Photo Credit: Rose Callahan/Metropolitan Opera
Nathan Hughes’ parents dragged him to his first choir audition and paid him $2 to attend each subsequent rehearsal. This reluctance soon gave way to a love of music that in turn led him to pick up the oboe.
Hughes is now an instructor for the Interlochen Oboe Institute as well as the principal oboe for Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He’s also a faculty member of Chamber Music and Woodwinds at The Juilliard School. He has made guest appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic, among others. He has also performed at festivals and as a soloist around the world.
We sat down with Hughes to talk about his start as an oboist, his audition advice, and why he thinks everyone should study music.
You landed on your instrument after being in choir and trying some other instruments. Did your parents push you into it? Were you open to it at the time?
I distinctly remember my parents dragging me, kicking and screaming, to audition for the Minnesota Boychoir. I didn't know what it was, and I certainly didn't want to do it. I was the youngest member during the first year and didn't have friends there, so I wanted to quit. My parents had to pay me to go to rehearsal. They gave me two dollars a rehearsal, and I'd go buy a bunch of candy. That was the only thing that kept me in there that first year.
But I ended up being in the choir for seven years. By the second and third year, I started making some friends in the group and I started enjoying the music-making and the sounds around me. By the end, it was one of the best things I had ever done, and honestly still is. Everybody needs a gateway. For me it was the Minnesota Boychoir.
Once I did that for a few years and found out how fun it is to make music with other people, I wanted to continue. Then my voice started to change, and for some reason, I thought I wasn't going to continue singing anymore. My parents and I started looking at instruments to see what kind would work for me. I played the recorder in school, and we thought, “OK, maybe an oboe is similar to that.” Then one day, I was looking up the range of instruments, and I noticed that the range of the oboe was almost exactly the range of my voice as a boy. And I thought to myself, “OK, I loved singing as a boy, and now my voice is changing. I can't sing in that register anymore, but I can continue singing on the oboe in the same register.” That was what got me into oboe.
Your parents really seemed to support your musical development. Are they musical?
They're musical. They encouraged all the children in my family to get into music. My mother played a couple of instruments just for fun. And my father actually is a professional bagpiper, if that's even a thing that exists. They know the power of music, they're into music, and so they encouraged it. They always supported it and were very happy that I was into it.
So you were in your teens by the time you actually picked your instrument. For a lot of instruments, that’s kind of late. How did that inform your training? Does it inform how you work with your students?
Oboe is one of the late-blooming instruments. By the time we get into college, there's still quite a lot of issues that people have on the instrument. A lot of it is reed-related. We need to know how to make reeds, and that takes a long time to learn. A lot of people don't quite have it down by age 18. When colleges are listening for which students to accept, they have to overlook all sorts of things in an audition. An oboe audition isn't going to sound perfect.
As a teacher, you have to gauge what things can be easily worked on and what things are more difficult. One of the most important things we’re looking for is the right musical personality in somebody and the drive that's going to keep them—even if they have some instrumental issues at age 18.
What do you tell students going into auditions?
First, I always tell them to keep their focus on the music. It's very easy to get distracted by what you think other people want to hear, how they're judging you, whether you want the job or to live in that city. All these details cloud your mind when all you should be thinking about is the music. That single-minded focus on the music carries you through the audition because it keeps your focus in a healthy place.
Second, preparation is so important. You have to go in there with plates of armor on you, and that comes from knowledge, experience, and preparation. The audition process is designed to undo you. It's designed to challenge you, to see where the weak spots are in your armor. You've got to have a serious, strong set of skills that you believe in. Knowing you can do that gives you confidence, and you need that confidence when you go into that audition.
How do you help a student decide if they should or shouldn’t go into music professionally?
I would never tell anybody to go into it. It has to be a decision that they come to. If it isn't their own decision, it's not going to work. It absolutely has to come from them.
I always tell my students that I think it's extremely important in life to do what you love and to follow your heart. You don't want to spend every day doing something you dread. If this is what you love, OK. But this has to be what brings you joy in life. You have to really love it. This path is so challenging and so difficult that you have to be absolutely certain you want to do it and are going to stick to it. You're going to make tons of sacrifices, because you will have to sacrifice crazy things in your life to have that single-mindedness you need to be good enough.
What is the why behind arts education?
It's unfortunate schools are so expensive, because it has created a culture where school is for studying something that's going to give you a job that makes money. And that's very unfortunate, because there's beauty in study for the sake of study, and art is one of the most enriching things to study. It opens up the world in a way that many other subjects don't.
Everybody should be studying music. I believe that. It makes students better people. It doesn't mean everybody's going to be a professional musician, but it does make them better people. And that's the beauty of arts education: It helps everybody. I've never met anybody who was worse off for studying art. It teaches discipline and brings your attention to the beauty in life. It opens your eyes in so many ways that I think it's critical for people to study it. It is definitely not time wasted. It's never a waste.