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Fourth in a 10-part series

Bassoonist Judy LeClair:
'A family was my answer'

iconNew York Philharmonic principal bassoon player Judy LeClair says her instrument is sometimes confused by lay people with the much smaller oboe. As distinctive as the bassoon is, its origins are unclear. Have a look at the background of this difficult reed instrument's history and development.  

In this story:

'It's quality control'

'Zeroed into it'

'Mommy, that's not Mozart'

'There aren't enough jobs'


(CNN) -- This is the fourth entry in an exclusive 10-part series at, on the working lives of musicians who play with the New York Philharmonic, one of the world's premiere symphony orchestras.

This week's Player: Judy LeClair, principal bassoon.

Player Profile

Judith LeClair, principal bassoon

Hometown: Newark, Delaware
Age: 43
Age at which she began to play bassoon: 11
Early music education: Settlement Music School, Philadelphia
Formal music training: Eastman School of Music
Professional resumé:
•   1979-'81 -- Principal bassoon, San Diego Symphony and San Diego Opera orchestra
•   1981-present -- Principal bassoon, New York Philharmonic; started at age 23
•   1985-present -- Faculty member, The Juilliard School
Number of years with New York Philharmonic: 20
Favorite pieces to play:
"Anything by Stravinsky. Anything by Mozart."
•   "The Five Sacred Trees," concerto written for LeClair by John Williams
•   "New York Legends"
•   "CANTO XII" (a set of solo pieces for bassoon, by Samuel Adler)

She's a working mother with an active toddler -- she juggles a work schedule of daytime rehearsals and nighttime concerts to fit in playtime with her son and practice time on her bassoon.

And then there's the laborious process of turning pieces of raw bamboo cane into the delicate, finished reeds that make up the mouthpiece of her instrument -- an instrument that has one of the most distinctive "voices" in the orchestra: by turns reedy and raspy, lilting and lyrical.

Why did you choose the bassoon?

There was a bassoon available at my school -- a horrible plastic instrument - and nobody played it. I was 11, in fifth grade. I'd started playing cello, but I didn't like using the bow. I wanted to play a wind instrument, something that had keys you could press.

Also, my older brother was in high school already, and there was a really good bassoon player there who was really cute. That was part of it, too: Playing bassoon, I got to take lessons from this really cute guy.

That "horrible plastic" bassoon -- do you remember the first time you made a sound on that instrument?

Oh, it was awful! A terrible sound -- it sounded like a dying animal. But I loved playing the instrument, playing with the fingerings. And it was challenging. Most bassoon players play clarinet first, or saxophone, and I never did.

I had a talent for it immediately. Pretty soon, I got another instrument, a student model that was much better than the plastic one, and I played on that for about five years before I got a Heckel instrument -- a Heckel bassoon is the best made; that's what professionals play.

So you were serious enough about the bassoon to have a professional-level instrument when you were still a teen-ager?

Yes. But how I came to have that bassoon is a tragedy. That "really cute guy" I took lessons from was a senior in high school. He was going to study bassoon at West Virginia University the next year -- and he died, with his girlfriend.

It was an unfortunate accident -- no one ever told me exactly what happened. He must have been 19; I was 15.

He had an old Heckel -- a fabulous instrument, built around 1940 in Germany. The sound, the resonance of these old instruments is just beautiful. My parents bought it sight-unseen from his parents. And I still play it -- the instrument I play in the Philharmonic is the same one I got from the boy who died. It's the only bassoon I own.


'It's quality control'

How hard is it to play bassoon? What are the most difficult aspects of the bassoon to master?

Everybody thinks it's mastering the 23 keys and all these holes. But the thing that's difficult is breath control and sound production, intonation: You can press all the right keys, play all the right notes, but if you place your mouth wrong, the note is going to be a clunker. The note is going to come out -- it's just going to be out of tune.

graphic Judy LeClair speaks of the New York Philharmonic being a good employer in terms of maternity needs. How does this compare to the experiences of working moms where you're employed?

In terms of being a working mother, LeClair has it better in the orchestra than she'd get at my company.
About the same. My company is very supportive of its working moms, too.
From what LeClair describes here, I'd say my company does better by its working moms.
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Getting a terrific sound on the instrument is hard to do -- it's hard on any double-reed instrument. A clarinet and a saxophone have a single reed; a bassoon has a double reed. The reed is the mouthpiece: Two blades of reed are strapped together, and you use your embouchure (position of the lips and mouth) to push air through them. The blades vibrate against each other, and it makes a sound. The quality of the sound depends on the quality of the reed, as well as the skill of the player.

Where do you get your reeds?

You make your reeds yourself. You really have to learn how to make reeds early on -- I learned in high school, and since then I've studied with someone specifically, just on reed-making. You have to have special equipment -- gouging machines and profilers. It takes a huge fortune, a huge amount of time.

