Giving Back: Getting to Know Minnesota Orchestra's First Good Fellow

Giving Back: Getting to Know Minnesota Orchestra's First Good Fellow

Orchestra Hall is quiet and tuba player Jason Tanksley sits alone on the stage, performing some of the most challenging passages in the tuba’s repertoire. He plays behind a large opaque screen; on the other side sits a committee of Minnesota Orchestra musicians, each of whom is listening carefully. It’s a typical set-up for an orchestral audition, but this one is out of the ordinary.

Jason Tanksley is the Minnesota Orchestra’s Rosemary and David Good Fellow—and performing a “mock” audition is just one part of the advanced training that is now his job.

The Orchestra launched the Rosemary and David Good Fellowship last spring as a two-year program intended to enhance opportunities for African American, Latin American and Native American professional orchestral musicians early in their careers and to encourage greater diversity in the orchestral field. The first two participants, who began their fellowship experience in September 2017 after winning a competitive audition, are Tanksley and trombone player Myles Blakemore. Tanksley is now completing his first season with the Orchestra; Blakemore participated in the fellowship program for several months before winning a position in the New World Symphony.

The mock auditions help to prepare Tanksley for professional auditions that he hopes will eventually earn him his own permanent chair onstage in an orchestra. For the first mock audition, he explained that the Orchestra staff and musicians treated the entire experience as if it were the real thing. The musicians on the committee then gave individual feedback to Tanksley on his performance.

He has also been able to sit in during actual auditions throughout the year to test his ear and learn from what the audition committee hears from the other side of the screen. Tanksley, like many musicians, says he used to be scared by the idea of a committee that you can’t see. Among many lessons from observing the process up close, he says one thing in particular has eased his mind a little: “You know, the committee is really cheering you on and wanting you to do well, so they can hire you. They aren’t a bunch of monsters.”

As part of the fellowship, Tanksley also observes Orchestra rehearsals and concerts, and performs onstage in selected Orchestra concerts. He takes two private lessons each month with musicians from the Orchestra and is able to select who he’d like to work with. So far, he has had the opportunity to learn from Principal Tuba Steven Campbell, all three members of the trombone section and trumpet player Robert Dorer, and next on his schedule is a lesson with Principal Bass Kristen Bruya. When he’s working with musicians who don’t play the tuba, Tanksley says: “they don’t care if something is a challenging tuba part or not. They might not even know if it is. Instead, I’m getting their unique musical perspectives and new ideas about how my part fits into the context of a piece, or how we might work together across the ensemble.” 

When he first heard about the fellowship, Tanksley saw it as a great chance to grow as a musician, but also as an opportunity to inspire others. “I feel like, if I can do this, if a black kid from Detroit like me can sit onstage with the Minnesota Orchestra, I can show other kids that they can do it, too. That’s what I’d really like to do.”

“It’s important for me to give back, and to share my experiences. I want kids in my hometown and other places where classical music isn’t as easy to find to be introduced to it at an earlier age. I never had a tuba lesson or played in an orchestra until I got to college,” says Tanksley, who now holds music degrees from Wayne State University and Cleveland Institute of Music. “When I teach young students, I encourage them to audition for local youth orchestras and other groups, so they have greater access to classical music than I did when I was their age. One of my first students is now studying music at Bowling Green State University.”

Jason with Principal Flute Adam Kuenzel and a student musician from the Minnesota All-State Orchestra

Tanksley continues the fellowship for another year and plans to have many more lessons and mock auditions, plus performances with the Orchestra and engagement activities around Minnesota. “Two years is not very long,” he says, “so I’m trying to soak as much of this fellowship in as I can while I have the chance!” He’s also excited to travel with the Orchestra to South Africa this summer and be part of performances and educational engagement on the tour.

“The biggest takeaway from this year so far has been the confidence boost,” he says. “To be selected for this fellowship and to get feedback and advice from the musicians here—who are the real deal—about my own playing has really helped me understand how I’m doing as a musician and where I might be able to go in the future.”

For a recent educational visit to a Minneapolis elementary school, Tanksley adapted a violin solo into a piece for solo tuba. He loves finding new ways to share what the instrument can do and what is fun about music. 

Jason, performing for students and staff at a Minneapolis elementary school.

His favorite composer lately? Berlioz. There are two tuba parts in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique and Tanksley is thrilled to join Principal Tuba Steve Campbell onstage for the Orchestra’s June performances. He also performs with other Minnesota Orchestra brass musicians in a free event on Thursday, May 10, at BlackStack Brewing in Saint Paul, as part of the Orchestra’s Pint of Music series.

Jason with Principal Tuba Steven Campbell, far right, and a student musician in a side-by-side rehearsal with Minnesota All-State Orchestra.

For more about Jason or the Rosemary and David Good Fellowship program, visit minnesotaorchestra.org.


 

Emma Plehal