How a Toledo pianist became a U.S. Marine bassoonist
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa, Japan -- It all started with a flyer. Seven year-old Nathan R. Gembreska stumbled upon an announcement for private piano lessons in his hometown, Toledo, Ohio. He took it back to his parents and said, “I want to do this.”
“That’s definitely the most pivotal decision I’ve ever made, deciding to take piano lessons,” said Gembreska, a sergeant in the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band in Okinawa, Japan. “Seventeen years later, here I am. Because of that [decision], I’m playing the bassoon in the Marine Corps.”
Gembreska’s journey as a Marine and musician involved some twists and turns, including transitioning from piano to bassoon. The piano is an acoustic, stringed instrument, typically played in classical, jazz, and traditional music. The strings are struck by hammers as the musician presses on the black and white keys of a keyboard. On the other hand, the bassoon is a handheld woodwind instrument that is normally played in an orchestral or concert band. The musician plays this instrument by exercising controlled breathing from the diaphragm and altering the pace and intensity of his breaths while dexterously scaling keys that manipulate the instrument’s pitch.
Gembreska’s transition was born of his growing fascination with music, spurred by his enjoyment of the piano. In middle school, he decided to expand his musical horizon by joining the band as an alto saxophonist.
“I already knew the piano, and I thought I might as well try it,” said Gembreska.
He later switched to the bassoon, which is his current instrument in the Marine Corps, performing in solo ensemble competitions throughout the state of Ohio as a bassoonist and pianist. He performed in various bands, orchestras, all-state ensembles, and earned numerous honors during his Whitmere High School-career, the entirety of which he served as the principal bassoonist for the Toledo Youth Symphony Orchestra.
In his senior year, Gembreska began looking for college opportunities.
“I was thinking about going to New York City and going to some big prestigious music school for bassoon performance, and then I realized, this is going to be really expensive,” said Gembreska. “This might not be the best approach.”
Coincidentally, a Marine Corps recruiter came to Gembreska’s high school to tell the band about the Musician Enlistment Option Program. He contacted the recruiter, auditioned for the program and passed with a high enough score to choose his first duty station. With the bassoon being such a selective instrument, he discovered that only five of 10 Marine Corps fleet bands had positions for bassoonists, so he began to do his research to make a decision.
After reaching out to band members in the Corps, Gembreska’s attention fell upon the III MEF Band. They often do concert band performances, which is what he enjoys the most, so he made the decision to come to Okinawa.
Upon arriving, Gembreska received the opportunity to show his proficiency in other musical instruments. He attended his first marching festival in his new unit as a lance corporal, reverting to the instrument that introduced him to performing in a band.
“Two weeks later, I left with the band, not playing the bassoon, but with the saxophone,” said Gembreska. “I proved that I was proficient enough.”
Gembreska has had several opportunities to perform here on island and travel throughout the Asia-Pacific region, resulting in his nomination for Marine Corps Musician of the Year in 2016. The Marines that are nominated for the title are not only judged by their musical performance, but their performance as Marines as well. Physical Fitness Test scores, Marine Corps Martial Arts Program belt levels, performance evaluations and rifle range scores are all taken into account.
“I was so happy,” said Gembreska. “To know I was chosen to represent the III MEF Band was a great honor.”
For the competition, Gembreska used his talent of playing multiple instruments to combine two separate recordings, one of him playing the piano and one of the bassoon, into a single piece.
“Unfortunately, I was not chosen as Musician of the Year, but I know for a fact that I put up a really tough competition,” said Gembreska. “I worked so hard on all of my training. It all paid off.”
Although his primary instrument in the III MEF Band is the bassoon, Gembreska plays the piano, piccolo and saxophone, more often.
Seventeen years after deciding to take piano lessons, Gembreska’s role as a student has become the role of a teacher. He now instructs his own piano lessons on Okinawa as he continues his musical career in the Marine Corps. He plans on reenlisting and aims to be a part of the Quantico Marine Corps Band or the Marine Corps Band New Orleans in the next chapter of his career.
In the coming years, Gembreska’s journey may take him to Bourbon Street, Iwo Jima, Headquarters Marine Corps or somewhere totally unexpected. His path is not charted, nor does it have a designated ending point. It leads wherever his love of music wanders.