William Short

William Short was appointed Principal Bassoon of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 2012. He previously served in the same capacity with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra and has also performed with the Houston Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

A dedicated teacher, William serves on the faculties of The Juilliard SchoolManhattan School of Music, and Temple University. He has presented classes at colleges and conservatories around the country and at the 2014 International Double Reed Society Conference.

William has performed and taught at the Lake ChamplainLake TahoeMostly MozartStellenbosch (South Africa), StringsTwickenham, and Verbier Festivals. In 2015 he made his solo debut with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, performing David Ludwig's Pictures from the Floating World.

William has toured the United States with Curtis on Tour and has performed and taught in Belize, Cuba, Guatemala, and Nicaragua with the Philadelphia-based wind quintet Liberty Winds. His performances have been featured on American Public Media's “Performance Today” and on WHYY’s “Onstage at Curtis.” An occasional composer, his works have been published by TrevCo-Varner Music.

Committed to forging connections between audiences and performers, William's articles on the subject can be found on the MET Orchestra Musicians' website, which has been lauded not only by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, but also by noted arts consultant Drew McManus and prolific cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht.

William received his Bachelor of Music from the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Daniel Matsukawa and Bernard Garfield, and his Master of Music at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, where he studied with Benjamin Kamins. He attended festivals including the Music Academy of the West, Pacific Music FestivalSpoleto Festival USA, and the Verbier Festival. Additional major teachers have included Jeanine AttawayKristin Wolfe Jensen, and William Lewis.

Everyone Fails

In a perverse way, failure is fascinating. Everyone has lost auditions and performed poorly and ruined good pieces of cane. On a theoretical level, it’s easy to understand. But when it happens to us, it’s hard to avoid feeling like it’s an indictment of not only our worth as musicians, but our worth as people.

But failure is an unavoidable part of our perpetual quest to get better. After all, if we never made mistakes, we would have nothing upon which to improve. The fact that everyone fails means that failure, by itself, is utterly meaningless in determining whether or not we’re “successful.” What is meaningful? The extent to which we immerse ourselves in the process. The work we do in between high-pressure events, whether they were successful or not. How we brush off last night’s triumph or nightmare and get back to clearheaded work.

We all hunger for some form of objective validation; we all want to know that we’re doing OK. In such a subjective field, we inevitably cling to studying at that school, winning that audition, impressing that critic. Conversely, when we fail in one of those pursuits, we can feel that we’re hopeless. If we lost this audition, how can we ever even hope to win that job?

But everyone fails. And even when we “win,” we often forget that external validation is fleeting. The glow wears off after a while and we’re left looking for more—a recipe for disappointment if we’re looking for lasting affirmation. If we stay fascinated by the work, though, we will remain perpetually engaged in the process. Ultimately, that’s the only side of the equation we can control.

It’s virtually impossible to accurately assess ourselves. We’re either the greatest musician ever to walk the face of the planet…or we’re complete and utter disappointments. Obviously the truth lies somewhere in between. How do we reconcile these equally untrue perspectives, particularly when they are the lens through which we view ourselves, our progress, our success? We don’t, because they’re both equally irrelevant to what we have to do to improve. The morning after a great performance, we get up and get back to work. The morning after a lousy performance, we get up and get back to work.

"It's not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention."

There's No "There" There

I’ve always been obsessed with the idea of perfection. That, or as near as I can come to it, is my goal in the practice room: to refine a passage to such a degree that I can find nothing wrong with it. But that standard doesn’t always translate into the concert hall—really, one could argue that it virtually never translates into the concert hall. Things go wrong, or, if not wrong, then not exactly how I’d want. I realized a long time ago that I enjoy the process of preparation more than I enjoy performing, precisely because the end result can never live up to my ideal of what it could be, what it should be. It’s not that I don’t enjoy performing—I do. The energy of live performance can’t be replicated. But still, I’ve always found it difficult to move past the nagging feeling that my playing should have been more committed, more precise, more stylistically perceptive.

But that feeling began to fade, ever so slightly, just over a year ago. As I left a powerfully moving concert, hosted at Curtis in tribute to Bernard Garfield, I found myself more at peace. Some of the anxiety of constantly performing and listening and judging and being judged had just…subsided.

The reason for this wasn’t readily obvious. It was, of course, inspiring to see so many accomplished players gathered to celebrate this man. But what was most meaningful to me was reflecting on Mr. Garfield’s career and what made it so truly, unquestionably great. It wasn’t that the incomparable example of his playing had raised the standard for all bassoonists (although it had), nor was it that he trained so many great musicians (although he did).

The last reeds Bernard Garfield played in the Philadelphia Orchestra, aged 76

The last reeds Bernard Garfield played in the Philadelphia Orchestra, aged 76

What makes Mr. Garfield great is the fact that he has spent his life in pursuit of an ideal, and that he has given everything of himself in that pursuit. As Joyce DiDonato insightfully acknowledged in her remarkable 2014 Juilliard commencement address (embedded below), there’s no “there” there. We never stop growing; we never stop wanting to improve, because none of us are ever as good as the music deserves.

