bassoon blog

musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, October 9, 2016

K. David Van Hoesen memorial service

from yesterday's memorial service for K. David Van Hoesen
Yesterday, October 8, 2016, a memorial service was held for K. David Van Hoesen at the Chapel of Canterbury Place in Pittsburgh.  Mr. Van Hoesen, who had retired as Professor of Bassoon and Chair of the Wind, Brass and Percussion Department of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, died on Monday at age 90. 

The venue was packed, undoubtedly like his musical performances throughout his life.  Joining the Van Hoesen family (his wife of 66 years, Carol Morse Van Hoesen; his daughter Gretchen S. Van Hoesen and her husband James A. Gorton, his daughter Catherine A. Van Hoesen; and his granddaughter, Heidi Van Hoesen) were many friends and admirers of Mr. Van Hoesen, including many former students (listed alphabetically): Douglas Fisher (Columbus Symphony Second Bassoon), Phillip Kolker (Baltimore Symphony Principal Bassoon, retired), Judith LeClair (NY Philharmonic Principal Bassoon), George Sakakeeny (Eastman School of Music Professor of Bassoon), Martha Scholl (Rochester Philharmonic and Buffalo Philharmonic Bassoon Sections) and Betsy Sturdevant (Columbus Symphony Principal Bassoon).

Betsy Sturdevant, Gretchen Van Hoesen, George Sakakeeny, Douglas Fisher, Judith LeClair, Martha Scholl, Phillip Kolker
There were many other students of Mr. Van Hoesen who wished to attend but couldn't be released from performance duties on such short notice, and several of them had prepared remembrances which were read during the service.

The audience included several members of the Pittsburgh Symphony including Nancy Goeres, David Sogg, Jim Rodgers, Cynthia DeAlmeida, Scott Bell and Chris Allen.  Even the musicians who had not been his students reported that they were incredibly moved by the service.

Family members offered written remembrances in the program which offered great insight into the home and family life of the man who was so loved and revered.  Each of Mr. Van Hoesen's former students in attendance and also former Eastman Professor of Violin Oliver Steiner spoke during the service.  Several meaningful recordings were played, including a delightful rendition of Fritz Kreisler's Schön Rosemarin performed by Mr. Van Hoesen and Judith LeClair with Judy's husband Jonathan Feldman on piano.  We were also treated to a stunning recording of Mr. Van Hoesen performing the Mozart Bassoon Concerto which I don't think any of us had heard before.

There were two live musical performances which Mr. Van Hoesen would have loved: George Sakakeeny and Gretchen Van Hoesen (principal harpist of the Pittsburgh Symphony) played A Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn, and Heidi Van Hoesen (principal harpist of the Toronto Symphony) performed the Andante from Violin Sonata No. 2 in a minor BWV 1003 by J. S. Bach.

Everyone in attendance agreed that the service was beautiful and as well as comprehensive.  Mr. Van Hoesen was a very talented and intelligent man whose fascination and curiosity about such topics as electronics, acoustics, machinery, astronomy, poetry, literature, ham radio, and yes, even bassoon reeds lasted his lifetime.  The service brought out each and every facet of his being.  The remembrances from his students made it became clear that although his musical beliefs and his high standards were consistent, the manner in which he interacted with each of us had varied greatly.  Perhaps that was the secret of his marvelously successful teaching.

Several main themes seemed to be repeated over and over, such as his kind, patient, calm demeanor; his emphasis on beauty of sound and accuracy of intonation; and perhaps most importantly of all, his insistence upon prioritizing musicianship rather than giving in to the encumbrances of the bassoon.  His teaching was so expansive beyond mere bassoon playing that perhaps he would be best described as a life coach.  Each of us left the ceremony inspired to carry on the legacy of this great man.

The Van Hoesen family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St., Rochester, NY 14604 (please write "for the K. David Van Hoesen bassoon scholarship" on the memo line of your check) or to Mid-Atlantic English Springer Spaniel Rescue.


