Weston Sprott was in sixth grade when he first picked up a trombone. Just 12 years later, he scored a seat in the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Statistically speaking, he might have had a better shot at becoming a pro athlete – that’s how hard it is to become a Met musician.
Weston was kind enough to speak with us about his love of music and basketball, performing with the Met, and his contribution to a book by former New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams.
HC: New York Yankees legend Bernie Williams asked you to write a passage for his book, Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Musical and Athletic Performance. What? Really, is Bernie a classical music fan?
WS: Bernie is a classically-trained guitarist and also a jazz musician. One of his albums was nominated for a Latin Grammy!
HC: How do you know Bernie?
WS: We are connected by a mutual friend. After retiring from baseball, Bernie enrolled in the Purchase College Conservatory of Music where I later joined the faculty. The Dean, Bob Thompson – knowing that I was a sports fanatic, musician, and avid writer – asked me to contribute to a book he was helping Bernie write. Of course I said yes!
HC: What did you say in the book?
WS: I talked about the “on-off” switch that athletes and musicians share. Just as an outfielder might wait around for long stretches before having to spring into action, the same is true of a trombonist. After sitting through long passages of music with no trombone parts, we have to instantly switch it back on when the trombones reappear. It’s a hard thing to do, but hopefully we make it look easy when done correctly.
HC: We know you are also a big basketball fan. If LeBron James asked you to draw a parallel between basketball and classical music, what would you say?
WS: I loved basketball before I loved trombone! Well, every great basketball team has its stars, but they can’t win without excellent role players. Trombonists are role players within an orchestra; we don’t often get to play the solos or highlights. That makes us less like LeBron James (who happens to be my favorite NBA player!) and maybe more like Ray Allen on the 2013 championship Miami Heat team. Allen was a role player by that point in his career, but without his miracle three-pointer in Game 6 of the Finals, his team would have lost the title. Allen had to be exceptional at what he did, ready at a moment’s notice. Similarly, trombonists may not be the stars of the team, but every once in a while, you need us to hit a big shot!
HC: You grew up in Houston, which has produced a diverse crop of musicians like Beyoncé, ZZ Top, DJ Screw, and Tejano singer Selena. It’s also home to the Houston Symphony and Houston Grand Opera. What kinds of music were you exposed to growing up?
WS: My parents had a steady diet of Motown and other ’60s and ’70s soul singers playing in the car. I probably know most of the lyrics of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Chi-Lites, Temptations, Jackson 5, and Barry White. Gospel was also ingrained at an early age from the church we attended. In my teenage years, I became a big fan of hip-hop and R&B.
HC: What sparked your interest in classical music?
WS: It was all because of the trombone, which I started playing in sixth grade. Growing up in Texas, I spent many weekends going to high school football games with my family. I was fascinated by the marching bands and especially the shape and sound of the trombone. My dad played trombone when he was in high school, and he told me it was a cool instrument to play. So, I went for it. I fell in love with being able to create sound and express myself through an instrument. From there I was naturally drawn to classical and jazz, which employ a lot of trombone. Before I knew it, I was listening to classical music all the time.
HC: When did you decide to make a career of it?
WS: I made that decision as a junior in high school, when I earned a spot in the Texas All-State Band for the first time. I also heard my first professional orchestra concert the same year (Mahler’s 3rd Symphony with the Houston Symphony). That concert was a real moment of clarity; I left saying to myself, “That’s what I want to do!”
HC: How did your family react?
WS: My parents weren’t as excited as I was about the pursuit of an orchestral career. As caring parents, they had legitimate concerns about the competitive nature of the field and the limited number of employment opportunities for musicians. We had several conversations about it, some serious and some light-hearted. I remember my uncle Charlie saying half-jokingly, “Well, I guess the world has to have some poor people too!” Thankfully, it all worked out, and now my parents try to see me perform at least once a year.
HC: Tell us about the moment you first learned you were accepted into the Met.
WS: I felt both exhilarated and relieved when I found out. I was excited that I would have a place with this fantastic orchestra and relieved that I wouldn’t have to struggle to make a career as a musician. It happened just after my last round of auditions. Unlike many organizations, the Met Orchestra holds each round behind a screen to eliminate any bias. They also choose a winner at every audition.