You start with cane that comes from France -- although some is now grown in California. First, you make a blank -- a blank is a reed that isn't shaped yet. You do that by gouging tubes of cane with a gouging machine, then profiling the cane with a profiler, a machine that cuts the top of the cane so that you can shape it into the form of a reed. A reed is a certain size and width - it looks sort of like a popsicle stick. Then you have to scrape it down, reshape the edges.

I'll usually work on four or five at a time, and scrape down a little bit every day, so they're all in different stages. Some people will do the scraping all at once, but I find that the reed doesn't last as long that way.

Before you're finished, you've soaked this piece of cane, folded it over, tied it with wires and scraped it. It takes about a week of work for one to be playable. It's very hard work -- and very frustrating: Cane is a natural substance -- it's vegetable matter -- so it varies; it isn't uniform. You'll make a dozen reeds -- and only get two or three that you can play. It's quality control: The rest, you'll have to throw away.

It's just part of life, if you're a double-reed player. Oboes have it much worse, because our reeds last longer -- our reeds can last several weeks.

You can't buy ready-made reeds at a music specialty store, at Reeds 'R' Us?

(Laughs.) There are some pre-packaged student reeds. But they just don't sound right. You have to get a certain response from the reed, a certain sound. It's very personal -- I couldn't play my colleagues' reeds. It's like fitting into somebody else's shoes.

How much work is required to keep a bassoon - especially an older instrument - in good repair?

A bassoon needs a lot of work, it needs to be maintenanced. Keys get loose, (key) pads get loose -- so there's air leaking from under the pads, which makes it easier to miss notes, or miss a clean attack on a note. And sometimes you have to drill out the (open) holes. There's somebody in Toronto who's really terrific at this kind of maintenance.

So do you FedEx your bassoon to Toronto, or take it there yourself?

Oh, I would never put it on a plane alone. I always take it myself, make the annual trip to Marcus Wheeler Bassoon Repair. I've done that ever since I started playing professionally.


'Zeroed into it'

When did you know that you wanted to play bassoon professionally?

I was 15. We had moved to Delaware, and I started studying with this wonderful teacher in Philadelphia, Shirley Curtiss, and taking classes at Settlement Music School (in Philadelphia). And once I started playing with the Settlement group, that was it -- I knew that was what I wanted to do.

I wasn't involved with sports in high school; I wasn't involved with anything else -- except music. I lived for my lessons, and going into Philadelphia for my ensemble classes.

Instrument Profile

Player's bassoon: Heckel (8093 Series)

Made: Circa 1940, in Germany
Made of: European maple with silver keys; reeds made from French cane, by hand
Purchased: From the family of her first teacher, after his death
Value of a similar instrument: $30,000

Your parents didn't have to keep after you to practice?

Oh, God -- they tried to get me not to practice. They were always irritated by it, the hours and hours of my playing. I loved to practice -- I was just really zeroed into it.

How would you describe the sound the bassoon makes?

Dark. Woody. A little nasal, sometimes. I like to think of it as a pure sound -- a pure tenor. I think it's unfairly stereotyped (in the orchestra) as the comic buffoon voice -- and it rises above that. It's not just a comic, gruff voice -- it's a lyrical, expressive voice, too.

How often does the bassoon get the melody? Or a solo? How often is it showcased?

Oh, just about every piece has something for the solo bassoon, or something with the bassoon in the forefront.

The instrument has changed dramatically since its earlier days in the 18th century. Then, it only had about seven keys on it; now, it has 23 keys and seven holes. Its range has gone another octave up. So you can play a lot of different things on it now that you couldn't play 200 years ago.

Which composers do you think have written music that takes best advantage of the bassoon's distinctive "voice"?

Mozart wrote so elegantly for the bassoon -- he wrote for the bassoon like he was writing for a singer. In his symphonies, he wrote a singing line for the bassoon -- like a little opera aria. I like passages that have expressive, singing lines.

Someone like Stravinsky wrote unusually difficult things for the bassoon -- lots of bouncy, staccato things and gorgeous high notes. Everything Stravinsky wrote has a wonderful bassoon solo in it -- "Rite of Spring," "Firebird Suite," "Symphony in C."

Shostakovich -- practically every one of his symphonies has a huge, lyrical bassoon solo in it. Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" has a beautiful bassoon solo. They're all different -- every composer writes differently for the instrument.

Are there some composers whose music you dislike playing -- either because you don't like the bassoon parts, or because you've played these pieces too often?

Yeah, sure. With a job like this, where you do repeat concerts four times a week, it's easy to get burnt out. I remember when I was in high school and college, how I had this burning desire and ambition to play these pieces. And now here I am, with the opportunity to play them and play them with a great orchestra -- and I'm like, "Aw, do I have to do this again?"

graphic The origins of the bassoon aren't clear. References to it, or something like the instrument we know today, date back to 1690. Here, from, are details on the development of this instrument and what goes into making it.

