bassoon blog

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

reed making tip

A student recently asked me if my reeds ever crack during the reed-making process and unfortunately my answer was an emphatic YES.   I don't take it lightly, either......each time a reed cracks I manage to convince myself that the cracked reed would have been the reed of my lifetime if only I hadn't destroyed it.   Depression ensues once the anger dissipates.....it's all part of the mourning process.
😭😭😭

In my experience the cracking almost always happens during the tip profiling step.  The blade on the underside of the large metal plaque that the reed is inserted on for profiling is the one which cracks.  While the top blade is being profiled, the bottom blade is cracking.
the devastating sight of a cracked blade when the reed is turned over after tip profiling the other blade

This does not indicate a flaw in the tip profiling machine, though.  (I highly recommend using a tip profiler!)  I suspect that the cracking is most likely caused by not soaking the reed long enough before insertion onto the plaque.  Also it seems that when I'm impatient while making reeds, I'm much more likely to end up ruining the reed.  I've been known to become overzealous with the knife during the shaping step with dreadful results, for example.

Although my reeds rarely crack, today was one of those days.  Today's cracked reed could have been a victim of not enough soaking (it was soaked for maybe 5 minutes) before tip profiling, and I was definitely in a hurry (which is why I only soaked it for 5 minutes!).

It's time to slow down, take a deep breath and get back to the drawing board......and remember:

Don't make reeds when you're in a hurry!



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Monday, July 2, 2018

Extending the boundaries

Dutch bassoonist Bram van Sambeek is known for his willingness (and his ability) to extend the boundaries of bassoon playing.  He's outdone himself in this intriguing video featuring the band ORBI (Oscillating Revenge of the Background Instruments) of which he is a founding member:




Bram van Sambeek was principal bassoonist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 2002 until 2011 when he left to pursue a solo career.  Although few bassoonists possess the musical wherewithal to embark on a solo career, he is enough of a virtuoso superstar to pull it off.  In addition to his considerable classical chops, he is admirably at ease in the genres of jazz, rock, heavy metal and world music.

Bram's intrepid explorations have uncovered hitherto unheard of options for bassoonists beyond the orchestral world.  But that doesn't mean we can stop practicing; his jaw-dropping command of the instrument is what fuels his freedom to conquer the outer realms.


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Thursday, June 14, 2018

AFM Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) and the Butch Lewis Act


 
Thousands of union members showed up from all over the U.S. on July 12 and 13, 2018 for a national rally in Columbus, Ohio to save multi-employer pensions.  There was a hearing in the Ohio Statehouse on July 13th on the Butch Lewis Act.

It's a safe assumption that every union musician in the U.S. is aware that the American Federation of Musicians Employers' Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) has been in "critical" status since 2010 (following the recession of 2007-9). There has been a deluge of information and opinions on this matter flooding the internet, and it's rather daunting to attempt to separate fact from fiction.  Basically, the Fund has developed a a huge gap between its liabilities and its assets.  While its assets are growing due to increases in wages and due to earnings from investments, the benefits being paid to retirees far exceed the growth of the Fund's assets.  This problem is not unique to the AFM; 114 multi-employer  pension funds in the U.S. are expected to become insolvent over the next 20 years.  

Peter de Boor, editor of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians' (ICSOM's) official publication Senza Sordino, recently published this article to help shed light on the situation.

Shortly thereafter, the Musicians for Pension Security (a pension awareness group made up of AFM union members who are currently vested in the AFM-EPF Pension Fund) issued this response
to Peter de Boor's article.

Who's right?  Who's wrong?  Is there a solution to the problem?

In November 2017 Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced the Butch Lewis Act of 2017 
(S. 2147/H.R. 4444).  This legislation is not a government bail-out; instead, it restores solvency to multi-employer pension plans by allowing the plans to borrow the money they need to remain solvent.  The actuaries of the AFM-EPF have confirmed that the Butch Lewis Act would address the financial issues of the AFM-EPF by providing the financial support to prevent insolvency in the event that the fund enters "critical and declining" status.  The Musicians for Pension Security also supports this legislation.

The Butch Lewis legislation was not included in the February 2018 Congressional budget deal, but a Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multi-employer Pension Plans was authorized to closely examine the multi-employer pension crisis and to develop legislation by November 30, 2018.  Now is the time to convince lawmakers to take this matter seriously, prior to that November 30th deadline.

We musicians have the ability to make our voices heard in Congress by using the contact information and suggestions provided by the American Federation of Musicians.

The Musicians for Pension Security offers these suggestions for taking action.

Here's a user-friendly online petition in support of the Butch Lewis Act.

If you haven't yet taken action in support of the Butch Lewis Act, please do so now for the sake of your retirement income and the retirement income of musicians nationwide.   

