Contrabassoonist Susan Nigro
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In the course of doing over 1600 interviews, most
of my guests are people I have known of and respected, or are
up-and-comings in the world of Classical Music. A select few are
people who remain in my circle over many years, and I'm pleased to say
that Susan Nigro [pronounced NYE-gro] is one of those special friends.
Both of us grew up and have spent our lives in the
Chicago area, but our particular bond is that of a common instrument -
the lowest member of the double-reed family. We even had the same
teacher, Wilbur Simpson of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He
actually began there as the Contrabassoonist and soon switched to
Second Bassoon where he remained for 45 years. In high school, I
played bassoon, then went away to undergraduate school. When I
returned to do my Master's Degree in Music History back at
Northwestern, I needed to continue with an instrument, so I called
Wilbur and asked if he'd be willing to let me play contrabassoon.
He was amused and delighted, and we found an old French instrument for
me to honk on. We had a blast together, and he often spoke of Sue
Nigro, who was more into the contra than anyone he'd ever seen or heard
of. He was pleased at her progress, and actually believed she
would make a major mark with this unwieldy monster. I stayed in
touch with Wilbur during my radio career - even finding an excuse to
interview him during the 100th season of the CSO - and he always
mentioned Sue and how pleased he was with her burgeoning career.
I, too, was pleased for her, and as she started to
make recordings, I was able to promote her properly on my
programs. Needless to say, an interview was set up and we met as
old friends in 1997 for our chat. She has a unique mixture of
seriousness and playfulness, but when speaking about her passion, she
was all business. This was her cause, and she was absolutely
devoted to it. Now, more than ten years later, she has several
recordings out and a website
[www.bigbassoon.com] which lists her accomplishments and future
I still see her sometimes at regular concerts of
the CSO, and phone messages and e-mails continue as we both push
forward with our lives. It's a special pleasure, now, to have our
formal conversation transcribed and posted on my own website.
Here is what we said that afternoon . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You call yourself
"the contrabassoonist with a cause." What, exactly, is the cause?
Susan Nigro: The cause is to
people to listen to the contrabassoon as a solo instrument, try to give
it some respect, and at least give it a chance to be heard. I
sort of view
the contrabassoon in the same
light as Rodney Dangerfield: it
doesn't get any respect, and I'm just
trying, in my own way, to do something to
try and help it out a little bit because I feel it's a beautiful
instrument. It has a nice sound and people should listen to
BD: Why does no one
So you are trying to present it in a
SN: That's the main
thing I've been
doing. I've been
trying to give recitals on it so people get a chance to hear it in
a solo context and not just
in the orchestra. Most of the time when it's in the orchestra
you really can't hear it too well. What they call a solo in the
orchestra, in something like Ravel's Mother
Goose suite or the Left Hand
a little short thing. Two or three minutes later it's over and
BD: So it's more of
SN: Yeah, it
is, and I think it can be very
expressive. The contrabassoon has a very nice sound and it's
got a lot of
technical capabilities that people don't realize. It's
not quite as clunky as a tuba - and
I don't mean any disrespect by that - but in
terms of having
valves, and stuff. I think the contra has more of a fluid
personality, almost like a string bass in terms of being able to play
technical things and making them sound well, and getting around
BD: And yet there are
not too many people who would go to a string bass recital, although
are some professional string bassists who do go around!
SN: Sure, like Gary
Karr, for example, who is a wonderful
BD: When he comes to
town, do the two of
you get together and commiserate?
SN: [Chuckles] Actually,
believe it or not, I have
with him, but I've never had the opportunity to meet him.
I'd like to do that someday.
nice gals and nice fellows?
contrabassoon players are wonderful people.
They're usually pretty laid back and friendly, and
non-stressed. They just seem to have sort of a party
personality, I think.
BD: [Chuckles] Well,
the bassoon is called the clown
of the orchestra. Is the contrabassoon the contra-clown, or
SN: I suppose.
In one way it helped me with one
of my hobbies, which is
musical jokes. It wasn't
that the instrument itself was so funny, but when you play the
contrabassoon you don't play all the time. You have a lot of free
you're not playing, so it gives you time to do other things
like collect jokes, or swap humor with other people.
So that could be part of it.
BD: I see. So you're
making a whole long list of
SN: The jokes aren't
contrabassoons; they're about anything having to do
with music, or conductors, or orchestras, but just the fact that you
have a lot
of free time, you have more time to collect jokes and talk
to people. Contrabassoon
players are hobbyists just by nature. Most
contrabassoon players I know have got at
least one or two hobbies that they really avidly pursue, simply 'cause
they have the time to do it.
BD: You play both bassoon and contrabassoon. Is there a big difference in playing the two instruments?
SN: Not a big
difference. If you play the bassoon, you
can get around on the contrabassoon to a certain extent.
There are a few things that you need to
use - a
bigger reed, of course, which uses
more air, and I think the biggest difference would be in terms of
the fingering. Without getting
too technical about it, the octave key mechanism on the bassoon and the
is exactly the opposite. On the bassoon,
we have what we call a whisper key; you press down to go into the lower
of the instrument. Because it covers
up the little hole at the top, you play the lower notes.