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Monday, October 3, 2016

The incomparable K. David Van Hoesen

K. David Van Hoesen at the 2007 IDRS conference in Ithaca, NY

The first time I met K. David Van Hoesen I was a high school student.  He was not at all what I expected.  After all, he was the esteemed professor of bassoon at the Eastman School of Music.  I never expected such a famous man to remind me of a teddy bear.  He had an easy smile and a quick chuckle.  He was calm, easy-going and peaceful - the perfect guru for a high-strung, overly eager bassoon student.  I auditioned at only one college - Eastman.  No one else would suffice once I met him.

For college music majors, the private teacher is hugely significant.  The school is chosen based upon the private teacher.  The relationship between the music student and private teacher can make or break a career; it can make or break a life.  The teacher is like a parent, but without the baggage.  He or she is a guide through the sometimes treacherous transition from childhood to adulthood.

K. David Van Hoesen was the guide into adult life for dozens and dozens of bassoon students, many of whom now hold positions in the world's top orchestras.  There is no question that he was one of the greatest teachers of bassoon that the world has ever known.  But he was so much more than that.

I'm sure I'm not the only student of his who received counseling from him on every topic imaginable.  There were bassoon lessons during which the bassoon never left its case, and those lessons may have been among the most important.  He gave advice freely, even to the point of evaluating my boyfriends (or lack thereof).  Undoubtedly, he was as good as any trained therapist at analyzing his students' idiosyncrasies.  In fact he psychoanalyzed me before my first successful orchestral audition, and I have always attributed that win to his brilliant observations of my sometimes not-so-helpful behavior.

Once during freshman year I arrived at my bassoon lesson totally distraught over a situation with my roommate.  He called the dean on the phone right then and there and I was immediately moved into a single room.  When I complained once about ensemble assignments, he called the conducting staff while I listened.  He was definitely a full service bassoon teacher.  Because of his teddy bear-like quality, he was easy to talk to, and he always had a wise response.  When I told him I was depressed about not knowing what the future held, he responded that he knew exactly how I felt and that he benefited from going for walks in which he intentionally noticed the flowers and other uplifting sights.  (During my final visit with him in Rochester, NY, he suddenly stopped himself mid-sentence to point upwards and comment, with wonder in his voice, on how the birds had lined up so neatly on the overhead utility wires.  He never stopped appreciating those uplifting moments.)

His students are known for musicianship and quality of sound, and his manner of promoting his concepts was sometimes unconventional.  When I was a freshman I was afraid to use vibrato due to some inexplicable hangup.  He coaxed a few times to no avail.  So finally he showed up one day with a mysterious machine that measured air pressure.  He had me stick a tube in my mouth which was connected to the machine, and he wanted me to play the bassoon that way.  He instructed me to make the needle of the meter on the machine move with a regular pulse.  And there it was.....vibrato!   In fact, it shocked both of us in that it actually sounded decent.  A few weeks later he asked me to help a couple of other students improve their vibrato.  (That was certainly a confidence-builder!)  Who on earth besides him ever would have thought of using a machine to teach vibrato?  I probably wouldn't yet be using vibrato if K.David Van Hoesen hadn't been such a creative thinker that day.

Tone quality was so important to him.  Early on during my freshman year he had me play the beginning exercises in the Weissenborn Practical Method for the Bassoon, which most of us had abandoned long before college.  But he wanted me to go back to those basic exercises and just focus on developing a full sound.  I was embarrassed and hoped desperately that no one could hear me practicing the simple etudes, but Mr. Van Hoesen knew what he was doing.  I daresay no one would say today that I don't play with a full sound.

On those rare occasions when we had the opportunity to hear him play the bassoon (he had retired from the Rochester Philharmonic before I attended Eastman), it was heavenly.  His sound was truly incomparable, so smooth and velvety and ineffably appealing.  We knew we had chosen the right instrument when we heard him play it.  He'd pick up his bassoon every once in a while just to demonstrate one interval.  And that one interval was unforgettable.....I can still hear it.

