Expat in Focus: French hornist from Kansas on her way to Stara Zagora

Written by on January 29, 2018 in People - Comments Off on Expat in Focus: French hornist from Kansas on her way to Stara Zagora

There are thousands of so-called expats in Bulgaria. Some paint, others grow vegetables, some are diplomats, teachers or pensioners, at least one is setting up a goat farm, a few sell beer and food, and many work for call centres or in the IT world.

In the coming weeks, at least one more expatriate will be moving to Bulgaria, the land of feta cheese, rose oil and stunning mountain ranges: Breanna Ellison is from Kansas. And she does a whole lot. Apart from playing the French horn in orchestras, and the piano, she teaches music. Breanna is also a photographer and a travel blogger. Yes, one and the same person does all of that. Imanuel Marcus spoke to her.

Brenna Ellison with her French horn. Photo by Alexandre L. Thibault.

The Sofia Globe: Out of all the cities in the world, how come your choice is Stara Zagora?

Breanna Ellison: At the risk of sounding trite, I would have to say that it actually chose me. I was originally supposed to be at a different orchestra in Bulgaria, and then when that whole thing fell through, this opportunity in Stara Zagora just happened to become available. I had already learned Cyrillic script and was studying the language, so I was very happy to have found another job in Bulgaria.

The Sofia Globe: Have you been to Bulgaria? If yes: What have you seen so far and what is your impression?

Breanna Ellison: This might sound crazy, but I’ve never been to Bulgaria. Hungary is the closest I’ve gotten. I’ve seen photos, videos, have met several Bulgarians, but have never been. So I’m deciding to move cold-turkey. You only live once, right?

The Sofia Globe: True. So, you have played horn with a million orchestras, including the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. When it comes to composers, which ones do you enjoy playing the most? Is Dmitri Shostakovich among your favourites?

Breanna Ellison: Oh, your hyperbole is very kind. I was lucky enough to have played in many different groups throughout New England and the Midwest, though not quite a million. The French and Russian schools are my absolute favorite. Quirky, strange, tragic, hilarious, harmonically rich. Life encapsulated, truly. Definitely Shostakovich, Prokofiev wins me over every time, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Schnittke. I could go on and on. On the French side, of course Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc, absolutely Josquin and Machaut, wonderful Satie, Chopin. So many.

The Sofia Globe: Horn players are probably hard to find, and most of them might be male. How did you find and choose that instrument? What is the fascination about the horn?

Breanna Ellison: Sorry to say it, but again, the horn chose me. I had already been taking piano lessons, so I had a slight advantage when one day we were given a listening test to see which instrument we should play for a band. This was in fourth grade. After the band teacher had graded our tests, she whisked us away to the band room to try either brass mouthpieces or woodwind mouthpieces. I was able to buzz on the mouthpiece and, as I later found out, had gotten a perfect score on the listening test, so the horn it was. My band teacher, Renetta Dawson, was also a horn player, you see, so there was no escaping this one. She took me under her wing, taught me the instrument all the way until college, and really shaped me into the musician and person I am today. We’re still very close. Regarding this idea that some women have been told it’s a “boy’s instrument,” this is a hilariously archaic and impractical view on the discipline. I’m incredibly lucky to live in the time of Sarah Willis, of my dear teacher Frøydis Ree Wekre, of Denise Tryon, and of so many wonderful brass players who happen to be female. For any sexism in any capacity: I simply lead by example and pay it no mind. Old ways of thought that keep certain people at a disadvantage are slowly being dissolved. We just have to keep working.

The Sofia Globe: So, you also teach music, and you chose to use a method “which infuses the role of the artist with the curiosity of an educator”. What is that about?

Breanna Ellison: Right, so, let’s start with the idea that for many people, their birthright of being an artist has been stolen from them. Whether they were told they weren’t “talented,” they didn’t have an ear, or they just didn’t have that special something, they were discouraged from pursuing some artistic endeavor, music, visual art, dance, whatever it may be. I’m of the persuasion that talent isn’t real. Propensity is. Don’t get me wrong, nature versus nurture, people are just “wired” differently, we’re all unique and have our learning styles, yes. But this idea that you’re just given some gift and that it was just luck of the draw is, in my opinion, completely ludicrous and insulting to those who actually succeed in specialized skills. I could go on about the Artist-Teacher-Scholar methodology, but for the sake of brevity, “teacher,” meaning engaging the students, having student-centered lessons with clear communication and goals, “scholar,” meaning having this reflection-on-reflection view of the endeavor, looking at PPR, which stands for production, perception, reflection cycles of learning, being, for lack of a better word, philosophical about your learning process and how you learn, and “artist,” meaning you, the teacher, are some sort of artist who wishes to grant this birthright back to the student, or who wishes to encourage creativity in the young, and who brings this artist’s ability to build different realities of our perceived existence, to see things in different ways and be mentally flexible, and to encourage empathy in these ideas that connect us all. In a nutshell.

A glacier between Oslo and Bergen. Photo by Breanna Ellison.

The Sofia Globe: Let’s get away from the music and talk about a different art form, which also transports beauty. It’s called photography. I saw some stunning photos from Norway. Have you fallen in love with that country? What parts of Norway did you shoot?

Breanna Ellison: I’ve absolutely fallen in love with Norway and I only was in the Southern parts from Oslo to Bergen. Lofoten Islands are definitely on the list, Northern Lights, and all of that face-numbing goodness. There’s just a different vibe there. Everything is just so civil and right and I found the people so considerate and welcoming. Can’t wait to go back.

The Sofia Globe: Bulgaria is not only the poorest country in the EU, but also the cheapest one. In contrast, you wrote a travel blog about Oslo, where you might be charged 20 euro for just looking at a cup of coffee. How crazy is that city?

Breanna Ellison: It’s crazy in the best way. Not crazy at all as far as outrageous things happening, or people yelling or insanity happening in the streets, but prices are crazy, yes, especially originally being from the Midwest were you can buy once-worn designer shoes for $3 at a thrift store. For me, the craziness extends into the civility and trust and unbelievably beautiful nature. Things that would be highly monitored in the US are just in the open in Norway, like an emergency window breaker on buses, or the lack of screens on windows, or the lovely sheep at the top of Mount Ulriken, free from fences and able to mingle with those who succeeded the climb. These are just my observations, but I absolutely love that country.

The Sofia Globe: Can we expect photos from Bulgaria as well? When will you be ready to hit the mountain trail down here?

Breanna Ellison: That’s going to be one of the first things I do. I will definitely will be taking photos, although I’ll have to do a bit of research to see where I should explore first. Mineral springs are high on the list as well. Coming from one of the geographically flattest regions on the planet, I’m pretty excited for some elevation.

The Sofia Globe: Breanna, it was good talking to you. We hope we will be able to hear you play in Sofia one day. By the way: When will that happen?

Breanna Ellison: That, dear sir, is out of my hands, but I would love the opportunity.

Photo at top of page by Alexandre L. Thibault. Breanna Ellison’s website can be found here.



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