Friday, December 30, 2011

Playing is Working (for me)

Everyday, I roll out of bed, eager to see what happens.  I am enough of a nerd to particularly like unscheduled days that allow time for both reed-making and scales. Yes, I worry constantly about maintaining my expensive addiction to solo art music, but I find encouragement in many places.  I recently rediscovered the website of the composer-writer-bassoonist, John Steinmetz.  I find him genuinely funny and insightful, and I enjoyed re-reading his articles.  And here is his “generic resumé”  which has always made me smile. 
And speaking of thinking about careers, I was pondering the question of “career highlights” today (it is a subject that comes up when composing resumés).  My career has been really long and varied at this point and yet I am always looking to the horizon, thinking of how to get more experiences.  And though I live for being on stage, the moments that I remember are the moments leading up to the concerts... e.g.  the night before my first tour with Guy Few in October, 2009.  It had taken us all day to fly from Toronto to Kelowna because there was a highway-closing accident in TO on the day we were driving to the airport, so we missed our plane and all other connections.  I had a nasty cold and we were flying in the back of the economy section, sitting in the middle seats at the back.  When we finally made it to our destination, all the restaurants were closed except a neon-flashing Chinese-Canadian buffet.  My nose was raw and my ears were blocked though I could hear the sad country music playing on the static-ridden speakers.  And at that moment, I was overcome with happiness at the prospect of two weeks of touring in beautiful B.C.... the concerts were fantastic and the whole trip unforgettable, but it was that night before it started when I felt the reality, the sure knowledge that our duo's first recital tour was about to begin.  

The new year starts with month of touring.  First, I will go to the Meg Quigley Competition and Symposium in Stockton, California to judge, teach and perform. I am flying there with one of my top students and we are arriving a day early to go on the cane harvesting expedition and for me to rehearse with the pianist, then it will be three packed days of judging the semi and final rounds of the competition (10 wonderful young bassoonists are performing! and a similar number of fabulous professionals).  I will lead a masterclass on January 7 and play in the concert that night.  I am looking forward to meeting old and new friends and having that incredibly rare experience of hearing many bassoon soloists.  Then we zip back to Toronto, and Guy and I leave on a Western Canadian tour that will take in some really cold places!  Here is a list of some of the solo and duo works that I will play this month... playing is the best work I can imagine!

Jean-Daniel Braun - Solos (#6, 7, 13 & 21)
Mathieu Lussier - Bassango (with piano & also with strings)
Mathieu Lussier - Bacchanale
Ignaz Lachner - Concertino
Marcel Bitsch - Concertino
Paul Jean-Jean - Prelude and Scherzo
St-Saens - Sonate
J-B de Boismortier - Suite in G from Op 37; Sonata in E minor Op 50 #1
Rimsky-Korsakov - Flight of the Bumble Bee (with piano and with strings)
Piazzolla - Oblivion (with piano and with strings)
Shostakovitch - Waltz and Fast Dance
Schreck - Sonata in E Flat Op 9

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Calm Before the Storm

I have two clear days off and my first instinct is to play ALL of my scales in ALL intervals as a tonic... this takes a lot of time and is psychotic, but I am getting fairly far with it!  And it feels so good, as if I have all the time in the world to explore different sounds and approaches.  There are so many things to try!

But very soon, the wheel of life takes over again and I hit the floor running.  So often, our tour schedules look like vacation itineraries (after all, we do play for a living) with airplanes, rental cars, hotels in different cities, new people to meet, new espresso shops to discover.  But everything has to be ready, from passports to concert gowns.

I get the final piece for my 2012 touring frock... a feather shrug that goes with my current, royal blue bassoon superhero outfit (I previewed this gown at the CD release party on Oct 30)... I have new faux high cowboy boots from Fluvog... we have our new arrangements of Flight of the Bumble Bee and Oblivion... I have to pick up my visa from my manager and do a thousand things (including checking in with all of my orphaned students) before getting on the first airplane on January 4.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Listening to Vivaldi concerti edits during long drives

It is amazing how my perception of any of my recordings changes and evolves as I continue to listen.  When I first get the edits, it is a shock.  I listen in trepidation, wondering if I have captured my intentions or if there are glaring errors of taste and timing or if it is fresh, vital....  I begin to map the places that have genuine flaws (i.e. require further editing) and at the same time, I begin to like the overall product more and more.

It takes repeated listening for the idea of the recording to emerge as a performance.  After all, how many times in my life will I get to hear myself present 8 concerti in a row?

I had plenty of opportunities today as I made the three hour drive from the near north (outside of Parry Sound) to Toronto.  I went to the airport 12 hours early to fetch Guy (returning from Saskatoon), which meant I got to return at night, giving me another stretch of car-listening time.

Of course, the real listening is done with head phones and cathedral silence, but there is something familiar and deeply comfortable about listening while tearing down the highway.  So much of our work seems to be about getting to where we want to go... playing the concerts (and recordings) seems to be the reward.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Sideroads and Scales

Today was really the last day of holiday with my old parents.  A peaceful day of re-heating leftovers and practising slow scales.

And I also decided to unpack some of the archival boxes to get both of my parents thinking about their accomplishments and histories.  I have started a rudimentary website to collect the stories and hoping that my gifted mother will write the full story of her life.  She has lived in the shadow my log-building superstar father and I continually remind her that her story is valuable and important.  I piled manuscripts, radio scripts, photos, magazine articles dating back almost 60 years... and my mother began to remember her vital contributions.  Now I just have to figure out how to run the Google-supplied website thingy.