Reading Barry Stees' blog post about Mr. Van Hoesen reminded me of another incident from my freshman year.  I vividly recall the day I approached Mr. Van Hoesen in tears because of an assignment I wasn't ready for:  I was scheduled to play principal bassoon in William Schuman's When Jesus Wept with ESSO (Eastman School Symphony Orchestra) on a Prism Concert.  (Prism Concerts were nonstop programs showcasing many facets of Eastman's music program including both large and small ensembles.  These concerts were popular and successful for many years and the concept was imitated by other music schools.)

There was very little time between the first rehearsal and the concert.  Basically, I was being asked to transform myself from a clueless kid to a mature master within a period of five days!   I was in a state of inconsolable panic, but somehow Mr. Van Hoesen managed to get through to me.  He coached me on each note, on each transition from note to note, on each nuance of dynamics and vibrato.  (Thankfully, this occurred after he had brought in the vibrato machine!)  He taught his students to listen to recordings (and I mean recordings of all of the great singers, string player and pianists) to develop our musical maturity, and to study recordings of specific works we'd be playing.  So I found Mr. Van Hoesen's recording of When Jesus Wept and listened to it over and over:



Like magic, it worked.  Mr. Van Hoesen's careful, patient coaching coupled with many repetitions of his recording paid off in spades.  He greeted me backstage after the performance, beaming from ear to ear.

Even though he was such a brilliant teacher, he was open to interpretations and styles which differed from those he taught, as long as the ideas were presented convincingly.  I always admired that about him.  He even encouraged his students to study with other teachers during the summers.  He wanted what was best for his students, not what was best for his ego!

He always demonstrated living a well-rounded life.  Once when I was rolling my eyes over having to read Dostoyevsky for literature class, he said, "But you have to read Dostoyevsky in order to be able to play Tchaikowsky!".  (Later during the same lesson he said of a passage in Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 4:  "If your face isn't turning bright red while you're playing that passage, then you're not playing it right!")  He often spoke of his non-musical hobbies such as tinkering with machines and his telescope, and of fishing at his beloved Lake Placid.

On top of all this, he was clairvoyant.  I had a marathon lesson with him before my audition for my current job, and as I walked out after the lesson he informed me with great conviction (the same way that he had instructed me to play each excerpt!) that I was going to win the audition.  (Regarding an earlier audition, he had said, "You're gonna give 'em a run for their money!" and I was the runner-up for that job.)

When I teach bassoon students I'm constantly being guided by his words, to the extent that I often pause and tell the students about the great man I'm quoting.  Rhythmic fingering, note preparation, broken arpeggios, avoiding static notes (EACH note has to have motion!), just like chess (not making a good move too soon!), carefully listening for and locating the ring in each note, and insisting on accurate intonation at all times----these are a few of his trademarks of which my students are now beneficiaries.

When the news came that Mr. Van Hoesen had passed away this morning, I wanted to be numb and pretend it wasn't so.  If I ignored the news, I could pretend that this was just like any other Monday......but the memories began to infiltrate my thoughts......,memories of the patient, careful sessions when he was imploring me to listen, really listen to the sound of that note.....was it ringing?.....was it resonating in the best possible sense?.......was this the right placement of the note?

And then the movement to the next note......was the transition from the last note to this one smooth and creamy?.....were my fingers moving as though molding clay?.....was the air supporting the movement from the first note to the second?......is this how a great string player would sound?......had I been practicing my broken arpeggios?......how might the vibrato assist in the transition?......and what about dynamics?.......

As the news began to sink in, I wondered how I would be able to face the students who would begin showing up at my door shortly.   But of course the answer is obvious.  Along with all of Mr. Van Hoesen's students, I'm passing it on, with more enthusiasm than ever.

Thank you, Mr. Van Hoesen, for so aptly demonstrating what's important in music and in life.

