Playing for Janie

Tonight, after she put her cello away, Janie tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Mom? Will you play for me?”

I looked up from my e-mail. “Play what?”

She held out the bassoon reed I’d bought on a whim when we’d picked up her cello at the music store.

I’ve acquired several of these whims over the years. I encounter one once in a while, aging bamboo held together with wired and coated thread, pristine in their plastic tubes. I look at it, think about it, tuck it away again.

I haven’t played, really played, the bassoon for almost fifteen years—and I don’t think I’ve opened the case for ten.  My point of pride is that I once played, a long time ago.

But see, I bought this reed  in front of Janie. Jane does not let go of things that interest her.  Music interests her.   And the idea that Mommy was a musician fascinates her.

I look at her hopeful expression.  I take the reed.  I sigh.  She bounds off to find the bassoon case in the back of my closet, buried in shoes.  While she’s gone, I stick the reed in my mouth to soften it up, unwilling to go find something to soak it in—why bother?

Oddly enough, this morning, over at Betsy Lerner’s place, I asked myself, in passing, why I’d quit music.  The answer was easy enough—I wasn’t talented, skilled, or interested enough to play professionally and there weren’t enough available opportunities—even for the player of a relatively uncommon instrument—to continue to be an active amateur.

It’s not particularly a solo instrument, not for someone at my level, or something to noodle around on without any particular purpose.  You don’t normally think of bringing a bassoon out at parties to impress your guests or at 3am to play out your existential angst,  unless  you truly hate your neighbors.

“All I see is this suitcase,” calls Janie. “It’s heavy.

“That’s it.  Bring it in here.”  She lugs it in, I set it on the couch, release the pitted catches.

The inside of the case smells a bit musty and some of the pads and one cork are off-color, but this is just to show my daughter what a bassoon really looks like, just for fun.  Just to see.

I put it together, slightly surprised I remember how.  I have two bocals—the curved metal tube that holds the reed— and when Janie holds them up, I choose one over the other without knowing why.

I hook the seat strap to the ring and perch on the end of the coffee table.  I adjust things to my liking, or what I think my liking should be, fit the reed on the end of the bocal, position my fingers, take a breath, blow.

The note—an F, I think—is louder than I remember, stronger than I thought it would be.

I try an F scale, since I’m there, and it sounds just like a scale, B-flat and all.  I try the lowest note on the instrument and it shakes the windows.  I try a high note or two, just for fun, just to see, and my fingers play the first bar and a half of The Rite of Spring, before the Centipede’s Dilemma kicks in and I lose the tune.

Janie is impressed anyway.

I send her to the piano to help me figure out what this note is, or that one, and when she starts picking out “Mary had a little lamb,” I join her, trying not to think too much about it.  She runs to get her recorder.  It’s in C, and I fumble around until I can match it, though I use the B-flat and pinch the reed because I don’t remember how to do a B-natural.

There’s clapping, and Sunny and my husband join us—they could hear us from downstairs. “That sounds good,” he says, almost as surprised as I am.  “Uh, I mean—”

“I know,” I say.  Isn’t that weird?”

“Play Twinkle Twinkle,” says Sunny.

And I do. 

My lips are buzzing now, and it’s beginning to frustrate me that I can’t figure out how to work all the keys, that I remember this much, but no more.  It’s better than I deserve, maybe, but still.  So I put it away, cleaning the pieces with cloths that should have been laundered a decade ago and belatedly recalling that bassoons accumulate as much spit as French horns—though bassoonists are usually more apologetic about it.

It should be cleaned, repadded, shined.  It doesn’t deserve to molder—literally—in a worn-out case.  This will be expensive for an instrument that most likely won’t be played as it deserves.

But instead of the closet, I set it along the wall next to my MIL’s venerable upright piano.  I toss the cleaning cloths in the laundry hamper.   And after I wash the tarnish off my hands, Janie and I search the Web for recorder and bassoon fingering charts, which I promise to print out at work tomorrow.

Just for fun.  Just to see.



“Why did you stop playing?”

I don’t remember.


Janie wanted to know what the opening to the Rite of Spring sounds like by someone who can actually play it.  On the way to a recording of that, I noticed this:

They’re called the Breaking Winds, out of the Eastman School of Music.  If you want to know what a bassoon (or four of them) can do when played by those who do have enough skill, talent and interest to be professionals and enough humor—not to mention upper arm strength—to pull off this kind of thing with utter aplomb, check out their Youtube channel.