Introducing: Jason Haaheim, Principal Timpanist

Interview by Elena Barere, violinist; Rob Knopper, percussionist; and William Short, bassoonist

Jason Haaheim was appointed Principal Timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at the beginning of the 2013-2014 season. He previously served as Principal Timpanist of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and Southwest Michigan Symphony, and has studied with John Tafoya (Indiana University, National Symphony), Dean Borghesani (Milwaukee Symphony), and Robert Adney (Gustavus Adolphus College, MacPhail Music School), among others.

The most unusual aspect of Jason's career, though, is that he spent the last decade as a professional nanoscientist! We sat down to talk to him about his career and learned how the scientific method, Eddie Murphy, and girls all influenced his impressive feat of joining the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as a second profession.

Correction: Due to the collaborative nature of this interview, the interviewer was changed from Elena Barere to Met Musicians.

Photo: Justin Haaheim

Photo: Justin Haaheim

Met Musicians: Thanks for sitting down to talk for this little interview!

Jason Haaheim: My pleasure!

MM: It seems like a good place to start would be the "how did you get into music" question -- so, how did you get into music?

JH: Right. There are sort of two parts to that answer. The first involves Eddie Murphy, Harold Faltermeyer, and an epic 80s movie called "Beverly Hills Cop."

MM: ...what?!

JH: I know, it’s crazy, right? But here's what happened: my parents had one of those little miniature Casio keyboards sitting around our condo. Neither of them were serious musicians, but my mom had played piano throughout her teens, and I think my dad just liked messing around with the different sounds on it. Anyway, this movie came out, and for some reason my 4th grade music teacher thought the theme, Axel F, would be cool to play for the class. This teacher made a version on his (then-brand new) Ensoniq synthesizer. I heard that tune and thought it was just the coolest thing in the world. (You know that theme, right?)

MM: Oh, yeah. That was played all over the place back then.

JH: Right. Written by Harold Faltermeyer (who went on to write the main theme for Top Gun, too). Anyway, I'm 10 years old and I hear this and I get home from school and race up to my room with my parents' Casio keyboard. A few hours later I come downstairs and say to my parents, "Hey, check this out!" and proceed to play the theme -- both hands -- start to finish.

MM: So were you taking piano lessons at the time?

JH: No, that's the thing: I'd never had piano lessons or any kind of musical training. I just picked it out by ear and figured out how to play it. I think my parents looked at each, slightly stupefied, and were like, "Um...I think we should probably sign him up for piano lessons or something."

MM: Ha! So that was the first part...but you said there's a second part? How did you get started playing percussion?

JH: I started playing percussion in 5th grade, because you could only play percussion if you'd already had some piano lessons, and I was one of the few kids who had, so it seemed cool. (Plus the drummers are always the coolest, right?)

Photo: Justin Haaheim

Photo: Justin Haaheim

MM: Well...

JH: ...exactly. So anyhow, I continued to enjoy messing around on piano for a while. I never got much further than the Bach Two-Part Inventions, but I spent a lot of time just writing little things and scoring them on the computer's MIDI sequencer. In retrospect, I think it was sort of a prelude to my geeky fondness for mixing music and techie things. But at that point, I was primarily inspired by my dad (who studied engineering in college and had taught high school physics) -- see, I was planning to be a physicist and wasn't really taking music studies seriously.

MM: So...what got you into music more seriously?

JH: It was a girl.

MM: Get out.

JH: No, seriously. She was a bassoonist. I met her at summer camp. My buddy and I were goofing around on guitar and drums, and we decided to enter in the camp's talent show. We pulled together a band to play the Violent Femme's American Music...and, well, the place kind of went nuts. We were like awkward little 15 year old celebrities for the evening. We strut out into the lobby of the auditorium and I'm approached by this pack of girls. The bassoonist was in front. She came right up to me and said, "That was amazing. I saw you up there and just had to meet you. Wanna go hang out?"

MM: Ah, young love at camp...

JH: Exactly. Over the next few days we got to know each other much better, and I learned that she was a serious orchestral bassoonist playing in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony (GTCYS) and the All-State Orchestra. As a geeky and musically inexperienced 15 year old, I was pretty intimidated! So naturally I figure "this girl is smart and gorgeous, and I can't really understand why she's into me, but I've gotta impress her!"

MM: So what did you do?

JH: Well, at some point she says, "You're an awesome percussionist, so you must be auditioning for All-State too, right?" And I was like, "Oh...um...yeah...definitely!"  Keep in mind I had NO IDEA what she was talking about, and had accumulated exactly ZERO exposure to orchestral music.

MM: [Laughs]...the semi-fraudulent lengths to which a guy will go to impress a lady...

JH: Hey -- whatever it takes! So I did three things: 1) I asked around for a great percussion teacher in the Twin Cities and committed to taking serious lessons, 2) I figured out the deadline for the All-State audition, and 3) I signed up for the BMG CD service so I could get the entire Deutsche Grammophon "MAD ABOUT" series. I had to start somewhere!

MM: So did you get into All-State?

JH: I did! And GTCYS...and in the process I just fell utterly in love with orchestral music and orchestral playing. I dove in completely, and 18 months later I’d managed to secure both music and physics scholarships to college.

MM: And...the bassoonist?

