Ideas On Practicing
My life is always nuts. Even though I am just a quiet little blue-haired bassoonist, trying to look after my family, students, pay bills, update my website, make art, make reeds, light a fire under my snoozy management and play concerts, other stuff is always happening. My lawyer doesn’t even say hello when she answers the phone these days, she just laughs and says, “What now!?”
But you get good at whatever you do all the time, and I am getting good at multi-tasking. And I love connecting with people through playing my bassoon, and I am finding ways to bring music to new places as part of my complex life.
Life involves family… my family is complicated. My parents had extraordinary lives, helping thousands of people learn to build their own homes, self-publishing books, activism and more. My Dad, B. Allan Mackie, finished his last house six years ago, at the age of 84, then began a truly epic health battle (cancer, Parkinson’s and more), yet he can still motivate and inspire me by the fact that he just doesn’t give up, even when the pain is overwhelming. My Mom, Mary Mackie, was felled with breast cancer exactly four years and one month ago, but her spirit lives on. And she kept writing in her political blog, the Legislature Raids under the pseudonym of BC Mary (and continued by her friend Robin Matthews) until the moment of her final taxi ride. What I’m trying to say is that I have witnessed the true superheroes of my life being slowly twisted to the ground with mortal injuries that they had never anticipated, and still, despite the exhaustion, confusion and pain, their lives are still worthwhile and immensely valuable.
So, as I fit in the duties of life while playing concerts, commissioning new composers, writing grants for the next Juno-nominated CDs (a girl can dream), developing the new website, finishing large art projects and booking for the upcoming seasons, I am also seeing how many ways I can fit the bassoon into my life in ways that I never have before. Life is never convenient and it is my job to remind it (life) of my priorities.
I have now played regularly for the residents of my father’s hospital, West Parry Sound Health Centre. I make the long drive once per week to check on him, his house, and just make sure all is well, and I book other friends to keep him company every day. I have come to love the other elders who are waiting in the same transitional wing for a long-term care nursing home to become available. Though I wish them to heal, or to find a comfortable new home, my heart also lifts with gladness to see them again. Some of them open their arms for hugs, others tell me of watching over my Dad and bringing him a blanket, or adjusting the window shades… they are all different and they are all generous. One of them, who had lost his voice, was once a square dance caller! He loves music and still goes dancing with his daughter and is completely interested in whatever I bring. Another man, Mike, was a guitar player and would like to play again.
And one of them, an elven, bright-eyed man named Art, can no longer walk, and sometimes starts a rhythmic yelling of whatever phrase is in his mind. Two weeks ago, I opted to play for the group in the wide part of the hallways, near the nursing station, since some of them are not permitted to leave the area. And here is where the experience of adjusting to circumstance is really good for me… I played with full energy and perhaps a touch of anxiety, as I am doing everything from memory as part of the personal growth element. Art (who I affectionately call Yelling Guy when he’s out of earshot) was initially beating time with his hand, but I was playing too forcefully for the space, and he began roaring, “JUMP IN THE LAKE!”, so I packed up and my little team moved with me out into the lobby of the West Parry Sound Health Centre.
I had played the previous week in the lobby and the acoustics are amazingly spacious yet clear… certainly the best hall I have played in Parry Sound, but also the only place that I have played in Parry Sound. A small girl danced to the slow movement of my Vivaldi, an older volunteer danced, too… Terry, one of the elders in rehab, said that it sounded like a symphony! Bill asked if I liked playing my machine, then turned to his visiting daughter, and said, “Ya gotta hear what she can do on this thing!” The staff brought me a glass of water each time. Alphonse tells me that I am great and I return the comment, because he really does pump out so much positive energy that it is palpable. Marie, small and beautiful, parks her wheelchair at the end of the hall, far from the group, and listens to every note.
