In our third edition of our Alumni Spotlight series, we recently spoke with bassoonist Darren Hicks. A member of the 2011 NYO, Darren has since gone on to perform internationally with the Verbier Festival Orchestra and the Yale Philharmonia while also pursuing post-grad studies at the Glenn Gould School and Yale. In addition to being named as one of CBC's 30 hot classical musicians under 30 earlier in 2016, Darren is currently residing in Miami while performing with the New World Symphony.
Darren took the time to speak with us about how he got started playing the bassoon, his memories of performing with the NYO, and the importance of getting outdoors.
1. When and how did you first get involved with music?
My first exposure to music happened when we inherited my Aunt’s upright player piano when I was 7 or 8. I would sit at that piano and sort of plunk away and make noise on it whenever I could. My parents aren’t formally educated in music, but somehow my Mom figured I should join a choir. So at 8 years old I joined the King’s County Children’s Chorus, two towns over from my hometown. Hard to believe that 6’6” me was a boy soprano at one time, but that’s where it all started. Piano lessons followed at 11 years old, with the bassoon not far behind at 12.
2. What are some of your memories of playing with the NYO?
My summer with the National Youth Orchestra (2011) was one I won’t quickly forget. From the rep (Mahler 5 and Shostakovich 15) to the tour to the friends I’ve kept to this day, that was a wonderful summer.
My absolute best memory is crossing the border between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. We were headed to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, so as soon as I saw those NS flags I was elated. I grew up in Middleton, Nova Scotia, a tiny town in the middle of the Annapolis Valley. Wolfville is sort of the de facto heart of musical life in the Valley. I played competitions, performed concerts, and sat RCM exams on Acadia’s campus. It was a kind of a homecoming crossing into the province. My family came to see the concert, and I got to spend the night at home with them before meeting the bus back in Halifax. It was a welcome rest from that crazy bus tour.
The other memory that stands out is recording the CD. It was definitely my first recording session with an orchestra, so the nerves were a little on edge that day. I’ve used what I learned from those days in the basement of McGill in recording sessions to this day.
3. You recently completed your studies at Yale. What has the transition been like for you from student to full-time musician?
I graduated with a Master’s degree from Yale University in June of 2014. The transition from being in a rigorous academic environment to freelancing/making money playing the bassoon was and continues to be difficult. Not being surrounded by top talent every day to push you to better yourself makes improvement hard. There are all these guideposts in school that disappear upon graduating. I began to realize that a lot of my drive and will to succeed was powered by my like-minded colleagues. I won’t lie: trying to find that within myself has been a struggle. I’m now about small victories. I may not accomplish everything I set out to do in any given practice session, but if I can stay true to my musical goals (which are very concrete) and find some growth in what I’m doing that day I call that a win. Sometimes it’s as simple as playing a few key intervals really well in tune. Other days it’s finally memorizing a concerto. Seeing the difference in those accomplishments is good, but appreciating their role in the final product is what I try to keep my eye on.
My transition has been a slow one and (safe to say) as of yet incomplete. Following Yale I was a Rebanks Fellow at the Glenn Gould School in Toronto. The financial stability that program afforded me allowed me to experiment with my playing and take gigs that I wanted, versus having to take every gig tossed my way. Not everyone is so lucky. Following that year in Toronto I was fortunate to be offered a spot at the New World Symphony in Miami, where I am currently in the second year of my fellowship. The orchestral training here is second to none in North America and they allow the fellows to travel and take time off to play with orchestras. So in a sense I am riding that line between being a student and being a professional. I think that is really the best place to be right now; pushed to play at a truly professional level but having the support and security of an academic environment. I’m able to try things and fail, which is rarely a possibility in a full-time orchestral position.
4. Along with being named one of CBC’s 30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30 this year, what are some of the other things you’ve done onstage that you are most proud of?
In 2012 (the summer after NYO) I was awarded the National Arts Centre Orchestra Bursary. I’m particularly proud of this because it is a rare competition: you are required to play solo repertoire as well as a selection of orchestral excerpts. Winning the top prize in that contest meant a lot to me as my focus has always been orchestral playing.
For three summers (2013-2015) I was a member of the Verbier Festival Orchestra in Verbier, Switzerland. Just getting in was enough reason to celebrate, but then I actually got to go! There were too many awesome concert moments there, but performing the Verdi Requiem with Gianandrea Noseda or Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony with Valery Gergiev might be my top two.
I was lucky to step out in front of the Yale Philharmonia in 2015 to play the Mozart Bassoon Concerto. It is rare to get this opportunity, especially as a bassoonist. And of course I had a blast returning to New Haven, Connecticut and seeing all my grad school buddies again.
A more recent performance happened at the New World Symphony. A group of us presented Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, complete with dancer, narrator, and art projections. It was quite the project, with a lot of headaches, but the performance was electrifying. Arranging this multidisciplinary staging allowed us to explore the work deeper. And not having a conductor required us to heavily rely on each other. I’m pretty sure I know the work backwards and forwards now!
5. Based on your experience, what are some valuable tips you could give future NYO members?
My experience as a musician thus far really boils down to three things:
- Nail the basics. Don’t scoff at your teacher when they say to practice your scales every day. Music is easy to make if you have all the physical stuff figured out. I can’t begin to tell you how often I have to go back to simple studies and exercises to work out technical issues. Wind players, and ESPECIALLY bassoonists: you need to have the basics. Scales and scale patterns, intonation exercises, and long tones will be your friends for life.
- Do the work. Learn your part, yes, but even more importantly learn the score, learn about the composer, and learn about historical context. Know what is happening around you, against you, with you, before you, after you, etc. Knowledge truly is power and it can take your playing to a much higher level.
- Get outside. Whether you read that as outside in nature or just outside the practice room, this is by far the hardest lesson to learn. I still grappling with it. Work as hard as you can. Push yourself to improve and outperform yourself. But: never forget that you are a person outside of your music. It is so easy to wrap up your entire life into your instrument. I’m certainly guilty of letting my self-worth be affected by what comes out the end of my bassoon. Don’t let this happen. Go watch a movie. Travel. Go play soccer with your friends. Go for a run. Go paint in the park. Experience culture. Read a good book. Cook a new cuisine. Watch some mindless television. Build a coffee table. Do something that reminds you that your life is greater than your performances. Music is probably the most important thing in your life, but it isn’t the only thing. So work until you can’t work anymore, but don’t forget about the person inside the music you make.
PS Bassoonists: make as many reeds as humanly possible. Make more than you think you could ever play in your entire lifetime. You’ll probably go through them all.