Dad is surrounded by his work, but even he needs to be reminded of all that he has accomplished (here is a recent article from the local Parry Sound magazine, Sideroads) Today, he reviewed the 7-part video series that he created in the 1990's as a sequel to his books and teachings.  He realized anew that this material is interesting to people, and his gifted caregiver is going to study the videos and start building in the spring (Linda is a long haul trucker, machinist, carpenter, seamstress and many more things).

As I push forward in my life, it is very important to revisit the past.  It is important to me to see my parents remembering the value of their own work.

And it is important for me to play scales!  As silly as it may sound, it is my foundation and security.  Playing slow scales(+ scales in 6th and 3rds) has helped me get rid of some niggling tendonitis that developed from some enthusiastic weight-training.  It is better to actively fix something rather than passively wait for it to go away, but aches and pains aside, it is always always good to review basics. Scales are always the best way to measure distances and build strength.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Cooking for Real

Today, at the home of my parents in the quiet, slightly snowy north, I made my first completely successful festive meal for other people, my first unalloyed triumph.  
It included an apple-cider roasted turkey with leeks and apple, red risotto with shitake & pancetta, haricots verts with caramelized shallots, a lovely dish of thinly sliced sweet potatoes roasted in alternating layers with wine-soaked chopped dates, gravy made with apple cider and herbs and a purée of the roasted apples and leeks that were cooked with the turkey.  Hours later, we had mixed berries and whipped cream tinged with almond extract for desert.  Each dish was complex yet light, deeply flavoured but not heavy.  And miraculously, it was ready at 4:00, the hour that my old mother always wants to have Christmas dinner.
You see, I have always had anxiety about cooking for groups combined with a real desire to share food with others.  I have decided to change that anxiety into an adventure.  And maybe I am totally obsessed, but it reminds me so much of the work I do as a bassoonist.
I think the reason that today’s meal was so successful was the aid of my mother’s caregiver, the astonishingly gifted Linda Harriman.  Her real-life skills are wide-ranging and easily encompass the preparation of dinner, yet she decided to act as my assistant.  Every tool that I put down, she collected and washed, returning to it’s spot. If I ran into a time crunch, she peeled, chopped or fetched.  Though she was not constantly at my side, she still did 6 hours of cleaning.  If she hadn’t done that, I would have fallen behind or had to serve dinner amidst a clutter of dirty dishes.  So, while I am pleased and proud that my dinner was successful, I also know that it would have been far less so without the help of Linda.  
And while the dinner was excellent, I also needed my parents and Linda to be with me to savour it... if I had made it as a solitary exercise, would it have tasted as vividly?
And it all reminds me of the work it takes to be a soloist or any other kind of performer.
The study, decisions and hours of preparation are solitary activities, but the performance requires the presence of other people to combust all of the elements into a finished product that can be judged and enjoyed and repeated.  And for the solo performer to arrive successfully to the stage, huge amounts of support must be given to make it possible... there are so many things that need to done in addition to the practise-practise-practise mantra of the hopeful virtuoso.  The performance is an essential step and there need to be many repeat performances before the skills become refined into instinct.  The performances can be humble events for friends and family along with or leading to main stage, sequin-gowned extravaganzas.  Each is important, each adds nacreous layers to the glow of the performer.    

Carpe Diem (and Merry Christmas)

The best thing about this time of the year is the momentary lift in routine activities giving the possibility to reflect, which is the first step towards renewal.  Christmas Day itself seems to expand before me as something much longer and more full of potential than any other day.
Both of my elderly parents are very ill yet somehow doing well at the same time.  Their lives are so different from what they were even one or two years ago.  It is sobering to see that the decline of the their physical strength is now at odds with their desire for life.  I see that there is no real preparation in our lives for this loss of power and that, despite the help of their caregiver and the work of doctors, there is very little support to transition from being a highly productive, creative person to one that is battling illness in many ways.  Yet I also see that the opportunities to recapture ambition can return once an adjustment is made to circumstance.
Striving and triumph can exist in the smallest of acts, things that will never be recognized yet are superhuman, such as my formerly powerhouse, mountain-climbing, solo-sailing, house-building father now calculating how best to build momentum that will allow him to leave his chair without pitching forward on his head!  I am realizing also that the striving of the deepest self towards expression and recognition never leaves and should be honoured to avoid a descent into bitterness.  My shy, blog-writing, activist mother is so encouraged when she is recognized by political thinkers, legal activists and others in professions far removed from her own.
I have collected archives of the accomplishments of my mother whose huge behind-the-scenes work resulted in publishing the chronicles of their early lives together in the Family Herald (Montreal Gazette) and eventually in her own book store and their own publishing company.  Together, they build many homes and created the B. Allan Mackie School of Log Building with knowledge and skills that spread around the world, spinning off into the lives of countless people.  The sight of the materials seems to stir both a flicker of pride and old sorrows.  There appear to be immediate road blocks to collaboration yet maybe the flare ups of rancour and ire are signs of life! I have hope that their abilities will collaborate yet again to tell their individual stories and their joint history with all the candour necessary to make it useful and fascinating.
Above all, outcomes seem to reside in the spirit of the individual.  I can witness in myself and in my parents the undeniable fact that our successes comes from resolve and persistence while failure seems to come from fear and avoidance.  And that success/failure are inextricably intertwined... so often the best information can come from pursuing a fear to it’s hiding place. Resolution and determination are dangerous commodities if we act from fear.  Yet fear in proper proportions is a catalyst  to success.  And I also wonder if bitterness and regret can undergo an alchemical reaction if we apply our other powers of organization (deciding on goals), collaboration (asking for help) and resolve (committing to a project with no guarantee of rewards).
I celebrate everything this year....the fact that my parents are still alive and that it is Christmas and I am roasting my first turkey and I will keep playing my bassoon because it is the place where I meet my fears and my ambition.  I want to hone my understanding and skills even as I rest from the hustle of daily life.  And I will keep reminding my parents of the complexity of their lives that has led to inspiration and productivity for thousands of other people. 
Merry Christmas everyone! 

