David Sogg, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Co-Principal Bassoon (En)
(02. 12. 2019, made by Ellen Moysan in Pittsburgh, PA, USA; transcribed and edited by Joel & Dana Boyer)
Interviewer: Ellen Moysan
Interviewee: David Sogg, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Co-Principal Bassoon
EM: I started this work because I changed my music teacher when I was in my twenties, and second teacher was from Russia she taught me how to listen to what I have here instead of just reading the score and trying to play. She would ask me to read the score and hear it, then sing it, and then play it. And it changed a lot: the intonation among other things was much better. So I started to wonder what is happening when we listen to this kind of music instead of just focusing on the score and playing—the gestures and the reading of the notes. What happened when I actually stared listening and I began playing from memory much more than I used to? So my first question is always: what do you understand if I speak about the inner song? Or what would the inner song be for you? What would be your definition?
DS: The sounds I produce and the playing I do is always based on singing—in my head. It’s based on examples of great singing. I’ve listened to a lot of operas and I like to imagine that I am a singer, except I play the bassoon. It’s not exactly the same thing but that’s the basis of all my playing—sounding like a great tenor. I have a number of singers that I like to listen to who inspire me so that their sound is in the background.
EM: Like whom?
DS: The first one that comes to mind is Jussi Björling.
EM: I don’t know tenors so well. I mean I know the big, big figures.
DS: Not only tenors, but my instrument sounds to me like a tenor.
EM: Is it exactly the same range?
DS: No, it has a much larger range than most people can sing; it has three and a half octaves. The bassoon goes as low as the lowest basso can sing and higher than a high tenor, but the part of my instrument that I love the most is the middle and upper part. I play opera arias all the time in my practice room.
EM: How does it help you?
DS: When I hear a beautiful phrase from a singer, I imitate that—the way the vibrato is used, expressive points, volume, crescendo. At the end of a phrase I’m always thinking of what a singer would do. The end of a phrase might have a diminuendo written, but I tend to wait as long as possible before I make that diminuendo because singers do so.
EM: So when they come at the end of the sentence they do the diminuendo as late as possible to keep the emotion high?
DS: Yes, it’s also a harmonic thing. In most music up to more modern stuff, there’s always a tension in the harmony that’s resolved in the end. It’s called the cadence. And singers always emphasize the tension before the resolution a lot.
EM: So you sing it in your head and then out loud too?
DS: No, I’ve never really done that. I don’t like my voice. But I hear it in my head.
EM: How strong is it? Because that’s exactly my research topic, this singing in my head.
DS: Another very specific thing I hear in my head—and I tell my students, if you want to play in tune, you have to have a good sense of pitch and you have to hear it in your head. If you can hear the right pitch, then you will play it.
EM: That’s the magical thing that made me start my research ten years ago when I was really starting to learn cello. My teacher made me discover this new world—singing in my head—I was playing so much better and the intonation was so much better, and I couldn’t understand how just singing makes you put your finger in the right place.
DS: Yes, it’s amazing. And with the bassoon, it allows you to blow just the right amount of air—the right intensity—to affect the pitch, it will be right. I always say, if you can hear it correctly, you will play it correctly.
EM: So for some instruments, it’s not necessary to have a very good pitch, right, like the piano?
DS: I hope a piano player has a good sense of pitch, but for them it’s a different thing. If they want to play from memory or play by ear, then they need to hear it and know how to translate what they hear in their head to their fingers. But it’s not pitch, it’s more notes, melody, and harmony.
EM: So how do you modulate the pitch in the bassoon?
DS: Well, the first thing is that your fingers press the buttons in the holes. In the right combination. If you press three fingers down on the bassoon, you will play a C. But it will not be necessarily in tune unless you listen and hear in your head, which will affect the fine tuning of it by blowing a little harder or a little less or using a little more or a little less lip muscle pressing on the reed. Or a little more or a little less embouchure—we use a French word—depending on where that pitch needs to be.
EM: But if you don’t sing it out loud, how do you know that your pitch is good in your head?
DS: Because I listen to a lot of music, I’m a very good musician, and I have a good sense of pitch.
EM: Does it just come naturally? Do you have perfect pitch? Ahmm [vocalizing]
DS: That’s your A—A, 220. But it’s not great sense of pitch. I think there are degrees. The other way I know how to play is I listen when I’m with my colleagues. We’re very consistent. We keep our A at 220 or 440. All notes have a different number of hertz—the number of vibrations per second—and your A string on the cello is 220. When you play the harmonic one octave higher, you get 440. If you do it again, two octaves higher, it’ll be 880. Octaves are double.
EM: If you have that in your head, how do you do a different A, like Baroque music sometimes has?
DS: I don’t do it.
EM: People with perfect pitch have a hard time when they have to change the A.
DS: I’ve heard that, but that doesn’t bother me. We don’t do that in the Pittsburgh Symphony. We never play Baroque pitch because that’s not what we do. If I play in an early music ensemble, they might play at a different pitch and I would have to adjust my instrument, maybe the reed that I play, I would make it a little longer to play lower or something like that. But I don’t usually do that. We specialize; just as I specialize in bassoon, I also specialize in modern orchestra intonation.