I hate playing Bruckner symphonies. I'm not a big Mahler fan - I mean, I love the music, but I don't like playing his symphonies. I wish we played more Haydn and Mozart, Brahms serenades, more light chamber works -- that's the stuff I love to do. Chamber music is more precise, delicate, intimate. Every instrument counts more; every note you play means more. It's so much more satisfying.

But (the Philharmonic) is going to do more Wagner, more Mahler, more Bruckner -- all this heavy Romantic stuff. That's where I get bored. Still, you play it. It's just part of the job. You just try to generate that old college enthusiasm again - and when you're actually in the orchestra, playing, you get into it again. And I have an associate, another bassoonist - as the Principal, I can hand off some pieces to him.

Where do you sit in the orchestra?

Principal bassoons sit straight in the middle. I'm behind the oboes and flutes. Immediately to my left is second bassoon, immediately to my right is the clarinet section. What's right behind me is usually percussion or brass -- and that's a problem.

The woodwinds, including bassoon, are located fairly centrally in the orchestra onstage. Click here for a look at where principal bassoon Judy LeClair plays in the New York Philharmonic.

When the trumpets and trombones are behind us, it's agonizing -- it's so loud it hurts, it physically hurts. If cymbals are crashing behind you, you can hear ringing in your ears -- and if you can hear ringing, you know you've done damage to your hearing. You're wearing earplugs all the time -- if I didn't wear them, I'd go deaf.

How much do you practice every day?

Used to be, when I was in school, I'd do three hours a day -- but these days, an hour a day is great. It's always better to keep your muscles going: It's better to play 20 minutes a day than two hours one day, and skip a day. And if you're off on the weekend and you don't pick up the instrument until Tuesday morning, it'll feel like you haven't played in weeks.

I have to work on reeds first. I'll work on reeds for 10 to 15 minutes, scraping things down, and then I'll play for an hour, an hour -and-a-half. How much I practice depends on what I have to play -- when I'm playing a concerto, it can be two hours a day. But for wind players, if we're rehearsing big pieces in the orchestra every day, that's generally enough playing to keep your chops in good shape. You don't have to go home and do a lot more practice on top of that.

How tall are you, and how big is the bassoon?

I'm 5'3" and the bassoon is about 4'8". And it's heavy to lug around -- it's not a piccolo.

Do you exercise to keep in shape for playing a wind instrument?

I used to exercise -- I used to run, and swim, and that really helped me. But that was before the baby. My son Gabriel is now 2.


'Mommy, that's not Mozart'

How hard is it, as a mother of a young child, to do your job?

This worried me. I was almost 41 when I had my son. It's why I waited so long to have a child -- I didn't think I could handle it. I didn't think I'd have enough time to make reeds and practice.


See other installments in the series

Week 1:
Flute, Mindy Kaufman
Week 2:
Cello, Carter Brey
Week 3:
Trumpet, Phil Smith
Week 4:
Bassoon, Judy LeClair
Week 5:
Bass, David Grossman
Week 6:
Horn, Philip Myers
Week 7:
English Horn, Tom Stacy
Week 8:
Violin, Glenn Dicterow
Week 9:
Trombone, Jim Markey
Week 10:
Percussion, Joe Pereira

I find I can still practice, when he's with his dad, or the nanny, or napping -- I just zero in and do it. I used to do warm-ups and scales; now, I just go straight to what I need to work on. And as far as reeds go, because I don't have all day to lounge around and make reeds, my reed quality is better because I think I concentrate harder.

Sleeping, though, is another matter. (Laughs.) Finding balance is tough. Of course, we have a wonderful, long summer vacation, and that helps.

Do you take a vacation from your instrument, or do you always take it with you?

Usually I don't take it on vacation. But we were just in Cancun for a week -- and I took my instrument. I had something really hard to play just after we were to get back, and I just couldn't leave it for seven days. I was able to practice in this great big bathroom at the Ritz-Carlton.

Why did you practice in the bathroom? Privacy? Acoustics?

No -- the reason I was playing in the bathroom is because I could close the door, so my son wouldn't see me. (Laughs.) My son doesn't like it when I play the bassoon. He likes the sound of the bassoon just fine -- but he doesn't like the fact that Mommy is making that sound. He hates the sight of Mommy doing something that doesn't involve him.

Do you want your son to play an instrument?

It's important to me that he loves music -- and he already does. He has a Mozart CD that he wants to listen to every day about five or six times -- he's just infatuated with it. We were on an airplane, and they had some piped-in music; he looked at me and he said, "Mommy, that's not Mozart."

