When I finally discovered the bassoon at the albeit late age of 16, went to the Curtis Institute at 18 and landed my first big gigs at the age of 22 (associate principal in Mexico but I took second bassoon in Montreal), maybe you could say that I was a highly trained classical musician. I had a huge supply of excitement about the world of music that lay before me but absolutely no understanding of the riches that were possible. Despite my rapid progress, I was steeped in doubt and held back from many opportunities.
I was hugely attracted to orchestral playing, but also mesmerized by the three concerti that were being taught at the time (Mozart, Weber and, well, Weber A & R). My head just about blew off when I realized there were many many many more and that it was possible to learn lots of them! Likewise, I was immersed in chamber music, loving quintets but also wishing to play chamber music with piano and strings and I established mixed chamber groups the minute I got my first job. And baroque music. And electronic music. So much I wanted to try. But somehow, always, it was repeated over and over that you had to choose one niche and stick to it if you wanted to make a living, so each foray carried a certain amount of guilt (i.e. who did I think I was!?).
Since then, I have managed to have many professional experiences… concerti, recitals, orchestras, chamber music, electronic, baroque…
None of this was on any test in school. And all of it has a world of possibility within it.
Yet sometimes I find myself still thinking as if any of us could be on a test… am I playing softly enough, will someone object to my fast tempi (or slow ones), or my trill choices or my sound or my reed… why do I think this way when what the world needs is more active artistic events and fewer simple tests of strength and compliance?
Great performance choices are not going to be part of any test. Great performance choices involve long periods of experimentation (also known as mistakes) — tests require a limited set of parameters and are useful ways to test your strength. But once these baby steps towards personal discipline have been established, then the next step is to find ways to extend your reach, to imagine a greater performance and the training that is required to arrive. Imagine ways that the voice of the bassoon (or whatever you do) can be used to create an artistic event.
To be good at something, we gradually identify the parameters, refine our grasp of the problems, repeat our successes, and gradually eliminate the number of errors. To be great, we expand the parameters, extend our reach, and exponentially increase the number of errors, until we discover something, then we refine and start anew. It never ends and each day is more fun than the last as long as we remember to live as if each day were our last.
If I could do it all again, I would lunge in the directions that beckoned when I was young. I would not hesitate for a second to find collaborators who wanted to present recitals with me and develop shows that reached out to people. If one pianist at school said no, I would ask another one instead of retreating (as I did as a youngster at Curtis). Everything that I do now, I wanted to do when I was young. I would wear what I thought was exciting instead of hoping not to offend. This impulse towards showmanship didn’t have a place in classical bassoon training and my teachers (all great bassoonists) were not doing anything like it. They would do one concerto per year, maximum or one recital per year. They lived for their orchestral jobs. There is a big beautiful world out there for musicians and our youth is a blessed time when we are given the time to learn everything that we need. I wish that I had realized that!
I wish young players all courage to not only learn their scales (so important) and develop their orchestral excerpts (essential) and do well in exams and competitions (absolutely necessary) but also to imagine the possibilities, imagine what stages they want to command, what shows they want to develop and how best to bring their bright, individual personalities to every event. Iron discipline and fluid imagination… this is what I crave.