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'Most People Aren't Used to Hearing This' - Joe Girard on Playing the Sax with the CSO

Written by Carrie Beth Wallace

Photos by Bryan Canonigo, courtesy of Joe Girard.

Joe Girard is a household name in the world of classical music. The highly successful saxophonist skyrocketed to success via his position in the Donald Sinta Quartet. A millennial who knows the value of hard work and dedication, Girard has four degrees under his belt - only three of which are in music.

Get to know the man behind the persona in our exclusive interview with Girard. Read on to learn his story, what music has taught him, and why he's excited to play this weekend with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.

Q: How long have you been playing the saxophone?

A: I started in sixth grade. So twenty years? I began on saxophone in the band at my middle school. I had taken piano lessons before that - I started when I was seven.

Q: Where are you from originally?

A: I'm originally from Canton, Michigan. It's about twenty minutes from Ann Arbor. I lucked out. It's an amazing place for music education in our country.

Q: It certainly is. How do you feel as though being from that area has shaped you as a musician?

Were your parents musicians as well?

A: My mom was an amateur pianist when she was young. She'd had lessons before, and then started taking again when we moved to Canton. I ended up starting studying with her teacher as well. She played almost every night at home, so I grew up listening to live music in our home from a very early age. That is really what I think the catalyst was for my desire to play professionally. My dad on the other hand, loves music and is a huge 70s and 80s rock fan. He can't carry a tune to save his life, but he is really appreciative of music and is very supportive.

Q: That's great. Let's go back to your early days. I always like for our audience to know how the person on stage got here. It's easy to forget that performing artists are people who have real lives and real stories - they're not just the artist you see on the stage. Art comes from people, and we forget that sometimes.

A: Absolutely. That's really true.

Q: You began saxophone in middle school. What were your high school and college days like? How did they shape you?

A: So that part of Michigan is really big into the Bands of America marching band culture. So that's what I did all summer and most of the fall every year in high school. It was a great experience and I learned a lot from it. It wasn't the most musically satisfying activity, but I took private saxophone lessons from a student at the University of Michigan.

University of Michigan is historically one of the top saxophone programs in the country. So I was taking lessons from someone who was studying there, and playing in their youth band on Sundays. I was strongly to that really strong music program all throughout high school, and ultimately it's where I ended up studying music and actually mechanical engineering.

Q: Wow. You doubled in engineering? That's impressive. The weight of a music degree is a lot when you take into account the classes, performances, rehearsals, and individual practice times... and then to add on mechanical engineering? That's pretty amazing, Joe. How did you balance it all?

A: I had to really learn how to manage my time well. I quickly had to figure out what was most important and how to practice effectively and efficiently from day one. I didn't always have a lot of time to practice. Some days I would be more of an engineer, and some days I was more of a musician, but I learned to balance my time very well throughout that process.

Q: I read that you stayed at the University of Michigan for graduate school. I can't imagine why you would have left, but what exactly made you stay?

A: Well, I stayed for a couple of reasons. The first was that I really wanted to study with Donald Sinta for two years without being distracted by engineering. And second, the University of Michigan Symphony Band was scheduled to tour China during the first year of my masters degree. I really wanted to be a part of that. They ended up featuring a saxophone quartet concerto on that tour because 50 years previously the band had toured the Far East and they'd featured our teacher as a soloist. They wanted to feature saxophone again because he was getting close to retirement, so I had to audition to be in the band to go on the tour and then audition to be in the saxophone quartet that was to be featured. That was really the big draw for staying at the University of Michigan for my masters.

It all worked out. The group that ended up touring in 2011 is still together. We are the Donald Sinta Quartet. That trip is how we began and since then we've had a bit of success.

Q: A bit?! That's a little humble. I'd call it more than a bit of success.

A: (smiling.) It's been wonderful. After I finished my masters I went to the dark side and attended Michigan State for my doctorate.

Q: And now you're here teaching and performing. You're featured with the CSO this week in not one, but two pieces for saxophone with orchestra. How has your background equipped you to do what you're doing now. I'm assuming you're not doing engineering now, right?

A: (laughing) No. I'm not working as an engineer at all. But I will say that engineering does inform my teaching.

Q: Really, how?

A: My approach to figuring out how the instrument repsonds is very much rooted in the science behind the instrument itself. Its idiosyncrasies and understanding the mechanics of the instrument, the sound, and how it all works. I think the problem solving side of engineering really informs how I practice and dissect things. It helps the way I approach issues on the instrument from that perspective.

Q: That is fascinating. I mean, really. What a gift that you have the bandwidth to approach playing and teaching your instrument that way.