EM: So there are three different stages: you listening to singers and building a musical world, then hearing the notes, and then playing it?
DS: Yes. What I imagine Jussi Björling would do if he had to sing [vocalizing] is that he would sing it with a certain kind of tone—a rich, beautiful, rock solid intonation—but yet very expressive: if it’s not supple, it can still be expressive. That’s kind of what I’m thinking.
EM: Do you also listen to women like alto or mezzo-soprano?
DS: Yes, I do listen to Maria Callas. And if you want some specific things—examples of phrasing and beauty that are my pinnacles—you can listen to Callas singing Casta Diva.
EM: I love her. I watched a documentary on the battle between Callas and Tebaldi.
DS: It wasn’t called Maria by Callas was it?
EM: It was a French documentary.
DS: Okay, there’s a new documentary called Maria by Callas. There’s no narration. It’s just her and other people speaking. It’s not about their battle; Tebaldi is hardly mentioned.
EM: This other documentary was almost supporting Tebaldi more, saying that Callas had an unusual voice, a very wild voice, that she struggled to discipline it.
DS: Yes, people say that, and there are times when it’s hard to listen to, but some of the recordings are just so focused and so beautiful and so dramatic. But listen to Björling sing Celeste Aida from Verdi—it’s from the first five minutes of the opera Aida. Radames comes out and sings this most perfect beautiful aria ending with a pianissimo fade out on high B-flat. These are the pinnacle of music making for me.
EM: Why do you listen to more to singers than to other bassoon players?
DS: Because singing is a natural thing and the bassoon is the least natural thing in the world; it’s a big unwieldy, ungainly instrument with twenty four keys on it, lots of metal, and a reed that is always going bad. A voice is 100% natural.
EM: But it’s not so natural because singers modify their voices a lot. I mean some voices are more natural than others, but I don’t think the opera voice is natural.
DS: But I look at it that way. It’s coming from within them.
EM: At least it’s closer to what you can imagine because it’s true that it’s much easier to sing something that I want to play with my cello than just playing it. There’s no barrier. The instrument is not a potential obstacle. Like for me, when I was younger, I had such a bad teacher for my first ten years that my technique was really bad and so the instrument became a real obstacle. It was not musical because the posture was bad and once the posture is bad then the intonation is not good. If you are tense, then the whole thing is too. The voice doesn’t have those kinds of issues, I think.
DS: All instruments require technique. You have to learn enough technique to realize what you hear in your head. So if I hear a great singer and I want to sound like that, I have to know how. I have to be a master of my instrument. If I’m a real master, I can imitate. But as you were pointing out, when you were learning the cello with not the best teacher, you did not have the tools to make the music the way you probably heard it.
EM: Yes, that was what started my question. I’m from a musical family: everybody plays music and I grew up with music. But whenever I was playing, it was not musical. And so there was this gap between hearing something musical and being able to produce it. I started to think that the best musician is one who masters his instrument so well that there is almost no difference between what he hears here [in his head] and what he is actually playing.
DS: Absolutely no difference. Yes.
EM: Like when I hear Itzhak Perlman, it looks so direct, like there’s nothing in between here and his sound. So I’m researching that because I think it’s the key thing: the inner music or the ability to produce this inner music is what makes the difference between a mechanical musician who is not so musical and a good musician. So the musician who is not so musical either doesn’t have a very musical inner music or doesn’t know how to express it.
DS: Are you also researching the neural pathways between the brain and the fingers or anything—the neurobiology?
EM: No, I’m in the continental branch of philosophy so it’s more about understanding the mechanism of imagination with music—how do we imagine things? So when it’s a composer or jazz man who improvises it’s a different kind of interior, but with musicians who are actually playing a score, it’s interesting to understand why, if I play something and someone else plays the same score, we arrive at two very different results—what happened in between? I started my work by listening to ten or twelve interpretations of the same Bach suite. Sometimes there was one minute difference between two interpretations. It was so interesting to see how each of them were playing exactly the same but with a different result. So I was thinking that what happened happened in their inner world that somehow transformed it.
DS: There are about four or five recordings that are basic to me and I mentioned two. One of the few recordings that I find so influential that is not of a singer is a recording of the cellist, Leonard Rose. He recorded Schubert Arpeggione Sonata with Leonid Hambro [piano] and it’s the most beautiful representation of singing that I know—on an instrument. To me it feels like he is purely singing it—but he’s a cellist. He was Yo-Yo’s teacher.
EM: Yo-Yo Ma is another one who has an almost instinctive way of playing.
DS: But I wonder, was he thinking of singing? He probably was.
EM: Well, in some master classes you see the musicians explaining something to the students and singing it. And I know there is one video from Paul Tortelier, the cellist, and another from a British cellist, Steven Isserlis, where they sing like a cello. So it’s not only that I play like I sing but also that I sing like I play. I remember interviewing a jazz saxophonist and he would sing like a saxophone with the same onomatopoeias.
