Sunday, July 31, 2011

Stand Up and Be Heard? Sit Down and Be Quiet?

Restlessness, movement, joy, floods of ideas, speaking up, listening, contributing, collaborating,helping...
I think that there are a few markers to knowing if you want to be an artist (leader).
Movement is one of them... can you lean into your work or do you have to suck it up
and lie low?
Another marker of an artist/leader is the inclination to see beyond the job and imagine what is possible.   If you act on this, you will inevitably get your knuckles rapped, yet you will probably also accomplish something in your life.
I am not comfortable with any work that requires me to sit for long periods (the only reason, really, that standard orchestral work is torture) or keep my ideas to myself, though I not sure what work that would be since I have never kept my ideas to myself. Paradox abounds in that the effort to communicate inevitably leads to misunderstandings, but I keep trying.  It works eventually.
There is a vast difference between being tolerated (ideas expressed, room falls silent) or engaged (ideas expressed, explosion/trickle of ideas follows).  It is largely a matter of finding a convivial situation though it absolutely does not mean a life of constant concordance and agreement.  Life, love and work do need to have a link if we are ever to make our best contributions.  And we have to make our best contribution.
 I have a lot more to say on the subject, but my reeds suck at the moment and I really have to get to work.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Baroque Ornamentation and Swearing

Having played a great number of baroque concerts and a reasonable number of recordings, I still do not consider myself an expert.  But having performed in the company of experts, I have learned to discern between authentic (attractive) ornamentation and laboured (unattractive) ornamentation both in my own playing and
in that of others.
And I hereby conclude that the ability to ornament successfully has many parallels between the world of colourful language aka swearing.
A successful swear has elements of invention and precise timing, surprise yet recognition of the rightness of the moment.  Violence is subsumed into art, grit is delivered with refinement, exuberance bursts forth in a flourish of the unexpected.
And just like a well-placed swear, good ornamentation required both practise, prior failure and ongoing bravery.  You have to have a pure heart and make repeated efforts before instinct is aligned with skill.  
If you merely follow all the rules and mechanically churn out trills and facile tierces coules (sorry, can’t spell that to save my life), it is like a teenaged boy monotonically swearing on his cell phone at the back of the street car (unattractive).  If you flip the rules to fit your ear and learn to invent on the run, trusting the instincts of your physical self, you will start to have a style and aptness that can bring calm or inspiration.  And sometimes a “mistake” turns into something so ornate and unbidden that you may startle yourself.
This is the nature of ornament, no?  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Work of Art (practise)

Practising means doing.  So, this can include recording, performing, private practising.
Some classical musicians have so many performances that this becomes their sole practise: 12 performances of a concerto or sonata offer a remarkable way to develop ideas. Yet, many bassoonists have more opportunities for solitary refinement.
How we “do” our practise will affect the outcome which makes it worthwhile to pay close attention to how we feel when playing hard passages.  The goal is to eliminate unnecessary tension in the body and to maintain open channels to our highest vision.
And the artistic goal is to evolve an interpretation!
At first, classical musicians always worry about ‘being right’.  And it is important to worry about that because there is much beauty in the discipline, history and rigor of our craft.  But essential to weave our own voice into the music that we are covering. Absolutely essential, otherwise everything is simple a factory test of current (often faulty) specs and not a one-of-a-kind work of art.
There are endless details and exercises, patterns, drills and skills to develop when practising.
And we often develop repertoire that will not have multiple performances.
It boils down to two principal approaches once I am in the physical development mode.
  1. Runthroughs  
  2. Details 
Runthroughs give the scope of the whole piece and the whole programme.  I do them at the beginning of the learning process to get a feeling for how much stamina I need to get through the programme and to form the event in my mind, to review the narrative flow.  I will play all eight concertos in a sitting to develop the foundation of stamina and technique that I want though this will never happen in any recording session or concert.When I am recording material that is different from my recital rep, then I also work to play all the concerti and all of the recital rep at stages leading up to the events.

At a practical level, the runthroughs also include phrases, movements, complete works, complete recitals (two full runthroughs in the days leading up to shows), recording projects.
Once I have a grasp of the scope of the event, then it is time to work in detail to actually build the platforms that will allow me to leap to another level.
It all takes time yet can coalesce in an instant.  Just like a giant snowball that has taken hours to build, with sticks and leaves and small animals sticking out of it, suddenly it has both heft and momentum, and begins to roll on its own.
Technique, once activated in a developmental way, will continue to grow and thread out into your self even when you are not directly working on it.  And most astonishing, when you are in truly top physical shape, the development can be enhanced by a day of rest from the specific challenges, or even from not playing at all.  Only when you are in top shape do you continue to develop but it is unstoppable once the cycle has been initiated.
OK, really gotta go and practise now.