The Musicians for Pension Security (MPS) also proposes a solution based upon increased contributions.  Specifically, the MPS suggests 6% annual increases in contributions to the Fund over the next 5 years and 2.9% annual increases thereafter in order to prevent future cuts in benefits.  As a musician who is currently involved in Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, I can state with surety that it would be impossible to talk my orchestra and/or its administration into increasing our contributions to the AFM-EPF.  Instead, everyone is lamenting the fact that we're "trapped" in the Fund.  While it does seem plausible that increasing contributions (above the increases which occur as a result of wage increases) might solve the problem, it doesn't seem possible because of the Fund's unfortunate reputation.  That's why I believe that the Butch Lewis Act, endorsed by both AFM and MPS, is our best available solution at this time.  Let's do what we can to support it!



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Thursday, June 7, 2018

For middle school bassoonists

Many bassoonists learn to play the bassoon during middle school; that's the ideal time to establish good playing habits.  The first important habit presented here is playing position, which includes embouchure and position of the reed in the mouth.  Next a few basic fingering issues are addressed, followed by the use of air and embouchure.

PLAYING POSITION 

In order to produce the best possible sound on the bassoon, there are certain basic recommendations for playing position. First, establish your sitting position without the bassoon.  Sit comfortably (but sit up straight) in the chair with your head straight (not tilted up).  Add the bassoon, adjusting the seat strap backward, forward, up or down to fit the bassoon comfortably into your original position.   

Bassoon playing position
 Make sure that the bocal is positioned correctly.  Usually the bocal aligns best between the pad of the A key and the C key.  The left thumb keys should be  pointing at you, not off to your left.  The instrument should be balanced, with its weight shared by your right thigh and your left hand.

The next important aspect of playing position is the embouchure.  Cover your teeth completely with your upper and lower lips and then drop your jaw, producing what is referred to as an overbite embouchure.  Bassoon embouchure is not symmetrical - there should be little or no pressure on the reed applied by the lower lip or jaw.  The lower lip simply encases the reed, otherwise staying out of the way.  There are other types of bassoon embouchures but this is the type that has worked best for my students and myself.

Bassoon overbite embouchure - drop your jaw and don't push up on the reed!
The next critical aspect of playing position is the position of the reed in the mouth.  I tell my students to place about half of the blade of the reed in the mouth.  If this issue is unaddressed, the tendency of most students is to insert too much of the reed into the mouth, resulting in difficulty in controlling sound, intonation and dynamics.

Reed position - only half of the blade should be inserted into the player's mouth.

 FINGERINGS

Bassoon students are often unsure of fingerings, which is understandable considering the complexity of certain bassoon fingerings and the fact that many notes have multiple fingerings (some better than others!).  There aren't many patterns or rules, unfortunately, but there are a few.....for example, I was surprised to find out during a recent master class that none of the students could fully answer the question "Which notes require the whisper key?".  They knew that the whisper key was needed for Bb1 through F2 (the numbers indicate the bassoon octave, so our lowest note is Bb1, and the octave higher is Bb2, etc.) but beyond that, they were uncertain.

Here are a few rules which should be memorized:

The "pancake" key takes the place of the whisper key for the very lowest notes (Bb1-Db1).  That's because the player's left thumb is unable to reach the regular whisper key while also activating the low C, low B and low Bb keys.
The pancake key, which substitutes for the whisper key.



The reason why the left thumb whisper key can't be activated at the same time as the low C, low B or low Bb key (it would be physically impossible).
The purpose of both the pancake key and the whisper key is to close the whisper key pad which covers the hole in the nub of the bocal:
The whisper key pad covers the hole in the nub of the bocal.  The whisper key pad is activated by either the left thumb whisper key or the right thumb pancake key.

It's important to regularly test your pancake key to be sure that it's totally closing the whisper key pad over its hole on the bocal.  If it's not, just add some tape (masking tape, duct tape, etc.) to the connector extending from the tenor joint to the "foot" extending from the rod of the pancake.  This is what it looks like:
Orange duct tape added to the connector.  This enables the pancake to fully close the whisper key over the hole on the bocal
These are the notes which require the pancake key (in place of the whisper key):
Bb1 through Db1

These are the notes which require the whisper key:
              D1 through Ab2,                             G3,        G#3

There is another variation of the whisper key issue.......there are 5 notes on the bassoon which require both the whisper key AND a half hole in the first finger left hand.  These are the notes which require whisper key PLUS half hole:
             F#2        G2,        G#2,       G3,      G#3

First finger left hand half hole

There is also confusion about when to use the little finger left hand Eb key (also known as the upper auxiliary key).  These are the notes requiring the Eb (upper auxiliary) key:
             Eb1,    (Eb2),         G2,     E3 and all notes above E3

The Eb or upper auxiliary key
Eb2 has many different fingerings, some of which require the Eb (auxiliary) key.  My preferred fingering for Eb2 does not require the Eb key, but sometimes I use one of the fingerings which does require it.  It's very important for students to remember that as a rule, the Eb (upper auxiliary) key is required for all of the high notes beginning with E3.