DS: I remember a cellist who I hear singing, and I said, ‘he sounds exactly like his cello.’
EM: Yea, so we have a kind of organic relationship with the instrument.
DS: And for me, it’s an extremely organic relationship. When I think of a melody, [vocalizing] even an E-flat major arpeggio, my fingers are there playing—moving to the fingerings on the bassoon. It’s so ingrained in me. I’ve been playing bassoon—let’s see—in June it will be fifty years. So I know that an A-flat is that, and high E is that—I’m showing you the fingerings without the bassoon. It’s just so natural for me.
EM: Did you start with bassoon?
DS: No, piano—which is a good thing in my opinion. I don’t think of A-flat as this key on a piano, I think of it as this fingering on the bassoon.
EM: So actually the imagination or the melody you have in your head, is physical—there is a physical aspect?
DS: Oh, absolutely. It goes from nerves firing here, to me thinking of that fingering, to my fingers doing it. I’ve never studied it myself, but….
EM: So that’s how you teach your students too—to make this connection?
DS: No, you can’t teach that. It’s just because I’ve been doing it so much.
EM: So it’s a habit?
DS: Yea, It’s entirely instinctual now. I’m sure neurologists can explain, but it’s just a matter of practicing a lot and neural pathways being trained and all that stuff. Any kind of learning is like that. When did you learn English?
EM: Well, my story with English is complicated. I started when I was twenty six
DS: I started German when I was thirteen. It’s all a matter of training your brain. Now my brain is trained—well, it’s a different matter when you learn a language from infancy because your brain is primed to learn very quickly—but learning a language or an instrument after your young childhood is a different thing and it’s a matter of repeating and repeating, memorizing, and repeating. That’s a French word, isn’t it—we call it rehearsal and you call it répétition?
EM: That’s hard too. As a young adult I relearned the posture completely because I was having problems with my shoulders and a lot of different things. I think it took me more than five years to change completely.
DS: One of my favourite lines is from an oboe teacher named Martie Schuring when he teaches students how to practice: “Never play it wrong. And play it right many, many times.” If you practice it wrong, you’re training yourself to play it wrong and it will be so much harder to unlearn and then relearn. So I think that all the time when I’m practicing of I’m making mistakes: ‘Slow down.’
EM: What does it change to slow down?
DS: I won’t make the mistake. If I’m playing too fast and I make a mistake because I’m unable to play at that speed, I play it slower. If I play it slower and play it correctly, then I play it many times slowly, and then I play it faster. But if you never play it wrong, you won’t have to relearn. Of course, that’s an ideal, you will play it wrong sometimes.
EM: You want your memory to remember only the good things.
DS: If you play it wrong three times in a row, that’s bad. But if you play it wrong once, you’re okay, just slow down.
EM: In order to hear when you make a mistake, you have to be able to see where the mistake is. One thing which was interesting for me with intonation was that my teacher taught me how to stop. I would know when a note is not in tune, but when I was playing I was not hearing my own mistakes. Maybe it’s a matter of attention or maybe a disconnection. So at the beginning she would say “this is not a tune.” so she would stop me. But then she would teach me how to stop myself, to hear here, and then to play again.
DS: I stress that also with my students. Listen to yourself. When the student plays something for me I say ‘Was it perfect? what was wrong? Play it again and listen to yourself.’ I have to teach them to listen because many young people don’t listen to themselves unless they are told.
EM: Yes, that’s what a good professor is supposed to do; he’s supposed to make you independent, not just telling you ‘this is wrong’ and never teaching you how to see, yourself, when it’s wrong.
DS: So, yes, I encourage them to listen to themselves and use their imagination to find ways to practice.
EM: So how do you use imagination?
DS: By example. I try to come up with a different way to practice something and tell them to do it right now, in the lesson, and tell them that I never practiced it that way before. ‘This is a new idea, you should do that too when you’re practicing. Figure out some way to practice it.’ There are many things you can do to vary your routine—to play with different rhythms, backwards, play the last note, then the last two notes, then the last three and the last four ten times. Sometimes I play the whole thing staccato. Or sometimes I play it all slurred. Just do it differently, but use your imagination.
EM: But this is for the technical part. There are some musicians who have very good technique, but don’t produce any emotions. You can train someone to have an excellent technique but then the musicality is not there or not enough. This is the hard part, right, because you can learn the technique. Do you think that almost everybody can learn the technique?
DS: Not everyone can. It takes patience. My wife for example played the oboe but she didn’t have the right personality to become an excellent musician. So she stopped 20 years before I met her, in or after high school.
EM: My brother is a composer. He’s at the Paris Conservatory and he is very good at focusing on something so I think it goes well with his work. He’s a jazz pianist too.
