The Bosnian A'tudes: An Interview with Megan Robbins

Name: Megan Robbins

Age: 31

From: Denver, CO

Instrument: Oboe

Job Title: Co-Principal Oboe, Sarajevska Filharmonija

Favorite Brew: Black Tea; Twinnings Breakfast Tea

Carrie Rexroat: How’d you get started with music?

Megan Robbins: I started when I was eight. My parents had very good friends who were professional musicians and they encouraged my parents to start me and my sisters on instruments. My sister closest in age to me, she and I started on piano, and my youngest sister started on cello. After about a year of piano lessons I switched to flute, but there were too many flute players in my youth orchestra. I really liked it and and was good at it, but I was encouraged to maybe pick up another woodwind instrument like oboe or bassoon because it wasn’t so common. So I started playing oboe when I was thirteen and I got to play in orchestra all of the time and not have to rotate with this huge section of twelve flute players.

CR: So what led to you pursuing it as a career?

MR: There wasn’t any one moment where I decided to pursue it as a career. In my junior year of high school I was actually really into being on the debate team and the Constitutional Scholars team so I thought that I’d maybe want to go into law and go to lLaw sSchool; that’s what all my friends were into. I went to a lot of competitions for debate and I did OK in it, but one day I just started thinking about the reasons as to why I was doing that and I realized it was just because my friends were doing it. When I was playing in the youth orchestra, I just liked playing music in and of itself. After realizing that I went to Interlochen Arts Academy for my senior year of high school and decided music was a better thing for me because it was something that I liked inherently and not just because of the social aspect of it. I knew I wanted music in my life in some way.

CR: I didn’t realize you went to Interlochen, that’s in my home state. So you went to Peabody for undergrad and then went to Northwestern for both your Masters and Doctorate, correct? What was your education experience like from undergraduate through your doctorate?

MR: Yes, and I was lucky that I had a really good education. When I was in my undergrad I was at a point where I was exploring all of my options, especially within the field of music. I did a degree in music education and oboe performance and I really liked teaching. I also did a lot of Early Music, and I minored and took lessons in recorder. I also took classes in arts administration, and I just explored everything. I wasn’t very focused on one thing so I wasn’t a very strong oboe player at that point, but I think it was really good for me to see all the different careers that you can have in music. By the time I was to graduate I decided that I liked performance the best even though I wasn’t sure that I was a good enough player, but I just decided to audition for grad schools. I didn’t expect to get in anywhere, but I did and ended up going into performance.

CR: Do you believe that your exploration of fields like arts administration and music education ultimately influenced you in your performance in a positive way?

MR: Definitely. I think that my training in music education made me a better performer because when I’m practicing on my own I think about it as if I were my own teacher. I think of things I would say to myself and I can think about things more methodically instead of just getting caught up in fixing whatever small thing I’m dealing with in the moment.

CR: Great. So what kinds of challenges or struggles have you had to face in your life or in music? What sorts of negativity have you faced within the field of music?

MR: Well, I think every musician faces doubt about their abilities, and I think it’s normal for musicians to question what they’re contributing to society or the world; to a lot of people playing the oboe doesn’t really seem like the most amazing thing to do for the world. But I recognize the fact that the reason I have a career in music performance is that I got very lucky, I had a very good education, and I worked really hard and it’s something that I love so yes, at times those doubts come from myself but mostly outside factors. Pursuing a career in classical music is competitive and I think that triggers more negative self-talk than most other professions. Other professions are also equally competitive and I’m sure they feel the same way, but the hardest thing about it is not to get wrapped up in the aspects of our career that are super competitive, like the audition scene, the competition scene, things like that; it’s really easy to make yourself go crazy about those things. The other hard thing is that there are always people who will always be skeptical of what you’re trying to do, and that can include people who support and love you the most.

CR: What sorts of things do you try to tell yourself to counteract any negativity?

MR: The thing that has always helped me is being aware that every time I’ve worked on something just because I’ve loved it was where I found success. For example, I went into auditions for grad school with almost zero expectations. I wasn’t really having self doubt, I just didn’t have any expectations or concerns because I wanted to try it and see if it was something for me. You can’t really achieve this false blank mind, but if you just naturally have it it’s maybe the best thing. The other thing that helps is having mentors or people in your life who believe in you. I’ve had a few teachers or family members who over the years who have believed in me more than I’ve believed in myself, and I think that’s been the most meaningful thing for me when I encounter self doubt. If people who I really respect think that I can do this, that helps a lot. Even colleagues that we are competitive with, it helps to recognize that I might see something of myself in them so there’s something that I can respect about them. I’ve always done better when I had the mentality that if a colleague does really well I want to emulate them rather than wanting to beat them.