It had finally landed in me that the only perfection that can be attained in music is a lifetime spent in pursuit of perfection. I finally saw, tangibly, that greatness isn’t dependent on flawlessness. In its most important sense, greatness isn’t defined by one performance; it’s built, one performance at a time, and is supported by the work that’s done in between. It exists in its most relevant iteration in the overarching view of a lifetime of effort: Mr. Garfield kept doing the work until he decided it was time to pass the baton. In so doing, he achieved greatness.

In Defense of Insecurity

I’ve written previously about having taken slow, methodical practice too farabout having placed so little confidence in my own abilities that I refused to believe that I could play anything without exhaustive (and exhausting) preparation. At the time, I didn’t acknowledge how the underlying cause of that can actually be useful. Yes, that gnawing insecurity, that feeling that we’re not talented enough, not dedicated enough, not good enough, can actually lead somewhere positive. The fact is, we’re all insecure. It’s just the nature of being a musicianwe’ve all failed so many times, whether to live up to our own expectations or to others’, that it’s only natural. But there is one essential way in which that can actually be helpful.

I think I’m lazy. Intellectually, I know I’m not, but that creeping doubt in my own work ethic is an element of what drives me to work harder. It all boils back to a productive use of insecurity. Of course, the first and most important reason to continue working is love of the art form. Following that to its next logical step, when we love something deeply, we want to do it wellespecially when it happens to involve performing in front of thousands of people. Let’s be frank: The fear of public humiliation, ever-present in the performing arts, is a terrific motivating factor. In its best iteration, it drives us to prepare more than necessary, to be better than the demands placed before us. And that’s a very, very useful thing in our line of workprovided that we don’t become so overwhelmed that we freeze or lose all confidence in our own abilities. It’s a subtle balancing act, requiring that we carefully monitor our mental state and only allow ourselves to give credence to those fears that can be funneled into a productive mindset.

It’s worth noting that this applies differently at different stages of one’s musical development. At a certain, quite advanced point, you’re not going to get a whole lot further through brute force. At that point, the way to continue improving becomes less about the number of hours spent in the practice room, and more about how thoughtfully those hours are applied and how you seek to expand your musical horizons. At this latter stage, insecurity becomes more and more of a crutchalthough it’s never entirely gone, and I think that’s ultimately a good thing. But particularly in the early stages of one’s musical life, especially as a student, insecurity that drives us to work harder (albeit still in a thoughtful way) is indispensable.

There are a great many ways in which insecurity can be destructive: if it makes us treat others poorly, if it becomes so overwhelming that we can’t get productive work done, or if it manifests in excessive mental or physical tension. But if you use it to ensure that you continue working, with the feeling that it’s never enough? I know how unpleasant that feeling isbelieve me. But you’re probably on the right path.

"I just kept doing the work."

I'm immensely grateful to Ben Kamins for generously sharing his unusually candid insights into teaching, his experiences working through difficult periods in his career, and how he strives for continued growth as a musician. Embedded throughout are videos relating to some of his greatest musical influences.

What are your goals as a teacher?

I believe that we teach ourselves. A great teacher is one who sets the stage, who creates the atmosphere in which students can teach themselves. That’s what I try to doto create the opportunity for students to make their own discoveries, because then they’ll really learn. There’s a quote from Galileo that I really like: “You can’t teach anybody anything, only make them realize the answers are already inside them.”

“My father was not a musician, but was a great, great music lover and a very discerning listener. He was the one who exposed me to Artur Schnabel and the old Budapest String Quartet. He was deeply steeped in the old Austrian traditions.”

My goal is to create an environment in which, when a student inevitably makes a mistake, they don’t beat themselves up. I want them to look at it and say, “Oh, that was interesting.” If your automatic response is, “I’m a jerk for having done that,” then you’re attacking yourself as a person. You won’t be able to learn from that mistake.

Beyond that, each student requires something different. My goal is to teach the importance of being prepared and of hard work. I use a structured curriculum of fundamentals, études, repertoire, and reed-making to teach a very usable system of practicing and working. That way, students can make the discoveries that they need to make. These are the tools that students need to continue their long-term musical and “bassoonistic" growth.

For me, what is most gratifying is when a student comes back after a few years, and they’ve really improvedthat’s when I really feel good. I’ve been doing this for long enough to know that when a student graduates, it’s just the beginning.

How do you define success in music? How has that definition changed over the course of your career?

“[My teacher, Norman] Herzberg played in the National Orchestral Association, which was sort of the New World Symphony of its time, under Léon Barzin. Feuermann basically played the complete cello repertoire with them, and Norman was really influenced by the honesty and directness of his phrasing.”

I think that satisfaction comes from within. For much of my life It was a tremendous frustration that I didn’t get a job, say, being principal of one of the “Big Five” orchestras. I viewed myself as unsuccessful. Eventually, with a lot of difficult personal work, I was able let go of that and focus on developing myself and my musicianship on my own terms.

I learned that if I wanted to stop judging others, I had to stop judging myself. Now, that might sound strange coming from a person who teaches, but there’s a big difference between being judgmental and being discerning. I try to be nonjudgmental, but extremely discerning. We’re talking about separating the subjective from the objective. Certainly everybody isn’t a jerk because they screw up. It’s just the human condition.

