Mayu Isom is a member of the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet based in Texas! She first fell in love with music in elementary school on the flute -- after hearing her school’s top symphony perform Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony in F minor, she discovered an interest in the oboe that lead to her pursuing a career with it professionally (where she’s had the opportunity to perform the very solo that inspired her several times)! After attending Indiana University for her Bachelor’s, Rice University for her Master’s, and Boston University for her Performer’s Diploma, Isom won her place in the company of the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet! Offstage, she is “obsessed with all things culinary” -- cooking and baking provide her with opportunities to try new things and enjoy them with those she loves, and most recently, with an escape from the monotony of quarantine. Isom advises young artists to “have the confidence and willingness to take risks and make mistakes,” and to take chances on finding new opportunities, despite the fear of rejection, because each of those nos makes room for the door to open for a yes. Read on to learn more about Mayu Isom and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Mayu Isom
Heritage: Half Japanese, Half Caucasian
Hometown: Santa Monica, CA
Current City: Houston, TX
Current project: Getting back into working full-time with the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet and other various gigs after not performing for almost 2 years from Covid-19.
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
My “Tunes on 10th '' concert, which was a solo concert I did with some of my friends from the Houston Grand Opera. This was from a concert series that started during the pandemic. It happens on a volunteer’s porch outside featuring different local musicians in the Houston area as a way to bring music to the community in a safe and social-distanced way, and also to support musicians during the pandemic.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Have the confidence and willingness to take risks and make mistakes. There are so many opportunities out there if you are willing to take a chance. It might feel embarrassing initially to receive a rejection or make a mistake, but if you keep trying you’ll open doors for new opportunities to further your career in music or any form of art.
How did you get your start?
Like many musicians, it was something they taught us in elementary school. I started off on the flute, and I remember how much I enjoyed playing it, even though I wasn’t very good at it. Eventually my teacher recommended that I switch over to the oboe in middle school, and the rest is history.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
I mean, quite easily one of the biggest moments of my life was when I won the audition for the job I have with the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet. The audition process for classical musicians is incredibly grueling -- it takes so much time, effort and money. We have to learn and prepare the repertoire, most likely fly out to a new city and find a place to stay for several days, spend most of the audition day waiting in various rooms, and then play behind a screen for a panel anywhere from 3 minutes to almost half an hour (sometimes in multiple rounds in a day). That being said, there is then the simple moment of the first time entering the hall, sitting down, and performing in your seat for the very first time that is surreal -- a moment of “I did it.”
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
I think staying constantly inspired and grateful to be making music for a living is a challenge. It sounds crazy, but when you work day in and day out creating music and striving to be a better musician, sometimes it’s easy to fall into the hole of complacency or monotony. I reinspire myself by looking back at my old notes from previous teachers, reaching out to them to still have lessons, going to different concerts or recordings to hear others perform, and most importantly, I remind myself to not think that “Ihave to do this” but that “Iget to do this.”
What are some interesting facts about yourself?
I am obsessed with all things culinary. During my downtime, you can always catch me watching some sort of cooking show. I love learning about new techniques, understanding the cultural backgrounds of food, or gaining new ideas to try. I also enjoy cooking and baking myself when I have the time, which was my big hobby and salvation during the pandemic when we were stuck at home. I enjoy sharing my food and feeding others, because there is no greater satisfaction than seeing them enjoy a good meal.
Do you have any mentors?
Absolutely, of course it’s hard to name just a few. Two of my biggest mentors though would have to be Mr. John Ferrillo, principal oboe of the Boston Symphony, and Ms. Anne-Marie Gabriele, second oboe of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. During my second year of my master’s degree, I was struggling a lot and doubted if I really wanted to continue this career path anymore. My time at Rice, although it was incredibly helpful to my education and studies, was extremely difficult emotionally and I struggled to find my voice and doubted if I really had what it takes to “make it.” I wanted to give up. However, Mr. Ferrillo had kept in touch with me since I first met him back in 2015, and he encouraged me to move to Boston after I graduated, and promised that I would have the opportunity to study with him in his studio. Once I was in Boston, both teachers worked hard to make sure that not only was I growing as a musician, but also genuinely cared about my well being. That gave me the confidence to believe in myself because they believed in me, and in all of their students. I am still in touch with them, and try to learn from them whenever I can. I can’t thank them enough for their constant mentorship and dedication to the oboe and their students.
When did you know you wanted to have a career in the arts?
