Co-Principal Bassoon, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
What does a tomato soup red Karmann Ghia have to do with me playing bassoon in the Pittsburgh Symphony? Well, this German sports car from the 60s and 70s, which looks like a squashed VW bug, was what Jerry Dagg drove. Jerry was totally cool. Plus, he played the bassoon.
I started taking piano lessons when I was six in my hometown of San Jose, California. My father, an ophthalmologist and excellent amateur pianist, encouraged me, but refused to teach me. (Good call!) He often played and soloed with a chamber orchestra in the San Jose area. Its first bassoonist was Jerry Dagg, (who later played in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra). I got to know him and his instrument, and became absolutely certain that I didn’t want to play piano, violin, flute, or any other common instrument. Bassoon was for me. So I went to Jerry when I was about in third grade and told him I wanted to learn the bassoon. He said, “You’re too small. Wait until junior high,” he said.
The day sixth grade was over, I called him and asked, “When’s my lesson?” Having arranged to borrow the school’s bassoon over the summer, I started lessons in June before seventh grade. I never looked back. My mother tried to talk me out of it, but it was my first real expression of independence. Whether or not I was destined to make a career of it, I was a bassoonist.
I joined the youth symphony, played in school ensembles, put together chamber music groups, entered local music competitions—and practiced! But my other passion was biology, or ichthyology, to be exact. Through high school, I knew I wanted to be an ichthyologist. Let’s say the only remnant of that passion is a couple small aquariums I still keep at home.
I went off to Harvard for college, took a few biology courses, ended up majoring in German literature. All the while I pursued bassoon as my main extracurricular activity. Harvard was no music school—I arranged for private lessons on the side with Sherman Walt of the Boston Symphony. Halfway through college, I spent the summer at the Music Academy of the West, studying with Norman Herzberg, and interacting with a whole lot of “professional” music students from major conservatories. I could hold my own with them, no problem. Moreover, as I improved at my instrument, I wanted to play with better and better musicians. That’s when I made the switch in my mind and decided to try for a career as an orchestral bassoonist.
After college, I got a fellowship to study in Berlin at the Karajan Academy with Günter Piesk of the Berlin Philharmonic. (I even played extra in the Philharmonic numerous times, under conductors such as Seiji Ozawa and Karl Böhm.) Eventually I enrolled in the Master’s program in bassoon performance at the University of Southern California, again to study with Norman Herzberg.
That was when I started doing auditions seriously. I played lots of them, and won three. The first was for first bassoon in the Omaha Symphony, where I moved after completing my Master’s and played for six seasons. The second was for first in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, filling in for their regular bassoonist who was on leave for one season. And the third audition I won—the 26th I played!—was for Co-Principal Bassoon in the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1989. I’ve now been here half of my life.
Jerry Dagg, by the way, is living in happy retirement in Sebastopol, California. And my father, retired from medicine, is a full-time amateur pianist in San Jose.