The contrabassoon operates more along the lines of a saxophone
oboe, in that it has two octave keys, and you press one to go
up, not to go down. So it takes a
little getting used to, especially when you're doubling, like in a
Mahler symphony where you're on third or fourth bassoon and
contra, you've got to take a minute and straighten out
your thoughts when you're switching
instruments, otherwise you're likely to make a mistake. You
have to think about what you're doing.
You really do. And, of course, the
is a little different, and there are minor things like that, but the
main thing, I think, is the octave key mechanism, which is exactly
BD: So it's more than
from the violin to the viola, and stretching
SN: Oh, yeah. It
is a bigger reach, and the upper register
fingerings on the contrabassoon are completely different than on the
BD: Why is that?
SN: I think
because it has more harmonics. Some of
the lower notes are different, too, because we add extra keys on the
increase the resonance of low notes, which you don't do on the
bassoon, or "the little bassoon," as we call it. [Both
chuckle] There are a few isolated notes that have exactly the
same fingerings, but not very many. So
it's not a huge
complicated issue; it just takes a little used to.
BD: Do you really
think of it as "the little bassoon," even though
the regular bassoon is nine
feet of tubing? How long is the contrabassoon?
SN: It's exactly
twice as long. It's eighteen feet, four inches. Those of us
ourselves primarily contrabassoonists would think of the
regular bassoon as "the little bassoon". Most regular
bassoon players who play primarily bassoon, think of the contrabassoon
"the big bassoon." It's
just what's normal to you, and what's normal
to me, of course,
is the contrabassoon, so the regular bassoon is a "little
bassoon", or a
BD: And the oboe is a
SN: [Chuckles] We
think of it as the soprano member of the
BD: [Laughs] Now your
first record is called "The Big Bassoon". Are you proud to
have it called that?
SN: I am, but it
idea. It was suggested by Peter
Christ, who heads up Crystal Records. When
suggested it to me, I was sorta turned off, as a matter of fact,
'cause I wanted to have the name "contrabassoon" in the
title of the recording. But he
explained to me that a couple of years prior to that, they had issued a
a bass trombonist and had called it "The Big Trombone", and
apparently it had
generated a lot of sales and a lot of interest. They had a
picture of him with this big instrument on the front
cover and Peter really
thought it was a very good selling point. So
he thought "The Big Bassoon" might be more intriguing, whereas if
somebody heard the title
"Contrabassoon," they wouldn't even bother to look any further; they're
not interested. "What's a
big bassoon?" That's sort of intriguing. So instead of
just passing it by, they look at it to see, "Is it a regular
bassoon, or is it a contrabassoon, or what is
it?", and then maybe they would just have enough interest to pick it up.
BD: Is it a joke,
or is it really a real instrument?
SN: Yeah! Exactly.
Exactly. So then on the second CD
out we decided to play that for all it's worth, and call the second one
"Little Tunes for the Big
Bassoon" because it's all shorter works, and of course it's still
played on this big bassoon - the contrabassoon - so we decided to hang
on to it. And it worked.
BD: Has the
contrabassoon been standardized
so that one contrabassoon is like another contrabassoon?
SN: Not to the extent
that the bassoon
has, but pretty much, yes. I
could pick up another contrabassoon that's different from my own and
play it pretty well, but there are
some differences - small differences - in terms of the shapes of the
keys. We have an ancillary E-flat key for the middle E-flat on
the instrument. We can't play a forked E-flat like the regular
does. It doesn't work on the
contra, so you have to have an extra
key which could either be with the ring
finger or with the right
thumb, or sometimes with the right hand first finger, just depending on
instrument you have. So there are minor
differences like that. Some of the
contrabassoons don't have both F-sharps,
like the regular bassoon has, and the octave key mechanisms vary a
little bit from one instrument to
BD: Now this, of
course, is all with the standard German
SN: Yes, and of
Buffet contrabassoon is like the
Buffet little bassoon, so it has French fingering.
I haven't had
much direct experience with that other system.
BD: Are you glad that
the instrument you
use has the bell folded down so that it doesn't stick way up like the
SN: Yeah, because you
get complaints from
the people that sit behind you when you play the big tall one. I have played
those and they're
hard to balance. I always feel like they're top-heavy
and they're about
ready to tip over. There's a great deal of
weight on your left arm just trying to support it.
And then you've always got complaints from behind
you: "Uh, could you move to the
left? or "Could you move to the right?
I can't see the conductor." So it
does get to be rather annoying after a while. This
more folded-over one they call the "opera model", because it was
for use in the opera pit. It is a lot more convenient in terms of
not annoying other players, and it's also easier to play in
terms of the balance and the weight.
BD: Here comes
another brass player joke, then. They
should say, "Can you please move, I can still see the conductor."
SN: [Chuckles] Yeah,
encouraging people to write solos for the contrabassoon.
Are you also encouraging them to write better parts for the
contrabassoon in orchestral literature?
SN: If I were in a
position to do so, I would. I don't have a
real wide influence at this point. I
with several composers in writing solo works for the contra.
they would write an orchestral piece I
would try my very best to get them to include a contra part, and to
make it sure it was a good one, not just
one of these "throwaway" parts where
you're doubling the cellos, or
doubling the tuba, not heard at all. That doesn't
sense. I always think that Brahms had the right idea in
his symphonies. He used either the contrabassoon or
the tuba. The contrabassoon is in
Symphonies 1, 3, and 4;
the tuba plays in Symphony no. 2. We
don't get in each other's way. He did use both instruments in the
Festival Overture, but they're independent
of each other. They very rarely play the same notes or the
same line, so he was real intelligent about that. Mahler
also had ideas in that direction. My
symphony is number 4, because it doesn't have a tuba. It's more
of a chamber work and the contra can be heard.
