BABE #108: MELISSA ELENA DANAS, Horn Player @ Sarajevo Philharmonic
Melissa recently packed up her life and moved across the globe to play in the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, followed by a Fulbright scholarship opportunity in Vienna, Austria, and still managed to give us some incredible insight into the life and times of a BWH abroad. Between an impressive rehearsal schedule, some international bravery, and a palpable passion for (and extensive knowledge of) music, Melissa is a certified Babe doing some pretty remarkable stuff. Thanks for letting us into your musical world for a bit, Melissa! You inspire the hell out of us.
Babes you admire and why?
First, my sister, Natasha. As a trans woman, she has more courage choosing to walk out the door every day and be herself than I will ever have, and she’s absolutely brilliant. She’s currently studying software engineering and formal methods at Brown, and she’s making groundbreaking contributions to her field that will likely spawn entirely new research. We had a pretty rough childhood, so we’ve always stuck together through thick and thin. We’ve always been each other's reason to keep fighting. Second, my best friend Brittany Schaum, who is an astounding mathematician and the other half of my soul. If I hadn't met her, my life would be totally different. Words cannot express how grateful I am for her friendship and support all these years.
How do you spend your free time?
Free time is definitely a commodity, but going to the gym keeps me sane, and I love to read. (Currently reading: Nabokov’s memoirs).
Must-have item in your purse?
Burt’s Bees chapstick! It’s amazing for my chops after a long day of practicing or performing.
If you could have coffee with anyone in the world, who would it be?
This is also nearly too difficult of a question to answer. I would love to talk to William Kentridge, though—I think he’s one of the most incredible artists of our time.
If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?
I’m lucky to already be in the city of my dreams: Vienna.
Tell us about your hustle:
I’m a horn player (primarily the French horn), and just graduated with my Master’s in music performance. During school, I worked simultaneously in New York’s rigorous freelance music scene, which gave me a lot of experience. I was fortunate enough to be offered a job with the Sarajevo Philharmonic right out of school, so I packed up my life and moved halfway across the world. I also recently won the Fulbright Scholarship for my project, “In Search of Sound: Resisting Homogeneity in Orchestral Music During the Global Era.” I will also be learning the Viennese horn, an instrument played in Austria (similar to the horn I play, but slightly different). Although this horn is more difficult to play, the sound is amazing and completely worthwhile.
What does your typical workday look like?
With the Sarajevo Philharmonic, I typically have rehearsals five to six days per week (sometimes twice a day with a small break in between) and anywhere from two to five concerts per week. Now that I’m starting the Fulbright, I’m awarded a generous stipend that allows me to devote most of my time to practice, which is especially important because I’m learning a new instrument. So now, I can spend most of the day practicing, having lessons, and going to orchestra rehearsal a few days a week.
What has your journey in music been like so far?
I think any artist must work (and also live!) from their heart and soul. We are thus nearly constantly questioning the very foundations of our lives: whether our pursuits and our craft have any meaning, purpose or value, and at times it can be difficult to keep the faith - especially with the amount of competition out there. I think everyone at one point or another suffers from crippling self-doubt, so it becomes important to trust the process. As musicians, the intensity of our practice (which the layperson may find insane or impossible), is, for us, essential. We can seemingly never ease up, and we must constantly drive ourselves to produce a sound that fills not only ourselves and the halls we perform in, but the hearts of audience after audience. We have to personify life itself, with all its great wonder and suffering.
What was the audition process like for your current role?
Typically, auditions are blind (you perform behind a screen) and include several rounds, often starting with what’s called a pre-screening (where you send in your resume and a video of you playing) in order to determine whether you’re “worthy” of auditioning live. For the Fulbright, I had to go through most of that process (with separate auditions for the Fulbright committee as well as for the horn section of the Vienna Philharmonic). In addition, I had to write what is essentially a massive grant application, which states my purpose and intentions as well as my motivations for pursuing the Fulbright. I had to demonstrate my passion, prove my affiliations here in Vienna wanted to work with me, and effectively argue why my work is important to the United States and Austria, as well as the music world at large.
What drew you to the french horn?
The horn totally chose me, actually. No one in my family is musical, and my only exposure to music was on the radio. I remember we used to have lighthearted singing competitions on the bus in middle school, and I was obsessed with the Spice Girls. Everyone was trying out for band at that age (sadly, my school did not have an orchestra), so I figured I would join my friends. On the application, we had to list our top three choices of instruments, which was difficult for me because I had no idea what any of them were. For my first choice, I listed the drums, because it seemed practical and in alignment with my girlish aspirations of being a pop star. For the other two choices, I legitimately thought to myself, what are instruments that girls play? I listed the flute and the clarinet. During the auditions, I was brought into a dusty room filled with brass instruments and asked to try to “buzz” on the mouthpieces. Much to my dismay at the time, I was given the choice between the French horn or the trombone, and I chose the horn merely because of its aesthetic quality (all those beautiful brass curls). It was fate, and I ended up loving it and being somewhat of a natural. More importantly, I don’t think I ever felt as alone from that day forward, and it gave me great purpose in life—something else to focus on other than what was, unfortunately, going on at home.
What is your work environment and company culture like?
It really depends. Most people are pretty chill and laid back, and others are a bit insecure and competitive. I’m a people-person though, so I think it’s senseless to be anything but friendly. There is always drama and politics in any orchestra, no matter where you play.
How do you manage learning new music and maintaining your rehearsal schedule?
