Artist Spotlight: Titus Underwood

A. Kori Hill

This may be dating me, but there were some instruments when I was a kid that were just cool. Guitar? Definitely. Jazz double bass. Without a doubt. Oboe? Eh…

Enter Titus Underwood, who isn’t only the boss at oboe but also looks cool while doing it. He grew up surrounded by all kinds of music: classical, religious, jazz, you name it. At first, Titus wanted to play the saxophone like his uncle, but he had second thoughts. His older sister, who played violin, suggested he play the oboe and instead of the stereotypical reaction of a younger brother (“No!”), Titus fell in love with the instrument’s sound and took her advice; he started learning oboe at age eleven.

Titus’ education prepared him for the tough process of joining an orchestra. He studied in the conservatory environment of the Cleveland Institute of Music. He was a student of John Mack (1927–2006), principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1965 to 2001. After earning his bachelor’s degree, Titus went to Juilliard, studied with Elaine Douvas (the Met’s principal oboist) and got his master’s degree.

In addition to his primary teachers, Titus also studied with Nathan Hughes and Pedro Diaz of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Frank Rosenwein and Jeffrey Rathbun of the Cleveland Orchestra. Titus also got an artist diploma from The Colburn School in Los Angeles, studying with Allan Vogel, who played with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from 1972 to 2016.

You may be wondering why a guy who loves to play music spent so much time in school. Why did he get not one, not two, but THREE degrees?! The answer is simple: so he could play! Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for classical musicians to get degrees. If you want a degree where you perform a lot, music schools – conservatories – like CIM and Juilliard are the way to go.

They structure their programs around lessons, concerts, and auditions, prepping students for a career as soloists, orchestra members, chamber musicians, or a mix of all three. This focus has recently been a point of debate. There are only so many orchestral jobs. When you win, you tend to stay in it for 20+ years.

Titus is nearing 10 years in his current post. He joined the Nashville Symphony in 2017, and two years later, he won the post of principal oboist. He’s the first Black musician to hold this position in the history of the Nashville Symphony and one of the few to hold a principal position in a major American orchestra. Titus also teaches nearby–at our local conservatory, University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music–and keeps an active performance schedule as guest principal oboist, guest soloist, and member of Chineke! Orchestra and the Gateways Music Festival.

One more thing: Titus has also made a short film! Directed in collaboration with CSO Nouveau Chamber Player alum and duo kayo co-founder Titilayo Ayangade, A Tale of Two Tails is Titus’ reflection on his experience as a Black man and a classical musician. Titus not only makes the oboe look cool, he shows that it can be as creative and edgy as he needs it to be. If he can do it, you can too!

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