Photo: Sian Richards
As a piano student, I took the competition, master class, and piano exam route, which meant my main concern was learning to adjust to whatever instrument was available on site, and making adjustments very quickly upon the first few notes. That is the life of a pianist – jiving with a strange instrument, and sometimes not having access at all to practise when you’re on the road. It wasn’t until I befriended some string players in university that I learned about what THEY went through – the search for the perfect instrument, and finding the means to borrow or purchase it. Then there were other things, like carrying it around, and not losing it (like the 1999 incident when an exhausted Yo-Yo Ma left his cello, worth nearly 3 million US, in the back of a New York City cab. He got it back the same day). It seemed like a search for a soul mate, and once you find it, it’s precious cargo you must keep an eye on. It’s a foreign concept to this former piano student whose worst nightmare may be a distractingly squeaky pedal.
I spoke with a few musicians in this five-part series all week, about the trials and tribulations of finding “the one”. For the fourth of this five-part series, I chatted with Michael Sweeney, Principal Bassoon at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, who also teaches at The Glenn Gould School of music and is on the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto.
Finding the right instrument isn’t a matter of walking into a store, trying a few out, and buying one. There’s more to it than that. What’s involved when finding the right instrument?
In my case, I bought an instrument from a maker that I know and trust. They are one of the oldest makers of bassoons in the world and have unmatched collective experience. I custom ordered mine by choosing different options from a large and extensive catalogue. I also invented several mechanical and ergonomic innovations and they agreed to incorporate these into the design. Since taking delivery, I have had a few more inventions installed. I play the most wonderful bassoon of any player I know.
Wait – what did you invent? This sounds interesting.
I invented two mechanisms: each simplifies the fingerings for a note in the low register and in the high. In turn, this simplifies the action of going to and away from these two notes (‘technique”), as well as improving the sound (“intonation” and “articulation”).
That’s so cool! Do you have different instruments for different concerts or even different pieces within the same concert program? Or just one that you use for everything? I sound like I’m asking about winter tires vs. all-weather tires.
My current bassoon is my one-and-only. With different reeds, I try to make different sounds for different repertoire.
Have you ever commissioned an instrument to be custom made? What is the process, and how long does it take?
I commissioned my current instrument from Heckel in Germany (est. 1831). I took delivery of my bassoon seven years after making the down payment. However, most of that time was just waiting for my name to come to the top of the list. I think it took about two and a half years to actually make my bassoon. The maker who worked on my instrument the most had more than 50 years of bassoon-making experience having apprenticed at Heckel as a boy. My bassoon was the last one he worked on.
Oh, wow … that is very special. It’s a true craft that takes time. Tell us about reeds. Do you spend hours making them like oboists do, or can you buy yours pre-made and ready to go?
Making your own reeds is the good news and the bad news about playing the bassoon. On the down side, there are many hours spent on reeds that do not ultimately become something you would use to perform in public. On the up side, the reed is precisely what makes one’s playing individual – that is, it’s part of the sound that you produce and that the listener can identify as “you” and not another player.
I had no idea – it’s like knowing one singer’s voice from another. I’ve heard a few musicians describe finding the right instrument is like searching for the right life partner. Do you agree?
I disagree. Your partner is your equal and there is of course give-and-take along the way. An instrument is your tool and therefore, serves you. You do have to coax it to make the sounds you want to hear, but ultimately you are in charge. Ideally, I think that between two life partners, neither is in charge.
Tomorrow: violist Brandon Chui.