Italian trombonist Peter Steiner’s playing has been described as “beautifully controlled with a vocal sound” and he is recognized around the world as “a new trombone star within his generation” who “plays with total control”. In 2019 he was honoured as a Prize Winner at the XVI International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia.
At the age of 23, Peter Steiner was appointed Trombonist of the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic for the 2016-2017 season. Prior to that engagement he served as Principal Trombonist with the Colorado Symphony for the 2014-2015 season. He has performed as guest trombonist with the Munich Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, New York Philharmonic, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Orchestra and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Steiner performs exclusively on Bach Trombones – his signature is the Artisan 47XPS.
The Band Post interviews Peter Steiner on his trombone life, who is in town for a series of masterclasses and concerts.
Welcome to Singapore, Peter! Let’s start with an introduction of yourself as a trombone player.
Hello, I’m Peter Steiner, a trombonist that gets to tour the world. I’m glad the pandemic has slowed down and we can now travel the world again, so I can perform on any stage that wants to hear the trombone.
Usually the trombone by itself is not the ‘most wanted’ instrument. People prefer hearing a violin or a piano, or even a cello. Therefore I play a lot with piano, with my partner Constanze Hochwartner the whole time all together. We travel the world and perform everywhere – that’s basically what I do; it’s my living. I play with wind bands, orchestras, symphony orchestras, and as a soloist with Constanze on piano and the organ. During the pandemic we got into recording, and it was super fun!
What motivates you to practice in your everyday life?
I always hoped that music would be my life, but I never thought it would be possible to tour and travel the world to perform, giving the instrument at play.
I thought I would be part of an orchestra and have a stable job, but what I do right now is a job that’s going all over the world; giving a master class, a recital, a lesson or performing a concerto – it varies.
I think that’s something that motivates me – l love doing what I do, so I never really have to find motivation. I never really have to force myself to practice because I love playing the trombone. I don’t have anything to think about; I just go practice as it is something I look forward to everyday. I always get up and do things that I want to do, like play or learn new pieces.
Do you have influences or people who inspire you?
Absolutely, yeah. I think being in this music environment, you have to be inspired. That’s the one thing that really gets you going and keeps you moving forward and developing.
My biggest role model has always been Joseph Alessi. He was my trombone hero growing up – I had and still have every album of his and it was a dream come true to be able to study with him. I studied in New York for three years with him at Juilliard school, and he has been a very big inspiration.
I also listen to a lot of wind instrumentalists, string players and singers, so there’s inspiration everywhere including the radio as well. Sometimes, I just listen to the radio and there’s a pop tune that is amazing. So I think music in general always has something inspiring that you can pick up and use in your own play, and in your own world.
What about the music that you always listen to? Do you have a favourite playlist?
That’s an interesting question.
The first thing I would type in right now on Spotify is with Jacob Collier. I listen to a lot of Jacob’s music and there’s something fresh every time I listen to it. The music is very harmonical and very cool. I would also add Mischa Maisky who is a cello soloist, and listen to Haydn Cello Concerto just because I love the piece, or Dvorak Cello Concerto.
I also enjoy the lyrical operas by Puccini, like Tosca and Madame Butterfly, which are great arias. I must say Pavarotti is definitely a go to when it comes to the male voice, while Maria Callas will be first choice when I want to listen to soprano or female voice.
You have been touring with many renowned orchestras, including the Colorado Symphony, Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera. What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of playing with them as part of your career?
I think the most rewarding thing is to share the stage with people that are similar in thinking. Very often when you get to perform, it’s a last minute opportunity where you just have a rehearsal and concert, and sometimes it’s hard to click and connect with other people. However with Constanze, the person that I play mostly with, we are able to connect naturally every time we play, both individually and also as a group.
I feel in orchestras like that, when you sit on stage with such a group, everybody is going in the same direction. Everybody is there to make the best possible music on the individual level, but also on a collective level. So I think that’s the biggest reward, just sharing a stage with humans that think alike, who have the same intent. Since the main aspect of performing is to entertain, I think that’s a very big reward in making music. When you look at the audience and see a big smile on their faces, or they don’t stop clapping at the end because they’re so excited, I think that is the biggest reward for an artist.
