Nobel medicine winner says: I owe it all to my bassoon teacher

Nobel medicine winner says: I owe it all to my bassoon teacher


norman lebrecht

October 09, 2013

Thomas Südhof, who shares this year’s Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology, told The Lancet in August 2010 that he owes his powers of analysis and concentration to studying a musical instrument.


What apart from your family is the passion of your life?
I always try to understand everything I encounter—not only in science, but also historical and political events and music and movies—get to grips with the content, meaning, and process. This is immense fun, as strange as that may sound.
Who was your most influential teacher, and why?
My bassoon teacher, Herbert Tauscher, who taught me that the only way to do something right is to practice and listen and practice and listen, hours, and hours, and hours.
How do you relax?
Drink wine and talk to the people I love.
What is your favourite book, and why?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, because it is a microcosm of the world and Goethe’s beautiful language expresses all of our potential and contradictions.
You can have dinner tonight with a famous person—who would it be?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, so that I could try and find out if his creativity was conscious or inherent.
h/t Gerhard Veith


  • singerwoman says:

    Tremendous! What fun it would be to use the same questions for various situations. They are all pertinent and basic to understanding how people are shaped. Thank You.

    • I would dearly love to know why Mozart and why not Beethoven??? There is a significant difference. Hooo-boy! I’d dearly like to know!

      • I think Goethe’s Faust is a brilliant analogy for the human condition (in all it’s glorious and tragic forms)! Personally, I think Goethe was much more greater than Shakespeare. Thomas Sudhof is a brilliant man! I’m just a simple painter working at the southern tip of this dysfunctional/crazy/beautiful continent called Africa… and it’s so humbling and exciting to see/hear scientists shedding light in our collective path forward. Bravo & thank you Thomas Sudhof!!!

      • natwoo says:

        It’s obvious by Beethoven’s music that he worked hard to make it. but Mozart’s… it seems like it just came as pure inspiration god’s whisper or something…

        • Diane says:

          That would be my guess too.

        • Michael Schaffer says:

          Are you talking about the same god who decided to let Mozart die in horrible agony at the age of not even 36?

          • Michael, if we consider free will, Mozart did have some part in his own habits and death.

          • Brice Trumey says:

            If you consider free will then your god has free will, no? And your god chooses to let babies be raped and murdered, yes?

          • ELIONE ALVES DE MEDEIROS says:

            Esse conceito de Deus como um ser (antropomorfo) é humano. Deus é causa primária de todas as coisas, é o verbo e a ação em tudo.

          • Potimarron says:

            That would have been a different god. There are many.

          • wardropper says:

            There’s another possibility (I don’t claim to know, but it makes sense to me):

            That God has decided, with His free will, to give us enough of our own free will to have every possibility of destroying ourselves, yet in the hope that we will recognize Him through the limited sense-resources we have been given, and stop assuming that only what we can hold in our hand is real.

            In other words, He has allowed us to bear all the responsibility for the evil in the world, and we are supposed to learn some devastating lessons from the experience. Some of us have done so, others not.

            After all, we didn’t get a little memo attached to our big toe when we were born, which says, “This is going to be easy”…

        • We will never know. His wife Constanze destroyed all of his sketchbooks and manuscripts and invented his mythology. I imagine Mozart worked as hard as anyone and just made it look easy.

          • wardropper says:

            In one of his letters Mozart said, “Do you know, there are actually people who think that everything I can do has cost me nothing. They think I have not even bothered to study the works of the great masters with all my energy and all my heart…”

          • Graham Lyons says:

            I am a (second or more, rank) composer. I work very hard to make my compositions sound easy.

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        Vivian van der Merwe says:

        October 9, 2013 at 9:03 pm

        “I would dearly love to know why Mozart and why not Beethoven???”

        Mozart wrote a nice bassoon concerto, Beethoven didn’t.

      • Kevin Moran says:

        Mozart was a much better composer for the bassoon 🙂 and wrote one of the most famous bassoon concertos.

