By Dan Verner | Photo by Amy Falkofske
The pre-concert run-through for the orchestra and Manassas Chorale at the Hylton Performing Arts Center has gone well, but bassoonist Michelle Rupert is not pleased. Her reeds are acting up. She plucks the carefully crafted double reed from the bocal of her Fox 601 and places it between her lips, moistening the recalcitrant reed and keeping it playable. She says, “It’s all about the reeds. They can make a bad instrument sound better and a good instrument sound bad.
“I use Glotin cane, which comes from France, to make my reeds. They are very temperamental. Everything from the temperature of the water they are soaked in to the humidity level outside affects the way they play. I usually keep several of them at different stages in my case. Two weeks ago, my reed sounded wonderful at home, but by the time I got to rehearsal, it was sharp and wouldn’t play quietly. Bottom line: double reeds are a pain!”
School Band Sows the Seeds of Musical Passion
Rupert fell in love with band when she began playing the saxophone at age 10. She told her parents that one day she was going to be an elementary school band director. “Like many other bassoonists, I started playing the bassoon as a secondary instrument. When I auditioned for the high school band, the director noticed that I played the sax with a double lip embouchure, and he asked me if I would learn the bassoon. I agreed and was able to play sax in the jazz band and bassoon in the symphonic band.”
“It really wasn’t until my senior year in college that I started to consider myself a bassoonist rather than a saxophonist. Because my saxophone background was in jazz, my college lessons had a strictly classical focus. I quickly realized that not only could I not play a scale without swinging it, I really didn’t enjoy classical sax. So I dropped the sax lessons and focused on the bassoon,” she said.
The Student Becomes the Teacher
“My love for teaching and ‘music making’ brought me to Dogwood Elementary School in Reston, where I have been the band director for the past six years. Previously, I taught at Lake Anne Elementary and Herndon High School. I do enjoy playing very much, but I love teaching and seeing kids get excited when they begin to ‘really’ make music even more. I still remember how much I loved it when I was their age. Many of my students are now professional musicians.
“There really is no such thing as a typical day for a teacher. One of the challenges I face is that I work at a Title 1 school and that comes with inherent difficulties. Kids who are hungry have trouble concentrating. And that can sometimes manifest as behavior trouble in a classroom setting. For most of my students, English is their second language. Although I have enough Spanish to speak to the kids in class (or have the kids translate for me), I have to use a parent liaison to communicate with parents and must have any permission forms, emails and concert information translated.
Most Embarrassing Moment Becomes a Lesson
“My favorite group to play with was definitely The New England Youth Ensemble, which was started by Dr. Virginia-Gene Rittenhouse. I loved that it was a Christian group and, before every performance we gathered as a group (like a sports huddle) and thanked God for the gift of our musical abilities and asked that we be able to spread His word through our music. I played with them in Carnegie Hall for a couple of years. My favorite experience from that time was playing John Rutter’s ‘Magnificat’ under his direction.”
Rupert has also enjoyed performing with such ensembles as the Shenandoah Valley Philharmonic, Roanoke Symphony, Rockbridge Symphony, Riverside Wind Symphony, Capital Wind Symphony and Brevard Music Center Orchestra.
“My most embarrassing moment came at a concert my freshman year at JMU. The conductor acknowledged me at the end of a concert and had me stand up. I guess I had never actually been told the correct way to hold a bassoon, so I wasn’t holding it by the bottom. The bell came off in my hand and the bassoon landed with a thud. The audience’s gasp is clearly audible on the cassette tape. The silver lining is that I have used that tape a number of times to teach my students the proper way to carry a bassoon!”
“I would tell a beginning bassoonist that it is really important to get private lessons immediately. Students often come to me because they are frustrated. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the problem is the instrument or the reed—not the player.”
Rupert was the guest conductor for the Prince William County Middle School All District Band in 2007 and 2015, the Prince William County Eighth Grade All County Band in 2011, acted as the Assistant Conductor of the Manassas Symphony Orchestra from 2009 – 2012, and teaches at the Bocal Majority Double Reed Camp. She teaches private lessons, serves as a woodwind coach of The Capitol Symphonic Youth Orchestras, and performs with various groups throughout Northern Virginia, including the Manassas Chorale.
Rupert attended Chantilly High School before receiving a Bachelor of Music in education from James Madison University and a Master of Arts in conducting from George Mason University, under the tutelage of Professor Anthony Maiello.
Michelle Rupert not only teaches and performs; she also works to educate people about the bassoon and the music it can produce in the hands of the right player. And she is that right player.
Dan Verner (email@example.com) is the author of several books and was named “Best Writer in Prince William County (Virginia) for 2014 and 2015 by readers of Prince William Today newspaper. Find out more about him at danverner.com.