bassoon blog

musings of a professional bassoonist

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



Saturday, October 4, 2014

Michael Daugherty: Dead Elvis

Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis (1993) has become an important staple of the solo bassoon repertoire. It is performed widely by chamber groups as well as orchestras. I'd be willing to hazard a guess that its popularity as a solo bassoon piece is second only to that of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto.
Dead Elvis
Most listeners, unless viewing the performance, do not realize that Dead Elvis is scored for only seven instruments since it sounds like a much larger group. In fact, even with only seven instruments the bassoon soloist is often drowned out when all are playing. As we know all too well, the bassoon doesn't easily project over other instruments. One bass trombone can so easily obliterate a bassoon, and one of the Dead Elvis instruments is indeed bass trombone.

When I was asked last spring to perform Dead Elvis with the Columbus Symphony in October, I was skeptical at first. I wasn't familiar with the piece......I didn't know what to think. I also didn't know much about Elvis Presley except that he had been a rock and roll megastar.  But solo opportunities are few and far between....I said yes after about 15 seconds of hesitation!

The first thing I did was order the bassoon part and score. Then I began listening to the many YouTube performances of Dead Elvis. When the music arrived, the first thing I did was memorize the bassoon part (even though soloists, especially wind soloists, usually don't memorize contemporary solos). I wanted to experiment with a different method of memorization. My approach was to memorize the music first, even before practicing it (I know this sounds crazy) so that all of my practicing would be done without music. I'll let you know how this experiment works.

Reedmaking is an important part of the preparation for Dead Elvis. The reed has to be a super high reed which also sounds good low AND also double tongues really, really well (INCLUDING in the low register!). Wow. I'm not sure how many bassoon reeds like that exist. I began searching for the Elvis reed months ago, and have set aside quite a few, with rankings. Above all, the reed must have a really reliable and in-tune high E which sustains for long periods without giving out. That in itself is a tall order!

There are a few very tricky challenges for the bassoon in Dead Elvis. I don't want to freak myself out, since my performances have yet to occur, so I'll just mention one of them: double tonguing 16ths at quarter = 168  in 3/4 for 18 consecutive measures without a rest. In case that means nothing to you, just try double tonguing (any notes) 16ths at 168 in 3/4 for 18 measures, and you'll see what I mean.

Once my commitment to performing Dead Elvis was made, I began thinking about about my teacher K. David Van Hoesen's assertion that "you can't play Tchaikowsky unless you've read Dostoyevsky". Getting to know the composer, the background information about a work, and any extra historical/social about the era and culture certainly can inspire optimal performance of a work. And since Dead Elvis was inspired by an American icon, I figured it was time for me to get to know Elvis.

Wow. I had no idea what I was in for. Let's just say that there's good reason for the seemingly infinite supply of biographies of Elvis. The man led a colorful and complicated, albeit brief, life.

The Dies Irae theme which permeates Dead Elvis suggests, perhaps, that any human being who ascends to such superstardom is doomed. His extreme wealth enabled him to live out his wildest fantasies. He regularly rented out Memphis movie theaters, skating rinks and amusement parks in the middle of the night for private parties. He was famous for buying brand new cars for friends, family, people he met on the street, and doctors with prescription pads.

Elvis was a talented and intelligent perfectionist. He did not read music, but he studied recordings religiously. (Many great classical musicians do the same thing!) Even as a child, he knew on some level that something was going to happen - he used to assure his parents, who were dirt poor, that soon everything would be all right.

There was an unusual innocence about him. When his career was just beginning, he'd claim that his goal was to buy a house for his mother (and his final house purchase for his mother, father and himself was, of course, Graceland).

Unbelievably, he was drafted in 1958 when he was 22 years old and already a major star. I didn't even know that drafting was going on at that point in U.S. history! Elvis was not arrogant, so he never thought he should be singled out as an exception to the draft. Besides, his manager, the infamous Colonel Tom Parker, though it would help Elvis' image to serve in the army. Yet Elvis was clearly not a good candidate for the army, since he was more of a mama's boy than a GI Joe, and he experienced great anxiety over his enlistment.

While serving in Germany, his commander introduced him to amphetamines, supposedly to keep the soldiers alert when they were driving tanks. He became hooked on the pills and brought back a huge supply to the U.S. when he was finished with his army stint. This was the beginning of the drug addiction which colored the rest of his life.

