musings of a professional bassoonist

Friday, December 25, 2009

The reed making habit

One of the benefits of maintaining this blog is that I am under constant self-induced pressure to practice what I preach.  I have preached that reed making is a habit which must be practiced daily to hone one's reedmaking skills and to provide a plentiful supply of reeds to choose from.  I stated that my goal was to make a minimum of one reed per day.  That goal seemed reasonable and worthwhile.

My longtime habit was thrown off by a change in scheduling of the Dr. Phil show.  Until recently, the Dr. Phil show aired daily at 10am, which proved to be the ideal time of day for me to make reeds (as long as I didn't have a 10am rehearsal).  In October Dr. Phil was moved to a late afternoon slot, and for some inexplicable reason, I can't/won't make reeds late in the day.

Dr. Phil had provided the perfect backdrop for reedmaking, because it was unnecessary to look at the TV screen- I just listened.  And learned.  (An added benefit of the Dr. Phil backdrop was that I was able to use my new found counseling skills to help troubled friends and acquaintances.  It's amazing how many problems can be dissipated by merely asking the famous Dr. Phil question: "So how's that workin' for ya?")

Glancing at the reed rack, I realized that the blanks on that rack had been formed weeks ago.  I had entered into a full-fledged reed slump.  I can't totally blame Dr. Phil for that.  These days, it's more important than ever before for orchestral musicians to do whatever they can to help the orchestra.  Here in Columbus we volunteer in various ways, such as playing for fundraisers and serving on committees.  Right now, the relationship between the musicians and the management is better than ever, so I am inspired to spend a lot of time helping. 

The question "How's that workin' for ya?" had to be applied to my own life, as I realized that my reed reserves were diminishing to a dangerously low level.  Although I make a fair number of reeds, I also use a lot of reeds!   I began to imagine trying to get through the difficult programs in January without enough reeds to choose from.  Slacking off on reedmaking was definitely NOT working for me!

During the first week of January we are performing the Sibelius Symphony No. 5 which features a major bassoon solo.  Bflat3 is a prominent note in the solo, so I'm going to have to have one of those reeds which is particularly stable on Bflat3.  (I vividly recall rejecting 50 reeds before I found one with a stable enough Bflat3 the last time I had a solo with prominent Bflat3s!)  Clearly, I need a huge supply of reeds right now.

Like any other habit which has been broken, it can be challenging to reboot the reedmaking habit.  I decided to just do it.  I was motivated by the fact that I have a new batch of cane to try: Rigotti from Woodwind Brasswind.  It's cheaper than any other source of Rigotti, and it looks good.  The gouge is even, as you can see here:

Since I have fallen behind, my minimum now has to be raised to 2 per day.  As I started working on my first blank, I wondered why I was so resistant to this activity.  It's really not that painful, yet ask any bassoonist what he/she thinks of reedmaking, and you'll probably be rewarded with eye-rolling, groaning and expletives.  But it's really not that bad, once you overcome the resistance and actually get started.

And at least we have tangible results to show for our efforts.  On the first day of my return to reedmaking, after finishing 2 blanks, I was fairly pleased with myself and actually wanted to extend my reedmaking session.  So I wrapped a couple of a couple of previously made blanks, and here's the result of just that one reedmaking session:

It never fails that when I return to reedmaking after a break from it, I make mistakes at first because I haven't been practicing reedmaking.  This time I forgot to score the bark before forming the tube.  I suspect that the reason I forgot is because I recently experimented with no scoring to see if scoring really makes a difference.  It does; the tubes sometimes crack too much down the middle when the mandrel is inserted without scoring.  If that center crack is too deep it can ruin the blades.  Fortunately, the reeds I forgot to score turned out fine, with no dangerous cracking, but it's a risk I prefer not to take.

Since I'm always promoting the concept of the reedmaking habit, I decided to research the question of how long, or how many repetitions, it takes to form a habit to the point where it becomes automatic.

Check out this interesting study on habit formation.

As you can see, "automaticity" was reached after an average of 66 repetitions!  That's daunting.  Maybe habit formation is not the best approach.

I try to enhance the reedmaking experience in whatever ways I can.  (If it's not exactly going to be a habit, then at least I'd better make it as appealing as possible to increase the odds that I'll keep doing it.)  I turn on the TV, and since there's a good chance that I won't like what's on, I make sure I have a good supply of opera recordings from the library to choose from, as an alternative to the TV.  Here's today's selection, which proved to be perfect for reedmaking:

 I bring the dog into the room so that I have some company during those long, lonely reedmaking sessions.