What has been a challenging period in your musical life? How did you get through it?

A time when I was in a terrible reed slump immediately comes to mind. I called Mr. Herzberg in tears from a Holiday Inn in Salina, Kansas, and I had to play Tchaikovsky 5 that night, and I couldn’t get the first attacks to come out. So I said to Mr. Herzberg, “I can’t make a reed!” He said, “What do you mean, you can’t make a reed? Are you doing your long tones?” I stretched the truth and said, “…not as much as I should...”

Christoph Eschenbach would really pull the music out of proportion. He found the music’s natural shape by taking it to extremes, then allowing it to come back; instead of trying to inch toward it, he would go past it.”

He saw that I needed to go back to what I knew to be trueto discern what was actual knowledge and what were assumptions. I was making assumptions, and they worked for a while, but eventually they fell apart like a house of cards. That’s how I ended up in that situation. To get out of it, I had to use objectivity to strip the extraneous away until I could see what was really going on. Great truths reveal themselves through simple exercises. In this case, that meant something as simple as testing whether a note will consistently respond, and be in tune, at a variety of dynamics.

That moment was an epiphany in my own playing, and it set me on the course to the way that I teach now. It’s not that I didn’t know that stuff, but that experience really ingrained in me that true simplicity is the only way that complexity will present itself. We always have to go back to the work.

How do you continue to strive for musical growth?

“[Eschenbach] would work on one passage to an exacting degree, sometimes giving short shrift to other whole movements. By doing that, though, he established an extraordinarily high level, and that permeated the expectation throughout.”

I try to remain curious. I keep looking for new things: I studied the Alexander Technique and eventually took the training to become a teacher. This has changed my life in many ways, but specifically, as a musician, it has really helped me stay in the moment when I perform. I bought a Heckelphone when most people my age would have been buying a Corvette. I started playing the baroque bassoon, and at some point, I became interested in playing French baroque music, which is something completely different from the styles we usually play. I stay around young people who are making these discoveries for the first time. That keeps you going, I’ll tell you!

Janet[, my wife,] and I bought a harpsichord and a couple of decent recordersplaying the recorder was a childhood hobby of mine. When I play the bassoon, I worry so much about the minutiae, about excellence, that I can lose touch with the simple pleasure of playing for the fun of it. On the recorder, I’m not tied to how well I do; none of my sense of self worth depends on it. I’m just reconnecting with my love of music. When we sit down, reading through baroque sonatas, and I fumble somethingwho cares? We’re just having a good time! And I think that’s rare, but important in our profession.

Why do you think you’ve been successful? What has set you apart?

As bassoonists, virtually all of the music we play is with other people. If you’re playing with really great people, or if you’re playing with a conductor, like Eschenbach, who makes tremendous demands upon you, you have a choice: Either you figure out how to do it, or you don’tand face the consequences. Either way, you have to come face to face with the difficulty of doing what’s asked of you. I had to figure out how to do the things that people asked me, implicitly or explicitly, to do.

Really, I just kept doing the work. I’m not alone in thatI mean, look at Mr. Garfield! Up until the day he retired, he was fantastic. I just spent a week with Chris Millard, who sounds great, because he’s still fascinated by the process and he’s still doing the work. That was the thing that most impressed me. We’re both in there fighting the good fight!

Let it Sound Bad

I’ve noticed something when I work with students: I often sound worse than they do when I play on their reeds. Is it because I’m not used to playing on them? To a certain extent, maybe, but I can usually adjust pretty well after playing a few notes. Is it because our instruments are that different? Not usually. No, the primary reason is that I’m willing to let the reed sound bad when I’m sitting at the reed desk.

To be clear, I never, under any circumstances, try to sound bad. But when I’m working on a reed, I want to find its limitations, and that requires the willingness to go beyond them. Very often, people place relatively few demands on their reeds when working on them: Does it have a palatable sound? Sure. Does it play basically in tune at a mezzo-something dynamic? More or less. (Is the tuner on? Not always…)*

I’m certainly not discounting the importance of those qualities, but the fact is, most reeds can be made to meet those criteria. Here’s what I want to know: Does a reed respond at the extreme soft end of the dynamic range? Does the tenor register tend to be flat? Does the sound spread at the loud end of the dynamic range? Can it taper a note in tune?

To be fair, we can usually force an OK reed to do these things to some degree. But that’s not good enough. The reed has to meet us halfway, to play well enough that we don’t have to sweat through every moderately-uncomfortable entrance. When we’re in the clutches of performance anxiety and we might crash and burn, we often don’t have the physical or mental capacity to coax a so-so reed into doing a better than so-so job.

So, if a reed wants to stop responding, I let it stop responding. If it wants to play sharp, I let it play sharp. (This, incidentally, is very difficult to do, since we’re so conditioned to make the needle on the tuner go dead center.) Then, having ascertained the reed’s shortcomings, I work on it until either it improves or I conclude that I want that reed out of my life.