        • Amy J says:

          Beethoven was famous for giving us bassoonists the never-ending V-I-V-I-V-I I I I I I V V V V…etc, chord progression in the ends. Beethoven makes us want to stab ourselves with the bassoon bocal.

          • jill phillips says:

            Thanks for this. It says it all and much more. And thanks to bassoonists for putting up with the brute in favour of the general good.

          • Michael Schaffer says:

            I don’t know which orchestral pieces by Beethoven you have played – based on what you say here, I am guessing: none -, but in the ones I have played (all the symphonies, all the concertos, Fidelio, Missa Solemnis) on the bass, which often has the same harmony notes as the bassoon, there is a whole lot more going on harmonically than just V-I-V-I-V-I. And guess what, most tonal music at some point ends with a cadenza to the tonic. That’s not something Beethoven came up with, nor something he is “famous” for.

            Nor are the bassoons reduced to merely playing the fundamental harmony notes in Beethoven’s orchestral works. There are some very nice solos for the bassoon in the slow movements of the 5th and 6th symphonies, for instance, the brief but spectacular solo in the finale of the 4th, and the extended solos in the first and third movement of the violin concerto in particular.

            I guess you haven’t come across those pieces yet in your high school wind band, but you should check them out sometime – they are really pretty good!

      • oboeman says:

        Vivian, he tells you why: to learn if Mozart’s astonishing creativity was conscious or inherent, ie, something he worked at or a gift. Beethoven’s was clearly conscious; his notebooks prove this.

      • Diana Ford says:

        As a musician all my life I would say that for me Mozart speaks with you ..gently and with understanding..expecting a reply..Beethoven tells you…

        • What a lovely answer!

        • You guys have taught me something. I’m a painter and have always admired the innate intelligence and articulacy of musicians – delightful & insightful! And all of this triggered by a Nobel prize winning scientist:-) As it happens, I had a fascinating discussion with a neuro-scientist who visited my mid-career retrospective exhibition at the Sasol Museum in Stellenbosch, South Africa, yesterday – and believe it or not… we got onto J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion! I think science, art and music share much more than they ‘don’t share’.

        • Izzy, so true! The concept of ‘genius’ is very controversial and even socially dangerous. But I am convinced that genius is directly proportional to curiosity – of which observing intricately is a huge part!

          • Maybe that’s one of the things we painters share with you musicians and scientists: a deep and fearless curiosity? (But then I guess we need to exclude the habitual experimenter who keeps blowing things up in the lab – who is probably nothing more than a crazy pyromaniac in scientist’s clothes! 🙂 So I guess curiosity comes with some ethical conditions.

          • rhonda says:

            The point here ….seems to me is that everyone works under the same twisted curiosity. Some get past rules and some never do. Some breaks all the rules some of the time…some want to tell you the rules and demand you follow( boring) …and some are just being who they are….brilliant, tortured, twisted, and you could add a long list of adjectives but why……my point

        • Mozart’s music is spontaneous – it comes from his heart and soul.

      • dee, dee, dee, dum. I Like Diana saying B. would tell you. First because B. was deaf, and secondly cause M. was a fun guy. chb

  • Stephen Llewellyn says:

    I would like to dine with prof. Sudhof. What a wonderful man!

  • Leslie Lashinsky says:

    But of course, THE BASSOONER THE BETTER!

  • mb says:

    Great people for a better world !!!!!!

  • Same here. Like Stephen Llewellyn, I’d like to dine with Professor Sudhof!

  • Patty McKinney says:

    Let’s hear it for the double reeds!!!

  • Thaddeus Watson says:

    You know, Sir Ken Robinson, a great pedagogue and social researcher has been saying this for years now! It is time we rethink our educational concepts!!!!!

    Wonderful story!!!!

  • Birgitta Haggård says:

    Absolute true! I often tell my students: To achieve knowledge is like learning to play an instrument.

  • Ivonne Calvo says:

    I will love to Dine with Ernest Hemingway and listen to his great memories of Spain and Cuba.