While reading his biographies, I often logged into YouTube to listen to the Elvis recordings from the period I was reading about, and watched videos of his performances. There is such a difference between his pre-army performances and his more recent videos from Vegas. His recordings were nearly always stellar, although his repertoire was unfortunately limited due to the restrictions imposed by his and Colonel Parker's contract with a publishing company. What a shame.

He was actually a talented actor who studied films much the same way he studied musical recordings. But the films he starred in lacked substance, which led many to wrongfully assume that he was a bad actor. He was asked to play the male lead in A Star is Born with Barbra Streisand, but negotiations between the movie studio and Colonel Parker failed. Again, what a shame. 

Now that I "know" Elvis, I am somewhat daunted by the prospect of impersonating him in Dead Elvis. He was such a master performer. He had the ability to draw in every last person in the venue, which often included tens of thousands of people in one show. He was unspeakably charismatic. Sometimes the shrieking from the audience was at such a roar that no music could be heard! People were passing out left and right. The Elvis experience was too much.

How does a bassoonist go about replicating that sort of performance? Well, you can see why I'm daunted. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, here's an Elvis sample from his 1963 movie Fun in Acapulco:



Sunday, September 14, 2014

The behavior of bassoon sound waves

Bassoonists beware! Every once in a while we are asked to step outside the box and do something unusual, such as perform as solo bassoonist for a funeral, as I did yesterday. I am one of those players who is hyper reactive to acoustics, much to my own detriment. So, one would assume that I'd be extremely careful about the placement of my chair, especially for a solo performance, and especially when I had options, right?

Well, apparently not. I guess I lost my head due to the daunting nature of the event. When I was at home practicing my Bach cello suite for the funeral, I was imagining performing in a large old church replete with stone surfaces. We've all played in such churches before, and the sound is pleasantly flattering.

When I was a student at Eastman, I used to relish sneaking into the stairwell late at night to practice concertos. I sounded great in there, as anyone would. The reverberation was phenomenal, with nothing but hard metal and cement surfaces, and of course the stairway's height surely added to the effect. I sounded SO loud! I had to be judicious with my timing, though, waiting until nearly every other student had left the building. It was that loud! I found it incredibly inspiring to practice there, and I made sure to visit the stairwell before juries.

Well, I was expecting to experience similar acoustics in the funeral venue. I had never seen this particular church before. When I arrived, I was disappointed by its apparent 1950s or 1960s architecture. (Heaven knows why I had been expecting a stone cathedral from the 1800s....) Inside I found soft surfaces abounding, including fulling carpeted floors. I was even shocked by the lighting. The old stone churches I've enjoyed playing in have been notoriously dark, so I had brought a stand light. Well, I certainly didn't need it since the church was bright as could be.

My chair had been set up in the very front where it really stood out, especially considering the bright lighting. I didn't like that, since this was a funeral and I was not the one who was supposed to be the star of the show. So we moved my chair off to the side, near the organ. This being a funeral situation, I didn't think it would be appropriate for me to test the acoustics. What mourner would want to hear random bassoon sounds while entering the sanctuary for a funeral? I just didn't think it would be a good idea, nor did I consider it necessary.

This is where all of my better judgement flew out the window. How could I forget about the behavior of sound waves? My new chair placement was a few inches from the organ, so as to allow the people receiving communion to be able to pass by on the other side of my chair. The organ was located on my right, near the area from which the highest number of notes emit from the bassoon. That fact should have been a huge red flag for a person who obsesses over acoustics as I do. (The organ, incidentally, provided just about the only hard surface in the entire building.....)

Many bassoonists are aware of the problem that occurs when we are positioned too close to a hard surface. It becomes impossible for the player to achieve a consistent sound in which the tone qualities of the various notes on the bassoon match one another. This is because the sound waves are actually reflected, refracted, deflected, scattered and even absorbed by the hard surface. Each note emanates from a different position on the bassoon, thereby creating an unequal alteration of sound waves. Even changing notes by a half step creates a radically different sound.

