S.9, E.4: “Forks in the Road and Kettledrums”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews physics alum and Metropolitan Opera timpanist Jason Haaheim '01.
Posted on April 27th, 2021 by

Jason Haaheim ’01, talks about how he went from majoring in Music and Physics at Gustavus to performing as principal timpanist of the world-renowned Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York, and the impact of COVID-19 on the institution and its musicians.

Season 9, Episode 4: “Forks in the Road and Kettledrums”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad ways that a Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, a faculty member in the Department of History.

Roads are long, there are lots of forks in them and you just never know. My guest today has observed. He knows whatever he speaks. Jason Haaheim, Gustavus class of 2001 graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a double major in honors music and physics. He went on to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of California Santa Barbara, and from there landed a position with NanoInk a Chicago nanotechnology firm.

Music though remain part of Jason’s life and eventually fork in the road became his career. Between 2004 and 2013, he was successively the assistant and then principal timpanist for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, co-principal timpanist for the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, and principal timpanist of the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra. Then in 2013, came an incredible fork in the road, when Jason’s decade of playing, practicing, and auditioning won him his current position as principal timpanist for the world renowned Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York.

As this suggests, Jason’s story is not only interesting, but also illustrative of how an education in the liberal arts at Gustavus equips one for the long fork filled road ahead. And I’m delighted he can join me to talk about his own journey, and how he has navigated it. So welcome, Jason, it’s so great to have you on the podcast.

Jason Haaheim:

Thanks so much, Greg. It’s great to be here.

Greg Kaster:

My pleasure, and thank you for joining. You’re joining us we should note from Seoul, South Korea, which is a-

Jason Haaheim:

Indeed. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, go ahead.

Jason Haaheim:

Well, it’s an interesting time to be doing this. And I was thinking about, as you were reading that intro, I was thinking about, “Oh, it has been a long road. There have been some forks in there.” We’re going to get into this a lot, I’m sure. But what an amazing time to be reflecting on careers and crafts, and decisions, and forks. I should confess that I am in the middle, myself, of launching my own website and my own podcast.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow. Congratulations.

Jason Haaheim:

And it’s hard because, and you were mentioning before you hit record there, that you’ve been doing a number of these. And it’s hard to know how to frame them sometimes. Sometimes you want content that’s just evergreen. But then there’s other times where it’s “Well, okay, but this idea or this frame of mind we’re in, or this conversation is very much in this moment we’re living through.” And I feel like right now is definitely part of that latter frame.

Greg Kaster:

Absolutely. And I’m speaking as a historian, and the past is with us in the present, you can understand the present without the past. Yeah, we’re going to be talking about the moment. Absolutely. So you’re in Seoul there. Tell us what are you doing there, first of all, while you’re there?

Jason Haaheim:

Fair question. Yeah. Okay. So it’ll take a minute to unpack this. It’s also interesting for me, because a lot of the… Since I’ve been at the Met, I’ve been fortunate to do a number of different podcasts like this, talking about story, different forks in the road and everything. This one I’m excited about, because I get to go a little bit in reverse. And what I mean by that is, so right now, I’m sitting in a Airbnb in Seoul, South Korea. The Hongdae neighborhood of Seoul.

And I’m here because, the Metropolitan Opera indefinitely furloughed our orchestra without pay starting April 1st. And so, the 10 plus months of this pandemic so far have been, just for me personally, the most destabilizing time in my entire life. I mean I was living with my girlfriend on the Upper West Side of New York, we had a cool apartment that we liked, we’re doing our stuff, seeing friends in New York. And of course, that’s all just completely evaporated. We gave up our apartment, we put all our stuff in a-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I’m sorry.

Jason Haaheim:

… storage unit. And now we’re essentially just pandemic nomads, indefinitely. And the point of that is not, “Oh, poor Jason.” No. The point is that, I actually have it pretty good compared to most other people in the performing arts. It is just impossible to overstate what an absolutely devastating tsunami this has been for the entire performing arts world in the United States.

Greg Kaster:

And I’ll tell you this scares the hell out of me. Because without the arts, we’re doomed as far as I’m concerned. And that would include the culinary arts as well. I mean with the devastation to that industry. You’re putting it in terms that are stark, and I appreciate that. And I’m sorry about. I mean I’ve read about orchestra members not only there but without pay. So somehow this has to do with your trip to Korea.

Jason Haaheim:

It’s exactly right. Because we basically decamped from New York city proper, found an affordable place to rent in the Catskills. So the mountains couple hours north of New York City for the late spring, and summer, and early fall, where we could just hang out and avoid the virus. And then, I got incredibly fortunate that, a friend of mine, who is the principal percussionist in the Seoul Philharmonic, asked if I wanted to come play a few months of guest principal timpani. And I said, “Yeah, absolutely. That’d be fantastic.” It almost goes without saying, but the South Korean government’s approach to managing the pandemic is… Well, I should just say competent and normal whereas the rest of the world has been such a shameful debacle. Which means that in the fall, life was basically proceeding normally here in Seoul. And so, we were able to have a couple of concerts. And so, that’s why I’m here.

Greg Kaster:

Were people socially distancing at those concerts, or how did work?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. And so definitely, there’s all the same different public health precautions. I haven’t seen it… Well, even in New York City, the epicenter of the early pandemic, while we were back there packing things up in our apartment and everything a lot of people were wearing masks, but not all. Sizable percentages were still totally not doing. By contrast here in Seoul, I have literally not seen a single person without a mask.

Greg Kaster:

So different. So amazing.

Jason Haaheim:

It is just so, so vastly different.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I was… Go ahead.

Jason Haaheim:

And then, the concerts when they were happening, people were spaced out in the concert hall, and then they got to a point where rates rose ever so slightly, which for South Korea it was a big deal, and they wanted to take it seriously. You look at that rise on the same graph next to anything in United States, you can’t even see it. It’s just imperceptible.

Greg Kaster:

It’s so hard to comprehend the incompetence, and we’ll leave it at that, I guess. But it’s awful. You’re reminding me that, I mentioned before we started recording, I had recorded with another alum, who happens to be living in Hong Kong, and she was saying the same thing about the masks. And that the only people she sees now wearing them are foreigners. And they’re immediately, scolded, corrected, shunned all of the above. Oh, man. Well, I’m glad it was South Korea that may made you the offer, that that worked out nicely for that reason alone. Because you didn’t have to sacrifice your health in addition to giving up your apartment [crosstalk 00:08:30].

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah, absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

I mean are you performing weekly there? How does it work?

Jason Haaheim:

Well, so what ended up happening, we got here we have to quarantine for 14 days in this facility, and then can begin rehearsals. Just as a matter of slightly poor timing that was when the rates here were rising, like I said, ever so slightly. So we got to play a couple concerts, and then some of the other ones got canceled. But I ended up writing this big blog post about the experience, because what it ended up being was, we were playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony right around Christmas, this is the famous Ode to Joy. Which is also one of the most iconic timpani parts in the entire repertoire.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, wow, that’s good.

Jason Haaheim:

And I was getting thrown back into that situation after not having access to any timpani for nine months. And this is an aspect of the pandemic that… Even a lot of musicians don’t totally think about this, but it’s just very different for timpanist and percussionists. We’re the most institutionally gear bound of musicians. We have rooms full of equipment, and you need access to those to do your thing, to practice your craft. My timpani would just literally not even fit into a New York City apartment. It wouldn’t fit through the front door.

