At age 23 Vincent Ellin began his long tenure as Principal Bassoon for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. In this conversation, Vince and Christopher Millard talk about life, reeds, and the shared experiences of their long careers.
CM: Hi Vince! Though this is a virtual conversation, I’m imagining we are sitting together next to a warm fireplace, sipping bourbon and reminiscing about our similar career trajectories. We’re both retired bassoonists looking back on many years of shared orchestral experiences. We started our Canadian professional lives just a year apart – you in 1974 in Winnipeg and me a year later in Vancouver. We’ve kept track of each other over the decades, but I realize I don’t much about your early life and education.
VE: I was born in Englewood New Jersey which is just across the George Washington Bridge from NYC. My father was an electrical engineer for ABC TV and later became the Director of Engineering for ABC News in Washington DC. My Mom was a French teacher until she got married to my Dad after the war. They both played music. My Dad was a Jazz drummer for a time in the Army Air Force when he was serving as a radio operator during the 2nd World War in IndoChina. My Mom played a bit of piano. I had 4 sisters, 3 of which are still with us. My twin sisters played trumpet, and were pretty good, but they didn’t pursue it after High School. My Dad had a very perceptive ear and was a big Mahler fan…but I used to drive him crazy playing the Rite of Spring recording he gave me for Christmas all the time when I was in High School.
CM: Music was in your DNA. My parents had no musical backgrounds and neither could read a note of music. Fortunately, their trust in my career path led both of them to become avid music lovers. And end up tolerating Stravinsky quite well…
VE: Sadly, my parents have been deceased for some time now. I began in Winnipeg in 1974, I was only 23 at the time. I had played one season in the Richmond Symphony which was full time. I had done a lot of free-lancing and recording while I was in Conservatory. I played in the Boston Ballet, Boston Opera, Boston Esplanade, Boston Pops, Handel and Haydn Society and subbed in the BSO in addition to playing in working Quintet, and the NEC Symphony Orchestra, and practising for lessons. I was busy. I don’t know how I did all this and went to school and graduated with honours!! The real world schedule was something else then. When I moved to Winnipeg there were three orchestras. The CBC Winnipeg Orchestra, the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and the Winnipeg Symphony with dates and concerts stacked on top of each other. It was a brutal schedule of sometimes 10 to 12 service weeks.
CM: We were both blessed to have had those CBC opportunities early in our careers. Younger players in Canada probably have no knowledge of how critical radio was to classical music in the post-War period. I played for 25 years with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra as well as the Vancouver Symphony, so I share memories of those busy weeks. The Mother Corporation – the CBC as we called it – folded all of its regional radio orchestras one by one. Vancouver’s lasted well into this century. Where did you go to school?
VE: My main teacher was Sherman Walt, Principal of the Boston Symphony for about 40 years. Walt was, and is, my main influence, not so much his playing style but rather his approach to the bassoon as an instrument. When I was studying with Maxym he said to me, “You don’t sound like a Walt student. I hope you don’t take that the wrong way.”
CM: Interesting. The one time I worked with Walt he struck me as being as opened minded as my own teacher Schoenbach. People never said “Oh, you sound like a Sol Schoenbach student.” There was a lot of Socratic dialogue in my years with Schoenbach. Was that your experience with Sherman?
VE: What I did get from him was his fearless approach to hardwork and discipline. I worked through over 24 books of Etudes in those four years with him, work that I continue to this day even after leaving the orchestra. That kind of seriousness is just a way of life, I guess. There was an obvious love of the instrument and music. If I was to prepare an etude I was expected to have it under my fingers and have a musical way of presenting . You had to have a point of view about it as a piece of music.
CM: Every teacher and every student finds a different balance between head and heart!
Sherman Walt, the legendary principal of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Louis Skinner, the legendary reed pedagogue.
VE: Mr. Walt didn’t teach reed making but rather you had to “figure it out”. Everyone who I knew that studied with Walt had at that time studied reed making with Skinner, and I noticed a huge change in their sounds when they returned from their trips to his house in Baltimore(where he lived at that time).
CM: Lou Skinner! We have much in common, Vince.
VE: After visiting Skinner they had more stable pitch and core to their sounds….they were all good players but their reedmaking improved markedly. I honestly don’t know if they all stuck with what he told them to do, but I’m certain they must have learned something. Anyway, I wasn’t about to deny myself the chance to see what the fuss was all about! I had only one day where I could get to see him, and the first thing he asked was to see one of my reeds. “Well, I see you do know how to scrape a reed properly” was one of the first things he said to me, and so I was beginning to think this trip might be a waste. I was wrong. Mr. Skinner explained his theories, and made me several “models” of his, and I took notes. When I returned home I managed to make copies of the styles he had shown me, and started to experiment with what I had learned.