I turn on the colored lights.

I throw some peanuts out on the driveway to encourage squirrel activity which I can view through the window when my eyes need a break from reed scrutiny.

A bassoonist's best reedmaking motivation is, of course, the desire to sound as good as possible. A substandard reed can be mighty embarrassing!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiday Pops, a Columbus Tradition

One of the Columbus Symphony's most popular programs each year is the Holiday Pops featuring Chorus Director Ronald J. Jenkins and his Columbus Symphony Chorus.  The 130-member Chorus, made up entirely of volunteer singers from central Ohio, performs major orchestral choral works from Bach to Mahler, always at a very professional level.   The Symphony is incredibly fortunate to be affiliated with such a group.

For his Holiday Pops programs, Maestro Jenkins has figured out a formula which works year after year, never failing to please his audiences.  He has a lengthy list of tried-and-true favorites which he rotates, and each year he adds a few new selections.  There is always a child conductor chosen from the audience to conduct Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride.  This year the Maestro chose to feature one of his favorite soloists: our fine concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee, in two movements from Winter from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.  Read the review from the Columbus Dispatch to see how successful this program was: 
From a bassoonist's perspective, the Holiday Pops should prove to be a relatively easy show, an opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the tunes, right?  Well, not necessarily.....

The opening bassoon passage in One December, Bright and Clear looks harmless enough at first glance.  Then I notice the clef.  Then I notice the key signature.  I worry.  I practice.  The conductor starts.  The Children's Choir, full of energy, pushes the tempo.  It's fast.  I hope for the best.  It's time: I play.  Afterwards, uncertainty.  Did it sound OK?

Fortunately, I have the luxury of being able to listen to the concert after the performance, now that the Columbus Symphony is audio streaming.  The entire concert is streamed here:

When I listened to the above passage on the stream, I was amazed at how innocent it sounded!  The instrumentation (flute, piccolo and high bassoon, which I often refer to as "screech bassoon") works very well with children's voices.  I was not sorry that I had spent so much time obsessing over that passage, trying to make sure it was in tune and as smooth as possible.  The most effective way to practice it seemed to be slowing it down (of course) and placing fermatas on the high B and high C# to be sure that those notes were secure and in tune.  It also helped to emphasize the high C#.  This is the forgotten range of the bassoon which I have written about in other posts.  I spent a lot of time simply playing the passage slowly, over and over, listening to tone quality, matching, and intonation.  My goal is to make this range sound just like the rest of the instrument.  Why should it sound weak just because it's more difficult?  It's our job to make everything sound easy!

Sometimes musicians have a more casual attitude towards pops concerts. Because of passages like the one pictured above, I find it dangerous and unwise to be casual.  The passage was difficult and exposed, warranting a good deal of attention at home. 

Here's an example of a solo brief in length but endless in possibilities for flubbing.  (This is from the charming The Night Before Christmas by Randall Alan Bass.)  Any bassoonist can see that the fingerings do not exactly fall into place naturally.  It would be infinitely easier to play without using the A vent key on the final note (A2) but it is too likely that the note will crack without venting.  For F#3, I used the full fingering (LH: 2nd finger + E flat key; RH: 1st, 2nd and 4th fingers) as usual.  I very rarely resort to the short fingering (LH: 1/2 hole, 2nd finger, 3rd finger + E flat key; RH: 1st finger and I definitely would not use it for this.  To practice the above passage, it worked best for me to just slow it down and play it all slurred.  The solo is kind of out in left field (not surrounded by 16ths in other instruments), so it's more critical than ever to subdivide 16ths in your head during the beats leading up to the solo, while carefully watching the conductor's baton to be sure that the subdivisions are placed accurately.

The third most challenging excerpt from this concert happens at measure 111 in the same piece.  It's a soli with the piccolo.  Toward the end, the B4 and A4 grace notes provide much practicing fodder.  The bassoonist almost has to will it to happen!   (Granted, it's more difficult on a newer Heckel like mine than on an older one because the new instrument's bore is larger so it's much more challenging to manipulate the left thumb keys, especially if your hand is not large.)  Normally, I'd use the whisper key on the G#3 following the grace notes, but in this case I left it out, since the note sounded fine without it.  I try very hard to stick with standard fingerings whenever possible, but this passage proved to be unreliable with the left thumb having to travel all the way down to the whisper key on the G#3. 

