Bassoonist shares life-long love of music
January 12, 2017
Local musician Chris Harrison has spent the past 15 years performing and teaching in the Roaring Fork Valley, and now, after never believing it was possible, he's taking the next big step in his career: He's been hired to play bassoon with the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra.
But while most professional woodwind instruments can be purchased for around $5,000, bassoons can cost $20,000 or more. In order to buy an instrument on par with his playing and his career now, Harrison has set up a GoFundMe that has already raised about $5,600.
Harrison spoke with the Post Independent about how his passion for music began, why he decided to take a chance on an audition with a professional orchestra and what owning a professional quality bassoon would mean to him.
Post Independent: When and why did you get involved with music?
Chris Harrison: My first conscious memories of enjoying music must have been when I was about 7 or 8 years old, and I would curl up in the big lounge chair in our family room and listen to Steve Miller Band and Fleetwood Mac cassettes on old-school, can-style headphones. I would listen in that chair for hours at a time, singing along and beating out the drum rhythms on the arms of that chair. It must have been about that time, around third grade, when the nationally touring Ronald McDonald Big Band made a stop at my elementary school, and that was the first time I saw someone playing a saxophone. I just thought it was so cool, so in fifth grade I had the chance join band and learn an instrument. I've been playing ever since.
PI: You started on saxophone and picked up the bassoon, right? Tell me about how that came about.
CH: In middle school, my interest and dedication to music started to wane, and I honestly almost quit. But in eighth grade, we had a new band director, a guy named Russ Kellogg who was a really great teacher and trumpet player, and he went the extra lengths to introduce me to the bassoon and got me set up with a local high school bassoonist for private lessons. He really helped me with the things I needed to start out on the right foot with the instrument. Since I was doing lessons, I started practicing more, and that's when things got fun again. Looking back, that was a real crossroads time in my life that could have sent me in a completely different direction if it hadn't been for the extra efforts of a local music teacher.
PI: What do you love about playing bassoon? What are that instrument's particular challenges?
CH: Once I started playing bassoon, I quickly fell in love with the sound of the instrument, especially the low notes. The bassoon is the lowest instrument, or the bass instrument, of the woodwind family of instruments. And like its smaller sister the oboe, the bassoon is a double-reed instrument. That is definitely one of the aspects of playing bassoon that is especially challenging because good reeds are hard to buy, and all serious players learn to make their own. I must truly be in a new place in my life because I finally have the patience and will to sit down and make reeds again, something I really wasn't super interested in back in my college years. In addition to being the lowest of the woodwinds, the bassoon also has one of the largest ranges of all the woodwind instruments. This makes the fingering system very complex, probably the most difficult of any instrument. On clarinet, for example, the left thumb has two keys to worry about, and the right thumb has none. On the bassoon, the left thumb has nine keys to work, and the right has four. Definitely one of the biggest challenges of the instrument is just learning the fingering combinations for the notes.
PI: How are you involved with music in this valley?
CH: When I moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in the summer of 2000, after living in Winter Park for a few years, I was doing the solo acoustic thing playing apres gigs upvalley and sometimes at Sunlight. But music was always such a social experience for me growing up, and I became bored of playing by myself. I started to shift focus and picked up playing the sax again and pretty quickly was breaking into some great musician circles. That's when I met the guys in my first band, Sector 7G. I've played a lot of gigs with a lot of bands in just about every bar in the valley over the past 16 years. Nowadays, I play with Jes Grew and The Broccoli Brothers Horns mostly at the Belly Up and for special occasions like weddings and holiday celebrations. Performing is without a doubt one of those things that makes me feel so alive. I just love it so much, playing music for people.
But I'm also very active as a music educator in the area. I'm so very fortunate to be involved in two of the most amazing organizations — Jazz Aspen Snowmass and the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork. As a member of the JAS music faculty, I work in the Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Rifle and New Castle area schools helping out with the band classes in a variety of capacities. At the Waldorf School, I'm a music specialty teacher and work with all the middle school students teaching winds and percussion class. This aspect of my work has also profoundly affected me with the long-term rewards and the sense of service it provides me. I'm also so extremely grateful for all the private music students I get to work with and so very fortunate to meet so many amazing parents, students and families though this work.