Cooking and Practising on Christmas Eve

Cooking and Practising 
For some reason, I am cooking a lot now.  Of course, I have always cooked, but for the first time,  I am seriously flipping through sumptuously illustrated books, choosing recipes, trying them and feeding the results to other people who seem to appreciate the process.  Fascinating.
Practising is a similar process.  It too requires time, materials and the eventual participation of others to make it worthwhile.
Both activities require planning, preparation, compromise and outcomes that are improved by how much energy and steadfast interest I can bring to them.
To stay in good playing shape, to be ready to play the repertoire that I have programmed for the first weeks of the new year and beyond, I have to practise a few hours each day.  I am celebrating the holidays in the company of my parents, and their amazing caregiver, all of whom appreciate both my cooking efforts (today was roast prime rib, glazed carrots, brussel sprouts with bacon and apples, beet/orange/walnut salad, mashed potatoes, mashed cauliflower with leeks) and my practising (Bitsch Concertino, Braun Solos, Lussier Bassango, St-Saens Sonate, Jean-Jean Prelude & Scherzo, Boismortier Op 50 #2, our new arrangement of Flight of the Bumblebee and this is half of the music that I will be performing in January).  Though I planned to shower and change into a nice outfit for dinner, I ended up wearing my workout clothes, decorated with bacon sizzlings.
My life rarely fits normal timetables... in order to perform well, I have to spend time playing and that is often late at night or instead of fun social events.   I have felt guilty about this for years.  To play really well, time also needs to be spent every day on studying music and making reeds.   Plus the physical conditioning necessary to play very well, i.e. exercise. It would be possible to fill 12 hours per day with the work needed to prepare to be at my performance peak yet this remains an unlikely prospect.

Just like cooking, I get better and better at understanding the parts that make the whole, how to pull it together quickly and make something that will be interesting to others.  It is an endless puzzle but such an appealing one.  There are no failures in this approach, only lessons.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

First Edits of Vivaldi Concerti

Today, as I drive around in my truck buying the ingredients for the feasts I am preparing for my elderly parents in the their northern house, I am listening to the first edits of the Vivaldi Concerti that I recorded last summer.

Exciting and painful!  The concerti are so hard.  The players are so great.  The first edit fills me with the conflicting desires to have a nap or to practise with renewed enthusiasm.

Maybe I'll just stare into the middle distance.

(photos by Larry Kryski - taken at the end of two days of recording in the Glenn Gould Studio of CBC Toronto)

Pain and Joy - the artist’s choices

Pain and Joy - the artist’s choices
The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.
Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create -- so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off...
They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.
US novelist in China (1892 - 1973)
Today I am visiting my videographer, Larry Kryski and reviewing concert videos from recent performances, and the one that is thrilling me is the Vivaldi Christmas Concert that we did on December 11, 2011.  
We bassoonists are so lucky to have these concerti and I am so lucky to be in a city that has students willing to take on the extra challenge of adding a not-for-credit huge event to their schedules.  And my dear stage partner, Guy Few, who has been part of this event from the beginning... supplying the orchestra part in the first season and this year playing the double concerto for oboe and bassoon with me.
I watch the videos and am so impressed with the grace and power of the students, some of them already showing their professional potential.
And I look at the videos of myself, see that I am still completely committed to the goal of becoming the best bassoonist I can be, eager to play the music, completely engaged with trying to conquer the different dragons in every concerto... I am never happier than when doing all of this in public, on stage with other eager musicians.  It is just the way I am.
Yet, as a performing musician has committed to a career filled with doubt and worry.... will I forget the notes? will my reed raunch out? will a key fall off?  will enough concerts come in to pay the bills?  examples of the usual endless anxieties of musicians... but I would never trade this for another career. 
I wonder how much to tell my students about the choices that will be forced upon them... how to leave a crying baby in order to get to an orchestra rehearsal, or unable to look after elderly parents because you are on a tour that has taken two years to set up.  And the idea of weekends, vacations or even a day off is almost absurd in our world.  Because if you aren’t performing, then you need to be preparing to perform, i.e. practising, studying, researching, going to concerts, listening to music, imagining the next steps for yourself and your students.
Yet my own question is answered over and over when they keep stepping up to the stage to try something that is more difficult than they ever imagined.  They want to learn by doing.  And they want to be reassured that it will work out ok.  The only reassurance lies in the fact that I am still alive and kicking.  Or more accurately, sitting in my videographer's basement studio, looking at the quote from Pearl S. Buck that is sitting on one of his desks.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Students are the Lifeline