But even in the bigger works
where you have both instruments, tuba
and the contra, he sort of keeps 'em out
of each other's way so the different timbres can be heard. And he
'em in different functions from
BD: So he was really
a sympathetic composer.
SN: Yeah, I think so. Many
composers that write parts for the
contra, no matter how well-intended they are, just throw it in with
everything else and let it double
what somebody else is already doing. That really doesn't
do a whole lotta good.
doesn't make for a meatier
sound down there at the bottom?
SN: They think it
don't know. I'm quite convinced that if the whole brass section
is blowing away at a big
forte, you probably
can't hear the contrabassoon at
all. I doubt very seriously that you
could. It might add something to the overall timbre,
but you just really can't hear it very much.
if you take it away, wouldn't it lighten the sound a bit?
SN: Perhaps, perhaps. But
it is sorta frustrating to be sitting
and blowing at a double or triple forte,
and just being covered up by everybody else sitting around
you. It's just
not very rewarding to have that
BD: So that's why
you're trying to get solos written
trying to get solos written for it because I think even when they do
write for it in the orchestra, a lotta times it does wind up being
buried, unless it's a chamber orchestra piece like the Dvořák Serenade for Winds, for
example. That's very
nice because the
contrabassoon can be heard; or the
Mozart Serenade for 13 Winds,
if they let it be played
by a contra rather than giving it to the string bass, as so many people
do. That's also very nice 'cause it's an
independent part and you don't have
somebody competing with you in the
same register. Not that I'm not
a cooperative type and don't wanna share
things, but what's the point of writing for an instrument if nobody
can hear it?
BD: When you ask
someone to write you a piece, do you give
them any more parameters than just, "Write me a piece"?
SN: No. I would
talk to them about the instrument and give them some recordings of
things that I've done, so they get a
chance to hear it. Of course, you're usually approaching a
sympathetic soul in the first place, either
a bassoon player, or somebody who knows a bassoon player, or somebody
really into woodwinds. You talk to them a little bit and get them
used to the
idea about writing a solo for the instrument. It
isn't something that they agree to right
away, so you have them come and hear you play, or you
give them a tape so they get the sound of the instrument in their
ear. Then, of course, they have a lot of questions:
"What is the range of the instrument?", "What
can it do in terms of dynamics?", "Can it
play fast notes?", all this
kind of stuff. I will work with the composer.
Lotsa times they will send
me a sketch of something they've
written. I'll look at
it and I'll play it through and make some comments - not from a
compositional standpoint, but just in
terms of playability. Sometimes I'll
even throw a cassette on the machine and play for them what they've
written to let them hear how it sounds on
the instrument so they can
tell if it works or doesn't work, not from a compositional
standpoint, but just from a practical
performance standpoint. They don't wanna
write something that's unplayable, or something that doesn't sound
good. I've worked
with two or three composers that way, who've been real nice to take my
allow me to help them that way. But it's
their piece. I'm in no way a
composer, and I know my limitations.
BD: Sure, but your
experience as a player can help them out.
The contrabassoon is
not an instrument that people know as
well as the other ones. They don't teach it in the composition
- at least not in terms of soloistic capabilities - and people just
really don't know what it
can and cannot do.
BD: Maybe that's who
you should be contacting - the composition teachers and
the theoricians - to put in a plug
for the contrabassoon right at the
SN: I've tried as
much as I can. When one of the smaller orchestras I play with
around town is
premiering a work, I
will almost always talk to that composer afterwards and say, "You wrote
nice contrabassoon part in this piece and I really enjoy it.
Would you like
to think about writing a solo for the contra?" Sometimes
they're receptive, and sometimes they're not, so you just have to go
that way and
try to sell yourself without really
hitting 'em over the head, because most people, quite frankly, have
of writing a solo for the instrument.
BD: But if they wrote
a poor part for it, will you tell them
that it could've been a little more interesting, or that it was just a
SN: Well, I try to be
these things and try to find some of
the stuff that they did that was good and bring that out first.
"I wish you could've made more of that, or maybe given it a little
bit more to do," or, "You had a really
good idea but it doesn't work well on this particular
instrument." I try real hard not to come down on any composer in
any way, 'cause I wanna encourage them, not discourage
them. I don't
want them to think of me as an unpleasant person who's gonna be real
judgmental if they try to write
something for me. I wanna try to be
and try to be upbeat
encouraging to them.
BD: I assume that
quite a bit of the
material you play was not originally
written for the contrabassoon.
true. I do a lot of transcriptions.
CD I had out - "The Big Bassoon" - all
those pieces were written for me, so
that was sort of an exception.
The pieces that are gonna be on my second
CD mostly are transcriptions that were written for either the bassoon
or for some other instrument
that have been
transcribed, or I simply sit down and read off the original music. Three pieces were written for alto sax!
easy. You just change the clef and
change the key signature and you play
it! It's not a big deal.
So it works well. And bassoon
music, of course, works well too.
