Notes from Abroad

I have been keeping a daily written journal for the last six months.  By nature, I am an incorrigible archivist and have two trunks full of diaries from most of my life… minus several years of my early twenties when I thought that it would be cathartic to excise the torrid accounts of my many boyfriends… I regret losing those silly stories now.  Not sure where my prudish moment of bookburning came from; surely I wasn’t planning to run for public office?
Back to the present, the physical pleasure of putting pen to paper is undeniable.  Fighting the inevitable doubts, I have resolved to find the quotidian details of my life fascinating.  And the truth is, anybody’s diary will always reflect a common reality, a glimpse into the times of everyone alive at this moment.
I’ve succeeded in writing every day, and the written diary has momentarily eclipsed my blog.  Life has been wonderfully interesting for me these last few months.  I have performed 5 concerti and several recitals that included the Berio Sequenza XII and I am preparing to premiere two more concerti that have been written for me and give two new recitals with friends. I have given four masterclasses to inspiring students at universities beyond my own borders and the new year holds 3 more concerto premieres and more regular concerti and a recital tour with Guy and more masterclasses.  I have been intensely involved in negotiating life with my roster of a dozen wonderful students in Toronto, with great support, intelligence and comprehension from the administrators at the University of Toronto and still optimistically working  for the same from the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music (learning experiences all!)… enjoying the students tremendously (even when I am yelling pieces of wisdom such as …. Be…. MUSICAL!!!)  along with spending some time with my old rockstar father up north.
I was thinking that if reincarnation were a reality, then I wish to return as a bassoonist; if heaven is a reality, I will to be a golden cherub playing the bassoon; if a genie comes out of a bottle with an offer of 3 wishes, I respectfully request:   1.  to be a bassoonist  2.   the courage and the chops to play really well in any and all styles of music and 3.  to always help my family, both immediate and musical.

I Suck/Rock Therefore I Am

Is it interesting to write about failure?  Should I write about failure?

It carries a frisson of taboo, an inversion of the voodoo idea that having your picture taken will steal your soul.  Does acknowledging failure make it my domain?  But that’s my point… it is part of our domain.  Along with cameras and souls.

Whatever the answer, I have more time to write about failure because I missed my plane to San Francisco even though I arrived three hours before my flight.

Up at dawn, packed and struggled all my gear into the already shimmeringly hot car (my lovely little blue jelly bean mazda 2) and was on my way to the fantastic independent coffeehouse (Augie’s)  in Redland with the first morning light, and then on the highway to L.A.  hours ahead of schedule.  I returned the rental car and hopped on the shuttle bus and shuffled through the check-in long line carrying two thoroughbred bassoons (my 6-year old Heckel and a sparkling new “Superior” model Püchner) and pushing my music/tool/art/clothes-crammed suitcase, then jostled my way through the security line and finally stood in another line to buy a $11 tuna sandwich and a $6 yogurt (failed to examine prices before lining up to buy them) and then flopped in a sweaty, slightly pensive heap at my gate.  I looked at my boarding pass.  Yup.  Gate 73.  It did say ‘gates subject to change’.  Whatever.  I was so early that there was lots of time to double check the gate.

Whipped out computer and (again) posed the question to self/world:
Is it interesting to write about failure?

The little voice inside my head says ‘shut up’.

I’ve ignored that voice before.

A much louder voice rings in my recent came from a new/good-hearted, truth-bellowing friend who both believes in me, avers admiration for me, and after hearing me crash during a first-time performance-from-memory of RV 483 this week, said, ‘Why play from memory?  You’re a great player… you don’t have to prove anything!  Why risk it?’

He wasn’t looking for an answer but I gave him one (several) anyway.  I said that I want to play from memory.  I want to play all of my repertoire from memory.  Just like my rock-n-roll idols.  And I do perform from memory.  In this case, I wanted to add a new piece.  After all, that is the great joy of my life, to perform virtuoso concerti for bassoon.  This is one of the things I love doing. Love.

This time I added a new concerto on short notice, one that I know very well and previously performed once (4 years ago) and recorded (2 years ago).

