Monday, March 4, 2013

In Memoriam--William Bennett

By now many of you have heard the tragic news of San Francisco Symphony oboist William Bennet's brain hemorrhage and subsequent death yesterday on February 28th.  Bennet was performing the Strauss Oboe Concert at the time of his collapse.
you can read more here

The world has lost a consummate artist and wonderful person.

I think the first time I heard Bill Bennet's playing was way back when I was in high school.  Each week our local public radio station in Evansville, IN, would broadcast a show called SymphonyCast (or something like that, as memory serves) that featured full length, live performances of major symphonies.  For this small-town girl, the broadcasts were an incredible window into the repertoire and artistry of the world's finest orchestras. One week they featured the San Francisco Symphony performing Mozart's Oboe Concerto with William Bennett performing as soloist.  I was captivated by the performance--such sensitive playing, lovely sound, immaculate technique. Then the most memorable even occurred during the cadenza. He somehow wove in a short bit of La Marseillaise into a cadenza. To me that showed such playful daring! I was so impressed that he took that risk and the audience absolutely adored the moment as well since I could audibly hear their amusement. His risk payed off and produced an absolutely unforgettable performance and I immediately became a fan of his artistry and wit.

My Facebook account is FILLED with friends and colleagues posting and re-posting news articles of Bennett's passing and each post including a few words of their own about him.   A brief summary of descriptors includes,  "masterful musician," "profoundly beautiful playing," "exquisite oboist," "possessed blazing technique," "wonderful person," and the list goes on and on.  They're all true.

So many of us revered his playing deeply. We admired him as an artist musician, oboist, teacher, and human being.  But how many of us took the time to tell him this while he was living?

How often to do share your reactions with the performers who inspire you?  Do you let them know if you've enjoyed a performance? Except for applause,  the performers HAVE NO IDEA anyone enjoyed it. Audiences have been conditioned to applaud after a piece is finished much like Pavlov's dogs salivated in anticipation of food, so clapping doesn't really tell us much (unless it's REALLY LONG applause,  or INCREDIBLY LOUD and interspersed with CHEERS and STANDING OVATIONS--then we GET that the performance really meant something to the audience! :))

As performers we our buttressed by our own resolve to hone our craft in order to create/express music, and we work hard to share something special with our audiences, so WE NEVER TIRE to personally hear that someone has enjoyed what we do.  It confirms that what we do is relevant and has meaning to others outside ourselves/ colleagues and propels us to work harder, dig deeper,  bring more to an audience.

I encourage you to always GO backstage to tell a performer you enjoyed their performance (you might have to wait in line,  so be patient!). You'll probably leave the concert happy to have made a new connection with another human being.  My students usually comment,  "It was so great to meet performer "X!"  She was a nice PERSON."   Or send the performer a short email telling them what you most enjoyed,  or even (gasp) SNAIL MAIL the performer a short postcard or card mentioning that you enjoyed the performance. I'm not implying that you should  become a creepy, stalking fan; a simple bravo or recognition, or "thanks" is enough. If you're not sure what to say to a performer,  saying "thank for your performance,  I really enjoyed it" is a great start.  Or,  tell the performer which piece you enjoyed the most.  Or try to mention that you most enjoyed their expressive playing in a slow movement,  or that you were impressed with their technique in fast passages, or that you found their sound to be lovely. It doesn't need to be much,  and you don't need to be an "expert" at musical terms to say something. In fact,  one of the most memorable remarks I ever received was from a high school student who,  after my performance of the Mozart Oboe Concerto exclaimed,  "Wow!  You're like a NINJA on that oboe!"  I cherished what she meant,  and enjoyed the colorful simile immensely.

If you're not a performer,  know that your words DO MATTER. If you're a performer,  you understand how meaningful post-concert comments can be,  so pass on the goodwill and train your students to meet and TALK to performers too.  I once encouraged a student to talk to a "famous" performer after a concert and the student said to me,  "why should I tell them I liked the performance?  They must KNOW they're AWESOME."  What the student didn't understand is that some of the self-doubt and  and inner dialogue that happens when you are a beginner doesn't ever go away. The "I SUCK" moments happen for even the best musicians, it's just that the level of playing is higher.  The performer's ears become trained to listen for and correct minute deviations from  carefully honed technique, precision,  expressive nuances.  When practicing and in times of self doubt,  remembering words of praise and kindness can be a chorus of support giving life and reassurance to propel a performer back to trying new things, taking risks, and maybe even adding La Marseillaise into a cadenza.

If we take nothing from Bill Bennett's tragic and untimely death,  it is this:

Never miss an opportunity to tell someone you enjoyed their performance;  you never know when it will be their last. 

R.I.P Mr. Bennet. The world is better because of you.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

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