On a bright afternoon last August, I met favorite social media follow and Clarinetist with The Dallas Opera Orchestra Forest Aten. He effortlessly took me into the world of the Pit. Educated amongst great talent at UNT and SMU, Forest joined the SMU’s faculty while still a graduate student. Shortly thereafter he found his place as a contract player, immersed in music for the past 35 years, performing for all but ten of those with The Dallas Opera.
“We all make compromises in order to perform at the highest level,” he tells me how he became involved assisting fellow musicians negotiate contracts. Back in 1981, realizing he needed something to occupy the off-season, Mr. Aten took his love for Scuba diving to the next level as a guide on international Scuba-based trips, “the two seasons worked together perfectly, allowing for great travel. Wherever we took a group, I arranged goodwill showcases with local accompanists, often at the Embassies.” He passed on his spirit of adventure to his daughters, taking them on those Scuba expeditions.
He continues with élan, “Musicians tend to be quite adept underwater, it must be related to the total awareness required for performing in an orchestra.” Indeed, both activities lend themselves to a state of consciousness known as “flow,” presenting us with cascades of optimal neuro-chemicals. In fact, diving and orchestral performance share essential elements necessary for the flow state; as Forest described, there must be what is known as “deep embodiment” once one has established a “rich environment,” which manifest what writer Steven Kotler describes as, “a combination platter of novelty, unpredictability and complexity.”
Forest speaks enthusiastically about those he has worked with or been inspired by, his tone shifts as though switching gears on his motorcycle. Theorists who study flow states further describe how the process can be amplified by guiding others toward their own flow states, so it makes sense that Forest Aten’s teaching life is not limited to Scuba.
With his wealth of experience, coaching is another way our fearless Clarinetist maintains this optimal psychology, at places like Durango’s Music In the Mountains or the Arundel Festival in England. For over a decade he has participated in Kammermusik based in Santa Fe. Formed in 1996 by nurses who performed in Kansas City, they offer professional teaching for adult amateur musicians. Allowing folks access to the significant benefits playing music offers, preeminent players from across the nation tutor privately and develop small groups for one-of-a-kind performances. Originally focused on woodwinds, they eventually expanded to include strings, “It is extremely rewarding work, the camaraderie tends to bring folks back year after year,” the yearly colloquium recently moved to Santa Fe University.
The Coaches’ show is an opportunity to perform in uniquely brilliant groups, he recalls the rarified air he has shared in the desert. Fascinating students seek this environment – spanning between ages 18-80 – doctors, lawyers, educators, pilots and physicists come for a week of making beautiful music. “The whole process is refreshing, working in an environment with such enthusiastic people. We try to keep the instruments in their mouths, keep them playing the whole eight days. We know they are committed, no matter their skill level.”
In 35 years, Forest Aten has seen the world of symphonic music through booms and busts, declines and resurgences. Companies are uniting these days to develop new works, and he explains that this reduces local risks and balances out the conventional tendency towards performing the hits. With production budgets towering above Symphonies, the Opera’s orchestra acts as the engine of a massive machine, manifesting pure sound to the audience, “We are unknown, we live in a pit.”