bassoon blog

musings of a professional bassoonist

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?



Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dead Elvis postmortem


Elvis demonstrating the art of  brooding
What a letdown! Now that my performances of Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis are finished, I'm facing the inevitable void. (By the way, I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, and have now moved on from impersonating Elvis to impersonating an old monk on a horse in Strauss's Don Quixote.) Months of preparation, followed by four short days of rehearsals and performances, are over. Dead Elvis was my reason for being for a long time. Now what??

I recall a non-musician friend telling me once that musicians are lucky because we regularly experience completion of our "projects". Well, maybe so, and while there's no denying the fact that it's a relief to finish the final performance, it's still disappointing to have all of the excitement come to an end. Perhaps I'll be able to cheer myself up by reviewing my Dead Elvis experience....

Memorize first; practice later

In an earlier post I explained the unusual process I used for memorizing and practicing Dead Elvis, and I promised to report on the results after the fact. I'm pleased to say that my experiment was successful. Not once did I experience even a hint of a memory slip, and I will definitely use this method the next time I memorize.

This new method was simple. I just memorized the piece first, before I could even play it accurately. Then I learned Dead Elvis without using the printed music. I never looked at the music again once I had it memorized. (That's only a slight exaggeration. In truth I did actually glance at the score a couple of times to be sure that I hadn't overlooked any details.)

I constantly checked my memorization by playing along with various YouTube recordings and also with the definitive recording featuring David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta with Charles Ullery as bassoon soloist. (The album is available on iTunes for $9.99.)
Michael Daugherty's American Icons


 In the past my approach was pretty much the opposite - I'd learn the concerto, wood-shedding the difficult passages, working out phrasing, breathing and musical ideas, before adding the icing on the cake - the memorization. I used to think that approach made sense because much of the memorization happened on its own as a result of time spent practicing.

However, my new method worked better, probably because a lot more time was spent playing from memory. I'm pretty sure that working on Dead Elvis without music caused me to use parts of my brain which are not normally activated. The visual aspect was missing this time, whereas normally the visual component is paramount.

To memorize or not to memorize

Wind players are not "brought up" memorizing their music the way that string players, pianists and singers are. Traditionally, wind players are not really expected to memorize concertos, and it's quite rare for wind players to memorize contemporary works. But I chose to memorize Dead Elvis because I knew it would help me feel as though I'd left no stone unturned in my preparation, and I thought that would ultimately contribute to my performance. Freedom from the printed page appealed to me.

The Elvis reed

In my experience, it was necessary to make lots and LOTS of reeds for Dead Elvis. The Dead Elvis reed had to be a one-in-a-million reed which could do anything: fast, slow, loud, high, low, double-tongued. Over the past 6 months I carefully set aside any reed showing Elvis potential. In a broad sense, that meant that I set aside any reed which played well in the extreme high range. More specifically, it meant that I was looking for a reed that would clearly and reliably articulate a high D# (4th line treble clef) without "cacking". (For anyone who doesn't know what cacking is, it's defined in Webster's dictionary as "a distinctive noise sounding like a hoarse duck in distress which can only be produced by a bassoonist failing to hit a high note".)

Southern Theatre
Taking the reeds to work (ie. the performance venue) often changes everything. I had precious few opportunities to try the reeds onstage before Elvis week. The stage at the Southern Theatre was very hot and dry, which brings out the worst in any reed. I was generally displeased with my reeds onstage; I ended up using one that was NOT brand new. This bothered me for two reasons: First of all, I always play on new reeds, and secondly my teacher K. David Van Hoesen always said that new reeds are best for high range playing. But there was no denying the fact that this particular reed (a reed that was not brand new, although it was in "like new" condition) was best for playing Dead Elvis on my particular bassoon (a new Heckel).

The attire

In the score, Daugherty states that an "Elvis Las Vegas 1970s jumpsuit is recommended, but optional". I ordered an Elvis jumpsuit from Amazon, along with a black Elvis wig complete with sideburns.The Columbus Symphony offered to rent a costume, but I preferred to take matters into my own hands. I wanted the outfit several months before the performances so that I could become accustomed to the idea of wearing it, and I also practiced in it a few times.