CM: I’ll interject here to explain that Louis Skinner was a Baltimore-based bassoonist who throughout the late 60s and 70s developed a reputation as a reed making Guru. So many of the teachers of our generation, Vince, were holdouts from the days when principal players had others do their reedmaking. I’ve often described my own experience with Schoenbach’s reed explanations as being somewhat….cryptic! We were looking for some reed mentoring do help fill the gaps. Of course, Lou had a vigorous system of building reeds with sometimes complicated changes to the original cane. By the time I went to visit him for the first time in 1973 he was living in a tiny fishing village on the coast of Maine, just south of the Canadian border. A number of bassoonists from our generation made the Pilgramage to the Holy Skinner Shrine in Jonesport, ME.
VE: One of the things I found out early on was that the gouge alteration Skinner advocated, if done too much, would cause a reed not to vibrate as freely as I wanted it to. I started even in my remaining Boston years to back off with the extent of gouge alteration, but never working with just a plain gouged piece for a reed. I seemed always to be able to get promising reeds to “behave” and play. The one adage Mr. Walt gave me about reed making is to experiment, and the great advantage I got with Skinner was that I began to understand the physics of reeds. Mr. Skinner would measure everything until a blank was formed and I continue to do just that. With the extremely accurate tools they make now, and the great quality of materials today, I feel we have a better chance of success now. There is so much information now both from players and professional reed makers, and there are so many books with good advice, it’s very hard to go wrong.
CM: We were all flailing about, desperate for a working reed for our next lessons. Skinner was very good at refining construction techniques and getting us to think more systematically about design and build. Personally, I ended up looking for a bit more substantive physics to understand reeds. I’ve discussed this in a blog post on this website.
VE: I didn’t manage to follow up with Lou but I did ask a lot of questions of the other students that he taught. I also had the good fortune to have John Gaudette, whose brother was a horn student in Boston, drop off a bag of old reeds that Schoenbach gave him. There were some Knockenhauer and other commercial maker’s reeds that Sol must have been using at some point. It was good to see and compare different shapes and styles. I was experimenting with a host of different shapes at that time as well. I have struggled with Mr. Skinner’s theories. They seemed too “simple” and also really didn’t explain what is going on when we play. The idea of a valve more resembles what is going on. But some aspects of what Skinner was doing were of interest, though not all his gouging alterations worked for me in the long term. I eventually settled on a particular one that seemed to suit me at the moment and I’ve made only small modifications since adopting it. Moving a small amount of denser cane in certain areas does create some good qualities for the reed that I have now. It took a long time, and many duds to get to that point.
CM: Our shared experience with Skinner was 50 years ago. Looking back, what was your takeaway?
VE: Despite the easy availability of good machines for profiling and tip trimming, the old fashioned methods of scraping by hand with just knives and files I think gave us a greater sense of how all this works. The biggest trap now is that you might be able to go your whole career, never change anything, and at some point have a problem with your reeds and have no clue what is wrong with your approach….
CM: In my first several years in the Vancouver Symphony I was struggling with the BIG challenge that all young players make-moving from school to the professional orchestra. We were all faced with making bigger sounds to fill bigger stages and bigger concert halls. For the first year I struggled valiantly to pursue Skinner’s somewhat complicated gouging alterations, but ultimately returned to unaltered gouges. I remember writing to him in 1976 confessing my transgressions and expecting some scolding. But he wrote back, “I totally agree, everything is subordinate to the trimming!” Perhaps the problem was his explanation for why these gouge alterations worked – and they did – did not make too much sense. In any case, I remember sharing your assessment all those years ago.
VE: Hall projection in Winnipeg wasn’t too big of an issue for me, with the exception of my first season where I seemed to be constantly asked to play “bigger”. The first Heckel I owned was a 11000 series instrument that Lenny Hindell sold me before I had won the audition. It wasn’t too bad, but it had the typical “dull” feel that some of 11Ks tended towards. My 2nd Heckel was an early 12000 that I think Nadina Mackie had for a time and Samantha Duckworth afterwards. I struggled with that bassoon, and finally just sold it. There were several notes that Frank Marcus had to do some serious work to get them better in tune. My 3rd Heckel was the one I recorded the Eckhardt-Grammatté Concerto on. I had that for a long time, until I found the 601 Fox I’m playing on now.
CM: I like that recording a lot. It’s a concerto that deserves hearing.
Centennial Concert Hall, home of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Sadly, due to budget challenges the orchestra has been performing without an acoustic shell for a number of years.
