Daniel Matsukawa: On Cultivating a Great Sound, and Three Components of Becoming a Better Practicer

I spent the first 20-some years of my life hanging out with more string players than wind or brass players or singers. So I missed out on much of the lingo and day-to-day challenges that are part of their world.

But in the last 10-15 years, as I’ve had more conversations with wind and brass musicians and singers, I’ve begun to catch up a bit. And there’s a particular phrase that has often come up in these circles, which I don’t remember hearing as often amongst my string friends (though memory is a very unreliable thing…).

And what phrase is that exactly?

“Concept of sound.”

The idea, I think, is a bit like the classic Yogi Berra line – “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” In that it’s hard to have a really awesome and compelling sound, if you don’t know what you’re aiming for, or have a clear concept of that sound in your head in the first place.

I think this is a point that’s completely relevant to all musicians, and not just wind/brass/vocal musicians, of course. But cultivating said concept of sound can be much easier said than done.

So…how does one do it? And why, exactly, is it so totally worth the time and effort to do so?

Meet Daniel Matsukawa

Daniel Matsukawa has been principal bassoon of The Philadelphia Orchestra since 2000, after previously serving in this capacity with the National, St. Louis, Virginia, and Memphis Symphonies. He is on the faculty of the Curtis Institute as well as Temple University, and was recently awarded the C. Hartman Kuhn Award, given annually to “the member of The Philadelphia Orchestra who has shown ability and enterprise of such character as to enhance the standards and reputation of the ensemble.”

In this episode, we’ll explore…

  • What initially drew him to the bassoon when he was 13 (2:44).
  • Why having a sound in your head is more important than just faster fingers (5:22).
  • The first component of being a better practicer (9:51)
  • The second component of being a better practicer (10:02)
  • The third component of being a better practicer ((12:16)
  • A strategy Daniel has used to help students become “better rememberers” (17:07)
  • Why Daniel is a big fan of trying to memorize difficult passages (19:50)
  • An experience he had during his freshman year of college that paved the road for his becoming a more curious and open listener (plus, why this matters, and how it has shaped his teaching to this day) (24:54).
  • Why he isn’t a huge fan of the word “practicing,” and the word he likes better (30:35).
  • Why your goal at the audition should not be to land a job (and what your goal should be instead) (31:07).
  • Likewise, he explains what he thinks our ultimate goal as musicians should be, and the one thing we need to be able to do to call ourselves an artist (35:55).
  • I ask Daniel how he works with students on cultivating their own unique sound and concept of sound (and he clarifies what the difference is between a good and a great sound) (40:33).
  • What his colleague, former Philadelphia Orchestra principal oboist Richard Woodhams, said after his final concert with the orchestra that got Daniel a bit choked up, and is the model for how he hopes to live his own life (45:48).


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Noa:
I’ve always enjoyed watching teachers give masterclasses, especially teachers that I’ve studied with once upon a time, because I’m often reminded of things that they told me once upon a time in a lesson. So on one hand, even though each lesson is unique and tailored to whatever the needs of that student might be, it still feels to me that each teacher has their own unique set of themes that they tend to emphasize across different students, which I’m assuming just speaks to each teacher’s own unique artistic DNA in terms of what they care about most, and what’s most essential to them and how they hear the ideal version of a piece in their head. So I was doing a little bit of YouTube and Google stalking before you and I chatted. And I found the video that you did on YouTube, where you give a short class on the bassoon solo from the Stravinsky ballet, Firebird ballet.

Noa:
And from that little tiny sample size, it seemed to me that maybe like smooth, legatos was maybe a particular emphasis, at least in that video, which then seemed to connect a little bit to your vocal background. And from what I read also, perhaps even the sort of requests that you had for the concerto that David Ludwig composed for you. And so, so I wonder if that’s maybe a good place to start, or maybe I could just ask you if there’s a particular theme or aspect of playing that’s maybe your highest priority. And the thing that over the years you’ve found yourself working or emphasizing most in your own practice, whether it’s legato or something else entirely.

Daniel:
Oh, those are great thoughts and great questions. Um, I think for starters, you know, we can talk about sound and the concept of sound. I really think about that a lot. And if we really think about just even music, of course, it is just sounds, but what draws us in sometimes is the very essence of what can be in that tone or a sound right. But of course art is interpretive and sound is also interpreted. So what we might like for ourselves may not particularly be, uh, what, what sort of fits best for someone else or to someone else’s ears. So it can be a very personal thing. What drew me to the bassoon to begin with, I heard it on the radio and I immediately was drawn to the sound. And I said, I think I want to do that. I think this is an instrument that was very appealing to my ears.

Daniel:
And before that I was a choir boy from age six, until 13 til my voice started cracking. And so I really liked to sing a lot from a very young age. Uh, I think it just helped me immediately sort of just if we can use the word cultivation, which I love to use in teaching, but we can start cultivating immediately at a young age, maybe without even thinking or realizing or knowing it that we were already becoming a musician from whatever age. Now, unlike someone like yourself or someone who plays violin or piano, or we don’t have Suzuki bassoon. So we usually start later. So I started the student at the age of 13, but I think me, I was lucky I’ll call it fortunate that I still have some sort of musical upbringing because I sang in the, in this voice choir.