  • I absolutely love this. Thank you for placing this in the public eye! And my eye! A great reminder of the powerful digging of neurological pathways and just plain good habits that are the result of studying music.

  • richard says:

    You need to meet my friend, Robert “Bob” Henricksen, CEO of The Redstone Companies and bassoonist extraordinaire . . . . and a look alike too!

  • A look-alike of…. Ernest Hemingway? Mozart? Thomas Sudhof? a neurological pathway? Yes? Okay!

  • Kim Wangler says:

    Always knew bassoonists were a fount of knowledge!

  • Elaine says:

    I have been fortunate in meeting people who are much like Prof. Sudhof. Exchanging ideas with lively, interesting, engaging people is always great.

  • robcat2075 says:

    The Mel Brooks version would go like this…

    A: I owe it all to my bassoon teacher!

    B: Really? What was his advice?

    A: He said, “Give up the bassoon!”

  • Kanani Fong says:

    This is really great. Right now, schools have cut back sharply on the arts in favor of STEM (Science, Math & Technology) classes. The problem is that they seem to see STEM as irrespective of the arts. It’s a rather lopsided way of selling education, but the corporations are lapping it.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Arts are great (studied both music and engineering myself) but if what Maher says at 2:45 is true, that is probably a good development. I bump into people all the time who have BS degrees of some liberal arts nature which neither gave them the deep training in a relevant art form and discipline that Südhof is talking about nor any other really valuable skills and knowledge. They took film appreciation classes and ran up huge student loans, now they are waiting tables.

      • Maybe the problem is that the visual arts today (unlike a performer’s degree in music which requires innate talent, self-discipline and extreme rigour) encourages the “anything goes” aesthetic – meaning that you can scatter bits & pieces of anything into a gallery space, explain this with what’s generically known as your “concept”… and hey presto!… you’ve got an artwork ready to go! True skill and artistry (by definition) are rare and do not come easily. That’s what makes Mozart, Bach and Beethoven so special. And that’s why Nobel Prize winners are not your average achievers.

        • peggy Laffan says:

          I totally agree and this is the hardest thing to accomplish in art. Keeping the playfulness and freedom in it because without it, it seems dead or at least not alive. Alive art has the result and courage to speak both sides and this is what is so fantastic about this whole discussion.

  • sue stewart says:

    So true…I know cause I was married to Dr Larry Stewart!

  • sam says:

    Study of music is study of creation.Creativity is the purpose of life.

  • Iva Jewel Tucker says:

    How I would love to dine with Prof. Sudhof! We could talk about Goethe and Mozart and maybe bassoons. What a man! Special kudos to this Nobel Prize winner. God bless him the rest of his life.

  • Clara says:

    The title says “Nobel medicine winner says: I owe it all to my bassoon teacher” — but the transcript says no such thing… I love the arts as much as the next guy, but the title oversells the importance of the arts in developing a scientific career.

  • ncmathsadist says:

    Isn’t this a great argument for strong arts education, which the philistine mugwumps view as a “frill?”

  • George Gluek says:

    Didn’t the recently announced Physics winner theorize the Higgs Bassoon? 🙂

  • luigi says:

    the power of music!

  • Izzy Ullmann says:

    I couldn’t agree more that the study of music influences the way you think and analyse. Perhaps that’s why all my children are musicians , but chose to study science. I am a composer and pianist.

    42 minutes ago ·

  • Erik Wang says:

    This is advanced stuff. I recall the lyrics of the beginning of “Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky.

    Bassoon solo: I’m not the english horn, I’M NOT THE ENGLISH HORN, this is too HIGH for me.

  • Another example of the power of music, and the discipline required to do it well.

  • peggy Laffan says:

    Art is so subjective isn’t it? Thank God for the gift of free will. Inherent or conscious it is still free………………………..artists are ones that listen to the inside and outside all at one time. My best art has come from the freedom of playfulness balanced with extreme discipline to see the beautiful and most tantalizing things happen. Those are the cherished gifts of freedom. When combined with discipline the result is amazing art!

