Washougal Art & Music Festival

Talking with Carin Miller, maestra of the bassoon

The Oregon Symphony Orchestra's principal bassoonist and founder of Bassoons Without Borders is ready for her solo spotlight.

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Carin Miller, principal bassoonist of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.
Carin Miller, principal bassoonist of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

For anyone who has cared to learn how to play the bassoon at the professional level, patience is a necessity. So is meticulousness. The hours required to make the reeds for a bassoon mouthpiece would drive most people bonkers. This short video that shows Carin Miller, principal bassoonist of the Oregon Symphony, making reeds – two blades are needed to construct the mouthpiece – truncates the total amount of time spent by almost twenty minutes just for finishing a formed reed blank. Then she has to determine if the reed is good enough for concert performance. Miller estimates that one in every four reeds that she makes, makes the cut.

So endurance has been a forte for Miller, who has been the first chair bassoonist at the OSO ever since she joined fifteen years ago. She will finally make her debut as a soloist at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall June 8-10, playing Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Ciranda das Sete Notas for bassoon and string orchestra.

“A ciranda is a type of circle dance from Brazil,” Miller said over a cup of coffee at a restaurant on Portland’s east side. “The title reflects a circle dance for seven notes. The music is exotic and uses an unusual musical language, but listeners can connect to it very easily. The writing is very generous and beautiful. Some of the biggest challenges of that piece are that you have a lot of passages in the very low register and also in the high register, and you have to move quickly between them. The bassoon covers three and a half octaves. So switching between extreme reaches can be difficult – the reed has be very flexible – but playing the piece involves coordinating breath and the embouchure, too.  It’s everything.”

The bassoon has been everything for Miller, who grew up in New York City.

“I was at Queens College in the pre-college program, playing piano,” recalled Miller. “They offered half-price lessons for wind instruments to pianists to supplement their orchestra. I had been wanting to play bassoon for a while – for about five years, from the age of eight. That’s when I heard a wind quintet at my synagogue. I was laser-focused on the bassoon. It was shiny and red and sounded so cool. I hounded my mom every year afterwards to learn how to play a bassoon. I was twelve or thirteen when I started learning the bassoon, and I loved it and have not looked back.”

Miller studied with Frank Morelli at Juilliard and took a year off to study with Morelli’s teacher, Stephen Maxym, at the University of Southern California’s Thorton School of Music. She moved to Los Angeles, and had to learn how to drive a car during that time. 

“I was nineteen and didn’t need to drive in New York City,” said Miller. “When I came to Los Angeles, I had to take the bus, and it took two and a half hours to get to the university.  I remember learning how to shift from lane to lane on a six-lane freeway. It was quite an experience!”

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After returning to Juilliard to complete her bachelors degree, Miller added lessons with Whitney Crockett, who at that time was the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s principal bassoon and is now the principal bassoonist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Then she matriculated to Rice University for her Masters, studying with Benjamin Kamins.

Along the way, Miller mastered the 600-page manual that shows all of the possible fingerings for bassoon. I saw this tome years ago. It’s large enough to prop open a bank vault door. Each page is filled with black rectangles to represent which keys to use. But there are so many alternatives!

“It’s absurd,” Miller said with a laugh. “It’s for masochists only. Hard-working crazy people. We don’t know any better when we fall in love with the instrument!”

“For the bassoon there are standard fingerings with optional fingerings that players prefer,” she added. “Some people get dogmatic about it. ‘This is the right fingering for this note!’ But there are lots of options. Some fingerings are not in the fundamental of the note but are in the harmonic series of the note. They might work on one bassoon but not on another bassoon. So you need the book to find out what works for your bassoon. I have switched bassoons over the years. So I have to work on it for myself.”

Sheesh!  You have to spend hours making reeds, read a behemoth book, and then each bassoon is slightly different. How many more obstacles does a person need!  So I had to ask Miller if she ever played a contrabassoon.

“A few years back, David Shifrin programmed Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony at Chamber Music Northwest, which has the hardest contrabassoon part you could ever play. He insisted that I could play it although that’s not my instrument. Evan Kuhlmann wrote out the fingerings for me, and I did it, but it’s the only piece that I can play on the contrabassoon. Evan says contrabassoon is like the Wild West. There’s no formalized way of playing it. You have to figure it out for yourself. It’s for mavericks!”

Bassoon wheeling and dealing

Carin Miller: "I wanted to create a bigger sound for the Schnitz." Photo courtesy Oregon Symphony Orchestra.
Carin Miller: “I wanted to create a bigger sound for the Schnitz.” Photo courtesy Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

Like other musicians, Miller is always on the hunt for just the right instrument.

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“Heckel bassoons are the predominant bassoons in the field,” said Miller. “I’ve played on a Heckel 10000 Series bassoon and won all my jobs on that. But I wanted to create a bigger sound for the Schnitz. (Oregon Symphony Music Director David) Danzmayr has asked for a lot more sound than what (former Music Director Carlos) Kalmar wanted, and I’ve been moving in that direction. It was kismet that a certain Walter bassoon became available while I was in Chicago playing at the Grant Park Festival. I loved it, and the entire bassoon section there loved it. I found it had a tone that was bigger, richer, more present. It had been the bassoon of Daniel Matsukawa, principal bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. I heard him play a Mahler on it twenty years ago, and that changed my tonal concept. I was able to get a loan through the union in Chicago. So I returned to Portland with two bassoons: the Heckel and the Walter.”

“Meanwhile, my former teacher Whitney Crockett knew that I had been looking for a bassoon,” continued Miller, “and he had been searching for me and found a Heckel 15000 that he thought was perfect for me. When he called me, I was rock climbing at Smith Rock, and I actually went into a cave while talking to him. He said that it had belonged to Nadina Mackie Jackson, a terrific soloist, and he insisted that I had to buy it. So I purchased it untried, because I trust him so much.”

Miller then sold the other two bassoons. One of her students, Katelyn Nguyen, principal bassoonist with the Portland Youth Philharmonic, purchased the Walter and will attend Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in the fall and study with Matsukawa. Another student, Keegan Neely, bought her Heckel 10000 Series and studies with Crockett at Lynn University.

Bassoons without Borders

Like many other musicians who are human ping-pong balls, Miller frequently hits the road to give lessons, teaching bassoon at Oregon State University, Reed College, Lewis & Clark College and Portland State University. To top that off, during the pandemic she founded and is the executive director of Bassoons without Borders, an online symposium to help bassoonists.

Logo of the group Bassoons Without Borders. A bassoon sits atop a musical scale, with the words "Bassoons Without Borders" printed on the scale.

“We’ve done six sessions,” noted Miller. “It’s been wonderful. Now we are trying to figure out to create wider access with free sessions online and potentially expand to in-person sessions.”

Because of Miller’s efforts, Portland is becoming something of a bassoon central. It even boasts the Portland Bassoon Company, whose owner, Adam Trussell, is the principal bassoonist of Oregon Ballet Theatre and the principal contrabassoonist of the Houston Symphony.

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In the meantime, Miller is gearing up for the Villa-Lobos piece, which has been on her bucket list for a long time. She has performed it with a string quintet in a Classical Up Close concert. But there are other bassoon concertos that she would like to do.

“There’s a Sofia Gubaidulina Bassoon Concerto that has some screaming in it,” remarked Miller. “It’s really cool. There’s also the concerto by Christopher Theofanidis that is extremely challenging. Both have extended techniques like pitch bending and multi-phonics. Maybe someday, I will get to play them!”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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