In spite of all this, the perfect reed remains elusive (or, more likely, illusive). No reed will easily do everything we want it to do. Every reed has limitations. Therefore, on a day-to-day basis, we choose the reed that is best-suited to the specific demands of what we're playing. Having done that, it becomes our duty to play right up to its limits, but no further, when we’re playing with and for others. Put another way, when others are depending on us to play well, we have the help the reed sound good by hiding its limitations.

To do this, we must cultivate not just the ability to assess what a reed will do on a particular day, but the experience and presence of mind to adjust our playing accordingly. Ideally, in the sometimes-terrifying moments littered throughout the repertoire, there must be an overlap between what we can do to help the reed and what the reed can do to help us. We have to be able to trust in both our practice and in our unrelentingly honest work at the reed desk to help carry us through.

*I always turn my tuner on before I start working on a reed. Sometimes I’ll like the way a reed feels and would rather stay ignorant than find out that it plays out of tune. We have to know if a reed is objectively out of tune, and if it is, we have to address it. It’s a small mind game that I play with myself, but an important one.

Tear Down the Pedestal

Hero: an individual of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his/her brave deeds and noble qualities…a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity.

We all have musical heroesthose people who, through performances or teaching or recordings or word of mouth, come to embody the musician we want to be. We wish we could have their sound, their style, their phrasing, their virtuosity. They show us what is possible on our instruments; they establish the careers we want to have, the schools we want to attend, and the musicians with whom we want to associate.

This is all well and good; indeed, in the Internet age, the amount that can be learned from our increasingly rich and accessible community is quickly becoming indispensable. However, this admiration can become destructive when we start to think our heroes are infallible.

The moment we begin to believe in absolutesthat there are some people who never make a mistake, who have always been as accomplished as they are nowwe are inevitably led to the conclusion that we will never be as good as they are. After all, we make mistakes, don’t we? Sometimes we have bad nights; we lose auditions; we don’t have it all figured out. By that logic, then, we'll never make it to our heroes’ exalted level.

This thought, the embodiment of defeatism, is perhaps the greatest mental barrier we can put in front of ourselves. After all, if we have no chance of success, why should we try? Why would we devote our lives to an art form that is often so frustrating, so unpredictable, without at least a glimmer of hope that we can be among the best? The pedestal on which we place our heroes can turn into a nearly-insurmountable source of discouragement.

I’m a big proponent of tearing down that pedestal. These heroesthese human beingsare worthy of every ounce of respect that is given to them. Anyone who spends a lifetime in pursuit of an ideal is worthy of respect. But we have to understand them as human beings who have achieved an incredible amount through talent, luck, and, most of all, hard work. They are not musical demigods who emerged from the womb perfect, fully-formed artists.

A brief illustration of this: Everyone agrees, the most prominent positions in the musical world are very stressful. Now, when musicians stress about their jobs, that means that they’re aware of their ability to play badly. Even if we can’t imagine it, they knowinevitably through experience in the practice room and in prior performancesthat something can go wrong. Their job then becomes one of preparationnot one of coasting on the greatness that they’ve long since achieved.

Ultimately, understanding our idols in this light both makes them more accessible and more worthy of respect. After all, if someone could attain greatness without hard work, would that really be worthy of admiration? Envy, perhaps, but I tend to admire those who worked for their success, as all musicians have to.

Regard your musical heroes as what they are: People who have added to their innate talent by working tremendously hard, and by enduring far more disappointments than triumphs. We must learn everything we can from what our heroes do well, and when we fall short, we have to remember, they did, too, probably more times than they care to admit. But they never stopped working toward their ideals, and that’s what makes them heroic.

Replenishing

I’ve previously mentioned my fondness for taking breaks after busy periods of preparation and performance. In day-to-day practicing and reed-making, hard work must be balanced with equally “intense” relaxation. This is also true on a larger scale, and given that I played my last notes for some time just a few days ago, this seems like a good time to discuss the benefits of putting the instrument away for extended periods.

I love taking time off. I just think it’s healthy, not only physically, but mentally. As hard as I try to make it otherwise, my day-to-day musical successes and failures inevitably come to define how I perceive myself over time. I find myself measuring my self-worth by my musical progress, which is fundamentally nonlinear, inconsistent, and subjective.

By contrast, when I allow myself time away from the instrument, I am reminded what it’s like to be a “real person.” I relearn that the instrument does not define who I amthat I’m a person separate from the trials and tribulations of making music. And when I eventually return to the instrument, after a brief period of awkward reacquaintance, I find that tension that gradually built up over time has dissipated and my passion for making music has been replenished.

After all, who doesn’t treasure the rare occasion in which we can fly without taking our instrument along? Who doesn’t enjoy taking a night (or a week) to actually socialize, particularly with (perish the thought) non-musicians? Who doesn’t feel a palpable sense of relief when we release ourselves from the grip of practice guilt?

Of course, everyone is different. For a lot of people, “taking time off” means practicing a little bit every day. Perhaps you like to only play every other day. Different instruments have different physical demands, which affects the amount of time those respective instrumentalists can comfortably take off without losing significant ground. Regardless of the specific form a break takes, I do feel strongly that taking time to relax and replenish is vital to one’s mental and musical health.