These are the few fingering rules which apply to the bassoon, and hopefully memorizing these rules will help students begin to master the vast fingering chart for our instrument.

USE OF AIR AND EMBOUCHURE

The pitch and dynamics are controlled by air and embouchure as follows: 

If you use more air, the pitch rises and the sound gets louder.  
If you use less air, the pitch drops and the sound gets softer.  
If you tighten your embouchure, the pitch rises and the sound gets softer.  
If you loosen your embouchure, the pitch drops and the sound gets louder.  

Awareness of these rules helps bassoonists gain control of what comes out of the bassoon!

For more in-depth information, here's a blog post for high school bassoonists.



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Tuesday, June 5, 2018

For high school bassoonists

There are many aspects of bassoon playing which are important for high school-aged bassoonists such as equipment, playing position, air and embouchure, finger technique, effective practicing, musicianship, tonguing and tone production.  Here are a few basic pointers from each of those categories which may be helpful.

Reeds

Once the student has identified a reliable reed source, the lifespan of each reed may be maximized by following one important rule:  Always allow reeds to dry out after playing.  

How long does a reed last?  It varies according to whether or not the reed has dried out after playing, the level of acidity in the player's saliva and the amount of playing on the reed.  For most high school students, a reed lasts a few weeks or even months.  (However, it's common for a student to insist on newer reeds as his/her standards rise.)   Serious high school students often learn to make reeds.

What should reeds be stored in?  A small tin container such the type used for Sucrets or Altoids works well and costs little.  A nail and a hammer may be used to puncture a few air holes in the container so that air reaches the reeds.
tin reed cases with air holes made with hammer and nail

Here's an easy and effective way to improve a bassoon reed.  If the tip seems too open, just take a pair of pliers and squeeze the top wire from top to bottom:
Closing the tip by squeezing the top wire from top to bottom





If the tip seems too closed, squeeze from side to side:
Opening the tip by squeezing the top wire from side to side
The best part of this reed fix is that if it doesn't work (or if it makes the reed worse) it's reversible!  Don't be afraid to experiment with this.  Many a bad reed has been rectified using this method.

Instruments

If a student has a choice of instruments, it's best to test each one to identify the one which is most cooperative.  A private bassoon teacher will be able to ensure that the instrument is working properly.  One common problem is that the connector between the boot and the tenor joint is often out of adjustment so that the pancake key does not completely close the whisper key pad on the bocal.  That problem will cause the low notes to balk, and it's an easy problem to resolve using a piece of tape around the connector to make it thicker.

If the student's family is fortunate enough to be able to afford to purchase a bassoon, several of my students have recently purchased Fox Renard model 240 bassoons from Midwest Musical Imports for less than $10,000.  The Fox 240 is an excellent instrument especially considering its relatively low price.  I always remind parents that the bassoon can be sold later if for any reason it's no longer needed.  Bassoons retain their value more than most other instruments.

Bassoons are delicate and must be properly cared for.  Bassoons should never be laid down flat on any surface due to the probability of moisture reaching the pads.  If it's not possible to keep the bassoon upright, then it should be disassembled and placed in its case.  

Each time the bassoon is disassembled, the tenor joint and the boot must be swabbed with pull-through cloth (such as silk) swabs.  The best swabs have a string (tail) on each end in case the swab gets stuck inside the bassoon. 

Bocals

It's important for students to use the best bocal available and to understand that each bocal has a number between 0 and 3.  The higher the number, the longer the bocal, and the lower the pitch.   Since bocals vary greatly, t's a good idea for a student to try all available bocals and choose the one which plays best in tune and has the best sound.  Bocals are extremely fragile and should be handled with great care.

The bocal must be kept clean it order for it to function properly.   A silk bocal swab (with a string on each end in case it becomes stuck) is the best tool for cleaning, and should be used approximately once a month.  Wash the swab after each cleaning.  
  
bocal swab, with a tail on each end
If no bocal swab is available, twist the ends of three pipe cleaners together and push the pipe cleaners through the bocal, rinsing with water afterwards.