Monday, July 25, 2011

True or False?

I am a traditionally trained, classical bassoonist with an orchestral background.  I am head-over-heels crazy about performing solo art music.
I love clothes.  I love glamorous gender-ambiguous dressing. I would play a concert in my underwear if I had the courage (I don't) or fabulous-enough lingerie (I plan to get some). I love designers though I only know the names of my local, one-off designers since I don’t seem to perceive mass-market appeal in clothes.  Am I aloof from the whims of fashion or a slavish slave? 
I love wood. I love working on reeds.  I think that I can build my sound from the reed up and live with a bit of excitement based on the fact that it is challenging to align my performance values with my reed-making skills.  I shape my cane by eye using a sharp knife, files, sandpaper and easel... no templates, no machines, lots of sawdust.  Maybe I waste too much time in this pursuit.
I love baroque music and historical instruments.  But I am a modern player and feel no shame in making this music work in a way that suits my instrument and time, thus appealing to neither market (early music or modern instrumental practise)... maybe I am wasting my money on my many recording projects.
I love teaching yet am constantly baffled by the institutional process, always feeling at odds with the demands of the schools and the core needs of the student musicians (loads of repertoire directed towards tests, juries, auditions and not towards pure concerts, not enough time to learn the craft of reed-making or tone production), yet I stick with it and even support the structure as the best option we have for the time being.  Maybe I am cancelling out my own best contribution.
I love performing for audiences large and small, meeting countless new people, but the only way to get there is to have hundreds of hours to myself.  I love performing live but it is almost a physical need to make recordings, an isolated craft with different existential parameters.
Are contradictions fundamental to my craft or merely to me?  

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Not Tonight; I Have a Headache/New Puppy/Date/Life

Not Tonight; I Have a Headache/New Puppy/Date/Life
I always nag my students about time lines and planning.  This is partly because I am both terrible at conceptualizing time and I am highly productive despite this fact.  I am lucid enough to know that I could be much more productive if I internalized an understanding of how much time is required for everything.
I love the studiously blank look that comes over their beautiful smooth brows and luminous eyes as they wait for me to stop talking.  They nod and assure me that it is all under control.  I try a different tack and remind them how chaotic my life is, that I might not be available for emergency reed sessions the night before their concerto auditions.  I remind them that they need to find their passports if they want to do international competitions.  I remind them that they have school exams the same day as they are performing Rite of Spring with their student orchestras.  They nod calmly.  I sigh.
We all understand the concept that we have to fulfill our duties (work, studies etc) even when we don’t feel like it.  We know we can’t always get what we want exactly when we want it.
But do we understand that sometimes we have the opportunity to do exactly what we want (make a great reed, make a recording, play a concert of the repertoire we love for an audience that loves us) and life might (will) throw curves that make if feel impossible to do any of these things?
Flights are late, instruments are damaged, babies are born, family members get ill, accidents happen, houses get sold and you have to move, income tax looms, cats barf on your music....
This spring, a bright and passionate young grad student wrote to me and asked if she could take some lessons that focused on the technique and planning required to be a soloist.  She was organized enough to get funding for this project.  But then she had to move and got married then got a new puppy and life was too busy.   I have not heard a peep from her about the noble project that we had agreed to undertake.
Just this month, one of my best students asked for summer reed lessons and I suggested dates then heard nothing from him for three weeks.  Suddenly he was in a panic and had to have a reed lesson or he would never be able to practise properly again.  I reminded him of the three week silence, and he said that his grandparents had been visiting.  I said that was lovely, but now I am in the middle of recitals and recording prep and cannot see him until the fall.  I sent him to one of my senior students who is also in the midst of a complex life.  I was kind but absolutely unavailable.
Life happens in churning layers.  In this last year, I have premiered concerti while moving house, performed concerts while looking after sick parents, passed my own kid in an international airport, moved twice, made two recordings, released two other recordings, picked up a dead possum and NONE of this is more than what any other professional musician does.  We all have astonishing stories.  My best friend in the world had to play a concerto with the Vancouver Symphony three months after brain surgery but a book could (should) be written about him.
We have to do many things at once.  We cannot wait until everything is perfect.  Because, as musicians, I believe we have one of the best lives possible and we have to keep sight of this and move towards it despite the intervening forest of tigers that intermittently pops up.