Daniel:
And of course in the choir, we did stuff like Bach and Mozart. I think without a doubt that must have had an impact on me in terms of we can call it musicianship or, you know, already starting to feel it in our veins and in our bloods. And I think as we get older, I’ll try to put it this way, in terms of just sounds. I mean, I think from that age, I really liked to sing a lot. I didn’t think, oh, I have such a great, beautiful voice. It wasn’t like that, but I was just, I just enjoyed it and I loved it. And when I sometimes had a little, we can call it a little solo, you know, in the choir, um, I was always extremely thrilled and flattered. And then of course, very proud. And that one starts of course, gaining confidence and they start believing in themselves thinking, oh, someone else must like what I have to offer and what I have to do and what I’m doing.

Daniel:
And I think when it comes to, when I first started playing bassoon, obviously my, the first sounds that came out of me were probably very unappealing and unattractive. I used to make the joke that I probably sounded like a dying cow at the very beginning. But the thing was, you have that sound in your head. I remember hearing that sound in my head, which I heard on the radio. So I wanted to keep going and I wanted to achieve that. I wanted to attain that and to not keep dwelling with how I sound right now, and oh my God, I need to just quit because this is probably driving everyone in my household crazy. And so as we start to, again, I’ll keep using this word cultivate, we’re starting to immediately cultivate the sound. I want to sound better. I want to not just get better with your technique, but you want to eventually start like sounding decent.

Daniel:
And you want to think about, well, what does it mean? And sometimes people don’t even think about the concept of sound. They just play. They want, they want to do well. They want their fingers to move faster. They want to play faster trills immediately. They want to do these little party tricks and say, oh my God, my friends are gonna be so amazed if I can just go (makes trill sound) you know, those kinds of things, which maybe especially younger musicians, uh, might think is impressive. But for me, I actually just think a sound is much more captivating and in a way, again, I really do think a lot about it. At this point in my life, I don’t even think I think about it. I, I just sort of, maybe it’s just, um, it’s my favorite term in terms of teaching sometimes just second nature.

Daniel:
So I’m just, if it doesn’t sound where I want to sound, I will just immediately just try to adjust or change it, whether it’s my reeds or whether it’s, it’s how I’m supporting my instrument that day. Sometimes it could be how we, you know, we can say wrong, wake up the wrong side of the bed, all those famous cliches and quotes. But you know, when I play, I don’t really think a lot about, okay, I want to sound like this right now. I just want to play, and then of course it changes with the music that we play. Of course it changes the pieces and we can get into that as well. I know I’m already trying to cover so much in a short amount of time. And it also helps me a lot when I teach, I definitely pay a lot more attention to sound with regards to like how my students are playing and how they sound.

Daniel:
And then of course, I will talk a lot about that, but for myself at this point, uh, I guess for all the young musicians out there, think about it a lot. Don’t just do, and in terms of my approach and we can start here. My approach in teaching myself is we really have to get better at listening because when I play, I’m thinking about like all my 10 fingers, um, 37 keys on the bassoon, and I’m thinking about making sure everything’s lined up. I’m thinking about the instrument in my hand itself. I’m thinking about my reed. I’m thinking about my embouchure. I’m thinking about how I breathe. I’m thinking about vibrato. I’m thinking about a lot of things. And sometimes the last thing we’re actually doing, we are actually doing is listening. And though we might think, of course we’re listening. I mean, music is, it sounds.

Daniel:
And we were listening to it. But in terms of really, really listening, sometimes I don’t really think we’re doing that actively enough. And I hope that makes sense because to do active listening is really an intention and it really is a focus. And again, when we’re thinking about all these other things, and sometimes we need to put our focus elsewhere, we need to think about, okay, right now, my fingers are not lining up. And how do I get better? Um, you mentioned my Firebird tutorial and the concept of the legato. Sometimes I will only focus on how do I get a better legato, sometimes I’ll focus on how do I make my staccato clearer. Sometimes I’ll focus on how do I make sure my vibrato is within the tone per this phrase. Sometimes the vibrato that’s needed is a more Bel Canto, Italian tenor, and sometimes it needs to be more mild.

Daniel:
And I think it’s very important to think about it rather than a one size fits all. Let me just do this same kind of juicy, nice vibrato on all my notes, despite what the music is saying, despite what the phrase is is calling for. And despite the composer, despite the different styles and eras and periods, right? All these things I think really matter. So going back to my approach to practicing and my approach to teaching is number one is be a better self listener, a better evaluator, we can call it that a self assessor. Then number two is to be a better problem solver, a better fixer upper, and you cannot do number two without number one. You can’t really, you’re not able to problem solve anything unless you’re able to hear what needs to be fixed. Anyone, a coach, a teacher conductor can tell you, oh, you’re doing this.

Daniel:
You’re too loud here. Or that note seems too long. Or that note is accented where it should not be. Those are things that could be pointed out to you, but essentially if you can hear yourself, then you’ll be best able to fix it. Uh, I always say this to my students. You are forever going to be your best teacher. I promise you that like for life, you’re always going to be your best teacher, because again, anyone else can tell you things, but when you hear it, you’re always going to be immediately able to fix it and problem solve it. And now in terms of number two and problem-solving, I always say go every direction and think outside, not just the box, but really if you can’t, if it doesn’t work this way, then try a different angle and so forth and so forth. And I think there’s always a solution.