This may seem a bit over-the-top, but I wore my Elvis costume for the rehearsals with the orchestra. The costume changed the experience in several ways. The bassoon got caught in the costume  a couple of times and I nearly tripped over the large bell bottoms..The synthetic material of the costume was also really hot, and I had to get used to that. The wig was hot (temperature-wise) also, and I wore the wig and sunglasses during rehearsals so that I had a chance to get used to the whole package. The sunglasses were very dark and I couldn't see much. That exacerbated the challenge of traveling to and fro on the stage while playing! There was some concern that I might end up falling off the stage.

I knew that Elvis never, ever performed in sunglasses, so I wasn't originally intending to wear the Elvis sunglasses that some bassoonists on YouTube are wearing. But then our principal violist said something to me which made sense. He said it was great that I was aiming to be true to Elvis, but maybe from the perspective of the audience, sunglasses would add to the overall effect. In fact, he offered to loan me a pair of Elvis sunglasses. He brought them to the next day's rehearsal, and it was obvious that he was right. I looked more like Elvis with the sunglasses.

The research

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I researched Elvis very thoroughly by reading many of his biographies, watching videos of his performances and listening to his recordings. Truth be known, I became a bona fide Elvis fan. His rhythm was amazing, vibrato perfectly controlled, style captivating, lyricism just right. Had his career been managed differently, perhaps the world could have had the chance to truly appreciate the enormity of his talent. He loved classical music, including opera. At times he sounded like a great operatic tenor or baritone.

The vibrato

Throughout the score, Daugherty calls for "Elvis vibrato" mainly in the solo bassoon part but also in the other parts from time to time. What exactly is Elvis vibrato?

Well, since Elvis Presley's recordings remain ubiquitous to this day, it's easy enough to find out that he was masterful of vibrato. It was very even and controlled and varying in intensity. Like many classical musicians, Elvis spent countless hours listening to recordings (and live performances when possible) of great artists, figuring out what worked and what didn't, and then figuring out how to incorporate that information into his own artistry.

Oftentimes bassoon vibrato sounds a bit undefined to me, or even haphazard. There is nothing haphazard about Elvis's vibrato - it's crystal clear, just like the vibrato of many of the great vocalists and string players. Perhaps such artists, including Elvis, have something to teach us bassoon players.

The choreography

One of the advantages of having the music memorized is that I wasn't tied down to a music stand, and I had the freedom to move all over the stage as Elvis would have. (I had to study tons of videos of Elvis performing to learn his moves.) Of course, it's very hard to walk or dance while playing the bassoon, but I sure had a good time figuring out how to move around as much as possible while still maintaining control of the bassoon. It was a new kind of challenge, that's for sure. But now I know why there are no bassoons in marching bands.

Unfortunately, there is no video recording of our performance. I'd like to see what it looked like to the audience! They were laughing throughout, especially when I had 4 bars of rest during which I engaged in some serious Elvis-style leg shaking. The intense jiggling would have jerked the reed right out of my mouth, so that particular move could only be done during a rest. I also attempted to engage the entire audience the way Elvis did. That required movement across the front of the stage so that no section of the audience would feel left out. I did some of this while playing. (I had to spend quite a bit of time practicing that. I had never before attempted to move across the front of the stage while playing the bassoon! I'm quite certain that after this experience, I actually WOULD be able to play the bassoon in a marching band.)

In the score, Daugherty directs the bassoonist to get down on one knee at the end of the piece, between the high D# and the low Bb. Only a bassoonist would understand that getting down on a knee is one thing, but getting down on a knee while successfully holding and balancing a bassoon after having just blown your brains out on a long, loud high D# is quite another matter. This was yet another of Dead Elvis's unusual challenges.

What I learned from Elvis himself

This may seem odd, but studying the biographies, recordings and videos of Elvis Presley taught me a thing or two. Elvis was a consummate performer. Not only was Elvis extremely intelligent, he also had an intuitive sense about what appealed to the masses. He died his hair black and wore black eye makeup. He dressed for success beginning when he was a teenager. He moved and danced in front of a mirror as a teen to figure out what would look good to an audience.

And he was a musical perfectionist. He totally ran the show during his recording sessions, so in essence he was also the producer of his own records. He insisted on take after take, with careful listening to the recording after each take. He was constantly tweaking the instrumentals, the background voices and his own singing.

