bassoon blog

musings of a professional bassoonist

Friday, March 6, 2015

Beyond the overture: Le nozze di Figaro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Electronic enhancement of concert hall acoustics

Columbus Symphony musicians warming up before a concert

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, January 4, 2015

A-Reed-A Day Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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



Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dead Elvis postmortem


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

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

Memorize first; practice later

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

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

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


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

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

To memorize or not to memorize

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

The Elvis reed

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

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

The attire

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

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

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

The research

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

The vibrato

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

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

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

The choreography

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

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

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

What I learned from Elvis himself

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Sunday, November 2, 2014

What Elvis taught me about bassoon reeds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let that be a lesson to us all.

Yours truly, rehearsing in costume



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!