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?

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.

 

Berceuse & Concertino

David Swan is one of Canada’s most gloriously fluent and musical pianists. I was fortunate to perform with him for a few years, and record two albums together (Ever After with Prokofiev Sonata and Notes From Abroad). We played 4 Love Songs by Mathieu Lussier on this album. David was playing from a pencilled chord sheet, improvising his part, so if I made an error, we had to do a complete retake just because David made up new beauties every time. After a few years, Mathieu took pity on pianists and created a published version (linked above).

I am playing my former black Heckel #13479 in these two works. Such a lithe and supple bassoon, you can hear the influence of my decade as second bassoon with the Orchestra Symphonique de Montréal… very musical yet very contained and highly civilized to the point of almost being restrained (imagine!). I now explore far greater ranges of colour and expression, yet I enjoy hearing my work from these earlier days.

Uncomfortable nagging thoughts…

It was sobering to witness the extreme poverty and homelessness in the towns and cities to which I travelled for concerts and music-related stuff to Peterborough, Ontario, Fredonia and Dunkirk, New York, Prince George, B.C. and Portland, Oregon… most dramatically in Portland where thousands of tents LINE THE STREETS. I was shocked.

I stayed in a massive historical hotel in Portland, built in 1912, a scene of thousands of past and present conventions and gatherings of business people and those pursuing the American dream (like all of us). Right beside this monument to ambition and well-being, the flimsy filthy tents flutter in the wind as the residents scurry quickly and furtively, trying to stay out of trouble but really, no way to avoid it.

“This All Happened More or Less”

“This All Happened More or Less” by Crystal Schenk & Shelby Davis 2014, bronze, dolomite, stone

What are we doing to equalize opportunity for everyone? Where do classical music concerts fit when thousands of people have no safe place to sleep, let alone a means to find good food? Musicians need work to keep off the streets, and as hard as it is for us to find work, we still seem better off than many. It seems that a major tipping point has to come sooner than later if we don’t address this in a daily steady way. Regardless of the political party, there is an army-in-training on the margins of all the towns I visited… literally marginalized people who are surviving with very little and yet, are tough, resilient and possibly getting angry. If you are doing anything at all to help, that is good. I’m still thinking about this. I regularly donate to music charities, including educational groups and regional orchestras, and I established a nationally registered education charity, the Council of Canadian Bassoonists… these things help with the educational and cultural layer, but what about all the others who face stark, immediate poverty? And how many of those destitute people are also talented musicians, as deserving of education and opportunity as anyone? More than I few, I reckon.

Favourite Restaurants from my recent travels

Excellent affordable restaurants during my travels…

superb Indian menu at Windjammer Restaurant in Clarion Hotel in Dunkirk, New York (limited hours but worth adjusting your schedule to go); in Prince George, B.C., Spicy Greens (I loved the lamb palak dosa),  the homey Madras Maple Cafe along with Wasabi Sushi & Wonton and great coffee at Ristretto  …heaven)

Also really enjoyed Burns Lake’s Dragon Palace restaurant  / for comforting Chinese food and the Boer Mountain Coffee house for excellent coffee etc. And in the formerly sleepy tiny mill town of Houston, BC, near our former ranch, there is another fine expresso joint, The Pallisades Cafe.

And while in Portland, Oregon, I really enjoyed the Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Division Street (and am still enjoying a bag of “El Puente” Honduras coffee beans) and when I visited nearby Mount Hood, the Mount Hood Roasters time stopped for me with a finely-textured latte and a childhood-memory-inducing huckleberry cheesecake “pillow”, a gluten-free pastry (I think).

Madras Maple Cafe

Butter Chicken from Madras Maple Cafe

BASSOOONS!

Blue Bell takes over from Big Red

My new blue Bell bassoon, aka Blue Bell, is a total joy and came through like a champion for all of the concerti and studio recording that I did in springtime 2022. I have chosen to commit to Bell bassoons and sell my glorious 15k Heckel aka Big Red to the immensely gifted powerhouse principal bassoonist of the Oregon Symphony, Carin Miller.​

My Professional Bassoons…. Heckels to Bells

I have played many bassoons and in particular, several Heckels since the start of my life as a bassoonist,  from the 5000 series (made in the first decade of the 20th century) loaned to me as a student by Christopher Millard; to the 6000 series (1920s)  loaned to me by the Curtis Institute of Music when I decided to sell my fancy Püchner; the 10k series (late ’50s through 1960s); the 12k series (1970s); the13k series (1980s) and finally, Big Red, a 15k series Heckel from 2008.

