Joanna Hersey Interview

We have enjoyed celebrating the International Women’s Brass Conference through our interviews with Jennifer Wharton and Nicole Abissi and their individual blog posts. We are so excited to present our final interview of the month – featuring Joanna Hersey. Thank you again for sharing  your thoughts with the Brass Chicks community!

1. Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.

Many ask how I began to play the tuba, and I always say it was totally meant to be, I started playing tuba during my eighth grade year in a small Vermont town in the mountains, twenty-seven miles from the Canadian border. East Haven, population two hundred and ninety-eight, had two schools, kindergarten through fifth grade in one small building, and sixth through eighth grades in one classroom next to the town clerk’s office. My eighth grade graduating class was the biggest the school had ever had…nine!

The afternoon came when we were given instrument rental forms to take home and discuss with our parents. I decided that I wanted to play the violin, however, since no high school anywhere nearby had an orchestra, my mother encouraged me to pick a band instrument. Not seeing anything on the list which struck my fancy, I returned to school the next morning having decided not to play anything. Seeing my lack of enthusiasm for the instrument list, the teacher offered me the chance to play a sousaphone which was not being used in a nearby school. This seemed like a great solution, because I did not know what a sousaphone was.

The rest, as they say, is history. He brought it for me, and it was white, plastic and bumpy. “Okay, blow into it,” he instructed. I gave a tentative puff in general the direction of the mouthpiece. Nothing happened. Mr. Hueling uttered the now immortal words, “You’re going to have to blow a lot harder than that if you want to play the tuba.” I took up a large breath and let go with all my might, a large blast rang through the building, students in class looked wildly over their shoulders in alarm, and I had begun to play the tuba.

From then on, I have spent my days in a room with the instrument, trying to figure out how to do it better, and help other people do it better, driving and flying it all over the world.

2. What do you love about being a female brass player?

One very special thing that I am so proud of is that I have become involved with the International Women’s Brass Conference, an organization which helps provide scholarships,  and presents conferences for men and women, featuring many female brass soloists and educators. The group is made up of both men and women, and the mission is to educate, develop, support and promote women brass musicians while inspiring continued excellence and opportunities in the broader musical world. So while we want to showcase women in performance, we also want to involve men as well as young male and female students in our educational outreach events, to try and break down separation by gender for all instruments.

As President, I am able to give back to an organization which has given me so much at a crucial time in my young career, having attended the very first IWBC conference in 1993 as a young military musician.  I see my role as a director of sets of people, committees and groups each working on smaller pieces of the puzzle, such as membership development, new composer commissions, educational outreach, etc. I can see the big picture and where things can overlap, and direct forward motion. We just completed the 25th anniversary 2017 conference at Rowan University in NJ, and our next one will be in May 2019 at Arizona State University, my alma mater!

3. Do you think we have a specific role or responsibility as female brass players? How do you incorporate that (or not) into your own life as a musician?

Most of us sit in sections as either the only female brass player, or one of a small minority. We sit in those sections for our whole lives, our whole careers. Even with wonderful male colleagues, many of us feel we can never miss a note or be imperfect without putting on the line the rep of every single woman in the field. So we sit under the pressure of that at every single gig we play. Every conductor comment, every glitch, under a microscope.

Perhaps because of this, young women go into the career in lower numbers. They’re not willing to put up with the teasing and feeling different (young people want to fit in!) and don’t see it as something for them. I recently taught a set of tuba masterclasses to 94 tuba players from the nation’s top performing high school programs, schools with super supportive booster groups, great leadership and budgetary support. Even in a group of this level, only 11 of those tubas were female. So still 88% male in our most supportive American programs in 2017. Last year I taught a studio of 27 college tuba and euphonium majors, only three of which were female.

One of our challenges is we see that in the past we were not okay with regard to race and gender equality, but we think it’s fixed now. People often ask me if I teach male and female students differently, and I don’t, but I do teach some students differently. I divide them in my mind into two categories (that don’t have to do with gender). There are the students who are very driven and ready to find challenge and are pro-active. These students need help with balance and staying focused on fewer tasks, keeping from becoming overwhelmed, etc. The other group of students, especially with tuba, are the students who love it, but are not used to being super-challenged there in the back of the band, and are approaching life waiting for things to happen to them. This group needs different teaching, they need to be reminded about being proactive instead of reactive, and goal-setting and advanced planning would be helpful. Both groups need support but in different ways. As the teacher I have walked their path already, gotten bruised and disappointed, had the way blocked, but kept going…and now I can help them along, just as my teachers did with me.

