by Jennifer Steele
Many friendships begin in the dressing rooms of Heinz Hall, particularly for the women of the PSO. Such is the case with Becky and me. While we met through a mutual friend before I joined the orchestra in 1994, we became close friends in our dressing room after discovering we both grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and had many things in common. For example, we both love baking. Often, we bring each other samples of our latest baked creations to critique and admire. A recent recipe we tried was Martha Stewart’s Cinnamon Rolls with a secret ingredient. We both agree they are to die for, but I have to admit Becky’s batch came out better than mine!
When Becky joined the PSO in 1989 there were about 25 women, none of whom were brass players. There have only been a few other female brass players in the history of the PSO, however, Becky remained the only female brass player throughout her 34 year tenure. Recently, we sat down for a chat in our dressing room which is one of a few “overflow” women’s dressing rooms since now nearly 40% of the members of the orchestra are women. We reminisced about her time with the PSO and discussed her beginnings as a musician.
Becky started playing trombone in 1966 at age 10. By that time she was already quite familiar with all the Mahler and Bruckner Symphonies because her father was obsessed with them, playing various recordings incessantly in their home. Her parents were music and art aficionados and took their family weekly to the San Francisco Symphony, opera, ballet, theater and art museums. This made an enormous impact on how Becky’s life unfolded. When she began playing the trombone, Becky practiced religiously but discovered it was totally unacceptable for a girl to play trombone at that time and she was never “good enough” to be first chair in her school bands and orchestras. However, she managed to get the principal chair in the State and County Honor Bands. As a junior in high school, Becky won the prestigious Pepsi Cola/SF Symphony’s Young Musician’s Award which included a solo performance with the San Francisco Symphony and a week long trip to Paris with them as part of their European Tour. The same year, she auditioned and won second trombone in the San Jose Symphony, a position which had only opened up because her teacher, Robert Szabo, was kicked out of the union (unbeknownst to Becky) and therefore couldn’t continue.
Becky went on to attend UCLA as a music major. Once she began her classes in solfège and harmony, she quickly decided she was not cut out for music. “I switched to French, Art History and Psychology. It wasn’t long before I realized I wasn’t cut out for those either. I did however continue to play in the UCLA Band and Orchestra under Mehli Mehta, Zubin Mehta’s father. He halted a rehearsal in which I was the only trombonist and berated me loudly and at length about being unable and unqualified as a woman to play any brass instrument.” Becky quit school, and worked briefly as a security guard before finishing her BA in Trombone Performance at California Institute of the Arts studying with Byron Peebles, the Co Principal Trombonist in the LA Philharmonic at that time. She attended Yale School of Music for her graduate degree where she studied with John Swallow. The conductor of the Yale Philharmonia also made a special point of telling her that women couldn’t play the trombone and never allowed her to play principal at Yale. After school Becky played with the Springfield (MA) Symphony for about 8 years while teaching at University of Connecticut, Wesleyan University, Hartt School of Music and freelanced in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. She received an invitation to sub with the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv for the full opera production of Wozzeck. Subsequently, she was asked to sub on their tour with Leonard Bernstein, a big musical highlight.
For 10 years, Becky “slogged away” at orchestral auditions wondering if any conductor would ever hire a woman trombonist for a full time position. While pursuing her freelancing, she continued to collect an impressive array of rude comments from other conductors and musical figures. “Maurice Abravanel, a renowned conductor at the time, stopped a rehearsal to ask me whether I was a boy or a girl! It was the 1970s and I was horrified.” Imagine if that happened today! In 1989, Lorin Maazel appointed Becky as Co-Principal Trombone of the PSO.
A couple of friends from our small dressing room offered some parting words. “Becky’s experiences as a trailblazer for women in the PSO and larger brass world make her one of the most powerful artistic voices in our orchestra. But it’s more like a secret superpower because she’s not showy or loud. She’s been a safe space for me to talk through some of my job and life-related issues”, says Allie Lee, cello. “Becky has been a kind and compassionate colleague and has great advice on everything. I will truly miss her”, added Kristina Yoder, violin. It’s hard for me to imagine our cozy dressing room without Becky. We have shared so many laughs and tears as we’ve struggled with the inevitable ups and downs of our careers, motherhood and living in this world. I’m so grateful I was assigned a locker next to hers when I joined the orchestra 28 years ago. Her absence in my daily work life will be felt, but I look forward to bringing her my latest baked goodie and sharing a cup of coffee with her in retirement. Becky will miss her friends and colleagues from our dressing room because “It has always been a safe haven where all of us have a wonderful camaraderie”. Finally, she will greatly miss her section, the low brass, and the “constant kibitzing and beautiful section playing in this fabulous orchestra.”
In retirement Becky plans on painting, reading, writing, cooking, baking, playing mixed doubles with her husband, enjoying time with her animals and spending time with her children, if they will let her!! She will continue listening to her favorite music, visiting great works of art and maybe even practicing the trombone from time to time.