bassoon blog

musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Update on Reed-a-Day Challenge

Well, it hasn't been easy, but I've somehow managed to stick with my New Years's resolution to make a reed a day. Today, August 15th, the 227th day of the year, I made blank #227.  Yay!
Blank #227 made on 8/15/15 (the 227th day of the year)
This fact would be unimpressive to a bassoonist who makes reeds to sell.  But to me, this is high output.

One reason I like the concept of making a reed a day is because....please accept my apologies for stating the obvious.....I know exactly how many reeds I'm making per year (and per day and per week, etc.).  I number each blank and keep a record of any changes, such as sharpening of the profiler blade.  It's fascinating to see how such changes affect the reeds.

It's easy to experiment with cane using the reed-a-day method.  In the past when I've made reeds during marathon sessions, it was impossible to try different types of cane and then make more reeds with the cane that worked.  Processing reeds each day allows for effective experimentation, and by that I mean experimentation which is followed by immediate implementation of the conclusion. Normally, the phases of making a reed are spread out over a period of several weeks or even months, but when experimenting, I have found that it's OK to make a reed quickly, by wrapping a newly formed blank the next day and testing it immediately.  (This has caused me to question my longstanding belief that the best reeds are made slowly, with new blanks remaining untouched for at least two weeks before further processing. Seriously, some of my best reeds have been made from blanks one day old.)

There's one drawback to making a lot of reeds, as I explained in a recent post.  Much to my dismay, the profiler blade must be sharpened regularly (every 50 pieces of cane) in order to achieve the best possible results.  So the more reeds I make, the more frequently I sharpen the order to make 365 reeds a year, I must sharpen my profiler blade a colossal 7 times per year!  What punishment!  On the other hand, I'll eventually become de-sensitized to profiler blade sharpening, and before long, I'll think nothing of it.  Right?

How many reeds does a bassoonist need for a year?  I suppose it varies a lot depending upon the amount of playing per year and individual preference.  I know some bassoonists who play on the same reed for months, amazingly.  For me, a reed is worn out after a week of playing on it, so obviously I much prefer to play on brand new reeds.  And, like all bassoonists, I like to have lots of reeds to choose from!

I try to always make enough reeds so that I'm maintaining a decent-sized stockpile, which was a strong recommendation of my teacher K. David Van Hoesen.  Mr. Van Hoesen himself maintains a massive stockpile of recently-processed reeds to this very day, even though he doesn't play all that often.
GIF animation of K. David Van Hoesen in his living room
Mr. Van Hoesen is an eternal source of inspiration, with his students performing in many orchestras, including the top ten, throughout the U.S.  His infinite wisdom and inimitable bassoon playing echo in the playing and the teaching of those who were fortunate enough to have been influenced by him.  Even though he's retired, his basement continues to fill with newly-made bassoon reed blanks.  Maybe someday he might be convinced to sell some of them!


Sunday, August 2, 2015

The dreaded deed AGAIN

Yep, it's that's time to sharpen the profiler blade.  In fact, it's been time to sharpen that profiler blade for a long time.  The great bassoon pedagogue Norman Herzberg, who designed and created the profiler I use, issued very clear instructions to me as I stood before him in his Encino, California garage/reedmaking studio: "This blade is to be sharpened after profiling 50 pieces of cane.  Got that?  Every 50 pieces.  That's non-negotiable."  And then he proceeded to show me exactly how it's done. 

He painstakingly demonstrated the technique of rubbing the blade the length of the sharpening stone with the forefinger on top of the blade, with the thumb pushing the blade along the stone.  This was a new blade, so it didn't take long for a burr to develop on the tip of the blade, signalling that the blade was properly sharpened.  At that point the blade was to be flipped over and given a couple of light strokes on the stone to get rid of the burr.

Solemnly I promised that I would sharpen that blade without fail each time I reached my 50th piece of cane since the last sharpening, and that truly was my intention.  At that time I had no inkling of the sense of dread which would befall me each time I inched closer to number 50.  In fact, I found myself using my very finest denial techniques to avoid sharpening the blade.  For example, there was always the strong chance that somehow I'd botch the job, thereby ruining not only my profiler but also my entire (now reed-less) career.

