Member Focus - Roger Cole
Posted October 04, 2021 by
We recently sat down with Roger Cole, who has been a VMA member for over 43 years. Roger was appointed Principal Oboist of the Vancouver Symphony by Maestro Kazuyoshi Akiyama in 1976. At age 22 he was the youngest principal player of the VSO. At his retirement, he was the oldest principal player. From 1976-2008 he was also the Principal Oboist of the CBC Radio Orchestra.
How did you become inspired to become a musician?
Both of my parents were professional musicians, and all of my siblings were musicians. I had no other desires. I knew from age 10 or 11 that I wanted to be a musician as well.
How would you describe your musical style?
I would describe it as expressive, with good rhythm.
Principal Oboist for the CBC Radio Orchestra – that is pretty cool, from 1976 – 2008 you must have seen a lot of growth in the industry and have some great stories. Are there any favourites that stand out to you?
The CBC Radio Orchestra was a fantastic orchestra and I still lament its passing. It was a recording orchestra. It was a very high-pressure job, and the CBC was responsible for keeping Canada connected, in many ways, not the least of which was artistically so I’ve been sad to see the strength of that diminish. We worked with so many young Canadian conductors, soloists, composers and helped them get their careers off the ground. People like Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is now the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, so it served a fantastic purpose.
Studying with Robert Bloom must have been quite something. Were you a fan of his before studying with him?
I have been an AFM Member since 1971 and in 1971, when I was a senior in High School, I won the position of Second Oboe in the Seattle Symphony. For one year, the Second Oboe player was on leave, so I had my first professional job when I was Senior in high school. The first oboe player was my teacher, Bernard Shapiro and the English Horn Player, Glenn Danielson had a massive record collection, a large portion of which were oboists. I went over to his studio several times and just sat and listened to various Oboe players and I decided that Robert Bloom was the Oboe player that I liked the most, although I was very enamored with Ray Still also. I was accepted at Northwestern and a Yale, which is where Robert taught, so I had my sights on studying with him and it all worked out.
As a teacher yourself, do you find you have one lesson or piece of advice that you keep coming back to for young musicians entering the industry? If you could provide one piece of insight as an artist, what would it be? If you could provide one more piece of insight into how to navigate the business/industry, what would that be?
My first piece of advice to any wind player is BLOW! My second piece of advice to Oboe players, which was given to me by my teacher is that the Oboe player’s job is to be expressive. That is often the rule we were given by composers in the orchestra. The Music industry for classical musicians is getting more and more competitive and my best piece of advice (which I give to all my students) is that if there is anything else that you really like to do, you might want to consider doing that instead of being an Oboe player, because the jobs are few and far between. It is not getting any easier, it is getting more difficult because all of these music schools are turning out incredible players and the number of orchestras that pay a living wage is diminishing so you have to be 100% committed to set your sights on an orchestral career. If you are not 100% committed, then you are not going to succeed.
You wear a lot of hats; principal performer (and soloist) with the VSO, instructor at the UBC School of Music and the VSO School of Music, Artistic Director of the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra, and you are also a conductor – Where do you feel the most fulfilled, and how does each role influence the others?
My most important job has always been being Artistic Director at the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra because we provide a place for the most talented young classical musicians in the lower mainland to meet and play music with like minded peers, which they cannot find sometimes in their own schools where many of them have slashed their music programs, so I feel that that is a really important job. Any teacher will tell you that teaching young people is a sacred profession. It is so important but having said that, obviously my 45 years at the VSO has been my life, really.
You have been a longstanding member of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. How has this perspective shift influenced your music and playing today?
When I first started, I was completely Green, but I knew a lot of the repertoire because I had been to all these music festivals. I played in my own youth orchestra in Seattle and played in my college orchestra, so I knew a lot of repertoires but playing it at as a professional was a completely different scene because you had four rehearsals, and then you had the show, so I really had to be incredibly prepared and a lot of the music I was playing for the first time. It’s always a pretty steep learning curve for any young orchestral musician but as time goes on, and the benefit is that I’m playing pieces for tenth or twentieth or thirtieth time, so I don’t need to re-learn the notes, but I still have to practice. There is no substitute for practicing. I wish there were but there isn’t. Coming from a Classical background, sometimes the recording world can be a little removed.
what was the experience of recording “The Expressive Oboe” like for you?
That was one of the highlights of my career, working with the great Vancouver Pianist, Linda Lee Thomas. That was yet another project of the CBC. I would not have had that opportunity without them. It came just at the right time in my career. I could use that CD as a business card and it opened a lot of doors for me, so I was very grateful to be able to do that. I made the premier recording of a great Canadian Oboe Sonata by Oskar Morawetz, so it was a great experience. I think we had three 3-hour sessions to make the whole recording.
Can you speak to what it is like being in a musician’s union? Why is it important?
I can boil that down to for me the most significant part about being part of a musician’s union is being able to negotiate wages as a group, not as an individual. The biggest pay off for anybody in the CFM is our incredible pension plan, which is still going strong. It has allowed me to decide to retire from the VSO. The VSO does not have a pension plan, so I am very grateful that I have the CFM pension plan. Any young musician that is not a union member, they are playing their gig, they’re getting paid but they aren’t contributing to a pension plan and that can be dangerous.
What projects are you currently working on?
At the moment, I’m teaching for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra Institute, which is a two-week summer program. It is online again this Summer although I did coach one small wind trio in person. In the past, it has been at Whistler and at UBC and it’s really catching on as one of the best summer music opportunities in Canada and you can chalk that up to the fantastic faculty that comes from the VSO. Other than that, I am doing a little bit of teaching then I will have some downtime and then starting in September, my main job will be the Vancouver Youth Symphony Orchestra.