Sometimes it’s hard to balance, but it helps to never waste time on things you already know how to do. Typically, I scan a piece for rough passages that might be difficult for me to play, and isolate those. Fundamentals are a daily must for me, because they keep my playing in shape and my embouchure healthy.
How did you prepare for your big move abroad?
Initially, the biggest thing was making sure I had an apartment secured before I moved (although, once you have experience finding an apartment in New York City, anywhere else seems easy). The greatest comfort is always having your own space and knowing you have a place to practice—from there, anything is possible. I have experience moving abroad (once before when I played with the Sarajevo Philharmonic), but even though that was much further away and much more sudden and drastic (I had far less time to plan and I knew absolutely no one there), I think I was more nervous to move here to Vienna! It has been my dream to come here since I was 14 years old, so it feels like there’s much more at stake. There aren’t many women playing the horn in Vienna, so part of me feels like an antelope among lions. But in reality, the guys in the section have actually been supportive and very helpful to me.
How would you say being a woman has affected your professional experience?
Despite the immense progress within the system of social justice, women’s rights have a long way to go, and the brass world is still largely a male-dominated field (although not nearly as much as it used to be). As a horn player who performs all over the world, it’s always interesting to see how certain prejudices manifest themselves across different cultures. In the Sarajevo Philharmonic, I was one of two women in the entire brass section, and here in Vienna it’s almost unheard of. That being said, it’s not really a question of numbers, or even about how you’re treated as a player, but how you’re treated as a person. At home, I was usually principal horn, and even there I experienced some harassment. I’ve even been told that I bring this upon myself, that I "attract a certain type of attention" because of the way I look or behave. This is an antiquated and beyond disrespectful narrative; it’s just an inexcusable defense for sexual harassment. Too often in any field, a woman is a “bitch” for doing her job, while the same qualities in a man are seen as competent leadership skills. Either way, I think it’s important to stay above the fray and ignore anyone who gets in the way of your dreams. I’ve even learned to take advantage of the fact that certain people may not expect much of me because of my gender—it makes room for the element of surprise.
What are some of the everyday struggles with your job that we might not see?
As a brass player, the way we produce sound on our instruments is a very organic process. Basically, a vibrating column of air passes through our lips, inside the instrument and out of the bell to produce a sound. In some ways, our instrument is just an amplifier, and most of the work happens in our own embouchures. The human body is a very fickle thing, so you can imagine that it’s very typical to have days where you feel like you can’t play your instrument at all, even though you’re doing everything correctly. That being said, the job always demands top-level performance, so you just have to make it work. I once had a teacher who told me that it’s more important for my “worst” to still be excellent. I understand that concept more and more every day.
Who are some women in your field that you look to for inspiration?
Kim Laskowski, who currently holds the associate principal bassoon position with the New York Philharmonic. She also won a Fulbright when she was my age to study the French bassoon at the Conservatoire de Paris. Not only is she an incredible musician, but her level of intellect and curiosity is astounding (she often reads dissertations of all subjects for fun). When she heard I was applying for a Fulbright - despite not knowing me personally and having zero availability with her busy Philharmonic schedule - she met with me and took me out to lunch to talk to me about her experiences. It was, and still is, one of the most touching gestures. Michelle Baker, who recently retired from playing second horn at the Metropolitan Opera, is one of the most amazing female horn players out there, yet one of the most humble and caring people you’ll ever meet. I had some of my first legitimate horn lessons with her, and she’s helped me a great deal through some difficult times.
What is one of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work? How’d you overcome it?
For me, some of the biggest obstacles have been learning to be patient and to be present in the moment. I have great ambitions, but I have learned that if you focus too much on the goal, everything can seem impossible and out of reach. I have learned to fall in love with the process and with my daily routine, and this has helped me to stay motivated, which is especially important for musicians who must practice endlessly and face such daunting competition.
What’s your ultimate dream job?
To play with the Vienna Philharmonic!
Similarly, what are musicians or symphonies you would you most like to work with?
I want to play every Bruckner and every Mahler symphony in the respective cycles (that’s some of my favorite music, and I’ve had the opportunity to play a lot of them, but not all of them yet).
What helps you wind down and manage stress?
Running and lifting weights save my life. There’s nothing like a good dose of endorphins to put everything back into perspective.
What motivates and inspires you?
I had the privilege to work with the Martha Graham Dance Company a few times, and I would go to their rehearsals to watch what the dancers were doing on stage and match it to the music I would be playing. It’s incredible to see what dancers do with their bodies, and even now sometimes I imagine what they would do, even if I’m playing symphonic repertoire. There is so much inspiration in everything, if you’re keen to look—literature, drama, art, even math and science, especially quantum physics. I love quantum physics. It’s incredible to think about those concepts of the universe.
What are some notable (funny, embarrassing, intense) experiences you’ve had on the job?
Anyone who has ever lived in New York knows the nightmares that occur on the subway. I was once very late to a dress rehearsal for an opera and had to literally jump into the opera pit from the stage because it had already been lowered (after handing my horn to my section mate, of course!)
Career and/or life advice for other babes?
Set big goals, but focus on the system you create to get to those goals, and fall in love with that system. Trust the process, and, within it, experiment and give yourself permission to fail. Don’t try to be perfect; be happy. Always be true to yourself and trust yourself. Real confidence is not knowing whether they will love you, but knowing they might not and being yourself and doing your thing anyway.
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