Remembering Bill Bennett The Teacher
Most people knew Bill as the San Francisco Symphony’s principal oboist who they’ve seen either in live concerts at Davies, on tour, on PBS’s “Great Performances,” on YouTube, or even in the symphony’s own DVD series “Keeping Score.” That Bill wore a tuxedo and a white bow tie and sat in the middle of the symphony behind the strings, next to his dear friends and colleagues in the wind section. He provided his characteristic voice in countless orchestral solos and oboe concertos over the last two and a half decades.
This was not the Bill we knew as students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). Of course, we saw that Bill in concert on occasion, but the Bill we knew wore jeans and colorful Nike sneakers to oboe class. He carried a backpack and strangers on the street (or fellow BART passengers) probably thought he was just a “normal” guy, but Bill was anything but normal.
As I’ve been thinking about Bill over the past few days, all of my memories of him from being an oboe student at the conservatory these last couple of years keep rushing back to me. We have a class here at the conservatory called “Oboe Class” which is a requirement for all oboists and is a two hour class we have once a week. All of the instruments of the orchestra have this class, also called “studio class.” Bill and the other oboe professor James Moore teach this class together switching off every other week. Oboe Class has been traditionally run like a masterclass at SFCM where each week the members of the oboe studio (sometimes reluctantly…) get up to play a piece they are working on for whoever is teaching class that day. Most of the memories I have of Bill happened in Oboe Class.
What you need to know about Bill to understand him as a teacher is that he was not what we would consider a “typical” oboe player. He was very influenced by jazz (Ella Fitzgerald in particular) and popular music (I remember The Beatles being brought up a lot), and often used recordings or songs from these genres as examples in studio class. This is not often done in a conservatory setting. Usually examples would be played from art music—-opera, symphonic music, recordings of….well, oboists. That wasn’t his approach, though, and that’s part of what made him so special.
One particular oboe class during the first year of my masters degree at the conservatory Bill walked in without his oboe, and instead brought a stack of CDs. I remember thinking he must’ve brought some orchestral excerpts for us to listen to. To my surprise he turned on the stereo and played some jazz, pop, and folk music for us instead. He had us listen carefully to the singers he brought in as examples and he’d ask us what we heard. We talked about vibrato, tone, musical choices, vowel placement, and different ways the vocalists expressed the text of each song. Then he told us he wanted us to try and mimic that with our oboes on our own that week—-even to play along with some recordings and see what we came up with. But…that wasn’t all. He also wanted us to write our own transcriptions of a song from one of these genres and arrange it for oboe and some sort of double-reed ensemble. We could use English Horns, bassoons, and oboes in any combination. What you need to understand is how far this was from our comfort zone as orchestral oboe students. Most of us had never done anything like this, had never thought about doing anything like this, and had certainly never been asked by an oboe professor to attempt it. This was something Bill was known to really enjoy. He often took music he loved and arranged it for himself to play with piano or with a group of his woodwind playing friends. I have this really special video from that class that I’d like to share with everyone.
This is Bill playing my transcription of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”:
Edit: I’d like to invite anyone who’d like to guest-post some memories here to do so. This isn’t just about me sharing stories, I’d really love it if other people did as well. If you’d like to share something other than in the comments please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org