Airman Musician perspective – Senior Master Sgt. Eric Sabatino
by Master Sgt. Will Hurd
12/3/2014 – Washington, D.C. — On Thursday, Nov. 20, long time Band member, Senior Master Sgt. Eric Sabatino, performed Maurice Ravel’s “Sacred and Profane Dances” with the U.S. Air Force Chamber Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Millennium Stage. I had a chance to talk with Sabatino by phone from the road about his early influences, as well as the professional ethic that attracted him to the Band.
Hurd: At what age did you begin harp lessons? What inspired you to start playing the harp? What memories do you have of your early learning years?
Sabatino: I started playing when I was about 8. I was inspired by a number of things. My father tried to expose me to as much music as possible. One of the things he loved very much was opera, so I got an early exposure to opera. We often went to the Metropolitan Opera and Broadway shows. My father noticed that I was particularly interested in the orchestra part. One day, my father asked me if I wanted to learn an instrument, and I said “Yes!” So, he sent me down to the orchestra pit before performances, so I could talk to the musicians myself. Since the harp, with its 47 strings, requires a time-consuming tuning process, the harpist was always in the pit tuning prior to performances and during intermission. I was able to have many conversations with Reinhardt Elster, principal harpist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I became enchanted with how the harp sounded as well as its appearance. The personal connection with Elster convinced me that this was the instrument for me. That connection inspires me to reach out to young people in our audiences today. I feel like I’ve come full circle when children and other members of the public talk to me while I’m tuning my harp on stage today!
Hurd: How did your parents support your musical journey?
Sabatino: My father was raising me alone and needed to work a lot, but he did have a musical background. He was not a professional musician, but he knew how important it was to have the right teacher from the beginning. Being a lover of opera, he wanted me to have a teacher who would encourage me to explore the emotional and dramatic as well as the technical aspects of music making. Because we lived in New York City, we had many teachers from which to choose. After calling several teachers, my father decided that Dulcie Barlow would be the best teacher for me. At my first lessons, Barlow would play for me, so I could hear the sound of the instrument. My first assignments included simple pieces. Barlow focused on musical expression, dynamics and articulation from my very first lessons. Her approach was very natural and vocal. In addition to traditional harp lesson, Barlow encouraged me to take keyboard harmony and theory classes from an early age. I continued lessons with Barlow for the next 10 years.
Hurd: At what point did you know that you wanted to become a professional musician?
Sabatino: Well, right away I fell in love with the harp and knew it was going to be an important part of my life. My father was able to set up performances for me after only about one year of lessons. I performed excerpts from standard opera repertoire at the Amato Opera Company in New York. I began performing featured operatic harp solos with orchestra at a very young age. My father thought it was important for me to have performing experiences as part of my early learning. So, playing harp in public in a professional setting was a habit for me almost from the beginning. Becoming a professional musician was a natural result of the experiences I had in my earliest years of study.
Hurd: What inspired you to join the Air Force Band?
Sabatino: After graduating from the Manhattan School of Music, I spent a summer at the Pierre Monteux School in Maine. There I met a retired Navy Band trombonist (whose name I can’t remember) who suggested I audition for an opening at The U.S. Air Force Band in Washington, D.C. At the time, I was working as a freelance harpist in New York and teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. I had no idea about the service bands and what they did. The trombonist related his own experiences to me, and I became interested. I applied for the vacancy and was contracted to perform several concerts with the Band as part of the audition process. This gave me the opportunity to experience life as a band member even before enlisting in the Air Force.
Hurd: What is your favorite memory of your time in the Band?
Sabatino: My most memorable experience was a Band reunion concert. It was personally very special for me to meet retired band members from the recent and distant (even several decades) past. Also, any time I got to perform with retired Air Force Colonel Arnald Gabriel was incredibly special to me. The U.S. Air Force Band’s unofficial nickname is, “The House that Gabe Built.” Colonel Gabriel was an incredible leader who built the Band into the world class organization that it is today. Performing with Colonel Gabriel makes me feel like I’m a part of the Band’s rich culture and history.
Also, I enjoy being part of an organization that is constantly evolving. The Band is continuously reinventing itself. We have the unique ability to tap vast human resources to create new and innovative products to communicate Air Force messages. Since I’m the only harpist in the Band, I have the opportunity to be involved in many different kinds of musical performances.
Hurd: You are an extremely versatile musician who performs in a variety of settings. How do you compare playing as a soloist to playing in a large ensemble such as the Concert Band?
Sabatino: It’s an incredible privilege to perform a solo in front of an audience. As a soloist, I feel I’m representing each and every member of our organization. I want to make sure that I make my colleagues proud. I enjoy the freedom that I have as a soloist.
Hurd: What advice would you give to an advancing music student who would like to enter a career in music? For example, a student who is in high school and considering a career in music.
Sabatino: I would tell them, “Realize that the technique that you’re learning is a tool that enables you to become the great musician that you wish to become. When you graduate from college, this is the beginning of your learning, not the end. Never stop learning. If you play a single line instrument, consider studying piano to develop a perspective of harmony, rhythm, and musical texture. Also, try to discover the beauty in different genres of music as well as different art forms. Don’t restrict yourself to a single approach or genre. If you’re a classical musician, learn to appreciate popular forms of music as well as art forms other than music.”