Violinist Justin Bruns is the associate concertmaster of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, concertmaster of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, an accomplished chamber musician and soloist. Justin and I have worked together since 2011 at Cabrillo; and for a few programs, he was guest concertmaster with my group, the Louisville Orchestra. I know him to be a fearless interpreter of both new music and standard repertoire. He’s a violinist who not only can play anything, but one who can play anything eloquently and elegantly. Between services in Santa Cruz, CA, we sat down to talk about a life in music. This conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.
Robert Hunt Simonds: You grew up in Colorado. Were there any musicians in your family?
Justin Bruns: Both of my parents had music education degrees. My dad sang in the choir in church and my mom played the piano. On my dad’s side, my extended family, there was a long tradition of singing, being in choirs, and playing in bands.
Did your family listen to a lot of music in the house?
We listened to classical music…and I was always practicing on top of it.
You started the violin at 3 years old and as I understand it, you took to it like a fish to water.
Yeah, it just always made sense; I never thought twice about it.
I still clearly remember one of the first concerts that I heard as a kid that deeply inspired me. It was a recital Joshua Bell gave at Jordan Hall in Boston. Do you have any early concert memories like that?
The thing that I can remember of that caliber was hearing the Cleveland Quartet play with Weilerstein. I was just a child and the program was Beethoven and maybe some Haydn. It was so solid; it sounded like one voice. I had no idea that you could get that blend. And then later, I got to go to a dress rehearsal to hear Yo-Yo Ma play a concerto in a dress rehearsal with the symphony.
What about a formative recording? For me, the day that I was first introduced to Henryk Szeryng was a revelation.
The first recording I listened to endlessly was Brahms C Minor Piano Quartet with Stern, Ma, Ax, Laredo. I just love the piece so much, I could barely stand it! I listened obsessively to that one recording.
You did your undergrad at the University of Michigan. I had great teachers and coaches and I still think about what I learned in school almost daily. What did you retain from college? For instance, did you learn how to get more organised in your practicing?
I did not. I was already working super hard… all the time. Mostly because I had no other skills in life. Practicing is what got me up in the morning and got me through the day. I just loved music so much and I think the great thing about my undergrad experience was getting to see how you could do a lot of things in the world through loving music. Michigan was great for that because it is huge, and there were so many things for me to experience – things which were not accessible to me as a child in a little, rural community. On top of it, there were so many faculty willing to listen to me, but I can’t really pinpoint specific techniques or practice habits I learned. Exposure was the most important thing.
In grad school [Rice University], they were very goal oriented. It was much smaller. The benefits were different but appropriate for me. Having less students, you started interacting with other students more directly. People played for each other all the time. They’d go from one practice room to another and say “can you listen to these eight bars.”
So interaction with peers was the main difference between undergrad and grad school for you?
How I interacted was different. Everything, all musical efforts became more analysed, very conscious and very intentional.
If you could go back and give your younger self some advice, what would that be?
Be kind. Be more kind. Don’t worry about proving yourself. Just put the work in. I have to remind myself of it all the time but I just think that life is better with this in mind.
That’s great. Music is such a personal thing that the right person saying the right thing to you at the right time can make a huge difference. After I was in my first job, I met perhaps my most important mentor, someone I can still lean on for both musical and career advice. Do you have any relationships like that?
I would say that in every place I’ve been, there has been a person or two that I could always go play for or talk through concerns. I think it is very important so that you don’t decay, get burned out and lose inspiration. When you talk or play for someone, there’s a mirror examination of each other. It allows you to make sure that the conclusions you draw are true and are actually helpful for your job or your playing. Sometimes I think about something super-detailed like how my shoulder moves, and it has been interesting to get a check-in with a couple of people and realise that I was getting totally stuck in a small detail that really doesn’t matter in the way that I thought it mattered. And also, sometimes you learn that you’re not saying your musical phrase as you want to, without outside advice.
Reflecting on what you know now, if you were to give a talk to a hypothetical audience of the deans of the major music schools, is there something you’d want to let them know that music education is missing?
I wish there had been some guidance on nutrition, health, fitness, and retirement. These things are important and getting them started early is essential.