The first week, a few people came to listen, scattered throughout the lobby, the next week, more people gathered, and more people talked to me (I learned that the daughter of one of the surgeons plays the bassoon!). The next week, the nurses called the other wards and brought wheelchair bound patients out to listen and everyone gathered quite naturally into a concert formation, sitting on the welcoming couches and chairs in the lobby. Racil Land (angel friend) wheeled my Dad out in his reclining chair. And Art, aka Yelling Guy, came too! And this time, the sound moved through a bigger space, I was also careful not to use my spear-throwing tone technique, and I played in ways that encircled my listeners, sometimes approaching them, other times backing off, talking directly to them or fading out so they could relax. I am adding more pieces to my memorized repertoire, and last week, played them a Bach prelude, three Scarlatti sonatas (had a memory blank on the D minor, so more like two sonatas), Vivaldi C Minor RV 480, Flight of the Bumble Bee and ended with Weber’s Andante and Rondo… next week, if I’m ready (or even if I’m not) I will play the solo bassoon part for LeDernier Chant d’Ophélie, composed for me with string orchestra and percussion, premiered at CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio and featured on our Juno-nominated CD; for this event, it will be introduced as a piece of music written for me by a friend.
One of the nurses said this was the first time she had heard the bassoon and she loved it. I said I would like to return with my chamber orchestra and play the concerti with the full sound, since the hospital sounds so good, and Roxanne said she would come in even if it were her day off. We all know how hard these nurses work, so I cherish that comment.
This same nurse had wheeled Yelling Guy into the concert area, and this time she finally smiled and let him holler, “Fantastic!” along with “Hey, hey, hey!”, all of which meant that he liked it.
I told my group of attentive listeners that I was playing some music that included an orchestra, and that when I am performing these concerti next June in Oregon, I will be strengthened by the memory of playing for them today.
I know that next week might be different, and that Yelling Guy (I love that his real name is Art) might kick my butt again in the future, but if he tells me to jump in the lake again, I am prepared, thanks to him!
First movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto #14 in C Minor, RV 480, video by Racil Land
Flight of the BumbleBee for Bassoon and Orchestra (or piano!), video by Racil Land
In the past, these are the kind of questions that we (women and musicians generally) would answer in neutral and veiled terms, and while I hope that I’ve honestly avoided that, it becomes second nature as we try to protect ourselves from being seen as troublesome. It is time for classical musicians to be more candid, if only to make our stories more interesting. And also to explain some of the weirdness and occasional inability of classical groups to thrive. Even the effort to share our experiences candidly gives us experience in expressing our uniqueness.
And at my solo concerts, I always encourage audience members and students to ask me questions and these candid questions offer some examples of what might be really interesting to know about based on my long and varied career in classical music.
I have another interview to post, with more general questions about my life, from a high school student, which I will post in the coming days.
Meanwhile, here are some good questions that might give rise to others.
First, my preamble to the interviewer before I get to the questions:
Dear University Bassoon Student-whose-identity-I-wish-to-protect-though-it-might-not-be-strictly-necessary,
Your questions are very good, yet somehow I cannot give you the answers that you are looking for and that, in fact, I would like to give. When we talk about straight numbers (comparing numbers of men and women) and circumstance, these are elements that were part of the air I breathed during the early days of my orchestral career… it never occurred to me to assess and compare them at the time. It never occurred to me to dig deep and find out exactly how my pay related to the pay of the men around me. It never occurred to me to carefully and appraisingly read the terms of my contract and to understand that sometimes conditions are worth more than dollars. So, my answers reflect my strong, personal attitude of equal opportunity, given to me partly by my outdoor upbringing with amazing parents, but I think the reality was, and still is, stacked against women. It is part of a deep cultural problem that we are barely beginning to acknowledge.
Thank you very much for making me think again about these things,
March 22, 2016
What time frame were you at Curtis Institute of Music?
September 1978 to May 1981
What would you say the numbers of women and men were at Curtis, in the bassoon studio, in faculty, in the general student body? Generally more men than women, or about equal?
