The Words of Our Teachers Echo Forever

The Words of Our Teachers Echo Forever

This week, I heard the world premiere of Paul Hanson’s new concerto, Transitions, for electric bassoon and full orchestra, played at the Taube Atrium Theatre in San Francisco. I am writing this while awaiting my flight home. The premiere was beautifully performed by the composer (already an unusual and wonderful thing) and Symphony Parnassus led by conductor Stephen Paulson, the principal bassoonist of the San Francisco Symphony and Paul Hanson’s former teacher. Though Paul did not follow in the classical footsteps of his renowned teacher, it was beautiful to witness the deep collaborative understanding between them in the performance. And Paul dedicated his concerto to his former teacher and lifelong colleague.

And witnessing this event reminded me of the strength that comes from having truly good teachers. The words of my bassoon teachers (and a couple of others) have resonated with me all my life. Yes, it does matter that they were positive, but they were also honest. I knew I could trust them when they said kind things. More than that, their comments were detailed, precise, and often showed me that my former teachers were aware that significant growth had transpired. My teachers also wrote to me regularly after graduation, and I have saved every letter. I have even carried some of them in my bassoon case, moving the precious documents each time I acquire a new bassoon.

Letter from Sol Schoenbach
In chronological order, here are some samples, mostly from beloved and revered former teachers and one from my least-favourite-yet-nonetheless-respected woodwind teacher,

Christopher Millard, former principal bassoon, National Arts Centre Orchestra 2021 An excerpt from a review from my very first real bassoon teacher, Christopher Millard, written after receiving a copy of my first book Solitary Refinement, Concepts for the Committed Bassoonist. While not a letter per se, his words gave me courage.

“This is a serious book for any bassoonist aspiring to achieve a complete technique. There are many publications that provide localized road maps to developing technical facility. Nadina’s book is the Google Earth of technical methods- extraordinarily comprehensive and thorough in range. Every page is an opportunity for challenge. Solitary Refinement is going to be my companion as I look to maintain and nurture my own playing.”

Garry Hartley, my high school band teacher and a renowned educator in northern B.C., Feb 17, 2021 An excerpt from a handwritten letter from my first band teacher, someone whose opinion I’ve cherished all my bassoon life, written after reading my first book, Solitary Refinement, Concepts for the Committed Bassoonist:

Dear Nadina, Finally, after receiving your wonderful Solitary Refinement 3 weeks ago, I have read and re-read from cover to page 19 and beyond. It has been a stop-start style of reading that I have carefully preserved from myself when I have time to fully immerse myself in placing my mind into each of the ideas, concepts, insights, personal observations, etc that you have shared in this truly marvellous work.

Sol Schoenbach, former principal bassoonist Philadelphia Orchestra, bassoon teacher Curtis Intsitute. June 15, 1989 An excerpt from a handwritten letter from my last bassoon teacher, after I sent him a cassette tape of one of my solo recitals in Montréal:

Chere Nadina: Bravissimo! I’m in shock from such a great tape. Can’t find any fault and wanted more. Your Telemann was a tour-de-force, your Boismortier  was in style and taste. Your harpsichord resonated beautifully and the paying was superb. The Hétu fascinates me. Your ascending legatos were as Shakespeare writes in his sonnet – “Like the waves make to the pebbled shore, E Each giving way to the one that went before!” But it was the Bitsch that took me over completely. Beginning with a sensuous, almost erotic sound and climaxing on the thrilling “E’s”. The last movement with an inevitability that swept me to an almost breathless ending. Never heard anything to equal that. Thanks, and send more.”

Bernard Garfield, former principal bassoonist, Philadelphia Orchestra, Curtis Institute of Music, June 15, 2004 Excerpts from a letter from Bernard Garfield, my first teacher at the Curtis Institute, and a tremendous ally and friend to this day. He wrote me a frank and detailed response after I sent him three of my solo albums (Notes from Abroad, and double album Musica Franca; Boismortier and Corrette:

