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 InterlochenLake 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.

Magic Number 17

Since this is a boring (but important) topic, I’ll try to make this as concise as possible. Last season, I tracked the hardness of all 441 reeds I clipped.

The readings ranged from 8 (hardest) to 23 (softest). (Note that the higher the number, the softer the cane.) The results were simple: I had no success with any piece of cane that read 17 or higher. On the other hand, even the hardest pieces of cane occasionally worked.

Every hardness tester is differentthe same piece of cane will yield different readings on different machines. However, I have noticed that the range from high to low numbers (15, or 23 minus 8) stays remarkably consistent from machine to machine, and the relative “point of no return” (about nine above the low, or “hardest,” number) also stays relatively consistent.

In other words, your machine might measure readings from 14 to 29 (which has a range of 15), in which case the point of no return would be 23. Each machine has to be tested, but they all seem to roughly fall into the “framework” outlined above.

There we goas painless as I could make it. The experiment was absolutely worthwhile, since now I can throw away around 20% of my cane after testing.

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments—I intentionally simplified both the experiment and the results for readability.

My Intonation Revelation

Intonation is a never-ending project. It’s extremely simple, incredibly subtle, and (I anticipate) takes more than one career to really, truly master. I stumbled across a revelation of sorts rather later in my first season than I’d like to admit. To appreciate how radical it was at the time, and how obvious in retrospect, it’s important to first understand where I was coming from.

I learned the adjustment “rules” for just intonation (outlined below) pretty early on. These quickly came to completely define my approach to playing in tune with others. For example, here’s how I would conceptualize the opening of the second movement of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto (which we happen to be playing later this season):

Now, this is important information, and I certainly keep it in mind at all times, but when you add in the vagaries of the other people you’re playing with? A bad reed? A personal tendency on a given note? An instrumental tendency on a given note? It can very quickly turn into a big mess. So what’s the solution?

I have found that it’s absolutely necessary to keep the objective “rules” outlined above in mind, within the context of where you hear the note you’re about to play. In retrospect, this is self-evidenta necessity, even, particularly for brass playersbut it was a novel concept to me.

When I finally figured it out, we were performing Un Ballo in Maschera, and my frustration with my own pitch was building and building, until I finally decided to listen to my own resonance. I stopped trying to figure out where my colleagues (who play remarkably in tune under circumstances that are often challenging) would play. In a profession where very little progress happens suddenly, it was shocking to me how instantaneous the transformation was. So many of my intonation problems just…vanished. Now, as I said, work on intonation never endsI’m not trying to claim that I immediately developed faultless intonation. But by changing my mindset, I suddenly jumped that much closer.

Of course, this is a minefield of a topic. I don’t want to understate the importance of knowing how to adjust based on one’s harmonic function. Both aspects, the intellectual and the auditory, are essential. “But I sound good to myself!” is not a valid response when you need to adjust. My point is, playing in tune must be done in by understanding one’s harmonic role in conjunction with some commonsense listening, not just to others, but to oneself.

Reader Questions: Avoiding Burnout

I'd love to hear your thoughts about maintaining an emotional connection with the music during the preparation process and wanting to play music at all by the end—keeping any musical freshness, really.

We’ve all experienced post-audition burnout. Auditions are such an intense (and frankly, unnatural) situation, for which we prepare so exhaustively, that by the end, it’s hard not to burn ourselves out. And to a certain extent, I think it can be healthy to take a break afterward. I love the beginning of the summer, when the bassoon goes into the closet for a couple of weeks.

The problem comes when the burnout lingers for an unhealthy amount of time, as mine did after my way-overdone college audition preparation. I think that the key to maintaining enthusiasm is carefully pacing your preparation so that you peak at the audition. If you arrive at your pinnacle too early, you actually stop improving, which isn’t just boringit kills confidence. When you reach this point, the only way to play better is to be better at your instrument, which is the kind of long-term improvement that takes more time (and variety of repertoire and experience) than any audition or performance can provide.

When I was preparing for symphonic auditions, I liked to have three weeks of intense preparation. For the Met, it was closer to six weeks, because so much of the music was unfamiliar. I’m fully aware that this is a lot less time than many (perhaps even most) people like to have before an audition, but it worked for me. It’s not necessarily any better or worse than others’ systems that have yielded results. We all arrive at our own timeline.

And this, I think, is the broader answer to the question of avoiding burnout. If you find a system of work that yields tangible, consistent improvement, trust it. Others won’t have the same approach, and that’s OK. Everyone who is successful in music has worked very, very hard at it in their own way. By trusting in our preparation process, we stand a better chance of maintaining enthusiasm and remembering why we’re in this (often trying) business.

Please send in your questions via the Contact page!

