Katie Wolber is currently Third Horn of the Dallas Opera Orchestra and Principal Horn of the Dallas Chamber Symphony. Katie received her undergraduate performance degree at Southern Methodist University and her graduate performance degree at Northwestern University.
S: What was your beginning on the horn?
K: My parents are both music teachers. It wasn't really, "Are you going to play an instrument?" It was: "What are you going to play?" They kind of always suggested very strongly that I would play the french horn. And I wanted to be different, because my mom plays flute, my dad plays trombone, my older sister plays flute, my brother plays percussion, and my little sister plays saxophone.
I tried to start in 2nd grade. I was like 6 or 7. My dad brought home a French Horn because he was a band director, and he tried to help me get started. I was just too small: even putting the bell on the chair rather than your leg, the mouthpiece still went up to my forehead. So my dad said I would try to reach it with my lips. (Which I don't remember!) For two weeks, he would hold the bell for me as I learned to play on it a little bit. After that I just couldn't continue like that, so we put it away until 4th grade when they actually start instruments in Maryland. (We start younger.) I picked the French Horn. When I picked it up I already knew how to play a C scale because of learning in 2nd grade.
They started me on lessons right away with my first teacher, Phil Hooks. He is really into the International Horn Society. He goes every time there's a symposium - no matter where in the world it is. I'd go to his house once a week for an hour for lessons. It's a lot different because they don't teach lessons in schools in Maryland. You have to go to the teacher's house, so not very many people take lessons.
S: Did you ever want to try another instrument?
K: We had to play piano. We had to learn to read music before we actually started an instrument. Because my parents are music teachers, they didn't want us trying to learn to read music while learning an instrument. Like French Horn - it's just kind of hard. So that was kind of annoying in 4th grade when I had to wait for everyone else to learn to read music. I didn't last very long on piano, though. I hated it, and I hated being forced to practice. My sister was already really good at it.
So actually considering another instrument? No. I played cello in high school for two years. But since I was the best horn player they kept saying, "Well, we need you to play on this piece because we need a horn player on it." So at one of those region/symphony/contests or whatever, I ended up playing half horn and half cello. Those two instruments combined with my color guard flags (and rifle and saber) in my car: it was just too much to carry everyday. And my backpack!
But I liked the cello. I liked the sound of it because it's so similar to the horn. I didn't ever really want to play anything else. I thought the French Horn was the prettiest. It's what the Christmas tree ornaments are! Ha!
S: So it's kind of like you've grown up on the Horn?
K: Yeah! I'm 28, and I started, technically, at the age of 8. So it'll be 20 years this fall.
S: Have you ever thought about doing anything else?
K: For a living? Uh, well, yeah. Many times.
S: Why do you keep sticking with the Horn?
K: Well, it's what I'm best at. I had a car accident almost five years ago. Right before the accident, it was a year after graduating Grad School. I wasn't really getting any work. I was teaching [private lessons], and I don't like teaching. I'm not a good teacher. I was like, "Man, maybe I should do something else with my life. Maybe I could do cake decorating for a living." I was thinking: "What should I do? I could go to culinary school," but then I was like, "Well, then I'd have to work restaurants during dinner hour."
Just thinking about it, I thought, "I don't want to do this anymore." Then we had the car accident, and I could not play my horn for 7 months. I didn't know if I would ever play again, and I missed it a lot. Even when I did start playing again, I didn't get a gig for a few months.
I just like playing on stage, especially playing something like a Mahler symphony - big powerful horn stuff. I like it; I do enjoy it. There are definitely bad days, but, you know, there's a lot of good days too. It's also kind of nice that it's flexible. You usually get summers off, which is nice.
S: You're speaking specifically about the Opera?
K: Opera, or even if I were with the symphony. Even when I was teaching, I didn't have all my students every day in the summer. I had like half of them.
S: Do you still teach?
K: No. I mean if someone calls me for a lesson, then yes. But if someone asks for regular lessons I usually say no because I don't have the time. Or it's not necessarily the time, it's: they want regular lessons, on such a day, after school, every week. My opera schedule is so sporadic that I can't guarantee a regular lesson. Plus I travel a lot.
S: To play?
S: Oh yeah, you took an audition in Norway!
K: Norway, yeah. That was fun. It was a low horn spot in the Bergen Phil. That was the last audition I took - April 2015.
S: Do you feel the need to go on more auditions?
K: No. I think I'm done. I gave myself until I was 28 to win a job, and technically I've won a job. But you can't make a living on it alone. Luckily I'm married to an attorney. Also, the reason I'm not taking auditions is he [husband] is in school. We're not going to leave while he's in school.
S: Do you think you'll ever audition again in the future?
K: No. Only if it's local, and even then only in certain circumstances.
S: How long have you been with the Opera?
K: I won the job in March 2014. I should have started October 2014, but I had to take off the first half of the season because I had thyroid cancer. I had my thyroid taken out, and my doctor/surgeon wasn't sure I'd be playing again by the first rehearsals. I just took the first productions of the season off and started January 2015 on Everest.
S: You've been through a lot of health stuff!
K: Yes! [laughs] Plenty of it. I've had like 10 surgeries.
S: How has it been getting back into a routine of playing after taking time off?
K: When I started playing again after the wreck, I wasn't working very much. I guess I was teaching, and I was nannying. But I had a lot of time because I wasn't doing my normal concerts and stuff. After the ankle surgery, I actually did play, I just had my foot propped up on a chair every time I practiced. I'd have it set out on the table for weeks, and I would just wheel myself over with my little ankle-scooter-thing. I'd set myself up in my chair and practice. It wasn't the best posture, but I practiced. I had to go to my first Opera in a boot. I had just gotten off my knee scooter and crutches two days before my first rehearsal. I was able to walk on my boot, but I couldn't drive. The whole spring season I was driven around by the principal cellist.
S: How was it getting over surgery for your thyroid cancer?
K: It wasn't that hard actually. I talked to another horn player who had the same thing, and she said she played the week after - she played a gig. It was just kind of sore, and I had some scar tissue build up that made swallowing feel kind of funny. I played a concert - a Halloween concert was my first gig back. So two months after [the surgery] I played my first concert, but I had started practicing again about 2 or 3 weeks after.
S: Any advice you want to give to anyone going through something similar?
K: Don't rush it. Take your time. Always have a good sense of humor about it. That's a good question.
S: Well, obviously you had to do it.
K: People are always saying, "Oh, you're so strong; I couldn't do that." And I'm like, "Well, if it happened to you, you would do it." You're not really given a choice. It just happens. It's not like I'm just going to roll over and cry for the rest of my life. You know? There's no point in that. It doesn't accomplish anything.
S: What is the worst thing about your job as a musician?
K: I would say the worst thing is the politics and the drama involved. You realize that even in a world of music, it's kind of about who you know. That's how you get work.
S: What is the best thing about your job?
K: Uh, I don't know. Ha! I guess my favorite thing is getting to travel for free to play. I've been to Japan, Chile, and a few countries in Europe and not had to pay for it.
S: Was that for festivals?
K: Festivals, and the European tour with the [Dallas] Symphony. That was 2013.
S: I remember all the photos of Gail [Williams] and Greg [Hustis]. Do you still keep in touch with Gail?
K: Yeah a little bit. She's actually coming in town for the TCU Horn Fest first weekend of April. So you should go, get your students to go.
S: Alright, any final thoughts?
K: I would say one more thing: part of the reason I continued to play after the wreck is I figured if it wasn't meant to be my job I would've lost the ability to play forever. Because I did damage my face pretty badly in the wreck. And I have a fake tooth. So I figured if I can still play, I should do it.