Salem native Brian Johnson has accomplished the musical equivalent of becoming a starter in the National Football League. Last year, the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted an international search for a new bass player. After years of hard work, study and practice and after competing against the world's top bassists in rounds of auditions and callbacks, Johnson won his seat in the LA Phil.
An avid Oregon Duck's fan, Johnson used the NFL as a comparison to put his accomplishment in perspective. Like football, music is a highly competitive profession. Only the tiniest percentage of players in the world — 106 in the LA Phil — make it onto a starting roster.dou
"The difference," Johnson said of orchestra, "is that people get these jobs and keep them their whole life."
Orchestra isn't a contact sport like football, but it's no less rigorous. Johnson practices at least an hour per day, but that's only his solo practice time. To be competitive in college and to master the bass, Johnson said took three to four hours of solo practice six days per week. Now that he's a professional, he estimates that he has the bass in his hands 35 to 40 hours per week.
"I'm playing the instrument more hours now than I did in college, I'm just spending less time in my room by myself," Johnson said. "It is very much a full-time job."
The L.A. Phil has two seasons of almost nightly performances — a summer season at the Hollywood Bowl and a winter season at Disney Hall. They also travel for tour performances. They play a constantly changing repertoire. Members participate in numerous educational outreach programs essential to the organization's mission. In his spare time, Johnson teaches at California State University, Fullerton, in addition to private lessons. In his free time, he golfs. Johnson debuted with the LA Phil in November. He will begin the start of his first full winter season with the orchestra on Sept. 30 in an opening night gala celebrating the music of John Williams. When Johnson won his spot in the philharmonic, he said that he was in a state of shock, unable to comprehend he'd be performing in LA's storied venues under the direction of the internationally renown conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
"When it settled in, it was overwhelming that I could be fortunate that something so amazing, that dreams, are coming true for me," Johnson said.
The son of Robert and Nancy Johnson, Brian was born and raised in Salem. He attended Crossler Middle School and Sprague High school where he was active in the band programs. He began playing electric bass in fourth grade, which is an atypical choice for young musicians.
"I wanted to be a rock star," Johnson said. "There were already too many people playing guitar." He began playing classical bass when he joined orchestra in sixth grade under the direction of Brian Griffiths, who is now director of bands at Corban University. Johnson still remembers his Sprague audition and how conductor Stephen Nelson followed Johnson and his dad to the car.
"He pulled my dad out of the car and said to my dad, 'I don't know if you really realize this but your son has an enormous amount of talent and I'm going to do everything I can to move him in the direction that he needs to go to be successful.'"
Nelson clearly remembers that day.
"I have encountered students of his stature before," Nelson said. "Usually it's more than what the parents can wrap their brain around, especially so if they don't have a music background. They're totally reliant upon a teacher's guidance or recommendation."
Nelson guided Johnson to Larry Zgonc, who was then principal bass at the Portland Opera and the Oregon Ballet Theatre.
"He pushed me down the right pathway to the right people to end up where I was," Johnson said of Nelson. "I still use some of the things that he taught me today in both my playing and imparting knowledge to the students I have today."
Johnson studied with Zgonc for three years and credits him with pushing him to apply to the nation's top music schools. Johnson attended one such school, Indiana University. He said that after college started all the pieces fell together until he ended up where his is today.
Johnson earned his master degree at Rice University in Houston. For six summers, he played for the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado. After graduate school, he earned a position at the Kansas City Symphony. After one year, he returned home to play for the Oregon Symphony for two years before moving to Los Angeles.
Johnson also credits his parents for his success.
"If I didn't have my folks giving me such unwavering support in my career I wouldn't be where I am today," Johnson said.
When Johnson made the LA Phil, his father, Robert, said it was a wonderful shock but not a surprise.
"Brian was a natural talent. We saw that from early on. We never had to ask him to practice," Robert said. "In his music, he's a very humble person ... It was like pulling teeth to get him to play at home."
"It's all quite remarkable when you see this stuff happen," Nelson said of Johnson's success. "We're forever indebted to these kind of kids. They leave something indelible when they leave a program."
Nelson said that the Sprague orchestra's annual Director's Award, the first of which was awarded to Johnson in 2004, is based upon the high standards that Johnson set during his years at Sprague. For young musicians, who are itching to graduate and pursue their dreams of being a professional performer, Johnson has some advice.
"There's no substitute for hard work," Johnson said. "I have seen time and time again both in my college years and after that it's not actual talent that gets people through, there are prodigies out there ... but what it really comes down to in the long run are dedication and hard work."
Johnson's hard work paid off, and he's grateful for his success.
"I think of that almost on a daily basis — how lucky I am," Johnson said. "I get to go to work and do something that helps everybody in the audience forget about the problems in their life or transport them to a place where they are moved by the music we're playing."