Searching for the perfect instrument

22 Feb 2019

A musician can spend years looking for the ideal instrument, researching different schools of maker, trying dozens of models, before finally landing upon 'the one'. Meanwhile, they face the challenges of funding the purchase - a daunting prospect if you don't know where to begin.

Bassoonist Ashby Mayes, who received a £3,000 grant from the RPS to help purchase a new bassoon, spent a year searching and fundraising for his instrument. He writes about how he did it, the cities he visited, and what he learned along the way.

Hello! My name is Ashby Mayes and I am delighted to have just purchased a new bassoon after almost a year of serious searching. In my sixth form, I heard the name ‘Heckel’ thrown around amongst bassoonists. These instruments are considered special compared with other bassoons because they have a certain resonance, and each exhibits a different character. When I got to the Royal College of Music, all my professors said I needed a new instrument and it was only during my first year recital that I realised this: I was discovering new things I wanted to do with my sound yet couldn’t physically express them on the instrument I had.

I knew I had to start somewhere, so began applying and searching for funding, getting my name out there as someone seeking a Heckel bassoon. All my professors play on Heckels and encouraged me to look for one too; it would last me my whole career and would be worth taking time to search for now, not waiting till graduation.

I asked around for advice on how to find one and fundraise for it. My professors Joost Bosdijk and Sarah Burnett were extremely helpful, as was Simon Channing, RCM Head of Woodwind. After exhausting options in the UK, I broadened my search to Europe. Due to my busy college schedule, time for travelling and trying bassoons abroad was rather limited. I asked every professional bassoonist I could for their advice on how to maximise my time and get a feel for any instrument I found within a few short hours.

Fundraising proved to be quite tricky, but there were a lot of generous people out there who were more than happy to help me find support, and even offer it themselves. I decided to create a crowdfunding page on GoFundMe which raised almost £1,500 in just a few months. I am so grateful for the donations of those who contributed. If you’re looking to fund a new instrument, I highly recommend putting together such a page: it gets shared far and wide on social media and reaches people you wouldn’t expect.

Once fundraising was underway, the prospect of being able to afford an instrument of this calibre was looking more attainable, which meant I could begin researching Heckels and where to find them. To get a new Heckel bassoon from their factory in Germany, there's a remarkable 12-year waiting list – longer than the time I've spent playing the bassoon! – so I ruled out that option. Most Heckels are dealt second-hand by private sellers worldwide. I tried Heckels that came up for sale in the UK, as well as my friends’ instruments and any others I encountered. I discovered during my search that all Heckel bassoons have serial numbers depending on their manufacture date, which influences both their price and character. Since 1870, Heckel has advanced from serial number 2999 right up to today’s 16000 series. Having trialled Heckels from the 5000 series all the way up to 16000, I developed a preference for the newer instruments; the bassoon I have purchased is a 13000 series from 1993, a happy medium between the astronomically priced new models and the older series.

My first overseas trip was to Amsterdam in July 2018 to try a 10000 Series (from 1961) which belonged to Frans Baan, ex-Principal Bassoonist of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. The seller, Maarten Vonk, a repairer and dealer in Amersfoort, taught me a lot about Heckel bassoons whilst there. It was clearly a good instrument but unfortunately I didn’t click with it. It was still a very useful experience to travel abroad by myself and try my first ‘serious’ instrument.

The second I tested was an 8000 Series (from 1940) in Wales at Double Reed Ltd. run by Oliver Ludlow, a certified authority in his field. Sadly, this instrument was not ‘the one’ either. Meanwhile, I was checking the ‘musicalchairs’ website every day for new adverts, but there were a few dry months with nothing suitable arising.

My second overseas trip (December 2018) was to the ‘Bassoon Centre’ in Bydgoszcz, Poland to try an 11000 Series (from 1972), previously owned by a professional player in Warsaw. The Centre was a small shop run by the Munz Family, who were very kind and accommodating, helping me find a place to stay and collecting me from the airport. After a number of hours trying the instrument, it felt promising, so I took it on trial with me to England to obtain a second opinion from my professors.

I couldn’t bring the bassoon back to the UK without paying a deposit and signing several convoluted legal contracts. I had about a week to try the instrument before making a decision, during which I showed it to my friends and professors. I discovered the instrument’s pitch was markedly flat, rendering it unsuitable for playing in UK orchestras. One of my teachers advised me that several of the 11000 series instruments have similar pitching issues. While it was undoubtedly a beautiful instrument, one of my friends said that it didn’t quite have the ‘Ashby sound’ we both thought I needed, which I found quite funny!

After this, I was utterly worn out; it was the end of a busy term. I was struggling with the up-and-down feelings of the search, but I knew it would be worth the wait once the right instrument came up. In my first lesson back from Poland, my teacher lent me his other Heckel: a beautiful 9000 Series. It was an incredibly generous gesture.

In early January 2019, a 13000 Series Heckel (from 1993) came up for sale in Lyon and I was quick to get out and try it. This particular instrument has quite a history: it was originally bought by Jacques Hennequin (solo bassoon of the l’Orchestre National de Lyon) before being sold to Amaury Wallez (solo bassoon of the Orchestra of Paris) then to one of his students. It was played in French orchestras till it went to Brazil for many years, then returned to Lyon to be sold in 2019. I thought this instrument was special from the beginning; I had a good feeling about it, and it sung and resonated so beautifully. I brought it back to England on trial, with the intention of buying it with my teachers’ approval; this I duly received that week. Upon purchase, the bassoon officially became mine and the search was finally over.

It has been quite a journey and I am so glad I got there in the end! What I loved about the search was learning about the history of so many instruments and having the opportunity to travel around Europe. How I lucky I am to have found an instrument with such an interesting past. And now its next chapter begins...

I’d like to thank all of my sponsors, especially the Royal Philharmonic Society of course and YeYe Xu for their support, and also notably Douglas and Adele Gardner (my college donors), my Great Auntie Barbara, the Everest Lewis Golden Foundation, the Golden Charitable Trust, Michael Attenborough and the Richard Attenborough Trust, Talent Unlimited, and all of the 37 generous people who donated to my crowdfunding page on GoFundMe.

Ashby is just one of 16 music students who received an Instrument Purchase Grant from the RPS in 2018. He is an undergraduate bassoonist at the Royal College of Music where he is generously supported by the Douglas and Hilda Simmonds Award. He is an AYM Award holder, a Leverhulme Arts Scholar and was Leader of the National Youth Wind Orchestra. He plays in several orchestras in London and is Chair of the Watford Youth Sinfonia. You can keep up to date with Ashby via his website or by following his updates on Instagram and Facebook.

If you've enjoyed Ashby's story and would like to help us give more young musicians the instruments they really need, you may like to consider making a donation to the Society. Together we can help more young people like Ashby to excel. For further details, click here.

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