The Value of Remaining Open to New Experiences

How clarinetist Sonia Sielaff sees the world

While on tour with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Taiwan, Sielaff was able to catch up with friend and fellow College of Music graduate Dr. Yi-Chen Chen in September 2017.
Sielaff, in England while working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, visits London's Hampstead Heath park last summer, with city skyline in the background.
In Davies Hall in San Francisco, Sielaff (second from left) celebrates the end of the last concert on the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's U.S. tour in January 2018, having just performed Stravinsky’s complete Firebird.
Sielaff during a tour of northern Norway while a member of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet Orchestra.
The Norwegian Opera House where Sielaff performed with the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet Orchestra for several years.

As a 10-year-old girl at Webster Magnet Elementary School in St. Paul, Minnesota, Sonia Sielaff had no idea where her early experiences with music would take her. As it turns out, they would take her all over the world.

With a supportive family and an inspiring band teacher, Sonia started on violin but took up clarinet not long after, playing both instruments for a few years. Her parents brought her and her sister to many concerts, Peter and the Wolf standing out in her memory as an inspiration. Little did any of them know that those early experiences would put her on a path to East Lansing, then Canada, Los Angeles and Norway, and now London.

In fact, Sonia Sielaff recently returned to London after an international tour as the Principal Eflat and Sub Principal Clarinet with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a position she has held since early 2017. So how did a young clarinetist find herself in this position? A lot of hard work and an openness to gaining new experiences.

Sonia earned her Master’s in Music Performance in 2005 at the Michigan State University College of Music while studying in the studio of Elsa Ludewig Verdehr, the acclaimed professor of clarinet known, among other things, for her performances with the Verdehr Trio over the past 40 years. Verdehr is also known for her teaching prowess, and although Sonia knew she wanted to be a musician there was some doubt at the time as to the particular direction she would take.

“While I was at MSU, I luckily got a position in the Lansing Symphony, so I sat next to Elsa and learned a lot from her while getting some orchestra experience,” Sonia said. “I went to the Aspen Music Festival and realized then that I wanted to pursue playing in an orchestra. I ended up going to Canada for a few years so I could take lessons, and after that I went to LA and did a similar thing.”

She then began auditioning “all over” and ended up with an offer to become part of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet Orchestra which performs in the Norwegian Opera House. Norway wasn’t even on her radar as a possible destination.

“I just always tried to take all the opportunities that came to me and tried to be open to anything,” explained Sonia. “I never imagined moving to Norway, but I ended up there in 2010. The opera house in Norway is the number one tourist destination. It’s a beautiful building with amazing acoustics.”

It was a big change and an exciting time in her life. She explored her Scandinavian heritage, met some relatives and learned the language. “I didn’t quite realize how Norwegian I was,” she said. “It was a pretty exciting twist!”

Then, in another exciting twist, she met the man who would later become her boyfriend. A Londoner who came to Norway to work as a substitute with the orchestra wooed her, which led to a five-year long-distance relationship. Did she ever foresee herself moving to London? Absolutely not. She loved Norway.

“I probably wouldn’t have even thought about moving to London if it weren’t for him,” she said. “Then I auditioned for the Royal Philharmonic and amazingly got a trial. The trial process goes on for a year or more, so I worked there on and off to see how I liked it. I found that it’s a really exciting atmosphere. There’s so much going on. The colleagues I work with are great, and there’s a good variety of repertoire. This was an exciting move.”

Sonia remembers her elementary band teacher in Minnesota, Mr. Hubbard, teaching them to play movie music and telling stories about studio musicians in Los Angeles. With the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, she sometimes records at Abbey Road studios in London and thinks of him. She is now the type of musician he would tell stories about.

Sielaff (circled) in the Webster Magnet Elementary School band in St. Paul, Minnesota. Influential band teacher Mr. Hubbard is on the far left.

“The RPO not only tours around the world, but we also perform and record a wide variety of music from classical to rock,” she said. “We travel around the U.K. performing school concerts, including relaxed concerts for kids with special needs. We’re definitely doing a lot of different things to appeal to a large variety.”

Sonia likes the variety and thinks it is healthy, too. She believes some people tend to stereotype orchestra musicians as being stuffy or elitist, so it is important to her to attract more than one kind of audience.

While her primary performance focus these days is on orchestral music, Sonia credits MSU and Verdehr with instilling in her an appreciation for a variety of repertoire.

“Elsa has just been an amazing role model. She taught us a broad spectrum of repertoire,” Sonia said. “She has such a work ethic and is so dedicated. Just hearing her warm up every morning and watching her work so hard has taught me about work ethic and finding your niche.

“One thing I credit to MSU is, we did such a variety of music,” she added. “All the clarinet students played in band and orchestra and chamber music. I played in the new music ensemble, and Elsa arranged a new music festival. That gets you to open your ears and open your mind. You realize that music and performance are not just defined as orchestra or solo repertoire but all different kinds of things.”

Those MSU experiences led to lifelong friendships, world travels and a plethora of great music. Sonia describes her journey so far as challenging and rewarding, scary and inspiring, exhausting yet healthy. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

So what’s next for Sonia Sielaff? Even she doesn’t know. For now, she’s enjoying her time with the Royal Philharmonic, reflecting on what it takes to succeed in today’s world as a musician, and above all remaining open to new experiences.

“I really think it’s important as a musician today to keep an open mind and be really open to all the opportunities that are out there,” Sonia said. “In some ways things are tougher today for students going into music. You have to learn all sorts of different things like speaking in front of audiences or using social media for promotional purposes. You need to be flexible, and I think if you’re passionate about what you do then it will work out. But you have to keep an open mind. I never would have imagined doing any of the things that I’ve done.”

Sielaff (front row, fifth from the left) with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on the steps of Royal Albert Hall in 2017. Sielaff is Principal Eflat and Sub Principal Clarinet in the RPO.

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