First, I have to say that getting a full night of sleep (i.e. going to bed before 2 a.m.) has felt amazing but has seriously cut into my writing time!  Good habits are causing a kind of existential jet lag... this commitment to keeping myself strong does interfere with my ambitions.
There have been lots of things I wanted to talk about!  And one is the experience of witnessing young bassoonists and other young musicians at the thresholds of their professional careers.  To see the passion and dedication is humbling and almost shocking.  I realize that you can see a person’s future in the way they live their present.
And I am reminded over and over that teaching is an essential part of being an expressive artist.
And so often, I wish that I could pull any doubt from their young souls and let them know that they will achieve their goals, and therefore should imagine the best possible goals.
And I want to tell them that, through their work, their thoughts, their reactions and questions and playing, they remind me of everything that is important when I watch their journeys.
For example, I got the opportunity to take of the Orchestral Literature Class for the bassoon studio at the Glenn Gould Studio (of the Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto).   Though my career is focused on solo repertoire at the moment, orchestral music remains the foundation of my training and my career.  The chance to revisit this music and to remember the self-training and to witness the steps that the five young bassoonists of the GGS are taking to refine their skills to become deft and powerful orchestral players makes me far happier than I ever expected.  And when my ex-husband cheerfully returned our mutual library of orchestral parts (obsessively indexed by yours truly), I felt happier than if my favourite childhood doll had suddenly found his head again (poor Mr Monkey).
And for the last two weeks, I have been working with two teams of young artists at both the Glenn Gould School and the University of Toronto as we prepare for our sixth annual Vivaldi Christmas concert (our first in Toronto).  My idea is that a Vivaldi concerto combines everything that we learn as classical artists... every technique of agility and expressivity is called into play along with collaboration with the noble strings (always so developmental for us!).  And side by side with the artistic endeavor is the reality of what it takes to make a concert happen --- preparing parts, checking parts, arranging rehearsals, finding a venue, getting everyone’s updated bios, producing programs, scheduling every aspect of the event, oh, and making reeds, learning/memorizing the concerti along with everything else that life demands.  We have to fly by the seat of our pants and the more skills we gather along the way, well, the better the toboggan ride becomes!
My students are brave and I respect their courage so much.  The older students at university have the courage to try something new while juggling crazy schedules.  The youngest students trust me and are aiming their sights higher than I have ever seen before.  I know they will all be far greater players than I ever could be.

Here is a note by a very young student (Nicolas Richard) who met me in September.  His account of the experience was published in the Atlantic Presenters' Newsletter.  The intensity and vividness of his impressions makes me realize that every word we say and every note we play will register on a sensitive soul.  This alone is the reason to develop confidence and kindness and knowledge.  OK, I have to sleep now.  My students say it is good for me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Taking Care

OK, my students tell me that I should get 8 hours sleep and drink 1-3 litres of water per day and eat properly.  I am going to try it for ONE DAY and report back.  Have to go to bed now.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Musical Growth

I constantly search for ways to grow musically... well, I hardly need to search since the
areas of interest are endless and there is a constant need to develop skills.  
Though I long to get to work, other work is endless and the need to make money is a constant worry.
Yet sometimes I get to forget all of this... the moment I step onto stage I get to launch into the best world imaginable. 
And tomorrow, I have an equal pleasure awaiting me... I get to hear a wonderful student of mine, Bianca Chambul,  perform the Mozart Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, conducted by Alain Trudel.  I listened to her dress rehearsal last week and marveled at the new cadenzas and inventions that have come from her young mind.  Just 17 years old and she is playing in a way that lifts my heart and spirit beyond all material care.
This is an aspect of musical growth that I did not know about when I started my career 30 years ago... the deep joy of watching a true talent unfold in front of me.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


My dream life is full of concerts, recitals, concerti, masterclasses, teaching, recording, traveling.
My real life has all of these things in various quatities.
Yet I am always busy because there is always something that can be done to support this vision.  And by doing 
One of the best features of my life is daily contact with students who trust me enough to ask questions that I cannot answer yet I continue to try.  And I am so comforted by their questions because I recognize their searching and doubts.  And I feel paradoxically motivated to keep trying when it sometimes seems possible that all of my ambitions might not be fulfilled.
Today began with struggling to upload the videos from my iPhone that I took on Wednesday night of Bianca’s dress rehearsal of the Mozart Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra conducted by Alain Trudel.  She has written her own cadenzas and is improvising little ausgangs... really a joy to hear.  I promised to get the videos to her so she could listen before the concert on Sunday and it taking me forever to figure out, but I am slowly getting it done.
Then on the top floor of the Conservatory to start another day of teaching.  I have one student who is keenly interested in new music, is also shaking his head at how hard it is to practise and still stay on top of all the course work, wondering how it will all help him be a better performer and musician.  I say that I don’t know except that the questions will trigger an artistic response at some point.  And I said that scale work can be done in brief spots of time and that challenging patterns will, over time, weave an understanding of tone and distances, how it all adds up more effectively than if we wait until there is a clear block of time.  He also told me that he is recording the sounds on the subway everyday during his 14’ ride to school with the idea of creating a piece eventually... he said that the alarming realization struck him recently that the subway cars are oddly bereft of human conversation... hundreds of people sitting in close proximity, whisked to and from work/school/etc and never speaking.  Neil said that the sound of two teenaged girls talking broke the silence one day.
The hour was up, and in trooped five Conservatory bassoonists for our first Orchestral Lit class (I have just taken over the class from Michael Sweeney).  My ideas include having each student lead the class, presenting two standard excerpts and speaking in depth about his process for understanding and practising the elements, followed by a rendition of each excerpt.  I am asking each student to mark his (they are all men) presentation.   We are in the process creating a ‘chart of virtues’ (see previous post) which will define our goals and ambitions for these excerpts.  Adam Romey gave an animated account of his process and research for Tchaik IV and Marriage of Figaro.  Then I spoke about my point of view of each excerpt, then each player presented a version, then the two hours were gone!
I sat with the students while I ate lunch then I walked over to one of the satellite buildings for the University of Toronto.  I bumped into my next student on the way and we talked non stop about how to keep working in the face of doubt and dismay over one’s own performance.  Again, I had few answers but felt such a wave of recognition and comfort, as if this expression of doubt on the part of my student were an absolutely necessary initiation into the world of classical music.  We continued the discussion as
we worked on the top floor of the old, reclaimed residence that is being used for practise and teaching rooms now that the student body is outgrowing the Edward Johnson Building.
Then we walked back to the Conservatory, got a key, and went into the depths of the basement where the Reed Room is, next to the offices of the janitorial staff.  We crammed into the little room, full of bassoons and bassoonists, to clip the tip of Jeff’s reed and talk a bit about the nature of very wide reeds (another discussion!).  Then another Neil came for a reed lesson and I showed him refinements in my hand profiling methods.  Reed making ideally requires a constant mentor, yet I trust always that moments of insight combined with the searching nature of each player will lead to a complete skill over time.  It is a quiet skill too, involving so much looking and crafting before there is any hope of a sound!  The quiet, still room with no windows almost put me to sleep, but Neil kept asking questions and revived me!
Then I drove to pick up my son from choir practise, gathering groceries and talking at length with my student Adam, who had recently come to many insights about trust, including the profound one that  the performer must trust himself before the leap can be made to new knowledge or collaboration.
What we do every day matters.  We can trust that we will succeed if we apply that trust to our own ambitions and efforts.  And the trust of my students is one of the unbelievably valuable gifts of my existence.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Chart of Virtues and Enjoying Failure