It seemed equal to me, but of course it wasn’t. In the teaching faculty, there was a female piano teacher for the hotshots and of course the brilliant harp teacher…. and another female smart piano teacher one for the super lame beginner piano students (i.e. me…we all had to take piano if we didn’t come with skills) and she suffered trying to teach kids who wanted to be elsewhere! Otherwise, all teachers and conductors were men (seemed normal at the time, but of course, we know now that it indicates that few women had a shot in the generation before ours)… in the bassoon studio, there were 3 women and 4 men over the four year period (only one year where the two women were in class at the same time —all of the students got orchestral jobs in orchestras of varying sizes). The student body at large seemed to have many female string players and woodwind players, no brass except horn; of the administrative staff, the scheduling coordinator and head librarian were women; directors were always men as far as I know.
What was your experience like as a woman at Curtis? Positive, negative? Any specific moments come to mind?
Positive, though I confess that I had a headache for 4 years. It was a huge jump, going from the forests of BC to the heart of Philadelphia. My bassoon teachers were the souls of equality even though they were from another time in history… Bernard Garfield did encourage me to go with one of his sons to a baseball game but it was pleasant and only slightly awkward and I never saw him again after that (I don’t care for spectator sports and had little to say to the nerdy boy who went on to become a doctor!). Sol Schoenbach became a lifelong friend and was a great source of wisdom and egalitarian exchanges. I invited him to teach with me one summer at Domain Forget and it was wonderful. One of the most lasting pieces of advice that Sol gave me was to not get caught up in the drama of relationships, instead, to devote myself to my work, and let the other stuff follow. I still think this was superb advice to give an ambitious young woman and I wish I had completely followed it. He also completely believed in me, which was powerfully motivating. I still carry one of his letters in my bassoon case.
Did you experience any negative feedback as a musician and performer because you were a woman?
I felt that I was treated like an equal at Curtis, meaning that we all had our butts whipped all the time, particularly and memorably by the oboe teacher/director John deLancie; the general standard was very high and we all pushed for the best with sometimes elevated levels of tension, but I never marginalized for being a girl.
In the professional world, I am not sure what to say… when I was young, I had to spend a lot of time fielding amorous advances that seem like a great waste of time now when I look back, particularly when I would become so attached a boy that I would decline to take auditions for fear of leaving the town where the boyfriend was located… imagine so stupid! As I got older, my outspokenness and propensity for solo work made me less popular… these things are also virtues and give me a body of work that is valuable and lasting. It does seem that women still have to choose career or family and that is the subject for a longer discussion, particularly one that would include a discussion of children and division of household labour in connection with a performing career.
When you were applying for your first orchestral position, how many jobs did you apply to (approximately)? Did you feel at all intimidated to apply for jobs in more male dominated orchestras?
I absolutely didn’t feel any intimidation about male-dominated orchestras… it simply didn’t enter my mind. I had the usual young-person insecurities about my potential as a player but that didn’t stop me from auditioning… I have always been ambitious and brave despite any fears or anxieties, and completely confident that I could grow into any job.
When I was in my last year of school, I auditioned for co-principal in Mexico (got it but didn’t go); principal somewhere-in-Ohio (went to second round); principal in Jerusalem (went to second round); second in Philadelphia (went to second round); second in Montreal (got it). I was definitely uncomfortable during the audition for Mexico as the conductor walked around me while I was playing. Those were the old days! Overall in my career, I have taken only about 20 orchestral auditions and have advanced in 11 and won 3 (principal of Canadian Opera Company 1990, second in Montreal Symphony 1981 and associate principal in Mexico State Orchestra 1981) and I am the appointed principal of group of 27.
Did you hear back from all of these orchestras you applied to? If not, how many, approximately? If you didn’t hear back from all, did you feel like this was simply because you were a woman?
I went to the auditions, either placed, won or didn’t and left. It was only later in my career that I sometimes had a hard time to get an audition, which meant that sometimes an application for an audition went unanswered. There was a period when Canadian musicians had a harder time getting auditions in the States, or when second players (which I was in Montreal) were not invited to audition for principal positions (ridiculous).
Once I advanced in Atlanta, and was told that the personnel manager would call, and he never did… that was in the late ‘80’s so who knows; I cared at the time but I don’t now.
