Meet the Musician: Bassoonist Sam Blair

Do you come from a musical family?  When did you start your musical training and what made you choose the bassoon?  Do you play any other instruments?     

I grew up listening to my dad play electric guitar and sing in his bedroom.  He was also in an Irish jam band, and one of my earliest memories is of me playing a drum on stage with him at a pub.  I must have been three or four.  He tells me he used to sing to my mom’s belly when she was pregnant with me.  That’s probably where I got my early musical abilities.  

I started bassoon in the 6th grade at the age of 11.  Many kids start on something a little smaller and easier, like the sax or clarinet, and then get switched to bassoon when the band director desperately tries to fill the hole in their ensemble.  I really wanted to play the french horn, so I showed up the summer before 6th grade to try out, but I couldn't make a sound on the mouthpiece.  I tried every instrument they have in the room and failed at even squawking out a sound.  In a hail mary attempt, the band director left for a minute and came back with a bassoon reed.  I peeped out a sound and she handed me this big case of an instrument I had never heard of before.  I remember crying as I left with my mom thinking I had failed and they stuck me with the instrument they didn’t even bother trying everyone out on.  I didn’t know how to put it together, it was almost as tall as me, and my hands weren’t quite big enough to get to all the keys.  But I grew into it, and I’d like to thank my band director for introducing me to my future!  

I learned to play percussion in marching band since bassoons don’t march, so I know my way around a marimba.  I also played drums for a couple of years in a garage band, and I’ve been playing guitar since middle school as well.  

When did you join Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and what were your favorite productions since?  

I started with the KCOHO at the end of the 2011 -12 season.  My first production was Verdi’s Nabucco with Maestro Auguin.  That will always be one of my favorites.  I also really enjoyed last season’s The Marriage of Figaro.  Mozart is an amazing writer for bassoon, and every single note is a joy to play.  Any time we get to play a ballet by Prokofiev is great also.  He has such a unique style and sound that I absolutely love.

You’ve performed in many places outside of the Kennedy Center.  Tell us about your experiences playing with different groups/festivals in DC and around the world.  

I was lucky enough to play a long trial for co-principal bassoon with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur during my last year of grad school and the year following.  I went out three separate times for a total of five months.  It was such a great learning experience fresh out of school, both musically and for life.  Learning about and living in a completely different culture was enlightening.  As much as I enjoyed my time there, I knew I couldn’t live there forever, so I ultimately decided to return to the U.S. to join the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, FL.  

Another highlight of my young career was playing for the YouTube Symphony in Sydney, Australia.  They chose the orchestra based on an audition video you literally posted to YouTube.  Others could watch and vote for their favorites.  Under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, 100 or so musicians from all over the world came together to play a concert at the iconic Sydney Opera House.  The concert was live streamed on YouTube and was a huge success.  

I was one of four musicians selected to do a promotional video leading up to the event, so I actually got to go to Australia twice in one month.  I was very jetlagged.  The program was called “Making Tracks”, and the idea was to pair a classical musician with a local pop musician, take them all over Australia, and write a song together in a week.  It was to promote the show as well as general tourism. 

I had an amazing time with my collaborator Stu Cullen playing all over the country, and I can safely say that I am the only bassoonist in the history of the world to play in a hot air balloon.

Just a casual jam session floating over Parliament House in Canberra, Australia

Playing with the Verbier Festival Orchestra was another wonderful experience.  It’s a summer festival program in Verbier, Switzerland and it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.  It’s so interesting playing with people from other countries and educations.  It’s a challenge getting in synch, but I think the product is one that could not be duplicated by musicians of a similar upbringing, and that’s exciting.  The very first concert I played there featured Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony” directed by Charles Dutoit.  Playing that piece in the Alps, using real Swiss cowbells they literally picked up from a nearby farm, was a once in a lifetime performance that I will always cherish.  

Warming up for a rehearsal in Verbier and representing the WNO!

When I add it all up, my bassoon has taken me to 14 countries on five continents.  I consider myself a very lucky individual to have a life in music, so much so that I have “lucky” tattooed on my spine.  

What kind of music do you listen to other than classical music? 

I grew up listening to classic rock, and I listen to mostly rock when I’m driving.  I was never able to listen to music when reading or studying, whether it was classical or popular.  I’m always drumming along or trying to analyze the piece I’m listening to.  

What are your hobbies?

I like to play disc golf around the area.  I started playing in college with my dad and his friends.  It’s a great way to get outside and walk around, and they’re usually in wooded areas.  Being around trees always makes me happy.  I also like to annoy my girlfriend with made up songs I play on her ukelele, usually just describing what she’s doing.