Classically Trained: Living a soloist’s symphonic dream

Jessica Pearlman is the the principal oboe player of the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony.

LONG BEACH — Today if somebody asked, “Is there a doctor in the house?”, Jessica Pearlman wouldn’t raise her hand. But had her life taken a different course, there’s the possibility she would be performing surgery instead of Beethoven.

That’s because Pearlman, the principal oboe player for the Pacific Symphony, was at first en route to be a doctor.

“I wanted to be a scientist and I wanted to go to med school,” Pearlman said. “That was my whole dream.”

To achieve that dream she began studying neuroscience at Oberlin College. Pearlman even interned at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the neurology department for a summer.

Fortunately studying medicine didn’t force the 26-year-old Long Beach resident who’s from Half Moon Bay — a tiny coastal town south of San Francisco — to give up her musicality that began at age 7. She did both at Oberlin. It was the perfect choice: a college with a world-class conservatory and top-notch pre-med program.

But after four years — and bachelor’s degrees in oboe performance and neuroscience in hand — Pearlman was at a crossroads. She was in the lull between post-graduation and applying for med school, thoughtfully considering going the burgeoning doctor route or aspiring musician course.

Eventually she decided to face the music dream and go for it. She loved playing and wanted to pay respect to her many teachers who nurtured her skills all those years.

“With music, it’s an all-or-nothing thing,” Pearlman said. “You just can’t half-way do it.”

So she continued her world-class music education, finishing a master’s at Juilliard. All the while, like many aspiring professionals, she took audition after audition — about 15 — usually on English horn. Sometimes she got into the finals or semifinals. Sometimes not.

“There’s something addicting about taking auditions,” Pearlman said. “You want to get better. You want to pass more rounds. You want to get to the finals. You want to win the job.”

Orchestral auditions are anonymous and blind — to the point that the musicians play behind screens and judges or committees can’t see them. They only hear them.

“It’s one of the most bizarre experiences,” Pearlman said. “When we play, we usually play for someone, unless you’re practicing at home, but you usually have an audience. So it’s so disorienting to just look into the screen.”

But her training and practice playing behind curtains for friends paid off when she won the job for the Costa Mesa-based Pacific Symphony. The audition was so memorable that she remembers the exact date: Sept. 4, 2009. She started her new job about 10 days later.

It’s no accident that Pearlman got into music at a young age. Her father is an amateur jazz/rock drummer, her mom a violinist (and concertmistress of Half Moon Bay’s Coastside Community Orchestra) and her grandmother plays flute, piano and sings.

“It was certainly my grandmother’s dream to be a professional musician, so she’s just over the moon now,” Pearlman said. “She always tunes in to when we have concerts. It’s really cute.”

Pearlman’s mom started her daughter on violin at age 7. Pearlman admits she wasn’t very good, but she stuck with it.

That is, until attending an orchestra camp. Being not the best of the violins, she sat in the back with the second violins, close to the oboes. Then the woodwind instrument played the tuning note for all to hear. Pearlman took notice.

“I turned around and thought, ‘What’s that weird sound?’ I just sort of fell in love with it that week,” Pearlman said. “That’s when I came home and begged my mom to let me play it.”

But Mom said no.

“So I kept bugging her some more,” Pearlman said, “and finally she said yes!”

So for her 12th birthday, Mom rented her an oboe and got some reeds. But does Pearlman still keep up with her violin? Can she jump into the Pacific Symphony’s string section on a whim?

Always quick to laugh, Pearlman insists she couldn’t — especially considering her violin is safely resting in the closet of her Belmont Shore apartment. It’s across the way from her impressive vinyl collection of vintage orchestral recordings.

Like many professional musicians, Pearlman keeps a busy schedule. She does substitute work for other orchestras, performs a little in the studios, and teaches at Long Beach City College and Mt. San Antonio College. She has about 10 students.

When the oboist isn’t playing or teaching, she enjoys volunteering at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach and, on occasion, keeping up with her neuroscience degree by reading journals and articles.

A favorite moment for Pearlman so far was her first concert with the Pacific Symphony. The orchestra performed Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 — a piece with a major oboe solo. It was one of the required solos she played to win her job that let her play for Orange County audiences.

That was a fact Carl St.Clair, the symphony’s principal conductor, pointed out to the audience.

“I love the way he conducts,” Pearlman said. “I love the way he gives us freedom as musicians, especially for me in a solo position. To get to play solos — it’s just amazing. It’s a dream. It really is a dream.”

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. E-mail him story ideas at