CR: Exactly, I think that’s very healthy competition; there’s nothing wrong with that.

MR: Exactly. At the end of the day classical music is a collaborative field, not a competitive field. We all want to just make music together in the best way possible and make each other sound great. I don’t know where unhealthy competition starts, but it probably has to do with the fact that funding is so limited in our field and we’re all just fighting for funding and recognition. But overall, another good thing to remember is that it’s just music performance; you’re not going to hurt anyone or ruin anything if it’s not done ‘perfectly’ or a certain way. My sister is doing her residency in veterinary medicine, and for her when something doesn’t go right at the vet clinic and someone’s beloved pet is hurt or dies, a mistake for her means something so different than a mistake for us; I try and remember that. It would be really terrifying to be a surgeon. They also have to perform in the moment but someone’s life is in their hands. At least the worst that happens for us is that people listen to an unpleasant sound.

CR: That’s very true. That’s why I think it’s really good to incorporate non-musicians into this conversation to offer some other perspectives.

MR: Yeah, and here in Sarajevo I think a lot of our colleagues have good perspective too because they’ve gone through more than we have. They care about more important things than a specific musical performance. Like what I was talking about earlier in regards to choosing music as a career as opposed to going into something more humanitarian, that’s what I like about playing music here in Sarajevo. I did my dissertation about the History of Classical Music in Sarajevo, and there was a huge cultural resistance during the siege; classical musicians were a very big part of that. The Sarajevska Filharmonija and classical music is kind of a symbol of intercultural collaboration and peace here and it’s cool to be a part of it. To know that I’m part of an orchestra that represents something higher than myself as a musician and music itself is really humbling.

CR: Definitely. I’ve only just realized this about the Sarajevska Filharmonija, and it definitely made me feel more honored to be a part of something like that. In general, as a musician, what do you feel like you can contribute to society?

MR: The best thing about music is that it’s non-lingual. Especially for me, moving to a foreign country where they speak a different language, it’s great to know that I have some other way of communicating to people without language; it’s pretty cool. Music is also a really good way to bring people together and connect them. Of course there are cultural differences within music as well, but there’s something more in music that transcends, there’s an intangible quality to it that affects people and society. Even if I don’t know how to describe it, I can still feel it and it’s a great feeling.

CR: For sure. Specific to Bosnia, can you talk about your experience in how you’ve wound up here?

MR: It’s a really crazy story. I was in the first group of Americans that came here for the Exchange Program, but I didn’t learn about it until late in the summer of 2011. August 1st I got an email from Diane Wittry saying the oboist who was supposed to come to Sarajevo broke her femur, and she was wondering if I had interest in a job opening for Principal Oboe in the Sarajevska Filharmonija. At first I thought, “this can’t be real” but of course I was interested. The only thing was is that I was getting married on August 13th. The timing could not have been more crazy, but when does someone ever email you about a Principal Oboe job asking if you were interested in taking it *laughter*. So, I sent her a CD I had made for Chicago Civic, sent my CV, and then I got accepted about a day or two after I had gotten married. Then I had to decide whether or not I wanted to actually go, and Ross and I had to decide whether or not he would go with me. It was a really hard decision to make, especially because Ross got offered a job teaching at Roosevelt University for guitar at the same time, but it had always been my dream to have a job playing Principal Oboe, and it just kind of fell into my lap, so I couldn’t say no to it. For the first year he stayed in Chicago, and I actually went back to Chicago after my first season, fully intending to stay in the US. I was finishing up the final steps of my Doctorate, and because I really missed Sarajevo I decided I wanted to write my dissertation about the history of music in Sarajevo. So BHAAAS gave me a research grant to come back for another year, the Filharmonija accepted me back to play with the orchestra again, and once I started all of it the second time I realized I didn’t ever want to give it up again. So, I negotiated with Ross and he’s here half the year now.

CR: Does he still teach at Roosevelt University?

MR: He does, he teaches Fall semester at Roosevelt and then he teaches English here in the Spring. So, that’s the current compromise.

CR: Is it something that you want to be permanent?

MR: I’m really happy here, but I’m open to moving forward with my career should the opportunity arise. Ross is not as sold on Sarajevo as I am, so we’re still trying to figure that out.

CR: Gotcha. So what sort of sparked your interest in wanting to do your dissertation on the history of classical music here?