Daniel:
My, my dad was not a musician, he used to say, there’s always a solution. There’s always a way. And I think this applies to anything. I’m not sure and I’m embarrassed if this is an incorrect analogy and example, but I think there was something like this Princeton mathematical equation that was unsolved for years. And I think there was a time when two people eventually solved it. This problem that was unsolvable. And finally, you know, someone was able to find the answers and these two different problem-solvers who found the answer, got to it from a different angle. They achieved that same answer, but from different ways, again, I’m embarrassed and apologize if that’s not a true story, but I just love that story. Just even hearing it because it’s kind of what I believe, what might work for me may not work for you or for someone else, but we have to try those different things.

Daniel:
And I think that’s the key is to not just think, oh, this isn’t working, but my teacher’s able to do it. And to not think he or she is a natural talent, but to also just think, okay, they were able to get there this way. Maybe that’s not my path, but to just try it. And then number three, so we have one better self listener, assessor, two better problem-solver fixer-upper and then number three is to be a better keeper and retainer. So that way, the next morning you don’t wake up and you think, oh, what did I do yesterday? And then you’re starting all over again from the drawing board and starting from scratch. And you don’t want to feel that way. And this way we really do improve and we get better. And then we also build consistency. Otherwise we’re just, again, it’s just the real, just playing all over again from start to finish.

Daniel:
And it’s going to take it, digging a hole into the earth, right? And you’re like this project, like you want to dig a well or something and then you’re, you have a good day’s work done and you go to sleep and you feel good about yourself. Then the next morning you wake up and someone filled that hole and you don’t want to feel that way. You don’t want to feel like, oh my goodness, I have to start all over again. So this is where number three is important to just be a better retainer and a better keeper. And to start with, again, that that’s something I want to just put out there. And I think when I teach this way, I can immediately see improvement week to week from all my students, because I can tell they’re now actively listening. They’re really trying to, I always say this.

Daniel:
I don’t know what you guys are doing the other, I see one hour a week. I don’t know what you’re doing the other six days and 23 hours. And I don’t need to know, but I also don’t need to like, hold your hand for every little practice session and tell you what to do. I don’t need to tell you, I don’t need to tie your shoes. My goal is to teach you how to teach yourself. And so I should be able to teach you once how to tie your shoes and you eventually get the knack of it, but what a bad teacher would do is to really always give the answer for everything. I shouldn’t say it that way. I shouldn’t, I don’t mean like a bad teacher would do that, but I mean, that might work for certain individuals that might work for a lot of people. But I think again, ultimately if we want to teach the students how to teach themselves, because after four years or six years, or however many years, we would like to launch them out into the world and just trust in that, that they can now trust themselves and they have the resources and the tools to do so. So I mean, that’s a little beginning, sorry. I’m just going on.

Noa:
Yeah. No, that’s a great place to start. I think, I mean, there’s a bunch I want to kind of follow up on it and ask for more details about, but, maybe the thing that I’d love to start with first is the, uh, how to become a better, and I forget the words you used, better keeper or a better rememberer of things that you actually learned that day. And I imagine that, you know, if you’re, problem-solving actively and kind of thoughtfully and mindfully and strategically, and not just sort of letting your fingers instinctively auto-correct over the course of five or ten repetitions to something that you can’t even define. So I’m assuming part of that might help with the remembering, but like, are there particular ways that you help your students become better rememberers of what they’ve learned?

Daniel:
There’s something that you said early on in this conversation about, it can be case by case with a teacher and a student, right? Like in terms of how we teach and absolutely, yes, I mean like every student has different needs and they don’t all arrive at the same place at the same level. And then it’s a one size fits all or it’s a one fix, uh, for, for everyone. So it, it really, some students are able to remember better, but those who are not, don’t be discouraged, again, there are techniques, true story about myself in the academic world. I was always okay with grades. I wasn’t like, you know, this brilliant genius, like I always got straight A’s and I always like this kind of a, a kid in a student, but I remember one time I just said to myself, I need to like find a different system.

Daniel:
And, uh, my parents were great, but they kind of left my brothers and me alone. Like we just were sort of left to just sort of care of ourselves because they were always busy. They were working and they were always great to provide for us, but they weren’t the kind of parents who sat with us and helped us with our homework or helped us study or teach us those tools. And I just remember one day saying, I need to find a better system because this isn’t cutting it. I, I want to get better grades and I want to do so in less amount of time that I had been already dedicating to any kind of schoolwork. And I tried a few different things. And eventually I found a system that works for me and I was able to just, again, spend less time.

Daniel:
And suddenly I got, that’s not a bragging or boastful thing, but somebody got like straight A’s and I was on the honor roll and I did really well. And it made me think, huh, so it really is not a matters so much that someone is smart, but it really is like, if there’s a better training system or there’s a better method or methodology for, for each individual, then that person should be able to find it. So again, what works for me in terms of remembering and keeping retaining as, as you asked, may not work for some students, but for example, I might just say there was a student recently who have trouble remembering something and I would say, all right, just go ahead and play that. And then we went on to something else. And then before we went on to the next thing I said, all right, let me hear, let’s go back.

Daniel:
And then they were able to test themselves and they felt like it was a little better. Then we went on to the third thing and then we went back. I said, nope, we’re going back to that first thing. And then suddenly they were able to retract and go back to it and quicker. And I can see in their, in their face and their heads that they’re like, oh, I I’m starting to understand. This is a different method that they were not doing it. They were not applying in their own practicing. Um, and that was just one example. That was one tool. So there are different ways to do so what we love to do, or especially I’ll speak for myself is we love to start from A to Z often. Like we see the page and we start top of the page and we go to the bottom, let’s say it’s a two page etude.