Nuts, I think I forgot to book hotels for my out-of-town musicians on the Vivaldi project... gotta go now.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Recording Devices - try this at home

When I was a student, I had small hand held cassette players with unstable pitch fidelity for recording ourselves. After awhile, I got used the the variables and could still discern relevant information while praying that I didn't actually sound like that!

Then I got a Yamaha dual deck variable pitch cassette player for recording myself.  It was good because I could run it with my toes... the controls were big tabs like plastic piano keys.  The variable pitch would allow for slowing down the playback.  It also allowed me to play along with recordings of higher pitched European orchestras.

Then I had a Nagra reel to reel which would play back at half and quarter speed ---  best thing ever.   I could play my fastest excerpts then slow the playback to quarter speed to analyze the gaps in my technique.
(I sold this fantastic machine to pay for my first baroque bassoon.  I sold that bassoon to pay for a recording project.)

Now I just got myself a Zoom video recorder; I have never ever used a video device for practising!

Whatever you use, it will help.  Better than a teacher, it multiplies the practise benefits enormously. Record yourself.  Then make a recording.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

To Quit or Not To Quit

Sometimes I want to quit.  Sometimes other people want me to quit. 
Then I always realize that I should quit.  
But I have to choose carefully what I will quit.    Very carefully.  And I have to think of it well in advance.
Sometimes it is a matter of escaping from a dead end, like quitting a university job that requires hours (days) of commuting for very little money or static orchestral positions.  Sometimes it is a matter of giving up something really wonderful, like teaching passionate talented students at a university for very little money or playing in a beautiful orchestra that never featured me as a soloist.
Other times it is deciding not to be spread so thin that everything falls short of my goals.
Not do I face the obstacles that life puts in the path of every other musician, I have my own particular handicap when it comes to conceptualizing time.  Part of me feels that I can learn 8 concerti, write a book, teach 21 students, have fun on Face Book, pay bills, look after the damned cats, attend birthday parties, concerts ---- all in the 10 minutes before I have to pick up my kid from school.
Those who succeed are the ones who have quit the right things at the right time.
Perseverance is only useful if it is in the quest of the right goal.  
The only leaps in my playing have come when I have been obsessively, eagerly focussed on a particular composer and these obsessions always lead to a recording.   Of course other playing can happen around this point of obsession!  Yet, from the beginning of my career, I have developed crushes on different composers... Telemann, Bach, Corrette, Scarlatti, Lussier, Hummel, Jolivet, Prokofiev and most continuously, by Vivaldi.  
The obsession (preparation, performance & recording) changes my playing forever.
I always try to improve and I will always feel guilty about making this effort.  Because it is not a practical thing.  Husbands get angry, old parents get lonely, kids need dinner, students need teaching.  But to play my best, I have to fail in the commonly-held goal of being a well-rounded human being.  I am a distinctly lop-sided blue-haired human being who is definitely alternating between the knife-edge of now and a rigorously active waiting game that takes place between recordings and performances.
 It is a tiny bit like weight training... in the end, the work that is done at the very end of the very long sessions is the very thing that propels my playing to the next level, but it won’t be apparent until a day of rest and I start anew.
Tonight’s practise was an aerobic session alternating my next recital programme with the recording roster.   Always have to go beyond physical comfort zone to get to the next level of control.
Flight of the Bumble Bee
Vivaldi F Major RV 491
Boismortier - e minor suite for trumpet & bn (from Op 37)
Vivaldi C Major RV 479
Boismortier E minor Sonata Op. 50 #1
Vivaldi G Minor RV 495
Bach/Pagannini x 4(bn/horn duos)
Vivalid C minor RV 480
Schreck Sonata

Here are some words from Seth Godin's excellent little book, "the dip" ---- (Portfolio - the Penguin Group 2007)
All our successes are the same.  All our failures too.
We succeed when we do something remarkable.
We fail when we give up too soon.
We succeed when we are the best in the world at what we
We fail when we get distracted by tasks we don't have the 
guts to quit.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Happy Lucky Idiot

A day off... the words of poet Nanao Sakaki describe it better than I ever could ---

If you have time to chatter
Read books
If you have time to read
Walk into mountain, desert and ocean
If you have time to walk
sing songs and dance
If you have time to dance
Sit quietly, you Happy Lucky Idiot

(from Break the Mirror - North Point Press, 1987)

ps - Fat Gurl is my alter ego --- she usually has a ribbon on her bald head, but in this candid moment she has a mohawk, poor dear

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bassoon Boot Camp or If I Die Before I wake

If I die before I wake.  

