By Blair Yankey
It is 12:30 p.m. on a Friday and Mingyuan Yang has just started practicing his bassoon in a small, square, soundproof practice room in Dalton Hall at Western Michigan University.
Yang, 19, begins his practice by warming up to miscellaneous pitches while tapping his tennis shoes on the ground. His back is straight as a conductor’s baton and he starts playing a classical piece entitled “Sarabande et Cortege.”
While practicing, he makes a couple fingering mistakes and plays a few wrong notes midway through, but he is not fazed or discouraged, instead of stopping, he continues to play until the end. If there is one thing he has learned in his path to mastering this uncommon instrument, it is how to practice — a lot. His work has paid off: The Chinese-born Yang, who has lived away from his parents since age 10 so he could study music, is the world’s top young bassoonist.
He defeated two other finalists at the International Double Reed Society Young Artist Competition in June held at the University of the Redlands in California. Yang first auditioned for this competition by submitting a recording of one of Antonio Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos, and “Concert Piece,” by Gabriel Pierne and “Partido” by Gordon Jacobs. The recordings were evaluated by an international panel of judges that included the primary bassoonist of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a bassoonist from the La Scala Theatre Orchestra in Milan, Italy. Yang was the first WMU student to ever be named a finalist and to win the competition, which is for bassoon players under 22.
Gwendolynn Rose, professor of bassoon and one of Yang’s current professors at WMU, said she believes Yang’s strong musicality and technical skills both played a major part in him winning the competition. She describes Yang’s sound as rich, complex, and mature.
“At the competition, one of the judges wrote about his sound and described it as very dark and rich for someone who is only 19. It’s a very developed sound,” said Rose.
But Yang does not let his success limit him. He said that music gives him a feeling of achievement, and there is always room for improvement. Music plays a big part of his everyday life. He practices the bassoon every day for a minimum of two hours. While practicing he strives to excel in the music pieces that he is assigned weekly from his applied music class.
“I try to finish my assignments and make the music sound better,” Yang said.
The bassoon is a long, slender, straight, double-reed woodwind instrument. It is approximately 4 feet 5 inches tall and weighs nearly 8 pounds when assembled. It has a total of 23 keys, 13 of which are played by the musician’s top hand, and 10 of which are played by the bottom. For right-handed players, the top hand is the left hand and bottom hand is the right.
Sound is created by sealing the lips around the double-reed, which is made of cane, and blowing air against and through the two blades causing them to vibrate against each other at a certain frequency or pitch.
Composers generally use the bassoon as a base-voice of the woodwind section. Rose said that the bassoon fits in the range of a tenor singer. It has three octave ranges and its sound is very subtle.
“There’s a lot of bassoon in (the music of) cartoons like Bugs Bunny, but you don’t really notice it because it’s a very quiet kind of instrument, it’s not something that really takes center stage,” said Rose.
In general, a bassoon is not a common woodwind instrument .The price of a new bassoon can fluctuate anywhere from $1,900 to as much as $20,000. Rose said the cost of a bassoon could be a reason why there are limited bassoon players, as well as keeping the mechanics maintained. She said the bassoon is a very intricate instrument, as it has many keys.
“It’s not a household instrument like piano, violin, or trumpet. Flute, clarinet, and saxophones are pretty common woodwind instruments, but double-reed instruments are less common,” said Rose. “The bassoon is difficult to play; some of the combinations of fingerings are not really intuitive. The fingering system is not laid out very logically.”
In an orchestral setting, Rose said there could be many factors why there are limited bassoonists, one of them being an orchestra’s limited repertoire.
“Most Mozart symphonies are written for only two of each woodwind, so there are two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, and two bassoons, and so on. Whereas a piece by Stravinsky might require four bassoons, four flutes, and four oboes,” said Rose.
Yang was born in Zhengzhou, China, which is the capital and largest city of Henan province in north central China. He is the only child of Hongwei Yang and Qinying Ma, who are both railway workers. Since the fifth grade, Yang has lived away from home to attend a public school attached to a music conservatory in Wuhan, China. He graduated in 2012.
As a youngster, Yang had no intentions of being a musician. He started out playing the saxophone in second grade as a hobby, it was then that his parents noticed his musical gift and encouraged him to study music.
He switched from the saxophone to the bassoon around fourth grade because at that time, educational opportunities were limited in Chinese conservatories.
“The saxophone was not a college level instrument back then, and I would not have been able to receive private lessons,” Yang said. “Also I prefer playing classical music, and the bassoon is more of a classical instrument and the saxophone is more contemporary.”
Although Yang’s parents recognized his talent at an early age, both said through their son as translator that they had no idea he’d be as exceptional as he is now. They both said that his talent will only help him reach his goals.
Yang chose to study at WMU because his bassoon instructor in China has a sister that studied music in Kalamazoo, and his instructor recommended that he do the same. So far, he is enjoying his experience at WMU and says that the U.S. offers performance opportunities in competitions.
Zheng Wang, Yang’s roommate, and also of Zhengzhou, said that Yang is one of the hardest working students he’s met. Wang, 21, a supply chain major at WMU, has known Yang for two years. He said that Yang stays determined and motivated in everything that he does, particularly while practicing his bassoon.
Some cultural transitions that Yang has experienced so far are skiing and driving a car. He was not able to drive in China since the age requirement is 18 and at the time he was under aged. What intrigues him the most about Michigan thus far are the lavish trees and his visit to Lake Michigan, as well as the large amounts of snow.
Yang is currently a sophomore with a 3.64 GPA. Of the 10 classes he’s taking this semester, eight of them are music classes. Some of them include applied music, music theory and history, and symphonic music. His favorite class is applied music, taught by Rose.
“Dr. Rose is very patient and friendly with me, and I never feel nervous when I go to class. The class is like a private lesson where it’s just me and her,” said Yang.
Ultimately, Yang hopes to teach bassoon as a university professor, and to continue to perform. He has not yet decided whether he will stay in the U.S. or go back to China, but he does plan on staying until he receives his Ph.D. in bassoon performance.
“It’s really hard to find jobs here for music majors in America, but I really hope I can stay here.”