NEP’s Principal Clarinet Tammy Avery-Gibson, a 12-year veteran of the orchestra, recently sat down with section mate Yhasmin Valenzuela to talk about music, motherhood, and how the show must go on…gall bladder surgery and all!
YV: To start with, tell me about moving to Boston from Washington D.C. to accompany your fiancé, now husband, back to his hometown. Did you know then how Boston would become such a big part of your musical life?
TAG: Musically it was a big risk. It’s always hard to establish yourself in a new town, and in this town, with the confluence of so many incredible players and a knowledgeable audience base, it makes it all the more challenging. I feel like I’ve learned more by playing in Boston than I did in graduate school!
YV: Can you talk a little bit about what you do when you are not performing?
TAG: When I’m not performing with NEP or the chamber players, or with my kids (who actually love hanging out while I practice!) I am an extremity representative for Depuy Synthes. It’s a new sales force focused on foot/ankle and hand/wrist surgeries with orthopedists and podiatrists—my job is to help integrate new products. I’m in a different hospital every day, sometimes I’m training representatives on new products or meeting with an interested surgeon that has invited me to come to his department to talk about a product.
YV: Can you tell us how your family influenced your decision to take up an instrument? How did you choose the clarinet?
TAG: I had quite a musical family. My grandmother and her brothers and sisters played instruments, mostly piano, though one was lucky enough to obtain a violin during the depression. They would take turns playing piano and singing at their church.
When I was 8 years old, my band teacher demonstrated the wind instruments. I was leaning toward the flute, but my father loved Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, so he said it would have to be the clarinet, and voilà!
YV: You studied under renowned clarinet teacher Sidney Forrest at Catholic University of America. How does that experience continue to influence you?
TAG: I have kept every bit of music and paper Sidney ever gave me— I still use those lesson books. Much of what he taught me, including tips on how to learn difficult passages, I still use, especially with the NEP. When I look through the music we covered, much of it was 20th century composers, which is where the NEP spends a great deal of time. I still go back to my etude books when I find my fingers getting lazy and re-read the exact same practice notes, and the advice holds up! Another lesson from those days —I never skip long tones, I practice them every time!
YV: As a mother of two children now, has studying and performing music helped you to be a better parent? Or has motherhood informed your study and performance of music?
TAG: Absolutely. On stage and in life you have to learn to deal with the fact that you’re not perfect, and if you make a mistake, you have to let that second pass by, learn from it and move forward or it will affect everything you do.
YV: You’re a full-time mom, career woman and musician, so I imagine running around is part of your everyday routine, but I hear you’re actually a serious runner. Could you tell me more?
TAG: I was a much better runner before having children, now I just try to keep up! Running keeps my lungs warmed up. My high school clarinet teacher was a former director of the Naval Academy Band so fitness was part of his daily life. He encouraged every student no matter their age to run, which I ignored until after college. Once I got past being able to run a couple of miles in a row, I was off and running, pardon the pun!
YV: What are the five things you can’t live without?
TAG: My kids/family
My clarinets (I would grab them from the house if it were on fire)
My hairdresser—she knows way too much
My phone—my tuner, metronome, GPS, Apple Pay, and email are there
My running shoes—a major stress reliever!
YV: Let’s talk about your time as NEP’s principal clarinet. What has been your favorite piece or concert with the NEP?
TAG: My favorite was playing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra this past fall. Our clarinet section played really well together, along with all the winds. That’s a tough piece, and we prepared well and performed with confidence.
YV: I recently heard a rumor that you put off gall bladder surgery for two days so you could perform Wozzeck. How did you survive?
TAG: When the NEP performed Wozzeck nearly 10 years ago, I was assigned the first E flat part. I was also scheduled for gall bladder surgery two days after the performance. It was very painful, and really affected my breath and support. I spoke with a surgeon friend of mine who recommended that I go immediately to the emergency room to get admitted, so I asked the gentleman playing second E flat part if he could cover my part. That gentleman flat out said no. I explained the situation to my surgeon and wound up on antibiotics to keep my gall bladder from “going porcelain.” I played Wozzeck with a fever and had surgery the following Monday without telling anyone in the orchestra, including [NEP Music Director] Dick [Pittman] because I didn’t want them to worry. That was certainly challenging, but I was ready for those solos!
You can hear Tammy perform with the New England Philharmonic on April 29th at BU’s Tsai Performance Center.