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Q&A with an SFCM Bassoonist

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Shelby Capozzoli ’22 talks about studying with Stephen Paulson and why she chose SFCM

April 9, 2021 by Tim Records

SFCM asked junior Shelby Capozzoli some questions about her experience at the Conservatory and why she loves the bassoon. Get to know Shelby and what it’s like to study in the woodwinds department below.

SFCM: Why the Bassoon? Was there an “a-ha” moment when you knew that was your instrument?

SC: I always loved playing woodwinds, and when I was in middle school, a high schooler told me in passing, “You should play the bassoon!”. “What’s a bassoon?” I thought, so I searched “bassoon” on YouTube and immediately fell in love with its deep, rich tone.

What led you to apply to SFCM?

I took a trial lesson with my now teacher, Stephen Paulson [Principal Bassoonist in the San Francisco Symphony; SFCM faculty], and he had a lot to teach me. Then, I visited the city. I was amazed at how beautiful it was and how close the Conservatory is to the San Francisco Symphony, Opera, and Ballet!

How has SFCM changed the way you view your future career as a musician?

When I came into SFCM I knew I wanted to be an orchestral bassoonist and bassoon teacher. Although those aspirations still remain, the knowledge and inspiration I’ve garnered from teachers like Joseph Stillwell [Music Theory and Musicianship] has sparked my interest to become not only a bassoonist but a scholar of music for all of my days. Additionally, teachers like Jeff Anderle [chair of woodwinds] and my creative peers have shown me that if I have an idea, I can make it happen, and create my own opportunities.

What is the best part of your day?

The best part of my day is playing in a productive rehearsal. It is so satisfying to have made improvements from the start to the end of a rehearsal, and it’s really exciting to hear music played better each time.

What makes bassoon difficult?

The nine keys devoted to the left thumb alone make the bassoon quite the challenge! And I’m constantly learning how to coax this unruly instrument to play with good intonation. Something challenging, yet thoroughly enjoyable about playing the bassoon is all of the different hats we get to wear within ensembles. The bassoon is a fairly low-pitched instrument, so we often get to play the bass line of a piece. But the instrument also has a lush tenor register, and often within a single orchestral piece we will play the bass, tenor, alto, and soprano voices, in different instances.

Why is reed making so challenging yet so important?

There are so many steps to make a vegetative piece of cane into a fully functional mouthpiece of an instrument. If any one of these steps is off, the reed may not be viable. It is very difficult to discern which step went wrong during reed making, so there is a LOT of trial and error, and a lot of reeds made. But despite all of this, the mental game of reed making is what’s most challenging for me, because of the stakes a reed holds. Having a good reed is essential because playing on a bad reed can feel like playing on a broken instrument.

What’s your relationship with reed making?

Make as many reeds as I possibly can! There are some steps of the process that are nearly muscle memory by this point, so I’m able to turn on a podcast or music or call a friend to help pass the time. Reed making can be very enjoyable though, especially as my craft improves, and it’s a nice productive task to intersperse with my practice when my face gets tired from playing.

What is the best part about working with Stephen Paulson?

Mr. Paulson is such a sensitive and nuanced musician, so along with teaching me how to be a proper bassoonist, he guides me in making compelling music out of whatever I’m playing—even if it’s just scales! With all his time in the San Francisco Symphony, he’s a wealth of knowledge on the orchestral repertoire, and it is enlightening to go through pieces with him. He is also a dedicated and generous teacher, which I really appreciate.

What’s your favorite memory at SFCM?

It’s hard to pick one that stands out amongst the rest, but I would say hearing the San Francisco Symphony play Mahler 6 in the fall of 2019. It was an extremely moving performance, and the SFS and MTT [Michael Tilson Thomas] play Mahler like no other.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my undying will to learn new things every day, be it at the bassoon, in my classes, or in any other aspect of my life.

What pieces do you love to play when practicing (preferably one you could play after making a reed)?
I’ve really been enjoying playing Bach cello suites. They are such expressive works, and every time I go to practice them, I see compositional techniques I hadn’t noticed before. I feel like the more I get to know the piece, I am “discovering” it, or unlocking its secrets, and then I have the delightful challenge of bringing those nuances into my playing.

What pieces are you playing in chamber rehearsal?

I’m in a few chamber groups this semester. In my flute/bassoon duet, we’re playing the 20th century French Petite Suite by Pierre-Max Dubois, and self-arranged movements of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. Then, in my Franken-quartet, made up of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and tuba, we’re playing arrangements (written by group members) of Puccini’s “Crisantemi” and movements of Bach’s “Magnificat.” In my sextet, joined by clarinet/bass clarinet faculty member Jerry Simas, we are playing Czech composer Janacek’s “Mladi,” which translates to “my youth.”

How has the Dante Audio Networking System helped you this year? What is it like to practice with it?

Dante has been fantastic, as it has allowed us to continue playing together (even playing in an orchestra!) through the height of the pandemic. It’s certainly not the same, playing in separate rooms from my colleagues, but once we got used to it we were able to make some good music together. The limitations of Dante have confronted me with some constructive challenges that I believe have made me a better performer, such as the necessity to really listen to the other players, since I can’t see them. In all, it’s been a great placeholder until it’s safer to play in person again.

What’s your motivation for practicing?

My motivation for practicing is my will to make the best music I possibly can. Sometimes I’ll listen to an exceptional performance or recording and be completely blown away and moved and say to myself “THAT is what I want to do.” When practice becomes difficult, I remind myself that there is a musical ideal that I am coming closer and closer to, and I can externalize it if I spend some good time at my instrument. That makes it all worth it.

Follow SFCM’s Instagram page and watch Takeover Tuesdays from Shelby and other SFCM students.

Learn more about SFCM’s Woodwinds department.