Daniel:
And I would just always just do that and go through it a couple of times and that I would then sometimes think what is good is like you put a star or a check over a difficult passage and start with that and then go back rather than just start from the beginning. And same with like practicing, how many of us have on our music stands a pile like, right, it’s just like there, and then we just go from the beginning. And usually the back of the, you know, stand at the back of the pile is the most neglected. And so what I sometimes tell my students, again, it depends on who they are and where they’re at in their level of, you know, study. I tell them to write a list and start with, you want to write down scales and exercises, arpeggios, etudes, tonguing, staccato, um, or for violin players out there,

Daniel:
you know, we can do bow staccato and articulation, legato exercises and so forth. And then I would say, the next thing we can do is if you want to put in a study or an etude, great, next thing is your solo piece. And the next thing is some orchestral excerpts that’s coming up or that you would like to just keep sort of in the vicinity that you don’t have to feel like you’re cramming sometime in the future. So, and I said, it’s better to see sometimes all of this on the list and then you’re able to organize and really go through it. And visually rather than think, oh my goodness, it’s I forgot the back of the file again, or the pile, uh, so same with how we learned a particular piece. so we should, we should try to think, okay, what is it that needs more attention?

Daniel:
And, and, you know, there’s, everyone knows this anyway, but again, it’s, it’s sometimes it’s good to just to remember those things. I’m also a big fan of memorizing or trying to memorize difficult passages. And that way you really, when you memorize something, sometimes I’ll ask a student, okay, do you thin you know this by heart? And they’re like, yeah, I’m pretty sure I know it because I’ve done it a thousand times. And I was like, okay, let’s hear it. And then they, they never get it right. Because they’re always saying like, I’m pretty sure I know it. I said, there’s a difference between, I’m pretty sure I know it cause I’ve done it so many times than actually sending yourself to memorize something. And when you set yourself to memorize something, something else happens because you’re now really that you’re learning it kind of backwards and forwards, so to speak and learning it from many different angles.

Daniel:
It could even be like left brain, right brain, whatever, you know, you can think about it as like, what are the notes here rather than finger memorization and things like that. Right. We, we don’t, uh, kinesthetics, it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. Just, we all know that repetition can lead to kinesthetics and, and muscle memory. But sometimes what also really works is we can call it solfege-ing and just to memorize the names of the notes. Sometimes we can look at it in a different way of like, what else can I do to remember, oh, this is just a D major arpeggio, like things like that, even though I’m not necessarily academic minded, but at sometimes when I go there, it can really help and be an asset to the other side and vice versa as well. So these are different tools and techniques.

Daniel:
And sometimes my students just don’t, it’s not that they don’t bother to go there. They just didn’t even think about, oh, maybe I should look at it that way. You know, again, I didn’t make this stuff up. I’m just saying like, there are so many different approaches and different, wonderful, valuable tools and ways to go about this. So again, don’t be discouraged for those of you if you feel like you can’t memorize something right away, there are different methods and techniques. And again, you can find your own. I loved my teacher, uh, Bernard Garfield, but he was, I think he was such a natural talent that he, in a way forced me to learn a lot for myself. Because for example, I would go into one lesson and say, oh, Mr. Garfield, so how do you do vibrato? And he was looking at me, he’s like, what do you mean?

Daniel:
How do I do vibrato? Just vibrate. I would be like, oh, okay, yes sir, you know, and I would go home and figure out like, okay, I have to, I have to just learn how to vibrate. And then the next lesson, I was like, how do you double-tongue? And he’s like, what do you mean how do I double-tougue? Just double-tongue. And I’d be like, oh, okay, yes, and I would go home and like, I’d have to figure out how to double-tougue. Now, for some students, that may not work out, they want to know the exact methodology and technique of how do I produce that? How do I double-tongue, how do I produce vibrato? Things like that. And again, I loved Mr. Garfield and I’m actually in many ways, grateful that in essence, he forced me to learn that and figure that stuff out for myself. And in some ways it also helped me to become a better teacher. Because again, it’s kind of along the lines of what I’m saying is like, you will always be your best teacher. And my goal is to help students to teach themselves.

Noa:
That’s maybe a nice transition to this idea of problem-solving. I mean, sounds ridiculous maybe, but I never even thought of problem-solving until maybe, I don’t know, maybe by my second year of grad school or something like that, like I just figured if I put enough repetitions in and got it right enough times, my fingers would figure out where they need to go more consistently and cross my fingers. Hope they do it the first time when I’m under pressure. But it wasn’t until I think it was really like my second year of grad school that I actually started trying to understand the mechanics of what was causing a note to be out of tune or what was causing a string crossing to be a little bit fuzzy or sloppy or, and, and that was transformative because it made me much more effective and efficient and consistent. But you know, it, I don’t know that I would have been able to do that better if I had gone back in time and told myself to do that in high school. I don’t know. But do you remember a point where you became better at problem-solving or like how it is that you teach students to become better problem-solvers?

Daniel:
For me, there might have been a parallel again with my own schoolwork, not music related, but like with this, whether it’s history and math and science and in high school and trying to get better at that. And I think maybe at that time I was maybe subconsciously or consciously think thinking about like, okay, well maybe if I can do it here, maybe I could do it here. So I think, I think maybe already, perhaps early on, even in high school, let alone undergrad, I was already trying to figure out things because I, and again, whether it’s my teacher who, who sort of just gave it to me to put it upon myself to learn something, or my parents who gave it to me to put upon myself to, to study and to learn something, I think you’d then have to, I don’t want to sound like a cliche here, but you have to look within sometimes.