K. David Van Hoesen at home in Rochester, NY amongst a forest of bassoons


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Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Bagpipe lung" for bassoonists

Nearly every musician on earth has probably heard the latest trending news about "bagpipe lung". This is old news for most of us, since scientists have been warning for years about the possibility of mold, fungi, yeast and pathogens lurking inside of wind instruments, ready to be inhaled into the lungs of the unsuspecting player.  That news has undoubtedly sent some former wind players scrambling to the string, percussion and keyboard instruments, but for those of us who steadfastly stand by our potentially deadly wind instruments, what can we do to ensure our survival?

Mold Basics

 Mold needs three conditions in which to grow:
  1. Moisture
  2. Food (This means actual food, or wood, leather, cotton, paper products, etc.)
  3. Ideal temperature (Mold grows in temperature between 32 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit - a generous range!  The 70-90 degree range is most conducive for mold growth.)
Of the above conditions, the two that we bassoonists can affect are moisture and food. (I suppose we can also affect temperature by storing reeds in the freezer.  I don't know about you, but for me that would increase the likelihood of showing up for work without my reeds!)

Oral hygiene

It's best (necessary, in my opinion) to brush and floss your teeth before playing the bassoon.  (Yeah, I know.....the trending news on flossing claims that flossing is useless after all.  I'm choosing to ignore that claim while waiting for future studies which refute the current news.)   Any food particles which find their way into your reed or bocal can become food for mold.  Not only is that gross and unhealthy, but it also prevents the reed and the bocal from functioning optimally.

Reed care

Although the reed must be moist for playing, we absolutely must take steps to dry out our reeds after playing.  I leave my reed container out of the bassoon case and open.  If I'm at a rehearsal or concert, I take out my reeds as soon as I get home.  First I rinse them with a strong stream of cold water and then set them out to dry.

reeds drying out after use, with the reed container open

Bocal care

For bassoonists, the cleanliness of the bocal is important.  The best way to keep a bocal hygienic (besides brushing and flossing of the player's teeth) is by running a clean bocal swab through the bocal at least once a month.  I wash my bocal swab after each use, since the last thing I want to do is send a germ-laden swab through my bocal.  After hand washing it with a mild soap, I allow it to dry outdoors in the sun, since sunlight is a natural sanitizing and bleaching agent. 

bocal swab with a tail on each end in case it becomes stuck
After running the bocal swab through the bocal, flush the bocal with water.  Allow water to accumulate inside the bocal and then blow it out forcefully so that any residue from the swabbing will be blown out.  (If you swab the bocal frequently enough, there shouldn't be any residue!)  Then force water out of the whisper key hole on the nub to ensure that it's not clogged.  Just cover the end of the bocal with your hand to force the water out of the whisper key hole.

Suck it up

One unique aspect of bassoon playing is that while playing, moisture accumulates in the bocal and at a certain point it begins gurgling or "knocking".  Some players seem to ignore it as if hoping the listener can't hear it.  The listener can hear it.  What do we do about it?

There are three ways I know of.  One is to take the bocal out of its socket and blow into the larger end of the bocal forcefully, expelling the moisture.  Another is to take the reed off the bocal and blow forcefully into the bocal, thereby blowing the moisture into the instrument.  The third method is to suck the moisture out of the bocal through the reed, which means the moisture enters the player's mouth, presumably to be swallowed.

The first method described above is impractical during rehearsals and concerts; it simply takes too much time.  Also, unless you are alone in a practice room, it makes too much noise.  The second method produces even more noise, and can absolutely disrupt a rehearsal or concert.  Furthermore, it forces moisture into the instrument.  The boot can actually accumulate so much moisture that it begins to gurgle.