As far as projecting in a multi purpose hall, I would say a really well centered resonant core works really well. I was able to do quite well in the Centennial Hall until they started to literally destroy the shell by removing the ceiling panels. One thing that I noticed with the very best orchestras is that when there is a single solo instrument, the other players keep their sounds down. This helps immensely, that musicians in large ensembles need always to be playing chamber music and listening intensely.
CM: My own journey with instruments could be described as an endless search for a bassoon that was mellow up close but with enough high partials to project. I’m embarrassed to say that my career path from age 16 included: a plastic Conn, an Adler, a 5K Heckel, an 11K Heckel, a 12K Heckel, two 13K Heckels, four Bells, two Walters, a Puchner Superior-and in my collection also… a Fox from my birth year  a Lange from the late 20s, a Vincenzo Puchner from the 30s, a Fellix Salter, a Hasseneir… I’m going to have one hell of a cremation…
VE: My history is a bit more sane. I actually started in high school on a Heckel, but it was in such a sorry state that they had to find a student Kohlert for me. Later I went to a different school where they had a good Polisi (probably a Kohlert). My parents, with so many mouths to feed, could only afford a Puchner for me to go to New England Conservatory with, and later I played the first Fox that Mr. Walt ever owned. It was the prototype for all future Foxes in the early days. I played it my first summer at Marlboro, and I believe the Marlboro Gounod Petite Symphonie was recorded on it.
CM: Love those old Polisi bassoons. A few of them are true gems. You mentioned the Marlboro Festival. We were not there in the same summers, but we were both blessed by some time with Marcel Moyse.
Marcel Moyse, the great French flutist.
VE Working with Moyse at Marlboro was very rewarding, but also just listening to singers in general was something I always did. Wunderlich, Björling and in High School especially Fischer-Dieskau were people I listened to. I’d listen to a whole lot of different kinds of music including some popular singers that were really quite astounding. I would also listen to Moyse recordings, and others. I listened to Allard a lot, but also Mr. Wright’s recordings. Most of them are pretty worn out now. And oh yes Marc Lifschey. Peter Bowman and I would sit in his dorm room my first year and play the Ich Habe Genug aria with Harrell and I think Robert Shaw conducting endlessly.
CM: Amazing to hear you mention that Lifschey recording. It was absolutely my favourite recording in my formative days. Every young wind player needs to know about this. Mack Harrell, the great American baritone was father of the great American cellist Lynn Harrell. This recording brings together two consummate artists.
CM: My first summer at the Marlboro Festival my fellow bassoonists were my former teacher Sol Schoenbach and Milan Turkovic. In our first ensemble rehearsal I asked Milan if I could try his reed. I couldn’t make a sound. I was playing light reeds [like so many conservatory trained students must !] and I had no experience with a heavier scrape. I thought Milan had lips of steel, but of course I was soon making reeds the same way.
VE: Milan said something to me once. “You can only play one reed at a time.” That’s true….but what if it’s a dud?
CM: I want to return to your personal story in Winnipeg. An American boy is dropped into a the cold Canadian Prairies. You lived.
VE: When I came to Canada in 1974, it was based on several recommendations including some colleagues I had in the Richmond Symphony that were originally from Canada, and Sol Schoenbach who had some very good things to say about the Royal Winnipeg Ballet when he saw them. I really didn’t know what to expect, as information didn’t travel as quickly in those days(no internet or social media). My parents were only first generation Americans, so I wasn’t so attached to the whole USA-centric vibe that you see sometimes. Besides, my mother’s parents were VERY Italian as they were born in the old country. I found Canada wonderfully cosmopolitan, more so than the US. I loved hearing different languages when I was going around Winnipeg. I found Canadians far more polite and aware of the world in general.
CM: I have to ask a chilly question… Winters are brutal in Winnipeg?
VE: Yes, it is cold in the winter. As my wife says, “It could be worse”. You learn to deal with it. For me the worst part of it is the dryness. Cane doesn’t like the dryness and if the air is dryer it’s very much like playing at a higher altitude where the air is thinner. It becomes less efficient. I use some sort of humidification like a humidor, or saltbox to try to keep the cane somewhat happy. Frequently I’d have 6+ performance ready reeds in my case, but when the weather would change from warm to cold, none of them would respond reasonably in different humidity. Consequently, I started to develop a different approach. The humidity here for about 7 months of the year is under 20%, a situation I gather they see in Scandinavia as well as in Europe. I would work fewer reeds and have a backlog of almost play ready blanks that were heavier than what I would normally play.
