Contrabassoonist  Susan  Nigro

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Susan Nigro

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 [] which lists her accomplishments and future engagements.

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 get 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 it. 

BD:  Why does no one listen to it, ordinarily?

SN:  Well, first of all, very little has been written for it, really, in terms of solo works.  That's a big problem.  And I think a lot of times, it's not really well played.  A lot of times the contrabassoon winds up being played by the bassoon player who is at the end of the section, and is, understandably, resentful when assigned to play this instrument about which she or he doesn't really know, or care much.  It's unfortunate, but that, I think, is part of it.

BD:  So you are trying to present it in a different light?

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 Concerto, is a little short thing.  Two or three minutes later it's over and that's it.

BD:  So it's more of an effect.

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 nicely.

BD:  And yet there are not too many people who would go to a string bass recital, although there are some professional string bassists who do go around!

SN:  Sure, like Gary Karr, for example, who is a wonderful artist.  [See my Interview with Gary Karr.]

BD:  When he comes to town, do the two of you get together and commiserate?

SN:  [Chuckles]  Actually, believe it or not, I have corresponded with him, but I've never had the opportunity to meet him.  I'd like to do that someday.

BD:  Are contrabassoonists nice gals and nice fellows?

SN:  Oh, 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 the big clown?

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 time, time off that 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 contrabassoon jokes?

SN:  The jokes aren't just about 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 contrabassoon is exactly the opposite.  On the bassoon, we have what we call a whisper key; you press down to go into the lower register 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 or an 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 really have to think about what you're doing.  You really do.  And, of course, the embouchure 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 the opposite.

BD:  So it's more than just going from the violin to the viola, and stretching out.

SN:  Oh, yeah.  It is a bigger reach, and the upper register fingerings on the contrabassoon are completely different than on the regular bassoon.

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 contrabassoon to increase the resonance of low notes, which you don't do on the regular 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 to get 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 who consider 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 as "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 "tenor bassoon".

BD:  And the oboe is a descant bassoon?

SN:  [Chuckles]  We think of it as the soprano member of the contrabassoon family.

BD:  [Laughs]  Now your first record is called "The Big Bassoon".  Are you proud to have it called that?

SN:  I am, but it wasn't my idea.  It was suggested by Peter Christ, who heads up Crystal Records.  When he first 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 recording by 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?

Little Tunes SN:  Yeah!  Exactly.  Exactly.  So then on the second CD that's coming 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 bassoon 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 which 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 the other.

BD:  Now this, of course, is all with the standard German fingering system.

SN:  Yes, and of course the 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 French models?

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 shorter, 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, that's true, too.

BD:  [Laughs heartily]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You're 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 worked with several composers in writing solo works for the contra.  Certainly, if 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 make any 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 Academic 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 favorite Mahler 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 uses 'em in different functions from each other.

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.

BD:  It doesn't make for a meatier sound down there at the bottom?

SN:  They think it does.  I 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.

BD:  But if you take it away, wouldn't it lighten the sound a bit?

SN:  Perhaps, perhaps.  But it is sorta frustrating to be sitting there 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 happen.

BD:  So that's why you're trying to get solos written for you?

SN:  I'm 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 who's 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 suggestions and allow me to help them that way.  But it's still 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.

SN:  Absolutely.  The contrabassoon is not an instrument that people know as well as the other ones.  They don't teach it in the composition classes - 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 top.

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 a really 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 about it that way and try to sell yourself without really hitting 'em over the head, because most people, quite frankly, have never thought 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 boring part?

SN:  Well, I try to be diplomatic about 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 helpful and try to be upbeat and be encouraging to them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  I assume that quite a bit of the material you play was not originally written for the contrabassoon.

Big Bassoon SN:  That's true.  I do a lot of transcriptions.  The first 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!  It's very 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 effect?

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.

BD:  [Half 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 Bach 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 very refined.  It 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 and trumpets!

SN:  Yeah!  Sure.  What they did was amazing.

BD:  When did the bassoon and then the contrabassoon come into what we now would recognize as being standardized?

SN:  I would say probably the 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 of keys that the bassoon has, and all the alternate fingerings and stuff that the bassoon has, 'cause most people feel it doesn't need to have all the technical capabilities 'cause it doesn't have to do that as often.  The orchestra parts for the contrabassoon are, by and large,  much simpler than they are for 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 they've given 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 bassoon 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 to use 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?

contrabassoon 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 my technical capacity.

BD:  Then 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 bit - 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 you.

BD:  They should make the Sue 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 solo contrabassoonist?

SN:  There's a young lady in South America [Mónica Fucci of Buenos Aires] who plays in one of the orchestras down there and has done several concertos with that orchestra.   And I know 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.  [See my Interviews with Gunther Schuller.]  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.  [See my Interview with Donald Erb.]  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.

SN:  Yes.  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...

BD:  Does that give you a good feeling as far as your professional standing?

Schuller CD 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 the Omaha Symphony and Maestro Schuller conducting.  Talk about standards, having the composer right on the podium conducting while you play.  That was a wonderful opportunity for me, and I enjoyed that very much.

BD:  Was he pleased with you?

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 if he doesn't say too much, then I think that usually means that he's satisfied.

BD:  Were you able to find 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 slow 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 feel like 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 passing 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 bassoon doesn't take 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 going.

BD:  Should the baritone or the bass saxophone player, or the contrabass clarinet player get their own solo shots too?

SN:  I 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 if people 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 soloist much less a 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 that.

BD:  Is there a camaraderie amongst those who play contrabassoons in the big orchestras?

SN:  Oh yeah, I think there is.  I really do.  There's the International Double Reed Society which is made up of oboists and bassoonists.  They have an annual conference 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 always sitting around talking and exchanging stories and stuff.  They seem to be a real fraternal group.  I think just 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 nice.  There could be exceptions and maybe there are people that don't fall into 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 fall by the wayside.

