Gene Pokorny is a well established member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing Principal Tuba. He began his musical training early, not far from Los Angeles. “I started out on piano and eventually switched over to trumpet, then clarinet, and then finally, by junior high school, I was playing the tuba. I attended Warren High School in Downey, California. My second year there saw the school as having a population of 2,200 students with a total of 25 people in the band. To say it was a difficult situation would be an understatement. Afterwards, I attended the University of Redlands for two years; I decided to study at USC, so I could have regular Tuba lessons with Tommy Johnson ’56. He not only taught tuba at USC, but was also one of the finest players of the instrument anywhere. He set the standards high, but always made you feel like the goals were achievable.”
Pokorny began his professional career while still a student in the Los Angeles area. “I played in small community orchestras around the LA area when I attended school at USC and got paid gas money (sometimes). It was not really because of my local proximity, but I auditioned for and became a member of the 1973 Disneyland All American College Marching Band. There were people in that band from all over. In fact, I was the only one from Southern California at that time.” Pokorny had thought at one point of going into music education. “My interest in music was always geared towards classical music, but I was not convinced of being a performer. I first started out wanting to be a band director. That changed in 1973 when I heard an amazing orchestra play a concert of music of Gustav Mahler in San Diego.” He decided to pursue a career performing. “My first real position was playing in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which I did get at the conclusion of my graduation from USC in 1975. I felt very fortunate to get that position. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was looking for a tuba player because theirs had resigned. Zubin Mehta, Music Director of the Israel Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the time, asked his tuba player in the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Roger Bobo) who he should listen to for the position that was then open in Israel. Some of us in the LA area auditioned and Mehta heard some others in various places but he happened to choose me.”
Since his graduation from USC, Pokorny has amassed an impressive resume. He worked with the Israel Philharmonic from 1975-1978, the Utah Symphony Orchestra from 1978-1983, the St. Louis Symphony from 1983-1989, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1989-1992, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from 1992-1993. He then returned to the Chicago Symphony orchestra in 1993 and has been performing with that group ever since. While performing with the LA Philharmonic, Pokorny also worked in the studios playing for major motion pictures like Jurassic Park. “I actually ended up subbing for Tommy Johnson on that session. He had another performance and there were two tuba parts in that movie score. Jim Self DMA ’76 (who played the other tuba part) asked the contractor to hire me for the session since Tommy could not make it.”
Gene Pokorny has accumulated a number of tubas over the years. “I have not intended to be an instrument collector, but it turns out I have about a dozen tubas that I have collected. These are instruments that I actually use.”
Although he keeps a busy schedule, Pokorny always tries to find time to help young musicians. “I do teach but don’t have regular students. Many students will come to Chicago to take advantage of hearing the Chicago Symphony and take some lessons. They range in age from high school through college and professionals. I also get older players and hobbyists who are in their 70’s and older.
In addition to his daily practice on the Tuba, Pokorny believes in regular physical conditioning to be able to perform well. “I try to do some regular exercise at Bally’s and with that I do some breathing exercises which actually helps with the tuba playing. I am also a great believer in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. When asked about advice for young people trying to enter the profession, Pokorny is positive and practical. “I am encouraging to them but I also do not want to give them false hope. Before they go into an audition I want the students to try to understand exactly what is being sought by those who are doing the evaluating. The students themselves must understand that and they must know their own strengths. They must find ways in the audition process (which can last as little as two minutes) to get those factors to line up so they can be considered for further evaluation and perhaps a position.”
By Elaine Murphy ’96, DMA ’07