A big part of our time as musicians is often by ourselves in the practice room, which usually doesn’t have the best view. It’s not in the middle of the city centre where you have a beautiful inspirational environment. Usually we as trombonists practice in the basement or in a hidden room where nobody can hear us. That’s probably the life of a brass player because people don’t want to hear us practice.
So to step on stage and have people looking at you perform, I think that’s very rewarding and it compensates for the time that you’re by yourself, where you are just practicing and trying to improve. This process is often very negative because you criticize yourself, and it’s always not very enjoyable. Then when you go on stage and people smile at you – that’s just very satisfying.
Do you have memorable experiences or things that will always be etched in your memory for a lifetime?
I think the first time I played with the Vienna Philharmonic was definitely a very special moment. I played Bruckner’s 8th Symphony with Bernard Haitink, conducting at the Salzburg Festival. I also remember my first time stepping on stage with the Vienna Philharmonic, that’s just indescribable. As a student and a musician, you work all your life to be in such a position for a rare one time in that environment, so I remember these moments very fondly.
There’s another time I remember, when we played Bruckner Seventh Symphony in the Musikverein in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic. It was a Sunday morning, the concerts are always around eleven, and while the low brasses were playing the chorale, the sun came in through the windows and it was just like – oh wow. Now that the Trombones and Tuba are playing, the entire room was getting light and it was a very cool moment.
Sitting in such an environment and playing with orchestras was about six to seven years ago, as I’ve now shifted a lot of my focus and attention, and my route has changed drastically from that career side.
It’s hard to pick one moment because every time I go on stage as an orchestral trombonist, I am a part of a group, and I’m less in the driver’s chair but more of a passenger. What we do now, or what I do now together with Constanze, we’re both in the driver’s chair, every road, so every concert is a different trail that we walk on. There’s so many cool moments, and I can’t wait to play here at Music Elements, and at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory just because it’s going to be two different concerts. We play similar pieces, but we play two different concerts, and it’s going to be very fun.
Would you describe your practice routine?
I would probably describe my practice routine as a daily routine. I don’t really think about a weekly or a monthly schedule simply because when it’s not the pandemic life, I travel so much that it’s hard for me to keep a standard schedule. Every day I get up and I have a desire to play the instrument, and that’s something I’m very happy about.
The first thing that I do is breathing exercises to relax and understand my body, and how to breathe properly as a brass player. Every morning, I start these exercises from a clean slate by looking in the mirror to remove tensions before I work on any music.
After these exercises, I will do a daily set of warm ups that’s about 40 to 45 minutes long. I change the exercises from day to day just to keep the warm up fresh and flexible, so it’s not the same exact order, same exact exercise or same exact tempo. I try to vary that a bit in order to keep my brain engaged. I think if you do the exact same orders every day, at some point you become dull in your brain and you’re not trying to see something from a different perspective anymore. Ideally, I always practice in 45 minutes sessions and taking 45 minutes breaks in between those sessions.
Whether it is a travel day or a day off, I still do my warm ups to feel comfortable. If I travel, I just get up early and do it in the hotel room with my practice mute. Sometimes when I don’t do any warmups in the morning and have lunch and some meetings or email work, I get very nervous around two or three in the afternoon because I want to play. Thus, it’s better for me to get the warmups done in the morning so that I’m calm and move on.
The practice sessions for the rest of the day kind of depends on what I have to play. Sometimes I do one session of etudes or lyrical studies, such as Bordogni, where it’s just 45 minutes of singing on the instrument, before learning the music that I have to play in my concert. So usually there’s about three to five more sessions in the day where I learn my music or do Arban studies.
At the end of the day, I complete my routine with a cooling down session. It makes perfect sense for me to do that in the evening because I play a lot, between three to seven hours each day. I intend to play the trombone for the rest of my life so I need to treat my lips as well as possible and take good care of them. A cool down session doesn’t have to be too extended like an hour long, but just the fact to give the lips a moment to relax and vibrate freely without music in front of you. They deserve it, they work really hard and then when I go on stage, they have to function. I have to rely on my lips to do the job so I think they also deserve a spa treatment every day.
You have been involved with many masterclasses. How do you build the sound of the players during these classes?