And so, what that meant was when Lincoln Center shut down on March 12th, that foreclosed any ability for me to keep playing anything, couldn’t even practice. And so, that was a real shocking, illuminating, scary experience to fly halfway around the world and try to reboot this engine that had been sitting, not just idle but completely cold for nine months.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I had not thought of that aspect at all even preparing for this conversation with you. And yeah, that must have been, I don’t know, scary. What the words would be. But she did it, obviously-

Jason Haaheim:

Did it. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

… it worked.

Jason Haaheim:

Super glad to have had that experience. I mean if for no other reason, I’ll be honest, Greg, I was reticent to even write that blog post, because so many other performing artists are suffering so much worse than I am right now. I have this opportunity. At some point in mid-December, I realized I was one of a countable handful of timpanists worldwide, that were able to perform at that time.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I want to add, I mean maybe… I’m sorry, I’ll ask it right here. I was curious how… Are there many… I mean there aren’t there timpanist positions, are there-

Jason Haaheim:

Right. And even in the before times [crosstalk 00:11:36].

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yeah.

Jason Haaheim:

… many of us.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly.

Jason Haaheim:

But with the pandemic, and virtually every orchestra and opera house being various degrees of shutdown, furloughed, whatever, I was one of the very, very few people with the opportunity to do this. And so, I felt bad throwing about my own good fortune, but on the other hand, I mean a handful of my friends, especially musician friends said, “There are going to be a lot of people who are confronting this same problem of having been away from it for so long, and then being terrified by the atmospheric reentry process.” We’re just floating out in space, and at some point we’re going to have to get back and play with people. It’s going to happen eventually.

Greg Kaster:

Right. [crosstalk 00:12:24].

Jason Haaheim:

And then, when it happens how are we going to adjust and adapt?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you now know you can. I’m just thinking to even if we ever get back into office buildings, turning them back on, so to speak, the air system. But you just used a space metaphor, but it’s another fork in the road that came your way, you were ready for it, and there you are. Had you been to Korea before, South Korea?

Jason Haaheim:

I had for one week. I did a guest principle week here back in, I think it was 2017. It’s honestly hard to remember because now everything in the before times is like this weird telescoped timeframe. 10 years ago, it could have been three, but I think it was 2017.

Greg Kaster:

What are the things you really enjoy about South Korea or Seoul in particular, compared to New York?

Jason Haaheim:

Oh, yeah, it’s just and awesome city. And again, to be fair we haven’t gotten to experience in quite the same way we would have been in the before times. A lot of the… Like you know, they are taking sensible public health precautions. So you can’t have big groups in restaurants, the bars are essentially mostly closed. The museums are also shut down, so there’s a lot of the stuff that I was hoping to be able to see that we haven’t been able to. But that’s okay. We’ll hopefully find more time in the after times to do so.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I want to… Boy, one day both my wife Kate and I want to go there. We had a good friend from… I know she was from Seoul, but in graduate school at Boston University. We knew her when she was studying geography and then had to go back to Korea. Again, she came back here a few times, but we always wanted to go to South Korea and Seoul in particular, it sounds great. By the way, this reminds me, though, a sad note or disturbing note. Is it in South Korea where some young musicians have been taking their own lives? Have I got that right. I think I read something, I can’t remember if it’s South, maybe Japan, somewhere.

Jason Haaheim:

Boy, I’m trying to… I mean, artists-

Greg Kaster:

Young artists. I don’t know if they’re all musicians, but just saw something about that. Anyway, again, the times we live in, what’s-

Jason Haaheim:

It is. Well, and maybe even more indicative is that, I’m sure that’s true, and I’m sure that’s happening. But when you try to consider the amount of news that’s happened in the last 10 months. For instance, just the other day I was talking with my friends, I was like, “Oh, hey, did you read that New York Times blockbuster report about how the Justice Department just about had a coup on New Year’s Eve.” And they’re like, “What? We didn’t even see that.” And I’m like, “This was the most epic thing.” Like in any other set of four years, this would have been a defining story of the entire administration and it just completely flew under the radar.

Greg Kaster:

That’s true. It’s so true. Yeah. Well, I’m glad you’re there and with your girlfriend, and I’m glad… What is her name?

Jason Haaheim:

Her name is Talia.

Greg Kaster:

Talia. Did she go to Gustavus also or not?

Jason Haaheim:

She did not. No. We actually met when we were freelancing, both in some of these orchestras in Central Illinois. And she’s a cellist. And so-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, great. Oh, my wife loves the cello.

Jason Haaheim:

Oh, that’s great. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Loves the cello. Well, so you mentioned, Gustavus. Let’s go back in time a bit. You graduated in 2001. And let’s start, just tell us a little bit about where you grew up-

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah, I grew up in Chaska, Minnesota. So this is, southwest the Twin Cities. You’ll essentially drive right by it if you’re heading north from campus up on 169. You’ll pass it there on the left. But yeah, it was a really very standard suburban upbringing that a lot of Minnesotans would recognize. And I got to be honest, it has been, especially in these last 10 months has been really… This would have been a very different podcast a year ago, let me put it that way. It’s been really, really interesting to reflect on my time growing up in a Minnesota suburb, and then going to Gustavus and then all of the routes and forks, and everything you mentioned since then. And I don’t know, a couple of touchstones from that, I guess, would be that, on the one hand, I have a much different view, I think, of my home, that community, where I grew up then than I did at the time.

So that’s touchstone on number one. Touchstone number two would be, the way I think about this all now, our lives, and especially in the performing arts, it is just this perpetual instability now. And I would say, probably back in May, I was doing some music focused, masterclasses, Zoom classes, as everyone’s been doing. And one of my colleagues asked me, he’s like, “Oh, yeah, how are things going at the Met?” And I was like, “Well, not great.” And again, unlike most of the other orchestras in the country and opera companies where their managements had some basic sense of compassion for their employees, and their workers, and their artists, we just got completely cut off, furloughed, no pay, just-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s since April. I mean since April [crosstalk 00:17:53] front page news, and the art section of the New York Times I remember reading it. Well, it’s shocking. Absolutely, shocking.

Jason Haaheim:

It’s shocking. But it’s also this punctuation on this larger story. Because what I was trying to advise these young musicians, and in a way how this relates back to thinking about myself at 16 in Chaska, and the way the arts fit into all of this, is that, what I said was, if the principal timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera can be facing, definitely well over a year, possibly two years or more of unemployment, we have to recognize that the performing arts in the United States are just a fundamentally unstable field.

Greg Kaster:

Right. They’re in deep crisis.

Jason Haaheim:

It’s deep crisis. And again, this is not a rant. This is not a gnashing of teeth moment, it’s just, I’ve been in this position since I’ve been at the Met of getting to teach a lot. And a lot of that has involved me going back to try to reinhabit my mindset from 16, 17, 18 being music interested kid, and looking at schools maybe are like, “Oh, liberal arts. Or do I want to go to a conservatory, or any of that?” And then, imagining myself at 18, 19, 20, 21, and trying to figure out grad school. And all of that. And the assumptions I was working with at the time, versus what I understand now. I mean, man, it is really wild when I just framed it to myself that simply, “Yeah, principle timpanist at Met, two years unemployed. It is a really unstable field.”

