The High Ground and the Low Down with Ruth Bylsma (flute) and Jacob Cameron (tuba)
Ruth in her musical home, DeVos Performance Hall, where she has been performing for many decades. (Photo Credit: GRSMA clarinetist Joel Schekman)
Jacob and his tuba on the balcony of the Carl Fischer building in New York City, taken during the 2018 GRS Carnegie Hall trip. (Photo Credit: Terry Johnston)
GRSMA explores the musical hills and valleys with flute player Ruth Bylsma and tuba player Jacob Cameron. Learn about their musical background as well as what they have to say about the upcoming GRS performance of Mahler's Symphony No 1 "Titan."
GRSMA: Where did you grow up, and were you part of a musical family?
Jacob Cameron: I grew up in a very small town, Mulliken, MI (population 500) and attended Grand Ledge schools. I enjoyed coming of age in a rural community and have fond memories of spending my youth exploring the outdoors.
Ruth Bylsma: I am a hometown girl, born and raised here in Grand Rapids. My father was a huge classical music fan. He sang in choirs and a male quartet, but he had no formal musical training.
Jacob: Both sides of my family are musical, in fact, my mother and father met while playing in the pit at the Tibbits Opera House in Coldwater, MI! I was fortunate to be exposed to an eclectic mix of jazz, classical, Bluegrass and popular music, either on the radio at a concert venue or performed at home. I have cousins who are professional musicians, and my Uncle Royden Swaffield is a former president of the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association, so music performance is both in my blood and my lived experiences.
GRSMA: Do you recall when you decided to make music your profession?
Ruth: I started playing in the Grand Rapids Youth Symphony when I was a junior in high school. We started the first rehearsal with "Finlandia" by Jean Sibelius. I think I missed every entrance because I couldn't stop listening to the music. This amazing sound was surrounding me. Then, after my senior year, I spent a summer at Interlochen, where I played principal in the World Youth Orchestra. We played so much incredible repertoire, and I was even more hooked. A highlight was playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto #3 with the renowned soloist Van Cliburn.
Jacob: I realized that music was the right path for me at a young age, and my memory is that it happened in middle school. I wasn't very interested in academics, but I loved to perform. I remember getting a set of classical CD's and scores while I was in middle school: the complete Beethoven Symphonies, Handel's "Water Music" and "Music for the Royal Fireworks," Bach's "Brandenberg" Concertos, and "Symphonie Fantastique" by Berlioz. I spent countless hours listening to those recordings while following along in the score, and that laid the foundation for my love of classical music. In addition, I was fortunate to attend Grand Ledge schools. It had an incredible instrumental music program, led by Director of Bands Michael Kaufman. The band program at Grand Ledge was focused on performing challenging concert music, and we had tremendous guest artists who came in to work with us, so it was a rich environment for someone who wanted to become a musician. Some of my closest friends went into music as well, so I had a support network around me to give me focus. There is no question in my mind that I wouldn't have become a classical musician if I had gone to a school with a less sophisticated and supportive music program.
GRSMA: Who are among your musical mentors and heroes?
Jacob: My first and most enduring musical relationship is with Phil Sinder, the Professor of Tuba at Michigan State University. I first began taking tuba lessons with him when I was a freshman in high school and was lucky enough to do undergraduate and doctoral degrees with him as well. I don't know how he was able to put up with me for so long! His beautiful tone and unique musical approach to the instrument gave me my musical ethics, the code I perform by. I have also enjoyed his thoughtfulness and humor as we have transitioned to colleagues and feel like I am a better person for having his influence in my life. The other main mentor for me is David Kirk, Principal Tubist with the Houston Symphony, who was my tuba professor during my Master's Degree studies at Rice University. His world-class tone and deeply thoughtful musicianship have also influenced my playing, and the combination of Kirk and Sinder generated the unique musicality I endeavor to bring to the concert stage.
Ruth: My mentor and hero was my beloved flute teacher, Darlene Dugan. I began taking lessons from her as a 10th grader. Her impact on my playing and my life is immeasurable. And there are hundreds, maybe thousands of flutists who can say the same thing. Darlene died on April 20 at the age of 89. Her influence in the flute world, especially Western Michigan, was remarkable.
GRSMA: Do you have a favorite composer or orchestral piece?
Ruth: I love musical pieces that feature a lot of color. Composers like Ravel, Mahler, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss are some of my favorites. It's impossible to pick one! I love the variety of music that I get to perform.