I managed to convince myself that I was actually preserving the profiler blade by refusing to sharpen it.  After all, each swipe across that diamond sharpening stone removed microscopic material from said blade, right?  Sharpen it too many times, and it's gone.  That's pure logic.

Oftentimes, it's difficult to find the correct position for the newly reinstalled blade.  I rationalized that I wasted too many pieces of cane each time I sharpened the blade, since the only real way to know if the blade is in the right position is to actually use the profiler to profile a stick of cane.  If the profile turns out too thick or too thin, the blade height is adjusted accordingly and then another stick of cane is tested on the profiler.  And it's really difficult to get it right!  Many pieces of cane are sacrificed during the act.  Think of all the arundo donax being forced to make the ultimate sacrifice just so that I can sharpen my blade....

Finally I couldn't take it any longer.  I knew the blade was barely functional - its cutting power by this point barely rivaled that of a chunk of cardboard.  Worse yet, I was sure that Mr. Herzberg was rolling over in his grave due to the number of sticks of cane I had profiled since my last blade sharpening.  It was mainly my debt of gratitude to Mr. Herzberg that lifted me out of my state of inertia.  After all the years of research, experimentation and struggle he spent creating his state-of-the-art profiler, the least I could do would be to honor him by performing routine maintenance on the treasure he had bestowed upon me.

Thus the dreaded deed was undertaken.  Having convinced myself that the task at hand was stupefyingly difficult, I didn't dare approach it without my original notes which I had hastily jotted down in Mr. Herzberg's southern California garage.
I re-read the notes, then got out the hex wrenches and diamond sharpening stone which he had given me, and then took photos of the profiler with both my camera AND my phone, in case the unthinkable occurred and I somehow botched the job.  I wanted to be able to see a picture of the profiler before I wrecked it., so that I'd stand a chance of putting it back together the way it was.  (I do this each time I sharpen the blade, as if I've never done it before.  Maybe it's good to always approach a task as though for the first time......I'm not sure.)
one of the photos I took of the blade assembly in case I bollix the reassembly
another photo of the blade assembly

In yet another act of compulsive overkill, next I drew a diagram of the cutting head assembly, even though I already had several diagrams of that same cutting head in the notes I had just re-read. 
Then I unscrewed and removed the cutting head shaft handle, thereby clearing the way for the grand disassembly......

Finally I took the plunge, inserting the hex wrench into the set screw while turning the nearby knob for the notch.  Before I knew it, the hitherto-eschewed blade was in my hands, slippery like a fish out of water.  I saw that the edge was kind of shabby looking, slightly jagged.
profiler blade before sharpening, looking kind of rough

Earlier that day I had received a pep talk from a bassoonist friend who understood my trepidation.  I had admitted to him that I had little confidence in my profiler blade sharpening skills.  I had elaborated on that theme, explaining that I had never really understood the "burr".  What the heck was a burr?  How did one know if the burr was there or not?  I myself had never experienced a burr, as far as I knew, and I had always given up on the elusive burr, flipping the blade over and giving it a couple of light strokes on the other side anyway, as if I had found a burr.

During this heart-to-heart with my commiserator,  I came to realize that it was my sense of guilt over my failure to produce the elusive burr that was blocking my profiler maintenance duties.  My friend assured me that it takes a long time to reach the burr phase, longer than expected.  It's not like sharpening a knife, I silently acknowledged.  It takes a long time to produce a burr on a hardened steel profiler blade.  Ah-ha.  I didn't know that.

So I stroked.  And stroked. And stroked some more.  No burr.  I was afraid I would damage my forefinger atop the blade during all of these strokes, as though my finger was being sharpened along with the blade.  I kept pushing that blade with my thumb, wondering how all of this friction could seemingly have no effect on the stubborn blade.  I rested.  Then stroked, stroked, stroked some more.  And tested the blade for the burr.  And stroked more.  And tested.