Dear Nadina: I played both CDs and had a good time. The Corrette is perfect for my morning breakfast music since I like cheerful music and it fills the bill; light and happy sounds. Fraser’s tone in #2, 9 and 15 is full and attractive with an even sound. Your own playing in #5, the Sarabande, is my favourite. I like the fanfare in #13, articulation in #14, and trills in #18. All are a real tour-de-force for anyone and you know how to practice to perfection, even without a bear looking in your window! Now the solo record is sensational. I’ve never heard anyone articulate the final movement of the Tansman like you. Your technique is flawless too. In the fall, I must purchase 4 copies for my Curtis students to study, listen and salivate!!! Before discussing the other pieces, I want to congratulate you on the packaging of this album. The entire concept is beautiful, from the provocative title, the photos, the color scheme, and the program notes. […] I enjoyed Lussier’s Love Songs, which showed the bassoon’s remarkable human-like voice.[…] Lussier’s music should be spread around the globe as he has a soft inner voice that we all admire. […] As to the Bitsch, you just won the Gillet competition… 

John de Lancie (former director Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia), May 1, 1981 A letter from the director of my school to my teacher, Bernard Garfield, following my performance of the Mozart Concerto K191 and just before I started my first job with Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal on May 9, 1981. Mr Garfield sent the original letter to me for my amusement:

“Dear Bernie, I hope you were pleased with Nadina’s performance. I thought she played beautifully. I was amazed by all the “body English” – who gets credit for that?”

Each of these men represent a type of teacher. . . all leaders, all respected, all representing ideals for their younger colleagues. Yet, their examples differ immensely. Four of them write with noble generosity and detailed perspicacity (in my opinion), and one of them gives a rare yet generic compliment, then pulls it back with an off-colour comment. Which kind of teacher do you want to be?

Solo Bassoon and Orchestra

Current list of works by Canadian composers for solo bassoon and orchestra… the ones that were written for me and many more. I’m steadily updating this and don’t hesitate to let me know of any further details or new works that are missing.

Telemann Flute Fantasias played on the Bassoon

portrait by Georg Lichtensteger

Portrait of Georg Philipp Telemann by Georg Lichtensteger

I will be playing the Twelve Fantasias by Georg Philipp Telemann on Saturday, October 14 at 2 pm in the Rydal Bank Church (1630 Hwy 638,  ca. 10 km north of Bruce Mines).  I have been working on this music for most of my professional career. My admiration for Telemann is based on the concise beauty of these small masterpieces, plus his workman-like initiative in self-publishing them in 1732-33. This concert benefits the Rydal Bank Historical Society and the historical church that they bought in 1989 and have maintained ever since.

My first solo album was of the Telemann Fantasias (originally for solo flute) was recorded in 2001. This recording is still available on streaming platforms. I was inspired upon hearing a recording of these works the great oboist, Heinz Holliger and began learning this music when I was in my 20’s while playing with the Montreal Symphony. Definitely not music that I was exposed to in school, thank goodness. You can be sure that I will keep practising this music!

Here is our programme.

Telemann Flute Fantasia

PLAYING BY HEART – memorizing bassoon concerti

I encourage all bassoonists to memorize and to perform from memory.

Just like all of your favourite rock stars.

I mean, can you imagine Pink looking cautiously down at a music stand before she flies across a stadium, belting out Fuckin Perfect??

Pink

Pink. PHOTO: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP VIA GETT

My teachers encouraged me to memorize while at the same time not insisting on it because honestly, it has not been part of contemporary woodwind pedagogy.But thanks to them, my mind was opened to the possibility and I have always aimed to memorize my repertoire.

The first time that I played a concerto from memory was with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra upon my graduation in 1981, performing the ubiquitous Mozart K191. I then performed it two more times with Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal and then with Orchestre de Trois-Rivieres and a pick-up orchestra in California. I played my teacher’s cadenzas for the Curtis performances, then wrote my own cadenzas for the professional performances. I laboured over those and wrote way too much material. I eventually learned to keep cadenzas short, also easier to memorize!

Mozart bassoon concerto Nadina Mackie with the Curtis Symphony

Mozart bassoon concerto Nadina Mackie with the Curtis Symphony 1981

The Mozart bassoon concerto is one of the easiest works to memorize, being simple and clear in structure with distinct and bite-sized solo sections. Tackle it with confidence!

The caste system in classical music places instrumentalists in hierarchies of expectations, with the violinists at the top, and descending somewhat in score order, though truthfully, bassists probably face the same prejudices as bassoonists when it comes to concerti. Woodwinds are not expected to have the mental capacity to memorize, though it is never stated as bluntly. We are to know our place, do our jobs, and not aspire to the limelight. Well, fuck that.