CM: When I left the tropical winters of Vancouver behind and moved to Ottawa 20 years ago, we were mostly blessed with the fairly even humidity at the National Arts Centre. But I should add that my evolution years ago to larger and heavier reeds certainly saved me from being to much at the mercy of dry winter days.
Vince Ellin in his salad years…
CM: I want to turn our conversation to the health challenge that forced you into retiring earlier than you wanted. You fell victim to Bell’s Palsy in 2001. Most cases of this paralysis of the facial muscles seem to resolve within weeks or several months. But many are not so fortunate. You could not form an embouchure for months.
VE: I had a massive ear infection and was paralyzed on my right side for some time. That all came back eventually but it took well over a year. The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra was constantly wanting to know when I would be able to come back, but I couldn’t tell them exactly when that would be. Eventually it came down to either making a comeback or leaving.
CM: Disability leaves are not always what we would hope for.
VE: Especially when administered by an unsympathetic personnel manager and a constantly shifting General Manager. I decided to come back and try to play, as my sick leave would be ending soon. Needless to say, my endurance was less than what I would normally have, and I was still dealing with getting my playing back to its ‘pre-palsy’ stability. It took quite a while. And while this was going on I was already being re-evaluated. So I was starting to engage in a legal battle with the union and the WSO management when I stepped back and took a good look at how my job had changed over the previous 30 years.
CM: This is a nightmare condition for wind or brass players. I’m going to put a link to a helpful article about the trombonist Tim Smith and his journey through Bell’s Palsy. Are you comfortable talking about what transpired?
VE: There were now so many more Pops concerts rather than classical repertoire being presented. I decided to take another path. The acoustics of the hall were in decline, and another music director was arriving. Our contract still granted the outgoing music director full discretion over the tenure of a musician who was being reevaluated. I know several principals, section players, and the assistant conductor spoke up in my favour, urging patience. Alas, it was to no avail and on the last day of the music director’s contract in Winnipeg I was let go…….a perfect storm. Obviously, it is still a very painful experience for me. I didn’t pursue the legal end any further because the position really wasn’t what it used to be, and it didn’t have the musical rewards I had become accustomed to.
CM: A nightmare.
VE: I do wish that extended health leave for musicians in orchestras would become more flexible and complete. Sadly there were others in my orchestra facing challenges. Had management demonstrated more patience and had been just a bit more accommodating, these remarkable people would have been long term assets. It seems that it always comes down to money. I’m sure that in my case the people dealing with my situation really knew nothing about the ailment. I was fortunate that some other bassoon colleagues (Don MacCourt) had experienced similar problems.
CM: From our creaky and arthritic viewpoint, how do you see the learning landscape for the young players now?
VE: There is so much information now, both from players and professional reed makers, and so many books with good advice. It’s very hard to go wrong.
CM: I hope you’re correct. I sometimes feel that there is so much information. It’s hard to close up the social media accounts, turn off the YouTube videos and locate what is truly helpful. When we were kids in school-you will remember this-we had to buy LPs of the repertoire we needed to learn, and if we wanted to study parts and scores it involved lots of research time and friendly librarians. Nowadays, so much of the orchestral repertoire is available for instant download and a hundred performances of almost every important work will stream on any device with the punch of our well trained thumbs. And yet…I’ve always had to push students to take advantage of these basic learning streams. But enough grumbling… Tell me, are you keeping your playing skills up?
VE: Now that the pandemic is waning, I’ve started to get out to play in public again, after a long period of isolation. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is to play a solo concert…..there seems to be enough good music available these days. Other than the Eckhardt-Grammatté I don’t have any solo CD and it’s something I’d like to work towards. Chamber music with my colleagues is also something that I haven’t been able to enjoy much with a heavy schedule. Chamber music is close to my heart, probably more than any other kind of music. Right now in Winnipeg there seems to be very little wind chamber music, and I’d like to see if I can do anything about that. The Weinberg Sonata is so lovely that I’d love to get a few stabs at that. There’s too much music I want to work on and play. I did a whole contemporary music concert in Winnipeg after the WSO which included the Isang Yun Monolog, and other solo works. I’ve just discovered this year a really incredible composer – Mieczyslaw Weinberg who wrote a solo Sonata for bassoon…..there’s quite a lot of things to still explore for me.
CM: I love your enthusiasm, Vince. Never too old for bold ideas!
Vincent Ellin was Principal Bassoon for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra from 1974 to 2006. Christopher Millard was Principal Bassoon for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra from 1975 to 2004 and the National Arts Centre Orchestra from 2004 to 2022. They are both board members of the Council of Canadian Bassoonists.
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