And it says something really fundamental about our culture and our society and what we actually value. Let me put it this way, growing up in Minnesota, I think the state of Minnesota does a lot to actually value the arts. It puts priority on them, arts education, different opportunities with youth orchestras and MMEA. And you get a different experience of that than you would in a lot of other states. What that did though is it, I think, cultivated in me this idea that there was this primacy and permanence to it that doesn’t in fact exist. I got quote, unquote, to the top of the mountain and realized that it was incredibly fragile.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s a profound realization. I mean that’s a good way to put it. It’s true about Minnesota, is one of the things I love about Minnesota. I’m not a native, grew up in the burbs of Chicago, but absolutely true. And yet, here was the orchestra, my wife Kate and I lived not far from, on strike not that long ago. This was the same issues. But I couldn’t agree more with you. And I will rant, I’m happy to rant, I certainly have to. It’s an outrage, and it says a lot about a culture, a civilization, that we don’t value the arts. By valuing, put our money where at least a lot of us think it should be. It’s frustrating. Actually makes me sometimes long for the days of the robber barons, when they were willing to fund orchestras and at least help fund. But-

Jason Haaheim:

Well, it’s interesting you mentioned that. I was just in a conversation, different podcasts but recently. But we were talking about, I mean we can focus on the performing arts, we can focus on music, we can even focus on the Met. But this is a much broader problem. [crosstalk 00:21:38] the entire nonprofit sector, and it’s almost quaint to think about when Congress passed the income tax, this act in 1913, you’re right, it was just the assumption. It was like, “Well, yeah, we’ve got all these rich one percenters of their times, the robber barons, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, whoever, they’re going to fund this stuff. It’s in the public good. They’re just going to do it because this matters for society.” I mean it just seems naive in retrospect.

Greg Kaster:

It does. It’s a profound tragedy, I hope, I like to believe, we will get through it. We got through… We weren’t there in 1918, but this isn’t 1918, it’s a different time. We’ll see. Boy, fingers crossed. We love the Minnesota Orchestra here, and we can walk to it, and the Dakota Jazz Club. And all these places are trying. It’s not the same, obviously, and revenue is down. It is a business. I mean it is running, money is involved. Yeah, I feel for you and all the artists, I really do. And this is when I wish I were in charge and had unlimited funds to do this. It’s because it’s museums, it’s everything.

Jason Haaheim:

It’s everything.

Greg Kaster:

Theater. So you said something, and you were maybe touching on this, but I want to circle back to it just quickly, or briefly. And that is, you were speaking about these two touchstones, and you said the first touchstone is you’ve rethought. I don’t know, if you meant where you grew up, or Minnesota. But can you say a little bit more about that, what you mean by that? Or what mean about that?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. Absolutely. Well, okay, so if this reexamination of my 16-year-old self-looking at the arts in Minnesota has now come to understand that it is fragile, and there’s this fundamental instability. And in fact, I mean one of the things that I am so thankful for is that I have a pretty versatile skill set. I worked in nanotech for 10 years. For me, if the Metropolitan Opera completely implodes, it’s not the end of the world, I will find other things to do. And just the fact of the matter is that, a lot of my colleagues have had a much more narrow vocational training. And that I’m not… Looking at this from now the vantage point of 2021, a 21st century reality, I’m not certain that that is, well certainly not the only way, and I’m not even certain it’s the best way to proceed with this now.

So to a certain extent, since that time of my teenage years, I’ve only doubled down on the importance of how a liberal arts approach to this, and not only… It’s not just that it checks the boxes of Gustavus’s great marketing materials, and like, “Oh, It’s a fulfilling life and all this stuff.” It is, 100% is, and that really is the most important part. But at a pragmatic level too, I mean it helps prepare for a century That is probably going to be really destabilizing, continuously.

Greg Kaster:

You are making me smile despite the context, and I will be quoting you and citing you to students I say we start teaching it on, and I’ll be doing online on Monday. Because for all the dismay, understandable dismay of students at Gustavus and elsewhere about not being able to have all classes in person or missing graduation. Wow, I mean what a time to learn about resilience, learn how to cope. I mean that is also important in life even without a pandemic.

Jason Haaheim:

Oh, yeah.

Greg Kaster:

But I think you just made a very strong case for the liberal arts, and we can come back to that. So you were-

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. So basically that trajectory, then. I mean there’s one way, if you look at it from time equals zero at the age of 18 going forward or whatever, it was young Jason doing these things with forks in the road. Now I look back and I’m like, “Oh, sure what I was doing was also weathering these different phases of increasingly volatile instability.” Because one of the things I haven’t really talked about much before is that, yeah, I was working at this nanotech company in Chicago for 10 years. But it was a startup company, and startups are notoriously unstable. Most of them don’t last more than two or three years. It’s like restaurants in New York, it’s like [crosstalk 00:26:33] rate is really high.

So from the age of 24, onward, I never had a feeling of stability. I think about my parents, and this is, I know, a very almost common trope now talking about like, “Oh, okay, boomer.” But it’s just true that the baby boomer generation had an experience of growing up and career lifespan that was almost radically stable compared to what I’ve experienced, and certainly the generation coming after me.

Greg Kaster:

All call true, and I’m part of that. I’m a boomer and my first real job right was Gustavus in 1986, and here I am. And that way as I can hear my father saying, a dinosaur or a fossil. It’s forget it, that’s not the world anymore. And even for academics now, it’s not the world. I mean it’s just a-

Jason Haaheim:

Isn’t that wild? Because I remember so vividly this conversation I had with one of my best friends from Gustavus. A guy I graduated with the same class of 2001. Tim Andean, he’s a physics major, went on got his PhD in physics, he was part of the experiment at the Large Hadron Collider that [crosstalk 00:27:51] the X-Particle. So he’s a professor at UT Austin now. But it was actually his couch that I was crashing on in New York when I won the Met audition. And the morning after, I’ll admit, I was a little hung over because we celebrated that night. But we were getting coffee, and he was just like, “Man, you made it. There is nothing more secure or stable in the performing arts than a tenured job with the Metropolitan Opera. This is the rock.” I remember that so clearly now-

Greg Kaster:

And now what happened, yeah, you’ve discovered I mean without the… Even without the pandemic there would be instability associated with the arts, but not to this extent.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. So that that points to that other major touchstone I was thinking of. There were a couple classes I had that that were really… They left a really deep imprint on me. It was my freshman year. So I was in curriculum two, and it was both the individual and morality, and the individual and society. And I don’t know if both of those courses are taught exactly the same way, or same titles, or whatever. Same reading lists. But Chris Gilbert taught both of them, and-

Greg Kaster:

Political science prof. Yeah.

Jason Haaheim:

Yep. And in a couple of the books that really lodged in my brain, were Mary Midgley’s Can’t We Make Moral Judgments? And then also, the Bellah classic Habits of the Heart.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah. I think he spoke at Gustavus, too. [crosstalk 00:29:30].

Jason Haaheim:

That part I’m sure. Yeah, I’m sure he did.

Greg Kaster:

And Robert Bellah. Yeah.

Jason Haaheim:

Yep. And it was interesting, because, I mean, it was the first time I had been exposed to any of those ideas. But Wow, I mean I can think about some of the essays and papers, I was writing for that. And they were, of course, crude. They were what a 19-year-old was going to crank out. But when I think back about that, those really pointed toward this trajectory of what we were going to collectively experience over the next 24 years. And for anyone who hasn’t encountered these books, I mean the Midgley book is basically saying there’s a real problem with complete moral relativism almost in a way that shame can have a helpful place because it’s guardrails on society that keep us from tipping into fascism. Well, okay.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yeah, except we’ve learned now shame doesn’t miss, or another conversation we can have. Oh, my God.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. And when you think about how that book relates to the rise of social media. That was a really formative thought environment back then. But then, the Bellah book, was famously this exploration of the contours of American individualism, and the upsides but then some of the other real downsides. And-

Greg Kaster:

What is it called? Bowling Alone or something like that. I can’t remember. But his famous about how we’re not part of groups or communities. Yeah.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. I mean and it’s like the pandemic in the United States could not have been a more perfect case study of his ideas.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Right-

Jason Haaheim:

And I mean, it’s just one of these things where I always think for anyone who… And I was one of them, different times sitting in classes at Gustavus being like, “Is this relevant? Is this going to be practical?” Oh, man, it might take 20 years for it to really-

Greg Kaster:

Exactly.