Chart of Virtues and Enjoying Failure
Reading a lovely book by Gretchen Rubin (Collins) called The Happiness Project.  Despite having an outwardly pleasant, picture-perfect existence, she felt life was whooshing by without being sure she was living to the fullest.  She spent a year studying happiness and the result is fascinating.  I don’t agree with all of it yet as I continue to read, I can see that she is not seeking an untroubled life, but rather, a conscious one.
She created a chart of virtues under the premise that doing a small thing every day is better than doing a big thing once in awhile.  She took a long time to define her virtues and then it became a chart that reminded her of these things every day. 
I believe in this too.  As I strive to build a solo career that will both challenge and sustain me, there are sometimes long periods between concerts.  I find this very hard since the real life of the music lies in making it ring out in a room full of people!  This is when I remember that every effort can still be directed towards supporting that reality... 15 minutes spent on a tricky corner of a concerto can be essential preparation for a concert that is happening a year from now...organizing string parts for Vivaldi concerti can save hours of panic when it comes time to present these works in different places... having a suitcase that is in good shape and an up-to-date passport makes it that much easier to get on a plane when the opportunity arises.  And stopping all of these things so that I can get to bed before dawn also supports the goal of being on stage in full strength... this is very hard for me to remember!  
Enjoying failure... now there’s a lovely thought!  Every time we step onto stage or in the public forum in anyway, we run the risk of making mistakes and failing.  It is simply the price of worthwhile life.  Mistakes reveal passion, and as Ms Rubin says, it is part of being creative and ambitious.  The trick is to forgive ourselves and keep trying, never to retreat into silence. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Little Braun CD Launch

Little Braun Blog 
The 24 Solos (1740) by Jean-Daniel Braun is officially launched!  Two days ago!
On October 30, 2011.  It is now available for purchase on my website --- just in time for Christmas!
This particular project is what got me started on the blog in the first place and it is funny that I was too busy during the days leading up to the launch to even consider writing.
The preparation for any self-presented concert requires three things in addition to reeds, music, practise:
  1. Complete attention to detail (even if you miss something, you will better remember it next time!)
  2. Genius, thinking-for-themselves assistants
  3. Support
On the day of the launch, two of my top students also had important stuff going on... Winner of the 2010 TSYO Concerto Competition,  Bianca was at the University of Toronto, in her first playing-from-memory-rehearsal of the Mozart Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra.  Later she reported that it went very well once she got past the initial flutter of nerves.  I simply could not attend because one of my senior students at the Glenn Gould School was having his recital at the same time.  Adam played with a level of refinement that was inspiring, reminding me of my early experiences in Philadelphia and hearing the seamless, warm, flexible sounds of the bassoonists raised under the wing of the Philadelphia orchestra.  When that was over, one of my recital partners (Dr Cecilia Lee) and another of my senior students (best-admin-assistant-ever-Neil Bishop) helped me bring in food, flowers and CDs from my distantly-parked car.  Neil worked to clean up the reception area and set up all the CDs and price lists, then Guy Few arrived and set up the food table:  my little idea was to have lunch foods and a pile of brown paper lunch bags that had “Little Braun Bag” written on each of them.  Then a graduate student (Susan) arrived to help put up signs around the slightly bewildering complex that is the Glenn Gould School of Music.  Then my oldest friend in the world, Leslie, arrived and volunteered to help sell CDs.  The videographer arrived and then it was time to get dressed... my newest gown by Jessica Biffi still requires the expert bodice-lacing technique of my stage partner Guy Few, so luckily he was on this programme!  I did want to test my reeds one last time since the programme ranged from the unaccompanied Braun Solos to Marcel Bitsch to Mignone, but by this time, the audience had started to flow in.  I had expected a small crowd, but people kept coming... my managers arrived (Andrew Kwan and Erin Sparks), then old friends, then students, composers, parents of students, then  miracle of miracles, people I didn’t even know!!    My manager, familiar with the building, began slinging chairs, aided by Neil.  The concert began and I dived in, first with the solos, then with the Concertini by Bitsch, Lachner and Mignone... my first time out with the glorious, fiery pianist Young-Ah Bang.  I had a great time playing yet was a touch nervous;  it wasn't until I listened to the videos later that I realized I sounded better than I imagined(feared).
Anyway, the energy was incredible, the support and thoughtfulness of my friends was incredible, the excitement of the visiting students was so touching.  I am feeling very lucky today.  All musicians need support and once we have it, the music can really start to flow.  I will write more this week and post the video clips.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Hold Fast to the Hands of Grace