Jacob: It is difficult for me to isolate a favorite composer. My first true musical love was Bach, particularly his works for piano and organ. I am very fond of Beethoven's music, and many of the other great romantic composers such as Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, Wagner, and Rachmaninoff. I am particularly enamored with unique and original orchestration, especially as depicted in the orchestral music of Shostakovich, Ravel, Berlioz, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, whose orchestration still sounds fresh and progressive though it has been imitated by countless film composers.
GRSMA: If you weren't an orchestral musician, what career path would you have taken?
Jacob: That is a tough question for me! I really love to be creative, and I took great pleasure in reading and writing when I was young, so maybe the creative writing route would have been a good path for me. I have also enjoyed being an entrepreneur; I created a touring brass quintet called Spectrum Brass which was fairly successful for a while, and I currently help run Cameron Leadership Consulting, which is a family business focused on training current and future leaders in public health. Both ventures have involved a lot of content creation (writing copy, creating branding, building websites, editing photos, and developing presentations), all of which I find gratifying.
Ruth: I never really had a chance to think about that. I won my position with the GRS when I was 19. I was getting a double major in flute performance and music education, so I would have applied for a music teaching position after graduating. Instead, I was performing in a professional orchestra and teaching lots of flute lessons. The year after I graduated from college, I had 50 flute students!
GRSMA: What are your hobbies or interests?
Ruth: Of course, I love spending time with my husband, kids, and grandkids (there are six and counting!). For mindless relaxation, I love to do crossword and jigsaw puzzles, play Trivial Pursuit, and beat my husband at Cribbage.
Jacob: I have three young children, ages 8, 6 and 2, so most of my free time is spent with my family. We have a vegetable garden and lots of flowers in our yard, and it is very rewarding to work the soil with my wife and children!
GRSMA: What would you say is the most rewarding part of being in the Grand Rapids Symphony?
Jacob: I am forever grateful to sit on stage performing and listening to the greatest works of art ever created. It is humbling and inspiring to play my role in a living, breathing work of art. I also deeply enjoy the musicianship and vision of Marcelo Lehninger, in particular, his dedication to creating an emotional performance while respecting the original intent of the composer. It has been truly wonderful to work with him.
Ruth: It is so exciting to make music with my talented colleagues. And it is also rewarding to bring a piece to life and know that it has touched the audience in such a powerful way.
GRSMA: The GRS has announced the 2023-24 season https://www.grsymphony.org/2023-2024. Is there an upcoming performance that you would recommend as a “must see” concert?
Ruth: That's like the question about who is my favorite composer! There are many of the composers I mentioned that are included in our upcoming season. I think everyone should just buy a season ticket! I will add that I am looking forward to hearing my fellow flutist, Chris Kantner, and our wonderful harpist, Beth Colpean, play the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto in October at St. Cecilia Music Center. Chris and Beth are such great musicians and colleagues.
Jacob: I am really looking forward to performing Prokofiev's Symphony No. 7 on March 1st and 2nd. In my opinion, nobody wrote better tuba parts than Prokofiev. His Symphony No. 7 isn't performed as often as the more famous Symphony No. 5, but is an amazing piece of music with a very active tuba part!
GRSMA: The GRS performs Mahler's Symphony No 1 "Titan" this month. Is there a favorite moment that you would like to share or highlight? https://www.grsymphony.org/mahler-titan
Jacob: Mahler's First Symphony is an incredible piece of music and has a very unusual moment for tuba. The third movement of the symphony begins with a slow funeral march, featuring solo instruments playing a minor-key version of "Frere Jacques" in canon above a somber bass line in the timpani. In one of the most delicate moments for tuba in the orchestral literature, the tuba joins the canon after a solo double bass, solo bassoon, and muted cello, creating a distinctly creepy atmosphere that is quintessential Mahler. This is one of the best moments written for the tuba in all of the orchestral literature, and I am excited to perform it in concert!
Ruth: Honestly, the only time when I wish that I played the French horn is when we do Mahler, especially Mahler's First Symphony. The entire section gets to stand up at the end and play this glorious, majestic music. It's their version of the flute section playing "Stars and Stripes Forever."
GRSMA: Watch for an upcoming feature article in our newsletter about Ruth Bylsma, as she will be celebrating her 50th year with the GRS in 2023-24 season!