Ever since I was young, I would always be singing. I remember there was a children’s music record that I loved called Canticuentos that my parents would play for me. I knew all the lyrics.

Juliana Mesa | Madison, WI

Photo courtesy of Juliana Mesa

I would always sing along, oftentimes playing on a little Casio keyboard, and after the record stopped, I was still singing! My parents loved that, my mom was always hiding recorders under the bed to capture me as I sang by myself. 

Music is something I’ve always loved. I am a musician, and my main instrument is a bassoon, an instrument I’ve been playing for more than twenty years. I was born in Medellin, Colombia, and feel a strong connection to the traditional music of Colombia, largely because of my parents. I grew up in a very musical environment—my dad used to play guitar and panflutes and was part of a music group that’s still playing today. At family gatherings, my dad would take out the guitar and sing, sometimes I would sing with him.  

The bassoon has the sound of a human voice, and with it, I feel like I can sing. I first started playing the bassoon at a music conservatory when I was thirteen. I had chosen the oboe as my main instrument, but the teacher found a job in a different city, so I was told I was going to play the bassoon.

I remember very clearly my first experience with the bassoon. I was taken to the instrument storage room and the teacher put the instrument together, took my hand, placed it on the bassoon, and said, ‘Here, you can play the bassoon.’ The bassoon is quite big and, well, my hands are quite small. A bassoon is more than four feet tall. ‘It’s fine!’ my teacher assured me, ‘You’re going to grow, and your fingers will be bigger.’ Of course, that never happened! I have had to do many adjustments over my career to my own instruments so that I can play more comfortably.   

For my Quinceanera, my family gave me an unreal gift: my own bassoon. It was the day before traveling to Panama with the Youth Orchestra. My family owns a lamp business and my gift came in a big lamp box. When I opened it, instead of a lamp, there was a bassoon! Even though our orchestra was leaving the next day at 5:00 am, I stayed up until 3:00 am just trying the new bassoon. I think all these positive connections between the bassoon and my life are, for me, major parts of the beauty of the bassoon.

During my career, I’ve been able to perform as a soloist and with different groups and orchestras around the world. In Wisconsin, I’ve played in the symphonies of Madison, La Crosse, Beloit-Janesville, and the Wisconsin Philharmonic. I toured recently with the Wisconsin Wind Orchestra. Along with performing, I also teach bassoon.

Six years ago, I came to the University of Wisconsin to get my doctorate degree.  I played in a show for the chemistry department called ‘Science is Fun.’ The professor showed science experiments and we’d play the bassoon. After that, I got a call from the university community lesson program. A young girl wanted to learn how to play the bassoon. I asked the mother how she got interested in it. She said, ‘We were at ‘Science is Fun’ and saw the bassoon. I said, ‘That was me!’  She was eleven, so I started her with half a bassoon since it is so heavy. We had to remove part of the bell and one of the bodies of the bassoon so she could play. I think this was the moment when I realized I really liked teaching children. 

I often ask myself what can I do to bring music to people? I have performed recitals at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community and Lakeside Street Cafe for the Guitar Society with guitarist Christopher Allen. I’ve also worked with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony orchestra as a coach and as a teacher for their Music Makers program. I also play in a group called the Underground Chamber Collective. Back in the summer, we played at the Rural Musicians Forum. This experience and other opportunities have opened up many possibilities making us ask, ‘Okay, what’s next? 

All of these great experiences were made possible because of a lot of work and practice. You can’t have a career in music without playing scales and practicing technique, like properly getting your fingers, ears, and lips in shape. It’s like an athlete preparing for the Olympicsyou need that discipline. 

Music is universal and, even if you don’t understand it, you will pay attention. Music is very personal. It’s similar to painting. When you look at a painting, you make your own impression, nobody tells you what to think. With music, as the performer, I have interpreted what I see on the page, but, for the listener, it can be very different. 

A couple of weeks ago, Christopher Allen and I played Latin American compositions for a music appreciation class. I was in awe: not only did some of the students say it was the best performance they have attended, but they also said they loved that it was Latin American music. They had a deep connection with the performance. That’s really the reason I’m a musician. If one person has a connection with what I am playingthat’s what I want.

Juliana’s story was produced by Adam Blackbourn and is part of our series on Wisconsin musicians. You can listen to some of Juliana’s music on her website.

Photo by Adam Blackbourn
Brazilian composer Osvaldo Lacerda wrote the piece Four Variations and Fugue on a Nursery Rhyme for solo bassoon is based on the song “Terezinha de Jesus.” Here is a performance by Juliana Mesa.

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