I’m very much looking forward to my bassoon’s reemergence when I’m refreshed and ready to tackle the challenges of the rest of the summer and the season to come. But for now, I’m delighted to bid it farewell.

(I’ll keep blogging, though.)

Blogging in Fertile Ground

A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Senza Sordino. It is reprinted here with permission.

We can all agree: Classical music is at a crossroads. Much of the rhetoric swirling about our period of change is negative. (According to blogger Andy Doe, we are now nearing the end of the eighth consecutive century of panicked cries of “Classical music is dying!”) Little of the discussion, however, has focused on an exciting new possibilitythe use of the Internet to increase our reach and amplify our collective voice.

My visionary colleague, percussionist Rob Knopper, embarked on a mission some 18 months ago to improve the MET Orchestra’s web presence. Using Squarespace, he designed a comprehensive, professional website with a minimal budget. Dedicated to giving our orchestra the representation that we lack on the Metropolitan Opera’s website, he recognized that, if we wanted to make our website a destination, rather than just an occasional resource, it had to have interesting, continuously updated content.

This is where a few more of us came in, including violinist Sarah Vonsattel, timpanist Jason Haaheim, librarian Jennifer Johnson, and myself. We were, and remain, eager to use this opportunity to reach a virtually limitless population of current and potential fans. By simply posting a link to our latest article, video, or infographic, we can reach tens of thousands of peoplewithout spending a penny on advertising. Moreover, we organically target a more engaged audience than traditional media outlets, such as newspapers and television. People who like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter, and their friends, and their friends’ friends, want to hear what we have to say. “Old media” outlets, whose subscribers and viewers don’t necessarily have a vested interest in classical music, can make no such guarantee. In a very real sense, we are using personal connections to reach those who are most interested in us.

This kind of viral reach is unlike anything that has been presented to the musical community before. And it is as indispensable as it is unprecedented. For the first time, we can show, in as much detail as we please, what the daily experience of being a musician is like. We can empirically demonstrate that ours is not a 20-hour workweek, that we are relatable people, and that classical music, an authentic experience in an increasingly inauthentic world, is more relevant than ever.

Our features have included an infographic about reed-making; a series, inspired by the wildly successful Facebook page “Humans of New York,” entitled “Humans of the Met”; and the remarkable story of a man whose harrowing experience in a blizzard atop Mount Rainier led him on a pilgrimage to a Met performance of Così fan tutte.

These examples embody the goals of our website content:

  • Humanize musicians.
  • Help the public understand the daily experience of our jobs.
  • Interact with fans in ways the traditional concert experience largely prevents.

Content has been mostly created in-house, with a tremendous amount of work coming from, among others, violist Mary Hammann and her husband, documentarian Richard Kaplan; cellists James Kreger and Kari Docter; percussionist Greg Zuber; violist Katherine Anderson; trumpet player David Krauss; violinist Yoon Kwon; associate musicians, retirees, and many more. An orchestra is a treasure trove of great stories and storytellers.

When a musician has an idea, it is tentatively scheduled in one of our weekly slots. (We try to keep a “buffer” of several backup posts, since life can intervene, preventing projects from being completed on time.) Before it is formatted for the website, it goes through one of several editors for finishing touches. These editors are also responsible for posting that content to the website and advertising it on our Facebook page and Twitter feed. Posting takes no more than five minutes and complements our social media presence, ably led by oboist Susan Spector and violinist Miran Kim.

Much of our most successful content has been that which delves deepest beneath the surface: the nature of being a music librarian, the experience of an audition, or the thoughts that are going through one’s mind in a performance. This is what people want to learn about, because it is so often foreign to their own experience.

When negotiations turn sour, the Internet is the most powerful tool we have ever been presented in the battle for public opinion. In a stable work environment, it is yet another way to connect people to classical music. The most exciting part? This is just the beginning. The MET Orchestra Musicians’ web presence (and that of enterprising musicians and orchestras around the country) is only the first step in revolutionizing how musicians relate to the larger public.

7 Tips for Flying with an Instrument

The following are guidelines I’ve found to make traveling with an instrument easier and a bit more pleasant. (Disclaimer: These tips are for flying within the US with instruments that fit in overhead bins. I have no experience flying with larger instruments.)

1. Book a seat close to the back of the plane. Most airlines board from the back of the plane, so this will help the ensure that there will be room in the overhead bins for your instrument.

2. Print out the final ruling of the Department of Transportation and carry it in your case. I have highlighted the relevant sections in the linked file. Note that it requires airlines to allow you to carry on a musical instrument only if there is room for it onboard. This makes boarding early very important.

3. If possible, make your instrument your only carry-on. This will simplify your travel and make any request you make for “special” treatment even more reasonable. If this isn’t possible, make sure that your second carry-on is smaller than your instrument. It will have to fit beneath the seat in front of you, since only one of your bags is allowed in the overhead bin.

4. To further ensure that you’ll be able to find room in the overhead bins, pay for early boarding. If this isn’t possible, approach the gate agent and ask if there is usually overhead bin space by the time your row or boarding group boards. If they say yes, believe them. If they say no, politely explain that you are traveling with a valuable, fragile musical instrument and ask if it might be possible for you to board early.