On Defacing Great Art

Now, for a light interlude: the greatest (and I mean greatest) insult I’ve ever gotten from a conductor.

It was my first year at Curtis, and I was playing second bassoon on a reading of Pulcinella and Mozart 39 with the great Otto-Werner Mueller conducting. Now, the slow movement of the Mozart has this itty bitty second bassoon solo (in A-Flat major)…

…which I was playing, shall we say, carefully. Mueller is known for demanding very (some would say absurdly) soft dynamics; meanwhile, I was just trying to adjust to the demands of my new school. So I was taken aback when we stopped and he gestured toward me, saying in his inimitable (actually, highly imitable) German accent, “Mmmmm…a bit more from the second bassooooon.”

Mona Lisa.jpg

I was thrilled. I thought, “Wow! Mueller asked me to play louderthat never happens!” I took my newfound confidence and not only played louder, but juiced up my vibrato as well. I was feeling good.

Then we stopped again. With a twinkle in his eye, Mueller rumbled, “Perfect…” (Awesome!) “…if we were playing Pathétique Symphony of Tchaikovsky. It is like you took the Mona Lisa, painted over it in neon colors, and ATE IT WITH WHIPPED CREAM.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the single greatest insult I’ve ever gotten from a conductor.

It's Not About "Cool."

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Here's the thing that bothers me about Jim Rome's ill-considered tweet: He's asking the wrong question.

Marching band shouldn't be about "cool." I'm not saying that it is or isn'tthat's too subjective. No, marching bandany extracurricular activityshould be about being good. Good for communities, good for spectators, but mostly good for students.

I wasn't the typical marching band kid: I was serious about making music my life and livelihood. This complicates things for many in my situation, but for me, it was an opportunity to learn how to play percussion, which had a direct and very positive impact on my rhythmic development, not to mention the close friends I made during my four years on drumline.

In contrast, for the vast majority of marching band members, music is a hobby. It provides community; it provides the satisfaction of working toward a tangible goal; it provides the thrill of live performance and gives you a workout along the way. (Marching band is a sport. It just is.)

It's a gateway drug to classical music. I saw or marched shows that included music by Adams, Stravinsky, Mozart, Shostakovich, Dvořák, and so many others. Marching band presents a tremendous opportunity to develop personal connections to the great masterworks of the classical canon. At its best, it's a full-sensory experience of some of the towering achievements in Western art.

Is that cool? I don't know. But it is good.

Letting Go

Before this blog goes any further, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the sensational Katie Jordan for her remarkable editorial prowess. Without her discerning eye, this blog would be, well, a mess. (Full disclosure: she’s also my fiancée.) Now, on to our regularly-scheduled blog post…

“You will make mistakes. There’s just no substitute for experience.” When I won my job, this was the advice my mentor and friend Daniel Matsukawa offered. What’s stuck with me the most about it is its implied self-forgiveness.

Everyone makes mistakes. Intellectually, it’s easy to understandobvious, even. In practice, it’s tough to accept. What helped me in this regard was a simple idea: If I’ve worked as hard as I can and I still don’t play as well as I would like, then I’ve ultimately done nothing wrong.

My thinking went like this: I showed up at the audition. I played my best and the committee decided to hire me. Preparing all these operas, I worked as hard as I was physically capable, and if there were times when I still fell short, well, there was nothing more I could have done.

Of course, this doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated when I make mistakes. I do. But we have to get past sub-par performances and focus on long-term musical development. This development doesn’t happen in a linear way. I’ve grown a great deal over the last two and a half seasons, but that doesn’t mean that each of my 300 or so performances at the Met have each gotten progressively better. Continual improvement is a messy, inconsistent process. It requires constant work, for both physical and mental well-being.

That's the most important part of this, and I think it bears repeating. Letting yourself off the hook is contingent on working very, very hard. There’s simply no substitute for doing everything in your power to make tonight go well. If it doesn’t? Let go of it and do better next time.

"That's a Hard Job!"

One of the first things a fellow musician usually says when I tell them I play in the MET Orchestra: “That’s a hard job!” The long hours, the constantly shifting repertoire, the extremes of character on any given night…it’s challenging. (In fairness, is there really such a thing as an easy job? I don’t think so, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

I knew this going inI knew it before I even showed up at the audition. Or at least, I thought I did. Perhaps unconsciously, my assumption was that the “hard” part would be working my tail off to be as prepared as possible, resulting in a succession of performances that would end with wiping my brow and saying, “Phew, I’m glad that went OK.” I couldn’t conceive of allowing anything to go truly badly, because I was convinced I just wouldn’t let it happen.