That alone would prevent me from playing (aka practising, performing, recording).

Otherwise, I plan to play a lot.  Every day. Almost every day.  Because I get better, freer when I do it.   Then, when I am in shape, I actually improve from taking a day off.  But I can never schedule a day off in advance.  It just has to sneak up on me. Some people can get better through just thinking about it but I have to do it.  No cerebral meditative, hands-off transcendent immaculately conceptual playing for me.

Bassoon boot camp all the way.  Sweat and tears.  Well, sweat.  Solitary refinement.

Even when it gets away from me and bites me in the butt, I am still pursuing my idea of work.  Not waiting to live, not frustrated with restrictions, not sad about not having a chance to do what I want.  I have pushed very hard for this state of mind.
If fate opts to snuff my candle, please someone else take over this Vivaldi project.  You’ll have to pay for it, but it is worth it!  The facsimile scores are ready, the computer scores/parts are getting corrected and sent this week, the engineer, keyboards, musicians, hall, drivers, plane tickets are all booked--- should be straightforward!  This is my recording order, just for the record (4 sessions).  And we are using a painting that belongs to Nic McGegan for the cover... there, that should be enough information to get you started.  Oh, and I have almost committed to all of my tempi...
#25 in F Major RV 491
#26 in C Major RV 479  
#27 in E Flat Major RV483 
#23 in G Minor RV 495 
#14 in C Minor RV480
#12 in A Minor RV499
#2 in A Minor RV 498 
#6 in E Minor RV 484


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Nasty Negative Infuriating Yet Inspirational Moments

I  believe in being idealistic and optimistic and pursuing musical ambition that is devoid of cynicism and steers clear of any delusions about “reality” ---- after all, what kind of reality is it that imagines a standard orchestral audition to be a true indication of a musician’s ability?
I believe in the enormous kindness of the many musicians who have helped me and these are the people I want to emulate.Yet, I have always been propelled and motivated and shot to the next level of development by the ponderous, culture-induced pragmatism of some of the influential teachers, authority figures and fellow musicians in my past.  Without these discouraging incidents, I may never have continued as single-mindedly.
My wonderful Dad did not like it when I first begged for bassoon lessons.  We lived far from town, off the grid, and getting a bassoon lesson meant flying 500 miles to Vancouver. In those days, there was one flight per day, so it was a long trip and I had no place to stay Vancouver.    I did it anyway,  taking lessons with a bitter old man who charged me a lot and was not encouraging.  My Dad argued that my obsession with music was an escape from “reality” yet when I persisted, he became my greatest supporter.
My first wonderful bassoon teacher (so inspiring, so motivating) stated categorically that I would not have a career in music because I was too “sensitive.”  At the moment, I appear to have had a long career in music but would I have had it without being infuriated by this inspiring yet pompous man?  Or did he actually do this on purpose, knowing that such a statement would provoke me to succeed?  We’ll never know for sure.
When I landed my first orchestral job, the superb principal bassoonist baffled me by saying that the second bassoonist should never offer musical opinions.  To this day I refuse to acknowledge what he was talking about (though I did learn to fly under the radar, however briefly).. I will always see music as a collaborative event and not a factory production with foremen and underlings.  Yet this annoying and gifted man also gave me my first solo opportunities with orchestra, letting me play the Mozart Concerto when he was acting as guest conductor.  I will always be grateful to him even as I hate him a bit for cutting off my (excellent) ideas.
In the same orchestra, the associate principal bassoonist stated categorically that second bassoonists should never appear as soloists and he would not speak to me for over a year after my first solo appearances with our orchestra.  This was the same man who introduced me to the concept of historical instrument practise and loaned me recordings of historical bassoon soloists.

Inspiration can be painful and it can come in forms that do not have anything to do with the feel-good transcendency that I prefer.  