In retrospect, I should have done many things differently leading up to the concert.  Life is complex and requires constant adjustments.   During the concert (unexpected-for-me completely open-air, sporadically amplified), I effectively lived my worst performance nightmare with the sensation that I was a microsecond behind the strings at all times and it was confusing.  Despite the memory drop-out moments (or worse, belated, sodden flailings at the effervescent virtuosic arabesques), there were still a few tiny flickers of living-the-dream (playing fabulous music with lively string players for attentive people in a remarkable setting).  And my second piece went very well, also memorized but music in front of me in the dark.

To sum up, some things I know for sure:

It is more fun to play from memory.  So much more fun.  WAAAAAY more fun. I have done it since the beginning of my career when the only concerto that bassoonists played was the Mozart.  I continue to add concerti and I want to have this pleasure with every concerto that I add to my repertoire.  And sonatas.  And other people tell me that they feel the same way and that it gets better.  So this is why I do it.

The first performance must be done, come what may.  Repeat performances must be done.  The sooner the better.  The closer together, the better.

Memorization is a graspable, quantumly-expandable skill that is enhanced with practise, so once you have successfully performed from memory, you start to have a sense of how to do it on successive performances but it is not something that can ever be taken for granted.  And it really helps if the repeat performances are close together (did I already say this??).

Memorization is a multi-sensate, perfectible skill and each performer has to discover how best to accomplish their goals. To be secure in memorization, I have to have the piece visually memorized.  Some people can do it without this but not me.  If I can see the notes in my minds eye, I can never be thrown.  Sound and feeling are easy and natural for most musicians.  Adding another sense (sight) makes it secure for me.

Live experience is the best teacher though sometimes a harsh one.  Even when I am on top of it, the excitement is much greater when performing from memory.  Which means I should give up coffee well enough in advance to not feel any extra nervousness.  I need multiple, lower-pressure pre-performances before a first major performance from memory of a new piece.  Just because I can memorize fairly quickly does not guarantee that I can anticipate the effect of nervousness and other distractions.

Diligent preparation does not always mean success if some aspect of preparation has been overlooked.   Systematic imagination is the best tool to check the reality of the particular situation.

Ambition is the fuel for originality and accomplishment but it must be tempered with planning.  If there are many demands on your time then the preparations must be started well ahead of time.  If you are asked lat the last minute to present a concerto, choose one that you have done may times.  I initially did this, then I looked at the programming and saw that much of the concert would be in C minor.  That seemed potentially discouraging for the audience.  I thought that I had enough time to add a new memorized concerto.  I didn’t.  But even though I shat all over it, I still have it memorized now!  Ego is bruised but brain is stronger.  Mind’s eye is also stronger.

Every situation is different.  Experience is valuable.  Imagination is also valuable.
While I am in the process of exhausting this topic, maybe it is valuable to point out that this applies to any skill.

One of the most inspiring stories I have had from a colleague is Leslie Ross’ account of her first experience of extended live-performance circular breathing.  A gifted performer, improvisor and composer, she signed up for two sets at a Looping Festival.  Already a circular breather, she had never played for such an extended period but was willing to try.  According to Leslie, she staggered through the first 20 minute set, flushed with effort and distress and not at all sure if she should take the second set.  After a brief rest, she did the second set.  I don’t remember how much time passed but it was the same day.  And she said it was if someone had waved a magic wand… she could circular breathe in and out as easily as if a bassoon were not attached to her face.  In the gap between the two performances, her body had processed the experience and added all the missing elements to her skills.  She said that her ego wishes the first set had never happened, yet she knows for a fact that it gave her a full skill that would never have come so quickly without the brush with ‘failure’. This is a true story.