Seat strap and neck strap support

Bassoons require a seat strap for playing in the seated position. The best type of seat strap is the cup style.  The cup strap allows easy adjusting of the position of the bassoon.
Cup style bassoon seat strap
A neck strap, sling strap or harness is required for playing in the standing position.  For either sitting or standing, the support strap should be adjusted so that the bassoon is in the best possible and most comfortable position for playing.  Saxophone neck straps work well for bassoon. I recommend the Wittman Spinstrap Model 700 for sax or bassoon - it's the most comfortable support for standing with a bassoon that I've found.  Unlike typical neckstraps which can be very uncomfortable, the Spinstrap is more like a sling which goes over the left shoulder and under the right arm.

spinsaxstrap
Wittman Spinstrap for Saxes and Bassoons

Placement of bocal

The bocal should be aligned between the high A key pad and the high C key pad in order to achieve the best balance (with the weight of the bassoon evenly distributed between the right outer thigh and the inside of the left hand near the base of the forefinger).  When the position of the bocal is correct, the left thumb keys point toward the player, not off to the player's left.
the bocal is positioned here between the pad of the high A key and the pad of the high C key

Posture of the player

The bassoonist should sit up straight and comfortably in the chair, leaning slightly forward rather than sitting back in the chair.  The player's head should always remain looking straight ahead, not tilted up or down to accommodate the bassoon.  The seat strap should be adjusted so that the bocal heads straight into the player's mouth without the player having to adjust.  Adjust the BASSOON, not the posture.
Bassoon playing position

Formation of embouchure

Bassoon embouchure is formed by wrapping the upper and lower lips over the teeth and dropping the jaw.  No lips should be showing, and most of the pressure should be applied to the reed from above, with the jaw just dropped down and not pushing up.
With an overbite embouchure, pressure is applied to the reed from above, and the player is careful to avoid pushing up on the reed!

Placement of reed in the mouth

About half of the blade of the reed should be placed in the player's mouth.  Many students insert the reed too far.  As the player ascends up the range, gradually more of the reed is inserted.  As the player descends, gradually less reed is taken into the mouth.
Only half of the blade is placed in the player's mouth.

Also, it's important for the player to beware of pushing up on the reed with the jaw, which is a common problem.  It's best to think of applying pressure on the reed from above, while relaxing and dropping the jaw.  Bassoon students often play sharp, and the best way to avoid that is to be sure that the pressure on the reed is coming from above, not pushing up from below (the jaw should be relaxed and dropped down).  Generally, a sharp, constricted sound indicates a too-tight embouchure.

Fingerings

Bassoon students are often unsure of fingerings, which is understandable considering the complexity of certain bassoon fingerings and the fact that many notes have multiple fingerings (some better than others!).  There aren't many patterns or rules, unfortunately, but there are a few.....for example, I was surprised to find out during a recent master class that none of the students could fully answer the question "Which notes require the whisper key?".  They knew that the whisper key was needed for Bb1 through F2 (the numbers indicate the bassoon octave, so our lowest note is Bb1, and the octave higher is Bb2, etc.) but beyond that, they were uncertain.

Here are a few rules which should be memorized:

The "pancake" key takes the place of the whisper key for the very lowest notes (Bb1-Db1).  That's because the player's left thumb is unable to reach the regular whisper key while also activating the low C, low B and low Bb keys.
The pancake key, which substitutes for the whisper key.



The reason why the left thumb whisper key can't be activated at the same time as the low C, low B or low Bb key (it would be physically impossible).
The purpose of both the pancake key and the whisper key is to close the whisper key pad which covers the hole in the nub of the bocal:
The whisper key pad covers the hole in the nub of the bocal.  The whisper key pad is activated by either the left thumb whisper key or the right thumb pancake key.

It's important to regularly test your pancake key to be sure that it's totally closing the whisper key pad over its hole on the bocal.  If it's not, just add some tape (masking tape, duct tape, etc.) to the connector extending from the tenor joint to the "foot" extending from the rod of the pancake.  This is what it looks like:
Orange duct tape added to the connector.  This enables the pancake to fully close the whisper key over the hole on the bocal
These are the notes which require the pancake key (in place of the whisper key):
Bb1 through Db1

These are the notes which require the whisper key:
              D1 through Ab2,                             G3,        G#3


There is another variation of the whisper key issue.......there are 5 notes on the bassoon which require both the whisper key AND a half hole in the first finger left hand.  These are the notes which require whisper key PLUS half hole:
             F#2        G2,        G#2,       G3,      G#3

First finger left hand half hole

 There is also confusion about when to use the little finger left hand Eb key (also known as the upper auxiliary key).  These are the notes requiring the Eb (upper auxiliary) key:
             Eb1,    (Eb2),         G2,     E3 and all notes above E3

The Eb or upper auxiliary key
Eb2 has many different fingerings, some of which require the Eb (auxiliary) key.  My preferred fingering for Eb2 does not require the Eb key, but sometimes I use one of the fingerings which does require it.  It's very important for students to remember that as a rule, the Eb (upper auxiliary) key is required for all of the high notes beginning with E3.

These are the few fingering rules which apply to the bassoon, and hopefully memorizing these rules will help students begin to master the vast fingering chart for our instrument.

