"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 do—to 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 goal—that’s success.
Why do you think you’ve been successful? What set you apart?
I pay a lot of attention to making sure that what I feel really comes across—sure, 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 auditions—don’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.
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 learn—we 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 differently—he 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?
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 role—to 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 scenery—I 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 musicians—it 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.