Rebekah Heller holding her bassoon and standing in the snow in front of trees. (Photo by Carrie Schneider)
Jumping Off a Musical Cliff
Photo by Carrie Schneider

Jumping Off a Musical Cliff

An excited hush settled over the gallery. Anticipation and delight fueled the tense few seconds before the first note was played. And then… pure magic!

Although the audience was small, the commitment, focus, and sense of community was breathtaking; the barriers between performer, composer, and listener disappeared. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded on all sides by musicians and advocates who were fully committed, generous, brave, and outrageously virtuosic. I felt like we were jumping off a musical cliff together and it was thrilling. By the end of the concert I knew: THIS is what I wanted to do with my life.

This was 2007: my first concert with the International Contemporary Ensemble, in the beautiful Tenri Institute in Manhattan’s West Village. Before this concert, I could not have imagined this incredible moment, or how it would change the direction of my life and career forever.

I gravitated towards the things no one else in my family wanted.

The question I’m most often asked is “why the bassoon?” Growing up in a very small town in New York’s culturally and economically depressed Adirondack Park, I was an outspoken youngest child, aware of being outshone by my older brothers. I gravitated towards the things no one else in my family wanted: I taught myself to LOVE black cherry ice cream, simply because it was the flavor everyone else abhorred. More ice cream for me! The bassoon became the black cherry of musical instruments; in my words, “something that nobody wanted to play.” But, at age nine, I decided I did.

This shocked and charmed my band teacher, who pulled a behemoth plastic instrument out from a very dusty old case. Delighted by the new object, my mother and I headed home with this beast and spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to put it together. This was the late ’80s: no YouTube instrument demonstrations, no method books, and—with no private teacher—I was left to forge ahead with encouragement from my mom (a very good amateur flutist) and an old, yellowed fingering chart my band teacher found from his college course on double reeds. By the end of the day, I had figured out how to play the world’s loudest and most-abrasive version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” much to the dismay of my smirking brothers.

I was ambitious and talented, but never solely focused on music. I never imagined a career as a bassoonist was possible, or even desirable. To feed my myriad interests outside music, as well as my bassooning, I chose to study in the Oberlin College and Conservatory’s rigorous double degree program. And under the direction of Tim Weiss and the amazing Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, found an incredible introduction to new music.

There very little repertoire that included bassoon.

Although I was at Oberlin when the seeds of ICE began to sprout, I wasn’t involved at the beginning. This was not out of disinterest; it was out of fear. Not only was there very little repertoire that included bassoon, it seemed outside of the realm of possibility to me to pursue such a dream. In my mind, an orchestra path loomed larger than life, the inevitable (if joyless) way to make a decent living playing this ridiculous instrument.

After Oberlin, I went to graduate school at UT Austin, still unsure of what was next for me. From Texas, I moved to Chicago to join the Civic Orchestra, immediately afterwards winning a coveted spot in the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, where I stayed for three years performing, practicing, and auditioning for countless orchestras around the world.

As glamorous and high-profile as it was, something about my New World Symphony experience never felt quite right. I kept auditioning for jobs I didn’t really want, never understanding (or questioning) why. Finally, in 2007, I got a phone call from the already legendary Claire Chase, founder of ICE. She invited me to play a concert in New York in a month’s time. I was excited and terrified — the music looked SO hard!

But then I was onstage with ICE at Tenri, diving headfirst into Christopher Trebue Moore’s brand new opus tentacles and knot formations, performing technical feats on my instrument that, if you’d asked me only months before, I would have promised you were impossible. It felt creative, boundless, and exhilarating; it was nothing like playing Tchaikovsky 5 (wonderful as it is) yet again. After that magical concert, I felt so happy and so free, but also so heavy. What would I do with this new pursuit, and the knowledge that something so deeply satisfying existed for me outside the safe orchestral path

Gripped by this new obsession (MUST PLAY WITH ICE) and the equally strong fear of being broke in New York (MUST SURVIVE), I wrestled with my next move. On the one hand, I had an offer to play principal bassoon in the Jacksonville Symphony, with all the recognition, stability, and financial security that came along with it. On the other, I had an offer from ICE to move to NYC and join the group as their bassoonist. The ICE offer felt like all my hopes and dreams materializing! But it also couldn’t offer more than a few gigs that first year, and with very few friends or contacts in New York City, I was terrified of not being able to make ends meet.

I took the Jacksonville job, and with it its modest salary which was more money than I had ever made in my life. And every day I carried home the weight of a job that didn’t bring me joy. Although I worked with some wonderful musicians and made some truly great friends, I discovered very quickly that this world (as I had feared) wasn’t for me. I languished within the rigid structure, longing for agency over what I played, who I played with, and what shape my life would take. After two months, I decided that no amount of fear—especially about something as superfluous as money—would ever keep me from my dreams again. I left the orchestra the next spring and moved to NYC, broke but endlessly optimistic.

Gigs waiting tables are hard to come by.

To survive, I hustled, which meant taking every odd job I could until I landed a coveted gig waiting tables. (They’re hard to come by if you don’t know someone!) I relied on tip money to offset my gigs with ICE and other NYC groups for more than four years. Even on the worst days, slammed with tables full of well-meaning foreign tourists who thought a 10% tip meant I did a “really good job,” I was never sorry I left the stability of the wrong job for the right life.

As my musical career grew, my days of waiting tables faded, but the hustle remained. I hustle every day to do what I do, but the great beauty of my chosen path is I don’t ever have to hustle alone again. I hustle with my colleagues at ICE to expand the way new music is created, experienced, and shared. I hustle with my collaborators—composers, fellow performers, and advocates—to ensure underrepresented voices in our field are brought to the fore. I hustle with the incredible community of performers across all disciplines to shatter assumptions about what we can or cannot do or be as artists. I am most grateful to hustle with and for the younger artists in our community; I strive to help them tear down their own barriers to joy and fulfillment, to empower them to remain fearless in the face of uncertainty, and to convey what I’ve learned along the way: that the safest thing you can ever do is take the risks that matter most.

Praised for her “flair” and “deftly illuminated” performances by the New York Times, Bassoonist Rebekah Heller is a uniquely dynamic chamber, orchestral and solo musician. Equally comfortable playing established classical works and the newest of new music, Rebekah is a fiercely passionate advocate for the bassoon. An "impressive solo bassoonist" (The New Yorker), she is tirelessly committed to collaborating with composers to expand the modern solo and chamber music repertoire for the instrument. Her debut solo album of world premiere recordings, 100 names, has been called "pensive and potent" by... Read more »

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “Jumping Off a Musical Cliff

  1. Andrew Nogal

    Rebekah, you are an inspiration, and this piece was a joy to read! Thank you for doing what you do. I’m glad we’re both double-reeding on this exciting new frontier.


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