Daniel:
And also there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking your friends and colleagues and their cousins and everyone like, like ask everyone, if you have a question. One of my favorite things to do is to just be curious. And one of my favorite things to teach is to get students be more curious. I mean, you can’t actually make someone become curious, but you can ask certain questions to make them start pondering and become pensive and reflect on things. And that might hope, and perhaps like metaphorically speaking, open up a wider scope of many topics and many thoughts and ideas. Another thing that I did, and I didn’t do this by choice, it was actually kind of by accident when my first year at Juilliard undergrad, there was a violinist who, who had asked me, oh, I’m playing this concerto for my lesson next week. I’ve never played the Beethoven violin concerto before.

Daniel:
And she said, do you mind if I just play it for you? I said, sure. I mean, in a way I’m just like thinking I’m just a bassoonist, but you know, and so what I did was I immediately went to the Juilliard library and they have a listening room and I didn’t really know the Beethoven violin concerto. I mean, I was like 18. And so I went in, I took out a score, I took out a CD, I listened to it. I went through the orchestral score while I’m listening. And I’m like, oh my god, this piece, like, what the heck? This is like, incredible that I just felt like, like, I didn’t know anything before then. And so it wasn’t like I wanted to really get to learn it. I, why I listened to it, because if I’m going to listen to a friend or colleague play something, I want to at least have a little bit of background of what I’m getting myself into.

Daniel:
So, and then when, when she played it for me, I immediately had some thoughts just in terms of, of just my memory of having listened to it. I’m really starting to gather a feeling of a sense of the piece, the phrasing, perhaps the, what was going on underneath with the orchestra, just by listening to it a couple of times. And I gave suggestions and I think already what has helped me, and there’s a correlation here is by listening to someone else you’re really starting to use your ears again. I’m going to say this active listening. I’ll say that again, that way, like to just sit and listen to someone else, play not on your instrument, you really start thinking, not in your own technical way. Like it’s like, well, I wouldn’t play it that way. I would actually use this kind of double-tongue staccato or I wouldn’t play it this way.

Daniel:
I would do, you know, you can’t go there. So you actually have to start talking about the music and the art and the phrasing and all the wonderful stuff that has nothing to do with your instrument. I kindly yelled at a student recently because at Curtis, we have a studio class weekly, and one student always gave comments. So what I always do is everyone plays. They do, it’s like a performance class performance practice. And I go around the room and make sure everyone critiques that student. I always say positive, constructive feedback. I think criticism, you know, you want to like each other the next morning. So I always say like, be positive but productive. And everyone’s always so wonderful and positive, but one student always talked about, okay, perhaps you can use this F sharp fingering. And perhaps you can, you, it sounded like the reed was like this and perhaps the lower register on the bassoon and everything was instrument related.

Daniel:
And I said to him, I pulled him aside. And I said, okay, for the rest of this summer, I no longer want to hear any comments from you that has to do with the instrument. I only want to hear from you phrasing, the music, the style, and he was like, wait what, yeah. I mean, it, even if it’s like color and dynamics, if you think like that’s a bassoon thing that actually might be okay, color and dynamics is part of the music. So he started, I think listening differently because what he was looking for before, it was just anything that was pertaining to the instrument itself, bassonistically speaking, like, oh, this is what it sounds like. And, and on the instrument. But then he really started, um, I’m not saying like I opened up his ears, but I think just giving him that assignment, he was forced to open up his ears in a different manner.

Daniel:
Another thing I like to say to my students is I tell them, look, look at your instrument. That’s half. Look at yourself. You’re the other half. So yes, take care of your instrument. Do the work scales and arpeggios and etudes and technical stuff. Do the work. But the other stuff, your half, you have to cultivate yourself as an artist and a musician. What does that mean? Listen to the wonderful string quartets, listened to create a Schubert lieder with Fischer-Dieskau, listen to beautiful operas. Um, whether it’s Maria Callas, like sometimes my students, and as freshmen, they don’t really know. Like sometimes they’re like, oh, who’s that? I was like, you know, I’m so excited for you. Like, I’m jealous that you’re getting to hear some of these artists for the first time and it’s not just Maria Callas, but I told another student, um, and of course I’m protecting everyone’s identity.

Daniel:
I told someone else, like I no longer want you to listen to bassoon recordings. And they were like, wait, what? I was like, nope, I can tell all you listen to is bassoon concertos, bassoon sonatas and I was like, stop. I want you to start listening to Mozart operas. And don’t listen to something once and throw it out the window and say, okay, check, I’ve done it. Listened to it, you know, you don’t need to sit there attentively, folding your hands, staring at the speakers. Like you can even go about the room or you can do chores. You can do even wash the dishes and listen to it in the background. Even that is going to start entering your, your veins. It’s going to start entering your system. And I promise you, by the end of the week, you’re going to start humming along.

Daniel:
You’re going to start because, and now to me, that becomes familiar. And so my students know, I do not like the word practicing. I like the word familiarizing. And there’s a big difference. And I’m hoping that that makes sense to those who might be listening, that we don’t like homework. Right? We don’t like that. We don’t like tests. We don’t like exams. We feel like, oh wait, you know, our shoulders go up. We feel tight. We don’t like the word auditions. But if we change our perspective and we think it’s not homework, it’s not an assignment, but it’s like familiarizing yourself with a piece that you want to get to know better and better and more and more, and same with an audition. Don’t think of it as an audition because you’re, again, your shoulders are tight. I think of it as your performance, your recital. Even change it to like change the word audition to your own personal solo recital.