BD: Have you tried
playing a Vivaldi piccolo
concerto or something like that just for
SN: I haven't done
that yet, but I've got some Vivaldi bassoon concertos that I've done,
which I enjoy very
much. Right now I'm taking a real
hard at look at some flute
music that was written by Bach. I'm
thinking about doing an all-Bach
program one of these days, so if I can make
that work I sure will.
tongue-in-cheek] Bach on the contrabassoon!
SN: Yeah, why not? I
think if he had
known what it could do, he probably would've given it a chance.
But he was a
composer, of course, that predated the instrument. Well, I
don't know if he
predated it or not, 'cause Handel wrote for it, but in the field that
was writing - church music and cantatas - he wouldn't have had any use
for it. So I can't really fault him for
not using it. And the
instrument they had back then was not very well developed, it wasn't
didn't have very many technical capabilities. I
always marvel at the Vivaldi bassoon concerti knowing the instrument
they had back then. There were only nine or ten keys on the
instrument, and for those people to be
able to execute difficult music like that with a severely limited
keywork capability was amazing.
BD: Very much like
the valveless horns
SN: Yeah! Sure.
What they did was amazing.
BD: When did the
bassoon and then the contrabassoon come into what we now would
SN: I would say
early-to-mid-1800s. By the late
Classical or early Romantic period it's pretty much the way it is now.
BD: Did they progress
together, or was it first the bassoon and then the contra?
SN: The bassoon
first, and then the contra. The contra
really isn't as well developed as the bassoon. I
think it's as far as it's gonna get, but it hasn't got the huge number
keys that the bassoon has, and all
the alternate fingerings and stuff that the bassoon has, 'cause most
feel it doesn't need to have all the technical capabilities 'cause it
doesn't have to do that as often. The
parts for the contrabassoon are, by and large, much simpler than
the regular bassoon, or the little
bassoon. They're playing bass lines or
they're doubling the cello part. Once in a while you'll get a
melodic line, but it's not usually terribly
difficult. I don't mean
that in a bad way, but I
think that people who make the instrument
saw that it didn't really need to have all the bells
and whistles that the regular bassoon had,
so they just haven't done it. The Fox
bassoon company in this country has
made some advances. They put some rollers on the instrument and
you a couple different
options in terms of octave keys, and that special E-flat
key we talked about before. But there's
no contrabassoon in the world that has both A-flat keys that the
has. I guess people just realize that they
don't need it, so they don't make it.
BD: Would you
like to have it?
SN: Oh, sure, 'cause
it gives you more opportunities
different fingerings, depending on
what key you're playing in. Not that you
use it all the time, but it comes in handy.
BD: Have you had your
instrument modified at all?
SN: I ordered an
instrument to be built, and I specified the keywork that I wanted to
have on it.
My contrabassoon was built back in 1977. It's gonna be
twenty years old in May. It's gonna have a birthday.
But I made a whole list of things that I wanted them to do, most
of which they could. Some
things they didn't offer as options, so, obviously, I couldn't have
them, but I have some extra trill keys and some extra rollers that I
had built on to it.
That was not with the idea that I would be doing anything like I
am now. Twenty years ago I had no idea, but I
just wanted to have as much stuff on there as I could have to increase
do you modify it little by little
every year, or every five years?
SN: I had some work
done on the octave keys a couple
years ago. I had them made larger and also moved down a little
not actually for a technical reason, but I was having trouble
with some tendonitis in my left thumb. I
realized it was because
I was having to stretch, a real big
stretch, a big reach to get to the octave keys, and I had developed a
real problem in my left thumb as a result. So
they lengthened the two octave keys and moved them a little bit lower
to make it easier to play. So you can have
them do things
like that if you want and they'll do what they can to accommodate
BD: They should make the
Nigro model contrabassoon.
SN: [Chuckles] It'd
be nice, but I don't see it happening.
BD: You don't need to
mention names, but are there any others who are trying to make it as a
SN: There's a young
lady in South America
of Buenos Aires], but she plays in one
of the orchestras down there and has done several concertos with that
that there are people in this country, too, who have also
done concertos. For example, the Gunther Schuller Contrabassoon
Concerto was premiered in 1978 by Lewis Lipnick, the
contrabassoonist in the Washington, D.C. orchestra. It was
written for him. He commissioned it and premiered
it, and it was played
a couple years
later by the contrabassoon player in Pittsburgh. Donald Erb has
written a concerto for Gregg Henegar, the contrabassoon player who's in
Boston now, but previously was in Houston, and that's where he
premiered it in 1984. So there have been
some other players
who have done some works. I don't know if
anybody is crazy to do it to the extent that I have. I've done
more or less the recital route rather than the orchestra route, if for
no other reason that I'm not a full-time member of any orchestra. I'm a freelance
player around Chicago, and I play with some of the smaller
orchestras. If I can talk 'em
into lettin' me do a concerto, I
certainly will, but that doesn't
often happen, so my only choice is to do recital work instead.
BD: But you also play
with the Chicago Symphony when they need you.
They joke about putting me on pension. I've
been a substitute with them for 22 years!
[Laughter] So at least I've got
some longevity down there, but I'm not a full-time performer, so I
don't feel like I'm in a position with them,
or any of the other groups, to really
insist upon any type of a solo thing. I
can offer it
to them and I
can tell them what I've got available,
and if they want
me to do it, hey, that's terrific, but...
BD: ...but it gives
you the cachet that you
are on that level to be able to perform with them on a regular basis.
