SMM19: Ray Riccomini of the Metropolitan Opera

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ray riccominiRaymond Riccomini is a longtime trumpeter with the Metropolitan Opera, and will be taking on the role of Second Trumpet with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra for the 2017-18 season.

JN: Ray, sounds like you have quite the busy summer ahead of you.

RR: Yeah, it’s a little bit crazy. A lot of new rep to learn.

JN: When do you actually head out to SF from NY?

RR: I don’t leave NY until beginning of September. So I have a little while.

JN: Is it a different vibe for you going from an opera gig to a symphony gig?

RR: Yes. The hours will be very different. I think the biggest challenge with the transition is that my family will still be in New York. As far as the new job is concerned, the biggest challenge will be to figure out what to do with all the extra free time I have. (laughing)

JN: We’re talking peak musical performance. Ray, you’ve been in the trenches so long there at the Met, so I’m sure you’ve got some stories to tell. But take us to what you consider to be one of your worst moments as a performer. A time when you expected to play a certain way, but it just didn’t work out.

RR: I can think of a couple of moments like that. I’m lucky that this happened fairly early in my career. The worst one ever was when I was at the Manhattan School of Music. We were getting ready to perform Mahler’s 6th Symphony, which is one of my favorite pieces of all time. I had waited all year to play it. I over practiced going into it, and the day before the show, I woke up with a blister on the inside of my upper lip. So being young and dumb, I thought I could just pound my way through, so I just kept playing and plyaing.

The concert started, and I knew pretty much from the get go that it was going to be a bad night. That was probably the worst moment, but it turned into one of my best moments. After the show, I left and took a weekend back at my parents house, and then came back and a week later started dating the woman who is now my wife. She said that was one of the first moments she had seen me really struggle and fail.

JN: So failure led to a great moment.

RR: A very great moment. (laughing)

JN: I like what you said earlier how you were fortunate this happened early in your career. It’s as if you just get it out of the way, now you can work on being a success.

RR: Yes. Of course, that reaction comes from being on this side of the story. If I were still the same person and the same player I was 25 years ago when that happened, I wouldn’t have that response. But looking back over the time since that happened, I’ve grown to appreciate what it meant. What it led to, and the direction in which it steered me.

JN: What was your reaction when it happened? (Before you realized it had endeared your wife to you?)

RR: I was so embarrassed. It was that feeling that you’re naked on stage. I think of that Steve Martin movie, Lonely Guy where he walks into a restaurant and says, “Table for one,” and everyone in the restaurant stops talking, the spotlight shines directly on him.

Plus it’s such a good piece, everyone is playing so well, and here I come in to ruin everything.

JN: Well, you got it out of the way, and now you’ve seen some things at the Met. Can you describe for people who may not be familiar with the job, the magnitude of the music you play and a little taste of your workload there.

RR: If I had to boil it down to one word, you just have to be listening all the time. You’re listening to the head of the section, to the heads of other sections, how a singer is phrasing, maybe the conductor is fighting or leading them, There have been some amazing moments where it looks like everything is going to come off the rails in a really intricate, fast moving scene, and everyone’s ears seem to go to the same place. Then we wait that split second and Boom, we’re right back on the path. It’s an amazing feeling, but the listening aspect of it is exhausting but fulfilling.

JN: Do you play just one opera per week?

RR: No, we usually are running 3 operas per week. Mon-Wed is a different one, then sometimes a fourth one on Thursday, then basically repeat the Mon-Wed operas Friday evening, Sat. matinee and Sat. evening. And we get Sundays off. Then when we’re not performing those, we’re rehearsing the upcoming operas for when those runs are over.

JN: You obviously have so much going on. Do you have any tips on staying focused? You’re going from one opera to the next. Each one is totally different story, different vibe. What do you do to ensure your mind is focused on each one with all that change?

RR: I think you really want to listen as much as possible. But the more I can get into hearing something, it becomes less overwhelming. You don’t feel like you’re alone. It’s like being a child in a big store. You have no idea where you are, and you instinctively reach out for your mom’s hand. I feel like sometimes listening to colleagues who are ready to lead. Sometimes it’s you who is taking the lead. The more you listen, the more you’re energetically holding each other’s hands.