Jason Haaheim:

… [crosstalk 00:31:40] and how much it’s going to be relevant, but-

Greg Kaster:

Right. That’s it that’s a beautiful… I mean speaking here as a professor and also thinking about my own self as a student that is so true. Like you I can pinpoint moments even in high school. Professor or teachers, then I guess we can call them professors. Who had such an impact on me to now. To this day, especially now. I had a version in high school of a curriculum too, I didn’t know what at the time. I always say if only I’d done all the reading, my God. [crosstalk 00:32:11] so prepared. But let’s talk a little bit more about Gustavus. So why Gustavus? What brought? And first by the way, did you go to Chan? Where did you go to high school? Was it Chan?

Jason Haaheim:

I went to Chaska High School.

Greg Kaster:

Chaska. Because I know you know a Jim Swearingen, did you? He’s at Chan. A friend. He works with performing arts theater and he sent some students to Gustavus. I don’t know-

Jason Haaheim:

Sure. I don’t know. Sure. Well, I don’t I don’t know that name. But I mean, the thing is, back in my day there was not a Chanhassen High School, it was just [crosstalk 00:32:42].

Greg Kaster:

Oh, okay. Yeah. Okay. So Jim, maybe came later. He’s a great guy. A great performing arts teacher, coordinator, director, all of the above. Anyway, so why Gustavus? I mean is it the old story? Kind of kidding here, where so many people, “Well, my great, great grandfather went. Or…” What made you consider Gustavus and then ultimately choose it?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah, it was a comparatively simple decision process. I mean I had two general ideas that I was considering. I was either, I want to do a smaller college liberal artsy thing, or I want to do bigger school type environment. But I definitely know I want to do some version of both physics and music. I don’t know how this is going to play out yet. I certainly had no idea I would be considering music professionally. I just knew that I really wanted that to be a part of my college experience.

Greg Kaster:

Were these things you had already studied in high school, I assume?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. I mean my dad taught high school physics so I had that as an influence from early years. And then, I had some of these ignition experiences in high school surrounding music and percussion, and everything else. And I had been playing in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony. And so I knew I wanted to keep having that as part of my life. And ultimately, it really came down to a decision between Gustavus and Northwestern. Here’s the funny thing, Northwestern had a five-year degree that would have let me do a double major in physics and music. The physics part of it would have been basically through the school of engineering. And so there were different requirements, and that’s why it was a five-year degree, all that kind of thing.

But the funny thing is, I didn’t get into the music school, I wasn’t good enough. And the crazy thing is, so back then, I mean Northwestern, even at the time had a pretty prestigious percussion program that had been launched by one of the… A legend in our field, Michael Barrett. And Michael Barrett eventually went on to teach at Eastman so he now runs the percussion program at Eastman. Well, funny thing I was just up at Eastman giving a masterclass in the fall of 2019, and it was just lovely because I did my thing, we got to hang out, we got dinner, and we were chatting. I was like, “Mike, do you remember in the fall of 1996, some mopey blonde kid showed up and didn’t play very well, and you didn’t let him into Northwestern. Yeah, that was me. You made the right call.”

Greg Kaster:

Priceless moment. Oh, yeah. [inaudible 00:35:35] and you’re honest. That’s great. I love that story. It is fantastic. The-

Jason Haaheim:

But the thing is, honestly, I mean I was still gravitating toward just Gustavus anyway, just because there was just something about that… A more intimate campus environment that really, really appealed to me, and-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s true.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah, it absolutely is. And I mean, once I had this bigger decision clarified about the larger versus smaller school experience, well then just stacking up what Gustavus was offering in terms of physics and music, I mean compared to its peers, St. Olaf. I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is a no brainer.”

Greg Kaster:

I mean we have one of the best, maybe the best physics department of a small liberal arts… It’s fantastic. I mean it’s absolutely terrific, and-

Jason Haaheim:

Oh, yeah, I hope, Chuck, Paul, Tom, Steve, I hope you guys get to hear this. Can’t say enough good things about those guys.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, they will. Steve Mellema, Paul Saulnier, Chuck Niederriter. Yes, just a fabulous physics department long, long, fabulous. And then the music program. My God, the performing arts, the arts in general. You’ll appreciate this because I used to say and I was only half joking when I first came to Gustavus, young assistant professor, first an instructor. Wow, we should be the Juilliard of the Midwest. I mean the talent. I would think of the musical talent, the talent on stage. The artists, and faculty artists, and student artists, painting, drawing, sculpting, you name it.

So it’s really, really true. And there’s something about the environment, I did not attend the liberal arts college. Boston University, huge, maybe still the largest private university in the country. And then Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. A big state school. But there is that intimacy, and it’s true. For time for me it became a little suffocating. I’m a city guy, even though I grew up in the burbs. But it’s powerful, it’s real, and almost everybody I’ve interviewed for this podcast has referenced that somehow, especially-

Jason Haaheim:

And it’s stuff you end up missing too. It’s funny, because that that path from a small Minnesota suburb. I mean back in the early ’80s, Chaska was much more a rural suburb-

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 00:38:03].

Jason Haaheim:

It had not yet become homogenized with a Ruby Tuesday on every corner kind of thing. And it was just farm fields and forests and paths. And I was biking around with my friends and all that. And went from this very rural bucolic almost existence, and then had the smaller campus experience at Gustavus, but then I went to do my grad school at UC Santa Barbara, and then Chicago, and then Manhattan. So it has been this continuous, I don’t even want to use the term upgrade, but just an expansion of that size of environment.

Greg Kaster:

That’s true. And now, Seoul. Which is-

Jason Haaheim:

And now, Seoul, yeah. And the thing is, like you I mean I do consider myself a city guy now. I absolutely thrive on the vibrant electricity of an environment especially Manhattan. But it’s also the only place I’ve ever lived where I will, in the before times, I would hit points where I’m like, “Okay. This is too much. Got to get away. [crosstalk 00:39:07].”

Greg Kaster:

There’s nature in the city. I mean people don’t always think about that. I mean I would feel that even in Boston with the park system and here in Minneapolis too. I mean, yeah, sometimes you want to get out of the city, way out. But other times, literally just going into Central Park or wherever you are. One of the lakes here in Minneapolis or in Saint Paul, just wow, it’s a different world. Yeah, it’s so nice to have both, I think. So was it strictly percussion that you were doing musically, already when you came to Gustavus?

Jason Haaheim:

Well, I mean I had actually started playing piano in fourth grade. But basically that that tapered off later in high school as I was realizing, like, “I am doing too many things and I need to start focusing my energies a little more effectively.” So yeah, by the time I was at Gustavus, it was just percussion and the music program. Well, percussion in the, what was then called Gustavus Band, I was playing in the orchestra, it was playing in the Jazz Lab Band, I was playing in percussion ensemble, as sort of jack of all trades there.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Maybe he’s at this point, you can tell us a little bit about what a timpanist is? Since we’re talking about percussion. When I think of a timpanist rightly or wrongly, I think of, I guess, kettledrums.

Jason Haaheim:

That’s exactly it.

Greg Kaster:

But there’s more involved or am I wrong about that?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. So I mean there is the job description where in most major orchestras and opera companies, you are your own section. You train as a percussionist, and then at some point along the way you specialize on timpani. The same way that you’ll play trombone, and then somebody specializes on bass trombone, or something like that. It is a very different job description in a lot of ways than playing in the percussion section, and that’s why they get divided out like that. For anyone that can’t, imagine or visualize this, if the opening to Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra, which is also 2001 Space Odyssey in a [inaudible 00:41:14], that’s timpani.