5. Try to board near the front of your group.

6. Always be courteous to airline employees. If there is no more room in the overhead bin space, politely explain that you are traveling with a valuable, fragile musical instrument and ask if there’s a space onboard (such as a closet where the flight attendants store their belongings) where you could put your instrument. If that fails, ask other passengers if anyone would be willing to check their bag that is in the overhead bin. As a last resort, I sooner walk off a plane than gate check my instrument.

7. If possible, stow your instrument in an overhead bin directly across the aisle from your seat. This way, you can keep an eye on it and make sure other passengers don’t try to move (or remove) it.

Additional information to carry with you, especially when traveling internationally:

  • Proof that you own your instrument and purchased it in your home country
  • A CITES passport if your instrument contains protected materials, such as elephant ivory (useful guide here)

The Department of Transportation has also provided these travel tips.

The Stratosphere

High E-Flat, E, and F occupy an intimidating place in the bassoon range. I think this can be helped with some slightly off-the-beaten-path fingerings. Note that, like all extreme register fingerings, these don’t work equally well on every instrument. However, I’ve seen enough success with them, on enough different equipment, that I think they’re worth sharing.

Worth Keeping in Mind

  • Stiffer reeds work better in this register.
  • Keep your embouchure very close to the first wire, with very little overbite.
  • The vowel sound in your throat should be very closed (an “E” rather than an “O”).
  • These fingerings don’t respond well to heavy articulationair attacks are generally best.
  • Your air stream requires a bit of finesse in this registeryou can’t overblow.
This fingering is relatively easy to attack and can be reliably slurred to from the E-Flat fingering above.

This fingering is relatively easy to attack and can be reliably slurred to from the E-Flat fingering above.

To slur to an F, simply add the A key in the left thumb. The stiffer your reed, the more you can depress the key; with a reed that’s borderline, it’s best to barely depress the key. It cannot be articulated.

To slur to an F, simply add the A key in the left thumb. The stiffer your reed, the more you can depress the key; with a reed that’s borderline, it’s best to barely depress the key. It cannot be articulated.

Thanks to Bernard Garfield for these fingerings and to Bret Pimentel for his fantastic fingering diagram builder.

Going on Autopilot

“Going on autopilot” doesn’t sound good. It sounds mechanical, unfeeling, antithetical to bringing an audience on an emotional journey. To truly affect someone, you have to be, well, conscious, right? In most cases, sure. But sometimes, things get scarymoments at the extremes of dynamics and range, moments of unusual technical and expressive demands. At those times, when your mind is distracted by sheer terror, the ability to let your training take over is indispensable.

Let me clarify what I mean. By autopilot, I mean ingraining your technical and musical mission (to co-opt a phrase from Daniel Matsukawa) so firmly that, no matter what else is going on in your mind, your body knows what to do. Most of us experience performance anxiety at least some of the time, whether it be in an audition or a high-pressure performance. Of the variety of ways to deal with that, and without judgment of any of them, I’ve found this to be the strategy from which I learn the most. By confronting my nerves head-on and finding practice strategies that enable me to (hopefully) play well in spite of them, I learn about myself and am able to put that knowledge to use in future high-stress situations.

What does this mean in practical terms? Practice a piece in the wrong key. Run around the room, then play before you’ve had a chance to catch your breath. Play an excerpt well five times in a row, consciously noticing the tension that creeps in as you get closer to your goal. All of these make your life more difficult in the practice room, so that playing under normal circumstances becomes easier. We don’t want to only be able to play a passage well when we’re at our absolute bestcomfortable, warmed-up, playing in the privacy of the practice room. We want our preparation to extend beyond the reasonable expectation of what we’ll have to dowe have to be better than the demands placed on us, because only then can we expect to play well in difficult situations.

This extends equally to one’s musical purpose. Making music is not an intellectual exercise, but many aspects of one’s musical goals can be quantified, and we can train ourselves to replicate them under pressure. A fantastic quote by Marcel Tabuteau appears in the liner notes to David McGill’s seminal orchestral excerpts CD: "If you think beautifully, you play beautiful [sic]. I believe to play as you think more than to play as you feel because how about the day you are not feeling so well?" It is precisely those days that we’re talking about. Mr. Tabuteau is referring to the ability to make music under any circumstances.

Gradually, we learn what strategies give us the ability to function on autopilot when necessary. We grow in our confidence that our preparation is sufficientfocused, intense practice that has done as much as possible to maximize the odds that we’ll play well, even if we’re a roiling mass of fear on the inside. Ultimately, the audience doesn’t care what is or isn’t difficult. That’s our problem, and it’s our responsibility to take the steps necessary to provide the insurance that, when the chips are down, we can still depend on our preparation to carry us through.

Release

“Don’t think of the moment when you throw away a reed as a point of failure. Think of it as a point of release, because that reed is out of your life forever.”

As discussed before, having had a fatalistic attitude toward making reeds, I would go for unconscionably long stretches without making any. Half of the solution was committing myself to a regular schedule of reed-makingthe pipeline. The other half was an attitude shift.