HC: Compared with other leading opera houses in Milan, Vienna, London, Paris, etc., what is the Met particularly known for?
WS: The Met is known for the excellence of its orchestra and chorus. It is one of the very few opera companies in the world where the orchestra is recognized individually for its symphonic reputation. We have a long-standing residency at Carnegie Hall where we present three symphonic (non-opera) concerts a year. Many of our players have distinguished careers as soloists, chamber musicians, and teachers.
HC: Tell us about a memorable experience you had while on tour.
WS: Following the devastating 2011 Tōhoku tsunami, the Met was the first major arts organization to tour Japan. Several orchestras and other performing groups canceled their trips, but the Met moved forward with its original plans. It was quite moving to see and hear the gratitude of the Japanese people for our performances that year.
HC: What is the stereotype of a trombonist, and do you fit the mold?
WS: Trombonists are stereotypically the guys who like to goof around and drink a lot. We have a collaborative spirit, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I largely fit that mold, with the exception of the drinking part. Believe it or not, I tasted alcohol for the first time at age 29. That’s definitely not typical for a trombone player!
HC: When you tell people what you do for a living, how do they usually react?
WS: Some musicians in professional orchestras get asked if it’s a full-time job or what they actually do for a living. Thankfully, New York City is a place where a lot of people respect and understand the commitment it takes to create great art. Also, the Metropolitan Opera is an internationally recognized brand. The most common response I get is, “You must be really good!” or “Congratulations!”
HC: What does a typical day look like for you?
WS: I don’t really have a typical day. In an average week, I play four to seven performances at the opera house, one to five rehearsals, and teach an average of 15 hours. During the off-season, I travel to several music festivals and perform symphonic, chamber and solo repertoire. Beyond that, I spend a lot of time writing, consulting, giving presentations on diversity, equity and inclusion in classical music, writing articles for the International Trombone Association, leading the brass department at the Mannes School of Music, and sitting on the Met’s Orchestra Committee. In an ideal week, I find a little bit of time to exercise, catch a nap, or do something self-serving and fun.
HC: New York City is home to a lot of classical music ensembles, but the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic probably have the highest profiles. How well do you know the NY Phil musicians, and do you ever get to work with them?
WS: I’m friends with a lot of them, and I regularly attend their concerts. It’s an outstanding orchestra with many wonderful people. Musicians from both ensembles can be found playing at the same festival and chamber music engagements, doing studio and soundtrack work together, and teaching at the same schools. Of course, I’m well acquainted with all the trombone players in the NY Phil. Our community is a relatively small, tight-knit group.
HC: Although it’s not an athletic pursuit, there must be a physical aspect to playing any instrument. What are the physical demands on a trombonist, and how does that affect the way you approach your physical health?
WS: Playing any instrument well is a matter of combining musical expression with technical refinement. In the case of the trombone, that refinement requires a certain athleticism and coordination of the facial muscles. In order to play the instrument at a consistently high level, an in-demand brass player must balance the need to have an embouchure (shaping of the lips) that is always well-trained but not overly fatigued. At a workplace like the Met, where we have very long hours, it’s especially important to be wise about what, and how much, you practice.
HC: What would you do with your life if you won the Powerball tomorrow?
WS: Probably a lot of the same things I do now, but at a much more comfortable pace and in a more selective way. Outside of music, I have a deep passion for travel. I’ve visited 37 countries so far, and I’m hoping to get to 40 by the time I turn 40. I also enjoy being a foodie, exercising, watching sports, and seeing live performances of anything good (classical, jazz, theater, comedy, etc). Professionally, I am very interested and involved in the discussion of diversity, equality, and inclusion in classical music.
HC: One last sports question. You grew up in Houston and now live in New York. As a sports fan, where do your loyalties lie?
WS: Let me put it this way. I was a huge Rockets fan when they won their first NBA championship over the Knicks in the ’90s. I’ll take Hakeem Olajuwon over Patrick Ewing any day. <Ducks for cover>
Here is a clip of Weston performing “Chanson à boire,” the last piece written by French composer Maurice Ravel, from his song cycle Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. Originally written for voice and piano, it borrows from Spanish dance music in its depiction of a tipsy Don Quixote.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity, with help from Boston-based journalist Adam Smith.