The world-class trombonist talks about her experience navigating motherhood while freelancing in New York City.
Nicole Abissi has some serious trombone “street cred”. She’s performed and held positions in several big orchestras like Alabama and Colorado Symphony as well as being a member of two touring brass groups. And like me, her husband is pretty good at the trombone. Nikki is married to Colin Williams, associate principal trombone of the New York Philharmonic. They reside in Inwood, what we call “Upstate Manhattan” with their sons, toddler Christopher and newborn Alexander.
Nicole Abissi attended Juilliard and studied with Joe Alessi. After graduation, she won a fellowship with the New World Symphony in Miami, followed by winning the second trombone position at the Alabama Symphony. After three years, she left Alabama to fill a one year position as acting Principal Trombone at the Colorado Symphony while also filling in as acting Principal Trombone in the Macon Symphony. During this time, her future husband Colin injured his lip and Nikki was called to sub in Atlanta on second trombone. At the same time as Colin was trying to navigate his injury unsure of whether he’d be able to play again, Nikki had a medical scare of her own. Doctors thought she might have Meniere’s disease, a disease that means 100% chance of going deaf in one ear and 50% chance of going deaf in the other. She began to ask if she loved music enough to keep playing. Both Nikki and Colin bonded over their uncertain future but this story has a happy ending – they thankfully both came out on top.
Eventually Nikki moved to Atlanta where she and Colin were married about 9 months before he won the New York Philharmonic gig in 2014. When they moved to New York, she realized that she’d be starting to freelance from square one so she decided to get her Master’s degree at Stony Brook University (SUNY) with Mike Powell.
The desire to have children snuck up. After taking an audition for the New York City Ballet that didn’t go as well as she would’ve liked, she came home to drown her sorrows in a dumb movie and some wine. Nikki always thought that she needed to win a job and get tenure before she could start a family. Maybe it was the wine but on this specific night, she decided she wanted a family NOW and the rest would have to work itself out. The “rest” being her career. At the time, she had started to freelance in New York City. She was subbing on Broadway, she was being contracted for one-offs with local orchestras. She was doing what we all do when we move to New York – paying our “dues”. When she got pregnant with Christopher, the show she was subbing on closed and the phone just sort of stopped ringing.
But Nikki is not one to sit back and wait for the phone to ring. She got to work. Among the many things she did instead of feeling sorry for herself: she created a website for people looking for trombone lessons and coaching, started a little side business selling jewelry, made friends with trombone players working as freelancers and invited them over for duets, worked on her bass trombone chops, created a Facebook group for other brass moms and another for musicians to talk about practicing ideas….I could go on. Never count this woman out because she will prove you wrong every time.
Nikki and I met in 2016 a few months after Christopher’s birth. She is kind and engaging, someone you want to be friends with. We met up for coffee occasionally, sometimes we played duets, sometimes we grabbed a bite. We would talk about the slump she felt like she was in.
It’s not that she couldn’t play – no, she took an audition less than a week before giving birth and played three days after but, for whatever reason, she wasn’t getting called. Having chosen a long time ago that kids were not in my future, I was curious about how she navigated being a mom and a freelance trombone player. I never saw a pregnant brass player until my thirties. The first time was (jazz trumpeter) Ingrid Jensen who played her whole pregnancy and toured with a newborn. I was curious how she managed. This past July, Nikki joined me for lunch in Central Park while she was still pregnant with Alexander to chat about this and other things.
JW: So you run this Facebook group called The Practice Room. On #fearfulfridays you encourage everyone to air their fears and receive helpful advice from others. In March, you wrote “I’m afraid I will never win another orchestra audition and I will always be seen as Mrs. Colin Williams in the trombone community. Truth time: that was hard to type.” It resonated with me deeply. Can you talk about that?
