Dawn Hartley

Hometown: Columbus, Georgia
Member of the Nashville Symphony since 1991

What inspired you to become a musician, and what drew you to the bassoon?
I was always headed that way. My parents were church musicians, and I used to sit at the piano and turn my mom’s pages at choir practice – I loved that. I started in band on clarinet, and my band director asked me if I’d be interested in switching to bassoon. I thought it sounded pretty cool to play something different, and the bassoon came somewhat naturally to me. I found it easier to get a sound I liked than I did on the clarinet.

What are the unique challenges and opportunities of playing bassoon?
I think the bassoon suits me because it’s pretty challenging to learn; it takes a lot of persistence and patience, and those are two qualities that are part of my nature. I also really like how it’s such a supporting instrument. It works best in combinations with other instruments; it’s a case where the whole is greater than the parts.

The bassoon is not terribly flexible sometimes when it comes to technique or dynamic range, but I like that it can play such varied roles. We get some great bass lines, but we also have the opportunity to play with the upper woodwinds, some beautiful melodic lines with the flute, the oboe and the clarinet.

Which composers write the best music for the bassoon?
If you want to pick out a bassoon in the music, a great period of music is Classical, particularly Mozart and Mendelssohn. Because of the light texture, you can hear the bassoon really clearly when it blends with the other woodwinds. Brahms would be a good example where the parts are great and so rich, but most of the time you’re in this whole forest of woodwind sounds. Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of good bassoon parts, and Ravel wrote a lot of intimidating ones – he pushes the bassoon technically. Sibelius also has some great, dark-sounding bassoon parts.

Who has had the greatest influence on you as a musician?
I feel like I’ve been influenced by everyone in the orchestra, all the conductors we’ve worked with and all of the teachers I’ve met. I had one particularly influential teacher in high school, Ronald Wirt. Before I went to college, I had some thoughts that this was something I could actually get a job doing, and so I talked to him about it one day. He let me know, in a straightforward way, that it was gonna work out all right if that’s what I wanted to do. That was a really important moment for me.

My grandmother was also an important influence. She wasn’t highly educated, grew up in much different circumstances than me. She loved to sing old gospel hymns and had this very distinctive, swooping, scooping way of singing. Whenever she came to visit, she always asked if I could play for her to have a “little sing,” and I’d sit down and play the piano, one hymn after the other, while she sang. Doors would close all over the house, but I really enjoyed that way of connecting with her. When she visited, she’d come to my church, which was a big downtown steeple church where folks generally didn’t stand out when they were singing, and she’d sing just the way she always did. Everyone around us would smile when they heard her, and I just loved that.

I realize now that even though she never learned to read music, she played a big role in my becoming a musician. Because she loved music, she found an old piano for my Dad to learn on, and by the time he was a teenager he was playing the organ and directing a little choir at their church.

Does your work as a musician influence other aspects of your life?
To me, playing in the orchestra is a huge metaphor for life. It’s a sort of reenactment when you play chords that invoke the presence of the past and the composer. But every time that happens, there’s a new dimension to it, depending on the unique combination of listeners, performers, space and the cultural and emotional climate of the times.

I love watching my kids grow to love music. I like getting the chance to accompany them or watch them perform and see that take root. I love to watch other teachers work with them, and I’m amazed at the different gifts that teachers have.

What’s been the highlight of your time performing with the Nashville Symphony?
I remember one particular concert, when [principal bassoonist] Cynthia Estill was out of town, and I had the opportunity to play the principal parts on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, with Itzhak Perlman conducting. That piece has several bassoon solos that I always thought I’d love to play. They’re very sensitive, and I wondered how Cynthia managed to play those passages so seamlessly, when some of them are deceptively awkward on the instrument. How did she feel in that moment — are the notes going to come out smoothly and in tune?

So I was glad for the opportunity, but I had a strong fear of messing up. At the rehearsals, there was some awkwardness for me about it, but when the actual performance arrived and we got to the end of the second movement, which is especially soft, I just remember there was such a quiet in the hall. I felt like so many people were so in tune with what was happening, and I felt like my colleagues were right there with me. It’s an amazing feeling to have everyone right there, and I was able to let go of that fear.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not rehearsing or performing?
I love to walk, I love to read, and I love movies and plays.

What do you like most about living in Nashville?
I love Shelby Park. I live close and love being able to walk there. I love my church community at Eastwood Christian Church, and I love my kids’ school, Martin Luther King Jr. I love the whole mix of students there. That’s one thing about Nashville: people just mix so well. They might not have anything in common, but they really enjoy being together. And I feel that about our audience too, looking out and seeing the mix of people.

What’s the last book you read, and what are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, and I just finished reading Daoud Hari’s The Translator, which made a big impression on me.

What would you most like people in the audience to know about the Nashville Symphony?
It’s an amazing gift when someone really listens to another person. They pay money and offer their support, and then they clap for the privilege of sitting down and listening. That’s something we don’t take for granted – we appreciate it so much.