You and Your Instrument: Helen S

You and Your Instrument

Helen S (bassoon)

Like Louisa, I am home-working, but unlike Louisa, this is not something new to me, but the way I have worked for the past two years. Therefore the sudden curtailing of our movements relating to work was much less of a shock to me than to some others. I just went on doing what I’ve been doing, but notice when I attend a meeting on MS Teams with my colleagues that the sartorial splendour of many of those who are usually office-based has diminished somewhat. ? Not a lot, as the dress code was already fairly relaxed, so just somewhat. ? My webcam was producing an image with a strong green cast in such meetings but a trip into the Control Panel has located a Lenovo webcam utility which has sorted the problem out and I can now attend meetings while looking neither bilious nor Martian. ?

Also like Louisa, I own a pair of walking boots, although mine have never seen a Welsh hillside. They have been to High Elms Country Park and for a particular treat, they travelled with me to West London for a canal-side walk. Right now, with the use of public transport being discouraged, my boots are pounding the streets and paths of Chislehurst. I’m also trying not to walk until I can’t walk any further and then need to catch the bus home but I plan routes which will return me home before my legs don’t want to walk any further. I carry my camera phone with me and snap anything interesting which I see along the way. Some of the flowers in peoples’ gardens really warrant carrying my DSLR and I might do so from time to time. I can  get to the Co-Op in Mottingham and back again; and possibly also to the one on White Horse Hill in Chislehurst. If I go as far as the Chislehurst High Street, I might find it’s a bit far to go home again, particularly if I buy a few essentials while in Sainsburys and have extra weight to carry home.

I haven’t been playing my bassoon lately, as I’ve been taking a bit of a break, although I’m contemplating a rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” on Thursdays at 8pm during the applause for the NHS. This has been suggested on a music board that I read on Facebook. I really want to get back into music and fancy doing so via my digital piano, which I haven’t played for a long time, but which Stephen has just cleared a path to across our rather cluttered living room. Once I can crash out some Beethoven on the piano, I will probably be ready to go back to the bassoon, where I’ve been promising myself that I would work on the scale requirements for ABRSM Grade VIII. I’m going to have to go back a couple of grades piece-wise to practice for a bit, but if I can get some serious work in eventually on some Grade VIII pieces, that will be all to the good. I dread those aural tests though! Particularly the ones involving remembering anything – or singing!

You and Your Instrument Questionnaire

Q. When did you first start playing your instrument?

I started playing the bassoon when I was in my mid thirties. It hardly seems possible, but that is nearly thirty years ago!

Q. What or who inspired you?

I had the obligatory piano lessons in my youth; and I also played the fife in the school fife band. Australia is a melting pot of cultures and the fife, rather than the recorder, was the entry-level instrument at my school. Northern Ireland influence, maybe? My sister is working on our family tree and my paternal grandmother carried some NI blood. On a trip back to Australia, I found my old school fife and had a blow on it and discovered that it is harder to blow than a flute!

My fife playing led me to want to play the flute, but apparently my parents never realised that I had an interest or they probably would have encouraged it. As it was, I didn’t get a flute until I was approaching my mid thirties, when I walked into Joe Proctor’s music shop in Bromley and purchased one. I quickly realised that I needed a teacher, so I went back to Joe Proctor to consult his list of teachers. I made contact with a local teacher called Susan Martin with whom I got on very well and Susan got me to Grade VI on the flute.

However, by then I had started listening to more woodwind music and a recording of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto convinced me that it was really the bassoon that I wanted to play. Soon after that, I was at a Hayes Symphony Orchestra concert and one of their bassoonists was switching to cello due to arthritis and he sold me his instrument, which I played alongside of the flute for a short while before putting the flute away in favour of the more in-demand bassoon.