So, back to the airport… writing and thinking (staring into middle distance), I suddenly looked at the clock… 1:15 and my departure was slated for 1:27.  The flight number had not changed at my current gate.  Panic and mortification.  I raced to look at the departure information and saw that my gate was indeed in another wing of the sprawling airport.  So grabbing both bassoon cases, I bobbled frantically to gate 61 and arrived just as the doors closed.  I neither wept or gnashed my teeth.  It was my own fault.  The nice lady put me on standby for the 4:00 flight.  I rented a cart for $5 and wandered the terminal, and by chance, ended up in a long, snaking line at the United Customer Service where people were changing their tickets.  So I stood there for an hour, behind exhausted mothers, a valiant grandmother, a weary angry woman my age and a twenty-year old who had days of travel ahead of her.  When I got to the desk, I looked at the woman behind the counter and said, “You have a really hard job”.  She looked at me briefly and gave a small smile.  I told her my story, adding that it was my fault entirely, but I needed to book a ticket rather than be on standby.  She looked at everything for about five minutes, then found room to book me on an evening flight that would still allow me to catch the last flight to Eugene.  She printed the boarding passes and handed them to me with the words, ‘Now you’re all set’.  I tried to slide my credit card towards her and she repeated the words more firmly, looking me straight in the eye  , “You’re all set, now go!”  I clutched the boarding passes and told her very quietly that I loved her.  Her lips twitched towards a smile and she waved me away.  Hours later, when I went to board the plane, I was not on the passenger lists, but somehow the fact that I had boarding passes helped me negotiate my way onto both planes with two bassoons, landing after midnight in the sylvan berg of Eugene.  Life works.

To sum up, I get better at things I put my full attention to, including playing all my concerti from memory and checking the departure monitors more than once.  Not taking things for granted.  Failure is a vivid teacher. The only constructive response is to take all the information and just keep going.  Done is better than perfect.  Being alive means both taking some risks and also planning in a serious, rosary-bead checking kind of way. Taking some risks means bombing on occasion. Planning means taking time.   Being smart means collating that experience into something that produces your best work.  Sometimes I suck.  Sometimes I rock.  And I have one more memorized concerto in my repertoire!

I am always grateful to the kind souls who still hear my best efforts through the fog of derailed intention, to the beautiful students and bright angel colleagues (John Steinmetz, Nicolasa Kuster, Christin Phelps Webb, Carolyn Beck, Saxton Rose, Ryan Romine) who look in my eyes and remind me that my efforts have taken at least partial flight. Thank you.

If you want some of my ideas about how I do am working on this, please read on.  Despite my painful dissatisfaction with my recent performance, I actually do have a process that works. It now is a wider process.  Some of you will have some great suggestions (besides ‘use the music’) and I would love to read them.

Development phase:
-estimate how many days/weeks/months/years it takes you to fully memorize a work (if it’s your first time, allow one year – at the end of your career, you would have all of the Vivaldi concerti memorized though more is possible since the skill grows with practise)
-this process can always be forced and speeded up if you are clear about your process.
-visual memorization (see &/or be able to write all notes without bassoon) in addition to aural (knowing the sounds of the piece) and kinetic (knowing how it feels to play).
-practising from different points in the piece (back, middle) – I know one pianist who practises literally backwards… this bewilders the crap out of me.
-low-pressure performances (for friends, family, dog) and rehearsals with piano or small string group in the weeks prior to concert (these can be in addition to one directly before the concert but never only one directly before concert when in early stages of presenting a new concerto.
-perform at least once in your concert clothes prior to show.

In advance of the show:
-all parts corrected, page turns considered, bound and bowed – this keeps the string players calm and feeling respected and saves valuable rehearsal time.
-include a check list of instruments so that the organizers will be sure that every instrument has a part.
-include a score or two
-bring a second set of all of the above because someone will forget their music or maybe never receive it in the first place.
-check with organizers to find out locations and times for all rehearsals.
-Request a timed rehearsal schedule (I always time my rehearsals to the minute and include a break for the string players…. without this, you always run the risk of being behind)
-Confirm the day before the first rehearsal.  Confirm if there will be a sound check at the venue.  If not, do your own sound check and decide on placements.
-confirm address of venue and exact nature of concert… outdoors?  amplified? soundcheck?  bugs?  how big?(kidding)
-use your big beautiful mind to imagine the possibilities and to prepare for them while being fully aware that life will offer something infinitely more complex.

At the show
-lift your head and play your heart out.  if you bomb, you’ll live to soar again.  I am 100% sure of that.


Alabama Shakes and the anguish of hearing something so good that it confuses the crap out of me

Before I start my rant, let me say that Alabama Shakes is so good in every way that I cannot even begin to adequately describe them so I will let you discover them for yourself though you may have realized this fact long before me.

Back to regular programming.

I am puzzled.

I get inspired by rock music and feel exactly the same way (listening) that I do when playing Vivaldi or any number of other classical composers.