I do want him to play the piano -- that's very important to me. I think every child should learn to play the piano, and take piano lessons, learn to read music. And he's interested in our piano at home, he wants to know how it works. But if he doesn't play another instrument, that's fine.

Is there the equivalent of a "mommy track" at the Philharmonic? Any way in which women with children are disadvantaged professionally?

Oh, no -- they're so good here. I think they're probably more understanding of pregnancy, childbirth and child care here than lots of places are.

I chose to work until I was more than eight months pregnant, and then it got really difficult -- it started getting hard to breathe. I took about three months off after the baby, which wasn't long enough. I could have taken longer -- we get a long maternity leave. If it gets too hard, they're very understanding at the Philharmonic. If you need time off, they are wonderful -- they'll give you as much as you need.

TEST Here's an excerpt from a New York Philharmonic Special Editions recording. It demonstrates the sound of the bassoon in the large, Romantic orchestra of Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 2, "Little Russian, from the first movement, from "New York Philharmonic: The Historic Broadcasts, 1923-1987," CD 3

WAV sound


And you don't risk losing your position if you take time off?

In an orchestra like this, you can't do something sneaky to get somebody else's chair -- that just doesn't happen. You don't get promoted -- you have to audition when somebody leaves, retires or dies. You have to win an international audition -- you can't sit there and back-stab your way up.

Does your work schedule make it difficult to find good child care?

We have rehearsals in the mornings -- and concerts in the evenings. Plus, I have a long commute: I live in New Jersey, which is about a 25-minute drive (from the concert hall) with no traffic -- but a lot of times, it takes an hour.

I have a nanny, a young woman who has an apartment downstairs; she follows my schedule. As soon as I'm home, she leaves, and I'm with the baby. Evenings, when I have to go back in (to the city) for a concert, I don't get back until 11 at night; my husband doesn't work at night, so he'll take care of Gabriel. My husband is a pianist -- he's head of the Accompanying Department at Juilliard. He plays concerts and travels a bit, but not as much as we do at the Philharmonic.

I find myself defending that I work. Sometimes, I'm asked by other mothers, "Oh, you have a baby and you continue to work?" And I have to say, "Yeah -- you just can't leave a job like this. You owe it to yourself -- you've spent your whole life to attain this goal, to be in this position." It's not like giving up the average desk job.

If I didn't do this job, the creative part of me would be dead. This makes me a more creative person. This makes me a more creative, better mom.


'There aren't enough jobs'

Do you teach?

I do. I think it's important. Of course, it helps pay for the nanny -- but I feel teaching is something I should do. And students want to study with the principals of the New York Philharmonic. I don't take many students -- only two or three, at Juilliard.

Are there enough younger players taking up the bassoon?


Oh, there are too many! There are good, talented bassoon students at Juilliard, Eastman (School of Music), at conservatories all over the country -- and there aren't enough jobs in orchestras for them. In all American orchestras this year, there probably won't be more than 10 positions for bassoons that will open. The new players will have to find a niche -- teaching, or playing in community orchestras.

What's the response when you tell people what you do for a living? Do they always know what a bassoon is?

There's some confusion. A lot of people call it an oboe. It's not as recognized as a flute or a trumpet.

People are always impressed when they find out you play with the New York Philharmonic. They always say, "Oh, it must be so fabulous, to do something you love to do, all the time." And I'm thinking, well, it's hard work, too, and we don't always love it. But it's still better than going to an office job.

A lot of people don't understand how hard our work is. They don't understand that I'm tired after "only" a few hours playing a concert. They just count the hours that we have rehearsals and concerts -- and they don't think of the preparation, of the reed-making, of the practicing. They'll say, "Oh, you're up there playing, and it's only a 20-minute piece." They don't know that you've been working on it for six months.

Is this the job you're going to retire from?

I was 23 when I started this job. I think 25, 30 years of it should be enough. You get to a certain point where you ask, is this all there is? What is there to do after this? A family was my answer; having a child. And I think, maybe another child -- I don't know. I definitely won't be here more than 10 more years. I'll teach instead. All around in this orchestra, in most orchestras, you see people who stay too long, who should retire. I don't want people to sit there and whisper about me, "She should be retiring." If I'm going to play, I want to be at the top of my playing.

Next week's Player: David Grossman, bass



Phil Smith, trumpet: 'It's a blessing'
February 23, 2001
Cellist Carter Brey: 'Renaissance lumber'
February 15, 2001
Flutist Mindy Kaufman: 'Music is language'
February 8, 2001
That old, sweet sound: 'Jazz' writer brings life passion to viewers, readers
January 9, 2001
St. Louis Symphony receives $40 million gift
December 6, 2000
President of San Francisco Symphony to step down
December 5, 2000

The New York Philharmonic
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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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