Q. Who taught you?

Susan Martin tapped into the local network for me and found me Simon Chiswell to teach me. I’m not sure what he made of me when I turned up on his doorstep the first time with bassoon case in hand and told him: “Here it is. How do I put it together?” I suspect that he may have been humouring me at first. However, from that inauspicious beginning, my bassoon playing came on in leaps and bounds, helped no doubt by my existing musical background. Susan Martin remained my accompanist and I used to go to Simon Chiswell for technical bassoon lessons and to Susan for accompanied piece preparation.

I passed my Grade VII with Merit and then treated myself to a bassoon which would allow me to progress further, but by that time, I had networked sufficiently to get as many playing opportunities as I wanted and doing Grade VIII, although still something I want to achieve, became something to achieve for its own sake rather than in order to present it as a credential to get me playing opportunities. More than 20 years since taking Grade VII, I have yet to take Grade VIII. It might come in handy for some places I have aspirations to play after I retire.

Q. Which bands have you played in?

Beckenham, All Saints, Invicta Wind Orchestra.

I have also deputised in Maidstone Winds, in the days before it became Maidstone Wind Symphony and required Grade VIII standard; and have also deputised with Biggin Hill.

Q. Name three highlights of your band playing career.

When I was first recruited into the BCB, barely 3 months after taking up the bassoon, I simply couldn’t play every note in front of me and had to play the important notes. At the time, I sat close to the third clarinets and Catherine in that section was also struggling at times. We used to exchange sympathetic looks, but both of us improved and we agreed that we would like to play some chamber music, so we recruited Faye from one of the upper clarinet sections in the band to play first and convened every couple of weeks as a trio consisting of two clarinets and bassoon. We had a lot of fun doing it and we also learnt a lot about score reading in the process. Any one of us could pick up the score and ascertain where we were supposed to be in relation to the other two and understood transposing parts; and when I sat my ABRSM Grade V Theory, the score-reading question held no terrors for me.

Another one that comes to mind dates back to when the Emery children were small and we didn’t have a regular baritone sax. Sometimes we had a player, but often we didn’t; and I had important barisax solo spots cued on my bassoon parts and Ken Messenger regularly rehearsed me in them. One day when we were playing outdoors at Hever Castle and did have a barisax, I wasn’t expecting to need to play those cues, but luckily was aware of where they were; so when, as if in slow motion, I saw the barisax player upset his music stand just before his most important solo, I stopped playing, unpegged my music and flipped it over to where my cue was written and was ready by the time Ken frantically brought me in and I was able to carry off the barisax cue much to Ken’s relief.

I remember sitting on the back of a traytop lorry with the All Saints Concert Band. I think we paraded though Beckenham. It’s just as well we didn’t hit any potholes, as that can be quite dangerous for a double reed player. (I’ll leave you to think about why.)

I’m also including one that isn’t actually a band highlight, but an orchestral one. I used to go along and play second bassoon with an orchestra at Norwood. They had asked me along for a concert, but then a regular second bassoonist joined them. I enquired about whether my presence was still required and they told me to come along for the concert anyway and cover a variety of missing instruments, which I did. I was an honorary double bass in the Faure Elegy and found myself with a very important part to play as the piece ends with a solo note on the double bass – played on that occasion instead on my bassoon. Probably an octave too high, but at least it was there. ?

Q. Name one thing you would like to do in the future with BCB.

I keep promising myself that I’m going to arrange one or two good bassoon solos for concert band and crave the indulgence of the BCB to allow me to play them. Probably a retirement project.

Q. Please provide a photograph or two if you can of yourself playing or engaging in a musical activity.

I couldn’t find any musical pictures of me that were taken at a time when I wasn’t a member of the BCB, but I found this pair of pictures of me at an event entitled “Spooky Bassoons” run by Laurence Perkins on Halloween. Fancy dress was optional and there were a couple of really good outfits among the attendees. I think some of you may have seen the t-shirt before (somewhat appropriate for Halloween) but possibly not what I did to my hair for the occasion. ?