The above is advice Ben Kamins gave to me during one of my summers at the Music Academy of the West. Over time, it has revolutionized my concept of success and failure in reed-making. I no longer measure success by the number of reeds that pan out. My feeling of competence has nothing to do with whether or not any particular piece of cane turns into a usable reed. Moreover, if I’m making reeds regularly, I’m rarely so desperate as to be wholly dependent on the outcome of a single day’s work.

Instead, I derive the most satisfaction from clarifying where I stand. Sure, confirming that I have some good pieces of cane is great, but so is weeding out those pieces of cane that will never, ever pan out. We’ve all had the experience of hacking away at reeds that simply won’t change. While the time spent on those can easily become frustrating, I'd rather find comfort in throwing them in the trash. (Incidentally, that’s the eventual fate of all of my reeds, except for the few on which I won jobs, which I keep for sentimental reasons.) I love knowing, at the end of the day, that I’ve narrowed the field to only my best prospects.

Even in “dry spells,” this attitude, coupled with my annual reed experiment, gives me the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve collected data and reconfirmed a standard for what’s acceptable and what isn’t. There's a certain comfort in ruthlessly adhering to that standard.

First, Do Harm

When I first started playing at the Met, I employed a strategy that we’ll call the Hippocratic Style of Playing: “First, do no harm.” We’re all familiar with the temptation: Keep to the background, play your part, don’t step on anyone’s toes (musically speaking), and hopefully you’ll emerge unscathed at the end. The problem is, when fear of being heard governs your approach, you’re unlikely to contribute to the greater musical product. It doesn’t allow you to listen to your own resonance; it engenders a distrust of your own sense of rhythm and pitch; it gives your colleagues nothing to play off of. Such an inoffensive approach, while unlikely to offend, will assuredly not inspire.

As musicians, we have to be assertive in our playing. To a certain extent, this requires that we abandon our dependence on external validationon our colleagues’ approval of every last musical decision we make. We need to care just a little less what other people think. It’s our job to come into the orchestra with a strong opinion and present it, unselfconsciously, without worrying about the fact (and it is a fact) that there are people around us who would play it differently.

So, after much hemming and hawing, I played out. I assumed that other people wanted to hear my ideasand suddenly there was a quality that hadn’t been there before. There was a hum, a preponderance of overtones, an energy to the whole wind sound that hadn’t been there when I had been so focused on not screwing anything up.

Ultimately, I had to lessen my concern about “doing harm.” I didn’t lower my standardsin fact, by refusing to let my insecurity take hold, my intonation, my rhythm, my ensemble skills all improved. I was giving my colleagues something to react to, and I was listening to myself more. My respect for my colleagues has been an absolute constant throughout my time at the Met (really, throughout my time as a musician), and I still care deeply what they think; it just took me a while to consider myself one of them, to assert myself as an equal.

"It's Not a Trophy!"

My friend and mentor, Daniel Matsukawa, graciously agreed to take part in the first of what I hope will become a series of interviews with prominent and respected bassoonists. Embedded throughout are videos of some artists and recordings he describes as among the most influential to his musicianship.

How do you define success in music?

It’s not a trophy! Getting to do what we love is such a privilege. I want to be the best I can be, in service of the music, because that’s what we’re here to doto serve music and to move people. Here’s what I think: If you practice all the time and master your instrument, call yourself a great instrumentalist. If you learn how to phrase, the grammatical structure of music, harmony, and all that, call yourself a musician. But when that person in the audience gets goosebumps, only then can you call yourself an artist. That’s the goalthat’s success.

Why do you think you’ve been successful? What set you apart?

“I love Fritz KreislerI love the old style. Everything was just so lyrical.”

I pay a lot of attention to making sure that what I feel really comes acrosssure, I think about phrasing and I think about what I’m trying to convey, but I never want it to sound executed. There’s that old film director phrase, “OK, once more, with feeling!” I sometimes wonder if we’ve lost that part of the equation. In our rush to play everything perfectly, sometimes we forget that music is a reflection of life. If we just lock ourselves up in a practice room, we’re only going to know those four walls.

I often tell students in master classes, don’t deprive yourself of the things you love. Practice, absolutely, but also go to museums, go to the movies. We can’t just be practice machines, because that’s all we’ll sound like. I encourage people who are preparing for auditionsdon’t just try to win the job. Give a great mini-performance for a mini-audience. I’ve always tried to stay on a musical mission, and perhaps that’s what’s helped me. I want to make art in a human way.

“Fischer-Dieskau’s Winterreise is way, way up there in terms of desert island discs.”

How do you strive for continued musical growth?

I think we are all students for life. I know I definitely am. There’s always more to learnwe are constantly growing and changing. One lifetime isn’t enough to hear or perform all the music ever written, just like it isn’t enough time to read every book we’d like to!

I try not to ever take anything for granted; we can never go on autopilot. I never think, “I’ve made it.” There’s always more to discover, even in pieces you’ve played over and over. Listening to [Principal Oboist Richard] Woodhams, there are times when he’ll play something, and I don’t think it could be any better. Then we’ll play the same piece the next season, and he’ll play it completely differentlyhe is constantly striving to keep getting better and better.

