At 26, southern Minnesota native Luke Simonson already holds an impressive resume as a professional musician now living in Nashville.
He’s worked with Sony, Disney, Nintendo, Netflix, Facebook … He’s recorded for video games, movie soundtracks (including “Harriet”), theme parks, albums, TV series and more. He’s performed with orchestras. All on the oboe, his instrument of choice, although he can also play the English horn, clarinet, flute, saxophone and piano.
Simonson is inherently modest about his accomplishments as a freelance and session musician, who also supports himself by teaching oboe and handcrafting reeds.
We caught up with him via email and phone to learn more about his background, his experiences and what drives him. He loves the challenge of going into a job without seeing the music prior, of knowing he will need to tap into his sight-reading, recognition of style, genre flexibility and ability to play well with the metronome skills to succeed.
And he has succeeded, a progression which began while attending Faribault High School. Before graduating in 2012, he’d already performed with the Mankato Symphony Orchestra and achieved other musical recognition. While at St. Olaf College, he toured nationally and internationally with the band and orchestra. Following grad school, he moved to Nashville, where he continues to grow his career.
“I love the mystery of not knowing what the next project will be,” Simonson says, adding that he’s particularly excited about connecting his passion for video games with his work as a professional musician. Among his growing list of video game credits are Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Madden NFL 20.
If Simonson’s vague about some of his projects, it’s unintentional. Confidentiality agreements, and the fact that even he’s sometimes kept in the dark, keep him from publicly divulging details. But he knows this. He loves his work. He loves Nashville. And his talent, experiences and connections are opening doors for him in the music world.
Let’s start with your early interest in music, when you were growing up on a farm between Faribault and Morristown. Tell me about your introduction to music and whether your mom, Nancy, a music and piano teacher, played a part in developing your musical interests and talents. You were quite involved in music while at Faribault High School, too. How did you grow your skills during that time?
I was never really introduced to music, as it was always a part of growing up at home. I guess I just naturally absorbed it, as my mother taught piano, the older of my two sisters played trombone, and my older brother and my other sister played piano. I wanted to learn piano, but my mom was always so busy teaching other students that, by the end of the day, she didn’t have time to teach me.
While I was at Faribault High School, I was awarded a grant to take private oboe lessons outside of school. I found a teacher in Mankato and studied with her for four years. She helped me develop my skills, which helped me get into Minnesota All-state Band and Orchestra.
I remember hearing you play oboe during worship services at Trinity Church. Why pick the oboe? What other instruments, if any, did you try before settling on the oboe? How would you describe the sound of this woodwind instrument?
It’s a funny story about how I picked the oboe. I started playing alto saxophone in my fifth grade band and, within my first year of playing, was invited to join the high school jazz band. After deciding that saxophone was too boring, I started looking for something else. My mom had a book about orchestra checked out from the library and I thought the bassoon looked pretty interesting. My school didn’t have a bassoon, so I was handed the oboe, and it just kinda stuck.
I would describe the sound of the oboe as the most vocal of all the woodwinds. The double reed which I play on works extremely similarly to how human vocal cords work and it produces a sweet, yet poignant sound.
By the time you graduated FHS, you clearly knew you wanted a career in music. You got your undergrad degree in music theory and composition from St. Olaf and performed as the principal oboist of the St. Olaf Orchestra. You went on to earn a Master of Music in oboe performance and literature from the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. What influenced your decision to become a professional oboist and was that always your specific career path? What memorable moments or experiences from college reaffirmed your career choice?
At the end of my sophomore year, I participated in a music composition internship at St. Olaf. My job for the summer was to write a piece commemorating the 125th anniversary of the St. Olaf Band. I found that time to be very stressful, demanding and unfulfilling. After that summer, I began looking for other career paths. I remember my oboe teacher at that time, Dana Maeda, thought I could do a performance degree. During my junior year, the Bergen Wind Quintet visited St. Olaf from Norway. I played for their oboist and he encouraged me to pursue oboe performance. So that year, I started taking double the amount of lessons and worked diligently to get into graduate school.
Now you’re in Nashville. When did you arrive there? What prompted your move from small town Minnesota to “The City Built on Music?”