Friday, July 15, 2011

Blue Feathers and Jazz

We have commissioned the hot jazz bassist Michael Occhipinti to write a new concerto for us --- Nadina (amplified bassoon and blue feathers), Guy (trumpet, piano, corno) and full orchestra.   This will go on the Canadian Concerti disc that we are recording in December.   The dress will be ready sooner than the music, but that is as it should be...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How to Make a Recording - make a list

Nothing happens in my life unless it is imagined, planned and scheduled.  This includes making reeds and practising.
Though I have written a long article about the recording process, I find the bare bones list to be more interesting;  each project is a bit different in it’s nitty-gritty details.  And this list can be translated to fit any recording project --- expanded to fit a massive-budget pop recording project and slimmed down to one cellist recording the Bach Suites and using her toe to press the start button.
And no matter how many times I make this list, I always forget something.
Distribution contract
Record label/Internet label
Grant applications/Fund raising
Music rental/creation/mailing of parts
Collecting addresses/payment info for musicians/venue/instrument rental
Make reeds/practise

Rehearsals, sessions, keyboard tuning, flight arrivals/departures
Books drivers & assistants
Rent equipment
Confirm venue - check equipment & access
Make reeds/practise
Venue/Fellow Musicians
Page  turners (more important than you might think) 
Instrument rental /tuning
Instrument repair/maintenance
Order cane
Make reeds/practise
Recording Sessions
Confirm assistants (drivers, librarian, production)
Confirm photographers/videographer
Bring extra parts & scores (librarian)
Bring cheques (or mail after sessions)
Sound check/Ustream clip
Make reeds/practise
Graphic designer/photographer/videographer
Printing of CD and Cover
CD release
Make reeds/practise
Blog/Ustream/Twitter etc
Make reeds/practise

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Antidote to Discouragement

Discouragement is inevitable and is a completely natural occurrence.  So is garbage and other unpleasant offshoots of a comfortable life.  Just because it is natural doesn't mean I have to like it or tolerate it for long periods.
It is obvious that we have to deal with our garbage, and that the more affluent we are, the more garbage we create.  

Likewise, the more ambitious I am, the more likely it is that I will face discouragement as I fall short of countless noble goals.  If I didn’t want to achieve a certain tempo in my presto movements, I wouldn’t mind going slower.  If I didn’t care about the contrasts of plangency and transparency of my largo movements, I wouldn’t be discouraged.  If I waited for someone else to dictate my musicality, I would not be discouraged by my pedantic plodding moments.  If someone else made my reeds, I would not be discouraged by my own failings.
So, just as I know to collect the garbage and store it carefully before putting it out on Tuesday night, I know that I have to plan ahead to deal with discouragement.

Lattes are one cure.

The others are less appealing but even more effective, and they follow in this order:

Practise & make reeds
Repeat as necessary
That’s all for now.  I am going to have a latte now.

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’.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mirror Mirror - reflections on why I make recordings

My students sometimes (usually once) will ask me what is the ‘right’ way to ornament,
or what is the ‘best’ grad school to attend or what is the ‘best’ reed style.
I can remember wondering those things too, and thinking that if I someone would give me the answer, I would just work really really hard to attain it.  Simple.
Now I know it absolutely does not work that way for me, even though the desire still lingers for being ‘right’.  I know that any success that I have in terms of artistic results comes only from how I process the materials of music.  Reeds, bassoons, technique and scales are easy enough to understand once you have invested the ten thousand hours... but what about the *fiability of interpretation, phrasing, flow, scope etc.?  How do you really know what you are saying?
*my computer objects to this word, and wants me to say ‘reliability’ but I find that word to be opaque... fiability really is from another language yet is perfect.
Recording, recording, recording.  That’s how.
Fellow professionals sometimes tell me that they wish they had the ‘time’ to make recordings, or that they would never want to commit their current interpretations to disc since they will inevitably evolve.  While these statements are undeniably true, they are also utterly irrelevant to me.
Any recording project requires the same elements of preparation, planning and execution as a live performance but with some specific and valuable differences. The best feature of any recording project is the chance to hear yourself at every stage of the process... from the sound checks to the first takes to the inspired periods to the increasingly hopeless technical log jams but mostly the hours and hours of playback.  
In my early days with the Montreal Symphony when we were doing countless discs for London Decca, I would go into the booth to listen to absolutely every playback.  I was amazed at the differences between how it felt to perform the music and the effect of the combined sound when played through their speakers.  Over and over I would listen and compare those sensations and examine how the addition of my single voice to the whole would translate.  There was endless room for improvement and development.  To hear the evolution of my efforts, and to be also aware of the efforts of the players around me along with the irascible but always sentient and indefatigable conductor (Charles Dutoit) was an incredible sensation.  It was exhausting but was the real beginning of my education.  And perhaps because it was so early in my career (I had been playing for 5 years at that point), I imprinted on the process like a little waddling, piping duckling.  Now I am hooked for life.
And in the end, I have a record of my current state of performance ability, a version of the literature that I can compare to the version that lives in my imagination.  I think the act of recording is a gift to ourselves, something that all the incredible musicians of the past would have loved!  And with today’s technology, it is something that anyone can do.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Like the Wind - touring the music that we record