Air and embouchure

The two factors which bassoonists use to change pitch and dynamics are air and embouchure, as follows:

Using more air results in higher pitch and louder dynamics.  
Using less air results in lower pitch and lower dynamics.  
Tightening the embouchure results in higher pitch and lower dynamics.  
Loosening the embouchure results in lower pitch and louder dynamics.

Breathing

A good way to practice abdominal breathing is to lie on the floor belly up with a book placed on the lower abdomen.  The goal is to make the book rise upon inhaling and sink down upon exhaling. Then the abdominal breathing may be used to practice steady, controlled long tones on the bassoon, producing straight tones at first and later adding crescendos and diminuendos.

Developing a concept of sound and musicianship

It's a good idea for bassoon students to have a goal of playing with a desirable tone.  There are many YouTube videos of superstar bassoonists such as Sophie Dartigalongue, Nadina Mackie Jackson, Arthur Weisberg, Klaus Thunemann, Min-Ho Lee, Judith LeClair and Gilbert Audin.  Musicianship may be learned from performances and recording of any great musician, and a student's exposure to great musicians should certainly not be limited to bassoonists!  It's advisable to spend considerable time listening to recordings of world class string players, singers and pianists in order to develop a sense of musicianship.


Vibrato

Once the student has good control of long tones, it's time to begin developing vibrato, which may be thought of as a regular pulsation in the sound caused by bursts of air.   These pulsations are best practiced in strict rhythm in order to build the abdominal muscles involved in vibrato production.   There are many ways to think of producing beginning vibrato, such as imitating the sound of a dying car battery, or using a "Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!" or panting or laughing.  Bassoon students often benefit from watching string players produce vibrato with the left hand; vibrato obviously cannot be seen when produced by a wind player.

In general, the speed of vibrato in general varies from 4 beats per second to 7 beats per second, with 5 or 6 per second falling into the normal range.  Lower pitched voices and instruments often tend to use a somewhat slower vibrato than higher pitched instruments.  Advanced musicians are able to vary the speed and intensity of the vibrato.

To learn vibrato on the bassoon, set the metronome at 60 and begin pulsating 2 times per beat.  Gradually, over the course of weeks or months, increase the pulsations up to 7 per beat (which is quite fast).

Rhythm

Accurate rhythm and a steady pulse are essential for a strong musical performance on any instrument.  Rhythm should never be neglected during practicing, and regular use of a metronome is recommended.

For more advanced musicians, rubato is used to create musically interesting phrases.  Within the context of a steady pulse, some notes are stretched while others are compressed in order to fit into the steady pulse framework, allowing emphasis of certain parts of the phrase - that's what the term rubato refers to.

For sight-reading, rhythm should always be top priority; other flaws may be overlooked, but rhythmic accuracy is essential.

Practicing effectively

It's important to avoid practicing mistakes!   That means stopping and addressing any problems as they arise during practice sessions.  The most basic rule of practicing is to slow it down.  Sometimes a technical problem is resolved simply by slowing down the tempo and playing the passage a few times slowly.

If a note is out of tune, the embouchure, air or fingering may be manipulated to resolve the problem.  Tuning apps make it easy to identify issues.  If the rhythm is inaccurate, a metronome app might come in handy. Subdividing is a very helpful technique for improving rhythmic accuracy.

If the fingerings are sloppy, which is so often the case for bassoonists, it's very helpful to listen closely so that the exact notes causing the problem may be identified.  The problem intervals may benefit from being played slowly (and accurately) many times before adding the surrounding notes.

Unless the passage in question is written all slurred, I recommend eliminating all articulations so that the passage is all slurred.  Once the passage can be played evenly all slurred, then add the articulations as printed.  It's very common for students to blame the tongue for problems which are actually caused by uneven fingerings.

Another approach is to play the entire passage until reaching the first problem note.  Then that note is held with a fermata. Next, with great conviction, the fingers are clicked into the correct fingering for the next note, with a fermata also on that one, and so on throughout the problematic part of the passage.  After the problem notes are finished, the passage is completed as written (so that only the problematic notes have fermatas).  This approach should be repeated several times.

Afterwards, the passage is played as written.  It's possible that there will be a new problem created by the corrections which just took place, and the same technique using fermatas and clicking fingerings may be applied again to the new problem notes.

How do you know when a passage is mastered?  If you can play it perfectly 10 times in a row, then you're in good shape!

What to practice

Scales and arpeggios are the building blocks of all of the music we're called upon to perform, and that's why it's so important to familiarize ourselves with all of the major and minor scales and arpeggios.  Long tones are essential for developing control of the air and embouchure (which control the pitch and dynamics as well as sound).  Bassoon students usually work on etudes also such as those by Weissenborn and Milde.
Bassoon etude books

Tonguing

In order to begin a note on the bassoon with a graceful and clean "attack", it's necessary to have the embouchure and air set up in advance.  Think of the tongue as a valve which starts and stops the flow of air.  The player sets up the air and embouchure with the tongue against the reed so that it doesn't yet vibrate.  When, with the correct embouchure and air in place for the note being played, the tongue is pulled back, allowing the air to vibrate the reed.  That technique results in a very desirable attack. Then when the tongue is again placed against the reed, the note ends.