It seems that in general, I didn’t learn about the ins-and-outs of making a career. And the places that do career-planning seem to focus on the entrepreneurial side— which is fine, but there are other things to know about. If you’re thinking about having a job in an orchestra, you need to learn about playing in an orchestra. At Michigan and Rice, I had two good experiences where the orchestra directors helped develop those skills. As a professional listening to auditions, we can hear some really fine playing but it’s obvious who has thought about how to play with a group — as opposed to by themselves — and I’m not surprised to hear that their teachers are chamber musicians or soloists.
I too have sat on many auditions and have found that the horror stories told in school that only robotically precise players win auditions simply isn’t true. We hire well-rounded players and rarely does the most “perfect” player win.
Well then you’re in a great place. You can hear behind a screen if someone is being attentive to only being perfect but nothing is happening. And whether or not committee members realise it, there is some subconscious registering of that. The thing to realise, is that no one wants you to fail; they want to hire a great musician.
When I was finishing up college I was so hungry for an orchestra job that I still remember vivid details of my first meaningful gigs subbing with really good orchestras. What was your first professional work?
I was lucky that my hometown orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, hired me as a sub for years before I won a job anywhere. I remember a great Alpine Symphony, Mathis der Mahler, and Mahler 6. I loved it.
You’ve been in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 2006. Have you developed any strategies or practices for your chair? I’ve been a principal second for a while and I’ve developed some theories on how to be effective. Tell me some of your thoughts on being great in your associate concertmaster chair.
You have to be as prepared as the concertmaster. Your role is to reinforce what the leader is doing, whether it’s character or tempo or dynamics or part of the bow or vibrato speed. And so it’s always a fine line of knowing how to assert yourself and support what is going on around you. It is different than first chair.
I know you best as a concertmaster; we’ve been working together here in Cabrillo a long time. What are the main things you try to bring to the concertmaster’s chair?
I want to be so prepared that I can anticipate something that is needed, like a change of dynamic or change in tempo or any adjustment. When I’m concertmaster, I am trying to listen for what people around me need to get the job done. Does that make sense?
Absolutely. Do you spend a bigger percentage actively listening or actively leading?
During rehearsals, it evolves over the week. At the beginning, I just want to make sure I know what I am doing and it evolves over the first two rehearsals. All of a sudden what needs work becomes clear. By the end of the rehearsals and when the concert comes around and everything is as close as we can get it, then we can just go out and do our job of saying something and making music.
I know that teaching, outreach, and community engagement are important to you. Do you think this will be a bigger part of the job in the future?
It has to be for us to stay relevant and to be beneficial to the community-at-large — not just paying audiences.
The 20th Century composers that I first really got into as a kid were Bartok and Shostakovich. Sometime a little later, I heard Milton Babbitt and was both confused and completely captivated. What composers are your foundation in modern and contemporary music?
Bartok and Stravinsky were my gateway drugs. I had a fair amount of George Rochberg in my life, which was interesting. In his String Quartet #No. 3, his music looks back to Beethoven and he was one of those composers that was so cerebral.
You were drawn to this music as a kid?
Not as a kid. I listened to no new music as a kid. This was in college.
Who are a few of the composers whose music you are most excited by these days?
A classmate of mine, Caroline Shaw is really interesting. And I really dig this Brooklyn kid named Judd Greenstein. There’s a composer in my orchestra, Michael Kurth, who I think gets what’s happening now.
Before we finish up, I want to ask you some productivity questions. Do you have a rigid practice structure? Do you have office hours, so to speak? Or are you more governed by the demands of what is coming up?
I don’t think it is possible to stay rigid. Because you can’t as an adult in real life. You have to take care of things. Prepping for work is about what is needed. Sometimes pieces need way more work than others. I believe maintenance is very important for the long run.
Do you have fixed routines or do you actively break them up?I try and mix it up all the time. Bach, Gavinies, The Daily Dozen by Dounis is great. Good old Galamian and Flesch. But always Bach in between… and sometimes Paganini if I’m feeling brave.
Any new recording recommendations you want to share?
The Dirty Projectors’ new album. I love the direction they’re going.