Daniel:
And when you go take an audition, your goal is musical mission. Your goal is not to land a job because then you’re going to sound like you’re trying to land a job. Your goal should not be, I just want to win first chair in this youth orchestra, your goal is to just musical mission. You’re going to have a great mini performance for many audience, this committee, that’s it. That’s your goal. And then that music will come through. But if you’re just trying to win a job, then that’s ultimately, that’s the energy that’s going to come through your notes. And same with, with again, that concept, so familiarizing yourself with a piece is much different than practicing and same with listening to whether, again, it’s a, it’s a Bruckner symphony. I really didn’t like Bruckner at first, I thought it was so it was so repetitive and long and boring.

Daniel:
Now it’s one of, it’s like for me, it’s a deserted island kind of thing. Like I can’t live with, especially his seventh, eighth, and ninth symphonies. And there’s barely any bassoon stuff in it. Like, and so sometimes my students looks at me like, wow, but there’s nothing gratifying about it. There’s like no big bassoon solo like Tchaikovsky four, or, or Shostakovich nine, there’s nothing like in terms of fulfillment of a luxury of riches of bassoon, you know, like Shostakovich seven is like an essay for bassoonist at one point. Bruckner, no, we don’t have any of those things. And I said, it’s great cause I’m sitting there in the middle. I have the best seat in the, in the house, in the orchestra sitting right dead center surrounded by other winds and the brass behind me and percussion and strings all around me in the front.

Daniel:
And I’m just taking it all in. And this sounds, it’s like, I’m observing it. And you’re like that to me is like, what really feeds me rather than, oh, cool. I get this little fun passage that everyone can hear me. And I get to feel relevant in the world. It’s not always about that. And it’s not always about you and your, your little solos. It’s it’s anyway, back to the Bruckner. It’s like the more I hear it now, and it’s gotten to a point where I’m so, I know it’s so, and I’m so familiar with it and I love it so much. And same with like, you might think Bruckner is kind of hard to sit down and listen to it anyway. I mean, some of them are like 90 minutes long. They can, they feel like they’re forever. And our attention span today, of course it’s even harder because we’re so used to being overly tethered and email, internet texting, social media, Facebook, Instagram, like keep going.

Daniel:
And then, you know, one student recently said to me, oh, oh Mr. Matsukawa, how are you able to, you know, they came to hear our concert play Brahms symphony, how are you able to focus for 45 minutes? And I look at them like, wait, what? Like I said, okay, you’re going to go home. You’re going to close your computer, close your laptop, put your phone away. You know, a lot of them have their computer open and their phone on the music stand and ding they get a text and they stop and they immediately, I mean, we’re all guilty of that. I’m guilty of that as well. But if you grow up in that culture, that, that that’s become pop culture, then yes, you’re going to have trouble focusing for 45 minutes on a Brahms symphony. And it’s something that I didn’t have that in terms of my, my youth and growing up and I’m not saying, oh, I’m able to concentrate as a result of the lack of that or the absence of that.

Daniel:
Same with like, when I remember, um, I don’t know those of you who know what Tower Records is, it’s a CD store. And I remember like it was a candy store for us students and we would walk in and I would walk around. I would just browse through everything and I would be salivating. And I would be like, okay, this is my next CD. Next month, I’m going to save all my pennies. And it’s just like that one, that one disc that you’re just like, you know, going to do whatever you can to get it and save all your, you know, all the money. And you’re like, okay, even if I have to eat Wonder Bread for the next week and today, like, everyone has Spotify and Pandora and YouTube all for free, all this stuff. And it’s like crazy. It’s at your fingertips and is maybe it’s for that reason, we have this lack of more incentive to want something and to get something and to attain it and to cherish it, you know?

Daniel:
And today it’s like, it’s such a luxury of riches where it’s just like, you know, you just sees this little B natural finger here. And then you just like, uh, suddenly it’s right there. Anyway, back to what I was saying with familiarizing, that is a big key set. And so to cultivate yourself as a musician become more and more familiar with works and not on your instrument, because again, you’re really listening to music as an art in general and the expression of it as an art form. And because at the end of the day, our goal is to be able to touch people and to move them through joy or sorrow. It doesn’t matter. And that’s the goal. It should not be, I used to say this all the time, I was a younger teacher, I would say, okay, practice all you want and master your instrument, then call yourself a great instrumentalist, a great violinist, a great cellist, a great horn player, a great pianist, and then learn all the wonderful things about music, the grammatical structure of phrasing and harmony and theory and all the other great stuff and call yourself a good musician.

Daniel:
But until the people listening out there, they’re not moved or, or get through joy or sorrow and one shouldn’t call themselves an artist. And again, that’s the goal. And sometimes I find it sad because young people it’s the reverse, their goal is to play as many notes per square mile or, or measure as possible. And that doesn’t impress me because gazillion notes doesn’t impress me [sings a run] like it’s a party trick It’s a circus act. But if what you can do with two notes will stay with me. If it’s beautiful and expressive and meaningful, that I will remember forever. But if you do like this, like look how, like, look, mom, I can ride my bicycle with no hands. Look, I have the fastest tool in the west. I mean, that’s, is that really your goal? And there’s no ranking. It’s not like the tennis or PGA golf, like number one clarinet player in the world.