MR: We were really lucky because we were the first group of Americans so everyone was super excited to have us join the orchestra. For us it was a really big risk to come here, we didn’t know anything about what to expect, we couldn’t talk to people who had been here before. But our colleagues were so warm and open with us and I really feel like I became part of a family here. Over time I just casually talked with my colleagues about their experiences living here under Tito and under the communist era, through the war, and the history here is so incredibly fascinating. When I went back to the US and had to start thinking about what I wanted to write my dissertation on I realized this particular subject was perfect because it was something I was really interested about, could say a lot about, do a lot of research and have a personal connection to it, as opposed to doing what I originally was going to do and compare oboe recital pieces and etudes of Pasculli and Georges Gilletolee, something really boring *laughter*. I’m really glad I found something that was more relevant to more people.

CR: What was one of the more interesting or moving things that you found out about music in Sarajevo?

MR: My first year here I was invited to join this quintet at the Music Academy. I guess they had never had a performing wind quintet in Sarajevo, so I stepped in to fill the oboe spot. We got invited to play this concert that commemorated the twenty years since the beginning of the Siege in Sarajevo, and that event was huge. They invited reporters who had covered the Siege and had stayed in the Holiday Inn we were playing at, reporters who were holed up there, to come back. The Cellist of Sarajevo came back to perform for the first time since the Siege. I learned a lot about what went on during the Siege and what my colleagues had experienced during that concert. I was also really, really sick and had the flu. I had a fever and I hadn’t been able to hold food down, but and I somehow managed to find energy and excitement for this concert. That was the turning point for me, being part of an event like that and seeing that music meant more to a group of people than I had ever experienced before was highly moving.

CR: Wow, that sounds like an amazing event.

MR: Yeah, it was. Classical music was such an integral part of the culture and was a source of beauty and peace during the war. When the world saw classical musicians performing here in the ruins it humanized people in Sarajevo. You can’t really argue that it led to direct international intervention, but seeing how classical musicians were a part of the war definitely made some impact on the world.

CR: I would love to learn more about that. I mean, maybe it’s my own fault that I didn’t take it upon myself to learn more about it, but I wish our colleagues and the city would talk more about how classical music was influential during the Siege of Sarajevo. How’d you do your research, where did you find out about all of this?

MR: Well, doing research about the History of Classical Music in Sarajevo was an interesting task because there’s only a few books written about the subject. There’s a very good book written before the war by the former Dean of the Music Academy (Zijo Kučukalić) about classical music history in Sarajevo between the 1920s-1970s. I don’t remember his name, so I’ll have to send it to you. I did what you’re doing now, I interviewed a ton of people in the orchestra about their personal experiences. The orchestra has a monography that has a record of every concert with who soloists were, what pieces they played. I did all this very tedious work of counting how many times they played various works like Beethoven Overtures to just have a general sense of what trends went on. I also read books about the history of BiH and Sarajevo in general, and my favorite was Sarajevo: A Biography by Robert Donia

CR: OK, yeah I would love to get those names and read those books, and obviously your dissertation, so where can I find that?

MR: I can just send you a copy.

CR: OK great! So who did you talk to, are there any other members that are still here?

MR: Oh yeah, I interviewed DzivadDževad, Bogumila and Irfvan, Sakib, a few professors at the academy, Adi. I wish I had done more, I still want to add to it. Something cool that I got to do after I finished my dissertation was that I got to interview Riccardo Muti. My teacher plays in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Muti was actually  involved in putting on two concerts here, one at the end of the Siege and one after it was over. That’s not in the dissertation unfortunately, but at some point I want to publish the dissertation in some other format that includes some extra interviews and things like that.

CR: Wow, that’s amazing! All these people are popping up in conversations, and I mean I was too little to have known what was going on during the war while it was happening, but I heard that Pavarotti was here, U2 played a huge role in Sarajevo, and a lot of others.

MR: Yes, and Zubin Mehta came here in 1994 and conducted a concert in the ruins of Vijecnica; there are amazing pictures of the orchestra playing there during the Siege. You can just Google it, but it’s crazy. You can see our colleagues in the picture, Arijana and Zvjezdana are there, Dzeivad is there, Samir or Vanja maybe, some of our older colleagues in the orchestra were a part of it; it’s really cool to talk to them about it.

CR: Wow, I need to do more interviews *laughter* I need to talk to them. I have been totally ignorant of this, but great, thank you for introducing me to this. Going back a little bit, what sorts of things are you inspired and motivated by?