Gross though it is, it's that third method which I use, and I'd be willing to bet that most professionals use it.   If you're assiduous about keeping your bocal clean, it shouldn't pose any problems.  My bocal was purchased brand new fairly recently, and I've swabbed it religiously.  I don't think it harbors mold.  (One reason I don't like to try other people's bassoons is because I'm afraid that I'll accidentally suck the moisture out of the bocal through the reed, thereby ingesting its mold, bacteria, and heaven knows what else.  This act of sucking in the moisture is habitual for me, since any moisture inside of the reed or bocal can cause things to go wrong during rehearsals or concerts.  I'm constantly sucking the moisture in through the reed.) 

Mold is more likely to grow in the reed than in the bocal because the cane itself provides food for mold.  The metal bocal does not promote mold growth UNLESS food particles have been allowed to accumulate inside it.  If you play the bassoon without brushing or flossing first, you may have created an environment for mold growth.  On top of that, if you don't regularly swab your bocal, well, some new habits may be in order.

Boot and tenor joints 

The only other action we bassoonists can take to ward off mold is to make sure that our boot and tenor joint swabs are kept clean.  It goes without saying that the boot and tenor joints must be swabbed each time the bassoon is placed back in its case.  Keeping the instrument dry is critical for the health of the instrument and its player.

On top of that, the swabs used for the boot and tenor joint must be kept clean.  It's not practical to wash those swabs after each use, unfortunately, but for heaven's sake, we should definitely wash them as frequently as possible, using mild soap and sun drying.

Sun-drying a boot swab




It's really that simple - that's all we can do.....brush and floss our teeth, dry out our reeds, swab bocals often, swab boot and tenor joints after each use, and keep those swabs clean and dry, thus holding "bagpipe lung" at bay!



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Thursday, August 25, 2016

How to sharpen a double hollow ground bassoon reed knife

How can you tell if your bassoon reed knife needs sharpening?  Just drop the blade, sharp side down, onto your thumb nail.  If it catches, the blade is sharp enough.  If it just glides smoothly on your nail, then it's too dull to function optimally.

The following instructions were presented to me by the late Norman Herzberg who was widely known for his Los Angeles studio work, his revolutionary reed making concepts and tool production, and of course his legendary teaching.

These instructions apply to the double hollow ground style knife, which is probably the easiest type of knife to sharpen.

Mr. Herzberg recommended using a Norton Crystolon Combination Oilstone:
Norton Crystolon Combination Oilstone, Fine/Coarse, 1 x 2 x 8"

Being an oilstone, it must be oiled before each use.  Norton sells oil for this very purpose.  It's actually a light mineral oil:


Image result for norton oil for sharpening stone
If your knife is in really bad shape, begin with the rough side of the sharpening stone.  (An oboist reading this post might react with horror.....how could a double reed player possibly be using a knife in really bad shape?   Well, bassoonists are generally much less religious about knife-sharpening than oboists, and for good reason.  For one thing, oboists are dealing with harder cane.  Oboists need a very sharp knife for precise cutting.  On the other hand, bassoonists often run into problems with accidental gouging and nicking of the cane with a very sharp knife.  Some bassoonists, according to rumor, never sharpen their knives.  My opinion is that bassoon knives should be kept reasonably sharp, passing the above-mentioned thumb nail test, at all times.)

First ensure that your stone is abutting a wall or some sort of stable object so that the stone won't move as you push the knife from the bottom to the top of the stone.  (For pushing down from top to bottom, you'll use your hand to hold the stone in place.)

Make sure that the sharpening stone is clean and dust-free before oil is applied.  I always store my sharpening stone inside of a container so that it doesn't become dusty.  Oil the stone by placing 3 drops of oil evenly spaced on the sharpening stone.
Evenly distribute 3 drops of oil on the surface of the stone.

Then smear the oil over the stone, covering it evenly.
The 3 drops of oil have been well-smeared evenly over the surface of this stone.

Start with the knife at the bottom of the stone, with the knife blade at approximately a 45 degree angle across the stone.  First lay the knife flat:

Then lift the back of the knife 1/8 inch.  That's the angle you'll maintain while sharpening

Lift the back (the thick side as opposed to the thin cutting edge) of the blade 1/8" up off of the surface of the stone.

