IDRS Podcast with William Short

Terry B. Ewell, Interviewer

2018 Aug. 28. Granada, Spain


Terry B. Ewell: Well, welcome I am hear with Billy Short and he has just completed a fantastic session at IDRS in Granada, Spain. The title was “Bassoon excerpts from Opera Repertoire.” I am glad that I could get a hold of you, Billy. How did the session go?

William (Billy) Short: I think it went fine. I hope that some of my murmuring contained something of use for the people in attendance.

TBE: I thought that is was really fantastic: the way in which you worked with students there and the insights you had into it. I hope that in the future you can be sharing more of those insights.

WS: Well, thank you.

TBE: What are your current duties? I know that you are playing opera a lot, you teach as well, just describe that.

WS: I just finished my sixth season as Principal Bassoon of the Metropolitan Opera. So, they say that the first seven years are the hardest, so I am hoping that after next year I will feel deeply confident in my understanding of how to play 130 performances of opera a year. But in addition to that, I serve on the faculties of Temple University, Manhattan School of Music, and The Julliard School.

TBE: How does that work out? Are there certain days when you have days off and you can get on a train and travel?

WS: The thing about the Met schedule is that it is enormously busy and enormously flexible, which is very different from your typical symphony schedule where if you are working that week you are playing Thursday night, Friday afternoon, Friday night, Saturday night, maybe Sunday afternoon. For us, because there are seven performances at the Met per week and two principals, we have more flexibility. So that allows me to fit in various things. I usually go to Philadelphia to teach at Temple on Sundays. So, it is a very full schedule, but it is manageable. I am very lucky to get to do it.

TBE: You must be full of energy to be able to do all of that.

WS: I do my best. I do fall asleep occasionally on the train ride home from Philadelphia though.

TBE: Double reed jobs in our profession are really quite scarce and the competition seems to be heating up. Do you have some advice to give to the young student who is seeking this as a profession?

WS: There are two things that I would say. First, of all, you are absolutely right. Jobs in the traditional, orchestral sense are not becoming more numerous. There are an ever-increasing number of players entering the profession. It is essential for anyone considering embarking on this career, this life, to go into it with their eyes open. That being said, it seems to me that right now there are more ways to make a living in music than there have ever been before. You have your standard orchestral route, you have your teaching route on numerous levels and in numerous ways. You have also so many people who are freelancers, who run their own non-profits, their own concert series.

This myth that Classical music is somehow dying is something that I am on a perpetual crusade against. Classical music has never been more prevalent and accessible than it has been now. I think that presents a lot of opportunities for young people.

For those who are looking for a traditional career path, “I want an orchestral job.” I would say that no matter how many people there are showing up to an audition or graduating from music schools, my experience has been that there is always room at the top for quality. Those people who truly put in the work, I mean who dedicate themselves, who are obsessive about doing the work, about the process of improving; tend to do just fine for themselves. Can I guarantee that you will be the principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic? No, no one can promise that. But if you really, really put in the work, then in my experience things tend to work out just fine.

TBE: What instrument are you playing on right now?

WS: I play on a 15,000 series Heckel that I bought from one of my teachers, Ben Kamins, when I was studying with him in graduate school. I spent some time experimenting with it. I loved how it made my life easier than what I was used to playing. I was playing on an older Heckel that did not have as even a scale as I would have liked and had a sound that was prone to spreading. This has helped me a lot with that. I have been very happy with it.

TBE: One question, fingering wise, the F sharp 3 about open F, do you tend to use the little finger all the time or the thumb?

WS: I use the little finger whenever humanly possible. If I am playing a piece with rapid D major scales, and it is not possible, I will through in a thumb. But my experience has been that just using the “pinky” keeps the pitch down and keeps the sound a bit more covered. I like it for that reason.

TBE: In that [Mozart] Marriage of Figaro [Overture] excerpt I heard in the masterclass, do you use the thumb?

WS: For that I use the thumb only because I have played it so long, since before I even knew that there was a difference qualitatively between the two F# fingerings. It is too late to switch back now.

TBE: Would you recommend to your students that they use the little finger if they are starting out on that excerpt?

 WS: Most of my students are not starting out on “Figaro” for the first time when they come to me. My experience has been that it is possible to play it successfully using the thumb F sharp. If you are going [singing here] if that F sharp is not exactly 14 cents flat, exactly where a major 3rd should be, it goes by quickly enough that you are not likely to notice. There is a great quote from a great conductor who once said, “The intonation doesn’t have to be perfect, but it can’t be sour.” If someone comes in and it is heinously sharp on that F sharp, then absolutely we are going to talk about ways to correct that which may include using a different fingering. But to me it is more about not letting it catch your ear.

TBE: So what cane to you use, do you make your own reeds, and do you have any advice about all of that?

WS: I asked Bernie Garfield when I was studying with him during my undergraduate years, what cane should I buy? His answer has always stuck with me, “Buy it all, it all sucks!” So what I do is every couple of years I buy a pound of two of tube cane from every supplier I can get my hands on, then I mix it all together and forget what is what.

TBE: Oh, really?

WS: Because my feeling is that by the time I have gone through the whole processing process and come to a conclusion about a given batch of reeds, by that point the next batch I order from the supplier could be completely different in terms of quality. So, for me I would actually rather remove whatever inherent biases I have towards some cane sources verses others.

TBE: It is interesting to me that you don’t track within a batch. Do you find the diversity of the batch is so wide that it is not useful to track? [Aren’t there times] when you say this is not good quality and just through it all out?

WS: The diversity within the batch is certainly a factor, but I have found that there have been years when I identify one project per year, with reeds, to experiment with a given quality. For example, my very first one was experimenting with a hardness tester. For that I did track the cane sources. I had seven or eight different sources among other variables so that I could isolate just what was causing success or failure. What was shocking to me about that was that among those cane sources, they all tended to have one out of six as a good piece of cane. The sources that I thought, “Oh, this is a good batch of cane”—one out of six. The sources that I though, “Oh this is a crap batch”—one out of six. So, based on that experience, I decided that it was best to get rid of that mental bias on my part entirely.

TBE: Did the hardness tester help you at all?

WS: Yes, it did. I found that…. for me if it passed a certain range of softness, it had a zero percent success rate. Up until then it was sort of statistical noise. There was not neat bell curve—in the middle with some ideal hardness—I had some success up until this number, at which point I had zero success. Out of 80 or so reeds, that number or softer.

TBE: Do you have anything else you would like to share with us?

WS: I don’t think so. Thank you for the opportunity to chat.

TBE: Thank you so much, Billy.

WS: My pleasure.