Poster A Minnesota Orchestra woodwind player holds up a reed.
A Minnesota Orchestra woodwind player holds up a reed.

Taking our breath away: Excellence at altitude with the Minnesota Orchestra

"I'll meet you in the parking lot. I've got money."
"Okay. I've got 10 kilo."

I am in South Africa, on the Minnesota Orchestra's tour bus, listening to bassoonist Fei Xie recount a conversation he had with a cane dealer. "Cane," in this context, refers to Arundo Donax, the giant cane stalk from which Fei makes his reeds.

Reed-making is laborious. It's a multistep process that involves a special gouging machine and sometimes the help of a spouse. A clarinetist named Gregory hands me his phone to show me a picture of a silvery contraption: a gouging machine that seems to retail for $1,700. It appears vaguely reminiscent of the apple corer I got for Christmas. John, an oboist, says that every so often his section brings in a specialist to sharpen the blades and repair or recalibrate their machines. They call this Gougapalooza.

Minnesota Orchestra bassoonist Fei Xie’s cane.
Each piece of Minnesota Orchestra bassoonist Fei Xie's cane is labeled with the country of origin ("Arg" for Argentina, for example) and the growing season (2005 cane was used for reeds that Fei made in 2016).
Fei Xie

Classical players are disciplined, exacting and precise. That much is easily gleaned from any Hollywood send-up of the form. But it's not until you're on a bus surrounded by the woodwind section, listening to them talk about testing cane density with a dial micrometer, that you realize these people are insanely exacting and crazy-precise. Each reed, mind you, usually lasts for only a couple of weeks of performance. Some performers might make 150 reeds a year.

Endearingly, the woodwind players seem to be well aware of the fact that they are riding the line between the pursuit of excellence and being pursued by an obsession with excellence. Wendy, a flute player with an easy smile and a clean bob, says simply, "You can't let the neuroses win." A voice in a nearby seat replies, "I assure you that I can."

I've performed with the Minnesota Orchestra before, as a guest vocalist, but have spent most of my professional life in an adjacent universe. I cut my teeth and earned my stripes as a pop musician — I write and perform rap, R&B for a living — and it's fascinating musically and anthropologically to watch these players at work.

In pop music, there are many ways to win or fail. You can spike the mic and jump off a lighting truss; you can play unplugged by firelight on the beach; you can livestream on Instagram or play a pop-up Red Bull party. In a traditional classical performance, the road to success is very narrow: Each player must deliver his or her part on time, in pitch, and in dynamic synchrony with the larger section. At the level of the Minnesota Orchestra, this means fine-tuning every possible variable. These players are not tightening screws; they are making perfect screws from scratch.

The Minnesota Orchestra is the first U.S. professional orchestra to tour South Africa. Musically, it's an international program, with works from European, African and American composers — sometimes accompanied by choirs singing in Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and German. Culturally, it's presented as a celebration of Nelson Mandela's 100th birthday (although he didn't live to see it). Logistically, it's a feat of organization: a transcontinental potato-sack race with more than 250 people.

Now a week into its South African itinerary, the orchestra has performed two official concerts: one in Cape Town and one in Durban. The musicians have spent many more hours on cultural exchange trips: ensembles have performed for students at township schools, rehearsed with young players and performed a free show at an outdoor pavilion (music stands studded with clips in a futile attempt to keep scores from blowing away in the coastal breeze).

Not every orchestra would be so enthusiastic about the community engagement programming. But most of the Minnesota players seem sporting, many seem eager and some seem deeply moved during the outreach events. As a visitor to their world, the best part of touring with this group has been in learning how casual, playful and funny the players are off stage. They wash their own clothes in the hotel sink, just like my tour mates do. They do a doofy cheer every time a plane lands. (A little phrase of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony is sung-yelled at the moment of touchdown, followed by a "Hey!" as all the players shoot their fists into the air like a group of unusually well-behaved soccer fans.) The brass guys rib each other and stay up late. The violists have a sardonic, arched-eyebrow wit. The Latin contingent takes me under its wing and encourages me to practice my Spanish at the hotel bar. Roger Frisch even lets me play his extraordinary violin at a rehearsal — my heart trembling with the privilege.

Dessa, not dropping Roger Frisch’s very fine violin.
Me, not dropping Roger Frisch's very fine (and madly expensive) violin.
Euan Kerr

The orchestra's next ticketed events will take place in Soweto, Pretoria and Johannesburg. There's chatter about the challenge those concerts will pose for the woodwinds and the brass — Johannesburg is well above 5,000 feet above sea level, and some passages in Beethoven's 9th Symphony are a respiratory workout even in ideal conditions. In a perfect world, some players might have arrived a few days early to craft reeds on site and at altitude just for the occasion. As is, the easy-smiling Wendy passes out flavored Chapsticks to the other woodwinds by way of preparation.

Although I won't be shouldering any performance duties in Johannesburg, I can feel the altitude myself. I take a double puff of my inhaler before heading to the hotel gym in the mornings. By chance, I learned that Jason Tanksley, a tuba player, is also asthmatic. After a long day of rehearsals, we meet in the hotel bar, our inhalers in hand. Earlier, he'd asked me to sign his and I request that he return the favor. We set down our glasses of wine to trade a Sharpie back and forth. For the next few days, I'll be watching Jason and his cohorts finish their South African tour, cheering from the wings, and wishing every one of them broken legs and strong lungs.

Tuba player Jason Tanksley and Dessa use their inhalers.
Inhaling with tuba player Jason Tanksley.
Travis Anderson

Be sure to follow Dessa as she explores South Africa and tags along with the Minnesota Orchestra. Throughout the trip, she'll be posting to social media using the hashtag #DessaInSAfrica. Those posts will be collected here on, too. Follow along for photos, little stories and scraps of overheard conversation.

Twitter: @Dessadarling
Instagram: @Dessa

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