Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Unexpected Angels (kindness of strangers - surprising inspiration from adversaries)

I talk about my experience of discovering the bassoon (and recordings), not as an example of a finished product, but far more in the spirit of utter curiosity.
For nothing in my early life pointed to a career in classical music.  Now I know that it has been a human chain that has led me from my earliest aspirations to whatever I am able to accomplish now.
And each time that another bassoonist helped me, it was as if fairy dust were sprinkled on my invisible bassoon wings, then many years later, skills would be activated if and only when another player opened a door for me.  These kind souls are often strangers to me.  And other skills, such as determination in the face of failure, would be awakened when the dark angels blocked my path.  Interestingly, my adversaries could often be the musicians I knew the best.  Both were utterly necessary for my growth and development.  Here are just a few examples, but really, any career path is carved partly from the responses of our nearest colleagues.   
When I was 16 years old and just starting my studies at the University of British Columbia, the other bassoon student could think of nothing else good to say about my playing (he confessed much later), and rummaging in his mind for at least one positive yet truthful comment, he praised my ability to articulate.  His effort to reach out unexpectedly gave me the courage and interest to relentlessly practise double tonguing and it was one of the few skills that came relatively quickly to me.
Many years later, a young woman professor/soloist name Kristin Wolfe Jensen in Austin, Texas asked me to play Weber’s Andante and Rondo at the Double Reed convention.  I wanted to play from memory, but at the concert, went out with the music.  I just didn’t trust myself, yet her invitation to perform was a first step, and then I recorded the work two years later, and then when I subsequently performed with orchestras, I played at first without looking at the part, and then completely without (as I always wanted).  In fact,  I actually have lost my solo part which is kind of stupidly funny.
Another woman bassoonist named Lee Goodhew-Romm invited me to play on the opening night of another Double Reed Conference in Ithaca, New York.  I chose Vivaldi #26 RV 479 and it proved to be very difficult.  I was appalled by the recording of my performance that they gave me after the opening night and drove home in a state of blank despair.  Still, it was another first step.  I have memorized this concerto and I can finally navigate the technical demands of the first movement, a full 5 years after the first performance.  This concerto is one that I will record in August, and I would not ever have stepped through this door without the opportunity that Lee gave me.  
Other bassoonists have turned to me kindly during the course of my career and have made all the difference... I immediately think of Marc Vallon and Jesse Read and Sol Schoenbach and of course Mathieu Lussier.  The gifts have come in the form of music (Mathieu really is my principal composer) or in rare and priceless concert opportunities... these particular men are/were virtuosos and seem(ed) have no insecurities about the presence of another bassoonist performing in their midst!  The opportunities they gave me changed everything.
Collegial kindness has transformative potential at every level.  The kindness can be camouflaged as a simple practical comment... when we were in school together, Rick Ranti once described a 3 hour practise session that he had  on the opening notes of Beethoven’s 4th Symphony (not the fast fourth movement, but the slow introduction).  He succinctly described his frustration, his solutions and the hours of playing just two notes.  Then and there, he gave me the gift of detail, almost a unintended permission through example to examine a seemingly insignificant detail in enormous depth.  He may have forgotten that day, but my recollection of the moment is burned in my memory.
 There were also two people, neither of them bassoonists, who sprinkled the fairy dust on me when I was young.  One was the doorman at the arts and letters club in Philadelphia.  He came up to me after a student performance at a wine-and-cheese reception and averred that I would be famous, much to the chagrin of the oboist in my little trio.  I did not know what he meant but I was enlivened by his animated enthusiasm and it made me practise late that night.  And also in Philadelphia, a beautiful little old woman with a cane stopped in the sun dappled street to look at me.  When I smiled back, she told me that she had heard my Mozart concerto the previous evening at my last concert with the Curtis Orchestra,and she knew that I would bring joy to the world.  These people all changed my life and gave me courage. And my parents continue to give me this courage, even though they are trembling with age and hidden illnesses... they encourage me as if it were the most important work they have.
Equally important, though much harder to talk about, is the essential impetus that comes from being blocked by those near me... these can be terrible experiences yet very powerfully motivating.  I may talk about this another time but somehow, I am sure that we all know exactly what this feels like. And I have certainly been the dark angel on occasion.  Just sayin’.

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