This went on for a long time, which was what my friend said was necessary.  I knew the blade was sharp, having accidentally cut myself on it, but still no burr.  And I kept stroking and stroking.
the blade resting on the diamond sharpening stone
Finally, after what seemed like an hour or two, I sensed something different on the tip of the blade.  Could it be???  Was this a BURR???  I wasn't sure, but it was different, so I kept stroking with renewed enthusiasm and tested the tip again.  Yes, if it wasn't a burr, then it was some sort of alteration of the tip of the blade which was discernible to the touch.  And when I flipped it over and gave it a couple of light swipes as Mr. Herzberg had instructed on that hot, dry California day so long ago, the burr disappeared as though it had been but an apparition.
profiler blade after sharpening, looking mighty impressive if I do say so myself
 Could it be that this was the first time in my life I had experienced a burr on the blade?  I daresay it was.  When I reassembled the profiler and made the first reed with the sharpened blade, it was as though the machine was brand new again.  It worked like a dream, cutting that cane as though there was nothing to it.  Reedmaking could actually be a much more enjoyable activity, I thought, with such a well-functioning, well-honed machine cutting the reeds for much more satisfying could reedmaking possibly be?

In the interest of honesty, I must admit that I think the blade is a hair too low, meaning it's cutting a little too much cane off the reed.  But this profiler is like a racehorse given full reign to unleash its extreme strength, speed and competence.  If the reeds prove to be too thin, I'll move the blade up a bit tomorrow.  But for now, I bet Mr. Herzberg is smiling ear to ear.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Inspiring bassoonists on YouTube

When I first set out to post my favorite YouTube recordings of bassoonists, I ended up with way too many recordings, but ultimately I decided to narrow it down to three. Without a doubt, German bassoonist Klaus Thunemann is the player whose recordings I have listened to the most over the years.  I especially like his Baroque recordings, such as the Vivaldi bassoon concertos below.  He provides great examples of Baroque ornamentation (embellishing the music beyond the printed part).

I had the great pleasure of meeting Arthur Weisberg seven years ago.  I was glad to have the opportunity to tell him how he had influenced my career.  When I was in high school I heard him perform with the New York Woodwind Quintet, and I'll never forget the way he made the bassoon sound easy to play.  Later, I learned how to double tongue from his phenomenal book The Art of Wind Playing.

Nadina Mackie Jackson has created an amazing career as a bassoon soloist. In the video below she briefly talks about finding the voice of the reed, and then demonstrates.

These three bassoonists are virtuosos whose command of the instrument lies well beyond the norm.  Their demonstrations of what's possible on the bassoon provide inspiration for other players, and hopefully for composers who will be drawn to our instrument!


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 5 (paired with Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikowsky was one of those rare composers who had no fear of featuring the bassoon in major orchestral solos.  What caused his lack of trepidation?  I've spent some time researching his life, and found no obvious clues.  (Was he in love with the sound of the bassoon?  Had his favorite cousin played it?  Did he feel sorry for the underdog of the orchestra?  Had he played it in 7th grade?) There's no question that the man chose a rather colorful, perhaps even risqué lifestyle.  Maybe that's it.......his generous use of the bassoon reflected his proclivity for color and risk-taking, perhaps?

Recently the Columbus Symphony performed Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 5 on a program which opened with the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.  The Brahms second movement Adagio (widely recognized by bassoonists as a serious chop-buster) features extensive exposed passages which are mostly in the tenor range of the bassoon:

In an orchestra with an assistant principal bassoon, this type of program is no problem.  The assistant plays the Brahms and the principal plays the Tchaikowsky.  But in many orchestras (mine, for example) the principal plays everything and must figure out how to make it work.

The solution lies in the reed, as so often is the case. As bassoonists know, reeds vary regarding embouchure strain.  For the Brahms I used a reed which was rather easy on the embouchure - it required minimal embouchure adjustment from note to note, especially in the tenor range.  Thanks to that reed, my embouchure remained intact for the Tchaikowsky.  Reeds which wear out the embouchure are very easy to identify - the embouchure feels noticeably tired while using the reed.  The opposite type of reed is not as obvious;  in order to find a stable reed I tested a number of reeds, searching for any reeds which "automatically" played in tune on certain tenor range notes such as Bb3 (the 3rd Bb on the bassoon starting from low Bb), D3, and Eb3.  Each bassoon is different, but on mine, those particular notes tend to vary in stability and pitch tendency from reed to reed.  The stability (and ease on the embouchure) of a reed may be determined by seeing how readily a reed plays those notes in tune with minimal embouchure adjustment.

The second movement of the Brahms, pictured below, offers the perfect test of a reed's stability.  The tempo, Adagio, can be quite slow, depending upon the soloist and conductor.

