all my energy dealing with that?"

Her initial experience with the San Diego Symphony was not reassuring, however. One of the coordinators of the auditions, a member of the local musicians' union, gave her a bit of "old world" sexism.

"Backstage for the final rounds there were six guys and me. The man from the union started to call the others by their first name, but he always referred to me as the girl. 'Oh, the girl--she goes last.' I just thought it was funny."

And Buchman clearly had the last laugh when they announced her as the winner of the auditions.

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