I think the most important thing is to breathe together. Very often, people don’t breathe together – they all do their individual thing and then when it comes to starting a piece, everybody does it a little bit differently. There is something very special to people breathing and thinking together, and then executing music together. I think that’s the main part of when you play in a group, a duo, trio, ensemble or even in an orchestra; the fact that it’s already a group tells you that it’s not about you yourself, but it’s about everybody involved.
Breathing is crucial when it comes to playing with others, and it is important to have the same musical ideas. Often when I coach groups, I ask them about where they want to phrase or what story they want to tell. Usually the individuals in the groups have different opinions, which is fine, but I feel they should share their opinions with each other and hopefully get to a point where they agree to convey the same story. If you go to an orchestra concert and everybody tells a different story, you will only hear 80 individuals on stage, instead of a good experience with the entire orchestra.
Most of the time, making music is about having a radar to what is happening in your surroundings. By listening to each other, you have to match the intonation, articulation, tempo, rhythm, style and other musical details within your group. When you play with others, you can’t just play your thing and expect everybody else to play with you. As a musician, you also have to listen to others while you play.
When it comes to teaching individual and group lessons, it’s less about, oh here, do this with the tongue and do this technical aspect to make it work. It’s more about how can we make it a good experience for everybody so that the audience has a good experience. For example, basic concepts like breathing, it’s very fundamental but people tend to skip that step and go into detail oriented work. The audience is not going to hear anyway if the first note is not together and nobody really cares about the details that you put into when you’re not playing together. I think very often we overlook the obvious so the basic concepts to me are the most important when it comes to playing individually and as a group.
What are some advices and music for young trombonists to be able to work on to improve their playing?
I think for trombones in particular we have been too focused on who can play the fastest, who can play the highest and who can play the loudest. However, what is most important to me is the sound and that’s what I look out for when I listen to any instrument. If I listen to the Timpani or the Guitar and the sound is good, I’ll like it, but I won’t if the sound is not appealing. The same concept applies to the trombone so if the sound is not good, people are not going to enjoy it. You can play as fast as you want, but if your sound quality is not up to the standard of fast playing, people will not pay to listen to your playing.
The other important thing is singing on the instrument, so there’s the Bordogni vocalises that I do every day where I play an etude just to get in contact with my singing voice on the trombone. I tend to not give suggestions on what studies people should work on, but I do suggest my students to focus on scales. You can do everything with a scale – you can play a scale slowly and create a melody like a Bordogni etude, but you can also play scales very fast like an Arban, so I think scales can consist of pretty much anything. Therefore I encourage my students and myself to practice the scales daily – maybe not exactly the same set each day but keeping the practice flexible and changing the routines up so the practices are still of quality but different.
Lastly, do you have any advices or words or encouragement for young budding trombone players?
I think the most important thing, and that’s what I try to live by, is that you need to have fun with what you do. Life is too short to do something that you’re not enjoying.
I’m assuming that you enjoy doing this interview right now, and I can tell you that I’m also enjoying it. It’s part of my life. If I would be miserable right now doing this interview, I probably would have chosen the wrong profession, right?
Firstly, I think when you grow up and when you look to decide what you want to do in life, or whether you want to pursue music or trombone or whatever it is, I think the first question to yourself should be, do I love doing what I do? And if the answer is yes, then you have the right choice. Because in life, you need to do what you love doing, so that you can become good at it and have much more fun in it. Thus, I encourage everybody to check in with yourself and see if you love what you do, so that you can just improve from there on and hopefully keep the love alive. Practicing is lonely at times, but if you find the fun in that process, then you will love it and it will be much more enjoyable.
Secondly, I would encourage them to listen. Very often when I just have a little bit of time, I go on YouTube and I just type in whatever comes to my mind. Whether it is a documentary or a piece of music for the violin or cello, or even a singer’s performance, just listen. We have ears and it’s always refreshing to listen to something new. Try listening to a new piece, an instrument that you have never heard, a player that you’ve never heard, and get inspired.
I personally enjoy listening. I love, for example, going around Singapore this week, or in Seoul last week, hearing different sounds of the city and even the subway. It’s great to hear these different sounds, because as artists, we create sounds like what I’m doing in my trombone life – so it’s interesting to be inspired by other sounds and be creative.