by Daniel Hathaway
For those who love to watch how the real pro’s of the musical world operate, there’s nothing more fascinating than attending a good master class. Although these sessions, where musicians play or sing for a maestro du jour, are usually devoted to special interest groups, there’s a lot to be learned about music making that’s universal for all species.
On Saturday, January 16, the second day of the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition at Oberlin Conservatory, we observed two bassoon master classes and heard ten players bare their musical souls to two master bassoon teachers and an audience of their peers — one of five such opportunities offered in the Symposium side of the 2010 Competition.
Indiana University professor Kathleen McLean, previously assistant principal in the Toronto Symphony, was in charge of the first, 90-minute long session. Four players, Michael Severance, Stephanie Kouchel, Leigh Miller and Clay Zeller-Townson, chose repertory ranging from Milde Concert Studies to the kind of excerpts from orchestral scores which are required for auditions (in this case, the famous opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and selections from Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony).
(Footnote for non-bassoonists: the Prague-born performer and teacher Ludwig Milde (1849-1913) wrote fifty Concert Studies for bassoon alone which provide daily workouts for members of the bassoon demi-monde and offer great material for interpretive decisions as well as for honing technique).
Kathleen McLean, the soft-spoken but quietly hilarious Canadian master of this session, kept the class on course with its theme of “Creating Musical Drama” by pointing out that one plays the hall as well as the instrument, encouraging one player to adapt the volume of sound to the rather intimate ambiance of Kulas Hall; saving vibrato for dramatic effect (“if you vibrate all the time, it negates expressivity”), and making each note in a run of sixteenth notes slightly different (invoking a comment by her six-year old who was fascinated by the individuality of snowflakes). She encouraged players to exaggerate articulations, which, like the makeup of an actor seem garish close up but which sound/look natural from the perspective of the audience, and not to demonstrate in one’s playing that a passage or a piece is difficult. “The best music making comes when you immerse yourself, lose your ego and also your nervousness”.
McLean also shared her experiences of playing Russian repertory under Valery Gergiev with the players who offered the Stravinsky and Shostakovich excerpts. The conductor noted that in North America, the opening of Rite of Spring is played too delicately; it’s actually a Russian folksong and to avoid freaking out in this daunting opening solo where the bassoon is out there all alone, “just pop the first note”. Gurgiev also pointed out that the bassoon in Shostakovich is the composer’s soul, but McLean added that the musical excerpts are also “like a child’s coloring book: you can do lots of things with the notes”. Other advice: like an opera singer, stay in character when you’re not playing; change color, not just dynamics, for drama; be totally physically engaged, but don’t lose track of the details.
Most of McLean’s comments could be applied across the board to any kind of music making. There was also a bit of of fascinating inner-circle talk about fingerings, a perpetual preoccupation with bassoonists, who have to go through a lot of mysterious digital operations to make certain notes sound good and in tune. One of the players, who made great music out of a Milde selection, had barely begun to explore these arcane details, but got some tips on physical setup: mainly about keeping his shoulders down — “the more relaxed you are, the more relaxed the audience will be” — a piece of advice McLean demonstrated by slumping like a rag doll. Then she played a drone over which she asked her subject to improvise, producing some really jazzy riffs which also created a relaxed musical ambiance.
After lunch, Ben Kamins of Rice University (formerly principal in Minneapolis) led a high-energy, two hour session in which he not only demonstrated his well-known charisma as a teacher but also suggested a possible second career as a stand-up comic (his son, in the audience, acted as straight man).
Kamins’ sextet of players (one female and five males) offered repertory that included the Mozart Concerto, excerpts from Bolero, Firebird & Tchaikovsky 6, another Milde Study, a Schumann Fantasy with piano and one of C.P.E. Bach’s solo flute sonatas transposed for solo bassoon. The players were Laura McIntyre, Aaron Wright, Tom Schneider, Alan Hamrick, Ryan Wilkins and Michael Matushek.
Underlining the ‘engage the audience’ directive, Kamins had everybody announce their name, school, repertory and ‘something that’s true for you’ before beginning to play. No mumbling allowed — if a player was only projecting to the third row, Kamins was all over him. “Be a tenor!” he cried, demonstrating one variety of over-the-top delivery which empowered at least two of the performers to take on declamatory styles worthy of 19th century Shakespearean actors, and delighting the whole house.
Kamins’ comments and bon mots covered a whole range of topics. Editions: get the Bärenreiter edition of the Mozart — the one most people use dates from the 1930’s and reflects that era rather than Mozart’s at the time he composed the piece, when his aesthetics were closer to the Baroque era and J.C. Bach; don’t buy such and such an edition of the Milde studies — they paid the editor, a second bassoonist in the New York Philharmonic, $50 to produce the edition, which he did on the subway. Playing in tune: “You cannot play flat or sharp or out of time. I’m a simple man with simple needs”. Or “When you play out of tune, you make the people around you look like idiots, and in an orchestra you’ll have to spend twenty or thirty years sitting next to them”. The art of the possible: “Define what’s possible for you then set out to make it incrementally better”. Success in auditions: “The person who wins the audition is the person with the biggest envelope who stays inside it”. On playing difficult notes that come out of the blue: “Just play the sucker! No hoochie-coochie!”
More advice: “Find the resonance in everything you play” (Kamins noted that, at one point twenty years ago, he didn’t like his sound, then he was complimented by others and decided to embrace his own resonance). Sign in Kamins’ studio at Rice: “More Slow Practice!”
Kamins drew some amazing verbal, physical and musical dialogues from the six players. In the Schumann Fantasy, he asked the player to make up words to fit to the music — it’s a song after all! Another player kept moving his head to the detriment of his playing. “If you notice you’re doing it, just congratulate yourself for noticing it: don’t beat yourself up.” When another player’s forte’s weren’t big enough, he shouted, “louder, louder, louder”, finally shaking the player’s chair.
All of this was done in good fun and in the spirit of engaging students in an important learning process. It was also fun to hear Kamins place himself in the context of a long line of teachers and to hear him describe what he had learned from his “bassoon grandfathers” and was now passing along in turn.
We caught only the first 45 minutes of a masterclass involving bassoon quartets. Oberlin graduate and Imani Winds bassoonist Monica Ellis was in charge of a session that began with the Pacific Bassoon Quartet. After hearing only a bit of Duarte’s Costa Rican Dances, Ellis immediately suggested re-arranging the setup, which had pairs of players facing each other across the stage (it looked like a strange four-poster bed!) and no one was facing out to the audience. Ellis took the ensemble apart piece by piece, looking for ways to get balance, variety and precision out of an ensemble of similar instruments where profile of lines was very important. The piece became more dancelike each time Ellis stopped and corrected something.