Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mississippi Contrabassoon

I play contrabassoon with the Mississippi Symphony. Until I moved to this state (via Ohio, Michigan, Connecticut, and North Carolina), I always had access to instruments that were owned by universities or major orchestras that I played with (because the contrabassoon is such a large, expensive instrument, they are often property of performing organizations, just as players are not expected to bring their own piano or timpani). When I moved here in 2004, I suddenly found myself without access to a contrabassoon, as no institution or ensemble I worked with owned one. 

After several years of living in Mississippi, I became friends with a musician living in Leland, MS (home of Jim Henson) who specialized in unusual woodwinds such as oboe d'amore and alto clarinet. I happened to mention that I wished I had my own contrabassoon, and he shared that he was about to sell one that had belonged to the New York City Ballet in the '50s to a collector in Kansas. Rather than let it sit in a museum, he agreed to back out of the deal and sell it to me for the same price. 

The wood was very dry and few keys sealed. I couldn't get the low range to respond at all. I took it to Jim Keyes in Nashville, who took it apart, let the wood soak in oil for several months, and than reassembled and tweaked it. It plays like a cadillac now: smooth action and great response. It does have intonation issues, and is uneven. I have to lip things in directions that are generally counterintuitive to a bassoonist, and I fuss with the tuning slide depending on the key and demands of the piece, but I've gotten used to its tendencies and am grateful to have it. 

I love going to instrument repair shops. The chaotic industry of the workshop always warms my heart. 

James Keyes was the principal bassoonist of the Memphis Symphony for years. Now he focuses on bassoon and contrabasoon repair in his shop near Nashville.  

So many wonderful toys! 

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