Daniel:
Number one piccolo player in the world. Number one snare drummist in the world, like snare drummer in the world. There’s no like ranking of that. So it’s like, oh, you know, Noa has the fastest trills on the violin. Is that what you want to be known for? Right. It’s like, no, you want to be known just for your way of reaching people and giving them that again, through whatever it means in terms of an expression. And then you can leave with them that and leave them with all of, all of that great stuff. But at the end of the day, too, I I’ve added one more thing recently. It’s like, when you have all these wonderful things, please don’t be idle. Don’t just sit and do nothing because you have this wonderful gift and stuff, then share it because it able to bring, um, you know, we’re doing performances here in Vail with the orchestra.

Daniel:
And it’s our first time back since the beginning of the pandemic in terms of a full audience. And it’s just unbelievable. Every night, like we, we all are kind of finding back tears because it’s just an in a beautiful way. And you can see tears out in the audience and everyone’s giddy like both on stage. And it’s like, we’re all back to civilization and we’re all back to life as we remembered it. And, but I think we can’t go back there. There’s also this extra energy of love, this extra energy of appreciation, deep appreciation and gratitude. So someone said it must be so nice to be able to bring joy to people. And I was like, dumbfounded by that. It’s like, wow, you know, that is so true. It is what we do. It’s not like just, okay, we play concerts, people buy tickets and it’s a performance, a good show, you know, see you tomorrow. And, and no, it’s like we, when we see the reaction of people and from however they want to express it, whether it’s just applause or their facial expression or, or yelling and screaming, bravo or standing ovation, it doesn’t, I mean, again, that’s not why we do it. We do it because we can, we can feel that there’s this sense of joy and there’s this sense of love and life. And I think that’s something that I’m just so happy and grateful for that, you know, especially moving forward and coming back to all of this.

Noa:
Yeah, that’s honestly like a really beautiful place to wrap things up, but I’m going to ruin it by going backwards to a couple of things and adding another thing, and hopefully if there’s a little bit of time. You honestly might have already answered this, but I wanted to kind of tie it into a particular question that I’ve been itching to ask you, which is related to something that I’ve heard students sometimes ask me about. And I don’t know that I have a great answer to it. And it’s, it’s sort of oriented around this idea of having a, like, cultivating to use your word, a concept of sound, um, whether it’s a string player or a wind or a brass player, it seems like it’s really important to have a pretty clear concept of sound, not just character or mood or whatnot, but even just the sound itself, um, to make it possible for us to know what sort of discrepancy there’s been from what we produce to what it is that we want. And so that whatever comes out, doesn’t just this accident. How have you worked with students or yourself even over the years cultivated a, like a clear and clear concept of sound.

Daniel:
The way I like to describe it sometimes is I want to think of someone to try to attain a great sound. Now, what does that mean? I had a student once who very talented, very gifted, but I felt like the sound could get better and better. And there was, and I told them like, you know, your sound is really good, but I want it to get great. And I feel like they couldn’t quite understand. And I said, look, I don’t do this in terms of comparisons, but right now your colleagues there’re four of you in the studio and the other three, I have to say, like, I feel like they have great sounds. I was trying to encourage the student. I wasn’t trying to like put them down or make them feel intimidated or inferior to their colleagues. And plus this student was the younger one.

Daniel:
Anyways. I felt like this was okay. They still could look up to, or have a place to, to keep going and reach. And I said, those three, they don’t sound alike. And they don’t sound exactly like me. I’m not looking for a clone, but I feel like in my description, I can honestly say they each have a great sound. And I said, you have a good sound and we want, we want to get there. And so what it also means is like, there’s this richness, we can call it a resonance, but it also has to have a lot of, um, we can call it depth too. That’s another great word. There has to be a lot of variety within the sound. It can not be uniform from the lowest note to the highest note, just one sound.

Daniel:
And the only change is dynamic. I’m not a big fan of that. I was like, the only difference should be pianissimo, fortissimo and all the other dynamics in between, but every note has to sound equally the same. That could be a goal in terms of smoothness. Yes. Instrumentally speaking. Sure. That could be really good thing, but in terms of art and again, expression, I’m a huge fan of color. I love color. I would love to be able to show different colors and shades within even one note. And not just again, dynamically speaking. And again, I, I often want to open up one’s ears, myself included to understand like the composers, the periods also matter. And when you show up and you play an audition that sometimes people come in and they have a great sound, they have great rhythm, they have great intonation and they’ll play and they’ll sound great. Then it’ll turn the page no longer Mozart concerto, great sound great rhythm, great intonation.

Daniel:
And they’ll turn the page and then same thing. And I’m really all about, I’m a huge proponent for, to try to advocate where students and musicians and, and, um, you know, Romans and countrymen, all those people to, to be able to respect and show the difference, the differences or the different composers and periods, because we, again, we have to play Mozart in the wind world for concerti. And then the first thing is it could be, um, a Beethoven excerpt. And then suddenly you turn the page it’s Bartok, and then you go back and it’s Bach and then suddenly it’s Stravinsky and then Brahms. And you have to do this sometimes within five, six minutes. And it’s like me saying, okay, cry now. Okay, now laugh. Now show anger. And it’s like, you’re a great actor being able to do this immediately and instantaneously on a stage. In a way, that’s kind of what we have to do.