SN: [Modestly] I
suppose that's true, I suppose that's true.
BD: Does that give
good feeling as far as your professional standing?
SN: Oh, of course! Sure it does.
It really does, and it helps you to keep
your standards up, too. When you play with fine musicians
all the time like that, you always play better. It's contagious. I had a really
nice opportunity about two years
ago. It was in the spring of 1995 that I
got to do the Gunther Schuller
Contrabassoon Concerto with
Symphony and Maestro Schuller conducting. Talk
about standards, having the composer right on the podium conducting
play. That was a wonderful opportunity for me, and I enjoyed that
BD: Was he pleased
SN: I think so. He's
not one that
really puts a lot of accolades on people. He'll tell you if
there's something he doesn't like, there's no question about that, and
doesn't say too much, then I think that usually means that he's
BD: Were you able to
something in there and show him an even better way, or some extra
brilliance in one of his parts?
SN: We talked a
little bit about the cadenza in a couple of the movements and different
ideas about how it should be played. He pretty much let me do the
way I wanted, so I
think that was a good thing. He did the
movement very, very slowly, so I had to work out my
breathing to be a little different than I had originally planned. But these
were things that were pretty much a cooperative effort between the two
of us, and
I felt that it was a learning experience for us both. I don't
mean that I could teach him anything about composition, but just in
terms of the instrument and in terms of the way it's played.
BD: You don't do any
kind of circular
breathing, do you?
SN: No, I've
never done that. I did study with Arnold Jacobs for about three
years just in order to be able to use my air capacity to its peak, so I
I've got a pretty good command over my four and a half liters. I
think it's hard
when you have a really high-flow-rate instrument. It's
easier, for example, with an oboe,
where you're just letting small amounts of air out at a time. You
can sort of keep that going with however they do it with their cheeks,
and sort of breathe in through your nose while you're letting it out
through your mouth. But when you've got an instrument
like the contrabassoon or the tuba where these huge quantities are
through, I just think
it's a lot less practical. It's not as easy to do.
BD: Do you need as
much air for
the contrabassoon as for the tuba?
SN: Not as
much as for the tuba, but certainly more than you would need for the
little bassoon. Actually, I think the
bassoon and the flute are very similar in terms of their demands of the
amount of air because
when you play
the flute a lot of the air spills over the top and
it's wasted. It doesn't all go into the instrument. The
nearly as much air as the contra; the contra takes substantially more. And in terms of equating it with
instruments people know, I do a little bit of saxophone
playing - more
or less as a hobby - and I think of the bassoon and the tenor
saxophone as needing about same amount of air.
The contrabassoon is much closer to the baritone sax in
terms of the amount of air you need to put through it to keep it
BD: Should the baritone or the bass saxophone
player, or the
clarinet player get their own shots too?
certainly can't speak for them, but I
don't see why not! Any instrument
has its own individual timbre and certainly deserves to be heard, and
can write for it and people can play it, I don't see why not. I
just get a little distressed after a while that every symphony
concert you go to the soloist is always a violinist,
pianist, or maybe once in a while a cellist or a flute...
maybe the French horn. But you hardly ever have a trombone
soloist or a viola
contrabassoon or an alto clarinet or something like that. It
just doesn't happen. For
example, I love the
Donizetti English Horn concerto. It's a little corny,
it's a little wacky, but it's a wonderful piece and you never ever see
it programmed anywhere. I just think
that's such a shame that these other instruments don't have a
chance to do
BD: Is there a
those who play
contrabassoons in the big orchestras?
SN: Oh yeah, I
is. I really do. There's
International Double Reed Society which is made up of oboists and
bassoonists. They have an annual
and everything, and you always see there a great
fraternity of bassoon players in general,
but contrabassoon players in particular, 'cause there's not as
many of us. And the few times
that I've gone to take auditions for orchestras, you always see the
same people and they're
sitting around talking and exchanging stories and
stuff. They seem to be a real fraternal group.
because of our small numbers, you get to know people, and it's not
really such a
competitive atmosphere, it's more or less a fraternal one, which is
could be exceptions and maybe there are people that don't
that mold, but by and large, contrabassoon players are fairly
laid-back people and there's pretty much a lotta camaraderie between us.
BD: I would assume
that if you don't have that kind of mechanism built in, you kind of
SN: I think
so. Most of the contrabassoon
have been really nice, friendly people, and it doesn't seem like they
cutthroat mentality that you find with instruments where there's a lot
more competition. That's sort of engendered by the instrument, I
BD: Is that part of
your own personality?
SN: I've often
wondered if people that had
that personality choose the contrabassoon, or if the contrabassoon
you that way. I don't know. It's the old
question - which came
first, the chicken or the egg? I don't
know. I consider myself to be
sort of a laid-back person, not
real uptight or cutthroat or anything, and I think maybe the
instrument suits me for that reason.
Did you start out on the bassoon and move to the larger instrument?
SN: I started out as
flute player believe it or
not. That was my first instrument. The flute is
a wonderful instrument, but I just was not a very good
flute player; it wasn't my instrument. Everybody's
gotta find the instrument for them, so
I played the flute for a couple of years until I discovered the
bassoon, and then of course I took over the bassoon right away.