DS: Many people complained about my primary teacher that he just teaches technique. He said, ‘yes, I teach technique, but it’s all because if you don’t have it, you can’t realize what’s in your head or what the conductor tells you to do.’ When you’re a symphony orchestra musician—and most bassoonists are orchestra musicians, not soloists—we have a conductor who has the inner song and tells me what to do. And I need to have the technical ability to translate the conductor’s idea. Now, it’s not that simple because I’m allowed to have my own ideas too. If the conductor likes it or wants to change it a little, that’s fine. Most conductors, I find, don’t know what they want. But I need to have the technique or the tools to do anything that my brain or my conductor tells me to do. And hopefully my inner song, as you put it, is a thing of beauty so that when I use my tools and translate it into sound the listener will think, ‘That’s gorgeous.’
EM: But the inner song is also influenced by your culture and what you hear, so do you think that you need to have a good cultural background to hear that? When you have some students who don’t have a lot of musical knowledge and don’t listen to a lot of music, do you think it’s necessary for them to listen?
DS: Absolutely. That is extremely important. You’ve come to all the things I find important and asked me about them. I tell the students to listen to more music and listen all the time. The more they listen, the more they will be able to hear what they like or what they dislike. If they hear a great musician, they should be able to know it. If it’s a musician who is not as good, you learn something from hearing them too. I’m a little concerned because I don’t have a broad base of knowledge beyond Western classical music. I also listen to a lot of jazz. I listen to relatively little pop, African or Asian music. So that doesn’t enter my music making very much. But it doesn’t need to because I’m a Western classical musician.
EM: So listening to music is just a way to form your judgment or is it also a way to hear differently with more sensitivity? I mean, how do you think listening has influenced your own music—not only whether you like this or don’t like that, but how you hear things in your head?
DS: It’s all hearing it, deciding what I like, and imitating it. So another musician might say, ‘I like to listen to a great basso; my ideal is Feodor Chaliapin or someone like that.’
They might have a different ideal, but, for me, Jussi Björling or Lauritz Melchior. Melchior sings Wagner, that’s his specialty. It’s this same full, rich, almost heavy sound, but with amazing espressivo capability.
EM: There is also something from the character or personality. From the way they were framing the documentary you would understand that Callas had this kind of voice because she had this desire to succeed and a kind of hectic personality.
DS: Yes, a real diva.
EM: So there is you listening to the people you like, but it’s also how your own personality receives it. I love opera singers and I used to be in a children’s choir, but I don’t have the personality of an opera singer. So I think it’s also a question of how my own personality is able to transmit that. I guess I’m also interested in how my own personality can unblock or block me from expressing things. If you have a student who is very shy and another who is very confident, they will not produce the same sound, right?
DS: Right. And maybe the shy one will not end up being a musician or maybe be encouraged to come out of her shell. Having a diva personality doesn’t mean that you’ll be a great singer, it may mean you’re just . Look at Kathleen Deanna Battle, she’s the most phenomenal lyric high soprano, and the Metropolitan Opera finally gave up and they fired her, they couldn’t deal with her personality, it was too nasty. She came here and played with us in the early ‘90s. I even went up to her and said ‘I have a CD of yours, can I have an autograph?’ She said ‘Aah, I don’t have time for that.’
EM: I came here for Renée Fleming.
DS: That’s a different story.
EM: I loved her interpretation of Casta diva. She did some Broadway song too, and I remember thinking that her musical world is so extensive that she’s able to go from one to the other.
DS: And she would say that it’s all singing; it’s all the same thing. There’s no real difference.
EM: Well, it seems different. I was surprised to hear “You’ll Never Know” from the movie, The Shape of Water (source: https://www.pittsburghsymphony.org/production/56161/gala-renee-fleming)], and I was thinking, ‘oh my God, she’s able to do that too.’
She has this large repetoire. Some musicians are good in just a few things. I love, for example, Russian cellists for Rachmaninoff, but I don’t usually like their interpretations of other music. I prefer Baroque music played by people from the Netherlands, so I guess having this broad world is interesting because it’s not so usual.
DS: It’s not. And she’s now sixty years old. Some opera singers, when they get into their fifties, they start branching out into popular music. I’ve never really paid attention to it, but I think maybe it’s a little looser and easier, technically, to sing it. If they don’t, for example, have a very focused sound in some notes, that would be considered part of the expressiveness in popular music which wouldn’t work so well in opera. But there are some that are going in the other direction. Kelli O’Hara is a big Broadway star who is now singing lead roles—Despina in “Così Fan Tutte”—at the Met.
EM: So she changed from Broadway to classical training?
DS: Well, she obviously had great vocal training from the beginning, but her career moved in a different way that’s amazing.
EM: I think the way we hear a tune is related to our inner world. It probably creates a kind of inner musical world. If you listen to a lot of jazz and classical music—I also listen to a lot of folk music because I think it’s very natural. Like with Bulgarian and Romanian music, I think there’s something very interesting there.