This may sound cheesy, but this was when I was a freshman in high school and I was listening to our “top” symphony orchestra perform Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony in F minor. My orchestral knowledge was quite limited at that age, but I heard the oboe solo in the Andantino for the very first time, and I was instantly captivated. I was so taken away listening to the entire movement, and I wanted every ounce in my being to be able to play that, and that I would do whatever it took to be able to do that -- and I’m thankful to say I have performed it many times since that day!
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills?
Like most students, I had to have a job that was flexible enough to let me get my studies in and have enough time to practice. A more “natural” job I had during my Master’s at Rice University was teaching oboe privately. However, once I moved to Boston, I wasn’t able to make that into a sustainable income since it is such a saturated city of musicians looking for work. One of the jobs I had then was working for a Japanese Bakery called “Japonaise” out in Brookline. I didn’t have any pastry knowledge other than what I would see from TV shows, but they were so kind in teaching me how to assemble pastries, make different kinds of coffee orders, and making sure our products were prepared and wrapped to perfection. What was also so rewarding was that it made me feel a little bit closer to home -- seeing and smelling the different Japanese pastries brought back memories of my childhood, and simply just hearing people speak Japanese was something I did not realize I missed so much. The small, almost hidden Japanese community of Boston made me feel at home, and it is something I truly miss having here in Houston.
If you come from parents who aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the business?
Neither of my parents were technically “artists” as a career, but they both have qualities that make them very creative people, which ultimately helped me blossom in music. My father, a former high school English teacher, was always keen on writing. From poetry, scholarly essays, to creative short stories, he’s always had the ability of being able to take his thoughts and feelings into eloquently written passages. Having that kind of connection of sharing your inner dialogue through another art form, I believe, influenced my ability in doing that through music. My mother, a stay at home mom, was always so talented with her hands and creating beautiful little art projects. Whether it’s her penmanship, making collages, sewing clothes, or even just our little “bento box” lunches, there was so much care for the tiniest details. I credit her not only for creativity, but also my determination of perfection and focusing on important little details.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
Similarly to the advice I would give to anyone going into the arts -- don’t be afraid to take risks and make mistakes. I can’t tell you how many times I wish I had taken an audition, reached out for help, or put myself and my music out there more. I’m thankful that I eventually did push myself, along with having supportive loved ones, but if I had started at an earlier age I’m sure it would have positively impacted my career sooner. I would tell myself, “yes, trying for these things that seem ‘impossible’ may seem scary, and rejections and mistakes are painful, but what is worse is not trying at all and never knowing what possibilities could have happened.”
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?
Having a balance with confidence and humility. One needs to have confidence to share their ideas, to have the gumption to put themselves out there, and to believe that what they are saying is important. However, too much confidence can easily turn into arrogance, which then limits your growth. One needs to have humility to realize that we can always learn something, that we might not know everything, and that our thoughts and opinions can change. I struggled with this balance a lot during my time at school, and although I would like to believe I am more balanced now, I know I am not perfect. I try to reflect as much as I can, whether it’s to believe in myself more, or to become a more open minded listener.
Where did you study at?
I went to Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music to study with Ms. Linda Strommen for my Bachelor’s degree. I then went to Rice University, Shepherd School of Music to study with Mr. Robert Atherholt for my Master’s degree. I went on to study at Boston University to start my Performer’s Diploma with Mr. John Ferrillo and Ms. Anne-Marie Gabriele in 2018. After one year in Boston, I won my current position and moved to Houston and have been here since.
What are some goals you hope to achieve?
I really hope to build my own private teaching studio here in Houston. As a daughter of an educator, I understand the utmost importance of how teachers shape childrens’ lives. My first teacher, Ted Sugata, was so thoughtful in how he taught me, making sure I knew the fundamentals well, and leading me on the right path -- regardless if I was going to pursue music as a career or not. I want to do that for my students, because ultimately, not all of them will lead lives in music, but what I want to share is that music is a form of sharing our deepest emotions. Having the confidence to share something that is so intimate, having the determination to get better through practice, having the humility to understand that we are always learning, having the graciousness to share this art with others -- these are all things that I want my students to learn and appreciate that I hope would shape them into being better musicians and ultimately better people.
What do you love most about what you do?
Another great mentor in my life, Eugene Izotov, said these words that I think resonates for all musicians: “Music does not describe, music evokes.” To have the ability to make people feel something, regardless of age, race, language -- music has the ability to evoke emotions universally and can remind us of our humanity.
To find out more about Mayu, please visit her at:
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