We also can work on featuring women and minority composers in our performances, and there are a lot of terrific resources out there for us. I have an upcoming series with Cimarron Music Press, called the St. Cecilia Series, featuring music I’ve arranged by historic women and minority composers for brass. Michael Parker and I just recorded an album with JAM – Joanna and Michael that featured several new works in this category for solo, duo and quartet. My albums O quam mirabilis (2010), Prelude and Groove (2012), and Zigzags (2015), are places to find repertoire. There is a great set of databases on the International Alliance for Women in Music website ( on where to find music in various genres, featuring a  link to a brass music database complied by Monique Buzzarté.  Following young composers on social media is a great way to become informed about new works. Finding music for any genre by women and minority composers takes an extra step of research but opens up so many connections with new colleagues and can inspire a who new set of composers to start working.

4. Do you see any specific challenges for musicians in todays climate? How do you mitigate those on your own or when teaching?

The music world is very different that when we, the middle-aged professor generation I’m in, were trained, and it is so important for us to recognize and embrace that. My degrees are all in performance for example, but I have to excel at various aspects of music education, music business, entrepreneurship, marketing, accounting, booking, management, grant writing, etc. I have had success because I figured out this mattered and got my act together and learned it, and I am flexible and adaptable as things change. A great way for people to stay informed is to listen to podcasts, I’ll mention a few of my favorites below. But stay flexible, and don’t be too tied to what you thought you’d be doing before you got to the place you are now.

One challenge we face as musicians, is our world is divided too much by race and gender. While this is a part of regular life, we can start to change that by becoming aware when we do it. Things such as how we treat people in positions of authority, as professors in a university setting, as colleagues in an orchestra or brass band, how we react when the person in authority is a women or a minority, how we hire new people, etc. We can develop young leaders when we teach with this in mind. Women and minorities are promoted in smaller numbers, in university settings and in performance, and people unconsciously have an image associated with what success in the field of music looks like. If you don’t match that image, you are at a disadvantage. Luckily though, this can change and if it matters to enough people, we can fix it.

5. Is there anything you wished you had known as a student or young professional that you know now? Any advice that you’d like to share with younger musicians?”

I wish I had done more clear advanced planning when I was younger.  Some type of 5 and 10 year out type of planning is very helpful. As we begin our careers things can seem overwhelming, and I have seen people take on projects that don’t match their goals, then get mired down and off track. The way I deal with that is I have a dry-erase board hanging above my desk. It’s divided into boxes, one for each of the next four years, then a future box. I color code the projects and spread them out, for example recording projects need to be started a year or two out. This helps me see what’s coming up and then I can decide to add something new, or put it in an upcoming year, and stay focused on what I enjoy. If I find myself feeling overwhelmed I can reorganize the chart without feeling like I am out of control. Now…color coding boards won’t be everyone’s thing, but it works for me, and that’s the key, find what works for you and stick to it. Goal setting time is one of the most beneficial aspects of your week.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came at a time when I was gathering courage to begin a new phase of my life.  I had decided to leave my position as Principal Tubist with the United States Coast Guard Band, and begin studying at New England Conservatory with Chester Schmitz, then Principal Tubist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Visiting my grandparents to break the news that I was leaving a steady job to study performance full-time, their next door neighbor stopped by.  Lt. Leonard Godfrey lived for forty years next door to my grandparents, and was navigator of The Great Artiste, a B-29 bomber which flew the Nagasaki bombing mission during World War II. He returned from that mission very much changed, having seen too much of the consequences of war. As I nervously explained my dreams to them, he looked across at me, a young woman who played the tuba, and said “Security is a myth.”  He, a gentle, elderly man seeing me through his vast vision of human experience, saw that I should go for it. I’ve never forgotten that, and look back at his support as one of the most important moments of my life. It reminds me that we have chances every day to look at young people and either encourage or discourage them with how we react to their vision and dreams.

Also…it really is true…long tones. Every day.

6. Any resources you recommend? Books, podcasts, recordings etc.
I am a big fan of listening to podcasts when I exercise or on a long drive, and here are some of my favorites:

The Brass Junkies, Lance LaDuke and Andrew Hitz (

The Entrepreneurial Musician, Andrew Hitz (

The Young Musician’s Guide, Aaron Campbell (

Online Marketing Made Easy, Amy Porterfield (

Daily Meditation Podcast, Mary Meckley (


Thanks again Joanna Hersey for this amazing interview! For more about Joanna, check her out here:


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