The Exhilarant Bassoon Incident of 1982
As I mentioned in my 2017 New Year’s post, I had once again drew from the Japanese language for my yearly theme. My new word was henkou (変更): change, or alteration. The most profound alteration in one’s life however, is that first moment of real truth when one encounters their future; foreshadowing the arc of their destiny.
Though this is not universally true of all musicians, it is almost invariably the story lifelong dedicated musicians tell of their first encounter with their favorite instrument. For example, the first time legendary rock guitarist Steve Vai saw a guitar (at 5 years old) he felt an almost supernatural thrill, all of his senses heightened and alive with passionate youthful wonder. He was altered by just seeing a guitar; his destiny revealing itself to him whether he understood it or not. It was the same for me; the first time I picked up a saxophone and played a note I discovered my existence was saxophone shaped, there was something about the feel, weight, smell, and fit of the saxophone in my hands and its place in my soul. For others it can also be a similar yet slower process, becoming deeper and truer with each passing month or year. But no matter how one arrives at their destiny, hidden in the fabric of life is alteration (revelation), the seed of time either being planted or blossoming. Thus we come to The Exhilarant Bassoon Incident of 1982.
Though I played saxophone when I was young, I was assigned the bassoon one year in junior high school band. Having no interest in it I complained to the teacher, but she was adamant. I was playing bassoon because it is was harder instrument than most in the band and since I had already learnt the saxophone, I was the most qualified in class to learn the bassoon well enough for our eventual year end concert. So I took it home and started to fiddle around with it. Now if you have never heard a bassoon being played for the first time by someone who has never played it, imagine the sound of two ducks trying to strangle each other… while two other ducks nearby also attempt to strangle each other. But after a couple of weeks of practice I got my bassoon to sound more like a single duck trying to strangle itself, so I was off to a good start.
The real problem though was that I was, and still am, the worst sight-reader on the planet. Reading music on the fly and getting it right the first time is my personal Kryptonite, the skill I will never have to any level of excellence, nor do I desire the skill. Mathematics, sight-reading, and getting good tone on a bassoon: my eternal nemeses. But I kept on soldiering on for a couple of weeks until I secretly stopped caring and would only play bassoon in band class, stashing it away in my closet the rest of the week. So neither my bassoon nor sight-reading skills were moving forward, meaning I was also not learning the necessary musical skills and memorization necessary to pass the class and eventually perform the annual year-end concert.
But as I grew adept at evading my “bassoonic responsibilities” I was having a lot of fun. Since I was in no hurry to do the right thing, I found myself spending more time just “bassooning”: fooling around, making animal noises, seeing what it would sound like if I invented my own fingerings, and playing along with pop songs on the radio, which sounded extremely silly and highly amusing to my 11 year old mind. Thus we arrive at the Exhilarant Bassoon Incident.
One day in class in the Spring, for the first time all year, our teacher wanted to hear us to play our parts individually in one particularly challenging song, to gauge how we were progressing towards the year end concert. As each kid played his or her part I grew increasingly terrified, as I had NO idea what I was doing. I could not read the music, I was still not sure of which fingerings went with which note, and so on, about as unprepared as one can get! It was clear I had no idea how to play the bassoon. Finally we arrived at my turn to play my part in the song and., suppressing my terror, I took a deep breath and improvised what I thought my bassoon part maybe, possibly, potentially, could, might sort of sound like! Though I tried my best, I assumed what my teacher heard was the worst sounding bassoon she had ever heard…playing the music so wrong it might as well have been engine noise for all of its empty bluster. I’ll never forget the look on her face: a very fascinating mix of rage and surprise. The game was up, my secret was out, I had been making up my parts all year and playing quietly enough that I could “hide” in the sound of the band without the teacher hearing that I was improvising my parts to avoid actual bassoon study. For almost a full school year I had been blowing into the bassoon but never studied it at all. I sat red faced and ready for the inevitable scolding and possible eviction from the class to the principal’s office. This meant the inevitable phone call to my parents, and the highly likely scolding for such a massive failing in my scholastic responsibilities.
But then something completely shocking and unexpected happened. My teacher then looked at me with a resigned smile, said nothing, and continued on with the class! As our class continued I sat there stunned, once again faking my parts quietly, and walked out of the class afterwards with no interaction from the teacher. What the hell had happened? She had caught me red handed, a robber in the headlights of a cop car caught sneaking off with the diamonds. I was fully expected to get the band class equivalent of a Scared Straight talk. Later that evening I realized what had really happened, and this realization had an amazing effect on my life, it altered how I saw myself and changed how I thought about music and possibility: a major henkou in my life.
I had realized that the teacher had heard what I did and let it go… because what I actually played, the part I improvised instead of reading from the music had “worked”, it sounded good enough that the teacher, knowing she was not going to get what was required out of me before the day of our class concert, let me continue on with my free form improvising, let me make up my part and play it, as no one would notice it was not the “right” part written on my page! I realized in that moment that I could make up things on the bassoon (and thus on the saxophone also) that “worked,” which functioned as actual music people would accept. I had spent an entire year playing “free jazz” on my bassoon and I had done it well enough to pass the class… and I was barely a teenager at the time!
The Exhilarant Bassoon Incident of 1982 was a foreshadowing of my now almost 40 years of improvising on the saxophone and percussion as a professional musician: the continuous self-inculcation of that process in both my private and professional studies, as well as live performance, public speaking, and multi-media work. I had accidentally learnt that the passionate pursuit of improvisation, in this case to avoid work (!), ended up being the seed of my most passionate work itself. The key was the passion: exploration, self-amusement, curiosity, and fun – put in service to fooling my junior high band teacher – could be implemented in service of personal growth, creative development, and self-fulfillment. I improvised for a full school year on the bassoon, unconsciously building valuable creative skills, and passionately exploring self-discovery via a musical instrument. From that point on my path was set, and I was able to get a PhD and travel all around the world, and so on because I discovered my true gifts (improvisation, ethnomusicology, creativity studies, etc.) on a bassoon in 1982!
So if you are a non-musician who longs to play the guitar, or studying an instrument but want to have some fun with it outside of your official lessons, or indeed any other kind of musician, then take heart, you don’t have to do things the regular way to have fun and learn at the same time. What music lessons CANNOT teach you is the joy and value of exploration, that it is 100% ACCEPTABLE to fool around with a guitar and do nothing else with it, if that is what you enjoy. If you want to be a world-class musician, you must study something. But NO world class musician ONLY studies. They do many other things to become unique, creative performers, and having silly, pointless fun on their instrument is a sure fire way to discover new worlds and new ideas without boundaries.
We now do not live in a world where a 12 year old could secretly play free jazz bassoon for a year in school and “get away with it”. My Exhilarant Bassoon Incident is a priceless treasure in my life, an unbelievable gift and accidental achievement. And you can have the same experience too, by throwing out the idea that you have to practice your guitar.
So I encourage you all to throw away the rulebook sometimes and just be silly and funny and happy on your drums, oboe, bass, saxophone, kazoo, or whatever else you want to cut loose with. Musical abandonment in service of bliss has its own rewards.