The ending of the movement (above) is yet another test of the reed.  If your chops are tired, the D2 may be sharp, and the last thing you'll want to do is ruin the movement (yes, it's exposed) with a sharp D at the end!

Of all of Tchaikowsky's compositions, his Fifth Symphony is perhaps the most bassoon-rich of them all.  After the unison clarinets open the symphony, the first clarinet and first bassoon enter with the second theme in octaves:

bassoon part of soli in octaves with clarinet, Tchaikowsky Sym. No. 5,  mvt. 1
In the Ohio Theatre where the Columbus Symphony performs, the acoustics and stage setup create a situation whereby it's not a good idea to listen to the string accompaniment leading to the above-pictured soli.  That's because if the clarinet and bassoon play along with what we hear, we'll lag behind the strings due to the aural delay caused by our distance from the strings.  It's necessary to watch the conductor rather than to listen in this type of situation.

Of course, this goes against our training. Music students are constantly implored to listen. But the first thing I had to do upon arrival in Columbus was to learn that if I listen to the strings on the Ohio Theatre stage, I'll be late (in situations where the bassoon and strings are playing, with the rest of the orchestra silent).  If I anticipate, playing slightly ahead of what I'm hearing, or simply watch the conductor's baton, then I'll stand a chance of accurate ensemble with the strings.  Of course, each concert hall is different, and the setup of the orchestra can largely eliminate the problem.  If the strings are seated back near the woodwinds or if the woodwinds are situated fairly close to the front of the stage, the problem is remedied.  In Columbus, the woodwinds are situated towards the back of the stage.  The strings are fairly distant from the bassoons, causing the sound delay.  Again, I want to be clear that this phenomenon I'm describing applies when the bassoon (also with clarinet in this case) is playing with the strings.  If the accompanying musicians are winds, brass or percussion, there is no sound delay, because those instruments are situated near or behind the bassoons, and listening IS reliable.  And if all or most of the orchestra is playing at once, there's no problem.  The issue I'm describing only arises during sparse instrumentation when the bassoon is playing with strings.

Later in the movement the bassoon alone plays the same theme, with slight changes.  In my part, this solo is located down at the bottom of the page. Looking way down at the bottom of the page makes it difficult to see the conductor.  (Even though I could play it from memory, that's not what orchestral players are used to.  We're quite visually oriented, and in this particular solo, I want to see the slight differences which distinguish it from the earlier soli with clarinet.  Even though I rarely need to see the music, especially for a solo, there is the possibility of becoming disoriented if anything interferes with the visual, such as glancing up at the conductor and then not being able to find my place in the music after diverting my eyes.  So I wrote out the solo and taped it across the top of the pages, like so:

This may seem like overkill, but to me it makes a big difference.  Even though it's a solo passage, it's still necessary to remain in touch with the boss (the conductor). 

At the end of the first movement is an exposed passage which is written for two bassoons in unison beginning in measure 527.  (See below, but don't pay attention to the old markings in the part pictured below. They were too hard to erase, which is why they're still there.)  It's advisable for the principal to play alone from measure 531 to the end in order to avoid any possible intonation clashes between the two bassoons.  (This especially makes sense due to the dynamic range: pp to ppp!)  Also, if only one bassoon is playing, the conductor is less likely to wince at snarling low Bs at the end.  I've noticed that many conductors really seem to keep things moving along at the end of this movement, mercifully.  (There's no use in prolonging the question of whether or not the bassoon's low Bs will mesh well with the timpani, cellos and basses.....)

The second movement opens with the famous and beloved French horn solo.  Soon afterwards, the bassoon follows the clarinet in the following five-note solo:

Although the brief solo looks simple and easy, these are not necessarily the easiest notes to play in tune and with a well-matched sound from note to note.  I use the alternate F# fingering for the first note, but not just for technical reasons. The alternate F# also produces a more mellow sound and slightly lower pitch than the standard fingering.  For the A# I find it necessary to drop my jaw as an embouchure adjustment to ensure that the interval is in tune, since the A# is one of those notes which, left to its own devices, might be sharp, especially when approached from a higher note.  (On the bassoon, some notes vary in pitch depending upon whether the preceding note is higher or lower pitched than the note in question.)  The phrase leads to the D, and ends with a taper on the D and C#.  It's advisable to listen closely to the clarinet playing this solo, and to imitate the pitch, the phrasing and the timing of the clarinet solo.  That means minimal vibrato, if any.  Also, there's a good chance that the clarinetist won't make a big deal out of this passage - he'll keep it moving along.  If so, the bassoonist should do the same.  Whoever plays first sets the rules.  Of course, if the conductor relaxes the tempo for the ending of this bassoon solo, so be it.  