Yet I am told that classical musicians cannot expect to operate the same way as pop players (hundreds of performances to hone their craft, some in settings that are uncomfortable, all involving amplification, a level of accessibility that transcends reality)… why can’t classical musicians do this??  I am puzzled.

And pissed.  Because this doubt eats into my soul and I hear fear in my playing at times when all I want to hear is the raw pulse of life that I actually feel and hear in the music.

I see so many good things in the general approach of rock and pop etc while being acutely aware that there is no such thing as a general approach AND I really know absolutely nothing about that kind of life.

I also seem to be musically promiscuous and desire the art of so many performers.  In fact, just about anyone who I actually get to hear live has the ability to inspire flat-out adoration in my musical heart.  And it is not just my musical ignorance, but each of these artists defies categorization to my ears.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I am in love with any number of artists at a given time and entertaining serious crushes on a broader scale.  These are almost never classical artists (exceptions include the obvious).  I just don’t want most of them.  And by ‘want’, I mean that I cannot fantasize about being on stage with them or channeling any aspect of them.

When I watched Brittany Howard on stage this week with Alabama Shakes, I saw a deeply serious person, someone so kinetically powerful, focused, brave, alone, yet eerily connected to an adoring audience that was absurdly diverse…. pushing against me on all sides were elderly wealthy white couples, teenage dope-smoking deeply focused boys, a quartet of charming fags and hags, a beautiful rasta man dancing with a red-haired tattoo-covered girl… a scruffily-bearded hipster with a trio of beauties… screaming office-worker women…mothers with daughters, fathers with small children…my list could go on and on.  Humanity was represented in some way that was both confusing and perfect.

Brittany addresses very few words to the audience beyond her extravagantly-delivered lyrics and burning playing… her band of serious men was so locked into a sense of time that goes beyond mere accuracy of beat.

And in fact, the stadium sound was not nearly as good as what I hear on recordings, yet it is essential that the band perform in a way that can click in with the desire of 5000 people.

Why can’t classical musicians do this???  Our music is good enough.  WTF.

Conducting My Life

Conductors have had a huge impact on my life.  Other musicians generally have focussed and defined me, but interactions with conductors have caused pivotal moments of startled recognition.  Not the kind of dutiful, obligatory and of course always appreciated recognition that occurs via post-concert bows and congratulations, but something more visceral and immediate that stands alone in my memory.
When I was much younger and in the Montreal Symphony, I was playing principal bassoon during a week when the two principals were away… the programme included the Brahms Double Concerto (names of soloists long forgotten) and Schumann’s Spring Symphony and something else (also long forgotten).  
Our concert was moved to a church because of a stagehand strike at Place des Arts and our guest conductor, John Elliott Gardiner, was more than a little bitchy.  He was patronizing (I thought) towards me… his main crime was thinking that I had played a wrong note and it took the prompt confession of the principal clarinetist to rectify that.  This  fired me to vengeance, which took the super-nerd form of memorizing the solos and glaring at the conductor.  I was made even crosser by the fact that he was extremely musical and quite wonderful to watch.  
After the first performance, I was leaving the church with my best friend (cellist) following closely behind me. Gary Russell had endured my blistering tirades about this arrogant bastard of a conductor who had the temerity to also be superbly musical (so much easier to hate someone who is both a brute and incompetent) and had spent our rides alternately goading me, sympathizing and occasionally wondering if there were any other topic that could perhaps be also be exhausted (a true friend). 
The curved hallway of the church was narrow and there was a bottleneck of musicians  and to my annoyance, I realized I was going to have to directly pass Maestro Gardiner.  Luckily his back was turned and I thought that I could brush through like a hot, angry wind… unseen but felt.  Just as I passed him, he spied me, and spinning around, caught both my hands in his (my bassoon was on my back) and exclaimed that I was such a musical person and how much he enjoyed working with me during the week.  Momentarily speechless, I recovered my equanimity enough to thank him and to say, in all truthfulness, that his musicality was wonderful to me too.  Meanwhile, my friend Gary was prodding me ruthlessly in the back with his umbrella as I sputtered and dealt with a complete turnaround in my perceptions of this conductor.   
Fast forward many many years, and this week I am an older, blue-haired player under the baton of a fiery, joyful young conductor with an impossible mop of strawberry-blonde clown curls.  I am playing extra with the Toronto Symphony (second in Après-Midi d’un Faune and fourth in Symphonie Fantastique) and enjoying every second.  Every word, every gesture of the French wildman Stéphane Denève is a musical and linguistic delight.  He is the epitome of deeply expressive, powerful and flexible musicality along with highly appropriate metaphor and elegant delightful vulgarity.  In short, I am just happy to be on stage.  Of course I want to tell him that he has unleashed joy in my somewhat jaded heart, but somehow I resist the temptation to gush, and simply beam from my seat in the middle of the gleaming orchestra.  