Begin by pushing the knife up to the top of the stone.  Push into the edge of the knife.  After reaching the top of the stone, flip the knife over, then beginning at the top of the stone, push back down to the bottom of the stone.  Keep the knife rigid at all times, with the back raised 1/8 inch.  Don't roll the knife; keep it rigid.  Push into the edge you're sharpening.
Pushing the knife down from the top of the stone to the bottom
Repeat this routine a few times, then test the sharpness of the blade by dropping it onto your thumb nail.  If it catches, you're done.  If you began with a really dull knife and used the rough side of the stone first, then you'll be ready to flip the stone over to the fine side after maybe 10 or 20 swipes up and down.  Repeat the routine using the fine side.  Don't forget to oil this side also!  Then test the knife after using the fine side.



If your knife was already in decent shape, then probably only a couple of strokes on the fine side of the stone are needed.  Never use the stone without oiling it first!

Mr. Herzberg also mentioned that a hard Arkansas stone may be used. 

If you're one of those bassoonists who doesn't worry much about the sharpness of your knife, give this a try.  Chances are you'll convert!


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Saturday, August 13, 2016

10 Tips for college freshmen music majors

 

   

1. Take care of yourself

You already know what to do to able to function optimally:  eat sensibly and regularly, exercise, strive for 8 hours of sleep each night, make a few friends.  Balance is key.

2. Set priorities

Make a list of your priorities and stick to that list.  Chances are, socializing is not your top priority, so be careful that your social life does not accidentally rise to the top unbeknownst to you.  Each choice you make will have either a positive or a negative impact upon your college experience.

3. Prioritize practicing

Establish a strict practicing schedule as soon as school starts.  Your success as a musician depends upon how much and how effectively you practice.  It may take you a while to figure out the best times to practice.  When I was a student at Eastman I liked to arrive at the practice rooms when the school opened at 7am so that I'd be able to choose one of my favorite practice rooms, and I always stayed until the school closed at 11pm.   I was determined to practice as much as I possibly could.  (No, I was not in the practice room all day.  Plenty of other things happened between my early arrival and my late departure.)

4. Know yourself and work with that knowledge

Know yourself and plan accordingly within reason.  For example, I'm an extremist. and that's why it suited me to arrive when the doors opened and leave when they closed at Eastman each day.   If you're gregarious, then you might benefit from practicing at peak times.  If you're a night owl, maybe it would behoove you to save your practicing for later hours when you are most energetic.

If you're not a morning person and you have a class at 8am each day, then you're going to have to find a way to force yourself to make it to that class on time.  (Try going to bed earlier!)  Do not allow yourself to skip classes unless you are deathly ill.  You have chosen to attend college and to pay a lot of money to do so.  Therefore it makes no sense to put forth anything less than wholehearted effort.

5. Revere your teacher

Pay rapt attention to the professor of your instrument.  Take notes during lessons, or if the professor allows, record (audio or video) your lessons.  If you hang on his or her every word (or playing demonstration), you'll learn faster.  Be sure to actually follow his or her instructions assiduously.

6. Listen to music

Listen to music of your chosen genre constantly in order to establish and inspire your musical goals and preferences.  Attend live performances and listen to recordings.  Of course, as a standard aspect of preparation, always listen to recordings of any music you're working on or performing.

7. Beware of distractions

Watch for distractions......they're everywhere.  Freshman year is perhaps NOT the best time to master Pokeman Go, World of Warcraft or Call of Duty.  Save Netflix for planned relaxation times.

Once you have a job (and tenure), then you can play Pokeman Go to your heart's content!

 8. Choose positively influential friends

 Choose your friends wisely.  If you're lucky enough to befriend a fellow music student who is a superior musician, you'll learn from that friend.  I hung out with a phenomenal flute student who was studying with James Galway during our freshman year at Eastman.  I learned a great deal from joining my friend in exploring interpretations of musical phrases, in listening to recordings of the world's greatest musicians, and in listening to the incomparable James Galway perform in person.