Live performance is an essential element in the recording process.  Both before the recording (for obvious reasons) and even more definitely afterwards.  This is when audiences respond the most to the solo performer... when they understand the long and personal association that is required to make all of this happen.  Everyone can relate to this.
Making a life as a solo performer can seem like an isolating and solitary choice but it is more than that.  Yes, it is essential to have lots of time to prepare but the trajectory of true performance goes far beyond once the interpretation is launched!  I am in contact with all kinds of people who believe in the music, from students to fellow musicians to concert presenters.  And most inspiring of all, the audiences who witness the moments when all the work comes together.

After years of working in orchestras and after an education that focussed obsessively on the goal of being in an orchestra, I then *discovered reams of solo literature for the bassoon.  And of all this, the most attractive was concerti with strings, which combines my first love (orchestra) with my true love (dressing up and standing at the front of the stage).

*n.b. when I say discovered, I mean for myself... obviously the tens of thousands of solo bassoon pieces had been sitting there the whole time!
Now that I have done many concerts in many settings, I understand that music only comes to life when there is the alchemical combustion of long preparation, frequent opportunities to perform and massive support from the wider communty.
Difficult to achieve but not impossible.
I have done many tours in my life, mostly with orchestras, and increasingly with my recital duo with Guy Few.  These are the best experiences of my professional life... playing different stages and meeting hundreds of people.  I want to tour the Vivaldi project all across the country, and years ago imagined doing this with a group that I would call, “Like the Wind” ---- we would travel to every kind of community and play the music that I have worked on all my life.  I imagine, perhaps naively, that the players in the group could shift around depending on their life circumstances, rather like a flock of migrating geese... sometimes younger players would take the lead while the elders dropped out, other times the eldest goose would lead the flock.  I guess that would be me.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Work is Play(ing)

Whenever I am doing a big recording project, I realize in retrospect that I simultaneously do a large-scale art project.  This has happened so many times.  If I realize this soon enough, I hold my art sale in time to support the project, but more often,  I am slowly realize that I have have created a roomful of enormous paintings and that I need to do something about it (them).
There are so many parallels between the creation of art and the preparation of whatever music I am about to record, in this case,  eight Vivaldi concerti.
I never ever know what I am going to paint when I face a blank canvas.  Well, that is a bloody lie.  Sometimes, I have a plan, but invariably I end up elsewhere.  On one occasion I set out to understand a bit more about old forms of painting and created my own gesso (base coat) out of rabbit skin glue which I made myself, mixed with calcium carbonate and pigment (titanium powder) and then spent several days preparing the panels... and then did a series in oil of invented birds that were living in my imagination before I started, but that was a long time ago and now I am painting my ultimate pleasure, which is elemental abstracts, by which I mean that they seem to have something to do with the weather.
Now I am finishing a series of paintings that all seem to have something to do with the number 4 ---- some of them are 8 feet long, others are 4 feet by 3 feet and most of them are 48” x 48”.   And predictably, I am preparing eight Vivaldi concerti.  This would seem to be such a simple-minded correlation that it had to be premeditated, but alas, it is simply the path I stumbled down.
The current, Vivalid-provoked paintings are both oil and acrylic... in terms of process, I always start with acrylic and if the painting seems to call out for it, I move into oils. Neither is better than the other though oil is astoundingly messy for me.  Some of the paintings emerge instantly, others go wandering down a long long path that takes months to complete.
The materials (supports of wood or canvas, paints, brushes, palette knives, sponges, clothes, sticks, sometimes sand, gold leaf, different paint and media within the paints) present themselves along with restrictions in time and weather conditions (I almost always do my large paintings outdoors).
Same with the preparation of the concerti.  I know all of them, yet once I begin working on them seriously, the range of soundscapes and special techniques grows enormously in my imagination.  I really imagine a mercurial presentation of this music... some of it very fast, but mostly responsive and shimmeringly colourful, sometimes deeply dark yet always moving, always complex.  These things seem almost impossible to achieve at times, but I push down any despair and keep pursuing the potential that seems to exist in the material.
Many of the concerti are not happy with one single tempo... they seem to invite caprice and  variation in an operatic or sometimes music theatre kind of way.  Some of them drive hard, others present endless possibilities, but a decision has to be made at some point.
How to get the technique that is necessary to play this music the way it lives in my mind... quick, feral, responsive, explosive.   
And while the bassoon concerti of Vivaldi have been largely ignored until recently and  thus mercifully exempt from the strictures of the imagined bassoonic canon, Vivaldi’s writing still requires profound technical and tonal discipline along with a quintessentially wild imagination.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Rock-and-Role Models - the future of classical bassoon playing re-imagined

I was taken aback when a young woman bassoonist told me that I was a role model for her --- am I that old?  But really, she was giving me a gift. 