NA: As an example, here’s a story. When Colin and I started dating, we were both teaching at the Southeast Trombone Symposium at the Columbus State University in Georgia. I was full faculty – I taught the auditor class and masterclasses, I sat on audition panels, I played solos. The next year when more people auditioned they created a new class instead and brought in guest artists to teach. Now all of a sudden, I became a nobody to the new students. I was still included in chamber music but everyone was fawning over Colin, George (Curran) and Nathan (Zgonc) at the stage door after recitals and I was invisible. It was sad to go from being full faculty to being an add-on (i.e. Mrs. Colin Williams).
JW: Do you think it’s because you didn’t have a gig at the time?
NA: Yes, I do. It was the best thing for the festival to add the Artist class, but they needed big names with big jobs and that wasn’t me. You know, after going to Juilliard and being in New World Symphony, the only goal was to win a job in an ICSOM orchestra. I did that in Alabama but struggled a bit to fit in and didn’t get tenure. I came really close in Colorado and Atlanta. I haven’t taken a lot of auditions since because I chose to be with my husband and that is seen as being a female problem. You don’t hear men being hot on the audition trail and then stopping because they married a women with a big job. I would still do it all over again because I found a partner who is completely my equal. We’ve had the conversation, if I were to win a big gig, would Colin go with me and he immediately said yes. It would be his turn, even with his job in the Philharmonic. That is who he is. Not having a full-time orchestra job is a small price to pay for having someone that I love and loves me as hard in return. I’ve done it by myself, had the gig and no attachments and it sucked. I would rather have my life now.
JW: How do you find how you balance with Colin? He’s got the gig, do you have short end of stick?
NA: No it’s awesome. Colin has always been my biggest supporter. When we were dating and an opening came up in the Atlanta Symphony trombone section (where Colin was working), he was on the panel. They kept the screen up the whole time and he had to check in his cell phone everyday. They wanted to ensure that I didn’t receive special treatment. I wasn’t chosen in the finals but Colin had voted for me in every round and that meant everything to me; knowing that he would have wanted to play in a section with me. After hearing me audition, Colin asked me to be his coach for a few auditions –
National Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. It meant a lot that he chose me to be his extra set of ears. The level of mutual respect between us is very high and when the tables are turned, Colin steps up. When I took the recent Metropolitan Opera audition, we just planned for extra baby sitters for Christopher. We really invested in me this year and I feel so lucky. He helped design a routine for me and encourages me to take gigs where I might meet new people, even when it isn’t very well paying.
JW: Do you feel like you have to “do it all”?
NA: Recently I took a gig where the pay (and treatment in general) was not ideal but the repertoire was good. It was good for other players to hear me play bass after not really doing it for a while. Colin and I get into the “is it worth it” conversation. I have to ask “Do I want someone else doing this if I turn it down?” As a freelancer, you don’t want to turn anything down. Most people who I work with doesn’t know that Colin is my husband so I know I’m getting gigs because of me and my playing. I don’t want any special treatment because of who my husband is. (author note: I can relate!)
JW: How do you and Colin split up practice time? Is it ever contentious? How has
practicing changed since you had Christopher?
NA: Colin can practice later than me so we take turns. “Who goes first?” or “I need this shift.” or “I need you to do the bath tonight.” I take the most advantage of daycare time – at least a couple hours a day. Never less than 1.5 hours and up to three hours. I used to practice excerpts for a long time but have learned that it’s better to practice technique. Then I can spend 10-15 min at night on each excerpt. I try to pinpoint problems I hear in the excerpt and work on the technique that applies to that specific excerpt. I figure out the issue and work on it out of context to save time..
JW: How do you weigh time with Christopher versus money/experience playing?
NA: The hard thing becomes not seeing Christopher – I miss him. That happens to Colin as well. I feel like I have to take everything and I do within reason. Some gigs I end up losing money. We have daycare but no nanny.
JW: What does daycare cost?
