Born in Parkersburg, W.Va., Judith LeClair grew up in Delaware and Philadelphia and earned a B.M. from the Eastman School of Music. She has been on the faculty of Juilliard since 1983 and has been principal bassoonist with the New York Philharmonic since 1981, with more than 50 solo appearances with the orchestra to her credit.
When did you first know you wanted to be a musician and how did you come to know it?
I knew very early, about 11 years old. My brother and I were very involved with trying different instruments and playing piano. There was always music around, largely due to my brother and the school ensembles.
Who was the teacher or mentor who most inspired you when you were growing up and what did you learn from that person?
My bassoon teacher and chamber music coach at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, Shirley Curtiss. She gave me a solid background for orchestral and chamber music playing. I loved playing with my woodwind quintet every Saturday afternoon—it was the highlight of my week. We played Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante with the Philadelphia Orchestra when we were just 15. Also, my great teacher at the Eastman School, K.D. Van Hoesen, who continues to inspire me.
What was the first recording that you remember hearing or buying, and what was its significance to you?
I remember falling in love with Brahms and Dvorak in high school. I would listen to their serenades and symphonies for hours, and until I fell asleep at night. What I wanted more than anything in the world was to play them. I still love them all!
What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had as a performer?
There are two—one was tripping onstage after a solo performance with the San Francisco Symphony. I still have nightmares about what would have happened if I went down! The other was having a new cell phone on stage at the New York Philharmonic and having it go off in a particularly serene moment. I now leave my purse in the locker room at all times!
If you could have your students visit any place in the world, where would it be, and why?
I think Japan, because the people are so wonderful; it is a beautiful, clean, and orderly country, and the children are so well-behaved at concerts. Also, the food is great.
What are your non-music related interests or hobbies?
I love dogs, and have had many Airedales in my life. My husband, Jonathan Feldman, and I love to cook, try wines, entertain, and have fun with our 10-year-old son, Gabe. I am also an avid swimmer and try to swim five times a week, for physical and mental stability!
What book are you reading right now?
I am reading the fifth Harry Potter book. My husband and son got me hooked!
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
Having the Philharmonic and Juilliard be in the center of the world’s greatest city. I don’t spend much down time here, as I am always going home to New Jersey after I finish working, but I hope to someday move back and enjoy everything I don’t have time for now!
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
I honestly don’t know. There has never been anything else I wanted to do but play the bassoon. Isn’t that pathetic?
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would you want it to be?
I would want them to know that I believe in them and support them through anything. The auditioning world has changed over the past 20 years, and it is much more difficult to get a job now. I want them to know that if they really apply what they have learned to everything they do, they will succeed. I want to be the same kind of mentor that my two teachers were, which was to be gently critical but hugely supportive at all times.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I hope I can help instill the love of playing and commitment to music in young students. I have had the most wonderful class at Juilliard, and they are so eager and enthusiastic, practicing and coming to concerts every week. I hope I can inspire them to love it so much that they keep the burning desire to play and teach no matter how discouraged they get. I think at their age, they have to eat, sleep, and breathe music to be able to really succeed at it.