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A Day in the Life: Q&A with Julia Lockhart, Principal Bassoon for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

"My first memory of seeing the bassoon was in a Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra kids' concert in elementary school. A couple of years later, I also saw a couple of the older kids playing it in band. I was playing clarinet at the time, but I wanted to switch to an instrument that was more unusual. I remember looking at close-up pictures of bassoons in books, and being fascinated by the beautiful intricacy of the keywork."
- Julia Lockhart

Julia Lockhart is Principal Bassoon for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. She is a native of Calgary, where she began playing in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra as a substitute musician at age sixteen. Her teachers have included Bernard Garfield, Nadina Mackie Jackson, Jesse Read, Frank Morelli and Michael Hope.

She is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she earned a Bachelor of Music in bassoon and a Diploma in harpsichord. Her Master’s degree was completed at Yale and UBC.

Julia was kind enough to take the time to share her experiences and amazing thoughts on the bassoon in April 2022.

BB: Hi Julia! It’s such an honor to have the chance to interview you, thanks so much for your time! Vancouver, Canada is actually one of my favorite cities in the world!

Could you share a little bit about your childhood and how you got into music?

JL: First of all, Donovan, thank you for all of your wonderful work in promoting the bassoon to music students. I applaud your curiosity and your initiative in creating this website, and of course your love for the bassoon.

As for my background, I grew up in Calgary, Alberta. My parents aren't musicians, but my grandfather played both organ and violin for enjoyment. He strongly believed we should take music lessons, and he had my parents put my sisters and me in piano and string instrument lessons. I began piano around age 8, and loved it right from the beginning. A couple of years later, I started learning the violin, but it was junior high school band class where I discovered that the bassoon was what I was most excited about. My grandfather was so pleased about that that he bought my first bassoon, a Schreiber, when I became more serious about pursuing it.

BB: That is really cool! How did you first hear about the bassoon, and what made you decide to switch to this instrument? JL: My first memory of seeing the bassoon was in a Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra kids' concert in elementary school. A couple of years later, I also saw a couple of the older kids playing it in band. I was playing clarinet at the time, but I wanted to switch to an instrument that was more unusual. I remember looking at close-up pictures of bassoons in books, and being fascinated by the beautiful intricacy of the keywork.

BB: What was it like playing bassoon for the first time?

JL: The first time I tried bassoon was in a band class near the end of seventh grade. I was excited, and I remember worrying that I wouldn’t be able to make a sound. Fortunately, it made a big sound for me right away, and I took it home that evening with a beginner bassoon band book, in order to teach myself some more notes.

BB: What are some of your favorite pieces to play on bassoon?

JL: My favourite music to play is anything from the Baroque era- especially Handel, Bach, and Vivaldi. There’s nothing more fun than playing a fantastic continuo bass line with the cellos, basses, and harpsichord.

BB: What is it like being a professional bassoonist? What is a typical day like for you as a professional musician in a major orchestra? JL: The first thing to get used to is that it’s much more fast-paced than when you were in music school: a full-time orchestra plays different programs every week- often more than one program. The three positions in our bassoon section are all challenging in their own ways. As Principal, my playing duties are pretty clear, but I also decide who plays which pieces and make sure it’s all as equal as possible. One of the main things a Second Bassoon needs to do is play softly and in tune, especially in the low register. That’s much more sensitive and difficult of a role than it might seem, and often not enough credit is given to how much the Second anchors the winds. The big challenge of being Associate Principal is the versatility: often, you play first bassoon (usually in the concertos), and then contrabassoon in the same concert. You sometimes play second bassoon, too. Those big switches require a lot of quick adjustment. As you can see, all of the bassoon roles are quite unique. A typical day has two rehearsals, or a dress rehearsal and concert. When you're back at home, you also have to practice the music for next week, and work on reeds. It's really important, though, to make time for other things that you enjoy. That can sometimes be easier said than done, but whenever I spend time working in the garden, it rejuvenates me.

BB: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for musicians considering the bassoon for the first time? JL: The two most important things are to have a reed that works well, and an instrument in decent playing condition. Without those things, every aspect of playing will be harder than it needs to be, and subsequently, it’s way easier to get discouraged. Also, take some lessons rather than trying to figure it all out on your own. A teacher will show you all the good habits, which is more efficient! I sometimes see ads for apps that try to take the place of a piano or guitar teacher. I’m sure they’re fun to use, but a real person’s input is really important.

BB: The pandemic has been very difficult for music organizations and schools around the world over the past 2 years. What was it like being a professional musician and teaching bassoon to university students during Covid? Are things beginning to get back to normal? JL: Things are mostly back in person now, with exceptions here and there. I wasn’t sure what online teaching would be like, but I ended up really enjoying it. My students accomplished a whole lot, in spite of the disadvantages. I appreciated how readily they made the adjustment! A particularly meaningful thing to come out of online teaching is that I got to do a couple of virtual seminars with students on managing performance anxiety. It led to a new initiative that I am proud of- my VSO colleague Olivia Blander and I created a new six-session class together on this subject, for the VSO School of Music. We just recently started teaching the class, and it feels great to be helping people deal with this challenge. I want to do much more of this, as it's not a regular part of formal music education, and I believe that really needs to change.

BB: One of the really interesting styles of bassoon that you were telling me about was the unique combination of duets between guitar and the bassoon, which is definitely really cool! What inspired you to be interested in this combination of instruments?

JL: One of my former teachers, Jesse Read, was my inspiration. He recorded two beautiful albums of duets with classical guitarist Michael Strutt: Café Palermo, and Stroll in the Cool. Most of the pieces are their own adaptations and arrangements of Piazzolla, Portuguese fado music, and much more. I highly recommend all your readers listen to the beautiful artistry of those recordings. They very much inspired me to create and play arrangements of my own for this combo. Of course, you need your guitarist friend to make sure that what you wrote works well on the instrument. But the balance is just perfect, and the instruments are so well suited to each other.

BB: Are there any memorable bassoon stories that you remember in your life from over the years?

JL: One of the funniest things ever happened this past fall, at the VSO's Halloween concert. They encouraged us all to come in costume, so our Second Bassoon, Gwen, bought a horse head mask. She then came up with the idea of us doing a joint costume, of a cowgirl and a horse. This was easy for me, as I have some Western wear already! But Gwen even played the concert with the horse mask on, carefully putting her bocal and reed through the mouth. Everyone was laughing so much that it was almost impossible to play. The surprised expression of the horse mask made it all even funnier!

For more information about Julia Lockhart, including videos and her background, please check out her profile page.

Here's a link to a recent video featuring two solo pieces Julia played with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra strings:

Note: The Elgar Romance starts at 31:16. Julia's Piazzolla arrangement starts around 37:17.

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