Musician Spotlight: Michael Dolin, Principal Trombone
We spoke with AYS principal trombonist Michael Dolin, whose passion for the trombone and orchestra shines when he speaks! During the interview, Michael shares his path to AYS, and the role that AYS has played in his professional and personal growth. We discuss the impact that COVID-19 has had on him and the music community at large. He also gets candid about what he’s learned from auditions, his favorite AYS memories, and his new Instagram project, First Take Quartets. Read the interview below to learn more about Michael’s musical journey!
Tell us about yourself!
I graduated high school in 2010 and immediately started auditioning for AYS every year until 2016, when I got in. I am from Santa Barbara, so I drive down to Los Angeles for rehearsals, concerts, and all things AYS. This is my fourth year with AYS!
Why were you drawn to trombone?
I’m not sure why I was initially drawn to it, but I like trombone now because of its warm, round tenor voice. There is something about the frequencies that come out of the trombone that are so satisfying to my ear. When playing, I find it very rewarding to notice progress of any size or type.
When did you start playing your instrument?
I started playing in 2001, when my school had one of those instrument petting zoos where kids can play with instruments to see if they want to join the school band. I immediately wanted to play trombone, but I was young and my parents weren’t sure if I had the focus for it. I learned how to play the next summer at our local music store’s band camp. I went through elementary, middle, and high school playing in band. As a high school student, I wanted to be the world’s greatest euphonium player and as a result, all of my individual practice was done on the euphonium. It wasn’t until a particularly inspiring summer session in the junior program at the Music Academy of the West, being mentored by an AYS alum, that I came to the realization that classical trombone is what I am meant to do.
Did you ever have any private musical education, or is most of your training from school?
It was all through school! I never took private lessons until college, where I got lessons through my city college’s applied program and eventually at UCLA. Since then, I’ve only taken lessons sporadically. When your primary teacher is yourself, you have to shift your focus for guidance from one central person to everything you hear or see around you. There are a lot of musical approaches and ideas to be taken from the members of AYS. Fortunately for me, trombone parts have a healthy amount of rest in many orchestral pieces, so there is plenty of time to watch and listen.
You mentioned that you have applied to AYS more than once, what was the AYS audition process like for you?
When I was first auditioning for AYS it was before the practice of blind auditions was adopted. Actually, the year I won the principal trombone position was the first year AYS did blind auditions. This is not to say I deserved to win before I did. In my earlier attempts, there were absolutely better players than me competing for the same position. That being said, having the adjudicators or candidate behind a curtain is the only way to honestly judge someone solely by their playing while at the same time simulating a high stress performance situation.
In the years following, I was asked to join Maestro Carlos Izcaray on the AYS audition panels for trombone and other positions in the brass section. That has been one of the most eye-opening experiences for me. I was able to really see what the judges are looking for and what they experience on the other side.
Did being a part of the AYS audition process prepare you for the auditions you attend now?
Absolutely. It solidified for me what I needed to get across and communicate in auditions. We always hear from our teachers, “do more. What you’re doing is not coming across to the listener.” I knew it was true, but until I heard a couple dozen people behind a screen play the same excerpts back-to-back, I didn’t know to what extent musical subtlety can sound stagnant and uninformed. I can’t recommend sitting on a blind audition panel enough, and I’m so thankful that AYS gave me that opportunity.
What is your favorite AYS memory, or unexpected yet meaningful experience you’ve had as a musician?
There are so many that I’ll always remember. Two years ago at Walt Disney Concert Hall, during our break between rehearsal and the concert, a couple of friends and I decided to go skateboarding. One of my friends broke her ankle, and we had to carry her back to the concert hall. There were so many people who were so helpful to us, and Isabel [Isabel Thiroux, AYS Director of Orchestra Operations] made sure she got everything she needed. Isabel has been our “orchestra mom” for a really long time, and she’s done a wonderful job.
I’ll always remember other things, like Isabel letting us stay at her house during the Malibu fires. As I mentioned, a friend and I commuted from Santa Barbara, so it would have taken us hours upon hours to get there everyday if she hadn’t made that gesture.