On the final night of our 3 show run at Roy Thomson Hall, I put my bassoon in the case and rushed out to the hall to hear the Poulenc  Double Piano Concerto.  As I pass the backstage, I see Stéphane waiting in the wings with the two wonderful soloists… I see him and sweep past, not wanting to interrupt in the moments before this powerful piece.  As I am about to push through the large double doors, I hear him call out, and turning, I see the tall redhead walking quickly towards me.  He extends his hands, takes both of mine, and I instinctively offer my version of the french air kiss, but he has something to say… he thanked me for my good energy during the week of rehearsals and concert.  Such a heartfelt and kind thing to say, and somehow urgently delivered.  Of course, this had the unexpected (for him) effect of unleashing my gratitude and I rather overwhelmed him and slightly mortified myself, yet it ended well and I felt as if a treasure had been given to me.  I went out and listened to the brilliant Poulenc with increased sentience and happiness. 
Conductors do transmit energy in the most immediate ways… it always changes the lives of the musicians under their batons for better or worse, but how amazing to me that we, the players, are in turn conducting palpable energy back to our leaders. These moments stand out in a lifetime of training and interaction with conductors, most of which is printed in my unconscious reflexes and reactions… these two particular moments live as vivid memories of sight, sound, touch and the invisible rush of happiness (ecstasy) that comes from playing.

Snow Day!

Snow day instead of recital day!  What a strange, odd, unsettling feeling.  Our February 8 concert for the Celebrity Concert Series at McMaster University was buried under a mountain of snow.  Even though my big silver 4 x 4 kingcab pickup truck had a tank full of gas and snowtires ready for anything, the university wasn’t taking any chances and cancelled all activities early in the blizzardy day and they  will reschedule us.  Stay tuned to my website for the Hamilton date (and others!).

Yesterday evening was another concert by my wonderful chamber orchestra, Group of Twenty-Seven, founded and led by the hyper-musical Eric Paetkau.  Because my recital clashed with the rehearsal days, I did not play this concert (Sam Banks moved to principal and my stellar student Bianca Chambul played second). I came to listen to the music and to join Gabe Radford in speaking before each half about the conflict between faith and reason that lay hidden in each work.  In the warm, dim light of the richly-decorated-yet-somehow-homey old Holy Trinity Church, so many artistic things came to life… amazing when you realize this is the direct effort of the young conductor and not just another normal symphony concert supported by a staff.  Maybe all symphony concerts are organizational miracles.  Anyway, joined by the Larkin Singers, the music included Schubert and Haydn masses along with a vivid, beautiful violin solo by Michael Oesterle played by our concert master, Etsuko Kimura.  Vocal soloists were very good and in the background was a large painting by Paula Arciniega.

Today, Guy and I rehearsed for our concert next week in Gananoque with a new programme including an Antoine Dard Sonata played with corno and bassoon… the corno da caccia sounds like a counter tenor in this galant music.  Here is a nice article though reading it reminds me that I should update all of my publicity sources… (I have produced way more that 7 solo CDs!)  Anyway, they’s all be with me for the show and here is a link for tickets — we would love to see anyone who can make the trip!

I also spent time spreading the word via FaceBook about Prairie Debut, a Canadian touring organization that takes all kinds of musicians into the rural reaches of the Canadian Prairies and beyond.  So many of my students think about “getting jobs” yet a really rich life is to be had by developing wider skills and contacts and having the gumption to travel and play.  Here is something to aspire to and a forum for our music.  Guy and I are touring for them in March, 2014 and I am definitely going to apply to take my strings to play Vivaldi across the noble grasslands of this great country!  Actually, what I would really like to do is bring the Valdy – Vivaldi concert to life!  Folk Baroque, that’s gotta sell!