The problem is, that’s not how it goes. Despite your best efforts, sometimes you just won’t play all that well, and that’s a hard thing to deal withespecially when it’s in front of colleagues you respect immensely and 3,800 expectant audience members. It’s an intense sensation (especially as a 23 year-old) to come down from initial thrill of winning an audition and realize that you’re now expected to be a leader among musicians who were on a pedestal just days ago. To me, the truly hard part of the job is when I feel that I’ve failed to live up to that expectation.

I learned an immense amount from Larry Rachleff, the deservedly-renowned music director of the Shepherd School Symphony. One thing in particular that he said has stuck with me most of all. When asked what it “takes” to make it as a musician, he always responds, “The ability to keep trying when you won’t get what you want 75% of the time.”

There’s this notion that if you win a great job, you’ve figured everything out. But the reality is, we all exist on a continuum on which we’re always trying to improve. In practical terms, that means you won’t get what you want (in this case, living up to a certain standard) every single time, especially at first. I like to think that I’ve improved (actually, I’m pretty positive I’ve improved a lot), but those first couple of years, and the first year in particular, were hard. How did I come to terms with that? Next time.

The Pipeline

While my tendency in practicing is to overdo things, for years my “system” of reed making was defined by avoidance. I really didn’t know how to make a reed. So, knowing that I had very little chance of success, I just didn’t make them (incidentally, this is my current approach to cooking). I played on a succession of reeds that I prayed wouldn’t give out, until I finally reached a point at which I embarrassed myself more than I was willing to accept. This was not sustainable.

I decided that I would work on reeds every day, even if I only had a few minutes. On especially busy days, I might ream out a single blank and call it quits. But I figured, even that one action would set me up ever-so-slightly better for the next day. It didn’t change my life overnightwith reeds, few things do. But as time went on, I came to realize that, for the first time, I didn’t feel like I was constantly scrounging, constantly worrying about when my one reed would finally die on me.

Since then, my needs, both in quantity and quality of reeds, have increased, as has my ability to make them. I’ve arrived at a system, roughly outlined in the infographic below (click to enlarge). Is it the right system for everyone? Of course not. But it works for me, and it represents important lessons that took me way too long to figure out.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Crashing and Burning with Friends

I used to hate playing for other people. In the weeks leading up to an audition, I never felt “ready.” I thought I had to play my absolute best, or else it would be a waste of time. What use would it be to ask for comments, when most of them would boil down to practicing more? So, I wouldn’t do it. I knew that I should, but I didn’t ever feel up to it until I was so close to the audition that it seemed too late. In retrospect, I misunderstood the deeper value of playing for others. Of course, feedback is often helpful and sometimes invaluable, but there was much more I was missing out on.

I finally broke through my self-imposed barrier when I prepared for the Met audition. By that point I understood that my reluctance was a crutch, so I made a conscious choice to start playing for people long before I felt “ready.” I told my studio mates to ask me to play any excerpt, at any time, on any reed. (This led to some horrifying renditions of Figaro.) I asked everyone I could think of to hear me, and immediately set times so that my determination didn’t just evaporate into a series of “somedays.”

On a superficial level, I was forcing myself to run through excerpts in their entirety again and again. I was out of my comfort zone. I made mistakes and didn’t have the option of going back and correcting them; I was put through the most sadistic lists my friends could create (I’m looking at you, Joey); most of all, I was doing this in front of people whose opinions I respected.

But on a deeper level, I developed the ability to project positive feelings at the dreaded “committee,” because I was playing for people I knew and liked. I get much more nervous playing for people I know than for strangerseven if those strangers are on the other side of a screen, deciding my career trajectory. Especially in the early stages of my preparation, I fell flat on my face, but I learned that life went on. By repeatedly putting myself in these high-pressure situations, I learned what my real weaknesses were, as opposed to my imagined ones.

In retrospect, this was one of the key differences between how I prepared for previous auditions (which I wanted to win) and how I prepared for the Met audition (which I really, really wanted to win). It was hard, unpleasant, and ultimately invaluable, because it helped me get most of my “bad mojo” out before I ever arrived in New York. So, to my ever-patient friends who put me through my paces and taught me to appreciate the people on the other side of the screen: Thank you.

Mind the Gap

In my last post, I described how I got one paradigm-shifting piece of advice…and went completely overboard with it. The story of regaining my confidence in the practice room is one that continues to this day.

It boils down to what Ben Kamins refers to as “starting from a point of success.” The thing is, we all know how we want to play. We all have an ideal we’re striving toward. But every day, we’re confronted with the reality of where we currently stand, and that reality almost never aligns with our ideal. There will always be a gap between those two pointswhere we are and where we want to beand the question of confidence is really the question of how we choose to approach that gap.