The next bassoon solo is one of my favorites despite its challenges.  Once again, the bassoon solo follows the nearly identical clarinet solo an octave higher.  The clarinet has no trouble soaring above the orchestra on this passage.  It's a good idea to strive to match that, and to do so without pushing up the pitch of the high B.  High B is one of those notes that tends to go sharp at higher dynamic levels, so be sure to loosen the embouchure and keep the pitch down.  Rubato is appropriate here; a slight tenuto on the high B can sound good as long as it's not so long as to sound affected, and the G# (the second to last note) can be stretched.  Romantic era works easily lend themselves to such icing on the cake.

Then at letter E (see above) the bassoon must somehow project over the thick orchestration.  Whenever I play this passage in rehearsals or concerts, the orchestra sounds really loud and I feel as though I must blow my brains out to be heard  Our guest conductor Thomas Wilkins never complained about the bassoon not projecting there, so it must have been better balanced than I thought.  I'm pretty sure that my face turned red from exertion, but that's OK.  Here's what my teacher K. David Van Hoesen used to say about passages like this:

"If you're not turning red in the face there, then you're doing something wrong!"

And of course the bassoon is rather prevalent in the Valse movement. The first solo passage beginning with the pickups to measure 19 is in octaves with the solo oboe.  This soli is well-served by exaggerated yet smooth crescendos and decrescendos, punctuated by light staccatos at the ends of measures 25, 26 and 27.  The prevalent feature, though, should be elegance, I think.

At letter B (see above) the bassoon joins the clarinets in unison.  The goal is just to discreetly fit in with what the clarinets have already been doing.  I think it's ideal for the bassoon's entrance to be noticeable only due to the pleasant yet subtle change of color.  The bassoon should not use vibrato, since the clarinets most likely won't be using it.  One of the bassoon's outstanding characteristics is its ability to blend with other instruments, and the blending process requires matching the vibrato or lack of vibrato of the other instrument(s).

The big solo begins with the three eighth notes at the end of measure 56 (above), and traditionally, those eighths are often played at a suddenly slower tempo.  Some conductors, such as Maestro Wilkins, allow the bassoon soloist to take charge here.  I played the first four notes a bit slower and at a louder dynamic, with the next four-note phrase in tempo and as a pianissimo echo to the opening four notes.  Then the rest of the solo gradually increased in volume until the f of the syncopated section.  It's good to keep an eye on the conductor to be sure the timing is right, especially after the syncopation begins.  Lots of preparation with the metronome helps the bassoonist feel more secure in this unusual and somewhat awkward passage.

Awkward though the slurs may be in the syncopated section, it's necessary to see to it that each note speaks on time, come hell or high water.  Sometimes for the downward slurs, the lower note benefits from a dramatic dropping of the jaw.  Also, some reeds are more reliable than others for such wide interval slurring.  (Yes, it seems that the number of factors affected by the reed is infinite!)

I prefer to be able to really see the conductor during the solo, so once again I wrote out the solo on staff paper and taped it to the top of the page (see below).  The orange sticker near the bottom of the second page shows my eyes where to go after the solo (once the other woodwinds join in).

The experience of performing any orchestral work varies greatly depending upon the conductor.  I think that my colleagues and I enjoyed Maestro Wilkins' approach which allowed us a great deal of freedom during solo passages.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Beyond the overture: Le nozze di Figaro

Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro Overture 1st bassoon part
The Overture to Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) is one of the top five bassoon orchestral audition excerpts. In fact, this overture is probably one of the top 20 pieces performed most frequently by symphony orchestras. It's short, showy, charming, and,'s Mozart!

We bassoonists spend many an hour perfecting our parts to this overture. From our work on this bassoon part we develop a smooth, discreet, agile style of playing which blends admirably with strings (hopefully). This delightful overture has raised the standard of playing for more bassoonists more than any etude ever has, I'm quite certain.

OK, so bassoonists are well aware of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro. We can pretty much play it in our sleep. But what about the rest of the opera?

