Meet the Musician: Principal Bassoonist Joseph Grimmer

How long have you been playing bassoon and where did you go to school?

I started playing bassoon in the 6th grade through the Texas band program. I went to the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music for my undergrad degree and to Rice University's Shepherd School of Music for grad school.

Is this your first professional job?

I was very fortunate to win a one-year position with the Naples Philharmonic in Florida a week after graduating from Rice. Last year I won positions with the Houston Grand Opera (and played with them in the winter) and the Jacksonville Symphony. I'll be playing in both DC and Jacksonville until the end of February and then I'll just be in DC.

How has your first opera run of Carmen been?

Playing Carmen has been wonderful! The Carmen Suite No. 1 was one of the first pieces I played with an orchestra, so it's been a joy to play the entire opera

What are you most looking forward to this season?

I'm definitely looking forward to the Ring Cycle. Ever since I watched the cycle with some friends in high school I've wanted to see it live. I never thought that I would actually get to play it all in a single season; it's going to be epic! It's the only thing we're working on for 10 weeks. While in Lucerne, Switzerland this summer I made sure to visit Wagner's house of 6 years on Lake Lucerne and took a trip to the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, which was created by Ludwig II as an homage to Wagner.

You've won multiple auditions in the last few years. What do you think is the key to your success?

First of all, I definitely think that musicians on the hunt for an orchestral job should take as many auditions as they can. Auditioning is a very different skill set than playing in orchestra and the only way to get better at it is by taking a lot of auditions. The KCOHO was my 36th audition and every single one before that, whether I won, made the finals, didn't advance at all, etc, was a learning experience. I think it's very important to have a setup (instrument, reeds/bow, etc) that you're comfortable with and helps (not hinders) what you're trying to express in the music. For woodwind players, having a really great reed definitely helps and the only way to have a really great reed (audition-worthy reeds are probably 1 in 100 or 200) is to make a lot of them.

You're splitting your time this year between Jacksonville Symphony and KCOHO. How are you juggling two careers at once? Is it hectic?

I'm doing the back and forth for five months; it's a lot of logistical work with calendars and flights. My two greatest fears are showing up to rehearsal in the wrong city or having flights cancelled and missing rehearsal. I had to drive through the South Carolina floods to get to Florida last week, which was not fun. The music itself is great and I have wonderful, supportive colleagues in both orchestras that make going to both jobs a joy.

What is the biggest difference between playing opera and playing symphonic music?

They're two very different beasts. With symphonic music the musicians on stage are the show and in opera the musicians are a cog in a giant wheel. I think our Executive Director, Michael Mael, said that there were 250 people involved in the production of Carmen every night. To play a Haydn Symphony an orchestra needs about 30-40 musicians and even the biggest works, by Mahler, Strauss, etc, top out at about 110. The Ring has been in the planning stage for years and our rehearsals and performances are going to take 10 weeks. I don't think I've ever worked on a piece of music for 10 weeks. There are around 50-60 full time symphony orchestras in the US, but only 7 full time opera companies (WNO, Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Dallas Opera).

So far in your career, you’ve played both principal bassoon and second bassoon in professional orchestras. What are the differences between playing principal vs playing section? What are the challenges of both positions? 

I've been very fortunate to hold Principal and Second positions in symphony orchestras (Principal in Jacksonville and Second in the Naples Philharmonic) and opera orchestras (Principal in WNO and Second in the Houston Grand Opera). The role of a Second bassoon is to be the pitch foundation for the woodwinds (tuning hierarchy goes from the bottom to the top), to blend with the rest of winds (especially the Principal), and to play out when necessary. There's a lot of low, soft playing, which is probably the most difficult thing to do well on the bassoon. The Principal has more solo lines and is the decision maker and leader for the section. They're both enjoyable, but different roles!

What are your hobbies outside of bassoon/music?

Being from Colorado (I also play in the Colorado Music Festival in the summer), I really enjoy hiking and skiing. I also like playing tennis and racquetball. My wife and I also just got a puppy last month. He's a mini golden doodle named Fozzie and is both intelligent and adorable. 

He's living in Ann Arbor right now but will be moving to DC in a few months. Traveling is also a passion of mine and so far this year my wife and I have been on two European vacations and are going to Brazil at the end of December. I started a blog three months ago: where I explain how to travel for as close to free as possible. It's for musicians and non-musicians alike. Check it out!

What is your favorite thing so far about DC?

I haven't had a ton of time to explore yet, but I'm amazed at how much culture there is in such a concentrated space. I spent one day walking around the National Mall and went in several of the Smithsonian museums, which are all world-class. It also seems like a really great restaurant scene, which I'm excited to get into.