When the gilded notes of the trumpet reached the ears of 10-year-old Denver Philharmonic Orchestra musician Ariel Van Dam at her brother’s high school band concert, she was hooked.
“I always loved the sound of brass instruments—I saw the trumpet player at the concert and I was so drawn to it,” she said. “My parents are musicians and at the time, I was wondering if I was even going to try to play an instrument—I could have done anything. But that night, I told my parents, ‘That’s what I want to do! I want to play trumpet!’”
Van Dam’s parents fostered her musical talents by exposing her to classical music, jazz, funk, and rock. The Colorado native grew up listening to Sergei Rachmaninoff and Dmitri Shostakovich alongside David Bowie and The Beatles. As an adult delved into the eerie, colorful, and sci-fi-like electronic sounds of artists like Com Truise.
The eclectic mix of genres that Van Dam, 29, was exposed to growing up came to head in the music she plays today. In addition to the trumpet, Van Dam is also an enthusiast of the analog synthesizer, an electronic instrument heard in popular acts like Prince (Remember that glittery riff in “1999”?) and the Electric Light Orchestra. On the surface, classical music and electronic music may seem like worlds away, but they actually have a lot of similarities in terms of their popularity and accessibility, said Van Dam.
“Electronic music today is as popular and accessible as classical music was during its height,” she said. “Anyone can make electronic music with digital software that’s cheap and affordable, which means there’s a lot of diversity in artists. In electronic music, you can find people who really stand out.”
For Van Dam, music isn’t just about performance and popularity, but also an outlet in finding her identity.
When she auditioned for the DPO, Van Dam was known as Tyler, a college student studying music performance at Metro State University. Performing in the DPO and other live events helped her in her transition and acceptance of herself as a woman, she said.
“Being a musician, especially a musician performing orchestral music that’s so emotional and evocative, also allows you to be vulnerable in a way,” she said.
Music performance from a young age, Van Dam said, helped her understand early on what it felt like to be scrutinized, which is something she frequently encountered during her transition.“When I was transitioning, I didn’t know how to do my hair or do my makeup and I wasn’t sure how people were going to see me,” she said. “I heard comments from people, to my face, that weren’t the nicest. Music helped me to endure those intense feelings you get when a lot people are looking at you, where you keep asking yourself, ’What are they thinking?’ and ‘What’s going to happen?’
“Music helped prepare me for that.”
Van Dam’s advice for those seeking identity—with or without experience playing in a community orchestra in front of hundreds of people—is to find support.
“Take the time to get to know yourself and to keep good friends and family close to you in your life,” she said. “Be mindful of your thoughts, stay positive, and know that despite negative feelings or experiences, being true to yourself is probably the most important thing you can do for yourself for the rest of life.”
Which concert in the upcoming season are you most looking forward to and why?
I’m most looking forward to the last concert, “Russ-Keys,” because it features two of my very favorite pieces of classical music of all time: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. They’re both Russian composers and the first one, Rachmaninoff, I’ve enjoyed listening to over and over. It’s so emotional. It has these beautiful uplifting harmonies and melodies, and intense, aggressive, and sad moments that ebb and flow. I’ve always found it to be incredibly beautiful. I’ve listened to a lot of piano concertos and it kind of stands out from the rest.
If you got to select your own concert setlist, what would you pick?
- “The Chairman Dances” by John Adams — This is a fascinating piece. It’s got a driving kind of rhythmic undercurrent that makes it exciting.
- “Gloria” by Francis Poulenc — There’s quite a bit in there. It’s very morose and it really grabs your heart and pulls at it. It’s something really special.
- Symphony No. 5 by Gustav Mahler— This piece is pretty important to me because it features a very famous trumpet solo at the very beginning. I studied this piece and learned its solo when I was high school.