It's sort of a funny story: When
I was in high school I was in the
Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago. I was
bassoon player who wound up at the bottom of the section who got stuck
the contra! I know that
this happens very often, but the thing is, once I
got started I never wanted to stop, 'cause I really dug
instrument. I really liked it and I realized that this was
something I could do
and I could be happy doing. So that's
how it happened. I was just at the bottom end of the heap, and
had to play the contrabassoon on Death
and Transfiguration, which
was the first piece I had to do. So that's how it
a long time ago.
BD: And you've been happy with it ever since.
SN: Really. Yeah.
I didn't start doing the solo thing
for a long, long time, 'cause, quite frankly, I didn't really consider
that was a possibility. I just
tried to make sure that I got to play the contrabassoon in the
whenever one was required. Everybody else
seemed to want to play first bassoon all the time,
so they never had to deal with me, 'cause I was more happy playing
contrabassoon. That was what I wanted to
do. I got my first
taste of the contrabassoon solo thing when I was a student at
Wind Ensemble was
doing a piece by Henk Badings, a concerto for bassoon, contrabassoon,
wind ensemble. At that time it was a
fairly new piece, and since I was the only one that wanted to
have anything to do with the contrabassoon, I was the one that got to
the contra solo line. And it
really got me thinking about maybe doing some stuff with the
contrabassoon that would be of a solo nature. But
back then there was
written for the instrument, so it took a long, long time to actually
BD: Do you
make your own transcriptions?
SN: I do, up to a
point. There's a lot of things that you don't really have to do a
lot with, as we mentioned, like the saxophone music. All you
need to do is change the clef and the key signature, though
some isolated things don't fit into the register too well. Some
of the bassoon pieces I can play right
music, unless there's an
extended amount of notes up in the upper
register, which really isn't practical for the contra. It doesn't
go quite as high as the bassoon and it
doesn't really have the carrying power in the extreme upper
register. Sometimes certain
sections that were written for bassoon in the upper register have to be
a lower octave,
or adjusted in some way. But, like I said
before, I'm not really a composer, so any adjustments I would do would
be of a very minor nature.
BD: But you're a
professional on the instrument, so you know
what works! Even so, are there times
when the composer
just looks at you and says, "Do it."?
SN: Yeah, there have
like that, so I said,
"Well, I'll do the best I can." That's all you
can do. It's like, "The
customer is always right." The composer's always right, and if
wanna change it... That's a
very personal thing. A composer has written some music and that's
music. You can make suggestions and
you can make
comments, but in the end it has to be his or her piece.
BD: Are you basically
pleased with what
has been written for you?
SN: I am. Some things haven't been done
yet. I would like to see some pieces written for the contra that
have some elements of jazz in them. I think the
contrabassoon would make a really neat jazz instrument.
I've often thought that it could be used in a jazz ensemble
instead of a bari sax or a string bass. It
could have some little solos because it has that kind of a sound, and
actually seen that aspect of it yet. They
as a more serious instrument, which is okay, but it can also be a
lot of fun and it can also sort of swing. I
would like to
see composers write some of that in a piece for me.
Not that I'm really adept
at that kind of thing. I certainly would have to work at it a
because, being a bassoon player and a contrabassoon player all these
years, I don't improvise, and I haven't really done a lotta jazz
playing. But I think the
instrument's got a good capacity for that.
BD: We're kinda dancing around it, so let me ask
question: what's the purpose of music?
SN: Oh, boy. The
purpose of music... Music is a universal
language. It can
express things that you can't say. Basically,
that you feel, that you can't ever really describe, you can do with
your music. At
least that's the way I
feel about it. It
taught music for a lot of years to children and
a lot of kids have questions about it too. I just say,
to this and try to think about what's happening," or, "How does it
make you feel?" Not
that all music is programmatic, 'cause it isn't, but music
gives you a mood or it
gives you a feeling
or makes you think about certain things. It conveys things that
always do. That's just
basically the way I think about it.
the music that you play be for everyone?
SN: No, no, I
don't think so. It would be
if everybody could enjoy your music, but there are
certain cultural differences
that sometimes make it different for different people. For
example, I love to listen to sitar music from India, but it took me
a long time to get into
that because of the microtones they use and the different scales
different patterns. For people to get into music that's
from their background is sometimes a difficult thing.
I have no doubt that somebody from India
listening to me play the contrabassoon might not be all that pleased
with what they hear because it's just a whole different thing.
to listen to different styles of music, but nobody is gonna
kinds of music. They have to decide for themselves.
BD: Are you pleased with where you
are at this point in your career?
SN: [Thinks for a
moment] I would like to
be further along, or younger - one of the two. [Laughter]
I wish I had
started doing this a little bit earlier, but basically I'm glad with
what's happening. I just
wish things could happen a little faster, I suppose.
I suppose everybody would like
to be a little further ahead. I'm further
ahead now than I thought I would be two or three years ago. Things have happened for me the last couple of
have been really good, and I'm real
pleased with that.
BD: Such as the
SN: The recording,
I think, was a big move in the right direction. I wish I had
done that earlier, but, thinking
[Interjects] I don't think the
time was right, earlier.
true. I don't think the time was right earlier, and I don't think
I, personally, was ready earlier.
When I think about when I did that, if I had tried to do it five
years earlier, I don't think I had the musical maturity at that
point and maybe not
even the technical finesse to do what I did when I did it.
So maybe I wish
I had developed, ten or 15 years earlier so I could've started
doing it sooner.