NA: Before the discount we get for “hosting” the building daycare in our apartment, $480/wk. That is only daycare and not the extra babysitting costs of night time or weekend sitters that we need for my gigs. A lot of women musicians/spouses of New York Philharmonic players choose to stay home because the dollars don’t add up. I think they feel the internal guilt that I feel that they shouldn’t be away from baby if it’s going to cost money. Colin has helped me let go of that guilt so I can continue to pursue my career. It’s still comes up for me, though. I want to provide financially for our family, but sometimes I am worth more in dollars when I stay home and cook and watch our kids. As a feminist this is a hard reality to deal with.
JW: What is the hardest thing about being a freelance musician and mom?
NA: It is very hard being a freelance musician with a sick kid. I was a ringer in the Park Avenue Symphony and had to sub out at the last minute because my son threw up on me and seemed to have a stomach bug. I didn’t want to have the evening babysitter, who also works at the daycare, get a stomach bug and then get all the kids at the daycare sick. That is morally repugnant. If it had been a high pressure situation, I don’t know what I would have done.
JW: What are the nitty gritty details about playing while pregnant?
NA: It is all about your anatomy. Smaller framed women may have a problem because there isn’t enough room for the baby inside their abdomen, so they will have a larger protruding belly. This can cause a separation of the abdominal muscles. Diastasis recti, like a hernia. I had tiniest one behind my belly button. I was super sedentary during my first pregnancy. I didn’t exercise or do anything and I was healthy. Then at 8 weeks into my second pregnancy, I started having back pain walking so I do Pilates and work on my transverse abs and keeping the two halves of the abdominal muscles closed. It’s made it so I’m able to use same support as I use when I’m not pregnant. As easy as it was for me, it could be just as hard for someone else. There is no reason to assume that you won’t be fine but there is not a generalization you can make about what will happen. Keep doing what you’ve been doing. There is no reason to think there are inherent problems to brass playing while pregnant. There aren’t. Some people will have difficulties but that is whether they play or not. A horn player I know had pelvic separation. Cartilage was broken, pelvis was split. This horn player still kept playing and only stopped playing principal horn towards the end of her pregnancy.
“I don’t want to be mommy-tracked, for people to think that I am not as serious as other musicians because I wanted to be a mother. It’s the ultimate feminist thing to be unapologetically pregnant and still doing whatever it is you want to do.”
JW: Do you think people are less likely to hire a pregnant woman?
NA: I think so, depending on who the contractor is. I did not get a call for 7 months after Christopher was born. Obviously, no one can conclusively say this was due to having a baby. I wonder if contractors thought they were doing me a favor, letting me stay home but I also wasn’t as established as I am now. I do wonder if my phone is going to stop ringing. I feel like I had to prove myself again with the same groups I played with before giving birth. As if people didn’t trust me to know when I would be ready to play gigs again. That is why Colin made sure that I performed a solo soon after Chris’s birth so we could put it on social media and promote my playing. I was showing the world that I hadn’t disappeared. I don’t want to be mommy-tracked, for people to think that I am not as serious as other musicians because I wanted to be a mother. It’s the ultimate feminist thing to be unapologetically pregnant and still doing whatever it is you want to do.
JW: Like Serena Williams.
NA: It’s such a good example – when I came up, no one was doing that (playing while pregnant). I heard a story that Megumi (Kanda) played Ravel’s Bolero when she was late in her pregnancy and I remember being really glad to know that it was possible. I know badass females that have orchestra jobs with families but you never hear the stories of how they won. There is so much pressure for the mother to be raising baby 100% of the time so it feels very selfish to be taking the time to practice and spend all that money (on babysitters) preparing for an audition. The world thinks I’m supposed to be taking care of the baby and the world will judge. Moms can be really mean. I was shamed for offering juice at a birthday party. Why would anyone get mad about juice? If they get mad at me for having juice, I don’t want to know them. The worst was that I hadn’t planned on having cake or cupcakes and the same people said I HAD to have cake. At 10am. For a 2-yr old. But juice boxes are the devil.
JW: What is it like playing with Colin and did it change after you had kids?
