11. February 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Bassoon, Interviews

With his permission, I’m posting a good amount of the interview Ryan Romine had with Thomas Südhof. You can read it in its entirety if you join the IDRS.

Thank you so much, Ryan, for allowing me to post this. I appreciate it greatly!

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Nobel Prize winner Thomas Südhof has been getting attention from the music world because of his mention of his bassoon playing past and his belief in the importance of classical music.

Ryan Romine Winchester, Virginia

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… Südhof became a hero of music performers and educators (and especially bassoonists) worldwide, his picture appearing in countless Facebook feeds next to Lebrecht’s splashy headline, “Nobel medicine winner says: I owe it all to my bassoon teacher.” Curious about Dr. Su?dhof and his musical studies, I recently sent an e-mail to his Stanford University address proposing an interview. To my delight—and hopefully yours as well—he very graciously agreed to share his thoughts on a variety of topics.

Ryan Romine (RR): In comments you made in The Lancet in 2010 and others recently posted by Norman Lebrecht of Slipped Disc, you credited your bassoon teacher with teaching you valuable skills for your career. Can you expand on those earlier comments about your musical training and its impact on your research skills?

Thomas Su?dhof (TS): The qualities I learned from my training in classical music, in particular in bassoon, are multifarious and varied. Let me list a few. First, the value of disciplined study, or repetitive learning, for creativity. You cannot be creative on a bassoon if you don’t know it inside out, and you cannot be creative in science if you don’t have a deep knowledge of the details. Second, the value of good mentorship. A good teacher challenges and criticizes, but does not chastise or put down a student, no matter what. Third, the role of performance in a profession. As a musician, you practice for thousands of hours to play for a few minutes—but when you play, you have to not only recapitulate the learned material, you have to expand on it and you have to communicate it to the audience. In science, it is basically the same thing—it is in the end a process which also depends on communicating with an audience and accepting and responding to its feedback. Finally, I learned to value traditions as a musician, but at the same time the importance of trying to transcend tradition. The tradition is the basis that allows you to progress, the starting point, but it cannot become a limitation, because then both in music and in science creativity and progress end.

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?RR: How did you first start playing the bassoon?

TS: I used to play violin, but had a bad teacher and did not like it. I liked the bassoon because of its sound, and persuaded my parents to let me learn it when I was twelve years old.

RR: Do you come from a musical family?

TS: No—my parents were physicians. However, my family was very interested in music, dragged me to concerts at a young age, and valued the arts.

RR: How do your children’s musical experiences in the US compare with your own child- hood musical experiences in Germany?

TS: I think the US offers terrific opportunities for young children to learn classical music. I only wish there were more opportunities [for them] to go to concerts and to perform in concerts.

RR: Do you feel there is a cultural/temporal/geographical/neurological difference in how art music is perceived and valued in the present society in comparison to when you were growing up?

TS: Absolutely—in the US at the present time, classical music is fundamentally a dying art. There are few people who are willing to pay for it and its importance is miniscule compared to that of popular sports. Musicians earn a fraction of what even a mediocre athlete earns. There is no vibrant musical culture at present—everything is geared towards being commercially successful, not towards content. However, I think the same trend is observed in Europe, and we need to accept this trend and look for components in popular culture that are not boring (sometimes quite hard for me).

RR: Would you encourage your children to become musicians, scientists, both, neither?

TS: Only if they have a passion for it—it is a lot easier to have a stable life and to support a family in other professions. Being a musician or a scientist is a sacrifice, and only worth it if you truly enjoy it and consider it a privilege.

RR: Do you believe that art and science serve similar purposes?

TS: Of course—in different ways. They basically transcend the moment, and provide insights into truths, although in different kinds of experiences.

RR: Do you believe the artistic and scientific urge/drive come from the same place?

TS: Yes and no. I think an artist cannot operate with explicit planned actions, but needs to develop sub-conscious actions, whereas a scientist is the opposite. However, both are driven by the same appreciation of a true, fashion-independent content.

RR: The American education system has in the past few years invested heavily in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, which place a significant emphasis on your career field. Yet, your earlier published statements place significant value on arts training. Do you see any way to integrate these two seemingly disparate ideals?

TS: I personally think that training in the arts prepares a growing child just as well for a scientific or technical career as [does] training in STEM subjects, if not better, because the arts train a person in discipline, independent action, thinking, and in the need for attention to detail without becoming a prisoner of that detail. I absolutely don’t think there is a need for earlier math training—there is only a need for training the mind so it becomes fertile for future learning.

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RR: Thank you so much, Dr. Su?dhof, for your time and your thoughts. Bassoonists (and musicians in general) worldwide are surely proud to count you as one of their own.

TS: I wish I could still be a bassoonist—it was a lot harder than being a scientist.