When I began the Bach during the funeral, I was mortified by what I heard. The reed I had chosen had been mighty impressive at home - it had been focused, pleasant-sounding, easy to control and well in tune. But in the church it sounded like something plucked out of the trash heap. Each note took on a unique timbre of its own, unlike the timbre of any other note. The overall tone was alarmingly reedy, as if any one adjective could be applied to the heterogeneous cacophony.... Of course, there was nothing I could do but keep going, hoping desperately that it didn't sound as bad to others as it did to me. The fact that the deceased had been a professional music critic further exacerbated my horror.

There were two factors at play (and the reed actually wasn't one of them, as I confirmed when I arrived back home). One was that the church was shockingly dead acoustically, which obviously I could not control. But I could have controlled the other problem. Had I positioned myself in an open area away from any objects, at least I would have stood a fighting chance of matching sound from one note to the next. The resulting tone would have been dead and lifeless due to the acoustics of the venue, but at least the sound would have been homogenous.

When the Columbus Symphony plays in the pit for opera or ballet, I refuse to sit against the wall of the pit because of this phenomenon. Luckily our second bassoonist is willing to take the wall seat, causing his sound to be unevenly reflected, refracted, diffracted, scattered and absorbed by the wall. He's a good sport.

Similarly, I'm fussy about the placement of my music stand - the stand has to be far enough away from me that my sound cannot be affected by it. Although the issue would probably not be detectable during tuttis, it is noticeable during orchestral solos - yes, even a mere music stand can impede our efforts to evenly match our notes! (OK, I'll admit that that the problem created by the music stand being too close is barely noticeable, but still.......)

I think that producing a smooth, consistent sound is one of the primary challenges of bassoon playing. Yesterday I seriously undermined my efforts in that regard by ignoring the laws of physics!


Monday, July 7, 2014

In the news today

Bravo! Vail is a Colorado-based summer music festival which features three top U.S. orchestras this summer: the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.  This week the Philadelphia Orchestra is in residence at the festival, and today Philadelphia Orchestra principal bassoonist Daniel Matsukawa was featured on the TV show Good Morning Vail.  He explains the bassoon, its reeds and how the altitude affects them.  The icing on the cake is his exemplary bassoon playing at the end of the segment:

Thank you, Danny Matsukawa, for doing such a fine job of informing the public about our instrument.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bassoon anachronism?

Have you tried to fly with your bassoon lately?   According to a June 10, 2014 article in USA Today, some airlines are cracking down on carry-on dimensions.   And there is no shortage of media coverage of instruments damaged during air travel.

This fact sheet published by the Future of Music Coalition explains that the American Federation of Musicians and other groups worked to include language in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandating that the FAA draft formal regulations creating uniform standards that all airlines must follow.  These regulations would stipulate three things:

1) Airlines must permit passengers “to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage” if the instrument can be safely stowed in overhead bins and if there is room at the time the passenger boards.

2) For instruments that don’t fit in overhead bins (such as cellos), airlines must allow passengers to carry the instrument on board with the purchase of an extra ticket.

3) For larger instruments (still within applicable weight and size requirements), airlines must transport the instruments as checked baggage.

Unfortunately, the FAA has yet to draft the final regulations; therefore the new law cannot be enforced.  Even once the law does become enforceable, the words "if the instruments can be safely stowed in overhead bins and if there is room at the time the passenger boards" do not inspire confidence.  Some overhead bins are too small to hold a bassoon case (and of course regional jets such as the Embraer 145 require all passengers to gate check carry-ons).  Also, if the traveling bassoonist is not lucky enough to be one of the early boarders on a flight, it's entirely possible that the overhead bins could be full.  These days, it's common for flights to be booked to capacity.

Surprisingly, I haven't heard of any bassoon-related airline incidents other than my own.   Am I the only bassoonist in the world who has actually experienced the horror of being denied the right to carry on my bassoon?   It happened a few years ago on a flight out of Columbus.  When the airline agents refused to allow the bassoon as my carry-on, I remained polite and calm, and even offered to buy a seat for the bassoon.  Yet the airline personnel insisted that if I wanted to take the flight, my bassoon would have to be checked as baggage and placed in cargo!

I was traveling to an audition, and had no time to spare.  At the time, it seemed that I had no choice but the unthinkable - allowing my bassoon to be placed in cargo.  In retrospect, it's clear that I would have been far better off canceling my trip, despite my non-refundable ticket.  The level of stress I experienced from allowing my bassoon in cargo was off the charts, and I was in no condition to perform a successful audition when I arrived (in a state of panic!) at my destination.

