"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 do—to 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 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 improved—that’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?
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...”
He saw that I needed to go back to what I knew to be true—to 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?
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 recorders—playing 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 something—who 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’t—and 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 that—I 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!