  • Don Vicendese says:

    I think Wolfgang Mozart has a huge debt to his father, Leopold, for the music he (Wolfgang) was able to create. As a consequence so do we. Leopold trained his children effectively in music from a very early age, I believe 3 years of age or even earlier. By the time they were 7 or 8 his children displayed musical prowess equal to professional standard. There is ample proof of this as they toured as a family to earn an income. Wolfgang’s sister, I believe, was an equal to him but for some reason/s did not go on with it. Perhaps social pressure was at play. It’s interesting I can’t remember her name. One could argue for a latent congenital basic ability that Leopold could have moulded. Perhaps this is so but if you compare Wolfgang’s early compositions to his later ones you will, I believe, hear a distinct improvement. That is, this ability did not appear fully formed and so you can wind this idea backwards and ask when did it appear – before or after the training?

    Recently it has been shown that music can help one learn how to focus attention effectively. Obviously a great help to our Nobel prize winner at the start of this discussion.

    To Leopold and all other parents and teachers who have been effective in helping their children or students reach their potential – thank you.

  • Michael Schaffer says:

    Yes, wardropper, that makes total sense. So that god gave Mozart the gift of free will, and Mozart freely chose to contract an illness and die horribly as a feverish, puking, swollen, rash-covered piece of misery. An illness that later, after people had stopped just praying and bloodletting the sick and started investigating the actual causes of illnesses, could probably have been cured by a quick visit to a doctor, a little medicine, a few days in bed watching TV (after people started investigating the forces that actually governed the universe, like electricity, and invented TV along the way).

    Thanks for clarifying that.

  • Van Christo says:

    All this brought back the strangest memory of long, bygone days:

    In Junior High School, I played First Trumpet where, directly opposite me on the other side of the conductor’s podium, sat the First Violinist. I slowly became fascinated watching her play the violin with always closed eyes during the entire performance while other violinists faithfully followed their score.

    After other school performances a few weeks later, I got up the courage to ask her why she played the violin with her eyes so noticeably closed, while no other violinist did. She responded, “I am also a Potter, where using my right leg, I work the clay with a kick wheel. There’s a knack to drawing clay up into cylinders with both hands, and it’s only with practice and more practice until you make the clay do want exactly what you want it to. So, I learned to study the music by constantly practicing hard until I memorized all the notes. Whatever piece we are playing in Junior High School was not particularly long, so I enjoyed the same challenge as working the clay.”

  • drfrances says:

    Upset over the slashing of arts programs in schools I decided to do something about it. So, I got a bunch of kids from Brooklyn Theatre High School and asked them to respond to the statement: The Arts are extra-curricular and disposable.

    Please take 6 minutes and listen to what they have to say…

    If you agree, then please leave a comment and share the video!

  • Fifty-one years ago I was playing trombone for the Tony Bennett Show at one of the major casino showrooms in Reno, NV. My lip became paralyzed overnight and I didn’t play again for a half a century. About two years ago I ecstatically discovered I could blow air into the horn without my lips freezing. I began blowing slowly until I could actually play a note and got successive notes on a slow basis. It took me almost a year before I could get all the required notes with a half decent tone, with my sound still a little weak. Of course I was at the beginning stage like any child, building up my lost muscles that was very difficult at age 81. I observed all the rules I had taught thousands of students as a school band director to move slowly with patients and intelligence. One year later I insecurely began playing with a five-piece brass choir that gave me the incentive to practice harder. With my overall sound growing I began to become an integral member of the group. I still had difficulty getting all the notes consistently, both low and high range, because my lip muscles were to a degree still in a state of atrophy, needing the slow therapy I was giving it. I then went a step further and joined a good and hard playing working polka band that was a real challenge, who played four and five hour jobs (gigs). Needless to say I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to do it. While on the job I prayed to God to give me the strength to get through to the end, and somehow or other I managed. It’s getting easier all the time and I’ll soon start working on my jazz that requires a stronger, flexible lip. Since I’ve gotten this far I realized I’m a pretty good teacher. The most difficult thing now is driving to the distant jobs.