MR: Obviously my colleagues with what we just talked about, but before that for me as an oboe player, I’m inspired by really great oboists that I’ve heard and teachers that I’ve had. Actually, when I was at Interlochen Arts Academy I had a few classmates who were really, really strong players who have gone on to have incredible careers. I don’t know if they realize it or not, but they still really inspire me when I see what they’ve achieved with what they’re doing.

CR: That’s always really nice when that happens. Speaking to success, what does success mean to you, and by your definition do you feel that you’re successful?

MR: It’s interesting that you bring it up because I think that is a really American cultural thing to think about success. Something that I really like about living in Europe, and particularly in Sarajevo, are that the values are on family, friends, enjoyment of the moment and appreciation for what exists in front of you instead of what you symbolize to other people. We always think about success as what you represent and what you achieve instead of what you have and who you are. I do have a value on success, I want to be successful, but for me I feel successful knowing that I have a lot of people that love me; that’s the most meaningful thing to me. I love them too and having that human connection, that’s important to me. All this other stuff like being a good oboe player, I don’t know, if I just have people that I love and love me back, everything else is secondary to that. I know it’s very easy to think about success only in the way of our career, but there are more important things.

CR: Wow, I really love that. So as an American who chose to live here, what’s one thing that really differs about European life and what people value?

MR: People put a really high value on spending time with their friends and their family. When I was a child that was a value that was part of my home and my community and I might have lost that along the way, but I’ve started to appreciate it more again in the past few years. The sSense of humor too is different too. Something that is really nice about Sarajevo is that you see people in a lot of frustrating situations in day-to-day life like getting on a bus and there’s no seats, or waiting in a line that’s really slow. In the US you always see people that are irritated and are trying to find a way around it, complaining, and here 95% of the time people make a joke about it, laugh and let it go. That’s something that is so great, having this humor towards a minor inconvenience that you can’t control so you just laugh it off. Sometimes it’s even a major inconvenience that you can’t control but people just laugh it off.

CR: That’s so true. When Erin and Jessica and I went on our trip we were driving through Montenegro and on our second day we happened upon this huge road block where this truck was blocking all lanes of traffic. We sat there for over an hour, and yes it was annoying, but we were fine, we had snacks and it was nice and sunny out. But the thing that really blew my mind was seeing how everyone in this massive line of cars behind us just got out, started smoking and talking to each other, and were just hanging out. That would never happen in the US *laughter* But it was nice to see, it didn’t add to my own personal annoyance with it.

MR: Right, I’m sure you started to feel better even. In the grand scheme of things you realize ‘oh, this isn’t so worth getting frustrated over’. Sure you’d rather be spending time with each other somewhere else, like on the beach, but the point of the trip was to spend time with each other and you were doing that. My first trip with the orchestra we went to Pordenone in Italy. Our bus back was this really old and terrible bus that wound up catching fire. I remember the girl next to me tapped me on the shoulder and I was like “what, pauza again already” and she just casually said “ no, the bus is one fire so you need to get off”. So I get off and everyone’s just cracking jokes about it, and I just remember asking “you guys aren’t pissed off that we’ve been on a bus for 12 hours and now need to stand on the side of the road for a couple more hours to wait for another bus because ours caught fire” and they just said “no” and cracked some more jokes, smoked a few cigarettes and waited for the next bus. It was something they couldn’t control, so why were they going to be upset.

CR: Wow, I can totally see everyone doing that. So I’m interested to know, what was a day in your life back in America, vs a day in your life here in Sarajevo?

MR: Well, the thing that’s the biggest difference is that in the US my life was always determined by a crazy schedule, and here in Sarajevo we never have to work more than six hours in a day. Here I have to structure my life on my own and have a lot of self motivation and discipline to work, but I’m not very good at that. I spend a lot more time socializing, but I don’t know that that’s a bad thing. Maybe it’s wasting time, but if the point is make human connections, I make them; sometimes it leads to something with my career and sometimes it doesn’t. Almost every day I go out and socialize with people with coffee, beer or lunch and that’s probably my favorite thing about living here, but I do try to structure practice into my day with reed making, exercise, all the things that just keep me a normal working human being and musician. I’m really inconsistent, I don’t have a typical day.

CR: Awesome. What’s the best advice you can offer to young musicians, and in turn, what’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

MR: For young musicians, I guess the best thing is to do music because you’re genuinely motivated to do it and because you genuinely love it; don’t do it just to prove it to yourself or make someone happy. Of course we all have to do things we don’t want to do to get better, practicing things that we don’t like, doing things that our teacher tells us to do and we can’t see why in the moment, but ultimately, don’t do music unless you really want to do it. It’s not an easy career, and who knows, there might be a lot of other things you might really like to do. I had teachers advise me to not become a musician if I couldn’t do anything else, and I understand that can be seen as discouraging, but I thought it was very good advice. It made me try other things and really be sure that performance was what I wanted to do. I’m really happy to be doing what I’m doing, and I don’t wonder if I would have had a better life if I had done this or that instead.

