What is success to you? – JW’s story

"...most of all, it is in the deep satisfaction that simply making music in my own honest way brings." JW is now 62, looking back at his musical pathway.

Starting to play

At 15 years old I started to play the saxophone. I liked Soft Machine! When I had played 2 years, coincidentally, I went to an improvisation workshop. The lessons were classical, I played jazz, pop, and improvisation stuff outside. This functioned really well, the only tiny conflict was around my sound, I started to play a metal mouthpiece.

“I had no idea…”

I wanted to go study visual arts. This choice was not based on my idea of what I wanted to become but simply on the fact that I liked drawing. My father and the dean of my secondary school talked me out of that. Architecture seemed the better choice, keeping both my father happy and allowing myself to draw.

I continued to make music while going to college, the same drill: classical lessons and improvisations workshops on pop music stages.

At a certain moment, I was in the third year of my architecture study, I was invited in professional ensembles. The other players were so much better than me! Rhythmically there were no problems, but then somebody wanted to tune a piece, and that was a shock, I had no idea what that was about… I remember of this period mostly what a confrontation this was with my own level, I was so insecure, I had no idea….”

Seeking an education

I needed to be educated, so I took some courses on music theory. Then, I started to earn money with playing in these bands, so I thought it would be possible to become a musician, and I changed studies. My teacher at the conservatoire was combining classical and contemporary music with jazz and pop himself, so that looked good.

At the conservatoire I was introduced to classical music, and I loved it. I took up the bassoon. This was a smart move! There was such a shortage of bassoon players. I got to play in the conservatoire orchestra, I was asked to be a member of a woodwind quartet – again, I was the one without experience and the least ‘educated’, but everything was wonderful. In fact, when talking about it, I now realise that I am a real ‘amateur’.

My first orchestra project was with Frans Brüggen, Rameau. We learned about baroque articulation and it was a bit like jazz. Also, this kind of blowing was so good, not classical at all. All the rest of classical playing was a mystery to me, the timing, the holding back, playing between the lines.

“Your sound is not acceptable”

Then, I played an intermediate exam for saxophone, and an external member of the jury, stated my sound was not acceptable. First of all, I thought that was an insult to my teacher. He understood and accepted that I did not strive for the classical tone. Then, I did not study the saxophone to become a purely classical saxophonist. But the examiner suggested I’d do an extra year of study to invest in developing my tone. I quit and only continued with the bassoon. My father worried a lot.

Improvisatin vs classical drills

My saxophone practise had developed in those years and continued to flourish: lots of improvisation groups and pop/jazz bands. Classical music playing was a lot more stress. Not because my instrument was new but because of the strictness, the perfectionism that seems to be a basic assumption. As a reaction I probably played without expression. In my free improvisation I benefitted from all the repertoire from classical music, not just the styles and sounds, structure, concept, but also simply the level of harmony: I became much better in being radically critical towards my intervals and modalities. Yes, you could call that a quality impulse.

My bachelor exam bassoon was hellish. All the prescribed repertoire and especially the unnatural situation… it felt like a purely technical test. I had an average grade, and I was very relieved. It was a pity that the exam came only 6 years after playing my first note on the bassoon, but, luckily, I continued to take lessons and courses.

All of a sudden one of the jazz band leaders, Sean Bergin, wrote a suite in which he used the bassoon, knowing that I played it. I had had my two separate practices so far, classical music on the bassoon, jazz and impro on the sax, and I had always been very critical on bringing the bassoon in because, you know, I have the choice of using the instrument which is best fit for the style in which I play.
I may be an amateur in how I approach things, but I know about quality, in everything I do.

My dreams?

When you ask me about my dreams, I can only say that I have always followed my dreams but that they never looked like concrete successes. I said yes to opportunities, and I just liked to play, in the broad sense of the word.

I am 62 years now, and 7 years ago we performed a John Cage piece which required a baritone saxophone – since then I started to study this instrument. Oh, recently I picked up the clarinet, there is this musical in which I will play bassoon, baritone sax, clarinet and bass clarinet.

Success is in the deep satisfaction of making music

You want to know what success is to me? Success is in many moments, when the audience is happy, when you play well. With the bassoon I play many concerts that people might not find too high profile, you know, with amateur choirs for instance. But then, when you play Mozart Requiem and Jupiter Symphony in a small town, full hall with people who never hear this music and come to see their neighbour sing, you can’t imagine how strong the excitement is, how deep the connection is!

Success is also that I managed to support my family and live from what I like to do, with my peculiar non-conventional practice. And most of all it is in the deep satisfaction that simply making music, in my own honest way, brings.”