Many bassoonists also employ the technique known as double tonguing, and some begin learning it as early as high school.  Basically, double tonguing requires the player to begin the first note with the tongue in front as usual, but the second note is articulated with the tongue in the back of the mouth.  The spoken syllables would be "TaKaTaKa......etc." or "DuGuDuGu....etc.".   Here's a blog post I wrote about learning to double tongue on the bassoon.

Flicking

Flicking is a technique, unique to bassoon playing, which improves or enables the response of certain notes (A2, Bb3, B3, C3 and D3.....see below), especially when the note is being slurred to from a note in the lower range.  The left thumb briefly swipes open one of the left thumb keys (the high A, high C or high D key) at the beginning of the flicked note.  These are the flick notes and the thumb key used to flick each note (Bb3 can use either the A key or the C key):

Recommended reading

The Art of Wind Playing by Arthur Weisberg (currently out of print but available from Amazon and various other sources).
                                                
The Art of Wind Playing

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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz's epic masterpiece Symphonie Fantastique, written in 1830, radically expanded the realm of symphonic music.  Beethoven had just died three years earlier (in 1827) after dramatically pushing the boundaries himself.  While Beethoven's influence is evident in  Symphonie Fantastique, there is no question that Berlioz also veered off the path, marching to a very different drummer.

It's all about Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress with whom Berlioz was obsessed.  Inspired by the programmatic nature of Beethoven's Pastorale Symphony (no. 6), the actual title of Berlioz's work is An Episode in the Life of an Artist (Symphonie Fantastique was a subtitle).  Of course, the artist was Berlioz, and the episode portrayed his self-destructive love for Harriet.

Apparently Berlioz was highly emotional, to the point some might consider unstable.  He used opium in the attempt to calm his nerves, which was a fairly common approach at the time.  I'll never forget the reaction of my music history class at Eastman when we found out that Berlioz had composed this work while on opium.....it wasn't just a story about someone who turned to opium due to romantic frustrations....Berlioz actually wrote the piece (or at least parts of the piece) while on opium!  It left such an impression that every time I think of Symphonie Fantastique I immediately think of opium.

Berlioz described his love for Harriet as "that rage, that fury, that delirium which takes possession of all one’s faculties, which renders one capable of anything".  He fell in love with her while watching her act onstage, and subsequently he wrote impassioned letters which she summarily ignored.  Symphonie Fantastique was the perfect outlet for his wild emotions.  And it was successful....once she realized the piece was about her, she agreed to receive him, whereupon he threatened to overdose on opium if she wouldn't marry him.  He proceeded to ingest the opium in front of her, at which point she became hysterical and agreed to the marriage.  He then pulled an antidote out of his pocket and ingested that, ensuring his survival from the overdose.  They married once he recovered.  (Why has no one in Hollywood made a movie out of this story?  The film score has already been written!)

Bassoon players generally think of Symphonie Fantastique as a huge bassoon piece.  It stands out in the bassoon orchestral repertoire in that it features all four bassoonists in unison soli passages.  Why did Berlioz score this piece for 4 bassoons, while only 2 flutes (2nd doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling on English horn) and 2 clarinets (second doubling on Eb clarinet) made it into the score?  The explanation may be found in the typical structure of a Parisian orchestra during the 1800s.  Due to the nature of the French basson, 4 bassoons were used in Parisian orchestras while there were only 2 of each of the other woodwind instruments (2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets).  The French basson had a narrower bore than the German bassoon and its sound was decidedly lighter, drier and sweeter than the German bassoon.  Its delicate sound was probably easily overpowered by other instruments.  One can only imagine what Berlioz would think of today's more muscular bassoons.  Might he be tempted to re-orchestrate for only 2 bassoons?

There are only a couple of exposed passages for the first bassoon alone, one at the very opening:


The first bassoonist will know exactly where to place the triplet notes after observing the score (below).  Also it should be noted that the second measure (ppp) is softer than the first measure (p).  And Berlioz, the inveterate extremist, asks for a diminuendo once the ppp dynamic is attained!