JN: Do you ever have moments where everything is going perfectly? You feel like you can do no wrong?

RR: Absolutely. This past weekend, we did an HD broadcast of Rosenkavalier. It was my last opera until I get back from SF. It was one of the most intense and amazing performances I’d felt like I’d been part of there. It was huge energy from the audience. I felt like every time someone played something they were really listening to how someone was handing them the phrases and on stage. It was emotional. A number of colleagues are either retiring, or leaving for a year or longer.

So it felt very profound. It was Renee Fleming’s last performance of Rosenkavalier. She’s retiring that role. At the end of the perofmrnace, the patrons had torn up their programs and were showering down onto the stage, into the pit. It was one of those magical moments that is almost beyond belief.

JN: It’s gotta be phenomenal just to be at the Met, but what you’re describing is taking it to a whole new level.

RR: I turned to my colleague, and we’re looking at each other like, “This is our job.” This is the end of the workday for us. Not many people can say at the end of their day they get showered with confetti, and you’re playing trumpet. Even though all of our goals setting out in our careers was to wind up in an orchestra, I don’t think any one of us really envisioned to that degree; seeing 4,000 people in tuxedo’s standing up and cheering like that. It was like out of a movie.

JN: So that was just this past weekend, the 13th of May 2017. An incredible emotional high. Does it ever feel like it’s “just a job”? Do you ever feel like it’s tedious to do what you do?

RR: Occasionally. Of course, you’re playing with the same people all the time, so there’s bound to be some negativity at times. But it was 4 or 5 years ago that I realized the times when it feels like a grind, or “just a job” are when I feel like I’m working through some difficulties in my own playing. I would think “if I could just play with this guy in tune” or “this is really difficult” I realized it was bothering me only because my playing was not the best it can be.

Opera isn’t always scintillating, so in those moments when I’m not emotionally stimulated with what’s going on around me, I feel like if I’ve done the work I need to do, and my playing is at its best, the time goes much faster and the work is always much more enjoyable.

JN: For lack of a better way of asking, which day of the week is the least inspiring? Or where it’s more difficult to focus than others?

RR: I don’t think it’s a specific day of the week. But many times we’ll open shows, and then the second or third show comes along and you’re just not feeling the energy like you did before. Then you might lose your concentration for a second and make a mistake. Sometimes you have a dress rehearsal that day for an opera that’s opening the following day, then you have to play the show that night.

There’s always that one show in the run, usually within the first 4, where it’s just not what you’re hoping for. It reminds me of a freelancer’s schedule. There’s no set routine. There’s always a different show on a different day, so many moving pieces.

JN: ­­­Ray, you are now on the Hot Seat. Do you think you can stand the heat?

RR: I know I can.

JN: It’s 5 minutes before you go on stage for an important performance… What are you doing?

RR: 5 minutes before, I’m in the pit. Before I get into the pit, it’s usually making sure the equipment works, the valves are oiled. Once in the pit, I’m focusing on what the first couple of licks will be.

JN: What’s the best performance-related advice you've ever received?

RR: This is from my late brother, just before he passed away 17 years ago. I had taken a year off of playing trumpet and I was getting ready for an audition. I was really micro-managing everything about the audition and he told me, “You’ll be fine if you can just get out of your own way.” It means being able to let things flow, not trying to force it.

JN: Can you share one tip for our listeners to help deal with stage fright? (Physical, mental, etc.)

RR: Pretty much the same advice. When I’m listening to someone, the more I can hear what’s going on around me, that energy sharing connection makes you less aware of your self. Just try to communicate within the gropu and then the audience will get to observe something that could be very profound and enjoyable.

JN: What’s a non-musical activity that contributes to your success as a musician?

RR: I like to run, play softball. Just athletic stuff. They help keep my energy levels up, but also take that edge off, and keep me in a good mood.

JN: Imagine you’re on stage. It’s the end of the performance and the audience is on its feet, applauding. They don’t want any more and they don’t want any less. Everything is perfect. What have you just done? Give details: Venue, repertoire, band mates, etc. Get Creative!!!

RR: I refer to that story I told earlier. Everything was absolutely perfect!

JN: Ray, thank you for being on the podcast and for bringing us one step closer to understanding the Secrets of the Musical Mind!

About the author, James Newcomb

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