photo illustration by Shawn McAfee of UW Oshkosh Media Services
Maestro & Musician
Andre Gaskins doesn't get stage fright. Ever.
In fact, Gaskins is most at ease performing for an audience with a cello bow or a conductor baton in his hand. With those tools, he's able to do magic.
"The power of music and live performance is this ability to transport people to another place," says Gaskins, who is the new director of orchestral activities and cello at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. He is also the music director and conductor for the Columbus (Ga.) Ballet. "To be able to get (the audience) to focus on something other than their daily routine, that's really a beautiful thing."
Gaskins' career path, he jokes, may have been pre-determined. The only son of a insurance salesman and a Japanese language translator, Gaskins says his father had told his mother, while they were dating, that they'd have three children and that they'd all be musicians. Well, his father wasn't far off. One of his two sisters is a professional violist, having played with the Indianapolis Symphony. The other sister is a linguist. "Well, he's got two out of three," says Gaskins with laugh. "That's not bad."
In an interview with COLS Special Reports producer Grace Lim, Andre Gaskins talks about the power of the live performance, the audacity of his asking superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma for a favor and the value of music in today's world.
The video is also available for download to your iPod through UW Oshkosh iTunesU (requires iTunes).
The Big Instrument
Gaskins' choosing the cello as his main instrument wasn't as mystical. "It's a big instrument, and I'm a boy," he says. "I wanted to play a bigger instrument than the violin which my two older sisters played."
But he soon grew to love the sounds he was able to coax out of the instrument. At 14, Gaskins won a competition that resulted in his being solo cellist with the Carmel (Ind.) Symphony Orchestra, playing Allegro Appassionato by Camille Saint-Saens.
He recalls how his fellow classmates asked him, "My gosh, aren't you totally freaked out? I would be so nervous."
To Gaskins, that nervousness was and, to some extent, still is a foreign concept. "This is what I had identified myself with from the very beginning," he says. "To me, it was very natural."
What also came naturally to Gaskins is standing on the the conductor podium. When he was a senior in high school, he asked his orchestra director for a chance to conduct. The director, seeing a musical spark that would not be denied, agreed and handed over the baton.
"He was a very generous and giving man," Gaskins says of his high school orchestra director.
Gaskins remembers the day he led the 85-member orchestra because it was Election Day 1992. "I never got nervous. This is who I am. This is what I do," he says. "It was as natural as walking to me."
After high school, Gaskins attended Butler University for his undergraduate's degree in violoncello performance. Then he earned his master's degree from Indiana University, where he is in the final stages of completing his doctoral degree.
Along the way, Gaskins has enjoyed a diverse career as conductor, soloist and music educator. In addition to the Columbus Ballet, he has conducted for the Youth Orchestra of Greater Columbus, the Columbus State University Philharmonic and the Richmond Symphony, among others. His recording of Martinu's Concerto for the Summit Records label was nominated for the 2004 Grammy Awards in the category of Best Performance by a Small Ensemble (with or without conductor).
This past Thanksgiving in Richmond, Va., Gaskins logged his 30th performance as a solo cellist. His other solo appearances have included performances with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. Gaskins can be heard in the soundtrack for the PBS documentary For Gold and Glory (2003) and is a featured soloist for the motion picture soundtrack Forgive Me Father (2001).
Cello Boot Camp
Since September, Gaskins has been at the helm of the UW Oshkosh Symphony Orchestra and is the music department's cello instructor. He hopes to build up both the numbers in the orchestra (55) and the cello studio (5).
At the beginning of the fall semester and before his cello students even had a chance to play a note, he called a meeting. He told them that during the first six to eight weeks, they will be participating in a "cello boot camp."
Gaskins shared with them this story about his first encounter with his own instructor at Indiana University, the world-renowned cellist Janos Starker:
"He told me before he accepted me into his studio, 'You are going to be miserable for the first six months of studying with me.'
"I said, 'Why is that?'
"'Because we’re going to go back to some basics.'
"I thought about it for a few seconds and I said, 'Well, I’d rather be miserable now than be miserable for the rest of my life.'
"Apparently that was the right answer because he scheduled me for a lesson and, from that point after, I was in his studio."
Gaskins has never forgotten that lesson from the master cellist.
In addition to technique, Gaskins aims to teach his students patience. "The younger generation lack patience," he says. "They need to know that this is serious business. It doesn't come easy. It certainly doesn't come overnight."
Says Gaskins: "My biggest hope for my students is that they be able to teach themselves by the time they leave. Just because I'm the teacher doesn't mean that I provide all the answers. They are also responsible for making discoveries on their own."
Even after all these years of playing, performing and conducting, Gaskins still views himself as a work in progress. "You can always improve," he says.
While Gaskins is constantly pushing himself and his students, he will not be pushed by those who say he can't be both a conductor and a cellist. "I know my limits. I know my abilities, and I can do this," he says. "When people tell me I can't do something, I say, 'Watch me.'"
On Dec. 10, 2009, Andre Gaskins will be conducting the UW Oshkosh Symphony Orchestra Concert Dance Trance: Spanish and Slavonic Dances. On Dec. 11, 2009, he will be participating in the Faculty Lecture-Recital Clara Schumann Speaks, Joyce Andrews, soprano, and Jeri-Mae Astolfi, piano, with Carmen Shaw, piano, and friends & alumna. Gaskins will perform with Klara Bahcall, violin, and Eli Kalman, piano. For more information, please visit the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Department of Music Calendar.
(Photo credits: Shawn McAfee of UW Oshkosh Media Services; photo of Gaskins as solo cellist with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra courtesy of Lynn. C. Felton.)
The following video is of Andre Gaskins playing J.S. Bach's Sarabande from Suite No.1.
The following video features Andre Gaskins at age 18, performing the cello solo during the 1993 ISSMA (Indiana State School Music Association) state orchestra contest. His high school, Carmel High, won that year.
The following video shows Andre Gaskins performing the song Farewell from the soundtrack of the motion picture Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in Indianapolis in 2007.