DS: What little folk music—Bulgarian, Slavic, or south Slavic—I’ve listened to has wild and crazy rhythms
EM: If you listen to some classical music, you can see how it is rooted in the musician’s own world. I guess the culture we’re in also influences. When I went to Germany and I took the bus from Freiburg im Breisgau to Austria through the mountains, I was thinking ‘this is so Strauss’. It’s the German Romanticism; you can see it in the small towns. I take the bus in Europe because you can see a lot of diversity in the landscapes in a few hours. When I was interviewing Zachary Smith, he was talking about the French horn and the mountains. And it’s true, the French horn is related to a certain kind of landscape.
DS: And it has this Romantic music side.
EM: So for you, what would be the imagined atmosphere of the bassoon? You said you are inspired by singers but what else do you have in your imaginative world around playing bassoon?
DS: I’m not sure if this is precisely the kind of answer you want, but years ago I would always say the word passion when playing, no matter what kind of music; it didn’t have to be appassionato music. Then I realized I’m not sure what I mean by that. But I always had passion—a strong feeling, a strong belief in what I was doing. Maybe that’s what passion is. But I can’t say that when I play the bassoon, I think of the poppy fields that Monet painted or the countryside of the central United States.
EM: It’s more certain pieces of music, I guess. I lived in the Czech Republic and when I hear Dvořák I think ‘that’s the place.’
DS: I think those connections are a little artificial. If it does imitate the folk music of an area, then certainly.
EM: Maybe it’s just my memory, because I was listening more to Dvořák in the Czech Republic
DS: You were just talking about the bus ride through the German Alps and thinking of Strauss—later this season we’ll be playing the Alpensinfonie, it’s a fantastic, huge piece—and I thought, ‘What does it really have to do with mountains?’ Would a person who knows nothing about Strauss and never heard that before think ‘I feel like I’m taking a walk through the mountains when I hear this’? No.
EM: Maybe it’s more when you know the places. The first time I heard it was in a movie I watched when I was little and which was released in Bavaria, and where you see those mountains and the spring. I was thinking that once you know the place, maybe you can make the connection.
DS: Right. I think it was Stravinsky who said that music doesn’t have the ability to express anything but itself.
EM: Recently you played something that I thought sounds like Soviet music. Or Rachmaninoff is known for bells, and I always see the Orthodox Churches. When you know those kinds of things you can make the connection. I remember a Japanese flutist I interviewed in Japan and she told me that when she was trained in classical music, she would read European books for children to know what Europe was like to have some kind of cultural background.
DS: You were there last week at the symphony when we had the Chinese conductor conducting Dvořák’s most American piece.
EM: Yes, the symphony “From the New World”
DS: I think he did it as well as anyone else. It’s not like he had no idea because he’s Chinese.
EM: If you imagine something, a lot of things are involved in the sound that you imagine, like your culture or maybe your language.
DS: I’m afraid that, really, there’s not much beyond singing that I hear—singing and passion, which I admit I can’t define.
EM: You would say passion for early modern music, too?
DS: Bach? I love to play Bach—usually the Continuo line can be played with bassoon and I do often play that. Of course passion takes different forms. Bach was a very mystical and very religious person. The more I learn about Bach, the more I hear that he put religious ideas into his instrumental music in very subtle ways. I read an article recently about the Brandenburg Concerti. You think of them as secular. They’re not. Everything he did was for the glory of God.
EM: Well, because at this point, there was no real difference between the secular world and the religious world.
DS: He had that type of passion and was composing with great passion but in a different way from Rachmaninoff.
EM: What’s interesting about singing is that there is this closeness between my inner music and my ability to just sing it without any obstacles. When you say that what inspires you is more singers than anything else, I guess it’s because they have this closeness
DS: Well, it’s literally two inches from the brain to the vocal cords.
EM: And it’s very spontaneous. You can just start singing without even noticing it.
DS: And without technique and ability, everyone sings. I do sing, but not when anyone is listening.
EM: But I have trouble understanding how you can not sing out loud what you hear in order to understand it. I don’t see how you can grasp it if you don’t actually express it.
DS: I can’t explain. I don’t know.
EM: Do you close your eyes too?
DS: Sometimes. Very often when I don’t need to look at the notes. But not in the performance because If I do it in the performance, I wonder what the next note is, then I open my eyes and I can’t find it. It’s dangerous. But at home, all the time—when I know it. I’m about to perform, giving a class at Slippery Rock University. It’s a small university about an hour north of Pittsburgh. It has a good music department. I’m teaching there and playing two twenty minute pieces, one of which is a modern piece by Susan Candor for which I will have music in front of me because it’s very complicated. The other piece is a sonata of Camille Saint-Saëns. At the end of his life, in 1921, he wrote sonatas for bassoon, oboe, and clarinet. And, while you’re thinking of looking at recordings, do you know Maurice Allard, the greatest bassoonist.
EM: He wrote things for solfège books.
