Simple Gifts

by Elaina

I started playing the bassoon when I was twelve. I had started playing the clarinet the year previous, and was recruited to the double-reed world with promises of easy college scholarships. Even through I stuck with it through the end of high school, I was never able to get much specialized bassoon instruction, and little information on how to care for and maintain reeds. Even though a friend gave me an old family member’s bassoon on an essentially permanent loan, I wasn’t in any position to go through any auditions and choose other majors in college.

For the most part, I left the bassoon in its case until the beginning of 2010, when a friend started up a casual orchestra with my church. We were quite the motley crew of instruments, ages and skills, but the regular practices and goals were what I needed to get started again.

I was amazed with how quickly I remembered my fingerings, but quickly hit the same walls that I was in high school. I couldn’t get through a piece without at least one squawk, and I still couldn’t the higher octaves to click in my head. I started looking for instructors, and was lucky enough to find a fantastic match in the first teacher I tried.

I started meeting with her to work on reed creation. I had always heard that was the place to start, and my crafty and tinkering nature fit great with this practice. I definitely feel like I’m falling back into the 16th century when I start whittling on my cane, forming my reeds, and wrapping my thread. I’m far from mastery of this craft, but I love the control over my playing that this practice has given me.

My teacher also has been wonderful for pushing my limits while correcting all of the bad habits I learned as a child. I quickly graduated the simple books that I purchased in middle school, and moved onto advanced pieces. I have even started to work on challenging solos that I hope to have performance ready soon.

Soon after starting lessons, a few of us looked around the orchestra crew and saw that we had the magical components all assembled to start playing some wind quintet pieces. None of us had played as a quintet before, and it definitely took a while for us all to get used to playing without a conductor to guide us through rough spots. I was very self-conscious when the group started, as I was very far behind the others in skill, but with frequent practice and lessons I was able to build confidence and catch up with the group.

Recently, a few of us found some trio pieces to try out, and this week was our first performance in this smaller group. I definitely walked into Sunday’s performance very nervous, both because of there being no where to hide any of my typical mistakes, but for the difficulty of “Ashokan Farewell”. That piece has the bassoon jumping around quite a lot in the lower registers – a quite difficult task with anything less than a perfect reed. I found myself racing to complete a new set of reeds in the final weeks before the performance, and luckily, I found one that sounded great.

The first piece that we played is an arrangement of an old Shaker hymn titled “Simple Gifts”:

The other piece was the “Ashokan Farewell” piece that I mentioned earlier. This will be familiar to fans of Ken Burns’ Civil War series, as this piece was played at the beginning of each episode.

I am so grateful for the opportunities that I have had since the start of our orchestra. The challenges and rewards of musical practice has been vital to me as a tool for cultivating mental strength and focus as well as the enjoyment of performance. I definitely won’t give this up again.