Hold fast to the hands of grace
Have the courage to take your place
These words are a tiny excerpt from a gorgeous new blues CD called Passin-A-Time by singer/guitarist/songwriter, Kat Danser.
Guy and I met her at Contact East at the end of September when she showcased in the spot directly following us at the Mack Theatre.  We were blown away by her soundcheck, then her one-woman showcase was even more dynamic.  She gave us her CD, refused payment, and I haven’t stopped listening to it since.  She is joined by other musicians yet she was just as powerful when she was by herself on stage. I am always grateful to the songster/poets ---- Kat’s music is sultry, gritty, unapologetic but compassionate.  Her words trail through my mind, and the ones I quoted above jumped out at me... they keep on being incredibly meaningful and you can check out her lyrics/songs on her website.
I am pulling all the threads together to release my newest solo CD at the end of October.  This is the 24 Solos by Jean-Daniel Braun that provoked me to start my blog in summer, 2010.

Hard on the heels of my divorce, the sale of our grand house and the struggle to find a new place to live for both myself and my mother, my little CD is oddly calm.  It fascinates me to listen to it with the ears of a musician (imagining other interpretations, ornaments, tempi) and the ears of a human being (incredulous that I pulled it together at all).
I always want to launch the CDs with a special event ... the recordings represent a beginning, a real commitment to make the music part of my life.  I want my students to hear them, perhaps realize something yet imagine always something more.  I want people to know about this solitary, forgotten artist (Jean-Daniel Braun)who took the time to make something for the bassoonists that would last for hundreds of years.  And I want an excuse to gather my friends and students; the efforts of each of us might ignite something greater than we can imagine and I feel that every time that we join forces to bring our ambitions into form.
Hold fast to the hands of grace
Have the courage to take your place
Lift it up in your very own way
Believe in love and keep the faith
Especially on the lonely days
oh,oh yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout

Monday, October 3, 2011

Showcase Performance - another day in life of classical performers.

Guy Few and I flew to Charlottetown last Thursday evening (September 29) to perform at Contact East and to connect with old and new friends.  Contact East  is a large showcase event that brings artists, presenters and agents together annually in the Maritimes.  This year’s sessions were held in Charlotttetown and Summerside, Prince Edward Island.   

This was the third industry showcase experience that we have had as a duo and it was fantastic.I got immersed in the moment, happy to submerge myself in playing, listening, meeting new people, all the while wishing that I could attend more events and write about every moment of the experience.   I loved being there with Guy who is so experienced, has many friends already in this troubadour business and is so good at making new friends and openly celebrating their music.  For his part, Guy has concluded that I am a ‘conference person’ who gets inspired by the interactions and performances, much as I am inspired by actually performing.  Our experienced managers (Andrew Kwan and Erin Sparks) were unobtrusively yet completely supportive.  Heaven.

In some ways, we were simply doing the things that we do every day of our performing lives... thinking ahead, planning the show from different perspectives, rehearsing and preparing the music, making reeds, making contacts, listening to other artists, talking to our mangers, reaching out to new people.  And like every other performance, we also did not know exactly what to expect so all of these things become new again.  Any performance requires attention to countless details and preparing an industry showcase has some unique features.  First, you need an organized management who applies on your behalf... of course you can also do it yourself (!)

Long before we left for Charlotetown, we spent time choosing both the music and the commentary that would best represent us... it took a couple of run throughs to chop the presentation down to the allowable time.   Short pieces, such as Flight of the Bumblebee, could be played in their entirety; longer works (St-Saens Sonata) had to be represented by a single movement and we even represented a section of a large concerto by playing a segment of the slow movement senza orchestra.   It is very important to choose vibrant music that represents us and equally important to keep the audience wanting more!We took the time to run our showcase for students and ourselves and later edited the talking parts of the show, choosing from the many personal stories that we have used in our concerts over the last 6 years.  It was tempting to wing the showcase because it contains material that we have used in many times before, yet we fine-tuned our mental road maps so that we could navigate from one piece to the next, deliver our broader message and still connect the music.   Since we are each strong minded and opinionated soloists, advance planning has been shown to aid considerably in creating a smooth flight!

Already a superior experience to the standard orchestra audition, the showcase presentations lasts no longer than 20 minutes and take place in a live concert setting before a large audience of presenters and agents.  The conference took advantage of diverse venues in Charlottetown and Summerside, and our venue was in a the venerable Mack Theatre in Charlottetown.  We had a sound check in the afternoon.  The room sounded fine without amplification and the sound guys were ready to monitor things.  The lighting guys found beautiful projections to go with our show.  We got used to the upright piano... our fist time ever using an upright for the St-Saens sonata!

Our first day was full of highlights and one of the best was the presence of a very young bassoonist whose mother had made a four hour drive to bring him from New Brunswick to meet me.  Nico came to the morning masterclasses at UPEI, listening to all of my coachings of the flutes, clarinets and saxophones, and then came to the evening show case.  He and his mother were the only members of the public who were invited to attend, thanks to the kindness of the organizers of Contact East...  a table directly in front of the stage so that they would have the best possible view.  I felt like I had true family with me in the audience!

