Interview with Joseph Golan

Joseph Golan, a friend and colleague who is one of Chicago’s most successful and versatile violinists, was a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for nearly fifty years. In addition to performing with the CSO, Golan was also busy in the jingle studios, teaching, playing jazz and fronting his own band. Read our interview with Golan below.

(MPR) Welcome to the Musicians Professional Resource, Joe. Tell us about your first exposure to music and how you decided to study the violin.

(J.G.) I was born in Chicago and the first member of my family to be a professional musician. My father did sing at temple for the Kiddish and my mother played one piece on the piano. I heard Jascha Heifitz play the violin on the radio and wanted to hear him in person. My mother took me to a recital of his and besides meeting and hearing him, I also got his autograph, which I still have in my scrapbook. I received a tin violin for Hannukah, but didn't like the sound, so my parents got me a quarter-sized violin and started me on violin lessons with a friend of the family. After three lessons, he said I should get a better teacher and I started taking lessons with George Perlman. I was four years old at that time.

(MPR) What were your musical experiences like while you were growing up?

(J.G.) By the time I was five years old, I was already getting a variety of playing engagements ranging from recitals and club luncheon performances to concerto solos with orchestras. This was during the Great Depression and my family needed this financial supplement. As I grew older, I also did odd jobs to help out like being a delivery boy on my bike for a grocery store. In my teens, I got gigs playing for special occasions for friends and relatives. When I was sixteen, I tried to get a job with one of the radio staff orchestras. At Chicago's Radio Station WGN, I was told that, instead of working as a musician, I could work as a record turn-table operator. That turned out to be my first Musicians Union job.

(MPR) How much formal education have you had and how do you value that?

(J.G.) I went to the University of Chicago from kindergarten until I received my B.A. in Liberal Arts. I never went to music school. At the U. of C., although I was on a music scholarship, my activities there were concentrated in sports. I was on the high school baseball and wrestling teams and a major letter winner on the college baseball team. I didn’t further my formal education after that because I was getting very busy in professional music.

(MPR) What where your earliest jobs like?

(J.G.) Prior to finishing college, I was the Concertmaster of the Chicago Civic Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's training orchestra. I also played in several dance bands and did some violin teaching. After graduation from college, I played a year with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. After my first season with the New Orleans Symphony was over, I drove back to Chicago to look for work. I got a job with the Griff Williams dance band, and two weeks after leaving New Orleans, the Griff Williams orchestra started its tour back in New Orleans. While there, I saw the new conductor of the N.O.S.O. and he told me that he would not renew my contract with the orchestra for the following season because he didn't "want any dance band fiddlers in his orchestra". During my time in New Orleans, I went up and down Bourbon Street sitting in with many different jazz groups. After returning again to Chicago, I once again played as Concertmaster with the Civic Orchestra. I also played, as the only string player, for all the shows at the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

(MPR) How did you learn to play jazz?

(J.G.) I learned to play jazz by sitting in with great jazz musicians. Among the jazz violinists I either played with, or played for, were Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, and Johnny Frigo. I was fortunate enough to have a knack for improvising in many different styles, without ever having a formal lesson in any of them. I love to improvise not only in the jazz styles, both acoustic and electric, but also in gypsy, klezmer, country, and different "classical" styles.

(MPR) How did you happen to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

(J.G.) While playing Concertmaster with the Civic Orchestra, its conductor, George Schick, who was also the C.S.O.'s assistant conductor, said that I "should be in the C.S.O." Fritz Reiner was to become the new Music Director of the C.S.O. the following fall season. While Dr. Reiner was completing his final season as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Schick arranged for me to fly to New York for a private audition with Reiner. In spite of how poorly I thought I played for him, he hired me.

(MPR) How did people outside the CSO learn about your talents?

(J.G.) Apparently, the word must have gotten around that Golan could handle any kind of violin work. However, because I was also active in reforming the musicians' union and getting a reputation as a "trouble maker", the word also got around, "don't hire Golan." So, as busy as things got for me, my career was also slowed down somewhat by those who wanted to keep union reform from happening. Even at the C.S.O., I kept getting demoted year after year. Contractors in the jingle recording field limited my work there as well. In spite of all of this, I managed to not only survive in the music business, but prosper. (Editor’s note: during Golan’s early days in the C.S.O., the string players were assigned specific fixed chairs within their sections. Later. the members of all string sections, other than the first two stands, began rotating their seats within their section. Golan’s demotions, referred to above, were to a seat further back in the section.)