CR: Can you elaborate a little more on this idea of not becominge a musician if you can’t do anything else?

MR: Well, it’s hard. There are certain people who are so into one thing, so driven and so focused and almost obsessive about something, and some of the best musicians I know are like that. Some of the best performers I know have that type of mentality or personality, but I don’t know if it’s a healthy or fun way to be. Maybe that’s why I can never do this whole audition circuit because I can’t play an excerpt like eighty-five times until every note is perfect, I just don’t have that in my personality. It’s just good to be aware of your personality; you have to be true that. There are different careers in music for different kinds of people, so if being obsessive about practicing for auditions is not you, understand and be OK with the fact that there are different ways to make music. Find one that works for you, don’t give up so easily.

CR: I agree. So what’s the first thing that pops in your head when I ask you to describe a memorable music moment?

MR: When I finished my Masters I got a call from my teacher asking if I was around in the summer and wondering if I wanted to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I told him, “are you joking, yes! Why would I say no to that?!” *laughter* So, I got to play Mahler 9 with the CSO and playing with the highest level of musicians was so humbling and so exciting. Just being in that sound, I was a little blissed out *laughter*. But, I would also say on the same level, the concert at the Holiday Inn was the most memorable for me. Even though the level of musicianship is not even comparable to the CSO, it was still another highlight on the same level because it was just something so meaningful beyond just playing music.

CR: For sure. What do you believe are some qualities that all people share regardless of their profession?

MR: I’m not sure. I guess just wanting to love and be loved, to feel connected, but I’m sure that there are people who don’t want that. That would be hard for me to relate to though. Being able to communicate I think is important to all people, and music is a great facilitator of that. We can all be so isolated in our own psyche, but maybe the ability to communicate is what breaks us from eternal isolation.

CR: That’s a great way to think about that. Is there something other than music that you’re passionate about?

MR: My family and friends and my relationships with them. I love learning about the world, traveling, learning about geography, I’ve always kind of been the nerdy kid that memorized the capitals of all the states. Even in elementary school, my best friends were the kids that had come from the USSR and had migrated to Denver, so I’ve always been interested in meeting people from other places.
CR: Great. So talking about passion, first of all what’s your definition of it, and how do you feel that it influences what we do in our professions and our lives?

MR: I guess passion is something you care about to the point where you feel emotional. Of course we’re going to put more thought and effort behind an endeavor that we care about and that we’re passionate about, and going back to motivation maybe it’s the best motivator. Those of us who are able to have a career in the things we’re passionate about are some of the luckiest people I think; not everyone can do that.

CR: Yeah, this is something new that I’m talking about so I’m interested to see what comes from it. There are so many different characteristics of being a human being, it’s interesting to see which ones are shared amongst many people and which ones aren’t.

MR: For sure, and I think passion is something that can be contagious. If you’re around people who really really love what they’re doing it’s definitely something that gets in your head and influences you deeply.

CR: Do you have a favorite quote or life mantra?

MR: I don’t know that you can simplify life that much in my opinion. It’s good to have short thoughts that are significant to you, but I can’t think of anything specific.

CR: Other than music and traveling, what are some of your hobbies?

MR: I have really normal hobbies, I watch TV or movies at night with Ross or by myself, I like reading a lot. In this day and age don’t we all just spend our time surfing the internet? I spend way too much time on Buzzfeed and it’s destroying me *laughter*.

CR: Very true. Do you have a charity or a cause that you’d like to raise awareness to?

MR: One cause or organization that I’ve tried to follow and support is Amnesty International. They do everything they can to fight for basic human rights all over the world. Treating people well no matter who they are or what they do is something that’s really important to me, and the only way that humanity can move forward and be better is to not continue to be awful to each other. It’s really idealistic, but I think it’s great to support an organization that says everyone has the right to healthy living conditions and freedom to say what they want to say, freedom to think what they want to think, free to love who they want to love and all that stuff.

CR: Great. Is there one last thing that you’d like to leave people with?

MR: Well we talked about so much stuff it’s hard to reduce everything to one thing. Have fun I guess, and be nice to people. It’s important to recognize the love in your life, add to it and fulfill it. I hope that everyone can experience that in their own way, and appreciate the people that love you and support you.

CR: Great, well thanks Megan!

MR: Thank you!