Many consider Mozart operas to contain some of the most glorious music ever written, and the comic opera Le nozze di Figaro is a gem of the operatic literature. This is what Johannes Brahms had to say about it:
 "In my opinion, each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven."
The plot a complex, far-fetched soap opera taking place on the wedding day of Figaro and Susanna, who are servants of Count Almaviva.  Figaro is dismayed to learn that the Count has his eye on Susanna, so he devises a plan to send the teenage boy Cherubino disguised as Susanna to meet with the Count. Unfortunately, the Count arrives unexpectedly before they manage to pull off the scheme. Then it turns out that Figaro owes money to a certain Marcellina. Sadly, he had promised the older woman that he'd marry her if he couldn't cough up the money. Marcellina shows up with her lawyer Bartolo to collect either the money or the marriage when suddenly it is discovered that Marcellina and Bartolo happen to be the bioparents of the adopted Figaro. They decide to hold a double wedding with Marcellina marrying Bartolo and Figaro, of course, marrying Susanna. Meanwhile, the Countess has devised a scheme of her own to win back the attention of her husband. She dresses as Susanna and meets with the Count. Her trick pays off and her husband is besmitten anew.

Here is one of the many unforgettable arias from the opera, this one delivered by the adolescent boy Cherubino (nearly always performed by a seasoned mezzo-soprano, in this case Rinat Shaham):

Bassoonists, see if the following aria, Pargi, Amor, sung by the Countess (Jessye Norman in this case) at the beginning of the second act rings a bell:

Yes, indeed. For this aria Mozart used the motif from the second movement of his own bassoon concerto!  If we ever need inspiration for preparing that movement, now we know where to turn.

If you're a bassoonist, there's a chance that someday you'll perform one of the bassoon parts for this opera, if you're lucky, as I am this week with the Columbus Symphony and Opera Columbus.

Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

Friday, March 6, 8 pm
Sunday, March 8, 2 pm

Southern Theatre
Opera Columbus presents one of the greatest operas ever written, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, performed in English with the Columbus Symphony!
But I must warn you that there are a couple of fast tonguing passages in this opera which rank among the fastest passages I've ever been asked to play. Ever.
The first such passage shows up at the end of Act II:

At first glance, it doesn't look like much. But I assure you that the Prestissimo is fast, and I mean FAST. It's in one - a fast one. I swear, I'm double-tonguing as fast as I can to get through this. It almost sounds comical (it is a comic opera after all).

The next example is even more formidable, although, as in the first example, it looks harmless enough until you actually realize how fast it is:

In measure 487 above, notice the words "Piu mosso" penciled in. Yes, it's faster. The whole page is in one, but at 487 the tempo is fast as can be, and as you can see, there's a lot of tonguing to be dealt with. My advice is to practice the passages all slurred to be sure that your finger technique is flawless. That's at least half the battle. Then practice your tonguing on a single note up to tempo to assure yourself that you really can tongue that fast. Of course, the assumption is that you are able to double tongue really well. This passage and the one above it are really too fast for even the fastest single tongue. Both of the above excerpts appear in the 1st and 2nd bassoon parts.

Once you've practiced the notes with slurs and then the double tonguing on a single note up to tempo, then all you have to do is put the two together. While playing it in the orchestra, try to remain calm and be aware of the tempo being played by the rest of the orchestra. It really is playable, although the first time we read through it I didn't think so!

All that tonguing is a small price to pay for the privilege of performing this miraculous Mozart masterpiece, as I'm sure you'll agree.  If you live in the Columbus area, please consider attending one of our performances this weekend. As an added enticement, central Ohio native Adam Cioffari (whose mother is bassoonist Cynthia Cioffari) will be appearing as Figaro!




Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Electronic enhancement of concert hall acoustics

Columbus Symphony musicians warming up before a concert

For quite some time I've harbored the notion that concert hall acoustics may be improved by electronic means. While many classical musicians regard themselves as purists who frown upon electronic enhancement, I consider myself more of a realist. Let's face it - some concert halls disappoint. If a professional orchestra performs in a dull hall, then no matter how well that orchestra plays, it won't sound all that impressive. An orchestra needs an acoustical environment capable of supporting and enhancing its sound. The absence of such a venue surely affects public support for the orchestra. If the public leaves the concert hall feeling inexplicably unsatisfied, how likely is it that the audience will return for another performance or write donation checks? Since musicians and concertgoers alike seem unaware of the issue of acoustics, the source of aural disappointment is perhaps unaddressed or, worse, attributed to the orchestra itself.