And, we as timpanists have this very foundational role in the orchestra, we just play more repertoire than the percussion section. You’ll have timpani parts, starting with Bach and even earlier. And then, most works after that include a timpani part. Whereas that’s not true for percussion. A lot of times percussion, you start getting that in the mid to late 1800s, and percussions will be adding color and rhythmic effects, and bass drum moments, everything. But timpani have this harmonic role. We have this harmonic foundational presence in the orchestra. And one of the really interesting things that I started to realize, we end up doing opera, was that even within the timpani community, the role of an orchestral timpanist is one thing, and the role of an opera timpanist is totally different [crosstalk 00:42:24].

Greg Kaster:

Please say more, this is literally on my list of questions for you that exact question.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. Okay. So-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I wonder about that.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. And to be clear, I didn’t really know much of this coming to the Met. There are so few opera companies in the world, that you just don’t get exposed to it. As a student you don’t have a chance to sub or freelance in these opera orchestras. And so, the reality is that most people that win a job, win an audition with Metropolitan Opera, are coming into it pretty cold. A lot of people have never played a single opera before. On timpani it presents a very unique challenge, because just at a very basic level, you can imagine music history like this tree with a trunk and branches. And if you have some roots of this tree back in the Middle Ages, with Gregorian chants, and that kind of thing. And again, all these wonderful things I learned about in music history from Dr. Pat Castro back in the day.

So you follow the trunk of that tree upward, and it is for centuries vocal music, almost exclusively. There’s just not instruments, it’s just not a part of it yet. And then, decades go by, and centuries go by and then, and then instrumental music branches off as a little limb, and goes off in its own direction. And the thing is that opera very much evolved from this main trunk of the tree. The voice is part of this tradition. When you’re studying as an instrumentalist in music school you assume that your little limb of this tree is everything that like, “Oh, there has always been instruments, symphonic music, Beethoven all this.” Well, actually, no, it’s more like this extra thing that only really emerged in that form in the early 1700s. But the first opera predates the first Symphony by well over 100 years.

Greg Kaster:

I did not know that.

Jason Haaheim:

What this means is, this is a longer winding anecdote, but just in basic engineering terms, the instruments of timpani that were in place in Northern Europe, specifically Germany when folks like Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven were kicking off that genre. Well, those timpani were pretty good for the time. You could strike the drum head and it would produce a pitch. Not as nice as the instruments we have now, but it was recognizable. And so, those composers composed with that in mind, like, “Okay, this is a pitched instrument.” You go back 120 years, and largely opera, this vocal tradition was an Italian tradition, and they had really bad timpani. I mean they were just garbage. And it was just this high end and low thud.

And so, many, many of these actual written Italian opera timpani parts, just have notated high end flow thud. It’s just two notes that have no bearing on what’s going on harmonically. And so, your job as a timpanist, is you have to go in and then fundamentally rewrite the part, and make it playable on modern instruments.

Greg Kaster:

That’s really fascinating. I knew none of that. That’s great. I could keep talking about kettledrums, but maybe more of that in a second. So you graduate from Gustavus, you get this degree the master’s in… Was in engineering, right? And then, you wind up working for a startup a nano technology firm, what is it that made you… I gather, you’re still playing, your instruments, you’re still involved musically, but what is it that made you just say, “I’m out of here.” Whatever you said. “I’m not continuing with this company, I’m going to try to make music my full time career.”

Jason Haaheim:

It was far less binary than that. So the way this really went was, after Gustavus… Well, it was really my senior year at Gustavus. I was having a ton of fun putting together my senior recital. This is this requirement for the degree, and I was really, really getting into it. And I started to wonder, “Is this something I really want to do?” And it was just this weird little thought in the back of my head. But the thing is it had just been this dominant assumption for so long, it’s like, “Oh, I’m going to go off and do and do physics.” It was very practical, it’s more pragmatic decision. And I mean almost more poignantly, I guess, it just never occurred to me that I could be a professional musician.

And this gets to one of the big points that I try to incorporate as a teacher now. And in fact, one of the things that’s this cornerstone of these online seminars I’ve been doing since the pandemic started. I don’t want to needlessly pitch this, but it’s just called… For anyone that’s interested, it’s called the Deliberate Practice Bootcamp. We’ve been doing this, we make it super affordable, it’s pay what you can, and we’re donating proceeds to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But one of the cornerstone ideas of this is that, talent is not really a thing. The term deliberate practice was coined by the very famous psychologist researcher, Anders Ericsson.

And I was actually really fortunate to get to collaborate with him and work with him before he passed away last summer. And among the insights of his decades of work into what expert performers do, and what deliberate practice is, is that the assumption of innate talent is a total lie. There’s virtually no evidence to support the existence of genetically based talent, rather it’s about smart, hard, rigorous work over a long, long time. Well, in his book Peak, which he wrote in 2016-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah. Peak was a peak performance stuff. Yeah.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. He gets into the background of, why do we have this cultural fixation on talent? Why is this such a persistent myth? It’s a myth, but it is a widely shared-

Greg Kaster:

Yes. Right.

Jason Haaheim:

You start to pick this apart, and right away, you start getting right back to some of these ideas from Bellah, Habits of the heart, American individualism. All of these things to me, now in my later, 20 years after college, I start to appreciate how they’re more interrelated than ever in this liberal artsy way. But anyway, so rewind to 1995 and I’m going to Minnesota Orchestra concerts. And I’m watching, especially the percussion section, super keyed into what these guys are doing. They are all guys by the way. This is something I need to acknowledge that-

Greg Kaster:

Yes, wondered about that also, so thanks Thank you for acknowledging that.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah, no, I mean among so many other things, this past year has been this brutal pulling back the curtain on these arts institutions and systemic racism, and misogyny, and it’s horrible. But yeah. So the reality, back in 1995 is that the percussionist and timpanist of the Minnesota Orchestra were all White men. Yep, that’s absolutely what I was seeing. Nevertheless, I was just watching Peter Cogan playing timpani, Jason arcus, and Kevin Watkins, and Brian Mount playing percussion. And I put them on this pedestal. To me, there were just these gods, who I just was assuming were imbued with this natural talent, that I simply didn’t possess. I was like, “Oh, this is fun. I guess I’m okay at this.”

But this default assumption of innate talent made me feel like, well, this is always only going to ever be a hobby for me. And so, it just didn’t really seem realistic as I was graduating from Gustavus that something the Metropolitan Opera would even be conceivable in my future. And honestly, it was a gradual series of changes, chipping away at that flawed assumption. While I was in my master’s degree at UC Santa Barbara, I spent a summer at the Aspen Music Festival. That was one of these inflection points, because I got to see what these professional musicians were like in real life day-to-day.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. Behind the scenes in a way. All the work you don’t… Yeah, exactly. Right. Go ahead. Sorry.

Jason Haaheim:

And in a way, you start to see the process, it makes you reassess some of these assumptions. So it’s just like, “Oh, some of these people that I’ve been putting on pedestals as these God figures in the performing arts, show up to rehearsal in T-shirt and flip flops, and they make mistakes.” And I was like, “Oh, hold on. I make mistakes. I make more of them. But okay, wait a minute, maybe there’s a path.” And it was just this vague connecting point. And so then, you fast forward, year, by year, by year, I land in Chicago, I work to get into the Civic Orchestra, which is this training orchestra with the Chicago Symphony, having a series of these ignition experiences.