(MPR) When and how did you start teaching?

(J.G.) When I was about sixteen, people who knew of me as a violin player asked me if I would also be their violin teacher. I took on private students, including beginners. As time went on I also prepared students to be able to work any kind of a job, such as strolling, learning the tunes and different styles, and how to prepare for an audition. After I became Principal 2nd Violin of the C.S.O., professional musicians who were preparing to take orchestra auditions would ask me to coach them, usually to go from their present job to a better one. They would fly into Chicago for several multi-hour coaching sessions. In some cases, it would pay off. The smarter ones knew that you could'nt expect a one time, one hour lesson, to work miracles. However, a few hopefuls must have thought it would.

(MPR) How did you happen to get into being a bandleader?

(J.G.) I spent a few years as a sideman for many bands; some steady bands and some pick-up bands. Eventually, I started to contract my own gigs. I never had a "book" or a steady group. Each job called for whatever was appropriate in the way of the type and number of musicians. I also played and contracted recording studio jobs for radio and TV commercials and record dates.

(MPR) That was fantastic! Now that you’ve retired from the CSO, what are you currently involved with musically?

(J.G.) I still do a little free-lance jobbing, some private teaching, and an occasional solo appearance.

(MPR) If the Internet had existed during your active career, do you believe you would have used it?

(J.G.) Probably.

(MPR) What advice would you like to pass on to young musicians starting out as professionals?

(J.G.) It is important for the young musician to know not only what goals to aim for, but also to know how realistic those goals are. It can be very difficult to judge one’s own potential. Therefore, it is helpful that the youngster seek input from knowledgeable, experienced, and trusted teachers and coaches. This will enable the "student" to better understand who he or she is at the outset, what goal or goals are within reach, and how to achieve them. Some musicians have unreasonably high opinions of themselves, others unreasonably low. Unfortunately, many are encouraged when they should not be, and many discouraged when they should be encouraged. This is because they are listening to the wrong people, perhaps parents and/or teachers or competitors. Besides being a good musician, other aspects come into play that lead to success in the music business. Some examples are as follows: be early for work, wear the right clothes, observe reasonable rules and protocol, don't bad mouth other musicians, don't show-off, and most of all, first impressions can go a long way in making or breaking careers.

Versatility can be an important asset. The more kinds of things that one can do well, will often come in handy. I will conclude this interview with a personal experience of mine with regard to versatility. Eight violinists from the Chicago Symphony auditioned for the position of Principal 2nd Violin. Sir Georg Solti had just assumed the post of Music Director. The first task he had dealing with personnel was to fill that chair. I played third, and afterwards went up to the balcony to listen to the next five auditions. When the eighth player had finished, I went back stage to learn the results. I was informed that two of us would have to play again. Inasmuch as the other violinist had played seventh, I asked him to go first. I had completely wound down and had no time to get my brain and body to respond to the challenge. My colleague refused, so we flipped a coin and I lost. I went out onto the stage first, feeling like death warmed over, when suddenly, I spontaneously started to talk to Solti, who was seated in the hall. I said, speaking to the Maestro for the very first time, "Mr.Solti, I like to improvise. Would you mind if I play a little jazz, gypsy and klezmer music?" For all I knew, Solti would say "Next"!!! However, he said, "Go ahead, Mr.Golan.” I then proceeded to warm up with my improvisations in all those styles. After about five minutes, Solti stopped me and said, "Mr.Golan, now that you've established the key of D Minor, would you please play the Beethoven Violin Concerto in the key of D Major?" I did, and I got the job.

(MPR) Thank you very much for a wonderful interview. The story of how you auditioned for and won the position of Principal 2nd Violin in the Chicago Symphony was fascinating. It showed that sometimes, you just have to do what is in your brain and heart. It was a wonderful lesson and demonstration of how you have to do what you can do best.