A little further into the movement, all four bassoons are called upon to slur a succession of G octave triplets:
from mvt. 1 of Symphonie Fantastique
Earlier in the movement (measure 10 to be exact) the cellos slur similar triplets (from D down to G) and it might be a good idea for the bassoonists to listen carefully and later attempt to match that sound, which is quite calm and even.  To accomplish this, I think it's best not to attempt to slur the downward G octaves.  Some of the low Gs might speak on time, but what about the ones which don't?  And what about the fact that 4 bassoonists, all of whom struggle with that slur, are doing this at once, thereby quadrupling the potential for awkward squawks and late arrivals of the lower G?  Although the cellos and basses are also playing along on the above passage, they're so quiet that the bassoonists usually can't hear them while playing.  I advise lightly tonguing the low Gs so that it sounds as legato as possible, while eliminating the risk of balking low Gs.  Don't be a hero!  In other words, don't sacrifice the musical outcome for the sake of "heroically" playing exactly what's printed in your part.  (This advice also applies to missed attacks.....rather than jump in at random with your missed note, it's preferable to either leave the note out or re-attempt to enter at a musically sensible moment.)  This passage is a good example of a situation where it may be more beneficial to the ensemble if the bassoonists lightly tongue the problematic slurred notes.  If the tonguing is discreet enough, no one will know the difference.  In the words of the great French bassoonist Maurice Allard, when it comes to this type of downward slur, the bassoonist should "Cheat, but cheat sweetly, like when you lie to your wife!".


There is another "solo" later in the first movement in which the 1st bassoon plays the recurring idée fixe theme (which represents Harriet) with the flute and clarinet:


It's important to add to the drama by honoring Berlioz's markings assiduously.  Of course, it's also the bassoonist's responsibility to provide a solid pitch foundation in the lower octave to support the flute and clarinet throughout the passage.  The idée fixe ends at bar 12 above.  At that point, the first and third bassoon in unison join the low strings in a somewhat exposed passage.  Intonation may be an issue here, especially for the lower notes.  Accurate intonation may require dramatic manipulation of the embouchure and position of the reed in the mouth - we bassoonists learn to do whatever it takes to keep the pitch down.

This is the only passage in the entire piece which might be considered a true bassoon solo, albeit a brief one:


It occurs near the end of the first movement.  Again, the crescendos must be brought out as requested by Berlioz, although the solo is generally calm in character.  

The first movement ends with a serene chorale: 


This is a prime example of why we practice long tones.  The bassoons are in octaves here, with the two lower parts being clearly more difficult considering the challenges of control and intonation on low Fs and low Cs.

For the second movement Berlioz trades the 4 bassoons for 2 harps.....the 4 bassoons are tacet while the 2 harps come to life for this movement only.  That means that the bassoon section gets to kick back and enjoy listening to the exciting whirlwind of a waltz while conserving energy for the heaving lifting of the remaining 3 movements.

Berlioz calls upon all 4 bassoons for many of the semi-exposed tutti passages of the 3rd movement. 


The 4 bassoons are in unison with the low strings.  As always, attention must be paid to Berlioz's details of dynamics and articulation.  Only some of the notes are to be played staccato, and the rest should be noticeably more legato.  Be alert for tempo changes such as the poco animato beginning 3 before 42.  Playing softly enough to be able to hear the cellos is advised, if acoustics allow. 

The truly heavy-duty bassoon soli passages begin in movement 4, the March to the Scaffold.  In this movement Berlioz, convinced that his love will be forever unrequited, poisons himself with opium.  The desperation of the situation is expressed by the 4 bassoons in unison:


The review of the Columbus Symphony's recent performance of Symphonie Fantastique mentioned the "shrieking bassoons".  I believe the reviewer was referring to the above passage, which benefits from being played with the strength which was surely lacking in the French basson of Berlioz's day.  After the first mf phrase, there is a crescendo to the high A and the next phrase.  Of course it's important for the 4 bassoons to play these notes with matching intonation.  The pickups at the beginning of each phrase (the sixteenth followed by dotted eighth followed by sixteenth) should be very incisive, almost forceful.  I suggest adding a crescendo in the first phrase up to the high G, and using vibrato on the quarter notes to add emphasis and intensity.  The final quarter note of each phrase (except the third phrase, which dies down at the end) should be held for full value or even longer for extended resonance.  This is a very exciting passage, especially when the conductor gives the bassoons free rein to shriek.

Soon after that, the 4 bassoons engage in a progression (a march, as it were) of eighth notes.  This is one of the two most famous bassoon excerpts in the piece, and is sometimes featured on auditions.

Notice that the dynamic is piano.   It's common to hear this passage played rather aggressively, almost angrily.  Would Berlioz have requested the soft dynamic, especially from the French basson, if he wanted this passage to sound aggressive?  Probably not.  I asked the Columbus Symphony bassoon section to adhere to the p dynamic, and I was pleased with the result.  One benefit of playing at that dynamic level is that each bassoonist can hear the other bassoonists better, and the ensemble benefits.  Rushing is perhaps less likely to occur.  Also, there's no doubt that the softer sound imitates the French basson sound to which which Berlioz was accustomed.   I will admit that during the concerts I did add crescendos as the line ascended and vice versa, as my teacher K. David Van Hoesen recommended, to add a bit of spice.