In one of my resources, I read that Judith Leclair was able to audition for the New York Philharmonic because she had been recommended by her male teacher, David Van Hoesen, at Eastman. Did you ever have any type of similar experiences?
You should ask Judy directly. That was common practice in the last century for both men and women until about the time of Judy’s audition and I remember my old teacher, Sol Schoenbach, being very proud to have also been part of the team of supporters who managed to get her an audition. In the generations before mine, that was how most people got auditions. While I never had a similar experience (that I know of!), I must point out that it still exists today; the recent Toronto Symphony associate principal auditions were by invitation only… the fabulous young woman and great bassoonist who won the job must have been recommended by her teachers since she is 23 and this is her first job; you should ask her!
Were blind auditions common when you were auditioning for orchestras?
Yes. The exceptions were the finals in Philadelphia, Mexico, Jerusalem (first rounds were always screened).
What was the male/female ratio like when you joined Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal?
I dunno, maybe one third women, or more. They would have that statistic in the archives. There were lots of women because all levels of the auditions were screened.
Did you ever feel uncomfortable working in the orchestra because you were a woman?
Nope. Not at all. Not even when I was wearing full, custom-tailored tails. But I may have been held back from advancing because of it. This is all stuff that is hidden in plain view… as a hardworking young woman, it didn’t occur to me then, but it would now. There are patronizing assumptions made about women when they want to advance in the profession (will they stay, will they have kids etc). Just before I left Montreal, I auditioned repeatedly for the principal position, and amusingly was granted the “acting principal” (or was it associate principal?) chair right at the time I got injured and took disability leave.
I read those early concert halls didn’t have separate dressing rooms for men and women since most orchestras were made of men. Did you ever face an awkward situation because of this?
The women’s dressing room in the Montreal Symphony of my decade was smaller and quite crowded… we laughed about it and many of us came dressed to the hall, choosing to change at home because of lack of space… that was probably fixed in the years since I left! And usually, when touring, if we had any awkward situations with a lack of space, the men would always defer to the women, but I cannot think of an example at the moment.
The male-to-female ratio in orchestras have improved over time. Do you feel like there is still room to grow?
It’s not about numbers but it is very much about opportunity. Women need opportunities… I was not invited to audition for the recent Toronto Symphony associate principal, and while I LOVE the woman that they hired and completely support her, I would have appreciated the opportunity to audition… this is how we grow!
If a man had a position in an orchestra that a woman later took over (or vice versa), do you think there would be any change in pay or any sort of wage gap? Was there a time when this was normal?
No idea! This information is rarely shared. I certainly was the lowest paid member of the bassoon section when I was in the Montreal Symphony AND I was the only wind player who did not have an associate (i.e. fourth player) to spell me off on occasion. The management had the power to impose conditions on me that I could have fought if I had realized soon enough (always read your contracts!)
Again, I had my head down, was practicing and making reeds and not really thinking about how to get a fair deal since I felt that I had the strength of 10 and could handle anything!
Do you think Canada/US is ahead of Europe in the equality of women and men musicians? What was it like during your time in Montreal? Or earlier?
Don’t really know since I never think about orchestras these days, except as collaborators! I think that North America is definitely ahead of orchestras like Vienna and other bands that didn’t hire women until recently. There are many good books these days on the subject… one that comes to mind is Women Performing Music by Beth Abelson Macleod … she has some of the player statistics you are looking for!
I’ve answered your questions in a way that will make you think that I believe men and women are treated equally in the symphonic world; but in fact, I don’t think they were when I was young. I have blocked that out of my mind these days, and have moved onto the bigger question of how to keep our music alive and available to audiences. I will keep thinking about your questions and I encourage you to send more questions if you think of other things to ask about!
And oddly, just that simple word of encouragement and support was all I needed to cheerfully return to journal keeping in all of it’s forms.
And I am hugely inspired by Gloria Steinem’s new book, My Life on the Road, where she refers to all the notes she garnered from her travels, not to mention the defining experiences of her whole life. The stories are valuable, and she created forums for other women too. More on that later.