Q&A with APO Principal Clarinet, Jonathan Cohen

APO’s Ben Gemmell talks to APO Section Principal Clarinet Jonathan Cohen about his musical background, how he coped with lockdown and the conductor who stabbed himself!

What is your background in music?

I started on violin when I was five and I played that for three years and I hated it…but I love violin now! I switched to clarinet when I was ten. I wanted to play oboe as well, but my dad was a clarinet player and so we always had clarinets laying around. I’m a third generation clarinet player actually! My grandpa also was a clarinet player. He went to Julliard, and I did too.

Did you always want to be a professional musician?

I think so. I never made a conscious choice to become a musician. I went to a boarding school in Michigan and by my junior year, I was pretty dedicated to music. I really liked it, and I guess if you show enough aptitude at a certain age and you get enough praise – it’s like, yeah, I’ll keep doing it!

What brought you to New Zealand – was it this role at APO?

Yes, this job. Melanie Lançon (APO Principal Flute) knew one of my friends from a music festival in Colorado – this is the ‘small world’ nature of music! Melanie asked my friend if she was interested in this role and she had to turn it down, but she recommended me instead. I said yeah, I’ll come to New Zealand, definitely.

You know, music gives you the ability to travel anywhere. And as an American, we fantasise about it a little bit because of things like Lord of the Rings – but I never thought I’d get to this part of the world. It’s so far, it’s so expensive…, and to have the ability to come out here and play music is amazing.

Also, I started dating a Kiwi guy when I moved here and I think that helped influence my desire to come back!

So you were obviously playing in orchestras back home before you came to New Zealand?

Yeah, after I finished my Masters, I went and played with this orchestra in Saint Paul, Minnesota for a couple of years. When those contracts ended, I went back to New York and freelanced there for two or three years or so. Nothing permanent, just always doing freelance work.

What is your craziest story about being a musician in an orchestra?

Hmm…well I had a conductor once who stabbed himself. He just accidentally impaled his arm with the baton while conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony! Batons are generally not that sharp, but I guess it’s possible when you’re very expressive with your movements and gestures. Everyone was like…did that just happen?

How did you find lockdown in New Zealand?

I moved to New Zealand in February of this year and had only been in Auckland for just over a month when the first lockdown happened – it was quite strange!

I made some videos like the APO Coffee Breaks which were fun but took a lot of time. And I had a little routine. I was in a house in Mt Eden with two other flatmates who were working from home. I practised for two and a half hours in the morning and then I’d go for a run in the afternoon. And I was trying to teach myself some computer skills like coding and programming. Also reading, watching movies and TV. I watched the entire Sex and the City and Vikings series!

What are your interests outside of music?

I used to play video games, but not so much anymore. Call of Duty, ‘shoot-em-up’ games. I go to the gym, I like to run a lot, definitely a big reader too. I took up boxing after the first lockdown, just as a fun thing to do.

Is being fit important to you as a musician performing?

Yes, it helps so much, but more the mental side of it. And, as a wind player, the cardio’ too. It helps with everything we do.

What are your plans for Christmas this year?

We’re going to my partner’s family house in Tauranga. Also I think we’ll buy a Christmas tree and put it up in the apartment – a real one! I would like to do full-on decorations.

I wish I could see my family back home. We are not huge Christmas people per-se, we would just go on a trip somewhere each year. We stopped doing presents a long time ago…instead, we just go on a nice beach vacation somewhere in the south.

So a summer-time Christmas is unusual to you?

No it’s not – I spent last Christmas with my partner in Sydney and that was pretty beachy!

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