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Evanston resident to be first woman in American Brass Quintet

Jun 01, 2023Jun 01, 2023

Stubbornness pleasantly greets trombonist Hillary Simms at every corner of her career. Without it, the Evanston resident says it would be nearly impossible to navigate the highly competitive classical music industry and ultimately join the world-renowned American Brass Quintet.

Simms was appointed as the ABQ’s trombonist last month, making her the first woman to join the quintet in its 63-year history. The 28-year-old says she’s always wanted to be a chamber musician despite knowing it’s nearly impossible for a brass player to sustain themselves in chamber music, making this a dream come true.

When Simms was told the ABQ was holding private trombone auditions she asked to be considered for the position, but was told the group already had its two finalists. Although, they allegedly informed Simms she was on the initial shortlist but was crossed off because she was located in Evanston rather than New York City.

Luckily for Simms, the quintet decided not to proceed with either of its finalists and reached out to offer her an audition, which lasted two and a half-hours.

“I had this fangirl moment in my audition where we were playing and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, (horn player) Eric Reid’s sound is just so pure and so amazing that I just felt like I fit right into his sound,” Simms said. “All I wanted to do was support his sound and be his overtones. It was exciting because I always looked up to the group. They’re pretty famous in the music world.”

Simms grew up in Canada and started on euphonium at age nine despite wanting to play trumpet. Her band director asked students to list their top three instruments and Simms put trumpet first, clarinet second and struggled to pick a third until she heard the tuba play the A & W root beer tune and thought it was “the cutest little song ever,” and put tuba as third.

Her band director, who was ecstatic to have someone interested in tuba, assigned Simms to tuba, but her mother tried to get Simms on trumpet knowing how much she wanted it. Simms’ mother and the band director ultimately compromised with euphonium, which turned into trombone after the band needed a trombone player when Simms reached 6th grade.

Simms, who was initially apprehensive of switching to trombone, quickly caught onto the instrument and pursued it professionally in her undergraduate studies at McGill University before taking her career international at the Yale School of Music. After Yale, Simms got her artist diploma from the Glenn Gould Royal Conservatory of Music and pursued her doctorate at Northwestern University, bringing her to Evanston.

Being in Evanston and close to Chicago, which is known for its brass playing, this past year has greatly impacted Simms’ trombone playing, she said. Simms’ professor, Chicago Symphony Orchestra trombonist Michael Mulcahy, brought Simms to play with the orchestra on multiple occasions, which Simms called a pivotal moment in her career.

“I learned a lot from listening to local talent,” Simms said. “If anyone gets a chance to go out to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, just listen to Esteban (Batallán) play and that’s basically how anyone should play the trumpet.”

As Simms started looking around her, she rarely found fellow women playing brass instruments, such as French horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba and euphonium.

Orchestras undergo blind auditions where job candidates play for a committee behind a screen so race, gender and other biases are not a factor in the audition process. But as Simms underwent her musical studies, she was taught to avoid certain behaviors in auditions to avoid giving away that she was a woman.

“ (I’ve been told), ‘Don’t let them know you’re a woman. Don’t give them an excuse to cut you before you play,’’' Simms said. “I’ve been told not to wear heels when walking into an audition. When we breathe, we strive as brass players to have a nice open breath. But nerves kick in so I’ve been told to avoid any type of shallow breath that makes you sound like a woman.”

Simms says she’s critical of these words and these differences should be celebrated rather than ignored or covered up.

“If anything, wear your heels and take shallow breaths,” Simms said. “If you really want to let them know that there’s a woman behind the screen, who knows it might play in your favor. There’s no way that we can diversify orchestras or destigmatize the trombone as a male instrument if we’re constantly trying to hide.”

While Simms is the first woman to join ABQ, she gives a nod to the women brass players who preceded her.

“There are people who broke the glass ceiling before me,” Simms said. “I’m just riding on their coattails and enjoying the experience.”

The CSO appointed its first woman in 1941 with horn player Helen Kotas. Women find home in several Chicago-based brass quintets, including horn players Momo Hasselbring Seko in Braeburn Brass, Abby Black in Axiom Brass and Joanna Schulz in Gaudete Brass. Less than a two hours drive north, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Trombonist Megumi Kanda is one of three women in the MSO’s brass section, joining horn player Darcy Hamlin and tubist Robyn Black.

Looking back, Simms gives advice on how to be pleasantly stubborn to obtain goals — regardless of how silly or unrealistic it may seem.

“You have to stick to your convictions and opinions,” Simms said. “Otherwise you can get lost in this world that can be muddled with others’ opinions. If you’re not a bit stubborn about who you are, it doesn’t really work.”

Corey Schmidt is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.