The division of the bassoon parts varies from one edition to another.  In some editions, the first and second bassoon parts are coupled and in other editions, the first and third parts are coupled.  The two pairs of bassoons play basically two parts, which join together in unison for the important bassoon ensemble soli.  At the moment in history when Berlioz composed this work,  the orchestra's 4 bassoonists doubled two parts.  Berlioz was breaking the mold when he decided to make harmonic use of the fact that he had 4 bassoon players at his disposal, for example near the beginning of the 5th movements of Symphonie Fantastique where he took the bold and historic step of writing 4 individual bassoon parts:


A little later in the fifth movement lies the second of the two major bassoon audition excerpts:

Here the bassoons accompany the Eb clarinet solo.  The tempo varies, and so does the type of tonguing used.  It's possible to single tongue if the tempo is on the moderate side.  Often, however, double tonguing is necessary.  Some musicians believe that it's important to think of the sixteenths as 3 sets of duplets per beat rather than as 2 sets of triplets per beat.  The rhythm is identical, but the emphasis is different.  In the duplet version, emphasis is on the first and third sixteenth note of each set.  In the triplet version, emphasis is on the first and fourth sixteenth of each group of sixteenths.  Most bassoonists think in triplets, as far as I know, even though it appears that Berlioz preferred the duplet approach, since he did not write a "3" above the first 3 sixteenths of each group to indicate a triplet approach.  This is a minor detail, perhaps, but one never knows when it might be significant to an audition committee or a conductor.

I recommend practicing this excerpt with a metronome.  It's particularly challenging to keep the tempo steady from one before 64 to the end of the excerpt.  There is sometimes a tendency to slow down at 64 when the rhythm changes. 

Soon after the above sixteenths is a long-winded exposed passage for all 4 bassoons:

This passage is doubled in the cellos and basses.  Once again, intonation is critical, and a good way to practice this is with a sound drone producing a C.  Many of the notes in this passage are troublesome pitch-wise for bassoonists, but that's no excuse.  With a good reed and flexible embouchure, it's very possible to play all notes on the bassoon well in tune.  The passage diminuendos to ppp.  That means using less air and a loose, open embouchure (while taking less of the reed into your mouth) to bring the pitch down where it belongs.  If you check the score you'll see that the cellos hold the low C one measure longer than the bassoons and basses.  That sometimes causes bassoonists to hang on to the C too long.  It's better to allow the cellos to finish the passage, as Berlioz requested.

The Dies Irae theme comes next, played by all 4 bassoons and 2 tubas:

Each note has an accent, and that's the most important aspect of these Dies Irae passages other than intonation.  As I've said before in this blog, I do not like to change reeds in the middle of a piece.  However, this is one of those passages which really might call for a special reed, one that plays loudly and in tune in the extreme low range.  I did not change reeds during our recent performances, but I used this passage to test new reeds for the piece, and the reed I chose was strong in the low range so that switching reeds was unnecessary.

Although the tubas may easily outblast the bassoons, the bassoons do have the physical advantage of being located closer to the front of the stage, so we probably can be heard somewhat.  Is it OK to allow a bit of buzz to creep into one's sound for this passage for extra "edge" and projection?  Maybe.

The bassoons participate enthusiastically in the Witches' Round Dance:


This excerpt was my sight-reading for my Performer's jury (the junior year jury which determines candidacy for the Performer's Certificate) at Eastman, interestingly.  It's easy to become entangled in the eighth notes after 72, so some wood-shedding helps (if it's not sight-reading, that is).

Shortly thereafter the bassoon section engages in a round with the cellos.  The cellos begin two measures before the bassoons enter at 3 after 76:


Clarity and incisiveness, even as the passage diminuendos to an eventual ppp, seem appropriate here as the whirlwind winds down.  

The following trill passage which begins in the fourth bar of 83 has been known to make an appearance on an audition or two:
One very common mistake that woodwind players make on this passage is to make the eighth note trills (which begin on the fifth full bar of the passage, or 9 bars after 83) sound as though the trills are actually grace notes before the beat.  Yes, it's easier to play it that way, but that's not what Berlioz wrote.  He wanted the trills on the beat.  I think it's helpful to think of those eighth note trills as triplets so that the "trill" (which really is just a triplet at this fast tempo) falls on the beat.  Also keep in mind that the seven bars before 84 are marked p leggiero.  Those eighth notes often sound a little too frantic for p leggiero.

With Symphonie Fantastique Berlioz managed to revolutionize not just orchestral music, but also orchestral bassoon playing.  It's so hard to believe that it was written 188 years ago, on the cusp of the Romantic era!


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