Bassoonist hitting all the right notes

April 2, 2007

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's musicians are among the best in their field. But even they don't have to dress up for work every day.

Although he wears one of his two tuxedos for concerts, Samuel Banks dons sneakers and jeans for a Tuesday morning rehearsal. Sitting onstage in the second bassoon position, he awaits the remaining minutes before practice begins at Hilbert Circle Theatre. Around him, similarly clad musicians practice individually for a few more moments.

At precisely 10 a.m., the room quiets and Music Director Mario Venzago thanks the musicians for the previous weekend's performance. Then he leads them into one of the coming weekend's concert pieces, Ralph Vaughn Williams' Symphony No. 4 in F Minor.

Although Banks, 26, has never played the piece with an orchestra before, he feels prepared. On practice days, he arrives around 9 a.m. to "warm up" in a private practice room after a 20-minute walk from his downtown apartment. His collapsible 10-pound woodwind instrument tucks easily into a backpack case.

"I want to get a feeling of what I have to do to sound my best every day," he said. He usually sticks to a consistent set of exercises that stretch his mouth muscles and musical scales that get his fingers and lungs working together.

That attitude likely helped him land the job hundreds of other bassoonists did not get. As one of just 17 year-round orchestras in the nation, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra gets plenty of resumes--a single opening usually generates 200 to 500 applications, Communications Director Ana Papakhian said.

Banks made it through the rigorous audition process in June 2004, two years after he received a bachelor's degree in music from Northwestern University. At the time, he was the symphony's youngest member; some of the musicians have been part of the orchestra since the 1960s.

But his youth doesn't indicate a lack of experience. A native of the San Francisco Bay area, he always has been immersed in music. His father was a composer, his great aunt played harp in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and his grandfather was on its board of trustees.

At 9, Banks started playing the clarinet, switching to the bassoon at 11. He played for his high school's band and participated in the Young Musicians' Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I always knew it was possible to make a career out of it," he said. "My question was whether I was good enough."

During college and for two years afterward, Banks played for the Chicago Civic Orchestra and the Elgin Symphony and substituted in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

His effort paid off--literally. An Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra musician's starting salary is around $77,000, Papakhian said. The orchestra's union negotiates a base salary with the symphony's management every three years, and individual pay increases with rank and tenure.

A bassoon costs $15,000 to $40,000, and some other instruments, such as violins, are in the six-digit range. Each musician must buy his own instrument, but the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will help musicians pick up the tab, Papakhian said. Banks said he might ask for a loan to purchase a second bassoon this spring.

The tradeoff, though, is an unusual work schedule.

The performers usually practice onstage Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. During his break, Banks usually grabs lunch downtown with friends.

But preparation does not end after regular rehearsals. During the orchestra's most intense periods, Banks might practice at home two or more hours a day, even on his days off. Those weeks often exceed 40 hours, Banks said. When exhausted from the day's routine, however, he might practice for half an hour.

Luckily, Banks' neighbors tell him they like hearing his music. He plays the week's concert repertoire, as well as other pieces that interest him, to stay sharp.

Then there are the two-hour Friday and Saturday evening performances before an audience of about 1,700.

"It's tough," Banks said. "It really does wipe you out physically."

Some performers see chiropractors after years of positioning their bodies unnaturally to play their instruments. A season of overuse also can cause physical harm to a musician.

Banks, however, seems comfortable as he plays. He wears earplugs to soften the sound of the brass section behind him so he can focus on his own music.

Some other musicians work Sudoku or crossword puzzles during practice to occupy interludes when their instruments are absent from the symphony, but Banks watches and listens throughout.

"You can draw all kinds of parallels from the music being played by your colleagues and the music for your part coming up," he said. "I try to soak all of that up while I can."

The director frequently stops the orchestra to ask for tweaks. During the bassoon's most audible portion, Venzago wants the bassoonists to "play ahead" of the other musicians, and the entire orchestra replays the section a few times.

"It's detail, but it's extremely important," Banks said.

Other than a three-week break at the end of summer, the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve, and Easter weekend, performers work every Friday and Saturday night. Banks said he rarely gets to socialize before 10:30 p.m. on weekends.

On Sundays and Mondays, the musicians get a break. Banks visits his girlfriend in Cleveland, dabbles in his hobbies--such as playing soccer and training for the Indianapolis 500 Festival Mini-Marathon--and catches up with chores.

Although Banks' routine is not run-of-the-mill, he's satisfied.

"On Friday and Saturday nights, I'm doing what I love," he said. "I'm taking part in one of the most wonderful jobs there is."

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