Musical path

By Diana Simmonds

Reed and woodwind players are excluded from this gem of trivia: did you know there are 42 species of reed and only one – grown in France – is really suitable for making the reeds without which a bassoon cannot be played?

“The French ones are best because freezing temperatures are necessary during their growth,” says Professor Kim Walker, Dean of the Conservatorium of Music. “And it’s best to shape them by candlelight.”

Candlelight shows up the luminous and reflective aspects of the reeds and helps the cutter see where the slivers must be gouged to form the ideal playing surface.

“It has to be done by hand,” Walker goes on merrily. “A machine hasn’t been developed that can do it, so it’s one of the more important things you have to learn to do as a player. They’re concave when wet and convex when dry; how to do it is in all the old tutors. Every December I sit down and make about 30; keep 15 of the best and give the rest away.”

Reed preparation is one of many surprising things to learn about what it takes to be among the world’s best bassoonists. When we talk in the quiet of the Dean’s office at the Con, Walker is not long back from the Shanghai Expo; and by the time you read this, she and the Conservatorium Orchestra will have been to New York to play with the Juillard School’s orchestra – at that school’s invitation – at the Lincoln Center. The Conservatorium orchestra then travelled on to San Francisco and Boulder, Colorado, to form similar joint orchestras with student performers from other distinguished music academies.

“It’s a wonderful experience for them [the students],” says Walker. Soon those experiences and other Con performances will be available on the ’net on Youtube – in a first for the school, and a probable first in the world, because the Con’s activities can be streamed on the ’net through its in-house high-tech capabilities.

Image of Kim Walker with Charlotte Warden

Kim Walker (right) with Charlotte Warden, a student in The Con’s Rising Stars program

The Dean is also thrilled that the Con is one of 17 music schools around the world that have been invited to send their top piano students to a two-week master class at the Felix Mendelssohn University of Theatre and Music in Leipzig in 2012.

Says Walker: “The Mendelssohn Academy appended to its invitation a ‘Map of the World of Music’ which may well prove contentious in some of the leading conservatoria, but which we at The Con can all take as a sincere compliment – even though they opted for the non-standard spelling of ‘Sidney’!”

Meanwhile, the Dean will spend much of her Christmas break as she usually does: carving reeds by candlelight.