SN:  I think so.  Most of the contrabassoon players I've met have been really nice, friendly people, and it doesn't seem like they have the cutthroat mentality that you find with instruments where there's a lot more competition.  That's sort of engendered by the instrument, I think.

BD:  Is that part of your own personality?

Italian Tunes SN:  I've often wondered if people that had that personality choose the contrabassoon, or if the contrabassoon makes 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.

BD:  Did you start out on the bassoon and move to the larger instrument?

SN:  I started out as a 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 a bassoon player who wound up at the bottom of the section who got stuck playing 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 the 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 somebody had to play the contrabassoon on Death and Transfiguration, which was the first piece I had to do.  So that's how it got started, 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 that was a possibility.  I just tried to make sure that I got to play the contrabassoon in the orchestra 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 Northwestern.  The Wind Ensemble was doing a piece by Henk Badings, a concerto for bassoon, contrabassoon, and 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 do 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 just nothing written for the instrument, so it took a long, long time to actually make that happen.

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 whole lot with, as we mentioned, like the saxophone music.  All you really 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 from the 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 brought down to 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 been times 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 they don't wanna change it...  That's a very personal thing.  A composer has written some music and that's his piece of 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 people haven't actually seen that aspect of it yet.  They see it 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 little bit, 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 the big 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, things 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 tells a story.  I've taught music for a lot of years to children and a lot of kids have questions about it too.  I just say, "Listen 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 words can't always do.  That's just basically the way I think about it.

BD:  Should the music that you play be for everyone?

SN:  No, no, I don't think so.  It would be nice 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 and different patterns.  For people to get into music that's different 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.  It's important to listen to different styles of music, but nobody is gonna like all kinds of music.  They have to decide for themselves.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Susan Nigro 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 years that have been really good, and I'm real pleased with that.

BD:  Such as the recording?

SN:  The recording, I think, was a big move in the right direction.  I wish I had done that earlier, but, thinking back...

BD:  [Interjects]  I don't think the time was right, earlier.

SN:  I think that's 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 or ten 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, but then they last longer!

SN:  That's true.  I fully intend to live to be 100.  I have a long ways to go and I wanna play for a long, long time.  I do everything 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 you've gotta have a clear mind.  It's important to try to keep yourself physically and mentally healthy so you can perform to your best ability.  Then the longevity comes with that.

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 a win-win situation for everybody.

BD:  But it's interesting that you put yourself third.

SN:  The performer is never the main thing.  The composer is because 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 person behind the instrument.  The instrument is the main thing.

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 case.

SN:  Oh, of course.  Sure.  I'll go out to a movie, or go out and do something else, and 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 unusual instrument, and maybe because I find myself so much on the defensive because a lot of people don't always say nice things about it.  The contrabassoon is 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.  It's just a big unknown quantity to people.  Of the instruments that are regular members of the orchestra the contrabassoon player sort of the wallflower.

BD:  That's true.  People know the piccolo, and they know the bass clarinet...

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 it after you've heard it, that's fine.  But don't tell me 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 visitor.

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 contrabassoon, which is good.  It's real important, and I think sometimes in chamber music they tend to think about it more often than they used to, which is good, too.

2 Contras BD:  I know that there are even a couple of pieces which call for two contrabassoons.

SN:  Yes!  Yes, as a matter of fact the Symphony's gonna be doing the complete Firebird ballet two or three weeks from now, and that's got two contrabassoon parts.  The Rite of Spring is another one.  There's two pieces by Varèse, Arcana and  Amériques.  Also Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder.  So that's five pieces that I know right off the bat that have two separate contrabassoon parts.

BD:  What about a duet for two contrabassoons!

SN:  Donald Erb wrote Five Red-Hot Duets for two contrabassoons.

BD:  Is that a good combination?

SN:  I think so!  I like it.  It's an interesting combination, the way he uses 'em.  He writes the first 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. 

BD:  I still think you should find a piccolo player and go out as a duet.

SN:  [Chuckles]  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 played 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 music.  Gary Karr was the one got me into doing transcriptions.  I had sent him a recording of my stuff and had written him a note expressing frustration 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 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.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  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.

SN:  Yeah!  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 of cradle the instrument with your body.  Then you're holding it with one arm and supporting it with the other, so you are surrounding the instrument in a way.

BD:  You have to be half athlete and half contortionist!

New Tunes SN:  I think if you were extremely fat it would be a problem because you wouldn't be able to get close enough to play the instrument.  And if you 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 pounds...

SN:  Is it really?

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, so 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 instrument that doesn't require as much air, you can just keep going and going and going and going!

BD:  Like the Energizer Bunny!

SN:  Exactly.

BD:  Have you ever tried putting a contra reed on the single bassoon?

SN:  Yes.  Everything comes out a half-step lower.  So you could 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 lower?

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 like a detachable bell, so you can choose either a short, straight bell, which goes down to low C, or you can change it and put in this whole other connection which goes all the way down to a low A.  So that is one possibility. 

BD:  Like more tubing on the bass trombone.

SN:  Exactly.  But the problem with that is that it throws off the scale and it makes a lot of changes in the timbre.  Plus some of the notes in the low register are a little bit out of tune because of the extra linkage.  There is one contrabassoon player in Austria who does a little bit of solo work himself, who has built for himself a contrabassoon which goes 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 interference with the piano.

BD:  [Chuckles]  In the end, though, I hope you find it's all worth it.

SN:  It is.  It is.  This has become my life, it really has.  I used to resent it 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 thing that I've had to deal with since I've gotten this "big bassoon" thing. 

BD:  I like it when you leave 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.  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 pleasure.

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© 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.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

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.