NA: Nothing with him has changed but I am much more comfortable in my own skin so I enjoy it more. We have never had problems with learning from each other. In the beginning, when I was coaching him for auditions, I would forget to give him compliments. I assumed he knew what an incredible player he was. So when roles were reversed and he was listening to me preparing for the Met, I realized what was missing, no compliments or acknowledgments of something that was going well. He was never mean or too hard but I need a dash of “that doesn’t suck”. We both like to drink Americanos, so I told him I needed some water with my espresso as a little inside joke.
JW: What is your favorite part of being a mom?
NA: Watching him figure things out and snuggles.
JW: Hardest part?
NA: Sleep deprivation. You hit 7 months of not enough sleep and you lose patience and it changes your personality.
JW: You are getting ready for boy #2. Are you mentally prepared for whatever might happen career-wise?
NA: I know what to expect and I am expecting the worst. It is a drag that people are surprised to see you playing. If I do go through a slump, I’ll just focus on practicing. I try to have my own creative things I am working on. When I am out of work and can’t hold up half the responsibilities, I feel bad in my marriage. I’m not very involved in finances because I feel like it’s his money even though he doesn’t feel that way. I am thriftier than he is so I should get involved. It’s hard when you feel like you aren’t contributing. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to save money and that is almost as good as earning it. I’m more worried about how Chris is going to react to another baby! Colin has a few weeks off during the summer so we’ll go through it together.
JW: What are you currently working on? Other than creating human life?
NA: I recently got to play Mahler 1 with Delaware Symphony (subbing for Natalie Mannix, another fine trombonist who also is a mom). I run our website, www.citytrombonelessons.com, which I built right after Christopher was born and we do lessons/coaching via skype. I had a piece commissioned by Lauren Bernofsky and will premiere during a recital tour next year. The five movement piece is about different emotions of motherhood. The composer is also a mother and the idea came about during a car ride home from the 2017 International Women’s Brass Conference in New Jersey. One of the movements is a love letter to Colin and it’s about what it is like seeing your husband become a father. There is a secret title to another movement: “go the fuck to sleep”. Another is “the little imp”. Putting together a recital tour will be hard because I will have two kids at home. Colin and I did weeklong residency at Interlochen and it ended up being fine. We brought Christopher to piano rehearsals or found a babysitter.
JW: Do you have any advice for young female musicians? What about those who might want to have a family?
NA: No one should have a family before you are ready or because you think you are supposed to. One day I wasn’t and then one day I was. There is no good time, you just have to do what you want. There is no guarantee you will make a living playing the trombone. The only way you fail is if you don’t try. My life certainly doesn’t look like I thought it would. I am working but I’m not killing it…yet. But my life is full which not a lot of people can say.
Nikki does admit that, though it has been hard to find a career that she’s proud of in the last five years, she is confident it’s all going to workout in the end. She wasn’t sure she’d get as far as she has! She does feel like she is struggling to prove that she’s still a serious musician because she put a promising career on hold. People see it as an inherently female thing but men do choose their partner over career but there are good men who are also willing to do it. Dads are often the “daycare” while Mom is at work and sometimes they’ve got to turn down work because the gig doesn’t justify the babysitter cost. In my own life, John and I have had discussed moving as he has had several teaching gigs come his way. But it always boils down to the fact that if we moved anywhere I’d basically be giving up my career. I don’t think I am as strong as Nikki but I hope that I’d be able to survive like she has.
Nikki took a different route than she wanted to take but she has an awesome life with Colin and the two boys. No, her career isn’t where she dreamed it would be but she is not done. If she had won that gig in Atlanta, they wouldn’t live in New York City where Colin plays sitting next to some of his best friends. They wouldn’t be close to both sets of grandparents. Their life is better here. Nikki Abissi; this is only the beginning.
Nicole Abissi is a professional trombonist and teacher living in New York City. She is a member of the Stiletto Brass Quintet and performs on Broadway and with professional orchestras around the world.