Derek Hawkes // GDYO Class of 2010

Photo by Kurt Heinecke

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Derek W. Hawkes started his musical studies at an early age. Coming from a musical family, he began piano instruction at age five and trombone at age ten.  He studied primarily with John Kitzman, former Principal Trombone of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, H. Dennis Smith, former Principal Trombone of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and most recently, Toby Oft, Principal Trombone of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Hawkes was the Principal Trombone of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra in Maine, and spent two seasons as Second Trombone of the Jacksonville Symphony beginning in 2015. He has just finished his second season as the Assistant Principal/Second Trombone of the Nashville Symphony.

Hawkes graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Music Degree in Trombone Performance at Southern Methodist University in 2014. Upon seeing a large hole in the path from student to professional in a very specific field, he utilized the Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program at the Meadows School of the Arts, creating and completing the very first known Bachelor of Arts focusing on Orchestral Management. He also pursued studies as a Graduate Diploma student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

Hawkes plays a 1979 Bach 42B, restored and rebuilt by Dallas-area brass technician Eric Edwards and treated by Ron Pinc of R.J. Pinc Brass Repair. He also plays Greg Black Mouthpieces exclusively in his classical performance.

What was your experience with GDYO? What years did you participate? In what ensembles and who were your conductors?

I was in the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra for all four years of high school, from 2006-2010. GDYO was the only ensemble I was in during my time in the program, spent exclusively with Maestro Rick Giangiulio.

What was one of your favorite memories from participating in GDYO?

The GDYO China Tour in the summer of 2007 was a very special experience for me, even at fourteen years young. I’m still close with a couple people from the tour; several of us studied music together at SMU and came to my wedding early this year, and that makes it even more meaningful for me. Each city we went to brought with it something new and different, which was invigorating and kept everyone engaged & motivated to bring the patrons in each city another performance at the highest level.

And on a more personal note, some of the meals were particularly memorable! Almost everywhere we went, we sat about a dozen to a table and enjoyed a massive meal on a Lazy Susan; I remember one specific meal, I believe in Xi’an, where there was a sweet glazed pork and pineapple dish…I’ve never had anything like it since, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Tell us about your education after you graduated from GDYO? What did you pursue next? How did you choose the school(s) you attended?

After graduating from Plano Senior High School in 2010, I attended the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. I graduated magna cum laude in 2014 with a double major – a Bachelor of Music in Trombone Performance, and a Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies, with a focus on Orchestral Management. I then attended the New England Conservatory of Music for a year in pursuit of a Graduate Diploma – but I won my first full-time job in February of that year, and I withdrew at the end of the first year to join the Jacksonville Symphony.

I wanted a wholly complete and versatile undergraduate experience, academically and artistically. SMU was an excellent choice for me because I had already studied with John Kitzman for two years before I began my freshman year, which set us up with a fantastic and resilient rapport to begin the collegiate experience. The ensembles gave me commendable performance experience across a range of styles, composers, and orchestrations; I think a lot of playing in a modern American orchestra is the ability to meet the demand for artistic versatility, which Meadows set me up well for. Additionally, I was very lucky that Meadows had the Bachelor of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program, so that I could create an Orchestral Management degree that allowed me to study industry administrative practices in depth.

I personally think the conservatory experience is better suited for graduate studies than undergraduate studies, as you will typically get a much more well-rounded education indeed at a university; but, with my two degrees completed at SMU, I wanted to go somewhere that I could truly concentrate on honing my audition game (really, my mental game!) and winning a job. NEC was a great match for what I needed because of my particular relationship with my professor there, Toby Oft. I think that grad school is the time to truly select an institution based on the relationship with the teacher, as your lessons will be even more of a primary focus then than during undergraduate studies. Toby and I hit it off from the audition, and I knew that the partnership would give me the best chance of success and maybe even allow me to win a job before the degree was completed – and it just so happened to work out exactly that way.

Tell us about your career – what you are currently up to?