And then, I connect with this incredible teacher and mentor of mine, John Tafoya, who is the director of percussion at Indiana University. He was in fact, the one who recommended this book called Talent is Overrated, came out in 2008. And it was the first mass market book that was popularizing, and making intelligible the research of Anders Ericsson so around deliberate practice. This was probably the most important book I’ve ever read in my life, because it was finally confirming for me that like, “Oh, it’s not a sure thing that you can win an audition self. Nobody can promise you that. But there’s also nothing saying you can’t. Your potential is not fixed.” This is really up to you and how you want to do it. And if you really want to go after this, what you need to do is apply the same methodological rigor that you’ve been putting into your science work in the practice room.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. I have a mile-wide grin on my face for so many reasons. One, how many students have I… Any professor. “Well, I’m just not good at that.” Or, “Writing isn’t my thing.” And the assumption is, somehow you’re born with this talent. And I did a recording way back with Professor Eric Vrooman, who’s a creative writing prof at Gustavus, quite accomplished writer himself. And we had this very same conversation. I mean how much of this is his work, or deliberate practice? And this is a whole podcast in itself, I think, actually, because, to unpack what that myth is about. But I think as powerful as it is in your case, was your case to realize, “That’s not the case.”

And one of the reasons I became, I’m convinced of this, became a labor historian, technically, that’s what I am. I don’t really do that at Gustavus, you’re a jack of all trades. But anyway, I love, absolutely love to this day, which is one reason I’m enjoying speaking with you, hearing about what people do, and how they prepare for what they do. Whether it’s an airline pilot, an actor, or… That there is all this work, or I like that phrase, deliberate practice, that goes into what we’re seeing on the stage, or in the classroom, or… You name it, you name the venue. So I think that’s fantastic. You had a lot of auditions, obviously. But the mother of all auditions was with the Met, I would think. Talk to me a little bit, or I should say, talk to us a little bit about both what that experience was like and how you prepared for it.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. I would say one of the things that helped me the most in that was not thinking about it like the mother of all auditions.

Greg Kaster:

For sure. Yeah. Good point.

Jason Haaheim:

Honestly, I mean that timeframe, like 2007, it was a turning point. A series of inflection points along the way led up to this overall change in my larger goals, which was like, “Oh, I think I would like to try to become a professional timpanist if I can.” But along with that was this, I think, really necessary, philosophical realization almost, which is, again, not just buy the numbers that, obviously, the performing arts are incredibly competitive. The number of people that are in the audition circuit, it’s mind boggling. It’s harder than the Olympics, it’s harder than getting into Ivy League. I mean it’s just incomparable.

We routinely get two to 300 resumes for a single position in an orchestra. There’s over 100 people in preliminary rounds sometimes, and then it eventually winnows down to one person. There are somewhere between seven and 10,000 music performance degrees granted every year across all instruments, and this is for generously 200 or so positions that open up every year in American orchestras. And these 10,000 people are being poured into the existing pool of anywhere from 50 to 150,000 people that are out there doing this. So I mean I can’t over exaggerate the long odds of anyone doing this.

But in a way when I was coming at it from this perspective of being a scientist by day, and comfortable with looking at numbers and odds and all of that, I also started to get really interested in digging under the next level of those numbers. And that was a couple of things that I ended up thinking about. The first one was, yeah, I mean it’s just insane to think I absolutely am 100% for sure going to do this. Or if you’re a music student, and some teacher tells you, “I promise you’ll win a job in an orchestra.” Run the other way. Nobody can promise you that. In the performing arts anywhere, I think the best you can do is say, “You are an incredibly hard diligent worker, and I think, the better and the longer you do that, you really raise the odds of this working out for you.” But nobody can promise you exactly where you’re going to land. And I often think that the people that are doing that, they’re lying to you, or they’re trying to sell you something. That’s just not way the world works.

Greg Kaster:

Completely agree. Yeah.

Jason Haaheim:

So the tandem realization with that was okay, it is not helpful for me to then focus on that long term goal as the be all and end all validation of myself worth. Another way to put it is, I have to be okay with things not working out. Which is a weird way to frame it, but it also then focused me much more on the craft and the process that was under my control.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Maybe a weird way, but it’s a healthy way and a useful way.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. Well, and I also think it then… I mean you start to really assess the why, of what you’re doing. And this gets back to that second big touchstone, I think about a liberal arts environment and that education, and the diversity of ideas, and people that you can be exposed to, and writers, and thinkers, and classmates, and professors, and everything else. I think that there’s often this duality that emerges even recently in some of the books that have come out. Again, this researcher, I was collaborating with Anders Ericsson, he would have these debates with another guy named David Epstein, who wrote the book Range recently.

And it was being set up almost, it’s like this contest between, well, is it a liberal artsy approach, or is it a focus conservatory approach? And I sit here now looking at it, I’m like, “No, that’s the wrong question. It’s yes and. It’s both.” Ideally it is something where you get to survey a landscape, and assess your own values and interests, and map that across your skills, and what you’re interested in developing, and then you go. And then, you start to focus more and more on things.

Greg Kaster:

Let me ask you this quickly. Is it the case that most members of orchestras come out of a conservatory background?

Jason Haaheim:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. So you’re somewhat unusual on that regard, coming out [crosstalk 01:00:55].

Jason Haaheim:

Right.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. But it is also the case, and I should just be real about this. It’s also the case that a lot of orchestral musicians are really unhappy. Job satisfaction among orchestral players, and especially opera orchestra players it’s just shockingly low. And I honestly think that one of the reasons for that is… That could be a whole other podcast. But I mean, one of the things that I was looking at then for myself in the, yes, and approach of range, and then depth. Which was understanding, why do I want to be doing this? Do I love the craft just for its own sake? Or is this just about some public accolades, or grabbing that brass ring, or living up to my parent’s expectations of me? Any of these things that can be drivers, but ultimately not gratifying.

And what this turned into then, it was both a question I posed for myself. And then a question I have posed to my students since then, which is basically, yeah, I’m willing to work with you but first I don’t care whether you think you’re talented. It’s not a thing. Are you willing to do the work first of all? But second, and maybe more importantly, wherever you’re at with this, look at this long road because it’s going to be a long road. Imagine yourself in 10 years, further down the road from where you are. Often this is music students, the age of 18, 19, 20, something like that.

So I’m like, “Imagine yourself at 30, and whatever it is that you are imagining for your career, whether it’s a tenured job in an orchestra or a touring chamber musician, or you have a tenure position as a music teacher, a major music school, something like that. It hasn’t worked out yet. And my question for you is, will it have been worth it? All of the work that you’ve put in, in between in the last 10 years, this grueling approach to your craft, would it have been worth it?” And that’s, I think, a really important way to frame it, especially in a time when this whole field is so outrageously unstable.

Greg Kaster:

Right. The same in history and the humanities, generally. Has been for a while. So I will say to students exactly what you’re saying. The student who, “Well, I really want to go to graduate school, but I can’t really. I don’t know. Am I going to get a job?” My advice is, unlike some professors who will say, “No, you should not go. There are no…” I will say, “Go if you’re willing to do the work.” And exactly what you just said, “Fast forward, will you have regretted not going? Will it have been worth it?” And I’m thinking of a student who graduated a few years ago, he came to Gustavus to play football. He really wanted to go to a graduate school in history. Fine, he went, and he worked his butt off, and he got lucky as well. But both things luck and hard work, and he’s now got a nice gig at Carleton for three years.

So you just don’t know. It’s about the forks in the road, but also the hard work, the deliberate practice, which is a great phrase. I’m going to try to get Gustavus to make sure every incoming student hears this podcast. I’m not kidding because of what you’re saying about, it’s so good when a student can hear not just a professor telling them, but someone who’s out there in the real world. Another thing interesting about you, it relates to the earlier point you were making about what it is like to be a timpanist in an opera orchestra versus a just a standard, I can say that, in a symphony orchestra. Did you bring to the position a familiarity with opera or a love of opera already? It sounds like maybe not.