Another special memory would be going to rehearsals and talking about art and philosophy with one of my best friends, Nico (AYS trumpet), during our down time. It reminded me of those salons from a couple hundred years ago in Europe, where people would gather to discuss their philosophies and consume art together.
Michael and other AYS brass musicians rehearsing at Walt Disney Concert Hall for AYS’ 2018 Sounds About Town concert.
Michael (center) playing with the AYS brass ensemble at LAX in 2019.
Is there a favorite piece of music that you enjoy playing as a trombonist?
A few come to mind. Alpine Symphony and Debussy’s La Mer are great ones. Alpine Symphony has gigantic brass parts, and gorgeous sections in between. The offstage and onstage brass is awesome to play, and you can really see the scenes Strauss was depicting when you’re listening. With Debussy’s La Mer, once again you can imagine the scene Debussy sets. It’s a slow build into the last couple minutes where there’s once again huge brass parts, and the chord voicings throughout, oh, there’s nothing like it.
Do you play with any other bands or orchestras?
Yes! Here in Santa Barbara, I am a member of the Santa Barbara Trombone Society (SBTS). The SBTS is about 30 trombonists from around Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. Prior to the pandemic, we would get together and play on Saturday mornings and then other times at local concerts or restaurants. There are also a couple other smaller groups I play with, including a trombone quartet. We just played a Veteran’s Day benefit at a drive-in theater which was a lot of fun.
Where do you see yourself as a musician 5-10 years from now?
Well, I want to be working with an orchestra. Before the pandemic hit, I was going to auditions around the country. I made it to three in-person with the last one being a couple days before lockdowns. I am confident there will be more auditions once it is safe to travel again and they are rescheduled, I had a number that were postponed or cancelled. I learned a lesson from all of the auditions I participated in, and look forward to learning more with future audition opportunities.
How do you think AYS has helped prepare you for a position in a professional orchestra?
AYS is one of the only young adult groups that has such a short turnaround for concerts, where you start a rehearsal and are playing the concert six days later. That, as far as I know, parallels how professional orchestras work. You get the pieces that you will play at the beginning of the season, but you don’t actually start rehearsing with the group until the week of. And in the rehearsals, there is not a whole lot of time to play your parts over and over again. So, you have to learn to get it right quickly and consistently.
How has the pandemic affected you as a musician?
Well, my work was cut quite a bit because we couldn’t do things in person. I had a gig playing with Idyllwild Arts Academy that doesn’t happen anymore. Trombone quartet gigs have been cancelled, but we’ve figured out ways to do that distanced. I was mainly getting prepared for auditions prior to COVID-19, so a big part of my situation is that those auditions were cancelled. I am hopeful that people will be able to continue on the audition circuit and find employment once in-person activities resume.
Are there any other interesting projects you’ve been involved in during quarantine?
I played in a few split-screen recordings of my friend’s arrangements. I also started my own project on instagram called @FirstTakeQuartets, where I record each part of a quartet myself and restrict myself to use my first take for the final video. It’s sort of a way to try to get used to how the commercial recording industry works, where you often only get one shot, and then you move on to the next piece.
Michael Dolin is the Principal Trombone of the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles, California, a position he has held since 2016. His playing experience includes performances with Orchestra Santa Monica and YMF Debut Chamber Orchestra, as well as Steve Vai, Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap, and a variety of jazz and rock ensembles. He has been a participant in the Eastern Music Festival, Third Coast Trombone Retreat, and was accepted to the 2020 Aspen Music Festival and School with scholarship for doubling on euphonium. Preceding shutdowns due to covid-19, Michael was actively auditioning for orchestras around the United States, and advanced in all three of the auditions he attended in the previous ten months. Dolin can be heard on the first four tracks of the 2013 album “Erich Zeisl” by UCLA Philharmonia, Neal Stulburg on Yarlung Records and the album “Poems and Prayers” (2014) by Mohammed Fairouz on Sono Luminus.