Daniel:
But even the great actors, they don’t just act the part. They actually feel the parts. And they’re like even the really great ones kind of really delve themselves into it. And so for us as musicians, we really want to try to show like, what does it mean for me to show classical style, Mozart, Haydn versus romantic style versus French impressionistic music, impressionism and, Ravel and Debussy, which is very different than Mozart, and Stravinsky, which is very different than Ravel and Tchaikovsky and Brahms around the same period. Right? Same time, completely different. And we can just, we can go there like German Brahms, you know, rich, and I want to say round and big beard, like he was and Tchaikovsky and a Russian style and what does that mean? Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it and say, okay, in order to sound, give a Russian sound, you must sound like this.

Daniel:
Now, but in a way we want to, again, we use that word cultivation. We want to try to start understanding the differences in the music itself, the way the composers wrote their language. Um, a Brahms staccato, for example, is never super short and dry. Stravinsky, it’s usually very secco and you know, very, very dry and Mozart kind of short, but not as short and dry as Stravinsky. So these are little, perhaps a little hints that we will learn and gather and pick up along the way as we become better artists throughout our lifetime. So, yeah, I think for just a sound is, and another thing is sometimes you won’t find your sound until you do. I don’t know. What does that mean? It means like it could take 18, 19 years or it can take a couple of years. And, but even if you’ve found sound that you love, that doesn’t mean that’s the end game.

Daniel:
That doesn’t mean, yes. I finally got there and, but you’ll change, your ears will change, your concept will change. You’ll change as an artist, which is also why I love my favorite mantra for how I live my life is student for life. I say that all the time. I say that to my students. I said, look, and I’ve, I love this quote. It’s like, whether you’re eight or 18 or 88, that learning never ends. You’ll never read all the books you ever want to read in your lifetime. That’s not possible. You never get to listen to all the music that was ever written. That’s not possible. And you probably won’t get to do all the things you want to do or set yourself to do or places you want to see in your lifetime. You may or may not. But again, the main point is that it never ends.

Daniel:
And please never think of it as like, oh yes, I’ve made it to the Philadelphia orchestra. I’ve made it. I’m done. Like that’s such a dangerous, risky way of living and thinking. Plus, where are you going to grow from there? I’ve done the Beethoven Eroica symphony so many times, and I know the next time I play it, it’ll be different. Now, I’m not going to purposely try to play it differently and say, all right, I played it this way at this time. Let me just on a whim, go out all out there and no it’s just, we’re growing by nature. I know tomorrow hoping I’ll be one even ounce more expanded and evolved than I am today. One of my favorite moments is Richard Woodhams, who was our principal oboist for many years in the Philadelphia orchestra who’s iconic, and he’s just God on the oboe and then God as a musician and artist.

Daniel:
His last week with the orchestra, we were doing a subscription week and we were doing Tosca, but because the singers can’t sing every night in between subsequent nights, we did Beethoven symphony number seven. And we really didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse the seventh because we spend a lot of time on the Tosca and the orchestra is not used to often doing stage operas. And so we, I felt like we spent half a rehearsal on the Beethoven seventh and, his last concert happened to fall on, we did Tosca, Beethoven seven and ended on Beethoven seven and his locker is right next to mine in the locker room. And I was just complimenting him. And I was also just saying like how meaningful it was for me to be able to make music with him all these years. And I also just said, and probably, you know, you just sound so beautiful.

Daniel:
And even the symphony again, which, which I know he’s probably done a billion times. And he said, well, it was probably easier that we didn’t have a whole bunch of rehearsals on it and kept it first. I said, no. I said to him, you’ve, you’ve never, ever sounded on automatic pilot, never one note in all my years with, with him. And he says, well, that’s because I still have so much to learn. And I literally wanted to just like cry and I got choked up and I was just like, here again, here’s this God, you know, on the oboe and now as a musician. And that eventually like, to me, it was the epitome of how I want live my life and how I try to live my life. And that’s exactly what I’m saying is like, yes, at the end of the day, that learning never really stops.

Daniel:
And that automatic pilot stuff is just, um, there was a saying, wasn’t it? That was it Pablo Casals, uh, who was asked, like, why is he still practicing at age 92? And he’s like, I think I’m finally improving. And I love that. And again, it’s what it’s all about for all of us, that the student for life thing, that the learning just we can never settle and we can never just be complacent and, or just satisfied. Of course we can be satisfied, but, you know, we all know, like, what does perfect even mean? Right? It’s always progress, not perfection.

 

Notes

  • I allude to the YouTube video of Daniel working on the bassoon solo in Stravinsky’s Firebird (1:58). You can check that out here: The Firebird – Berceuse Master Class by Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Bassoon Daniel Matsukawa
  • Daniel talks about cultivating curiosity (24:54). Which, curiously enough, is a theme in cellist Astrid Schween’s podcast episode as well: Astrid Schween: On Cultivating Routines, Curiosity, and 800 Different Spiccatos
  • Daniel notes that one’s primary goal at an audition shouldn’t be to win the job (31:07). Which reminds me of a video of actor Bryan Cranston, who seems to be saying something very similar: Bryan Cranston's Advice to Aspiring Actors

See Daniel in performance!

Set your calendar alerts, as you’ll be able to watch Daniel perform the Weber Basson Concerto online – via the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Digital Stage on Wednesday, September 22nd, with streaming access through the 29th:
And in the meantime, you can see Daniel and his colleagues perform a range of small-ensemble works in unique venues around Philadelphia in the Our City, Your Orchestra series, which combines music with interviews and highlights the work of people in the community who are making a difference:

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

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