With a calm demeanor and a determined look in his eye, 11-year-old Austin Gilley played the bassoon for the first time Tuesday afternoon. The sixth-grader at Marissa Elementary School received his first lesson from three bassoonists with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
"It was like getting a Grammy award," Austin said after his lesson. "I think it was pretty cool."
David Robertson, the symphony's music director, donated the bassoon to Marissa Community Unit School District 40 in memory of bassoonist Andrew Thompson, 27, who unexpectedly died late last year.
"When I heard about Andrew Thompson, I wanted to play bassoon in his memory," said Austin, the son of Brandon and Stacey Gilley of Marissa.
Bassoonists Andrew Cuneo, Andrew Gott and Felicia Foland visited the elementary school Wednesday to donate the instrument to the school.
"It's rare to see the launching of a bassoon with a school and a student," Foland said as she handed the bassoon in its case to Marissa Band Director Eric Richter.
"It's really an awesome gift," he said. "This is an instrument we wouldn't have in our school district."
Richter described a bassoon as a "luxury" instrument for a school band.
Austin's fellow sixth-graders -- all 42 of them -- weren't left out. Before school released Tuesday, they were treated to a brief performance of the bassoon trio.
They even got to join in during a piece from "Fantasia" by clapping their hands, stomping their feet and slapping their table during the appropriate places.
The three professional bassoonists showed Marissa's first bassoon player -- Austin -- a thing or two about it.
Austin learned how to assemble and disassemble the woodwind instrument, as well as where to place his hands when playing it and how much air pressure is needed to generate the correct musical notes.
"Oh my, I'm getting excited," Foland said as Austin started to play the bassoon for the first time.
Sixth-grade teacher Nancy Wagner reassured him as he played. "Austin you look like a natural," she said.
Cueno gave Austin a few tips as well like remembering to change the water you soak your reed pieces in everyday. "Otherwise stuff grows in there," he said.
Cueno also advised Austin brush his teeth if possible before playing the bassoon and cautioned him to remember to swab his bassoon out after playing it. "You should be the last person to leave the band room," he told Austin.
Austin is no stranger to playing a musical instrument. He currently plays the saxophone in the band at Marissa Elementary School.
"I like getting to make the noise that comes out of the saxophone and bassoon," Austin said.
He became interested in playing the bassoon after seeing the symphony's rehearsal of Benjamin Britten's opera, "Peter Grimes," in the fall.
For the last 10 years, students from Marissa Elementary have attended a rehearsal of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra every year.
This initiative appropriately named "Opera-Tunity" was spearheaded by Grammy Award-winning American soprano Christina Brewer of Lebanon and Wagner, who are friends.
Brewer, who taught in Marissa for one year, described it as a "great program. It's successful because of Nancy," she said.
Foland said the symphony is "always so happy" to see the students from Marissa, who bring in pennies they collect to donate to the symphony's outreach programs.
"We thank you very much for that kindness and generosity," she told the students gathered in Wagner's classroom.
The "Opera-Tunity" program also includes pen pal correspondences from Brewer as she travels around the world.
"She is so down to earth and so willing to help educate," Wagner said of Brewer. "It's a passion of hers."
Austin, who aspires to be a musician when he grows up, said he hopes to win a solo contest playing the bassoon by next school year. He placed first in a solo contest for playing the saxophone last year.
Richter said he would like to find a private instructor to teach Austin to play the bassoon.
"Normally I wouldn't start a student this early on bassoon," he said, as it's a complex instrument.
Austin plans to practice the bassoon for at least an hour after school everyday. Austin's practice sessions will have at least one audience member -- his little sister Autumn, 8.
"She likes it," he said. "Whenever I practice, she comes in my room and watches."
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 618-239-2562 or email@example.com.