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studio visits with musicians

by Ellen Cockerham

Gus Highstein 

We arrived at the home of Gus and his wife, Joanna, on one of those record-breaking hot summer days.  Gus was in the middle of making us a breakfast of tiny pancakes fried in ghee and a huge frittata crowded with vegetables.  As we chatted in the kitchen, it became clear that this was a household of conscious living—old honey jars filled with dried beans lined the shelves,  re-sewn corduroy pants served as a child's lunch bag, and the ghee was homemade.

Gus and Joanna have three young children, the youngest of whom is 3 months old as of this writing.  Their house, built in the 1950's and inhabited by the architect for fifty years, is wonderfully open; from the threshold of the front door, you can see down the stairs into the kids' bedrooms, around the corner into the kitchen, across the living room to the indoor hammock and up into the split level, which serves as both the master bedroom and Gus's oboe studio.  This open feeling was mirrored by Gus's willingness to share with us his thoughts about music, life, and magic.

How do you think of classical musicians?  Do you think of yourself as an artist?

Absolutely.  All I have to do is think about great performances I've heard for me to know just how much creativity and imagination go into it.  The composer has left us these great works of art, yet the score is not enough to bring that art into the world.  To really bring the music to life, the performer has to respond to suggestions in the score which point to subtleties of timing, voicing, tone color and nuance.

Do I think of myself as an artist like Mozart or Schubert?  No. Still, I think this is less to do with performer vs. composer and more to do with the rarity of genius.

When you are in need of inspiration, what do you read/do/look at/listen to?

That really depends on why I'm in need of inspiration.  If I'm feeling disconnected from my higher self, I will read a spiritual text—The Tao or the writings of Meister Eckhart.  If I'm feeling good in general but am creatively lost, I will flip through books of artwork, read a good book, or sit down at the piano and slowly read through works by Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, who uses such simple building blocks to create something so rich.  I find that very inspiring.  I also love listening to great recordings.  As it says in The Way of the Samurai, "one should be able to hear about all ways and be more and more in accord with one's own."

When do you feel like you are really expressing yourself through music?

When I feel like I am playing my best, it is not when “Gus” is being expressed, it is when I have felt that I've connected to the spirit of music, something beyond my own confines.  Sometimes, if I don't like the music very much, I have to inject my own personality into it to make it work.  That's not to say that that slightly extra-personal way of playing is not artistic.  It is deeply connected to the people around you—other players, the audience.  It is creative.

Who do you greatly admire in the music world?

Carlos Kleiber is a great hero.  He was someone who never gave up on his musical ideals.  He understood his role as a conductor and how much the relationship with the orchestra depended on goodwill and support.  He knew how much the success of a performance depended on acoustically-sound environments—spaces in which players could care for each other's sounds with their own sound.  He was a genius at engaging the imaginations of players and singers.

I also find Miles Davis incredibly inspiring.  At a time when many thought art had crashed on the rocks of modernism, he was forever the explorer, always finding new beautiful territory.  As an oboe player,  I am always aware of the fundamental aspect of tone quality.  Miles always sought beauty through tone.

I admire many, many people in the music world, including many within our own orchestra, which is a great blessing.

How do you experience music as a listener?  When you go to a concert, what do you think about/listen for?

I think I let the music play in my imagination.  I'm very visual, so often when I'm reading a book, images of and feelings about the scenes form in my mind; the same thing happens when I listen to music.  Recently, I went to a concert which featured an oboe concerto by a composer I had never heard of.  I loved it.  It made me imagine an ocean and everything in the piece seemed to be taking place in that world. It used unfamiliar harmonies and extended techniques for the oboe, but there was a certain equilibrium to it.  There was gravity there, but no land in sight.  Going into that concert, I had no idea what to expect, but the music and the performance of it was evocative, so I was able to listen creatively.

Do you have a motto?

“I feel I shall very soon succeed,” from The Sopping Thursday, by Edward Gorey.  To me, this means never giving up and never giving up hope.  Sometimes, it is a struggle, and that's when this kind of optimism really helps.

Is there a piece of advice that you've carried with you?

“You have to play the reed that you have,” my old teacher, Al Genovese, told me.  It is very tempting for an oboist to blame everything on the reed.  Therefore, it is tempting to spend all your time making reeds, so whenever I'm reed-making, I turn my antique hourglass over.  When it has run out, it's time to practice.

What do you do for cross-training, something that provides a physical and/or mental balance for you work as a musician?

I have practiced Tai-Chi almost every day for the last 15 years.  I also like to play with my kids, whether we go for bike rides or just chase each other around the house!

What do you want your work as a classical musician to do?

In any given concert, I am trying to do some sonic magic.  As principal oboe in a symphony orchestra, one has the opportunity to take the performance up a level because of all the beautiful solos that are given to the instrument.


I have experienced the transformative power of music almost every day of my life.  Music often stirs up very complex emotions which can put you in touch with the divine.  By performing, I hope to allow others to feel that.  

What is coming up next for you?

I'm playing the Schumann Romances with the Richmond Chamber Players on August 19.  I love Schumann, and I haven't played this piece in a long time.  It's very challenging—I'm looking forward to it.

photo credit: Brandon Simmons

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