MUSIC, MONEY, SUCCESS & FAILURE – Things I Keep Learning From My Amazing Yet Weird Career
Part Two – who were your teachers and what did they teach you?
We cite their accomplishments as if they were somehow our own and we often have a childlike parallelism, something along the lines of “if my teacher plays in an orchestra, then I can too.”
Whatever the catalyst, their inspiration will be remembered in one incident or sensation. Your teachers are found everywhere, throughout your life. Not all of them teach us good things.
Our preliminary worldview is determined by our teachers and for this reason alone, we need many teachers.
A truly good teacher acts with respect towards students and remembers that we are equals. I loathe teachers who feel themselves superior and justify their abuse as a burden of necessity. You can learn from them but it’s always better to seek more those with higher humanity. I’m serious about that.
Here is a rough list of the people who have taught me things. I may have taught them things too. I know that my students have helped and enlightened me.
My first great teacher was my high school band-leader and trumpeter Gary Hartley. Disciplined and compassionate, he worked our rag-tag high school concert band like a professional ensemble. We are still friends.
At university, the great-even-then bassoonist Christopher Millard, with all the gravitas of his 22 years on earth, sagely told me when I was 16 years old at the University of British Columbia, that he thought I was probably too sensitive to sustain a career in music and that I wasn’t “ready” to start learning the Bach cello suites. From this, I learned early to not rely entirely on the opinions of others. Christopher also had the generosity to perform with me when I was his student… by then, I was 17 and he was 23 and I was about to leave for the Curtis Institute of Music. Christopher also bought me borcht at the Russian deli after some of our lessons… when I tried to pay, he waved me away and told me to treat my future students. From this, I did learn generosity.
When I was 17, I had a summer with Gerald Corey. He taught me free of charge in return for babysitting and gave me 5 hour lessons. From him, I learned of a type of meticulousness that was astoundingly appealing in terms of reed-making and phrasing. Gerald Corey did not charge me for the summer of lessons, saying that since I had flown from BC to Ottawa, I had earned a discount. From this, I learned about the pricelessness of professional generosity. To be fair, musicians can only afford this type of generosity if supported by a very good job (Mr Corey was principal bassoon of the National Arts Centre Orchestra), but it is still something that we can aspire to at our level of possibility.
At the age of 18, I went to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where I had two brilliant bassoon teachers, Bernard Garfield and Sol Schoenbach, in their 60’s and 70’s respectively. These two tough, experienced older orchestra guys, supposedly raised in the dark ages of gender parity, believed in me and treated me with genuine dignity though I was just a skinny, scared Canadian forest girl, out of my element in the middle of Philadelphia but thrilled to my core to be there.
Mr Garfield told me that the real learning would start when I landed my first orchestral job. Not “if”, but “when”. Mr Garfield also showed me his personal technique exercises and actively encouraged me to invent my own, which I do to this day, actively encouraging my own students to do the same. This is just a smart thing to do and I’m sure every teacher in history has done it, but it was fun and unforgettable with Mr Garfield.
Dr Schoenbach told me that professional orchestra was like advanced schooling and laughed when I worried aloud about succeeding in music. He told me to concentrate on the auditions, that my career was unavoidable. When I landed my first job, he reminded me to form chamber groups immediately so that I could continue to grow.
He also said “save money every year so that you can move away from orchestra when you are ready for something more in music” and “when is your next recital” and “don’t get too caught up with boyfriends… first build the music and the rest will follow.”
Both of these teachers defended me when needed (oboe teacher John deLancie sometimes felt I needed extra tempering through adversity) and pushed me out the door to face the world. When I started my first job with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and when I felt doubt or anguish, I would call or write and they would counter with practical suggestions… good fingerings for that repeated “g” in Bolero, repertoire suggestions, strong, pragmatic encouragement to stay in the glorious world of music even when it got hard as hell. From this, I learned that I could continue to trust some of my elders. We are still friends and even though Sol passed on 20 years ago, I still have all his letters and a painting by his artist wife, Bertha Schoenbach. Here is a link to one of our lessons.
Many of my teachers were not official bassoon teachers and every colleague and stage partner has taught me… Alan Wu (homeless pianist), Bertha Schoenbach (artist), Ted Baskin, (oboist of Montreal Symphony), Gary Russell (cellist, Montreal Symphony), Guy Few (trumpeter, pianist, pragmatist) Valdy (folk hero, musically expansive), Karel Roessingh (jazz pianist), Roger Norrington (conductor and baroque specialist), Nicholas McGegan, Fraser Jackson (ex-husband), Mathieu Lussier (composer, bassoon, brother from another family), John Steinmetz (bassoonist, composer, thinker).
We absorb the sensibilities and erudition of our teachers yet whoever lights the fire that makes you want to play music, and those who fan the flame thereafter, are the only ones who deserve to be called teachers.
If we perform, if we interact with the greater world, then we become teachers. What kind of teacher are you?