I also think, as performers, we always have to know where our weaknesses are, and we have to realize that they won’t just resolve themselves. We have to know how to work on them. It’s tough to look in the mirror and acknowledge what your weaknesses are; we don’t need to be brutal with ourselves, but we can at least be honest.

Teaching is indispensable. I always try to “walk the walk”to do what I tell my students to do, to practice what I preach. They give me such energy, such inspiration, and that carries over when I walk onstage.

What are your goals as a teacher?

“Singing is the most natural way to make music and make phrases. It’s really music to my heart, even more than just to my ears.”

I want to help my students be better self-evaluators. I’m happy to help them and guide them, but I really want to help students teach themselves, to help them to be resourceful. They can’t just rely on teachers or conductors for answers; I try to provide those tools, rather than just teaching how to do this or that.

I’ll often point at the instrument and say, “Look. This is only half of the equation. You’re the other half, and you have to cultivate yourself as a musician.” I want to teach great musicians who happen to play the bassoon; not great bassoonists who happen to play music. To that end, I think my role is a lot like a conductor’s roleto inspire. As a teacher, that’s my goal.

You’ve said before that you learned the most in your first year at Curtis and in your first job, playing in the Memphis Symphony. Can you elaborate on that?

I think that had to do with a change of sceneryI grew up in New York, and when I went to Philadelphia it was a big change in terms of personal responsibility. Musically, I was surrounded by such great musiciansit was inspiring, and it forced me to ask myself what I needed to do to rise to the occasion and to bring my own music-making up to the level of what was around me.

When I went to Memphis, it was just a continuation of the same musical journey. I had to look at myself and decide, “OK, what do I need to work on?” I didn’t have anyone to tell me what to do. I recorded myself; I played chamber music with friends and colleagues. I never thought, “I never have to work on etudes ever again!” I think that’s a dangerous thing, because we should always be expanding our musical “vocabulary” and learning how to use it in the most expressive way.

How has music affected your life outside of music?

It’s helped me through some difficult periods; it’s given me an emotional outlet. One of my greatest musical experiences was right after 9/11, when we were on an American tour playing Beethoven 3. The audience…I’ve never felt anything like it. People came to the concert to escape the realities of how horrific events in our lives can be; I could feel the tears in the audience, and I’ll never forget that.

On Consistency

My favorite thing about writing is that it’s permanent. I write, I refine, and when I’m satisfied with what I’ve written, I post it. From that point on, it is unchangingwhatever level I attained will remain perpetually unchanged. Not so with music. Music requires continual reinvention, constant proving of oneself. The old axiom, “A musician is only as good as his [or her] last performance” is devastatingly true. So our primary goal, in every aspect of our performance, is consistency.

By consistency I don’t mean playing exactly the same, night after night. In a way, consistency is simply the groundwork for the ability to embrace the constantly-shifting nature of making live music. As I asked in my last post, why do we spend so much time on scales and long tones and etudes, on self-reflection and reed-making, on internalizing the language of music? To enable our deeper musical abilities. The sensitivity to adapt is facilitated by the confidence that comes from a firm foundation.

This goal defines what it means to be professional: the ability to make music at a high level, night after night. In our pursuit to consistently attain this level, I believe the majority of our work is not aimed at improving our best performances. Although they do undeniably improve over time, most of our day-to-day work is focused on improving our base level (or, more negatively, our worst) performances. From technical woodshedding to quantifying and recreating musical inspiration, our goal, through all the sweat and tears (and, if you make reeds, occasional blood), is to improve our worst days to the point that they are indistinguishable from our best daysperfect consistency. Ultimately impossible? Yes, but it’s sure to keep us occupied.

Why Fundamentals?

Fundamentalsscales, long tones, and the likeare boring. OK, I don’t actually believe that, but it’s a pretty widely-held opinion. So why do we do them? Moreover, in a time when we often hear that today’s young musicians “can play the instrument better than ever, but just aren’t musical,” what’s the benefit to focusing on things that are, by nature, basically inexpressive?

In short, it’s all about the music. Ben Kamins is fond of pointing out that we don’t work toward perfect evenness in scales and etudes, obsessively poring over every tiny inconsistency, because that’s how we make music. We do it so that when we’re playing Tchaikovsky or Mozart or Verdi, it is not technical demands, but expressive goals that dictate our musical choices.

So we’re (hopefully) agreed that they’re important, but how can we keep fundamentals interesting? I think it boils down to a specific mindset: Fundamentals provide a tremendous opportunity for self-discovery.

Case in point: Recently, I decided that I needed to practice more long tones. I have never been particularly conscientious when it comes to long tones, because I’ve always found them to be discouragingly difficult. So, much like my longtime approach to reed-making, I just wouldn’t do them.

So here’s what I decided to do: I practiced them for five minutes. That’s it. Every day, I would add or subtract a minute, but I carefully kept my self-imposed time limit so reasonable that I had no reason not to do it. I knew that I wouldn’t attain “perfection,” but by putting in a consistent, measurable amount of work on a daily basis, I arrived at a satisfying substitute. The experience became about seeing how much I could learn in a finite amount of time. It became a journey of discovery, rather than perfectionand that is why we practice fundamentals.