In search of the perfect reed

In search of the perfect reed

January 19th, 2012 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Name: Bob Burks.

Age: 55.

Hometown: McAlester, Okla.

Education: St. Louis Conservatory of Music and Cleveland (Ohio) Institute of Music studying Oboe Performance.

Vocation: Principle Oboe, Chattanooga Symphony & Opera.


Movie: "Pirates of Caribbean."

Music: "I loved the Moody Blues growing up. When we did the show at the Roundhouse with them, it was one of the highlights of my life. We did "Nights in White Satin." Wow.

Quotation: "Life can only be understood backwards. Unfortunately it has to be lived forwards." -- Unknown

Jason sought the Golden Fleece, Ahab searched for the white whale and Psyche searched the world over for Cupid.

Bob Burks, principal oboe for the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, is on the hunt for the perfect reed. Burks, who is second to only Concertmaster Don Zimmer as the longest tenured principal with the CSO, makes his own reeds, something he has plenty of practice doing since they don't last long.

Burks said he once made a "freak reed" that held on for 19 shows while he was touring Germany, but it eventually split in half prior to the final concert.

Burks said he is constantly purchasing and making his own reeds from cane he buys from France. He often performs this task while watching a Hallmark movie.

"I love Hallmark movies," he said. "I have no idea how many Hallmark Christmas movies I watched last year. They always have this perfect little town that doesn't exist in real life. I always wonder if they have a symphony in those towns."

Burks is currently president of the local Musicians Union and has been active behind the scenes at the CSO for almost two decades, he said. He is one of 10 full-time core musicians on the payroll and performs in the CSO Quintet. He has taught oboe for Cadek Conservatory at UTC, University of the South, Lee University, Bryon College, Covenant College and Southern Adventist University.

He said that it is hard for him to imagine being anything other than a musician, and he admits his deepest darkest secret is that he would like to be a rock and roller.

"I studied piano, but I've never learned to play guitar. I have an electric guitar here and one day I will learn."

He also hopes to one day begin writing music.

Q: When did you move to Chattanooga?

A: In 1981.

Q: Where were you before that?

A: Honolulu with the symphony there.

Q: Why did you leave sunny Hawaii?

A: It was a temporary position. It is now defunct. Had I gone back, I would be a beach bum.

Q: Who was the music director when you came here?

A: Richard Cormier.

Q: So, you played for...

A: Cormier, Vachtung [Jordania], [Robert] Bernhardt and now Kayoko [Dan]. I've seen a lot of changes, that is for sure. It's been interesting. Just seeing Chattanooga change that much has been interesting.

The level of the orchestra has been rising tremendously over the years. Seeing the growth of the orchestra has been satisfying.

There have been a lot of disappointments too. Money is money and always the main thing. I refer to the Vachtung years as the Camelot years. We had a core of 31 musicians that were full time at one time. Now we have 10 full-time players in the orchestra.

But, the quality has been going up.

Q: You've also been active off stage, so to speak? Did you get involved because you felt you had to, or is that the type person you are?

A:I'm president of the Local 80 Musician's Union and a ROPA delegate.

Q: What is that?

A: Regional Orchestra Players Association. It's all about money and always about money. It meets once a year and we share ideas about music education, fundraising -- things to get growth in orchestra music.

Q: Where do you think things are in regard to the future of orchestras?

A: Right now, I think we are at a point where we will find out just how much this community is going to want to have an orchestra. How much they want it and how good they want it to be.

Q: People don't realize how expensive maintaining an orchestra is do they? You guys get paid not only to play but to rehearse. It's your job, right?

A: The thing people don't understand, and sometimes management looks at it the same way, is they pay us for rehearsal or a performance, but before we even get there, how many hours were spent at home preparing for that. My job as much as anyone else's, involves a lot of time. I make all my reeds myself. It takes hours and hours of work and it's expensive. The knives, the cane, it's expensive.

Q: Do all oboe players make their reeds.

A: As my teacher once put it, 'Any self-respecting oboist makes his own reeds." It's a part of life and something I wish they had told me when I started playing.

... People ask all the time what is the most difficult instrument to play and the oboe is mentioned a lot. I don't agree with that because they are all difficult to learn and perfect. The crazy thing about being a musician is that you are always in search of perfection and I don't think it exists. I've never left the stage thinking that was perfect.