This month, we spoke with Tyler Shepherd, a graduate of Walnut Hill's Music Department who has been living and working in Wales in recent years as a member of the Welsh National Opera and an instructor at Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. Tyler caught us up on the past 15 years, and shared some words of wisdom for our recently graduated Walnuts.
1. What brought you to Walnut Hill originally, and what was your experience like as a music student here? Do you have a favorite memory from those years?
After appearing on From the Top at Jordan Hall, I was fortunate enough to sit in on a YPO rehearsal. In short, I was blown away by the level of playing at that rehearsal. Many of the students I met attended Walnut Hill, and they all told me I must apply—the School was in need of bassists. I visited the campus the next day and fell in love. The mixture of driven and talented students plus world-class faculty together on such a beautiful piece of land made Walnut Hill a dream worthy of pursuit. I auditioned and got in!
Moving to the East Coast from Texas was quite an adjustment. I remember the first snow at Walnut Hill—what a sight! Leaving the nest early was difficult and frightening for me, but I believe it instilled my courage to take risks.
The strong work ethic at Walnut Hill encouraged me in ways that have shaped my discipline to this day. My roommate (Adam McColley, Trombone, U.S. Army Concert Band) and I pushed one another to get up and practice before morning classes in preparation for college auditions. It wasn't long into my first semester at Walnut Hill that I realized the inspiring friendships I was making were just another wonderful part of the experience here.
Some of my most cherished memories are of the faculty. Every teacher treated us with respect, but also demanded the highest level of our attention and preparation. I can recall one particularly challenging assignment: to sing atonal solfège, while conducting, in front of my fellow classmates. I even spent days having to memorize famous opera arias and the Brandenburg Concertos.
My most poignant memory from Walnut Hill is of my first bass lesson with Dennis Roy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). During that lesson, he spoke to me about the importance of architecture in phrasing to achieve a more sung and communicative performance, something I had never heard of or thought of before.
2. Tell us about your current career and the steps you took in your journey to get to where you are now. How did you end up in Wales?
After Walnut Hill, I did my best to maintain my discipline and motivation while furthering my education. I practiced consistently (including most weekend nights) and kept myself inspired, in part by seeing the BSO at every opportunity. But it was my experience at Tanglewood that proved to be life-changing. I performed with the BSO, Haitink, Levine, Blomstedt . . . I even met Elliott Carter. That experience is what gave me a taste of the upper echelon, and cemented my dreams of performing.
Now I am Principal Bass of the Welsh National Opera (WNO), faculty at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, and the Bass Tutor for the Britten-Pears Orchestra. I also frequently perform with many other orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester. I have traveled the world performing—across the UK, Germany, Scandinavia, the Middle East, and the Far East. I have also had the privilege of teaching at institutions such as the University of Cincinnati–College-Conservatory of Music and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
My path to Wales started years before my audition, while I was still working on my graduate degree. My old college roommate, Max Zeugner (Associate Principal Bass, New York Philharmonic), invited me to come play with his English chamber orchestra, the Royal Northern Sinfonia. London was immediately fascinating, as were all things British. Everything seemed similar to the United States, yet slightly more unique and interesting—plus, there were beautiful, ancient buildings and funny-looking cars. When I performed with Max's orchestra, I found the ensemble playing exceptional. Not only were they intensely listening within their own section, but also across the entire orchestra. They caressed and nurtured their sound; no one was forcing their instrument. The British style and experience left such an impression that when the WNO posted an advertisement for a Principal Bass a few years later, I knew immediately that I was interested. I spent the summer preparing, sent a video of my playing, and was offered a trial. I have been in Wales now for six years. I can say confidently that I am living my dream career, the one I would imagine for myself during those early-morning practice sessions at Walnut Hill!
3. Do you have any lessons or advice for our recently graduated Walnuts who are entering the world?
Evaluate yourself as an encouraging outsider would. Record yourself frequently, and promote your own confidence and well-being. Put as many irons in the fire as you can, as you never know what will work out.
Be persistent. I had to audition multiple times to get into Tanglewood. I also took more than 20 auditions before I won my current position, not even advancing beyond the first round for the majority of those.
Focus on your love of music and your dreams to help keep you motivated, and appreciate your current stage. You will question your path and the sacrifices you've made, but if you stay focused and persistent, you will get there.