Yet many classical musicians bristle at the notion of amplification, as if the inherent acoustics of the hall, no matter how inadequate, may be somehow trumped by each individual musician's ability to produce a glorious sound! The truth is that no matter how great an orchestra and its specific musicians are, if the hall deadens the sound too much, the listener will experience too little sense of presence, much like listening to a home audio system with the volume turned down way too low. Try an experiment with your home stereo system – starting with your volume turned down very low, gradually increase the volume until you begin to feel satisfied with your listening experience. That particular volume level marks the “threshold of presence".  An acoustically appealing concert hall reaches and at times surpasses that threshold.

This past weekend the Columbus Symphony performed a pops concert in the Ohio Theatre which featured the orchestra alone during the first half of the concert. After intermission
ABBA the Concert (a tribute band from Sweden) took the stage with the orchestra, with amplification. For this particular concert, the orchestral first half was also mildly amplified, and the portable shell was removed from the stage. During the rehearsal, several Columbus Symphony musicians seemed dismayed by the shell removal and amplification. The reasoning was that the missing shell would have provided much-needed sound reflection, and the amplification was, as usual, summarily dismissed as an affront to our artistic sensibilities.

After listening to the complaints of my fellow musicians, I decided to venture out into the audience seating area of the hall during the rehearsal to see how the orchestra actually sounded from the audience perspective. I was stunned! Never before had I heard the Columbus Symphony sound so luxuriant in the Ohio Theatre. Indeed, the electronic amplification helped the orchestra to fill the cavernous hall with its now-massive sound, finally crossing over the hitherto elusive "presence threshold”. The portable shell which so many of the musicians deemed indispensable had been upstaged by a few microphones!

The audience responded to our performance with spirited applause and cheers. (I predict future ticket sales for these satisfied customers.)  We received our first ever (as far as I know) standing ovation for the orchestral first half of a pops concert, and
the review reflected the enthusiasm of our listeners.

The current issue of The New Yorker magazine features
an intriguing article about innovations in sound control. Of course, the best option for any orchestra is to perform regularly in a first-class concert hall with pleasing acoustics. But in the absence of such a hall, perhaps technology may be used to make up the difference between the actual hall and the ideal acoustical setting. Is it possible for us classical musicians to open our minds to the possibility?



Sunday, January 4, 2015

A-Reed-A Day Challenge

Reed #4 of 2015 made on January 4th
So far, so good. I have managed to make a reed a day so far this year, four days into it. A reed a day is very doable, even for such a resistant reedmaker as myself. In fact, when limited to one at a time, I can almost enjoy the process.

Once I'm in the reed room there's a chance that I'll stay beyond the time it takes to produce my required blank. I might actually wrap a few reeds while I'm at it, although I have to be careful not to turn that into a requirement, lest I botch the whole deal.

There are distinct advantages to the reed-a-day approach. You will automatically be keeping track of how many reeds you are making, plus you'll be able to figure out how many reeds you use in a year's time by seeing how many you have left on December 31st.  (Hopefully you'll have some left.) Then you can decide how many to make next year, or whether you have enough extra reeds to justify selling some. I suspect that most of us have no idea how many we make or need per year. Wouldn't you like to find out?

Another advantage, which I've already written about on this blog, is the fact that your reedmaking skills will be maximal if they are practiced each day. I'll admit that when I made reed #1 on January 1st, it had been a few weeks since I had made blanks. And sure enough, being out of practice, I wrapped the string too tightly around the cane before inserting the mandrel, and as I inserted the mandrel I heard that dreaded cracking sound that occurs when one of the scoring marks turns into a crack which travels up into the blade.

Of course, I'll have to report on my ability to stick to this resolution. The last time that I tried this, I ended up skipping days, then engaging in brutal marathon reedmaking sessions to make up for the missed days. Eventually I abandoned the reed-a-day plan about halfway through the year. If I had just stuck with one a day, I could have made it, as I intend to prove this year.

Who's with me? Are you willing to commit to making a blank a day throughout the year 2015? Wouldn't it be great to know that  you'd have 365 new reeds at your disposal this year?