As I mentioned, when he wasn't performing or recording or rehearsing, he spent many hours listening to recordings of other artists. He loved gospel, rhythm and blues, pop, ballads, country, rock and roll and classical. During the peak of his fame he took it upon himself to learn to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the piano, by ear.  (He did not read music.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Elvis's life to me was the fact that he sang and played piano and guitar in his spare time, just because making music was his favorite thing to do. When he showed up for his recording sessions, he would insist on spending hours warning up by singing spirituals in four part harmony with his backup singers. In fact, just a few short hours before his death he sat down at his piano and sang, just because that's what he did. Constantly. His love for music was that profound.

His extreme and tragic addiction to prescription medication certainly interfered with  his ability to perform optimally during his later years. At times he could barely walk, yet he still performed. But his recordings demonstrate his perfectionism as well as his gift for communicating musicially. His range of expression is something to aspire to.

During live performances (and all of the time) Elvis was very focused on his audience and on reaching each and every person in the venue. That's why he moved all over the stage (even dragging his microphone stand all over the stage during his early career). When I performed Dead Elvis, I tried to think like Elvis, focusing on the audience - the entire audience, and the overall effect (not just the music). I even tried to walk like Elvis. (Maybe it worked, because I was told that some audience members had no idea that I was an orchestra member.)


Dead Elvis provides a great opportunity for the bassoon soloist to step outside the box. Take my word for it - the farther outside you step, the more the audience will enjoy it, and the more you learn about Elvis Presley, the more YOU will enjoy it.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

What Elvis taught me about bassoon reeds

This past week I had the privilege of performing Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis on the Columbus Symphony's classical subscription series. What an experience it was!

Last night when I returned home following our final performance of Dead Elvis, I put my bassoon together and pulled out the reed I had used. Unaccustomed to soloing in front of the orchestra, I had been a bit more uptight about my reeds than usual. The reed I had used for the performances was pretty reliable, but I found that during the performances, the reed tip closed a bit due to the high temperature onstage and the dryness of the air, I think.  Now that the performances were finished, I had to satisfy my curiosity about the reed. Would the reed have responded well to having its tip opened slightly?

Normally the first thing I do when a reed tip closes is simply pull out the pliers, place the reed on a mandrel tip, and nudge the reed's tip open a little by gently squeezing the top wire at the sides. This simple procedure often gives the reed more fullness of sound throughout the range and enhances the reliability of the attacks of high notes such as the high D# at the end of Dead Elvis. A proper tip opening even allows for better control of the vibrato.

But things are not normal when a bassoonist is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. I lost my head, and decided that opening the tip of my reed would be too risky. (?????) As a result, I was uncomfortable with my reed throughout the performances, and I always had the sense that it could have been more ideal. The reed was OK, but could have been better.

My post-Elvis reed tip opening experiment was a revelation - the reed transformed from a pretty impressive one to an absolute dream-come-true, after just barely opening the tip with pliers. Too bad this magic occurred after the final concert!

I always tell my students not to be afraid to change the tip opening of a reed, explaining that it's the only reed alteration which can be reversed, and oftentimes the result of tip opening adjustment is that a mediocre reed becomes a good one. It's the easiest and most effective means of improving a bassoon reed. Why hadn't I heeded my own advice?  I guess I was so daunted by the concept of being a soloist, of being Elvis for heaven's sake, that my bassoon reed knowledge and experience flew out the window. Also, I had the notion in my head that since I had been playing such a taxing piece as Dead Elvis on the reed, I thought maybe I had worn out the reed, causing it to lose its flexibility to respond to wire adjustment. I thought that if I opened the tip and then wanted to change it back, the cane might not respond to the reversal. Now I think that's hogwash, since the reed responded so beautifully to having its tip opened.

The reason I'm kind of mad at myself about this is because I spent months searching for the ideal Elvis reed. I rejected literally hundreds of reeds. The Elvis reed had to excel in the extreme high range AND extreme low range AND double tonguing AND it had to play in tune AND it had to clearly articulate high D# (4th line treble clef). If you're a bassoonist, you know what a tall order that is.

My chosen reed was a darn good one which would have been even better if I'd taken the risk (which is not really a risk at all since it's reversible) of slightly opening the tip.

Let that be a lesson to us all.

Yours truly, rehearsing in costume