Navigating Life After Music School: Allowing Goals to Evolve with Frank Gulino
First composer interview! Frank Gulino writes fun lyrical music that I love playing and listening to; he is also an excellent performer on the bass trombone. Trombonists, check out Sonata No.1: "The Journey" I highly recommend it. I met Frank at the 2019 International Trombone Festival where he was serving as facility for the Composers Workshop. We became friends and have kept in touch since then. In this interview Frank discusses how important it has been for him to allow his goals to change over time. I'm noticing this is a bit of a common theme for many musicians. Music and music careers often offer paths that we don't expect. Be open to taking those paths. You don't always have to stick rigidly to your original plans.
ER: Tell us about your musical background and what you currently do.
FG: At this point, it's hard to even remember a time before I was involved in music in some way. I grew up listening to a wide variety of genres and styles since both of my parents have always loved music and my mom was also a pianist for a long time; looking back, I'm really appreciative of the exposure I had to so many great artists and styles in both the classical and popular idioms.
I started playing the violin in third grade, added the trombone in fourth grade, and played both instruments until high school when I realized that I was probably going to have to choose one to concentrate on if I hoped to take my playing to the next level. Obviously, the trombone won; I had really come to appreciate the trombone's sound and presence, its role in ensembles, and the responsibility that comes with playing an instrument where you might be the only person on your part. Although I played in a number of youth orchestras and honor bands in addition to every instrumental ensemble my school offered, it wasn't until most of the way through high school that I became very serious about wanting to pursue music as a career. (As an aside, the decision to pursue music professionally is a unique one that's hard to explain, especially to non-musicians; but once you know, you know.)
After high school, I earned a bass trombone performance degree at the Peabody Conservatory, where I studied with Randy Campora, Jim Olin, and David Fedderly, all of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Peabody was a fantastic place to learn, grow, and develop as both a musician and a person, and I genuinely loved my time there. Along the way, I started composing on the side, just for fun. Although all of my training was as a performer and I had no serious aspirations as a composer at that point, I quickly fell in love with the process of creating something completely new that didn't exist until I put it there. Being able to start with a clean slate and give creative direction to each new piece was empowering and fascinating and challenging all at once. I published my first piece in 2008 and have been at it ever since, with more than 50 published works as of 2020.
As I reached the end of music school, I came to realize that I wanted the focus of my artistic career to lean toward composition rather than performance. Although I continue to perform (and continue to enjoy it!), there's really no feeling quite like writing a new piece from scratch and collaborating with the amazing musicians who help bring it to life. Composing for the live concert stage continues to occupy most of my artistic energy, although the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted that in a significant way. This year, I've spent a lot of time writing solo piano literature for my Spotify channel and working ahead on some other projects. I'm certainly looking forward to the return of in-person performances and collaborations, as I'm sure we all are!
ER: What did you do during music school that helped prepare you for life after school?
FG: It goes without saying that in order to succeed in music school and beyond, you need to work extremely hard and take advantage of all the opportunities you can. You also need to allow yourself time to stay healthy, have fun, and make friends; after all, your classmates in music school will wind up being your colleagues professionally. However, I believe there were two aspects of my time in music school that contributed most to my all-around musical development: playing a lot and listening a lot.
By playing in many different ensembles and contexts, I was exposed to the music of so many different composers, styles, and eras, from little-known works to the enduring staples of the literature. I also had opportunities to learn the different roles in which performing trombonists can find themselves; for instance, the bass trombone's role in a big band is markedly different than its role in an orchestra or brass quintet, but it's important that you be able to do the job in whatever musical circumstances you find yourself. As a small conservatory like I went to, there were always a lot of playing opportunities to go around. During my time at Peabody, I played with just about every instrumental ensemble we had: symphony orchestra, opera orchestra, wind ensemble, big band, trombone choir, contemporary ensemble, brass ensemble, brass band, and many chamber groups. I learned so much!
Doing a lot of listening was also vital to developing my sound concept and overall musicianship, and it's important to remember that you will never have as great an opportunity to listen as you do during school. I sought out great recordings of repertoire I was working on and went to a lot of concerts and recitals. We had the pleasure of having many Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians on faculty at Peabody, and I loved being able to go hear my teachers play in the orchestra. My teachers were BSO colleagues for a long time and played together on many of the orchestra's iconic recordings with David Zinman, which continue to be some of my very favorite orchestral recordings anywhere. Being able to hear my teachers play, both on recordings and in person, was hugely inspirational for me. The more I listened, the more I was able to develop my concept of what constituted a great trombone sound.
ER: What was your biggest challenge after graduating from music school?
FG: Once you leave school and no longer have the structure of an assigned schedule, it can feel challenging to be productive and get things done. The biggest challenge at the outset is probably managing your time and staying on task. In the real world, nobody is going to make you practice or show up on time; you have to take a lot more personal responsibility once you're out of school. You need to stay at the top of your game, take care of yourself, often balance some kind of side job, and make at least a little bit of time to relax and unwind. It's definitely easier said than done, but getting into some kind of routine can be extremely helpful.
ER: Have you ever had a big disappointment relating to music? What did you do to get back up?
FG: I think just about every musician has had a major career-related disappointment or two or three. I've won auditions for summer festivals and workshops that wound up getting canceled, been stiffed on commissions, worked jobs that took time and energy away from being creative, and had dozens of events canceled by the pandemic this year.
If your plans don't unfold as expected–even when it's through no fault of your own–it can be easy to get discouraged. The best thing you can do is be willing to redirect your efforts in productive ways. For instance, I had a lot of work canceled by the pandemic, so I redirected my energy toward writing for digital streaming platforms. Stay motivated and be adaptable.
ER: What were your career goals in school? Have they changed?
FG: I entered music school with the exclusive goal of becoming a full-time orchestral trombonist; by the time I finished, I knew that I wanted composition to be a significant part of my artistic career. A decade later, having written for some of the world's great brass players and published dozens of original compositions, I'm so glad I allowed my goals and priorities to change over time.
ER: What actions did you take during the first year or two after graduation that were successful?
FG: It's important to set reasonable expectations for yourself when you get out of school. In my case, I studied trombone performance exclusively, yet found my long-term career goals skewing increasingly towards composition. I knew that it would take some time for me to grow my body of work, develop my style, and get on the radar of performers that might be willing to take a chance on playing the works of a new, unproven composer. I never put pressure on myself to succeed overnight, but I did make myself keep writing.
ER: Looking back, what do you consider to be the most important step that you took for your music career?
FG: Besides the basics like working hard and getting a great education, I think it was so important that I allowed my goals to change over time and always kept an open mind about how to achieve them.
ER: What advice would you give someone in music school or recently graduated from music school?
FG: Keep being creative and keep nurturing the relationships you cultivate through music. If you strive to be both a compelling artist and a good colleague, people will want to work with you.
ER: People really enjoy playing and listening to your compositions. I know I do! How did you develop your compositional sound?
FG: I always have two goals in my mind when I'm writing music: make it fun to play and make it fun to listen to. Of course, whether a piece of music is fun to play or fun to listen to is totally subjective, so I more or less try to write music that I'd want to see on my music stand as a performer and that I'd enjoy listening to as an audience member. Personally, I love beautiful melodies, clear harmonies, and music that's accessible and enjoyable to a wide range of listeners, regardless of their level of musical training, and I think that comes across in my writing. My style and sound have evolved a little bit over the years, but the music continues to come from a place of wanting to make it enjoyable for everyone involved in the concert experience.
ER: How can people find you?