The young are often inspired and motivated by the efforts of older performers, yet just as often, they are  limited by the vision and experiences of their elders.   I think it very important that the young 'uns also look at all of the performers in the world now, and imagine them holding a bassoon!  
The young are also limited by fear of failure, despair about the hopelessness of ever attaining their goals.

If I could wave a magic wand, it would be one that lifted this fear forever while preserving the ambition that is sometimes sparked by raw fear.  And I would make an extra wand-flourish that would make the young bassoonists lift their eyes and imagine themselves as any kind of musician that was really inspiring.  And I would rap their hard little heads with the wand handle if any of them whined about “getting a job” and remind them that their first mission is to get a vision and to practise their little hearts out!

When I was young, the only goal that was really visible to me in terms of great bassoonists was orchestral performance.  I somehow wasn’t deterred by the fact that you also needed to be a man (in those days)... ever comfortable with the self-styled norms of transvestite heterosexuality, I commissioned a full set of Italian-tailored tails in my early days with the Montreal Symphony.  But I digress.  

I pursued the orchestral goal intensely and to my utter surprise, won orchestral positions early in my career.  Somehow, I thought that having these positions would give me the virtuosic agility that I dreamed about.  While orchestras helped to train my sensibilities, they did not free my skills.  Instead, they solidified certain things at the peril of soaring musicality.

So I began to practise even longer hours and develop my recital repertoire.  I found other performers who would play with me and began building that side of my playing.

As I continued in my professional life, I learned about more and more fantastic ways to make music.  Of course orchestral playing is the foundation and for me, so much branched out from that --- I explored opera and historical instruments ( and early opera on historical instruments) and concerti, historical, modern and now with processed electronics included.  

I found that I felt the most absolutely alive when playing as a soloist in the company of equally passionate players.  And this passion could come from great instrumentalists or dedicated community orchestras... the basic drive and desire are the attractive things for me.

As I look back on my career, I now see that there were and are many many more paths open to me including and beyond the “job in an orchestra” one.  I have had so many experiences yet still feel like an absolute beginner.  Yet I also know some things for sure now.  I know that it always feels difficult yet sometimes the results are good.  I know that the only way to hope to be good is to tackle it every day in every way, even for a brief period.  I know that it seems like a crazy life, but I also know that I experience exhilaration every time I step onto a stage to play as a soloist... I set the bar each time I go out, either alone, with Guy or with an orchestra.  Sometimes I flop, but I always feel alive.  I have been called Lady Gaga with a bassoon --- I wish!!  But I applaud her and any others who work so hard at play.

This has to be what it is about.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