Luckily, my brilliant senior teachers at Curtis, Bernard Garfield and Sol Schoenbach, both believed that we can and should memorize. As an added bonus, they completely believed that women were strong and capable and encouraged me to go as far as I wanted, but the biggest obstacle was often my own self-doubt. And since we encounter all kinds of teachers and influential colleagues, it took me many years to realize that not all great colleagues have all the information that we need, and that is ok. We can be uplifted by our teachers, or our teachers can present useful obstacles that we can intentionally demolish in our own good time.

Memorizing music comes very quickly to me. But that is never the biggest challenge.  After learning the other parts, understanding the structure and harmony to the best of my ability, the MOST important thing for me is drilling the music in such a way that when the demons of self-doubt arise, I will not sabotage myself. That is the greatest part of my work.

And honestly, it doesn’t harm me to put in the extra work to engrave the music into my memory, but it does require access to time. Creating time means identifying your purpose to memorize and to start immediately.

Memorizing is a skill that grows with experience. The time that you put into memorizing one concerto will make it a thousand times easier to memorize your orchestral excerpts and other concerti or whatever it is you wish to make your own through memorizing.

Also, the intention carries forward from one effort to the next. Even if you cannot achieve full memorization for a certain performance, you will for the next. Don’t give up.

I have encouraged my students to memorize, and some of them come to it easily while others are more like me in that they need to work it out over time. How you get there doesn’t matter.

Rehearsing Oddbird Concerto with Michael Hall and Sudbury Symphony Orchestra

Rehearsing Mathieu Lussier’s Oddbird Concerto with the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra, September 22, 2023 with Michael Hall, conductor. Photo probably by Maggie Niro🙂

Recently, I performed Mathieu Lussier’s Oddbird Concerto with the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra, led by Michael Hall. This exceptionally musical conductor also performed the concerto by memory, which was a novel experience for me. I have performed with many great conductors, but none who felt comfortable enough to be off-book in a new bassoon concerto.

Memorizing new concerti takes extra time. And remember to prepare yourself for all other aspects of the experience, from imagining different conductors, where you will be standing, whether the conductor is on a podium or not, whether the orchestra can handle your tempi. . . imagine lots of possibilities and prepare for those too. Imagine stopping and starting, sometimes repeatedly, while the conductor rehearses the orchestra.

The great trombonist, Alain Trudel told me that when he first performed from memory (something that he is remarkably skilled at doing), he would increase the discomfort level by working in smaller and smaller rooms, and finally, by inviting all of his friends to cram into a closet-like space while he blasted through some fabulous trombone concerto. Admittedly, this is a pre-covid strategy, but use your imagination and embrace novel challenges that will train your nerves and strengthen your purpose.

Here is my current process.  You can mix and match. Some things are essential (bold print), others can be exchanged. Try it out for yourself. Talk to others about how they memorize

  • Practice from the full score.
  • Learn the other parts, but especially the interludes between your entrances. Once you have memorized your concerto, you will not be counting in the usual sense.
  • Play all the parts on piano. I cannot play piano at all, but I work through all the harmonies. Sometimes I try singing too. It ain’t pretty but it sure helps my understanding of the music.
  • Visualize the solo part before playing.
  • Write out from memory. At first, use piano or bassoon to assist your memory, eventually arrive at a point when you can write it all out without reference. Bassoon fingerings are not particularly linear or logical, so you need lots of ways of visualizing the music.
  • Sometimes practice from the back of the concerto, or of each movement, to the beginning, overlapping as you go.
  • Play with recordings if any are available. And use different recordings with different tempi.
  • Play with a pianist. If you don’t have a reduction of the orchestra part, have the pianist play one of the string lines, or any other instrumental line. It all helps with your deep knowledge of the music.
  • Play for other people well in advance of the rehearsals and performance. Have the work fully memorized for this.
  • Learn the rehearsal numbers (I always forget about doing this)
  • Start the concerto from different points. Ask people to call out rehearsal numbers and you start there.
  • Practice a rehearsal scenario where passages get repeated.
  • Add your own training ideas.
  • Confidence grows with experience.