DS: There’s a recording of Saint-Saëns’ sonata. Do you know there are two kinds of bassoon? There’s the French instrument and the German instrument. In France, it’s called the basson or the fagot. In Germany, it’s called das fagott. The main manufacturer is Buffet. It is an entirely different system. If you give me a basson, I can’t play it. My colleague, Jim Rogers, owns one and he tries to play it. It is unfortunately becoming less common because the French orchestras, many of the conductors are saying that they want the fagott, not the basson. It’s a very different sound. Some people think it sounds a little bit more like a saxophone. Mine is a darker, richer sound. We say the French basson is reedier. Allard was the greatest bassoniste. He was the epitome of beautiful, light, tenor singing. It’s not this heavy, Jussi Björling or Lauritz Melchior style. It’s Tito Schipa or Tino Rossi. These are very lightweight tenors. Schipa, you should listen to Una Furtiva Lagrima, which, by the way, starts with a bassoon solo. Schipa’s recording of that is stunning—an example of what you can do with breath control.
EM: Breathing is interesting. You say your inner song has a physical aspect because you can physically feel it in some way, but breathing is such a huge part of it. We say, in cello, that you breathe with your bow. So for you, the connection is directly from your body to your instrument.
DS: I know wind players who are passionate about saying that: ‘this comes from inside of me. String is all outside; it’s all artificial.’
EM: I don’t think as much, but it’s true.
DS: No, actually, as I get older, the more I appreciate the greatest cellists—it’s my range. But there are plenty of bassoon teachers who say ‘play like a cello.’ The cellist always says, ‘think of a bassoon or think of a singer.’ But string playing in general is more and more inspirational to me. I know that when I am dying, I want to hear the Schumann Piano Quintet. It was a very beautiful piece I listened to all the time as a small child.
EM: So you were born in a musical family?
DS: My father plays piano. He’s not professional.
EM: So you breathe with your instrument?
DS: Well, yes. It all comes from inside my body, like singing. You inhale—whenever you do yoga or any sort of breathing you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
EM: Is it the same technique as a singer?
DS: Well, they always say ‘use your diaphragm.’ It’s physiologically wrong because your diaphragm is only for inhaling. The diaphragm pulls down and causes your lungs to expand and air goes in. Exhaling is from the rib muscles. Anyway, it’s okay, I don’t care what you call it.
EM: For you, phrasing means breathing correctly, right?
DS: That’s a key thing for it, yes. But behind it all is what’s in my head. And like with intonation, if I hear it in my head, I will breathe correctly.
EM: That’s fascenating.
DS: After I have the basic technique. If give you a bassoon, you cannot breathe correctly. You need your technique, and then everything—breathing, phrasing, intonation—follows from what’s in your head because you have the technique.
EM: So the most important thing is your inner music.
DS: I think so. For me, I’m a virtuoso bassoonist you might say. I’ve been playing all my life and can play anything you put in front of me. I have the technique. I have the tools. I don’t want to blow my own bassoon here but that’s my job.
EM: Well, you sight read well and those kinds of things.
DS: Well, not necessarily that, but if we have a new piece that no one’s ever played before and it’s very difficult, I can learn it.
EM: So do you think sight reading is related to your capacity to immediately hear it correctly in your mind?
DS: No. Not really.
EM: I admire a lot the people who sight read very well.
DS: Well, there’s a lot of luck. In sight reading there might be two things. There might be fast things that require you to respond very quickly with your brain—looking ahead and playing fast notes and getting them right—or the slower things that might be more lyrical: that part is luck. If I’m sight reading a lyrical thing, I have to try to guess where the phrase is going—I don’t know, I’ve never heard it before. If I play a beautiful phrase and then realize ‘wait, there’s twelve more minutes ! What am I doing with that?’ That’s why I say it’s luck.
EM: Well, it’s your culture too because if you have a good musical culture, you can predict.
DS: Exactly, but there’s some luck there because the composer might fool you. There’s sight reading because the composer wrote some music and he gives it to you, or there’s sight reading of old music that you personally don’t know.
EM: Is it a part of your training? When we are trained in the French conservatory, one of the disciplines is sight reading.
DS: No, not really. You have another discipline called solfège and that’s not so widely taught in this country.
EM: For us it’s a huge thing. You have to do two years before starting an instrument. A lot of people just stop and never start playing because it’s so abstract. I mean, for me it made no sense until I started to play.
DS: When I’ve tried to do solfège, I have an extra step: I see this note here, I think ‘three fingers’, ‘Do.’ I see that note there, I think ‘six fingers’, ‘Sol.’
EM: So you add the name of the note?
DS: No. I don’t. If I want to do an imitation of solfege, I can’t say [vocalizing] ‘do, mi, sol, do, sol, mi, do’—do you see my fingers?
EM: For you it’s a physical inner song, right?
DS: Yes. That’s because I didn’t learn solfège early.
EM: For us, we have to learn—we have all those books written by Jolivet.
DS: André Jolivet? He’s one of my favorites. But I know his music.
EM: I just know he’s from solfège and it’s a nightmare. We have to do the rhythm thing and you just say the name of the rhythm. And you would have to read very quickly for exams for example. And the other thing is to read notes: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do. And then you have to sight read.
DS: I taught myself—we all know do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do because most of us learned it when we were children from a movie called The Sound of Music; but then I had to teach myself—and it took me a long time—to sing do-si-la-sol-fa-mi-re-do backwards.
