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Remembering Bill Bennett The Teacher

February 28, 2013

By now most people have heard about the tragic and sudden passing of Bill Bennett, San Francisco Symphony’s principal oboist.  If you’d like to read more about it please go here and here.

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”:

Please feel free to write comments or memories about Bill below, on this website, or on the YouTube video.  I’ll keep sharing stories here and I hope you’ll remember him in your own way.

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 sydnesullivan@gmail.com

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Sky permalink
    March 1, 2013 5:26 am

    Thank you so much for writing this beautiful tribute! I did not know Bill personally, but your profile gave me a much better picture of who he was than any of the major media outlets. I am so sorry for the loss of your teacher. I am curious, does anyone have evidence or a theory about whether his brain hemorrhage was causally related to his oboe playing?

    • March 1, 2013 6:37 am

      I’m glad that you enjoyed reading about Bill and I’ll be posting some more memories in the next couple of days. Sharing stories about him has been a really important part of my grieving process and I wanted people like you to hear these wonderful stories about him.

      I don’t know if there’s any proven connection between the oboe and brain aneurysms. I don’t feel that I’m qualified to answer your question, and I’d really like to remember him in life at this time.

  2. Paul Mall permalink
    March 1, 2013 7:46 am

    His wife once told me that for “laughs” he liked play audition tapes of aspiring oboists at parties and revel in their sub-par abilities. Seriously.

    • Mrs. Bennett permalink
      March 4, 2013 3:09 pm

      Sorry, Paul. Don’t know who you are but I am his wife and that is absolutely not true. I have never heard an oboe audition tape in my life and believe you are mistaken.

  3. Laura Reynolds permalink
    March 1, 2013 9:25 am

    Thanks so much for sharing this video, Sydne. True to form, Bill plays in this video with the commitment and expression I will always associate with him! I remember doing the same thing with Christmas carols in the studio back in 1990. He had us all bring our arrangements to his house for a party, recorded our perfromances and gave us all videos (on VHS). I’m going to have to get that transferred to DVD!

    • March 1, 2013 1:14 pm

      Yes! You definitely need to transfer them to DVD and preserve them. I would love to see some of those, that sounds so fun!

  4. Jeff permalink
    March 1, 2013 3:20 pm

    Thanks for these memories, Sydne. I just wanted to add that there is no correlation between playing any musical instrument and the type of intra-cranial bleed Bill suffered. It is the kind of thing that just suddenly happens to people. The only way to detect it or a indication of it’s presence is with an MRI of the brain- not something most people do.
    Bill really was taken too young, but at least he was doing what he loved!

  5. March 1, 2013 3:59 pm

    Thanks Sydne for your eloquent remembrance, and for posting the video. A silly little thing at a time like this, but if you transfer the video know that it is backwards: Steve (bass) and my student Tatiana (guitar) are both right handed players. On a more important level, we in the Guitar Department are really sorry beyond words for this loss, and if there is anything we can do for you or your oboe colleagues, let us know.

    • March 1, 2013 4:18 pm

      Haha yes I know it’s backwards. It’s just because it was taken with my MacBook camera and it flips the image.

  6. Alice permalink
    March 1, 2013 7:50 pm

    Thank you for sharing your special moments with this incredible musician whose brilliant, spirited, pure, melodic “voice” will endure and soothe the tears of sadness mourning his untimely separation from all our lives. Condolences to you who are his personal and musical families from all of us who were enriched by his oboe’s song.

  7. March 1, 2013 8:32 pm

    Thank you for sharing. The love one has for his/her music mentor, teacher, professor is sacred and the loss is profound. You will think of him at times for the rest of your life. I know I have about my teacher.

  8. JEONG HYUN KIM permalink
    March 1, 2013 8:42 pm

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories. What a fabulous way of teaching music!
    I was deeply saddened by the loss of Bill although I do not now him personally. I have become a big fan of Bill as well as SFS/MTT since I watched Keeping Score DVDs last year. I saw your posting @ youtube yesterday and heard on KDFC about your webpage this evening – Ray White mentioned this page.
    I was at Davies Hall last Saturday, mainly because I wanted to see Bill’s solo performance. That evening I also attended the pre-concert lecture, where I heard that the Strauss’ oboe solo is a very challenging piece and Bill will show us a wonderful performance. When he walked onto the stage with the maestro, I felt that he looked a little nervous. He checked out the reeds and the instrument a couple of times prior to his performance. At the moment I thought he just fainted for some reason and would come back to us sooner or later.
    Anyway, I would like to see more of videos and stories from his colleagues and students. I won’t be able to stop thinking about Bill for a while.

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