PI: When did you audition for the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra? What made you want to do that?
CH: I played a live audition for the orchestra personnel manager (who is also a bassoonist) and the conductor, Maestro Charles Latshaw, on Dec. 7. I had contacted them about six weeks earlier via email just to let them know I was around and playing bassoon again. They were very excited that I had reached out and very nice to set up the audition. It was exactly the challenge I needed because over the past summer I took some bassoon lessons at the Aspen Music Festival and School through their Big PALS program. It was exciting to be learning, practicing and getting better at my craft again. I've been feeling for some time a deep craving to play in an orchestra again at a very high level. I'm in a phase right now where I really want to be pushed and challenged musically. I honestly didn't even know Grand Junction had a professional symphony until this past summer. Reaching out to them and preparing for the audition was a lot of work for me and right at the edge of my comfort zone, but it just felt very right and fell into place.
PI: How did it feel when you found out you got in?
CH: I don't think I'll ever forget that day and the feeling of driving home successfully passing the audition. It was such a strong feeling of accomplishment for myself and going to a place I never really dreamed possible for me with music, playing with a professional orchestra. Because I wasn't a super dedicated practicer in my younger years, I mentally set a limit on what was possible for me in music, and playing with a professional orchestra was always outside that limit. That's why I studied music education in college and not music performance. So going for this goal and having made it is literally living a reality that is beyond anything I had dreamed possible for myself. It's really taught me that I need to stop limiting what I think I can do and live that example for my students.
PI: When do you start rehearsing with that group?
CH: I've been invited to play for the Feb. 18 and 19 Concert Series performances at the Avalon Theatre in Grand Junction, so rehearsals for those performances start on Feb. 7. It will be about three hours of round-trip driving for three hours of rehearsal. I do drive a lot now for my jobs, but this is taking things to another level.
PI: Tell me about the GoFundMe you have set up.
CH: The bassoon I've been using for the last couple of years is one that I am borrowing from one of the area schools and is just a student model instrument. It doesn't even have all the keys I need to play more advanced pieces. A few years ago there was only one student in our entire area playing the bassoon. When I started playing again, I took the instrument into the classes I was helping with and played it for the students, and almost immediately interest in the instrument started catching on.
Now, especially since I'll be playing with a professional orchestra, I need to get a professional instrument and return the one I've been using so another student can start up on it. Buying a professional quality sax, flute, clarinet or oboe can be accomplished for about $5,000 or less. In the bassoon world, it easily costs four times that amount to get a used professional instrument.
When I started looking around online, I just couldn't believe how much they were going for these days. I knew immediately it would be financially impossible for me to come up with $20,000 to own an instrument of my own without some serious financial help.
A few years ago, a good friend of mine set up a GoFundMe to raise money so he could hike the entire Appalachian Trail for a summer. I told myself that if I passed the audition, I'd have to get the ball rolling to get an instrument that would not only be good enough to meet me where I'm at now as a player, but also let me grow. So I set up a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising at least $12,000, and after about a month, I'm almost halfway there. But as I've been looking more seriously at instruments, I'm learning that I truly will need closer to $20,000 to get the used instrument I really need. Buying one brand new would be closer to $28,000. That's just so crazy.
If anyone out there would like to help out, and even the smallest amounts help, you can go to this link: http://tinyurl.com/bassoonfund.
I deeply thank you all in advance for being a part of making this dream a reality, and thank you again to every one of my family and friends who has already donated to the fund.
PI: What's your favorite part of being a musician?
CH: My favorite part of being a musician is in the act of creating and performing something with excellence and passion. My taste and styles of music that I enjoy are so diverse, but always I play with dedication and passion. When me and the boys play at the Belly Up, we just kill it, and the response from the crowd is always so exciting and fulfilling. After every concert I put on with my students at the Waldorf School, we leave the stage knowing we did the work and did our best, and the lessons we all learned from it will last a lifetime. I do love the recognition and the attention from being on stage, but there is a deeper purpose to it now for me. It's about being able to create and share pure joy with people in a world that needs beauty and joy more than ever. That makes me feel special.