The actual show went better than I could have dreamed... a couple of glitches fed smoothly into our patter (e.g. my bracelet got caught in my ornate bustle just after Guy’s classic “Princess” story and the audience of supposedly jaded professionals laughed their hearts out... one big manager told us afterwards that our mini-concert demonstrated exactly the direction that he wants to see classical music going... high performance standards combined with joy in the moment along with communicativeness, extreme clothing... exuberance that is normally associated with other genres.

Every experience will always be different and each experience gives you a potential road map for the next yet you can never collapse into certainty that these will be the same.  Every trip needs a new map, and just like the evolution of GPS, we are constantly honing our responsiveness when it comes to delivering the music and the stories.  The important thing is to always be working then connecting with real, live people.  This conference was an amazingly stimulating micro-cosm;  surrounded by great artists in multiple disciplines and stages of their performing lives was so enlivening.We have no obvious preparation for this kind of work in our schooling, yet our training as classical musicians gives us all of the discipline to develop any kind of music that we want.  Our depths and interests as human beings are the things that drive us to create a  show for others, to bring the music and stories out into the open for people to comprehend the common ground.    

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Days in the Life of a Bassoon Soloist

Each day is filled from the front to the back with students, reeds, musical ambition, practise, planning, rehearsing and sometimes with concerts.  The concerts are the pearls that link every endeavour.
I get up early and made reeds, and sometimes manage to practise a bit before my first students arrive.  I look forward to seeing them and get motivated in the course of answering their questions; even when I make demands of them, I secretly wish I could immediately practise on my own to see if I can fulfill those same demands!   There is hardly time to prepare each task yet I lunge eagerly from one to the next, each moment feeling quite certain that I have forgotten something.
On Saturday, one of my lovely former students has flown from Newfoundland for some reed lessons and I showed her how I handshape (no shaper, just a sharp craft knife) and handprofile (no profiler, just a sharp reed knife, files, sandpaper and easel).  The time flew by.  So incredibly wonderful to be working side-by-side with a young artist who is really beginning to find her way yet still knows what she wants to learn. 
Last Sunday, a “day off” was wonderful .. started with a rehearsal for the showcase with Guy Few that we will perform next week... then 12 students started arriving for our day of working on reeds.  I showed all of them (ages 16 -23) how to shape and profile using only knives, files, sandpaper and easel. 
I think back to my years as a student... 2 years at the University of British Columbia followed by 4 years at the Curtis Institute of Music (Philadelphia).  Each day was filled from front to back with learning to make reeds, learning music.   And boys.
Later, when I joined the Montreal Symphony, my days were filled with rehearsals, recordings, practising.  And boys (Quebec boys).  I came home to Pender Island. B.C. at the end of the summer seasons, exhausted by the year’s work, new as I was to the  confining rigours of playing in a large orchestra.  All I wanted to do, really, was make reeds and practise material that I wanted to get to during the year but never could.  Once my youngest cousin came to visit.  Four years old, he wanted to play.  I could hear him outside my room where I was practising.  He asked his mother... “when will she be finished?” and his mother said, “she will never be finished.”
 I am still recording, rehearsing, practising & performing but with very different results.  And I am still surrounded by boys, but now they are my young colleagues.  Quite different.  And there are lots of girl colleagues too.
This week started with a 12 hour day of teaching and each student came in brandishing a new discovery... Sheba had a list of promotional ideas and a clear recital development plan and a list of things that she had learned from her masters’ recital.... Betsy had done every exercise that I had assigned her, even the really boring ones, and has thus jumped into a category of her own... Kevin brought in an exquisitely shaped piece of cane in the Thunemann style (or as near as we can figure based on copying examples) and updates on his Spanish concerto/recital ideas... Christopher brought in a book a Vivaldi arias that he is integrating into a vocal-based recital programme (bassoon as singer)... Neil brought in a newly-made reed, all handshaped/profiled and based on a Reigher shape that he had discovered, along with ideas/questions about interior gouge/relationship to bark.  I snatched the reed from him, once we had trimmed it a bit more, and discovered a dimension to the response that I have been searching for in my own reeds. After meeting my son and getting him home and preparing my teaching materials, I return to the University to lead the Double Reed Class.  We did solos and ensembles and I introduced them to circular breathing... such a pleasure to see their sweet perfect faces taking on all kinds of shapes as they dived into this!  And some of them figured it out, or rather, just started doing it without really knowing how they put it together.  After this class, I met with a dozen bassoonists from both U of T and the Glenn Gould School to discuss the plans for our annual Vivaldi Christmas Concert.
Then I went home and cleaned up and practised for an hour... my days stretch from 6:30 a.m. until 1:00 a.m. and they still are not long enough for all that I want to do.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Jean-Daniel Braun - liner notes update

I sent out a public plea for help in finding information about Jean-Daniel Braun... I want to release this recording of his 24 Solos (1740) on Halloween, but have not been able to find any substantial information.  I decided to also ask for help in writing the liner notes... I figured that the same person with the skills to discover information probably would have the skill to string the words together quicker than I would!