During my year at NEC, I was the Principal Trombone of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra in Maine. After I left NEC, I spent the summer of 2015 as a Trombone Fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center. It was an unbelievable way to spend the 3 months before starting my professional career in Jacksonville. I performed for two seasons as the Second Trombone in the Jacksonville Symphony, and late in my second season I won the position of Assistant Principal/Second Trombone in the Nashville Symphony, where I have just concluded my second season. I have also performed as a substitute or auxiliary musician on the trombone, bass trumpet, and euphonium over the past few years with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, North Carolina Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Boston Pops Brass, and Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Do you feel that GDYO had an impact on your career? The path you have taken? How so?  

GDYO absolutely had a deep and lasting impact on the beginning of my musical career. My four years spent in the organization really were the initiation of my experience in playing with a full-size symphony orchestra. Working through a very respectable amount of repertoire, a healthy amount of which I’ve played again since in collegiate or professional orchestras, has paid great dividends for me.

I would argue that the trombone section is one of the most significant in the orchestra from the standpoint of truly needing to operate as a homogenous unit. I think a lot of it has to do with where we are typically registered, and the relevant timbral range as a result – when something is amiss, out of tune, or out of balance in a trombone section, people in the hall can tell very easily and very quickly. Given this truth, I think that the experience of playing with a section, learning how to make those reflexive and borderline instant adjustments with the slide, is paramount to the development of young trombonists aspiring to play in an orchestral setting. There is no other way to replicate that scenario and build those skills (as well as the relationship between the ear and the slide) than just spending time playing in a three-person section. The fact that I had so much exposure and opportunity related to building those skills set the foundation for what I do for a living now – especially as someone who primarily plays second trombone parts. My job in particular is to be as flexible and fast as I can to bridge the sound between the principal and bass trombonists; I strive to make my tuning and sound adjustments within a quarter of a second or less.

Who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by any creator of wonderful, thoughtful, moving art. Oftentimes for me, that comes in the form of a meal executed at a high level; sometimes it comes from a visit to a gallery or museum. I try not to limit my sources of inspiration to music alone. That said, I am consistently inspired to better myself by the performance of those around me, and that’s exactly the situation I want to be in.

What ranks among the favorite achievements that you’ve completed in your career and why?

One of the most memorable performances of my life was spent playing Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; it was particularly special because I got to spend the week playing next to my teacher of six years, John Kitzman, who retired at the end of that season after 42 seasons in the orchestra. The Meyerson, as all in GDYO who have had the chance to perform there know, is one of the most superb and extraordinary halls in the country; it was a special setting for a situation with continuously significant nostalgic appeal for me personally.

Now, generally, in this pursuit of professional employment in the orchestra business, I think there’s nothing quite like the feeling of winning a job. The audition process can be very taxing, and I’m always exhausted when I leave the stage after a Finals or Superfinals round. Oftentimes, I’ve been at the hall for eight or more hours at that point, waiting for results, waiting for each round to begin, waiting for my turn in the round to play, etc. To have them come out and say your name at the very end is exhilarating; all of that fatigue instantly vanishes. That is always an exceptional moment, wherever it happens.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

One of the most beautiful aspects of music performance is the fact that you inherently cannot hit that magical “point” where the pursuit stops and you can put the horn down knowing you’ve attained perfection. It simply does not exist. I strive to continually elevate my level of playing, my consistency, and my desire to perform the craft at the very highest level.

What advice would you like to give to GDYO kids currently in the program?

Whatever you find yourself wanting to do with your life – be it music, writing, engineering, what have you – pursue it every day with hunger and focus. Always prioritize working smart and hard over working long hours; one thoughtful hour of practice is worth fifteen hours of haphazard, thoughtless repetition. You can learn from others, and by observing others you can learn about yourself – but to constantly compare yourself to others is a waste of time and energy. Focus on what you can do to become the best you can be at what drives and moves you.

Any life highlights outside of your career?

I really enjoy cooking and seeking out excellent food. I also just got married down in Dripping Springs, Texas in January, and my wife and I have a 7 year old bearded dragon named Drake, who’s our only pet and loves to be fed veggies and bugs! I got him in Plano when I was a junior at SMU, and he’s now been a reptilian resident of Texas, Florida, and Tennessee!

Thank you to Derek for being a part of GDYO’s Alumni Spotlight!

If you or someone you know would be interested in participating in the Alumni Spotlight blog, or would like more information regarding the activities of the GDYO Alumni Association, contact Kaitlyn Howell at