EM: How is your inner song then? Because we learn solfège, we have the name of the notes. What I learned was seeing the note, hearing the name, and then playing it. My mom has perfect pitch and she would yell from the basement ‘Your la is not in tune.’
DS: Well, we have the letter names: A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
EM: But when you hear the music it doesn’t have any name, right?
DS: No. That note on the bottom of the treble clef, the little one line, the C, for me the first step in my brain is [the fingering]: three fingers. I don’t even think ‘C’ because I’m translating it directly into sound without the intermediate ‘do’ or ‘C.’
EM: You don’t only have one position, right? In cello you can play the same note in two or three different places.
DS: Well, the octaves—two octaves are similar. Six fingers down in bassoon will give you a low G. And if I then open one vent, it will go up one octave. Same six fingers but with one little extra key so I think of a G as six fingers. Now high G, an octave higher than that is totally different, but in the middle register, C or do and do, one octave higher, are the same three fingers. Re, re [one octave higher], la, la [one octave higher] are the same fingerings: the basic fingerings.
EM: It would be interesting to know if a cellist for example would have the same body reaction, because, for me, I see where it is on the instrument but I don’t have the physical movement.
DS: For me it’s a mystery how you can play an instrument with four strings, four different ways to play the same note, and no frets: where do you put your finger?
EM: That’s the most fascinating thing. How is it possible that I hear this thing and my finger is at the right place when if you move your finger slightly, it changes?
DS: The physical side of it is totally different. You are trained to know exactly what point to play on the string, and I learn exactly how hard to blow or how tight my muscles are. The end result is the same: you know how to move your finger to get the right pitch and I know how to move my lip muscles or my breathing.
EM: Do you see any other aspect of the inner music that would be important? There was the physical aspect, the singers, breathing …
DS: …the passion; meaning I really believe in what I’m doing. I’ve not thought in terms of inner song, that’s a new concept for me but it makes perfect sense.
EM: It’s a French cellist who was using it in his master classes. He would say ‘play something. Now stop playing and just hear it in your mind, and then restart playing.’ If the student was lost, then he would say that there is something missing in the connection here. He explains in a very small book—I started my research with that—how to develop that and have access to it. Xavier Gagnepain, he is in the Paris conservatory or maybe now he’s retired. I wrote my masters thesis on this thing and one of my philosophy teachers said they didn’t understand what that is, so I went to him and I asked him ‘Can you go through this with me?’ and he spent three hours with me to tell me more about it. Think it before playing it. Don’t just rush with your instrument. That was the mistake, I think, rushing with the instrument before having this mechanism of making it my own interior thing.
DS: Back to the oboe player, Martin Schuring. Look for his book. It’s called Oboe Playing. This is where I took the rule ‘Never play it wrong.’
EM: Many musicians in France that I met were using Stanislavski’s books
DS: What, acting?
EM: Yes, to learn performance. So I read his books—Formation of an Actor or something like that—and he teaches his students to embody the role they are acting. The French musicians were saying that when you play music you’re also acting in some way. What would you think about that?
DS: I’m skeptical.
EM: Do you think you have the same approach when you play something? Well, no you say it’s a not the same form of passion.
DS: I hope I can do whatever is required by the style
EM: Well, that’s the way we judge. For example, with this pianist, I was thinking, ‘I don’t hear the same Rachmaninoff character as the other pianist. I guess his technique was very good as far as I know from the outside, but there was something missing. To hear correctly, your inner music has to match whatever is required by the score, right?
DS: Yes, and some of that is luck, and some of that is ability, and some of it is, as you say, acting. I do have to act, that’s true. Sometimes, when I dislike the music I’m playing, I act. I make sure that I am thinking ‘I am convinced by this music,’ ‘this is good,’ ‘I will play the hell out of it.’
EM: Well, I remember a musician I met, and he was saying that one day he had to play very joyful music and he had just lost a friend who passed away just before the concert. He was saying he had to switch from his personal emotion to what was required by the score. That’s the acting part, right?
DS: Absolutely. I’m a professional and when they make me play Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, which I dislike, I still will play it and the listener should be convinced that I love it. I think it’s overrated, bombastic, too long, and with one melody—[vocalizing] bam, ba-da-dam, ba-da-dam, bam—this is the melody in the first movement. It comes back in the second movement, it comes back in the third movement. In the fourth movement the main theme is [vocalizing the same melody] dam, da-da-dam, da-da-dam, bam. And then the coda, fortississississimo—[vocalizing the same melody loudly] Bam, Ba-da-dam—I can’t stand it! But when you hear me play it, I hope I convince you I believe it’s the greatest music ever written. I do that.
EM: So when you play with an orchestra, your inner sound, is it part of the totality of the sounds? Do you follow the melody? Another musician I met once said he was discussing a piece with a friend and one musician said ‘It sounds like this’ and he started to sing. And the other said ‘no, it doesn’t sound like that’ and the musician told me it’s because he knew the clarinet part and I knew the other part. So we hear differently because of our instruments.