A: Some people think you're either left brained or right brained, but I think one informs the other. Each of my interests - music and engineering - helps the other. I think it's really important to acknowledge.

Q: I see, and now you're also able to pass that onto your students.

A: (laughing) Well, I try. I want them to understand how the instrument works so they can solve the problems and understand the pedagogy.

To go back to your question about how everything in my career has prepared me for this weekend, I think that I've been really lucky to have performed nationally and internationally together has really informed the way I play now. We've been concertizing together since 2013 and performing anywhere from 40 to 50 concerts a year. The fact that I've been constantly performing and had to maintain what it takes to work up pieces for our concerts is huge. Our quartet plays completely from memory, and concertos with orchestras are always performed from memory. That's meant I've had a lot of experience with that process, presenting concerts, and talking about music from the stage. I have had to balance performing with teaching during all of it.

When I was in my doctorate was when our quartet really began to take off, so I had to figure out how to balance school work with performing really quickly. Now, I'm balancing teaching with performing still. The process of going through the last five or six years has really prepared me for what I'm doing now.

Q: That's amazing. I am enamored with the way that people's stories develop over time.

A: Yes, they really do.

Q: And now, our audience will have read this before the concert, and they'll know it's not just "that guy playing the saxophone" on stage. Musicians are people who have put in years of their lives and hours of preparation for the performance we see on the stage. The artistry behind it is so important, and I want our audience to know that there is so much that goes into the 20 minutes that we see of an artist.

A: Absolutely. It's not just the practice room that creates a performance, it's the global summation of experiences that make a performer - and their performance - what it is.

Q: Let's talk now about what you're playing on the CSO concert this weekend. What are some of the highlights you're looking forward to in this performance that our audience should know?

A: What's unique about this concert is that there is not one, but two unique saxophone concertos on this performance. It's a really unique opportunity. As a saxophone player, you know, you're just elated to be able to play with an orchestra. Then, when they ask you to play two, your mind is blown.

The first piece on the program is Alexander Glazunov's Concerto for Alto Saxophone. Glazunov is very much a 20th century composer that writes in a romantic style. So you're going to hear some similarities a little bit to maybe Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or Mendelssohn. I mean, that's the closest a saxophone is going to get to that type of music. There are some really beautiful themes in that piece that he transforms and manipulates in different ways throughout the piece. It's through-composed, and has some technical showy sections in it. There's a really fun cadenza in the middle of the piece where you get to manipulate time for a bit that's really neat.

The second piece is Jacques Ibert's Concertino da camera for Alto Saxophone.

I should say that both of these pieces were written around the same time for the same saxophonist. Sigurd Raschèr was a German-born saxophonist who had some success in Europe, but at the outbreak of World War II moved to the States and actually had a successful career here. He's one of the only saxophone players who's played with both the New York Philharmonic and Boston. The other person who has done that is Branford Marsalis. So, I mean, yeah.

Sigurd Raschèr is responsible for premiering both of these works. The Ibert concerto is another chamber piece in which there's actually eleven instruments - winds and strings. It's a short piece that people say was heavily influenced by the jazz that was happening at the time in Europe in the 30s. You will hear some of that in the articulations and the rhythmic styles. It's uplifting. The piece is in two movements and the first movement is very fast with technical showy sections with a beautiful theme. The second movement opens with a larghetto solo saxophone and then the orchestra enters with a bit of a lyrical opening before it just takes off with this allegretto that just takes off until the end. This concert is full of really fun music to play.

Q: It sounds like you're excited about it.

A: I really am. I don't think that most people have heard saxophone in this way before. Most people associate saxophone with jazz and rock and roll. The beauty of the instrument is that it's so versatile and powerful. Yet it was invented to be a classical instrument. Adolph Sax invented it and originally there were actually two sets of saxophones. Some were pitched for jazz and some for orchestra. The orchestra set has clearly dwindled. Initially the instrument was intended to bridge the gap between the brass and woodwinds, so it has a really warm and unique tone color that blends incredibly well with the strings.

This concert gives audience members a chance to hear the saxophone in a classical concert setting. Most people aren't used to hearing that style and that sound being played by a musical instrument. It's a great opportunity for people to experience something new in music, and that is always exciting. ◼︎

If You Go:

What: Joe Girard Plays the Sax When: April 13, 7:30 p.m. Where: Heard Theatre, RiverCenter

Cost: All Tickets: $35 ($10 student rush tickets day of based on availability) More to Know: ROARING 20s PARTY | 6:00 PM (Included with concert ticket)

Open Rehearsal | 12:30 PM Know the Score | 6:30 PM

Contact: For tickets and more information visit


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