JH: It was awesome. We dated for over two years throughout high school. We still keep in touch actually -- just a lovely girl.

MM: So then you went off to college, but you didn't go to a conservatory, right?

JH: That's right. I went to a small private liberal arts college in Minnesota -- Gustavus Adolphus College -- and I double majored in music and physics. It was an outstanding education.

MM: And you didn't go to a music grad school either, right?

JH: Correct. I loved playing music all throughout college but I’d just never really considered that I could have a career doing it. I went to Minnesota Orchestra concerts all the time and just worshipped those guys, but it seemed so out of my league that I felt like music could only ever be a hobby for me. And to be fair, at that time it really WAS out of my league -- I hadn't seriously trained for orchestral playing yet...

MM: So what changed that?

JH: I spent a really influential summer at Aspen [Music Festival].

MM: Was that while you were in grad school for physics?

JH: Right -- I was in the middle of my PhD in electrical engineering, but I was really missing music, and some friends said, "You should apply to Aspen!" And I said, "What's Aspen?"

Photo: Justin Haaheim

Photo: Justin Haaheim

MM: But you got in!

JH: I did, and I had an incredible, life-changing summer. It was the first time I realized what a career in orchestral music could be like, and what it would take to start going in that direction. And it forced me to finally admit to myself that even though the physics side of things was something I was good at, I would never love it the same way I loved music. I would never dedicate real energy and passion to physics...and I didn't want to lead a life where I wouldn’t be passionate about what I was doing!

MM: So how did you start to make that transition?

JH: I finished at UC-Santa Barbara with a masters degree in electrical engineering, which served as solid credentials to get me in the door at my engineering job in Chicago. It also worked out perfectly because the Civic Orchestra was right there, and I could use my engineering day job to pay the bills while pursuing music the rest of the time.

MM: So this job was at a nanotechnology startup company, and I gather you ended up having a fairly key role?

JH: True. I was "Senior Research and Development Engineer," which meant I was responsible for much of the hardware and software for our nano-printing machine.

MM: Nano-printing?

JH: Yeah -- we would print things that were really, really, really small for the purpose of biological experiments.

MM: How small?

JH: Very, very, very small. Over 1,000 times smaller than a human hair. For example, if you’re studying viruses and want to know how a specific drug affects an individual virus molecule, you’d use our tool to print a really tiny patch of "molecular glue" mixed with the drug. The virus would then stick to the glue and you could figure out if the drug was effective. At times the work could be pretty interesting -- I do have the unique distinction of printing the smallest ever portrait of Homer Simpson -- but I still never loved it the same I way love playing the timpani.

MM: That sounds like quite a workload! So while you were doing this, how did you stay organized enough to prepare for the MET audition?

JH: In some ways, it was sort of a "scientific approach" to practicing. And I don't mean sacrificing the aspects of musicianship and "artistry" that can't be quantified, but rather refining the more objective aspects of technique, time, rhythm, intonation, and the like. If you think about it, when we practice orchestra excerpts we're often trying to solve a set of technical problems. And that involves deconstructing a spot, proposing a solution to it, testing it, recording yourself and playing for other people, and then analyzing the results to see if your solution worked. Well...that is the original scientific method!

MM: It is!

JH: And time management was critical. I started taking auditions seriously back in 2007 -- the MET was my 28th timpani audition. I’d considered going back to grad school for music, but then I really drilled into what my Civic Orchestra friends were doing in their masters programs: basically, they were studying with excellent teachers, getting experience playing repertoire, and practicing like crazy. I figured "I don't need to be in school to do those things," so I sought out great teachers independently and just practiced like crazy.

MM: What did that look like with your engineering schedule?

JH: Yeah, pretty intense. I got very much into the concept of "deliberate practice" -- the idea that practicing should be an exhausting and feedback-intense process, with extensive recording, note-taking, mock auditions, and progress measuring. It actually overlapped perfectly with an aspect of my nanotech job called "process engineering" -- the acceptance that you’ll never be "done," but rather that it's an obsession with continuous refinement. So I would usually get in a couple hours of deliberate practice before work, get home, take a brief nap to recharge, and then practice another 3-4 hours. During the next day's lunch break I'd analyze the previous day's practice recordings, and chart a plan for the coming evening. I kept playing in Civic, and then freelancing with as many regional orchestras as I could after that. Incidentally, I kept rough estimates of the total practice hours I’d logged, and I started consistently advancing at major auditions right around 10,000 hours

MM: Having worked in the "real" world, it must be a really interesting shift to come into an orchestra like the MET.

JH: Absolutely. But it's phenomenal -- such a thrill and a privilege. Because one thing that I can enjoy now is that every day is immersed in art!

MM: Yeah...it can be easy to forget that being in the pit night after night...

JH: Totally. And it's still very fresh for me. But I'm so happy getting to do this. That said, it's also an unbelievable amount of work! It's interesting that orchestral players frequently encounter the perception that playing in an orchestra isn't a "real job" -- that it's easy, and you don't work that much. What's fascinating to me is that I'm now working harder than I've ever worked before, and that's relative to my previous nanotech career where I was racking up numerous patents and publications!

MM: It's nice to hear some validation of our hard work!

JH: Of course! The real trick is making it look easy -- that's part of what makes the MET Orchestra such an incredible ensemble.