Robbins’ path to French horn goes against family grain


Yemi Falodun | Staff Writer

Poised and ready, Mark Robbins took his French horn and blew. Ten minutes later, he was on his way to Chautauqua and beyond.

Robbins, along with French horn player and vocalist Gina Gillie and pianist Nataliya Pinelis, will now take the stage from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday in McKnight Hall. The program will include works by Paul Dukas, Mozart, Francis Poulenc, Richard Georg Strauss and some contemporary composers.

Robbins grew up in a musical household, where his mother was a cellist and his older sisters also played string instruments.

“Maybe I did something other than strings, because everyone in my family was a string player,” Robbins said, recalling his childhood in Maryland.

At that time, in the fourth grade, Robbins had his choice of instrument to play in his school band.

“The teacher came in and demonstrated all these different band instruments,” he said, “and then she played the French horn really well, because that was her instrument. And I just liked the way it looked and sounded. So, I told my mother, ‘I want that one.’ ”

Robbin’s affinity for the instrument was instantly noticeable as he worked his way into a community orchestra, which then led to him studying at Temple University in Philadelphia.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Robbins was looking for a way to make a living from his passion.

“My mother’s friend said, ‘You know you can make a living being a piano tuner? It’s very tedious, but it’s steady business,’ ” he said.

At the same time, a catalog about music classes was sent to Robbins’ mother.

“I signed up for a piano tuning class. I went to one class. I met with the teacher, and I had a falling out with him,” Robbins said.

So he rededicated himself to his most prized possession — the French horn. And then came the opportunity of a lifetime.

“The conductor they had here at Chautauqua was guest-conducting at the orchestra that I had just gotten into in Seattle,” Robbins said. “And I asked him for 10 minutes to audition for a possible spot.”

There was no spot available at the time. But his performance stuck with the conductor, who recommended Robbins for an open spot a short time later.

Now, Robbins is associate principal French horn with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and an adjunct instructor at Cornish College of the Arts. And soon he will take the stage with fellow Seattle resident Gillie.

Gillie, a music professor at Pacific Lutheran University, is also a French horn player, vocalist, and composer. She has a difficult challenge ahead, because she will be playing the horn and singing in the same program.

“I have to change up how I feel with the connection of my air, because I do breathe a little bit different when I’m singing compared to playing horn,” Gillie said.

But there are some carryovers that help Gillie in warming up both instruments.

“When you’re a singer, you really deal with tunes, phrases and with tone production,” she said. “And the horn requires you to be very particular about technique, articulation and rhythm, which makes you all the more in tune as a singer.”

It will be Gillie’s first time at Chautauqua, and she is looking to make it memorable for everyone in attendance, including Robbins’ 91-year-old mother.

“Maybe they can go away from the performance humming one of the tunes. That would be nice,” Gillie said.