Jason Haaheim:

I mean, it was extremely limited. I was fortunate that when I was living in Chicago, I got to sub a couple of times with the Madison Symphony in Wisconsin. And they had an opera series that they would do two or three operas a year. So by the time I got to the Met, I had played Mozart’s così fan tutte. I had played at Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and I think, yeah, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. That was it. So just only those three. And you can imagine the scale of staring down a first season of repertoire like that, where the Met does anywhere from 24 to 28 operas per season.

Greg Kaster:

That’s incredible.

Jason Haaheim:

And operas are long. It is no joke. Three hours is a short opera.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I think as a little kid, I fell asleep at one during one at Ravinia, and my foot came down hard on the wooden floor. I still remember that.

Jason Haaheim:

Well, so one opera is at least three symphonies worth of material.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 01:06:06].

Jason Haaheim:

And so, starting a job at the Met is basically like, if you had to jump in and learn 80 brand new symphonic works from scratch, which is crazy. Because most of the time, if you win a job with the New York Philharmonic or the Minnesota Orchestra, your new colleagues can reasonably expect you to have basic familiarity with a lot of the symphonic rep. Just going through school and youth orchestra, you’ll have played Brahms symphonies, and Beethoven, and Mahler Sibelius, all that good stuff. Not so with the Met. Trying to learn all of that stuff from scratch is just incredibly intimidating.

Greg Kaster:

That’s amazing. So it’s also encouraging, though. It relates to what you said, someone might think as I wondered, do you do need to have expertise in opera or operatic music? And the answer is no-

Jason Haaheim:

No.

Greg Kaster:

… that that would be unusual. So what is it like? I mean let’s imagine you’re doing your production at the Met, is it, you’re working on that for months, for weeks? How long? How much practicing goes into that opening night of a new production?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. It is a long process. And I mean, actually, the moment you started talking about that, I started forecasting forward now because, again, we’re recording this in January of 2021. And for the Met to do a season, it needs a long runway. Because even before any of the orchestral musicians, or the choristers, or the principal singers, or anyone’s doing any of that, you’ve got to get all the sets together, and the prompts, and all this stuff. I mean just teching as anyone who’s been in theater, all of that takes a long time. And it’s something you can’t compress. There’s that famous phrase in tech and engineering that, “It takes one woman nine months to make a baby, but nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

It’s that basic idea. And so, a new season just putting that on takes a multi month runway, four to five months minimum. And so, even aside from the coronavirus impact, I would be remiss not to note that the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, walked out our stagehands in the middle of a pandemic.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, that’s right.

Jason Haaheim:

On December 9th. I mean just absolutely egregious, unconscionable, malicious, unimaginable. And I mean what that means is that, I am not optimistic for those contracts getting sorted out anytime soon. And that means that we’re almost certainly going to miss this runway, which means that I don’t know when the season is going to start.

Greg Kaster:

There is no opera without those people, the musicians and the… My brother has had a long career in tech in Hollywood, does lighting and now his son is doing, so I’m I totally understand and appreciate what you’re saying about the work involved, and not something you just compress or do quickly. The-

Jason Haaheim:

I mean in normal before times the way it would happen is that the stage crew generally and then all of the different designers and props people. There’s this whole virtual city that goes into that. Usually starting in May, they begin work on the next season. We in the orchestra will then generally have a couple of months off during the summer just to let our bodies recover because it is an incredibly grueling thing to play during the season.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Jason Haaheim:

And then, we’re generally back we start doing our own individualized practice and prep August, if not earlier. Learning the stacks of new music. That’s when our fabulous Met Opera chorus, that’s when they come back and they start doing their rehearsals because of course they have to memorize these long operas and all the words. And they have to memorize entire operas in Italian, and Russian, and German, and Czech. It’s really extraordinary what they do.

Greg Kaster:

It is.

Jason Haaheim:

Our first rehearsals then usually begin after Labor Day. We have this three week ramp up process where the orchestra is just we’re rehearsing on our own. And then, we start to put the pieces together, and get all of the large ensembles merging, and then we, typically, we’ll have opening night in late September.

Greg Kaster:

It’s amazing. So how many rehearsals would you go through, do you think for one production?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. So if you zoom in on one production, it really depends. And what it depends on is what rep is it? Is it standard stuff like La bohème, stuff that we play regularly all the time, these warhorses? Or is it a little older, more rare, super challenging, super long? Any of these things will impact that. One of the scariest things is when I was basically brand new in the orchestra, and I had to come in and perform something like La bohème with virtually no rehearsal. And the thing is, for the larger opera company, they make this valid assumption, which is like, “Well, no, we do this all the time. Everyone knows this. We can knock this out with one dress rehearsal, and that’s it.”

And that works most of the time. It just neglects a couple of people on the margins who are like, “Yeah, I haven’t done this yet.” Well, add to it the fact that the Met orchestra is essentially a double orchestra because we do seven shows a week. We basically perform almost twice as much as any standard symphonic orchestra, so we have usually two principals in each position. And what that meant is that in that particular instance, my co-principal was playing the rehearsal, and playing the first six performances or so of this opera, and then I had to take over mid run. And so, I just basically had to show up with zero rehearsal and play this opera that folks in that opera orchestra had been playing for decades. I had to sound like I knew what I was doing, when in fact I was just totally trying to figure it out as I went.

Greg Kaster:

That’s awesome.

Jason Haaheim:

That’s terrifying.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, it’s terrifying. And I’m sorry for you. But these are the tidbits or stories I love that. Sitting in the, unless maybe someone who knows the music and is an expert at how a timpanist and that particular piece should sound, I mean I wouldn’t know, I would just be, “Wow, he’s amazing.” Not knowing what you’re thinking and what you’ve been through. As you’re playing… I’ve always wondered about this. And you know what I mean, that theater and musical theater. I think I’ve only been to a couple of operas. One here, Nixon in China which was just fabulous.

Jason Haaheim:

Oh, sure. John Adams. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. When you’re playing, I mean what’s going through your mind? You’re just so focused on the music and what’s coming next, are you able to actually feel, “Wow, this is incredible.” If it is? A singer, or… What is it like?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. That’s a great question. And again, that depend. It almost points to the other side of that coin, which is, for something like La bohème, it was like this terrifying immersion with no preparation. With something else, though, like something we did more recently. For instance, boy, again the timescale of before times is evading me. But it was sometime in the last few years, where we did Wagner’s opera, Parsifal with our new music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. And Parsifal is this just incredible work of Omni art, the Wagnerian term for was [foreign language 01:14:26] but it was, it was something he uniquely brought to the opera repertoire, which was this total artwork that involves poetry, and sets, and myths, and music, and singing. Just all of it wrapped together.

Parsifal is also six hours long. It’s no joke. And so, the preparation proper the process for this is utterly different. For something like that, I think we had at least nine rehearsals, maybe 10. But also my personal preparation process is a whole lot different. A lot of what I’m doing there is, I almost call it life engineering. Because the physical and mental, especially demands of being able to do a six-hour performance at the artistic level of the Metropolitan Opera is just unlike anything else I’ve ever had to do in my life.

Greg Kaster:

Sure. Yeah. You’re actually an athlete. Almost like an athlete, I would imagine.

Jason Haaheim:

Oh, 100%. And you really have to design your life around enabling that which is, the night, I would have one of those performances that begins at 6:00 PM and ends shortly before midnight, I’m not doing a lot else that day. I’m not I’m not doing things that are going to be taxing, or straining, or mentally demanding. I’m really trying to conserve my energy. And then, even within the performance, like you’re asking about, what’s going through my mind? Well, it depends. Because as a survival skill, part of my preparation has involved going through, and learning really, really, really thoroughly the parts where I’m playing and where I’m integrated, and an important part of the ensemble, especially any solo moments, transitions, big climaxes.