My undignified FaceBook bleat brought helpful bassoonists out of the woodwork and I offered the task to Dave Wells of Sacramento State University... he possesses a handy combination of degrees (musicology and bassoon performance) and an intrepid spirit.  He reports that information is thin on the ground but he has a few leads and has ordered some facsimiles... with any luck, a story will emerge!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Best Administrative Assistant Ever

This summer, for the first time, I hired an administrative assistant.  OK, I hired a student who is indeed helping with a lot of administration but also has the guts and courage and kindness to help with looking after my kid and my elderly parents on occasion and doesn't mind helping with changing the kitty litter if absolutely necessary. Neil Bishop is a fantastic assistant, probably because he is also a very dedicated bassoonist who understands what I am working to achieve.

This is my first season in 6 years that has ALL of my teaching located in one city! My students are all at the University of Toronto and the Glenn Gould School of Music along with private teaching.  As amazingly wonderful as it is (and it is wonderful), I was overwhelmed with the layers of scheduling that this requires in addition to my travel etc.  My administrative assistant is handling the scheduling of my students and saving me 5 hours of computer work per week.  Priceless!

I have just finished a major recording (Vivaldi Concerti) and have a lot of work to finalize the editions, finish paying the bills and prepare the tours and release dates along with producing the liner notes etc.  I have delegated my assistant to help with the corrections and publishing.  So wonderful.

I am submitting grant applications for a video project to accompany the CD release and have found a producer/director who is willing to write the story board and script thus making it possible for me to even consider this new project.  He mentioned that we will need an administrative assistant when we go to Venice for the shoot in spring of 2012.

I am going to release the project that I recorded last summer (24 Solos by Jean-Daniel Braun) and everything is ready EXCEPT the all-important liner notes... I have put out a very public appeal for a writer/researcher to help me with this.  I don't think my assistant has time for this.

My old parents and my teenaged son all have important projects --- I can attend most of them but sometimes need someone to help me, and my first call is always to my assistant.  And when my iPhone baffles me, my assistant always knows the answer.

We live in an amazing time when the youngest artists can help the older ones in such profound ways.
Thank you, Neil Bishop!

We are all in this together!!!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Read Between the Lines

Read Between The Lines
One of my friends told me that writing a blog about the recording projects that I do as a bassoonist is an extreme niche market.
I thought, “Really!?”
Because, after all, the process includes getting an idea and making something happen... it also includes some amazingly diverse, talented and funny people.
And are these not universally desirable things? 
Anyway, yesterday I had the real fun of playing on some tracks of new arrangements and new songs by the beloved Canadian folksinger, Valdy (Valdemar Horsdal) and his collaborator, Karel Roessingh.  Guy Few came with me and added corno da caccia and trumpet along with bassoon.  Today, Valdy and Karel went into a reggae studio to add some more sounds.  They said that are going to drive up and down Highway 401, calling on old and new friends, dropping into different studios, all going into creating a new CD that will be released before Valdy goes home in December from his fall tour.
The first song we recorded was Read Between The Lines --- a song written in praise of literacy and probably the title track for the new CD. 
The music is open-hearted and has such an attractive lilting groove.  We went on to record contributions to other songs, including Ragged Band of Angels (I love the title and images in this one) and two songs that Karel and Valdy each wrote on their separate plane flights.  The musicianship of these two was very impressive as they tweaked our arrangements during the recording.
Anyway, we are living in a great artistic time when technology allows for the flowering of trans-genre friendships.   

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Musicians Helping Musicians

There is something I want to say and I don’t know how to say it succinctly.  So I will ramble.
The recent Vivaldi recording went more easily for me than any other previous project.  And I don’t mean the playing was easy (though there were a few blessed moments);  I mean that the burden of much of the work surrounding the project was lifted from my shoulders, hands and mind.
This was because this time, I had a full, honest-to-god support team in addition to my trusted longtime engineer and musical crew of players.  I also had my cherished repairmen, faithful copyist plus all the people who helped at the sessions, including tuners, instrument builders, photographers, videographer and caterer.
At the heart of the support crew were three of my students who all stepped into new roles... they went from being my attentive students to being meticulous librarians, reliable drivers and schedule enforcers, equipment movers, food deliverers, helpful production assistants who discovered wrong notes in the scores,  notated all of the corrections, figured out how to print complicated files, troubleshooters who solved problems without bothering me.  I   And my superstar recital partner definitely took on a new role.  He put down his instruments and took over all of the extra work involved in helping to move harpsichords, driving our conductor, feeding the musicians, planning the last minute party.  He was extremely annoyed with me when I cut my hand washing a wine glass the night before the recordings started; he said that was his job!
And though I was the one who had done months of preparatory work in arranging the recording sessions, sending contracts and schedules, booking venues and musicians, ordering the facsimiles and all of the other technical work, it still made a world of difference to have everyone helping me at the actual event.  It made it possible for me to grasp at most of my musical ideas, to have enough reeds to get through the demands and to be able to be present in the moment (whatever that really means).  In all of my past projects, I have had to do much more heavy lifting, including setting up the chairs & stands for the orchestras, preparing all of the music, delivering instruments and driving conductors... it was strengthening to do it, but at the same time, I was always in a lot of pain afterwards.
These recording sessions (6 hours of rehearsals, 16 hours of recording) made me briefly tired, but then I bounced back.
So now I have experienced the true pleasure of being assisted in achieving my goals.  The fact that I paid almost everyone is important, but they all deserved to be paid much more.  Without their help, I could not come close to doing this.
And it makes me realize that if musicians wanted to help each other more, there are endless possibilities for people to use their different specific talents to support others in their goals.  It take such a complex array of skills and insights to make projects come to life... it would be really amazing if we could think of more ways to facilitate one another’s visions.  We rarely have enough money, but we have oceans of talent.