Jennifer Montone of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) became principal horn for The Philadelphia Orchestra in 2006 at age 29. She teaches at two of the most prestigious music schools in the country and is an acclaimed soloist and chamber musician. She speaks enthusiastically about all of her work and the constant challenge of maintaining balance in her life.
Montone first picked up the horn in her school band program in northern Virginia and her passion grew from there. “I just love the way the orchestra rep is written for French horn,” she says. “I find the role that we get to play fascinating—the different voices and characters. It’s so gratifying to have solos where you can show your own personality and be creative.”
She says her favorite composer is Mahler. “I think his emotions and storytelling are very clear. It’s full of little nuances and details. There’s a ton you can learn from others, but you can also add your own experiences. It’s very layered and you can interpret it many ways,” she says.
A graduate of The Juilliard School, Montone was previously principal horn of the St. Louis Symphony and associate principal horn for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. “I like the idea of being a lifelong learner and always growing and being challenged and improving. In my particular role in the orchestra it is easy for me to see my career that way,” she says.
Being part of The Philadelphia Orchestra is a dream come true for Montone. “I fell in love with the Philly orchestra sound and listened to them quite a lot growing up. I really respect the history. The belief system behind the orchestra is strong and authentic. It’s a special group.”
Montone says she’s also experienced a metamorphosis under conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin of Local 406 (Montreal, PQ) who took the post in 2012. “He brought new life to our institution—sort of a new musical soul to the ethos underneath the band,” she says, adding that she also has a fondness for the audience. “The community of Philadelphia has always supported its orchestra in a special way. Music lovers in the city care very deeply. A lot of audience members grew up listening to the orchestra. It’s musically and personally gratifying to be part of that.”
Montone says she sees her role as that of connector. “As principal, I get to connect the horn section to different instruments. Horn parts alternate roles so much: between section tutti and interweaving solo passages, being chordal with the brass, supporting the woodwinds, attaching to the rhythm of the bass lines. It’s very creative and always challenging.”
While she enjoys the role of leader, she says it was intimidating when she first became principal for St. Louis Symphony at age 26. “I was rather self-conscious about how I should lead—how to be respectful but also do what the chair requires. You have these incredible legacies of people who held the chair before you. It’s scary and daunting.”
“I was hemming and hawing and being super cautious, and the associate principal put his hand on my arm and said, ‘You’re right; just say it.’ From then on I thought, nonchalant is good, but I also shouldn’t be scared to have an opinion,” says Montone.
“I think any young person in a position of leadership is going to step in a hole here and there, even when we view all our colleagues with respect and admiration,” she says. “When transitioning from student to a professional role, you have to keep chugging along and trying your best. Always check that your motivations are honorable and you are trying to make the orchestra the best it can be. Leadership usually works better if you do it by playing and being prepared. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of talking involved.”
Montone was awarded the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2006 and made her Carnegie Weil Hall solo recital debut in October 2008. She’s been a soloist and collaborator with artists such as Emanuel Ax of Local 802 (New York City), Eric Owens, Christoph Eschenbach, Shmuel Ashkenasi, Joseph Silverstein, and David Soyer, among many others.
Her recording of the Penderecki horn concerto Winterreise won a Best Classical Compendium Grammy in 2013. A bit of a rarity for a horn player, the opportunity to make that recording, she says, “just plopped into” her lap.
Composer Krzysztof Penderecki and his wife happened to be in the audience for one of her Penderecki sextet performances. “I got a random call from Mrs. Penderecki about a year later asking if I could come and perform his piece with the National Polish Radio Symphony in Katowice. Radovan Vlatkovic, who I idolize, was the only one performing the piece regularly because it was quite new. But he was already contracted to play it elsewhere.” Later, she performed it with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra at home and was invited to make the recording in Geneva with the Warsaw National Philharmonic.
“It was incredibly special and I am incredibly grateful,” she says. “His music is so evocative and powerful.”
Her own teachers are great examples for her, in particular, Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 802 member Julie Landsman at Juilliard and Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) member Edwin Thayer. They demonstrated how to tailor teaching style—from nurturing to challenging—to meet the specific needs of students at any given moment.