My Slightly Bad Day or Stop Whining and Get the Shovel

 My Slightly Bad Day or Stop Whining and Get the Shovel - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 continuing on into other days which were not bad at all
I sometimes get letters from students and fellow professionals, asking shyly about the life of a soloist.  Well, it is like the life of other people in the big city, except that you have to find a way to memorize your concerti and make reeds and book recording projects at the same time that you teach students, look after yourself and care for families.  It is an act of constant personal dedication (not pretty) and imagination that is sometimes troubling in its scope.  If you have determination, discipline, the ability to schedule and the ability to keep trying even when the time just isn’t right, then maybe you can do this too.  Your path will be different, but discipline, responsibility and imagination are always key.  That, and finding order amidst chaos.  
xoxo nadina
On Tuesday night, I worked my grant application (my fourth large-scale attempt to interest federal cultural juries in Canadian concertos written for me and Guy - one of the requirements for all of these applications is that you must have recordings of yourself performing the music, which in our case involved a full string orchestra) and practising my Vivaldi concerti for the upcoming disc.  My recital rep would have to wait until next week.  To bed by 2 a.m..
I awakened to the sound of loud trucks on the street and remembered that I had forgotten to put out the garbage and recycling.  I pulled on clothes and raced out the front door. OH NO!  The raccoons had finally pried open the compost box (which also contained two weeks worth of double kitty litter) and dumped it.
They dumped it in the worst place, but how could they have known/cared?  There was a large bundle of rain-soaked cardboard lying on the ground.  I had asked my assistant to bundle it the day before, but I took pity on him because it was pouring with rain and he had nice shoes on.  The cardboard boxes sloped downwards to a drain at the foot of my driveway.  Because of a construction fault, there was water standing in the drain.  
When the garbage can fell over, it was with momentum on the sloping driveway.  The contents hit the cardboard ramp and somersaulted (presumably) into the drain. Already full of decaying leaves, it now had fragmented egg yolks, chicken bones and cat poop floating in it.  On closer inspection I noted that the raccoon or raccoons had opted to poop 4 times in strategic driveway locations.
So I went back in the house.
Just then, my roommate's elderly cat decided to have diarrhea in the basement suite and the smell warmly blossomed in the house.
Torn between equally repellant duties, I chose to grab bags and gloves and return outside in the hope that I had not missed the compost garbage truck (I had definitely missed the recycling). I tried to corral the poop and get the wet cardboard into bags.  I found a shovel and scraped at the solidified kitty litter/compost combo.  I lifted the 80 lb grate off the drain and began hauling out dripping lumps of material before reeling and giving up.  I went inside and called the plumber who promised to drop by in the afternoon (he did!!).  I returned to the garbage, got the shovel, eventually getting it all bagged and in the back of my truck.  I began washing the drive way and cans... kitty litter is really sticky!
Went back inside to clean up cat poop and work on grant application.  Went out later for a post office run and picked up air freshener.  Stopped for a coffee.  On the way home, seemingly out of nowhere, a man driving a battered white mini-van and wearing mirrored sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead chased my truck, screaming “Pull over you fucking faggot!!!”  Baffled, I slowed down, but a woman in another mini van said, “I guess you should keep going, lady.  He seems real crazy.”  So I did.  He followed me for a few weaving tire squealing blocks, then I ducked into a side street.  Didn’t get his licence.   Shaking, I got home and fed the cats.
Finished by 10:00 and then started practicing Vivaldi, fell into bed by midnight after washing the dishes and setting up lessons for my students the following week.

The next morning, I got up at 5:00 a.m., drove to the dump in the opposite end of the city for 6:00 a.m. and got rid of all the raccoon stuff.  Then dropped off books and household donations to Value Village, bought coffee for me and my assistant who I was going to pick up at 7:30.
Lattes in truck, I texted him before I began the trip across town.  No response.  I got closer to his house, texted and called, no answer.  Drove home to meet dear-Heidi-with-the-van so that we could load my mother’s life possessions (furniture, books, clothes and archives) and drive for three hours to deliver.  Kept calling my normally-super-reliable-assistant  and the lack of response was worrying.  No answer.  I texted another student and asked him to make sure my assistant was alive. Heidi and I loaded the trucks (hers and mine) then I cleaned the two cat boxes (one for Diva and one for Rocky), set the house alarm and headed out the door.
As we pulled onto the highway, my assistant texted.  I read enough to see that he had slept in... 3 hours past our meeting time.  I replied that I was glad he was ok and asked him to take care of cats and garden while I was delivering furniture to my Mom.  Forgot to tell him the alarm system was armed.
Halfway to our destination, I realized I had made a mistake in my grant application.  A big one.  So we stopped for coffee and I called FACTOR.  No answer.  Kept driving.
Two hours later, we arrived at Dad’s house.  Heidi, my amazing friend, unloaded all the furniture and boxes and I helped as much as she would let me.  I called the grant people and they told me how to fix the grant.  Mom made a spectacular dinner and Heidi went home.  I washed the dishes and tried to fix Mom’s internet.  Gave up until morning, then practised Vivaldi from 9 p.m. until 10 p.m. ---- crashed into bed and fell asleep.  To be awakened 20 minutes later by my quivering assistant who had come to the house several hours later than I requested and did not know how to turn off the alarm system. I laughed.  He was offended.  I probably shouldn’t have kept laughing.
Got up the next morning and fixed Mom’s internet.  Then I made a reed and played scales and Vivaldi A minor #12.  Then I unpacked some more boxes for my folks and drove to Toronto, bought groceries and picked up my son from his Dad’s house, had dinner, scheduled student, fed my son and the cats, cleaned the litter boxes, then practised with fire and abandon and reckless repetitiveness from 7:30 to 11:00 p.m. (C minor, A minor, F Major, C Major)(thank god my roommate is on tour) then fell into bed.  The life of a bassoon soloist involves multi-tasking and thus resembles the life of any other musician.  The only slight difference is hustling for solo venues.  More on that later.
this is the best life imaginable despite the small obstacles