9. Say yes to performance opportunities

Say YES to any invitation to play your instrument, whether you'll be paid or not.  You need experience!

10. Ask for help

If any of your classes or assignments are confounding, don't hesitate to let the professor know right away.  Your fellow students may be of assistance also.  Everyone wants you to succeed!

If you're having trouble adjusting to college in any way, don't hesitate to use the resources at your disposal.  As far as I know, every college offers professional counseling for students, or you may wish to talk to a professor or administrator.  When I was a freshman I confided in my bassoon professor K. David Van Hoesen about an upsetting situation with my two roommates.  He called the dean, and that very day I was given a single room!



Attending college is life-changing. Have fun within reason, and rest assured that your hard work will pay off later.



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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Learning to double tongue on the bassoon

Until fairly recently, maybe the past 20 years or so, double tonguing on the bassoon was considered a parlor trick, along with circular breathing, and few bassoonists took it seriously.  Now, double tonguing is becoming a requirement for high level bassoon playing.  It's becoming so mainstream that I even introduce it to my high school students (although I don't insist that they learn to do it).

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about double tonguing the famous bassoon solo of Beethoven Symphony No. 4 last movement.  A reader who is interested in learning to double tongue on the bassoon asked me for advice on getting started, so here it is. 

Double tonguing on the bassoon is not as easy as it is on the flute or brass instruments, because the reed's location inside the mouth is an impediment.  I taught myself to double tongue, and it took 5 years of working on it off and on before I could actually use it in the orchestra.  I kept giving up, thinking it would never sound good enough to be useful, and that's why it took so long.

Now I believe that anyone can learn to double tongue on the bassoon.  That's great news, because fast single tonguing is largely a matter of genetics (some were born with naturally fast single tonguing ability and some weren't).   Although I was one of the lucky ones with a fast single tongue, it bothered me that I struggled to make it through the lengthy fast-tongued passages of the 4th movement of Mozart's Haffner Symphony.

Here's how I learned to double tongue.  First I had to learn how to make my tongue cooperate.  No words in the English language had required me to say "TaKaTaKaTaKa...etc." ad infinitum at a breakneck speed.  Some people use "DiGiDiGiDiGi...etc.".   Does it matter?  No.  Just make sure the first syllable begins with the tip of the tongue forward (in its normal single tonguing position) and the second syllable (the "Ka", "Ga", "Gi", "Ki" or whatever you choose) begins with the back of the tongue toward the back of the mouth.  The distance traveled by the tongue should be as short as possible.  In other words, don't place your tongue any farther back in your mouth than necessary to produce the second syllable.

I've noticed that some people seem to be able to say "TaKaTaKa...etc." fairly easily even if they've never double tongued on an instrument.  I'm baffled by that, since I had to practice saying "TaKaTaKaTaKa....etc." a lot, for weeks.  I practiced it while driving or walking.  Eventually it became easy, thankfully, because if you can't say it, you can't tongue it.

Meanwhile, I was beginning the slow work on the bassoon.  Arthur Weisberg's book The Art of Wind Playing provided the most valuable advice on learning to double tongue.  He recommended practicing slowly, on one note, the following pattern:


Ending each syllable as noted above is critically important, so instead of just "Ta", it's "Tak".   Instead of just "Ka", it's "Kat".  Each note should be extremely short.

When learning to double tongue (and when practicing it after the technique has been learned), it's necessary to listen carefully and hold yourself to a high standard.  The goal is to make each note sound identical to all of the others.  That's not easy at first, but don't give up.........you will eventually succeed.

Gradually increase the speed over a period of months.

Once this pattern is stable and reliable, begin the exercise on "Kat" rather than "Tak" in order to strengthen the weaker "Kat" by placing it on the downbeat.  Another variation suggested by Mr. Weisberg is to use only the "Kat" syllable.