One extreme, which I chose in high school, is underestimating where one’s limit is, and approaching it as cautiously as possible. This approach killed my confidence. The other extreme leads to misplaced confidence: denying that there is any gap at allgoing full speed ahead, hammering through the most difficult passages without any regard for the sounds that are coming out of the instrument. I think it goes without saying that this is also a pretty bad option.

The key is balancing right on the edge of one’s abilities, but always starting from that point of success. One has to begin with something one can do, and gradually push out of one’s comfort zone. I still find this hard, since I can’t leave something alone until it’s as good as I can play it. I prefer to stay in my comfort zone, even when nobody’s listening.

I want to be very clear: I’m not suggesting less slow practice, nor am I advocating less time spent methodically, sometimes painstakingly, working through difficult passages. Quite the oppositeI’m advocating a straightforward appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses, and an approach to the weaknesses that is at once honest and confidence-building. Oftentimes that means spending a lot of time in the practice room with the metronome, but we also have to recognize when we can trust our years of training.

Now, I had to put in the work sometimenot to the extreme that I did, but I still don't regret that phase of my development. But now, when I practice an etude, I don’t always go bar by bar at the slowest tempo I can stand. I've done that work (and then some). Because, you know what? It's kind of fun to start near my limit and see how far I can push myself today.

The Balancing Act

My practice revelation came when I was a junior in high school. I was working on the Russian Dance from Petrushka for seating auditions in the (drumroll, please) All-State Orchestra. Every day, I’d sit down and start practicing with my metronome at 60, then gradually speed it up until I was at performance tempo. I’d feel good about itI’d think I was making progress. But the next day, I’d try to see what I’d retained, and time and again, the answer was virtually nothing.

This cycle of one step forward, one step backward continued for a couple of weeks. I was starting to get, shall we say, frustrated? Distraught, perhaps. Demoralized, definitely. Then one of my (terrific) band directors recommended that I stick to one tempo per day, gradually increasing the metronome marking over a series of progressive practice sessions. That way, as I learned the passage at each day’s tempo, I wasn’t dependent on the process of starting slowly and speeding up. I increased the difficulty at a very slow rate and made sure I was confident at a single tempo every day.

This revolutionized my ability to learn difficult passages, but I took it too far. By the time I finished high school, I had reached a point where I felt I couldn’t play anything without starting very slowly and taking months to reach performance tempo…then, ideally, repeating the process to make sure I had really learned it. By doing this with everything I learned, I completely undermined my confidence in my ability to just play.

When I arrived at Curtis, one of the very first things I played for Bernard Garfield was one of his more difficult etudes (No. 20, to be exact). By that point, I had no idea how to learn something like it in a week. But the thing is, I could have done it if I had trusted myself. I could have practiced a narrow range of tempi every daystill slow, but allowing myself to inch up slightly over the course of each practice session. I could have assessed which passages I really needed to slow down, and which ones came more naturally. But I lacked a basic belief in my own abilities, so I insisted on coddling myself on every single note. I just didn’t have the time I thought I needed to learn something difficult, and I didn’t know how to compress my excessive practice regimen from months to a week. This was only the first of a series of challenges that would teach me the value of truly efficient, affirmative practice over the subsequent four years.

At the Met, I’ve played as many as six different operas in three days. Learning that much music requires the same peculiar balancing act. On one hand, one has to efficiently recognize and practice difficult passages, shining an unyielding light on things one can’t yet play. On the other hand, one has to do this in a way that increases (or at least maintains) confidence. In the practice room, the latter requires a delicate balance of self-awareness and practical considerations. More on that next time.

A Series of Fortunate Events

That, I think, is the best summary of my career so far. Time and again, I have found myself in situations I'm not quite ready for: Curtis and Rice, Symphony in C, the Delaware Symphony, and now the Met. But I have been consistently surrounded by teachers, friends, and colleagues who have given me a frankly unreasonable amount of support and understanding. In short, my career has been an unbroken procession of remarkable learning environments.

I am still improvingan obvious statement, and certainly a lifelong characteristic of all successful musicians, but one that is perhaps magnified in the formative first years after graduation. This is especially true when one is catapulted into a position that requires a tremendous amount of learning in a very, very public way. My time at the Met has been the most challenging and rewarding two years of my life, and it is my hope that I can make some of my experiences and revelations useful to others.

This blog will serve as a professional journal of sorts. It is not my intention to shy away from the challenges I have faced and continue to face. I'm not interested in crafting a persona of false invincibility. Rather, having wondered what it would be like to have a job like mine, having agonized over whether or not I would ever "stack up," I hope to put a human face on what it's like to be fortunate enough to have a career at the highest level.

So, stick with me. I promise it will be a bumpy, and hopefully interesting, rideand there will be reeds!