I mean I often say that operatic timpani are the agents of peak drama. Somebody dies, somebody says, I love you, it’s always timpani are going to be involved in that. But then, there’s all of these other times. A certain character will have an aria that six or seven minutes long, and it’s just strings and woodwind solo. And the rest of us are chilling out for six or seven minutes. Well, in that time, so I have this whole demarcated in my paper part. Indicating, “Okay, right, you’re playing for this section. Okay, it ends here, your next entrance is in seven minutes, power down.” So I’ll lower my chair, and I’ll sit back and I’ll just zone out. And I then have all of the oral cues, for anything before my next entrance, I have very thoroughly memorized what all those things sound, so it’s almost like a little alarm clock. I’m not actually sleeping, I’m just resting in a light hibernation thing, because I’m like, “I got to go another five and a half hours for this.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s awesome. That’s so interesting. It’s fantastic. I love it. Do you have favorite operas or arias?

Jason Haaheim:

Oh, sure. But I mean I’m going to say that the frustrating thing I always hear my colleagues say, which is like, “Yeah, it’s whatever I’m playing at the time.” I think of certain things, and it’s like, yeah, I mean Parsifal was a new highlight, that was a real… That was a very special experience. Both Strauss, Elektra, and Salome those operas are incredible. And they have just these incredibly dynamic and inventive timpani parts. But then, I mean certain ways that Verity composed, and especially the way he interpreted Shakespeare, so you’ve got Falstaff or Italo, or some of these operas are just really incredible.

And they’re incredible, honestly, in these ways that I think, relate back to almost where we started with some of this conversation, which is this moment we’re living through, and I have to tell you, Greg, there have been times in the last three or four years where the drama happening on stage is this like meta commentary on what’s happening in the world.

Greg Kaster:

I’m laughing. I can only imagine. Yes.

Jason Haaheim:

Well, look, I mean it might be James Levine conducting Marriage of Figaro, which is Mozart’s opera about the problems of powerful men with impunity for their crimes.

Greg Kaster:

[crosstalk 01:19:06].

Jason Haaheim:

It could be when we were rehearsing, I was in the pit for the very final rehearsal that Plácido Domingo ever sung at the Met as all of those allegations of sexual harassment were pouring out from dozens and dozens of women. He was singing the role of Macbeth. And in literally one of the final scenes he rehearsed before he got cut from the production was when in the scene he tumbles off of this chair and the crown falls from his head onto the stage.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah, I mean, okay, there’s-

Jason Haaheim:

I was like, “Guys this is a little on the nose.”

Greg Kaster:

You can’t make this stuff up. You can’t script it.

Jason Haaheim:

You can’t.

Greg Kaster:

I was wondering how we were going to get to James Levine and Domingo because they’re both gone in scandal. But you mentioned the new… Sigon is that his name?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Tell somebody, just briefly, he’s young.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. He and I are about the same age. I think 40, 41-

Greg Kaster:

Where was he before-

Jason Haaheim:

Montreal.

Greg Kaster:

… originally. Okay.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. No, he’s just an absolutely tremendous leader for the institution, both artistically and on all of the other management side of his duties. Again, it is such a unmitigated tragedy right now, what’s happening with the institution.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It is.

Jason Haaheim:

Because there were so many ways in which I felt like, back in January, February, I can remember distinctly thinking like, “All right, maybe we’re ready to turn the page now on these really dark chapters in the history of the Metropolitan Opera. We’ve got this incredible new leader, we’re making music at this really high level.” And then, bam, this virus comes in and just brings the institution to its knees.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. You’re making me think there’ll be an opera about this at some point maybe about the Met [inaudible 01:21:12].

Jason Haaheim:

Oh, I think so. Well, in this bigger way, it’s had me think back about the pulling back of that curtain. I had this vision of the Met, when I was a young aspiring musician and how it represents the pinnacle of artistic achievement and all this stuff. And it is true. There’s also a lot of darkness in there.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. Exactly.

Jason Haaheim:

And it relates back to when you were asking about my experience growing up in Chaska. I mean there’s so much I miss about Minnesota, and what I still consider to be my home. And yet, my parents have recently become much more politically active and engaged in organizing on campaigns. And they were working on this campaign for a state senate race in their district, and their candidate, the Democrat just got absolutely wiped out in this fall election. And I had to really contend with it like, the place I grew up. I don’t know quite what it was like at the time, but I don’t want to lie to myself about this. I mean it is now just by the numbers, purple generously, if not pretty red.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah-

Jason Haaheim:

My parents would go around knocking door to door in the neighborhood I grew up and be getting the door slammed in their faces because they were campaigning for an African American candidate.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I knew that’s how you were going. I felt it. And yeah, absolutely, because I was going to raise George Floyd. There’s the curtain again, for a lot of Minnesotans. “Well, that’s not Minnesota, that’s not who we are.” Well, yes, it is.

Jason Haaheim:

It is who we are, it is 100% who we are.

Greg Kaster:

That’s just to acknowledge the reality, it’s not to denounce the state or denounce the country. Yeah, that’s all true. I could keep going, and I wish you could have the kettledrum and do some playing for us. But can you give us your elevator pitch for Gustavus. I know, you’ve touched on this already, that’s where we’ll end.

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah. Well, to the extent that… Okay. I’ll frame it this way. You asked me about what was different about my preparation for the Met, and I was saying I didn’t view it as the mother of all auditions. In fact, it was just one part of the process along the line. And it was part of this larger philosophical reorientation that I had I was approaching auditioning, and thinking about, again, it’s about doing the work. It’s about will it have been gratifying after 10 years? Focusing on the process not the product. And the way that all of these different feedback loops are built into that, and that’s part of this evolving improvement process. And that is this engine of your craft, and refining that.

And I was just thinking about it the other day, because I just read this really insightful column by Ezra Klein, where he was talking about democracy itself depends on feedback loops, and right now the feedback loop of democracy is broken. We’ve just had tens of millions of people unmoored from reality. And I think about all of these things, and I think about the value that my time at Gustavus got me to be able to contend with this era, and just try to wrap my head around these big ideas and try to survive through all of this colossal instability. And recognizing that my process as a timpanist has these resonances with the entire design of American democracy. And then, it’s ultimately most effective and useful to focus your energies on the process under your control and recognize that it’s a constant evolution, where there’s no destination we get to and we’re done. It’s not seeking perfect, it’s seeking more perfect.

Greg Kaster:

That’s exactly right. I mean that’s so true. That’s what I tell students who are activists, whether they’re conservative. Now the point is, and I once had a professor say this, and it’s stuck with me, one of my graduate school professors. It’s the process, right?

Jason Haaheim:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

And true, you ideally get to the goal. I mean women’s suffrage did happen, the Civil Rights Act, but nonetheless, that can take a long time. That can take more than one lifetime to get there. So I think that’s a profound and powerful lesson. Wow, I want to listen to you bang on some kettledrums but I’ll have to do that online. This has been just awesome. Thank you so much for your time, and all the insights. And, gosh, one day when you’re back in New York, and Kate and I are there we will get together. For sure. Would be fun to see you in person.

Jason Haaheim:

I hope sooner than later.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. And listen, in all seriousness, fingers crossed for the arts as a whole, but especially for the Met and your position there. Good luck in Seoul. Stay safe, and take good care. Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure.

Jason Haaheim:

Thank you. Thanks for having me on. Take care. Bye-bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus office of marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark class of ’20 who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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