Alan Goodman has spent more than a little time trying to figure out just exactly what his life’s work has been about.
The explanation starts out easy enough. He is a musician. In fact, his musical career has spanned more than three decades and taken him all over the world.
In a casual conversation, where someone might ask what he does for a living, Al can respond with confidence.
It is the inevitable next part of the conversation that gets a bit sticky.
What do you play?
His answer has stopped more than a few neighborhood “getting to know you better” conversations.
Al is a bassoonist.
“I was in eighth grade band and had been playing the clarinet,” he said. “Our music director brought in a bassoon and I just loved the way it looked, long and weird. I wasn’t really engaged in music at that point. But the bassoon changed that because it was so interesting. The director asked if there was anyone who wanted to play the bassoon and I said I wanted to try it. I started practicing, which absolutely amazed my mother. She was a dancer and wanted me to be involved in the arts but had almost given up by that point.”
At the age of 13, although it would be a few more years before Al figured it out himself, his career choice was made.
“I grew up on Long Island,” he said. “So there were a lot of opportunities for me to play with different groups. In high school I started playing for larger orchestra groups. By the time I went to college I thought I was quite good. I knew everything at that point, of course, so I told my parents I wanted to be a professional musician. My parents were absolutely horrified at the idea.”
Not the least deterred, Al began studying music education at State University of New York in Potsdam, NY.
“I got my teaching degree and had a wonderful bassoon teacher,” he said.
The Vietnam War was raging when Al completed his studies. He served as part of the United States Military Academy Band at West Point for a time before being reassigned to a smaller army band. Three years later he was honorably discharged and free to pursue his musical career. He took a position as the Principal Bassoonist with the Milwaukee Symphony. Three years later he accepted the Principal Bassoonist role in the Pittsburg Symphony. He remained in Pittsburg for a year before heading west.
“I was Principal Bassoonist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 31 years,” he said.
Life in California proved to be a mixed bag of experiences for Al. He went through a divorce, but also met Betty McNeel.
“I was jogging in a park and hit on her,” he said. “She said she wasn’t interested. I asked her where she was from. She told me she was from Wyoming and I said, ‘nobody is from Wyoming. There’s nothing out there. That whole state is empty.’ We started dating and she brought me home to meet her family. That was in 1983.”
According to Al, that first trip to Wyoming was like nothing he’d ever even dreamed about.
“I’d been all over Europe and different places,” he said. “We came here in the dead of winter. The further north we got I noticed the more blonde everyone became and I was wondering what is going on here? I was sure we were going to the absolute end of the earth. I was waiting for Betty to open the door and throw me out and that would be that.”
As they crested the Continental Divide at the southern most end of Star Valley, Al literally had a magical moment.
“It was cold and I was only wearing a light shirt,” he said. “But we came up over that south pass and I made Betty stop the car. I actually made her pull over so that I could get out and look. I’d been all over the world and I could not believe there was any place on earth that could still look like this. It was Shangri-La. You know, where you come through a mystical cloud and see paradise.”
Then, of course, he had to explain to his future in-laws what he did for a living.
“Betty’s parents were extremely nice to me,” he said. “But they didn’t call my bassoon a bassoon. They called it ‘that thing.’ It was, ‘hey Al will you play that thing.’ And I would.”
Betty and Al were married in 1984 and trips to Wyoming became an annual excursion.
“I’d get all of June off and we would come up and camp in Greys River,” he said. “I was hooked.”
Al’s local reputation of something of a musician caught a little wind at the funeral of Betty’s grandfather.
“The family asked if I would play ‘that thing’ at the funeral for about 10 minutes or so and of course I told them I would,” he said. “I asked them what kind of music they would like and put together a few arrangements. Then I get to the Etna church and I ended up playing for more than an hour. That’s a tough thing to do at this altitude. I was used to playing at sea level. I couldn’t get any air into my lungs. Afterwards two ladies came up to me. They were sisters and asked if I would play at their funerals. I [jokingly] told them they’d have to give me some advanced notice. They didn’t even react. They just looked at each other and then back at me and said, ‘we could do that.’”
In 1994 Al and Betty bought property in Bedford. When Al retired in 2001, they moved to Star Valley full time.
“We’ve met some terrific people,” he said. “I go to the grocery store to buy one item and it takes me half an hour because I say hello to everyone. I’ve done things that I could not do in a big city. I have gone from being a bassoonist to a very bad exercise equipment repairman at my wife’s gym. Something like that draws you into the community more than if you just had a house here. It’s really been fun.”
When he is not figuring out how to make exercise equipment work the way the manufacturing company says it should, Al has been known to pass himself off as a saxophone player.
“Its easier to explain,” he said. “When someone asks me what I play and I tell them I am a bassoonist I get the 300 yard stare. If I don’t want to go through the long answer I tell them I play the saxophone.”
And he does — play the saxophone that is.
“I pick up the saxophone and I can practice to my hearts content in my basement,” he said. “The danger of being a professional musician is that you begin to lose the love for music. It becomes more of a job. I find that I can be an enlightened amateur with the sax. When I pick up the bassoon I am confronted with the idea of perfection.”
Of his impressive musical career, Al just shrugs.
“It’s a mystery,” he said. “When you find your instrument it resonates with something in you and your desire to be expressive. Its a non-verbal way to express yourself. When you can tap into your innermost self it appeals to some mysterious need in everybody. There is something about music that is very rewarding. There are numerous pleasures it gives you. Everybody likes music of some kind. You shouldn’t worry about playing wrong notes. Enjoy it.”
Still, Al finds himself reminiscing about the often crazy life of a musician. It’s not always the glitz and glam of center stage, he said. For example, there was the time his daughter confiscated his black socks to go with her school outfit. Concert time arrived and Al’s only option was taking a pair of his daughter’s black ankle socks.
“There I was on stage with my pants pulled down as low riders and sitting all hunched over so that hopefully no one could see my ankles and legs sticking out under my pants,” he said. “And the whole time I am wondering what I am going to do at the end of the performance when we stand up.”
These days Al will occasionally play with the symphonies in Idaho Falls or Pocatello. He’s done a few local performances at the senior center or with the arts council. He’s written a collection of humorous short stories about being a bassoon player and puts together a column for the quarterly journal of the International Double Reed Society. Al has even worked as a high school substitute music teacher. He says he wouldn’t change the life he has now for any stage.
“When you perform its a bit of make believe,” he said. “You are on the stage and everybody is dressed nice. That is what the audience sees. You are a professional. The reality is you have to perform virtually perfectly no matter what is going on in your life. And there is some pressure that comes with that. There really is. You have to ignore whatever else is going on. Backstage you have a ship of fools essentially. But when you go out on stage, everybody is pulling their oar. You have to.”