BD: We see this in opera
singers all the time, the basses tend to develop a little bit later,
then they last
SN: That's true.
intend to live to be 100. I have a long ways to
go and I wanna
play for a long, long time. I
I can to keep myself healthy and in good shape so I can play the
instrument. It's a big instrument to haul around and
it requires a lot of energy to play. You've gotta be healthy and
clear mind. It's important to
try to keep yourself physically and mentally healthy so you can perform
to your best ability. Then the
BD: Was the
record your idea, or somebody else's suggestion?
SN: The first
one was actually
my idea, and it came
in sort of a
roundabout way. I used
to call myself the "premiere
contrabassoonist" before I got this "crusader
on the contrabassoon"
idea. Because I had premiered so
many pieces that people had written - not
that they had all been written for
me, though a couple were - but I had premiered
pieces that had
been written and never played. Then I suddenly realized
I had enough pieces
that had been written for me to fill up a compact disc!
I had about an hour's
worth of music and I thought, "Gee, wouldn't it be nice for these
composers - that
was my principal thought - for these composers to have
their piece recorded, so people could hear them. At
the same time I got
these pieces published, so people could buy them, and
it wouldn't be bad for me, either,
to be on a disc, so it was sort
of a win-win situation for everybody.
BD: But it's
interesting that you put yourself third.
SN: The performer is never the main thing.
without them there'd
be no music. And the instrument has
always been a
primary focus of mine, to get people to hear the instrument, not to get
people to hear me. I'm just the
the instrument. The instrument is the
BD: Are you part
of the instrument, or does
the instrument become part of you?
SN: [Takes a deep
breath] The two of us are
really inseparable. People
always caution you
against relating too closely to your instrument. It's
not a good thing to
equate yourself with an instrument, but I've
really gotten to the point that if somebody
makes a nasty comment about the contrabassoon I take it personally. I know that's not always a healthy thing,
but I just relate so much to that instrument it's become a part of my
personality. It's impossible for me to think of myself out
of context with that.
BD: But you still put it aside, put it in the case
at night and close up the
SN: Oh, of course. Sure. I'll go out to a movie, or go out and do
enjoy myself, but it's
always on my mind and it's always a part of me. It's
gotten to be that way. I think
most musicians, to a
certain extent, do get to that point. Maybe not to the extent
that I have,
because it's an
instrument, and maybe because I find myself so much on the defensive
a lot of
people don't always say nice things about it. The contrabassoon
the least-known instrument in the orchestra. Nobody
knows what it sounds like 'cause they don't get a chance to hear
it. Not too many people could draw a picture of it.
big unknown quantity to a lotta people. Of the instruments that
members of the orchestra the contrabassoon player sort of the
true. People know the piccolo, and they know the bass
SN: ...and the English
horn. So we're just trying, maybe in an
obnoxious way, to just keep pushing it out in the front so
people see it all the time and hear it all the time
so at least they know it's there. They can
dislike it if they want to
dislike it, but at least they have to know what it is and give
it a chance. Listen to it first and if you tell me you don't like
you've heard it, that's fine. But don't
you don't like it before you've given it a shot.
BD: I have a feeling
you will have really succeeded when the audience goes home and
says, "Gee... there was no contrabassoon tonight!"
SN: That would
be nice! That would be nice.
It's only in about 35 percent of the
orchestral compositions at this point. I
read that somewhere,
so about one piece out of every three, or one piece on each
program usually has a
contrabassoon part. There are whole
programs, of course, that go by that don't have contrabassoon parts at
all. You get more in Romantic and modern
music, but more often than not it's a
visitor to the orchestra just on part of the concert.
BD: A regular
SN: A regular
visitor. A regular visitor.
BD: I hope
that it's now being written as part of the standard setup.
SN: I think it
is. In orchestration classes that are
being taught, when they give
people score paper to
write their orchestra piece, there's always a line for the
is good. It's real
important, and I think sometimes in chamber music they tend to
about it more often than they used to, which is good, too.
know that there are even a couple of
pieces which call for two contrabassoons.
Yes, as a matter of fact the Symphony's
gonna be doing the complete Firebird
or three weeks
from now, and that's got two contrabassoon
Spring is another one. There's two pieces by
Also Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder.
So that's five pieces that I know right off the bat that have
BD: What about a duet
SN: Donald Erb wrote Five
Red-Hot Duets for two
BD: Is that a good
SN: I think
so! I like it. It's an
interesting combination, the way
he uses 'em. He writes the
contrabassoon quite a bit in
the upper register and then confines the second contrabassoon more or less to the lower register, so they almost sound like
two different instruments. It's
very clever the way he did that.
It's a difficult piece, very difficult.
still think you should find a piccolo
player and go out as a duet.
Well, you never know what could
happen. I've tried to get some clarinet
players interested in doing the Beethoven duets for clarinet
and bassoon. Maybe I can get some bass clarinet player or
something, but I
haven't really been successful yet. So we'll see. The
contrabassoon has to play transcriptions. There
are going to be more
pieces written for it, but you're never gonna
have enough material that's original. When
I first started out doing
this, I was real adamant. The first two or three years that I
recitals, I wasn't gonna play anything that wasn't written for
the contrabassoon, period. I was gonna be a real purist, and
after two years I ran outta
Karr was the one got me into doing transcriptions. I had sent him
recording of my stuff and had written him a note expressing
about that, and he said, "Hey, get over
that. If you're
gonna play a solo on this instrument, you have to get out
of the hang-up about using transcriptions and play
music that that was written for other instruments..