I no longer own that bassoon.  My new bassoon - a 15,000 series Heckel - will never be placed in an airplane cargo hold!   No trip is worth taking such risk with a cherished instrument.  


Friday, March 21, 2014

Firebird (1945 version)

Rumor has it then when the Boston Symphony's retired principal bassoonist Sherman Walt died in 1989, the orchestra performed the Berceuse (Lullaby) of Stravinsky's Firebird in his memory.  It's hard to imagine a more fitting tribute from the BSO to its longtime principal bassoonist.

Sherman Walt
Stravinsky certainly did us bassoonists a favor when he featured our instrument this way in the oft-performed Firebird suite   But when performing the Firebird, we bassoonists must meet incredible technical demands en route to the Berceuse.  The Berceuse occurs just before the Finale, and is preceded by an aptly-named Infernal Dance.  There is one passage in particular of the Infernal Dance which is darn near unplayable up to tempo:

I have no words of advice for this passage.  It's fast, and the fingerings are treacherous.  If you have any helpful hints, let me know.  My approach was to be sure that I could play the passage accurately at a slower-than-realistic tempo.  That assuaged the guilt somewhat, and enabled me to fake it while actually hitting a few of the right notes along the way.

Leading up to that passage is a real high note workout, especially at 3 and 4 measures after 101 below:

Just eking out the high Eb is a major accomplishment.  It's so fast that the high Ab 16ths actually have to be double-tongued, especially if one wishes to attempt to match the dynamics and character of the other orchestral instruments.

The infamous passage at 106 is immediately preceded by exposed high flourishes between 104 and 106 below.  These flourishes are exposed and must be played accurately despite the tempo and the fingerings.  I know of only one fake fingering for this excerpt, which is for the high C# 3 measures after 104.  I just keep the high B fingering in place and lift the first two fingers of both hands for the C#.  It's necessary to lip the C# up to pitch with this fingering.

The Introduction (below) poses a counting challenge.  It's in 12, and I vividly recall how easy it was to lose my place the first time I played this in the orchestra.  This is one of those passages which truly becomes easier after you've played it once or twice.  It helps to keep in mind the obvious fact that there are four 32nds per beat.  (Sometimes it sounds as thought the woodwinds are playing the 32nds faster than they really are.)

The Columbus Symphony's recent Firebird performances featured the 1945 version, which is quite different from the more common 1919 suite.  The 1945 version contains more music from Stravinsky's original ballet score, including the Pas de Deux and the Scherzo, both of which are replete with exposed bassoon parts.  The Pas de Deux (below) is also a bit tricky rhythmically, especially at first.  It really helps to listen to recordings before your first rehearsal, so that if you end up getting off, you'll at least stand a chance of being able to figure out what's going on.  The solo one measure before 26 is an example of a passage where the bassoon should totally emerge from the orchestral texture.  In the Allegretto, the 16th note triplets must be accurately placed by subdivision of the beat.  Also, the triplets should be light and balanced with the other woodwinds. 

The bassoon playing in the Scherzo should also be ultra light, and the staccatos ultra short.  Yes, Stravinsky staccatos really are shorter than other composers' staccatos!  The reed I was playing for the recent performances was difficult to produce short staccato on,  but my priority for the reed was the Berceuse solo.

Once the orchestra finally reaches the Berceuse, it's time to forget about the short, loud, fast, high chaos from the preceding Infernal Dance (which was discussed at the beginning of this post).  It's time to completely chill.

My teacher at Eastman, K. David Van Hoesen, used to focus on finger motion, especially during my freshman year.  He insisted that I keep my fingers close to the bassoon for economy of movement, and he also spoke a great deal about the concept of imagining that you're molding clay with your fingers while playing legato passages.

Well, if there was ever a solo to mold clay on, it's this one.  To practice the Berceuse, I put the metronome on 60 (Stravinsky's tempo marking for the Berceuse), set the electronic drone on Bb, and set a goal of extreme smoothness.  I find it very easy to hear smoothness (or lack thereof) when playing with a drone. I suspect that the continuity of the drone encourages continuity of the player's phrasing.  Sometimes I record all of this, too, for good measure.  Sure, I've played the Berceuse before, but each time I play it has to be better than the last. 