Glorious Youth Part III (i think) – 15.5 hour teaching day

Yesterday, I taught all of my university students on a single day, which meant  12.5 hours of teaching, 2 hours of travel and eating and one blessed hour for practising.  A typical 15.5 hour work day starting at 7:00 a.m. and ending at 10:30 p.m.
Managed to get breakfast, lunch and dinner ready for both me and my son and answer emails about tour travel and the latest CD project that is about to go to press.

For the first time this year, we were assigned a beautiful teaching room that had large windows (which helps me when assessing reed work), tables to put our computers and cases and music stands.  The university is so strapped for space that we are often in a tiny room, crouched on the floor trying to look at reeds under a dim light, music propped on window sills etc.  Canada does not have luxury facilities for bassoon players yet!  But yesterday was nice.

I ache a bit today and yet feel great because of the contact with all of my bright young colleagues, each one so incredibly committed and yet acting on blind faith that this is all for a purpose.  Each of them is processing my teaching in their own way and these are some very smart, stubborn, busy people.  It is beyond fascinating to see how they each deal with me and my demands.

I feel I need to describe the day a bit in case anyone is interested.  This is part of life for a classical musician who wants to survive and participate in our future.

Since I tour so much, I teach my students (aka future colleagues) how to plan ahead so they aren’t left stranded before a recital or important audition.  I am push them to create timelines and practise logs that map out both their schedules and their ambitions.  When I am on the road, they take lessons with members of the Toronto Symphony and they must make the contact and arrange the lessons.

Inspired by my beloved last teacher, Sol Schoenbach, I require them to keep notes.  Unlike Sol, I want to see their basic lesson notes.  I used to send them my notes after lessons.  Now I require that they send me their notes and I comment or return my notes (I always make notes but I really want to know how they have processed the session).  The student-led system is better.  Anything that puts the ball in their court is better.

I have other basic, slightly odd, very serious requirements, including:

1. daily lucid scale routines that include the full range of the instrument.  I am thrilled when they develop their own routines, but they still must do my basic psycho full-range routines.  My routines evolve but cannot go anywhere until my students do the first level of intense, daily scale work combined with reed-making.

2.  Freehand Reeds and Complete Working Notes:  I show them how to make freehand reeds so that they can go out into the world with a knife, easel and piece of cane (and a few other basic things).  They can stop fearing the cost of equipment or the mystery of shaping and just get to work.  The hard part is putting it in writing but they all eventually do it.

3.   a tabbed binder that I can point to with stabbing gestures when required, or (preferably) with admiration.
-recital programmes – repertoire lists
-lesson notes
-reed notes
-technical exercises
-practise log/memorization charts
-audition excerpts
-masterclass notes

4.  The only ‘studies’ that I require in addition to obsessive scale routines are the Braun Solos (for tenor range control, voicing skill and flicking).  I encourage them to read and develop the hundreds of other studies that exist for bassoon but I am not interested in hearing these in lessons.

5.  Repertoire and  Recital program – we decide repertoire for the year’s work.  We design a program that has some set pieces that will also serve as audition pieces and other pieces and that can be switched once more research is done.  Rep is decided early in the season and work starts right away. It took a few months (and in some cases, years) to convince them that I am serious about this and it is paying off with some students in a big way.  Memorization makes them serious contenders for concerto competitions and for our annual Vivaldi Christmas Concert… anyone can do it with enough lead time.

Again, it has taken some of them years to realize that I want them to commit immediately, and when they do, the results are spectacular.  One of my education majors has memorized two concerti since the beginning of the year and is gradually coming to the level of my experienced performance majors.  Yeah.

Another student, a composition major, had an epiphany two weeks ago.  He is a bassoonist, composer and is learning to speak mandarin and play the guzheng.  He told me that he realized suddenly that you cannot “give” yourself time but that you can “make” time when you are clear about your goals.  He said it was life-changing in that he no longer felt victimized by demands on his time but rather, motivated to construct his time.

I feel inspired by my students.  Man, I’ve gotta practise now.