Every now and then, usually during sleepless nights, I can’t help but question everything that I have done. Everything that has led up to the present, everything that has contributed to who I am. These moments are often resolved by rest rather than answers, however, there’s also value in the search- the journey, if you will.
My name is Alec Saleh, and among other things, I am a musician. I’m proud to say that I’ve been involved with my craft for some 13 years, a number that increases parallel to my age. It all started with an inexplicable urge to play the violin. Well, perhaps not inexplicable; the most logical explanation I can think of is rather typical. I saw one of my cousins playing the ubiquitous string instrument, and I decided that I too wanted to learn it. My parents proceeded to buy me a full sized violin that Christmas, and I hacked away with the bow, struggling to produce sound with the behemoth. It quickly became obvious that I would need some quality guidance.
The first issue to be addressed was the size of the violin. We needed a 1/8th size instrument, and my parents were strapped for cash. Thankfully, a benevolent kindergarten teacher at my school provided us with an instrument. Little did we know, her generosity would catalyze the growth of a life-long passion. I was enrolled group lessons, transferring to a private studio in a matter of weeks. It was in this studio that I would learn from my first music teacher, Ms. Mary Lamb. She taught me the art of Texas Fiddling, and instilled within me a penchant for growth and success. My sister started piano lessons when I was 7 (she was never particularly fond of them), and as a result, I decided that I had to learn piano as well. I continued fiddle and piano lessons for the next 4 years, until it was time for me to start middle school. With middle school came band, and with band came another wave of excitement and change.
My school district never had an orchestra program, so that meant that I would need to learn yet another instrument. For some, that might have been an obstacle, but I looked forward to the opportunity. I decided that I would be a saxophone player, laying down smooth jazz licks and screaming in the altissimo range. Our future band directors came to our elementary school, and we filled out our preferences. I was tested on the sax mouthpiece, and I produced an acceptable sound. My future as a sax player was in my grasp- my future band director, however, had other plans. He noticed my experience with piano, and recommended the bassoon instead. Despite lacking even the slightest clue as to what a bassoon was, I accepted his suggestion, and it was settled- I would become a bassoonist.
Reflecting upon middle school is a largely disdainful experience, but band was my haven. That being said, even band class had a rough and bumpy beginning. Our school had very few bassoons to begin with, and most of them were in poor condition. I was squawking, squeaking, and squealing my way through our fundamental exercises. The noises I produced must have been pretty terrifying. I started private lessons (with TCU student Emily (Ahrens) Yates), and my teacher attempted to play my horn. She recoiled, explaining that it was full of leaks, and the instrument was sent to the repair shop. I waited at least a month, studying the fingering chart, anticipating the return of a functional bassoon. Finally, I found the case sitting in the band hall along with the other repaired instruments. At last, my bassoon had returned! I assembled the pieces, fastened the reed, and attempted to explore the range of the horn. The first thing I played was a two-octave F major scale; bland, but so fulfilling. This impressed my band director, and set the tone for following years. I would go on to compete in a number of solo competitions, placing in various TMEA Region and State level bands/orchestras.
High school brought both new challenges and friends, but most notably new opportunities. Freshman year, I had to learn a new instrument for marching band, so I picked up the baritone. Sophomore year, our jazz band needed a keyboard player, and I assumed the role. I would also switch to tenor sax in marching band, as it was less physically taxing. Junior year, I competed in TMEA Jazz Region auditions, placing well enough to advance to area. Senior year, I switched to tenor sax in jazz band, which in a way took me back to my original intentions before I even started band. That year I competed at the state level for bassoon and tenor sax, and ranked only one chair lower on tenor sax than I did on the bassoon. It was upon realizing that fact that I felt truly balanced as a musician. I’ll spare you the details of every bassoon competition, audition, and camp I attended- this summary is detailed enough as is. That being said, college auditions took me from Waco, to Dallas, to Norman, to New York City. Travelling to New York (for my Juilliard audition) was a particularly significant experience for me, since my family hadn’t gone further than the states surrounding Texas. Fortunately, I was accepted to each of the four schools to which I applied. After a great deal of deliberation , it was SMU that won me over.
So here we are– ~800 words later and you know what I’ve done. I’ve glossed over a substantial amount of information, but there are more important questions that remain. Why did I choose to do what I did? How will I use my experience to influence my art? Just who am I, anyway? Many of these questions puzzle me to this day, but like a puzzle, pieces are coming together, and the image is becoming clearer. I came to SMU to study bassoon, but I have experience on a wide range of instruments. This experience is not only useful from a performance perspective (pit gigs, multi-track recordings, etc.) but also from a teaching perspective. Furthermore, I’ve played in a variety of stylistic settings. From jazz, to classical, to country, to contemporary, I’ve covered a number of bases. I believe that these spheres don’t need to be treated as separately as they often are. Have you ever heard a jazz bassoonist? Or better yet, an electric bassoonist? Believe it or not, they’re out there. I myself even attempted to learn Eric Johnson’s Cliffs of Dover on bassoon- it’s still a work in progress. I thrive in a competitive environment, and I’ve spent a lot of time tinkering with modern technology, both for the sake of exposure and improvement. I’ve made connections, done my best to learn from all of my teachers, and played in a couple of rock/ska bands. Yet, I still feel lost in a world filled with artists striving for the spotlight. Striving for that principal bassoon spot, striving for that masterpiece that defines an era, striving for that viral video. Artists refining their ideas and methods, hoping to create a sense of relevance and success in a world rife with violence, economic distress, and rapid change.
My name is Alec Saleh, and I’m a bassoon performance/music education major at SMU. I’ve been a musician for 13 years, and that won’t be changing anytime soon. I’d like to say that I’ve developed a concrete, unique plan to spread my passion in art and inspire others. Unfortunately, I think that would be a lie. I know where my skills lie, and I know what I’d like to see in a broad sense, but I’ve yet to iron out the details. I’d like to use the internet to spread my message, and I’d like to cross boundaries between different stylistic schools of thought. My goal is to make classical music/instruments accessible to the average Joe. How will I do it? A long process of trial and error, risk and reward, and most importantly, learning.