Q&A with Rice University Professor Benjamin Kamins
Since entering the world of professional music in 1972 as the associate principal bassoonist of the Minnesota Orchestra, Benjamin Kamins has enjoyed a wide-ranging career as an orchestral musician, chamber player, solo performer, and educator. In 1981, he was appointed principal bassoon of the Houston Symphony, a position he held until 2003.
He has served as a guest principal with other major symphony orchestras in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Boston, and New York. Mr. Kamins’ interests have also taken him into the world of historical performance where he performs on baroque bassoon.
He can be heard playing with many fine period instrument ensembles, especially Ars Lyrica Houston. Ben Kamins is also an Alexander Technique teacher through Alexander Technique International. An alumnus of the Music Academy (‘68, ‘69), he has been an Academy faculty member since 1999.
He is currently the Lynette S. Autrey Professor of Bassoon at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music.
BB: Hi Professor Kamins! It is such an honor to have the chance to interview you! Thank you for taking the time to help younger bassoonists by sharing a little bit of your experience and suggestions relating to the bassoon!
May I ask when and how you heard about the bassoon? Did you play another instrument before the bassoon, and if so, what made you decide to switch instruments?
BK: My brother found an antique bassoon in a junk store for $10 and gave it to my Dad as a gag gift. ( I really wish I had it now, but it was stolen out of the house in the 1960s!) I used to play with it when I was a little kid. It was not functional, but I was fascinated with the mechanism and general appearance. I first started on piano, but was put in a beginning winds class in Junior High (what everyone now calls middle school.) There were pictures of the instruments on the wall and the bassoon was the weirdest one.
In typical 12 year old boy fashion that was appealing to me. But the real question isn’t not why I started playing bassoon, but why I kept playing bassoon. I think the answer to that is the same for all instruments: at some point it became my artistic voice that was going to enable me to play great music.
BB: What was it like playing bassoon for the first time?
BK: The first note I was taught was for Eb in the middle register—one of the worst notes on the instrument if your reed isn’t decent (which it wasn’t) and you don’t know to add 2 and the Bb key in your right hand. It sounded awful. I looked up at at the band teacher with great uncertainty and asked if it was supposed to sound like that. He assured me it was, and I just accepted it the way a young person does! I play Eb a lot better now.
BB: Did you know you were going to be a bassoonist pretty early on?
BK: By the time I was 14 I knew I wanted to be a professional musician. BB: In your opinion, how is the bassoon similar and different compared to other instruments?
BK: The bassoon is more complicated for many historical reasons too numerous to get into! It is a large instrument that needs to be played like a small one as the aperture of the reed is so small and the resistance is so great. It is also a double reed instrument which makes it dramatically different from the other instruments (other than the oboe, of course.) All woodwind instruments are fundamentally constructed on the same principle. The holes open and close to make the vibrating column of air longer or shorter. Fingerings really start to change when you get into the overtones and need to use cross-fingerings.
BB: Why did you decide to become a bassoon professor, and what is it like teaching at a prestigious school such as Rice University?
BK: To be honest, I actually never planned to become a bassoon teacher. I just wanted to become a great musician who played great music with other great musicians. However, the teaching became an interest as I continued to work and took opportunities that were presented to me. I very gradually became more and more fascinated with teaching until I was offered an opportunity to do it full-time at an institution that appealed to me due to the extraordinary level of the students and faculty.
BB: What is a typical day like for a bassoon professor at a major university?
BK: Being available to my students. Helping them to see the value in the work and to realize that is the road to their dreams.
BB: What do you think are some the biggest challenges for bassoonists?
BK: Because the quality of much of our repertoire isn’t very good, it is a challenge to be taken seriously as a musician by other musicians.
BB: Do you have any tips for musicians starting off on the bassoon, or for younger bassoonists who are trying to get better on bassoon?
Practice your fundamentals (scales, long-tone, intervals) every day.
Use the correct fingerings--no shortcuts.
Find a note everyday that you love the sound of.
Base your work for that day on making all the notes sound like the one you love. This way you build on what you like, not on what you don’t like.
BB: Are there any bassoon stories that you remember vividly from over the years?
BK: When my son was in high school he asked me at the dinner table if I ever wanted to go bungie-jumping. (I told him I didn’t need to go bungie-jumping as I had played the Rite of Spring in Carnegie Hall.) I was sitting in the orchestra during a very slow second rehearsal of the day. Karrie Pierson, the second bassoonist and all-around great human being and musician, said in her distinctive voice, “You know, sometimes I sit here with this stick lying across my leg and think this is a really weird way to spend your life." I thought that was a statement of great truth that was also incredibly funny!
For more information about Professor Benjamin Kamins, including videos and more on his background, please check out his profile page.