DS: Oh, yes. Well, when I listen to young musicians who come to audition for the symphony, I listen to the candidate and I can tell if they know this music. I can tell if they know what other music is happening while they’re playing their part. Of course, when they audition, they are playing alone something from an orchestra piece. We’ll have each one play Dvorak from The New World. [Vocalizing] At the end of the melody—the second phrase, the clarinet comes in a third below, [vocalizing]—and then the final two measures, the bassoon comes in with the English horn one octave lower [vocalizing], and if the English Horn player is good and is aware of all these things, then it will be noticeable. It will be subtle. They change their sound a little bit when the clarinet comes in even though there’s no clarinet.
EM: So it’s your ability to hear everything.
DS: Yes, and that’s primarily a matter of training and if you listen to a lot of music. When you prepare for an audition, you should go and listen to a recording of that music so you hear where you fit in. The ones who don’t understand what’s going on, we don’t hire them.
EM: Yes, it tests your ability to withdraw when someone has the main part, and to be more assertive when it’s your own.
DS: Or, more subtle than that, a different kind of sound—come out more, come back, brighter sound, darker sound, speed up a little or slow down, whatever.
EM: The musical equivalent of vision is broader than your own part.
DS: That’s essential for an orchestra player.
EM: Do you think you hear more the ones that are around you? Physically, you’re surrounded by certain musicians
DS: Of course. In the middle of the stage, towards the back are the woodwinds. I sit next to the clarinet. We have bassoon, clarinet, first oboe, first flute and we’re all near each other. That’s because most of the time we play together. Occasionally, many times at Haydn symphony(?), bassoon plays with first violin and I have to play a little faster or listen a little differently because they’re so far away: I’m in the back, they’re in the front. But when I play with the woodwinds, we say it’s like chamber music. That’s what it is: chamber music with a conductor. I think a good conductor can hear what I play and respond, he likes it or ‘I don’t like that and I want him to change it, but some conductors have to just say something all the time, whether it’s helpful or meaningful or not, they have to talk.
EM: I went once to the rehearsal with Paul Tortelier and it was so interesting because he has a very broad vision of music. Then I interviewed his son in France.
DS: His son is conducting, right?
EM: You could see that he was trained by his father. Solfège was playing such a huge role.
DS: Yan Pascal Tortelier, the first time he came here, he was unbelievably impressive. We played a piece by Dutilleux: Tibres, espace, [mouvement], a very complex modern thing. He has a good ear. He sings it, and there was a place where all the contrabasses play some weird chords, and he asked ‘where’s the D? I didn’t hear it.’ and the principal player said ‘Maestro, he’s not here today.’ He knew every note of this weird chord.
EM: Yan-Pascal Tortelier spent a lot of time just reading things and hearing them in his head. And his son does the same thing. I interviewed them 6 months apart. They quoted the same piece, and they were both telling me that when they work on a piece of music, they hear a story. They quoted the same piece of music and told me the same kind of story. But they really learn the notes. The day I went to interview him he was writing a letter to the owner of the hostel because the music they were playing at breakfast was terrible. He said he hears things all the time and he hears all the notes and it’s written so badly. I could see that he had the ability to hear all the different parts.
DS: He’s spectacular. Unfortunately, I can’t follow his beat. I think he’s just the most amazing musician but if he were clear, it would be a revelation.
EM: I saw him rehearsing and he was listening to the musicians too—he was asking things specifically but also hearing what people wanted to propose.
DS: He’s an amazing guy.
EM: Zachary Smith was quoting this tenor singer and he was saying that there is a relation between your physical body, what nature gave you, and the kind of song you have. He was saying that Pavarotti has a huge head and it’s how his sound is so full.
DS: The opposite is true for Thomas Quasthoff, baritone. He sang here maybe twice. His body is totally deformed. His mother took a drug while she was pregnant—thalidomide—and he can hardly walk, has tiny arms and is very misshapen, and he’s the most glorious baritone singer. He doesn’t have the right kind of body. He didn’t sing much opera because he could walk but not very well.
EM: Sometimes having to overcome an obstacle makes your talent flourish.
DS: Well, his vocal cords and lungs were normal because he could sing.
EM: Yo-Yo Ma apparently has something in his spine.
DS: Scoliosis. Yes, he’s had surgery.
EM: A musician was telling me once that this can help. Another musician started saxophone because he had asthma, and he explained how asthma actually helped him develop his sound.
DS: Everyone has a different story, don’t they.
EM: You learn to adjust the technique to your body.
DS: We did a bunch of Mozart arias with Quasthoff—Per questa bella mano, a Mozart concert aria just for baritone and contrabass. Jeff Turner played the contrabass and Quasthoff sang. It was amazing.
EM: His world is a lot of jazz.
DS: Yes, Jeff plays a lot of jazz. And Quasthoff also has some popular music. He’s recorded some Frank Sinatra standards. Now there’s a singer I don’t listen to enough. I know some classical musicians who think that Frank Sinatra is the ideal of singing.
EM: I like him a lot.
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