Big Red's last day in the log house

Big Red, ready to fly to Portland. Carin laughed when she saw my suitcase and said “Put a bird on it!” (Portlandia reference that I vaguely remembered)

Big Red's last day in the log house

Blue Bell, here to stay

My last three Heckels really suited my style of playing and led me forward to greater power and expressivity. As bassoonists know, all top-of-the-line professional bassoons take considerable time to make. Waiting times for Heckels increased with each passing year, and the last official notice that I saw from Heckel indicated a 16-year waiting list; they have closed orders until they can catch up. Which puts a huge premium on the already costly newer model Heckels in the 15000 and 16000 series.

Nadina with 12k Heckel bassoon

Nadina with 12k Heckel, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, wearing tailor-made, full tails, cufflinks, cummerbund, tie and all 🙂 (what a pain in the ass to tour with that outfit!)

Nadina with 10k Heckel001

With the 10k series Heckel that I won my second bassoon position with Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal… back when I wore long black skirts and earrings🤣

Nadina with 13k Heckel

With #13479, the first one that I ordered directly from the Heckel factory. And a suit that was imposed by the stylist for my first real publicity shots…yikes!

With 13k Heckel in 2006

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

#13479, a decade after I was a second bassoonist. Fancy boots were painful…we played the !@#$! Jolivet concerto in those boots!

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann (dance photographer!) with 15,000 series Heckel, aka Big Red.

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann (dance photographer) with 15k series Heckel, aka Big Red💖 Note bare feet 🤣

I LOVE (SOME) NEW BASSOONS SO MUCH

Every time that I invest in a new bassoon, it opens different aspects in my playing. And I have discovered that I loved the newer and newest Heckels best of all, and now, the new Bell bassoons.

And equally important, I think that the bassoons respond and develop according to how we play them. Big Red, the 15000 series Heckel, is a true thoroughbred… willing, capable, big, gleaming, powerful enough to soar above the ensemble in solos yet flexible enough to melt into any orchestral texture. 

I have recorded six concerto and solo albums on Big Red, premiered 18 new concertos, played more concerti in concert, played hundreds of solo and chamber recitals, and toured with folk artists on electric bassoon and chamber music/orchestral concerts. I played principal bassoon in chamber orchestra concerts and recordings, and second bassoon often with Toronto Symphony. This magnificent horn is both versatile and distinctive.

Handing Big Red to Carin

I hand-delivered Big Red to Carin Miller in Portland and I will forever cherish the texts and jaw-dropping debut video that she sent upon playing this bassoon for the first time. I keenly look forward to hearing Carin as she continues her own strong career as an orchestral bassoonist, soloist, chamber artist and renowned teacher and founder of Bassoons Without Borders.

I am proud that my former bassoons are still being played by other top players in the world.

Handing Big Red to Carin

Yeah, you know you want our sunglasses.

Big Red and I did a lot of work together, and before him, Black Beauty and Mr. Brown

You can still hear me playing Big Red and the others on many commercial recordings and recorded live performances:  Hummel Grand Concerto, Lachner Concertino, Weber Andante & RondoOddbird Concerto, Sicilian Proverbs, Thirteen Seconds, Vivaldi Concerti, Scarlatti, J-D Braun 24 Solos, Lussier Oddbird ConcertoDouble ConcertoSong of Love and Sorrow, (and so many more works), Glenn Buhr’s man will only grieve if he believes the sun stands still, Marc Mellits’ Dark Matter, Paul Frehner’s Apollo X, Constantine Carravasilis’, Silver Angel. and there is so much chamber music to hear and works with piano. Big Red has made his mark on my life and I’ll never forget him. 

Black Beauty, my former 13000  Heckel can be heard in many Montreal Symphony recordings and in the award-winning concerto album Bacchanale (Hindemith and Lussier Double Concerti) and many chamber music albums, including Musica Franca and Caliban Quartet.

The brown 12000 Heckel can also be heard on many Montreal Symphony recordings, along with the 10,000 series horn that I won the second bassoon position in 1981. 

Nadina Mackie jackson

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

We’re all in this together…

And while all of this is mildly interesting, it also underlines how swiftly life passes, and how many beautiful bassoons there are and so much gorgeous music to be written, performed and recorded. Our names will be forgotten, just as the names of all previous bassoon virtuosi and bassoon section players are largely forgotten, but our efforts will somehow resonate in the art of the bassoon makers, the new fantastic concerti by composers present and past, and the general quality of playing (which has always been so much better than we realize)…

Keep up the good work, everyone!

Blue Bell's first concerto recording

Blue Bell’s first recording session, Carnival by Augusta Read Thomas for solo bassoon & wind ensemble May 1, 2022 at SUNY Fredonia