There's no way around it." He
really cured me of that, and really opened up
whole new worlds to
me. Now I can think about playing music by
Cherubini or Rossini or Mozart on the
contrabassoon, and that's really neat! It works really well,
but you just have to realize that you're not
gonna do original works all the time. And actually it's good
in another way because you might play a
piece of music that
somebody recognizes. They've heard it
before, like a couple of movements from a Bach cello suite. They've heard
somebody play that, so they recognize the music. That way it's not always a brand new piece of music
that they're not accustomed to. It's
something they've heard before, but in a new context, so they can actually concentrate on listening to the instrument, not just the piece of music, which I think is good.
Coming back, for a moment, to the idea of becoming the instrument, I
can see, when you play it, that you have to hold onto it in a very
special and very intimate way.
You sort of surround the instrument, you
really do. When you sit to play it, you've
always got one foot behind the floor peg so it
doesn't slip, and the other leg sort of in front of the instrument to give
it something to rest against. So you sort
cradle the instrument with
your body. Then you're holding it with
and supporting it with the other, so you are surrounding the instrument in
have to be half athlete and half
SN: I think if you
extremely fat it would be
a problem because you
wouldn't be able to get close enough to play the instrument. And
weren't real agile it could be a problem, too. Also there is the issue
of just carrying the instrument around.
It's a big, heavy instrument
which weighs about 15 pounds, and
that's not counting the case, which
usually weighs another
15 pounds or so. So you have to be in some sort of decent physical shape just to be able to haul the
thing around up and down
the stairs and things like that.
BD: A bowling ball is 16
BD: Yeah. So you're
carrying around the weight of two bowling balls.
SN: Well it's good exercise. It's sort of a
circular thing - it's good
to do it because it keeps
you in shape, but then you're in shape because
you're doing it. Also
it's good for your lungs,
too. It does take a certain quantity of air,
you've gotta have good breath control to be
able to play it. It's almost
therapeutic - the
more you play it the more you develop your breathing capabilities! I find when I pick up the bassoon I can play it forever before I
have to take a breath, which
is wonderful! It's
nothing that I've done. I'm not
trying to pat myself on the back, but it's just
because of playing the contra so much you get
used to dealing with large volumes of air. You take in a full breath almost every time, so
as a result, when you're playing a smaller
that doesn't require as much air, you can just keep
going and going and going and going!
the Energizer Bunny!
BD: Have you ever
tried putting a contra reed on the single bassoon?
SN: Yes. Everything
comes out a half-step lower. So
play a low A on the bassoon if you put a
contrabassoon reed, but the timbre is not real good and it's sort
of a fuzzy sound.
BD: In the Nielsen Quintet,
you have to stick something in the bell (of the little bassoon) for the
low A at the end.
Is there anything like that for the
contrabassoon that you can do to make it a little
SN: I've never done that. First of
all, you're sort of limited in that the bell
already points down, so if you're gonna
stick something in there, it's probably going to
fall out unless there's
some way of
actually affixing it. There are some contrabassoons that are built to go down to a low A. Heckel builds one that has
detachable bell, so
you can choose either a short,
bell, which goes down to low C, or you can change it and put in this
connection which goes all the way down to a low A. So that is one possibility.
BD: Like more tubing on the bass trombone.
But the problem with that is that it
throws off the
scale and it
makes a lot of changes in the timbre. Plus
of the notes in the low register
are a little bit out of tune because of the
extra linkage. There is one
in Austria who does a little bit of solo work himself, who has built for himself a contrabassoon go down
to A-flat, which
must be just a horrible thing to have to
carry around. That
extra semitone, just from B-flat to an A,
adds over an
extra foot. So down to the A-flat we're talkin' another 18 inches, maybe. I'm not sure
that it's worth it, but I'm sure
he had a reason for doing it.
BD: There are Bösendorfer pianos that
have extra keys down at the bottom, so it's probably the
same kind of thing.
SN: I suppose that's true. I've
competed with those instruments in recital. I did a recital once on the
contrabassoon where we had one of those pianos
to deal with, and of course it reinforces all the low register which, for me, was
the worst possible thing that
could've happened. You can't run
In the end, though, you find it's all worth it.
is. It is.
sort of become my life, it really has. I used to resent it, I guess, when
people thought of me just as a
contrabassoon player, but now I think of
it that way. I don't like them thinking
of me as the
"big bassoonist." That's the one
that I've had to deal with since I've gotten
BD: I like it when you
messages on my phone: "Hi, it's Sue
Nigro, the contrabassoon player." It reinforces your cause.
You're reminding them that the
contrabassoon is out
there. Don't forget me.
SN: If I can leave some
sort of a legacy it would be to make
people more aware of the
instrument, and to be more willing to listen to it. And to like
it, of course. You know, I can't make them like it, but I
can hope that they'll like it, and I can do my part to make it sound as good as I possibly can, so they'll
have a favorable impression of it.
BD: Thank you for the
conversation. I appreciate it very much.
SN: Oh! My
© 1997 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on March 24, 1997. Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB later that year and again the following year, and on WNUR in 2004. This transcription was edited and posted on this website in 2008.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.