If other musicians in the orchestra report that they dozed off during the Berceuse, then you'll know you've done your job.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

High F (Bernstein Symphonic Dances)

I strongly suspect that professional bassoonists spend more time consulting fingering charts (for bassoon!) than any other professional instrumentalists.  Our instrument has infinite fingering options for many of the notes in our range.  In fact, I have even made up some of my own fingerings which I have never seen on any charts.

This past week I consulted my Cooper-Toplansky Essentials of Bassoon Technique once again to see about my high F options, as I prepared for a subscription concert featuring the Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.  I was hoping that I would discover a fantastic high F fingering which had somehow eluded me until this point.

That hope was delusional!   The only fingering which even remotely works for me is the standard one:

Furthermore, it was rather unreliable, even with high reeds.  I had to resort to something I never do - switching bocals.  I am a minimalist when it comes to bocals.  I play on the same bocal all the time (a new Heckel C1), even for screech bassoon solos like the Ravel Piano Concerto.  But I do own a high bocal which was made by William Allgood.

With the combination of a high reed, an embouchure adjusted for the extreme high range, the Allgood bocal, and the above fingering, high F became as reliable as it could be. Once set up with that combination, the only remaining factor influencing successful executions of the high Fs in the Bernstein was plenty of practice, in order to firmly incorporate the unfamiliar fingering and embouchure.  Biting the reed does not help (although biting does help for high G) but the reed must be shoved as far as possible into the mouth, and the lower jaw should be shoved out, making the embouchure more symmetrical than the typical overbite embouchure.

Some bassoons (not mine) have a high F key.  I didn't even know what a high F key would look like or where it would be placed, so I was glad to find this photo of a bassoon tenor joint on Robert Ronnes' website:

The keys near the left hand finger holes are (from left to right) high F#, high E, high F and high Eb.

I think it's accurate to state that keys for high E, Eb, F, F# and G (yes, they all  exist!) may be located in different places above and below the left hand finger holes on the tenor joint.  As many bassoonists know, the location of high E and Eb keys, both of which are common on professional bassoons, varies from bassoon to bassoon.  Bassoonists who order an instrument from a factory or maker must decide where they want the high note keys placed.

Ease of playing in the extreme high range varies greatly from bassoon to bassoon.  I'm willing to bet that on some bassoons, especially older Heckels, it is possible to play the high F without switching to a high bocal (although a high reed is surely necessary).  This may be true of other brands of bassoons as well.  

My bassoon is a new 15,000 series Heckel.  It's the ideal instrument for playing principal in the large, acoustically challenged hall where I perform, because it projects really well.  And its high range is exceptional too (although not easy), until we reach high F.  Once I sorted out the reed/bocal situation, even the high F was acceptable.  In fact, I was told by a clarinetist listening to my obsessive practicing that it sounded like a soprano sax.  (He didn't mean that as an insult - he didn't know that we spend our lifetimes trying not to sound like a saxophone!)

But I must admit - I'm not accustomed to working this hard to play the bassoon!  The high F became the focus of the week (and the preceding week as well).  Here is the passage containing the high Fs in the Bernstein:

The person playing this part before me must have had a really hard time, because as you can see, he or she had to write in the names of the notes!  There are 3 high Fs in the passage, and each is preceded by a high Bb and followed by a high E.  Therefore, practicing the 3 note pattern of high Bb, F and E is very helpful.  I practiced that pattern many times.

I also practiced the entire passage with a metronome, once the F fingering was well incorporated.  Of course, at first the metronome was set at a very slow tempo.  I didn't increase the metronome speed until the passage was flawless at the current tempo.  The reason I spent so much time working with the metronome is because in a passage like this, it would be all too easy to become overwhelmed by the difficulty of the fingerings, and to lose track of the tempo and rhythm.  (Besides, I practice with a metronome all the time anyway.)  I also practiced with an electronic tuning drone to be sure the intonation was accurate.

The first time I encountered this piece, I was in shock.  I wasn't at all sure whether or not the 1st bassoonist was really expected to play the high Fs!  Well, I now know that the answer is yes, the 1st bassoonist must find a way to pull it off.  If not, there are plenty of talented unemployed bassoonists waiting in the wings who would be more than happy to do it!  As orchestral jobs become more and more scarce, the standards for performing in those jobs must inevitably rise to a level near perfection.