Montone is on faculty at both the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School. “Just being a part of anyone’s development or growth is truly an honor. The creative growth that happens between ages 16 and 26 is so powerful. I’m floored by how young people overcome challenges and push themselves. They are resilient, driven, enthusiastic, creative, and open-minded and it is such a true privilege to be around that. It feeds my playing, my soul, and my parenting,” she says.
“Teaching is a layered thing. I like to look at students’ current strengths and weaknesses and their individual personalities,” explains Montone. “Undergrad students tend to want help in how they should play things. Master’s students use me more as a resource.”
Two topics she is passionate about are audition preparation and performance anxiety. Her advice for students hoping to win their first professional job is to have patience with the process. “I think it takes a lot of tries to perfect the art of auditioning and that’s separate from how well you play. We spend a lot of time getting really good at our instrument and understanding the repertoire, but then to be able to sit down and nail it in our five minutes of fame is excruciatingly hard.”
Winning an audition takes mental fortitude. To that end, she suggests several helpful resources: Noa Kageyama’s bulletproofmusician.com, A Soprano on Her Head by Eloise Ristad, Don Greene’s books and coaching (see his article here, and The Inner Game of Music by W. Barry Green and Timothy Gallwey. She’s detailed her own sample audition preparation plan on her website (www.jenmontone.com/sample-audition).
“These resources help us with the mental aspect, in addition to meditation and yoga. I think there’s a mindset behind all these resources where the process is more important than the outcome. Strive to circle your mind back to how you will play the excerpt—what it is trying to show technically and musically. For me, this includes writing a lot of adjectives on the top of the page,” she says.
Self-compassion also plays a role, says Montone. “Do a metta meditation and tell yourself: ‘I’m doing the very best I can right now. I am a lovely musician and I am going to continue to grow and learn. Whatever happens in this audition cannot change that.’ It’s about being very compassionate and self-loving with this process. That’s probably the hardest part, but may be the most important.”
Protection of a CBA
Montone first joined Local 802 (New York City) in 1997 and has been a member of five different locals, including 2-197 (St. Louis, MO), 16-248 (Newark-Paterson, NJ), and 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX) as she advanced in her career.
While serving as principal horn for St. Louis, around six years into her career, Montone was injured in a car accident. For about eight months she was unable to work due to a jaw injury and another six months had her sidelined for a back injury. She is thankful that her collective bargaining agreement protected her job while she healed.
“I can’t express how much reassurance and confidence that gave me coming back. Knowing that I was protected and that I could take the time to heal the healthy way and not have to rush back. I think, whenever you are coming back from an injury, there’s such a psychological—pain, fear, frustration—component. Not to have to worry from a survival standpoint is huge and I’m very grateful for that,” she says.
She says the support system she discovered—colleagues, friends, and online resources—were heartening and inspiring. For both injuries she was treated at the Center for Performing Arts at the Cleveland Clinic, led by Richard Lederman, MD. “Finding practitioners that know something about music is an incredible help,” she says.
Montone says that she took advantage of the time to work on other aspects of her career. “I was determined to use it as an opportunity to rebuild and stabilize my technical and health foundation underneath my playing. I knew I could bring more maturity and knowledge to the original foundation built at age 10.”
While healing, she found a better balance in her life. Prior to the injuries, she says, she had been defining herself almost entirely by her success on the French horn. “I felt like I needed to regain belief in myself as a person,” she says. “That, of course, helped me with everything else.”
“Every musician would agree that the balance of personal and professional, and even different things within the professional, is difficult,” she says. “That might be the transition that I hear the most questions about from students who are new to the profession.”
Aside from juggling teaching, performing with The Philadelphia Orchestra, and other solo and chamber engagements, Montone is mom to two young boys.
“When things don’t work, I make a little shift and try not to give myself too hard of a time. Finding balance is trial and error, but I also want to be committed to everything I am doing, so I compartmentalize quite a lot. Whether I’m switching to teaching or parenting, I will completely jump into that role,” she says. “I take a moment to just look at the situation I’m in and determine what the situation needs.”
“When I travel from one place to another I use that time, not only to get things done, but to switch my brain,” she says. “How do I honor this new situation? There’s a certain amount of mindfulness needed for a busy life in music.”