When I was in grad school, I had the opportunity of playing in a couple recording sessions for the students in the film industry degree. I was close to graduating and had taken some orchestra auditions and didn’t really know if that was the route I wanted to take. I really enjoyed recording and brought that to the attention of my professor, Richard Killmer. He suggested I move to Los Angeles, and I was almost set on it. I auditioned at the Colburn School of Music in hopes of earning a performance certificate while freelancing in the area. Unfortunately, I was not allowed in and I decided to move back home to Minnesota. About four months after graduating, I got a call from Mr. Killmer that one of his colleagues was retiring from freelancing as a session musician in Nashville. I contacted him and got connected to some of the contractors down here. They called me for a couple gigs and I finally decided to make the move on December 27, 2018.
You’re currently working as a freelance and session musician and have some pretty impressive credits already in film (e.g. Oscar-nominated Harriet), TV, the video game industry (e.g. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Madden NFL 20) and elsewhere. As someone fairly new to the music scene, how did you land those opportunities? Which accomplishments stand out for you as professional highlights and why?
In any sort of freelance work, someone takes a chance hiring you. If you perform well, they’ll want to hire you again and might give your name to other contractors. I guess the moment that solidified my place with one contractor was when I recorded a solo part for some emotional scenes in an upcoming film (Simonson can’t say which). The clients said to me that they were crying in the booth, and afterward the contractor said to me that I’d be hearing from him more. So that moment stands out particularly.
You performed with Mannheim Steamroller during their 2019 Christmas tour stop in Nashville at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. I want to hear all about that experience—from how you were selected, specifics on your part in the show and how it felt to play with the top Christmas music artist of all time.
When I was recording for Jurassic World Live Tour, we had a pretty large orchestra and seating was tight. I sat next to a trombonist, who is also a contractor, and he must have liked my playing because he hired me for Mannheim Steamroller’s Nashville performance. We only had one rehearsal the day of, and we all had headsets with a count-off, metronome and full soundtrack. At times it was difficult to tell what was actually being performed versus what was just in my headphones. It was a fun experience overall and I’m grateful my family could come and see me perform.
What’s next? I hear you may be part of a Tom Hanks’ film. True? Let’s hear details.
That is true. I did some overdub work for the movie (“Greyhound)” that is coming out this May. Overdubbing is when you record separately over other pre-recorded tracks. It’s a technique used so that the individual volume levels can be adjusted independently.
What’s next? I find it exciting that I never really know due to the nature of the job. Session musicians almost never know what projects we get called for until we show up. We don’t get to see the music in advance and only get a few times to sight-read it perfectly. It seems high pressure, and sometimes it is, but I really enjoy it.
We haven’t talked about your crafting reeds for oboes and English horns. That started with a reed-making class at St. Olaf and now you’ve developed this into a business, Lone Pine Reeds (named after your childhood farm.) Why do this, too? What makes your reeds different from any other reeds on the market?
I’m constantly making reeds for myself to play, so I decided, as many oboists do, to sell my reeds for some extra profit. Many beginning oboists buy handmade reeds, and part of the journey is finding a reedmaker that makes reeds that work well for you. My reeds tend to have a little more cane toward the back of the tip, which lends to a richer tone, but can be more difficult to balance response.
In addition to all this, you teach oboe to students, both as an adjunct professor at Lipscomb University and in a private studio. Why teach?
I’ve been teaching for about seven years now, and I’m passionate about it. I figure if I have an understanding of how to perform well, hopefully I can impart that knowledge to others that are willing and eager to learn from me.
Now that you’ve been in Nashville for awhile, what’s your take on “Music City?” Do you see yourself staying there for awhile or moving back to Minnesota or elsewhere? What’s your long-term goal? What drives you in your music?
I’m perfectly content here in Nashville. I feel like the freelance work here suits my skill set very well, and I hope to be here for a long time. You can’t beat the hot chicken either!
What advice can you offer to a young person considering a music career?
Work hard, practice with intention.
I want to touch on your interests outside of music. How do you balance your busy professional life with a personal life? What do you do for fun? I’m also wondering about your cat, Gus. How does he react to your oboe playing? I mean, is he supportive or does he run and hide under the bed?
It’s sometimes hard to balance, as I could spend anytime at home making reeds or practicing. Often I go for runs outside, play video games and, more recently, read books. Because I am a pet lover, usually once a week I go on “doggie dates” where I take a dog out of my local shelter for a few hours to help them decompress. I’ve also started training my cat to do basic commands like sit, down, stay, paw and off. When I’m practicing, he usually swiftly exits the room. I tend to practice right before his meal time, so once he hears me stop playing and start to put my instrument away, he’s meowing his head off begging for food.