Once your metronome is up to quarter=120 for the above exercises, it's time to begin double-tonguing 16th note scales, sometimes beginning with "Ta" and sometimes beginning with "Ka".  By this point, the note endings are irrelevant, of course, because the ending becomes the beginning of the next note, so "Tak" is now "Ta" and "Kat" is now "Ka".  It's wise to limit your scales to the mid range, since double-tonguing in the extremities is quite difficult.

Unlike single tonguing, it's my experience that once you learn to double-tongue, it's necessary to keep practicing it to keep it sounding good, with constant attention given to the "Ka" syllable.  Once you learn to double tongue you'll always be able to do it, but refinement of the double-tonguing requires practice.  (I still frequently practice by placing the "Ka" on the downbeats in order to keep strengthening the "Ka" syllable, with the goal of making it sound as even as single tonguing.)  It's worth the effort, since the double-tonguing bassoonist will never again have to worry about any tempo being out of reach tonguing-wise.  Haffner Symphony?  Bring it on!




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Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas and bassoon swabs

If you're like many bassoonists, you may not give much thought to your swabs.....especially the care and maintenance of those swabs.  Perhaps they deserve notice, since swab malfunction can wreak havoc.

First, the bocal swab......recently the tail broke off of my bocal swab, so I will never again pass that swab through a bocal.  Why?  Well, as some of you know from firsthand experience, swabs can become stuck inside of whatever they're supposed to be cleaning/drying.  Can you imagine trying to extract a stuck swab from a delicate and expensive bocal?  Perish the thought.

This is a bocal swab with its tail ripped off (see top of photo).  Now it's the same as a swab with no tail, which is NOT recommended!
I keep the above swab only to use as an example of a swab which should never pass through a bocal.  Some swabs are actually manufactured and sold without a tail, but I do not recommend using a tailless swab.  (A swab with a tail is easily identified by the fact that it has string attached to each end.)  The reason the tail is important is because if the swab gets stuck (and nearly every bassoonist has a stuck swab story) it may be possible to use the tail to remove the swab without damaging the bassoon.  The tail at least offers hope that the swab can be pulled back out from the point of entry (in the opposite of the intended direction).

This is a proper, intact bocal swab:

an intact bocal swab with tail
Bocal swabs are easy to take care of.  I wash mine out after each use. (I run the bocal swab through my bocal once a month.  Unlike the boot and tenor swabs, the bocal swab doesn't have to be used on a daily basis.)  Since it's so small, I just scrub it with nontoxic glycerine soap and water, rinse it thoroughly, and hang it up to dry.  Washing only takes a couple of minutes, and the silk swab dries quickly.

The same swab style - silk pull-through with a tail - is ideal for the boot and tenor joints.  Washing these swabs is not as simple a matter, though, because they take longer to air dry (they're too fragile for the dryer) so you must plan the washing according to your playing schedule.  So I had to wash them today, Christmas Day, because this is my first day off from playing the bassoon in a long time.

I washed both the boot and tenor swabs today and hung them outdoors to dry (because the fresh air makes them smell good).  I just hope they'll be dry before tomorrow's Nutcracker performances.  (They will be - silk dries quickly.  On a breezy day like today, they'll be dry in a couple of hours.)

My boot swab hung out to dry
Some bassoonists don't wash their swabs, but if they did, they'd realize that while the swabs may look fine, the water used for washing tells the real story.  They're not clean.  Not at all!

Another very important part of swab maintenance is cutting off any frayed ends of tails.  Ragged tail ends may cause the swab to easily become entangled, and as many bassoonists have learned the hard way, it's absolutely mandatory to be sure that there are no knots in the swab before it is inserted into the joint or bocal.  Also, it can take a long time to disentangle a swab, and if you're in a hurry you may be tempted to go ahead and use a tangled swab.  (Don't!!)
Cutting the ragged end off is highly advisable!
Merry Christmas, and may the new year bring great reeds and gigs to all!





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