|K. David Van Hoesen at the 2007 IDRS conference in Ithaca, NY|
The first time I met K. David Van Hoesen I was a high school student. He was not at all what I expected. After all, he was the esteemed professor of bassoon at the Eastman School of Music. I never expected such a famous man to remind me of a teddy bear. He had an easy smile and a quick chuckle. He was calm, easy-going and peaceful - the perfect guru for a high-strung, overly eager bassoon student. I auditioned at only one college - Eastman. No one else would suffice once I met him.
For college music majors, the private teacher is hugely significant. The school is chosen based upon the private teacher. The relationship between the music student and private teacher can make or break a career; it can make or break a life. The teacher is like a parent, but without the baggage. He or she is a guide through the sometimes treacherous transition from childhood to adulthood.
K. David Van Hoesen was the guide into adult life for dozens and dozens of bassoon students, many of whom now hold positions in the world's top orchestras. There is no question that he was one of the greatest teachers of bassoon that the world has ever known. But he was so much more than that.
I'm sure I'm not the only student of his who received counseling from him on every topic imaginable. There were bassoon lessons during which the bassoon never left its case, and those lessons may have been among the most important. He gave advice freely, even to the point of evaluating my boyfriends (or lack thereof). Undoubtedly, he was as good as any trained therapist at analyzing his students' idiosyncrasies. In fact he psychoanalyzed me before my first successful orchestral audition, and I have always attributed that win to his brilliant observations of my sometimes not-so-helpful behavior.
Once during freshman year I arrived at my bassoon lesson totally distraught over a situation with my roommate. He called the dean on the phone right then and there and I was immediately moved into a single room. When I complained once about ensemble assignments, he called the conducting staff while I listened. He was definitely a full service bassoon teacher. Because of his teddy bear-like quality, he was easy to talk to, and he always had a wise response. When I told him I was depressed about not knowing what the future held, he responded that he knew exactly how I felt and that he benefited from going for walks in which he intentionally noticed the flowers and other uplifting sights. (During my final visit with him in Rochester, NY, he suddenly stopped himself mid-sentence to point upwards and comment, with wonder in his voice, on how the birds had lined up so neatly on the overhead utility wires. He never stopped appreciating those uplifting moments.)
His students are known for musicianship and quality of sound, and his manner of promoting his concepts was sometimes unconventional. When I was a freshman I was afraid to use vibrato due to some inexplicable hangup. He coaxed a few times to no avail. So finally he showed up one day with a mysterious machine that measured air pressure. He had me stick a tube in my mouth which was connected to the machine, and he wanted me to play the bassoon that way. He instructed me to make the needle of the meter on the machine move with a regular pulse. And there it was.....vibrato! In fact, it shocked both of us in that it actually sounded decent. A few weeks later he asked me to help a couple of other students improve their vibrato. (That was certainly a confidence-builder!) Who on earth besides him ever would have thought of using a machine to teach vibrato? I probably wouldn't yet be using vibrato if K.David Van Hoesen hadn't been such a creative thinker that day.
Tone quality was so important to him. Early on during my freshman year he had me play the beginning exercises in the Weissenborn Practical Method for the Bassoon, which most of us had abandoned long before college. But he wanted me to go back to those basic exercises and just focus on developing a full sound. I was embarrassed and hoped desperately that no one could hear me practicing the simple etudes, but Mr. Van Hoesen knew what he was doing. I daresay no one would say today that I don't play with a full sound.
On those rare occasions when we had the opportunity to hear him play the bassoon (he had retired from the Rochester Philharmonic before I attended Eastman), it was heavenly. His sound was truly incomparable, so smooth and velvety and ineffably appealing. We knew we had chosen the right instrument when we heard him play it. He'd pick up his bassoon every once in a while just to demonstrate one interval. And that one interval was unforgettable.....I can still hear it.
Reading Barry Stees' blog post about Mr. Van Hoesen reminded me of another incident from my freshman year. I vividly recall the day I approached Mr. Van Hoesen in tears because of an assignment I wasn't ready for: I was scheduled to play principal bassoon in William Schuman's When Jesus Wept with ESSO (Eastman School Symphony Orchestra) on a Prism Concert. (Prism Concerts were nonstop programs showcasing many facets of Eastman's music program including both large and small ensembles. These concerts were popular and successful for many years and the concept was imitated by other music schools.)
There was very little time between the first rehearsal and the concert. Basically, I was being asked to transform myself from a clueless kid to a mature master within a period of five days! I was in a state of inconsolable panic, but somehow Mr. Van Hoesen managed to get through to me. He coached me on each note, on each transition from note to note, on each nuance of dynamics and vibrato. (Thankfully, this occurred after he had brought in the vibrato machine!) He taught his students to listen to recordings (and I mean recordings of all of the great singers, string player and pianists) to develop our musical maturity, and to study recordings of specific works we'd be playing. So I found Mr. Van Hoesen's recording of When Jesus Wept and listened to it over and over:
Like magic, it worked. Mr. Van Hoesen's careful, patient coaching coupled with many repetitions of his recording paid off in spades. He greeted me backstage after the performance, beaming from ear to ear.
Even though he was such a brilliant teacher, he was open to interpretations and styles which differed from those he taught, as long as the ideas were presented convincingly. I always admired that about him. He even encouraged his students to study with other teachers during the summers. He wanted what was best for his students, not what was best for his ego!
He always demonstrated living a well-rounded life. Once when I was rolling my eyes over having to read Dostoyevsky for literature class, he said, "But you have to read Dostoyevsky in order to be able to play Tchaikowsky!". (Later during the same lesson he said of a passage in Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 4: "If your face isn't turning bright red while you're playing that passage, then you're not playing it right!") He often spoke of his non-musical hobbies such as tinkering with machines and his telescope, and of fishing at his beloved Lake Placid.
On top of all this, he was clairvoyant. I had a marathon lesson with him before my audition for my current job, and as I walked out after the lesson he informed me with great conviction (the same way that he had instructed me to play each excerpt!) that I was going to win the audition. (Regarding an earlier audition, he had said, "You're gonna give 'em a run for their money!" and I was the runner-up for that job.)
When I teach bassoon students I'm constantly being guided by his words, to the extent that I often pause and tell the students about the great man I'm quoting. Rhythmic fingering, note preparation, broken arpeggios, avoiding static notes (EACH note has to have motion!), just like chess (not making a good move too soon!), carefully listening for and locating the ring in each note, and insisting on accurate intonation at all times----these are a few of his trademarks of which my students are now beneficiaries.
When the news came that Mr. Van Hoesen had passed away this morning, I wanted to be numb and pretend it wasn't so. If I ignored the news, I could pretend that this was just like any other Monday......but the memories began to infiltrate my thoughts......,memories of the patient, careful sessions when he was imploring me to listen, really listen to the sound of that note.....was it ringing?.....was it resonating in the best possible sense?.......was this the right placement of the note?
And then the movement to the next note......was the transition from the last note to this one smooth and creamy?.....were my fingers moving as though molding clay?.....was the air supporting the movement from the first note to the second?......is this how a great string player would sound?......had I been practicing my broken arpeggios?......how might the vibrato assist in the transition?......and what about dynamics?.......
As the news began to sink in, I wondered how I would be able to face the students who would begin showing up at my door shortly. But of course the answer is obvious. Along with all of Mr. Van Hoesen's students, I'm passing it on, with more enthusiasm than ever.
Thank you, Mr. Van Hoesen, for so aptly demonstrating what's important in music and in life.
|K. David Van Hoesen at home in Rochester, NY amongst a forest of bassoons|