FARGO -- I have asked many of the people I’ve interviewed for my "Tales From Afar" series to fill out the Proust Questionnaire. It is a "20 Questions" sort of thing meant to draw out character traits or in some passing manner reveal how their minds work, what they think.
No one is required to answer all of the questions, or indeed any of them. Many didn’t.
The famous French author of "Remembrance of Things Past," Marcel Proust, put the first one together in the early 20th century and it was resurrected and given new life by Vanity Fair magazine; they have used it extensively for the past 25 years or more.
So I sent it to Hayley Pullen, thinking she would skim it and maybe answer six or eight questions, the usual feedback from people. I really didn’t know much about her at this point. Just the basics: Born and raised in Fargo; 34 years old; lives in London; and she plays the bassoon as a freelancer, which sounded interesting. A freelance bassoonist?
What she sent back was amazing. She answered them all, diligently and with what seems like startling honesty. She really thought about them and gave succinct and quite revealing answers.
Q: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A: Strong coffee > cold water swim > hot bath/sauna > gin martini with olives.
Q: What is your greatest fear?
A: Butterflies (phobia) and that someday I will have regrets about my life.
Q: Which living person do you most admire?
A: My mother, whose kindness and generosity are sometimes overwhelming.
Q: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
A: I become irrational and rageful when I’m running late.
Q: What is the trait you most deplore in others?
A: When people think their time is more important than mine.
Q: What is your greatest extravagance?
A: Wining and dining beyond my means.
Q: On what occasion do you lie?
A: When I am underprepared/ haven’t practiced enough (in music). Also, when I am hungover.
Q: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
A: “That sounds like something I wouldn’t enjoy.”
Q: When and where were you happiest?
A: When I am in nature, surrounded by beauty with someone I love.
Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
A: I wish I had some sort of style sense; 34 years old and every day is a struggle to get myself dressed.
Q: If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be?
Q: What is your favorite occupation (i.e. thing to do)?
A: Making or listening to music with wonderful people.
Q: What is your most marked characteristic?
A: I have a very expressive face which makes it hard to hide my true emotions.
Q: What do you most value in your friends?
A: Humour, passion and support through rough times.
Q: Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
A: Montag from the book "Fahrenheit 451."
Q: Who are your heroes in real life?
A: Probably any feminist female politician.
Q: How would you like to die?
A: Quickly and unknowingly, preferably in or on my way into outer space.
Q: What is your motto?
A: “If in doubt, say yes.”
Q: What is your favorite color?
Q: What is your present state of mind?
See what I mean? Having met and spent some time with Hayley, I think the most revealing answer is her motto, “If in doubt, say yes.” You can see it on her face, in her eyes, that enthusiasm that is just brimming in her expressions, how she talks, the attentiveness in the way she listens. That spark of intelligence glows when she is thinking of what to answer, what to say next.
That "If in doubt, say yes" also tells us a lot about how her life has gone so far. She’s adventuresome, takes risks and lives her life to the fullest. She writes well, too:
“I lived my whole Fargo life in the same house on the north side on Fourth Street. I went to Horace Mann Elementary School. My music teacher there was Mrs. Radnicki who pulled me out of class one day and told me that if I ever got bored in music class, I should tell her so she could give me something more challenging. I didn’t really take in what she was saying at the time, but she could tell I was completely absorbed in music class. I remember watching the Disney film 'Fantasia' in her class and I was totally transfixed; the music, the introduction to the instruments, the animation really went into my brain.”
And this is how it all got started, an obsession at age 9 that became a life’s ambition.
“When I was about 9, my parents took me to a concert of classical music and that’s when I saw a bassoon for the first time; I became instantly obsessed," she says. "I asked my parents if I could play the bassoon and they looked for one, but there weren’t any to hire in town and I was told I would have to wait until sixth grade to get one through the school and join band. When the day to try out band instruments finally came, I very politely insisted that the only instrument I would play was bassoon. The day I got hold of my school bassoon would basically define most of the rest of my life so far…”
In a stroke of serendipitous good fortune, just as Hayley was learning bassoon, a new music teacher moved to Fargo. Russ Peterson was a well-known sax player as well as a bassoonist who rarely took on new students, especially young ones like Hayley. But after a reluctant consultation, he agreed to take her on board.
He was her first important teacher, and later colleague in the symphony, and though Hayley suspects he doesn’t know it, her mentor.
“Russ suggested I take an audition for second bassoon in the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra as his colleague was going on sabbatical. A long story short, after a blind audition (anonymous and behind a screen) I was offered the job aged 14. There was no better experience I could have had than being thrown into a professional orchestra sitting next to my teacher, learning as I went along, how to perform. The other musicians in the orchestra were so kind and encouraging and thankfully I was a bit too young (naive is probably more accurate) to be riddled with nerves.”
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At age 17, rebellion. Or at least a mild form of it consisting primarily of not practicing bassoon. Could have been far worse, one assumes.
But when the chance to audition for the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra came around again, she snapped out of it, realizing just how much she loved the music and the instrument, and practiced all the time.
“I even left my high school homecoming court ceremony early in order to go practice my contrabassoon excerpts in a practice room at Concordia — my empty chair was immortalized in my high school yearbook,” she says.
Having gotten back on track (and sloughed off the rebelliousness), she auditioned to study with Chuck Ullery at the University of Minnesota, gaining a small scholarship in the process. But there was still some restlessness below the surface, this time embodied in the desire to study abroad for one semester.
Ullery suggested London, a great music city where there wouldn’t be a language barrier.
“So I literally Googled ‘music colleges in London’, did very minimal research and applied to only one program at the Royal Academy of Music. Had I not been slightly naive, I would’ve talked myself out of this, but I was just focused on how fun it would be to study abroad. I hopped on a plane to New York, the first time I had ever been to the city, and found myself walking through the doors of the Juilliard School and that’s when it hit me: what am I doing HERE? I then somehow managed to do a very good audition which led to an offer of a yearlong study at the Royal Academy in London with full scholarship. I couldn’t believe it!”
I think we’re back to that “If in doubt, say yes” revelation.
In the next installment of Hayley's story, we’ll find out what happened after this spur-of-the moment decision to go to London rather than study at Julliard in New York City — her life as an expat, her passion for music and a new object of passion.