This very enjoyable concert closed with a vist from Santa and Mrs. Claus, and with the entire orchestra, chorus and childrens' choir donning Santa hats.  I am sure that in Columbus, Ohio, many people consider this concert to be the essential starting point for the holiday season.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Columbus Symphony: On the Cutting Edge

This month the Columbus Symphony's popular Holiday Pops concert will be audio streamed on and Also, as a special bonus to ticket holders, a download card will be offered which contains an access code for downloads of 3 selections from the concert. For those who own an iPhone or iPod Touch, the Columbus Symphony has an impressive new app which features the audio streams as well as a schedule of concerts and the latest news, videos, buzz and blog posts.  The sound quality of our audio streaming is rather amazing on the iPhone!

Download the

I think it's fabulous that, thanks to our new internet presence, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra is now connecting people to music anytime, anyplace.  The old symphony orchestra model isn't working as well as it used to, as evidenced by the severe financial problems currently plaguing many U.S.orchestras.  (For example, read here about the Honolulu Symphony situation: )  Although the future cannot be predicted for any symphony orchestra, I consider myself fortunate to be part of an organization which is now on the cutting edge of classical music trends.

How does internet exposure affect the musicians?  In the past, I always used to think about how things might be different for us if our concerts were broadcast nationally via public radio.  I speculated that the added pressure of national presence would be good for our level of performance.

Sure enough, my perception is that the orchestra sounds better now, knowing that our work is available for worldwide scrutiny!  It seems as though each one of us is accepting a higher degree of individual responsibility for the musical product.  It's not that we were irresponsible before, but perhaps we are now inspired to reach even further toward our personal best.

It's so rewarding to receive appreciative calls and emails from faraway friends and relatives who have just heard the Columbus Symphony on the internet!  Undoubtedly, I am more determined than ever to present my best possible bassoon playing now that we are performing for an infinite audience.

No matter where you're located, you can listen to our concerts at your convenience.  Here is a link to our audio stream of Mahler 9, performed  2 weeks ago by the Columbus Symphony with Gunther Herbig conducting:


Monday, November 23, 2009


Intonation may very well be the most challenging aspect of bassoon playing.  The instrument wants to play out of tune, left to its own devices.  The player must use embouchure, throat opening, and pressure and focus of the airstream to adjust the pitch of nearly every note on the instrument.

My teacher, K. David Van Hoesen, had a 12-window Stroboconn tuner placed prominently in his studio at the Eastman School of Music.  The dreaded Stroboconn pointed out the slightest deviation from the pitch standard of A=440.  It was not discreet like today's pocket-sized electronic tuners; its often embarrassing readings could be viewed from half a mile away.

Mr. Van Hoesen rarely played the bassoon with his students because, as he stated, they always played out of tune!  I remember how true that was, even though Eastman attracted the best bassoon students in the U.S.

Intonation is a lifelong challenge for bassoonists.  It is never "mastered."  Intonation varies from reed to reed (therefore, from week to week) and according to the temperature of the room or hall in which the bassoon is played.  Intonation accuracy also declines in direct correlation to the deterioration of the embouchure- in other words, if you're out of shape you can't play as well in tune.

Of course, intonation may be practiced and improved, especially with the use of electronic tuners.  In my last post I mentioned my Boss tuner which I never leave home without.  I use a pickup clipped onto the bocal and plugged into the tuner to enable my pitch to be determined even while the full orchestra is playing:

Because some readers of this blog have asked about the placement of the pickup clip on the bocal, here's a shot of that:

The Boss tuner is invaluable to the bassoonist.  The bassoon has the ability to fool its player into thinking that a note belongs at a pitch which may actually be way off, since some notes resonate best at the wrong pitch.  Furthermore, the tone quality of a note can deceive the player.  For example, low A tends to have a harsh, growling quality on just about any bassoon.  That particular note almost always sounds sharp, even when it actually isn't.  We learn the tendencies of each note on the bassoon, and wanting desperately to do the right thing, we sometimes over-compensate. When I was at Eastman, like many young bassoonists I tended to play on the high side of the pitch.  I was actually pleased when, from time to time, I over-compensated to the point of being flat!  An electronic tuner can certainly help keep us on track so that we actually know when we're over-compensating.  Being overly nervous about the intonation of an uncooperative or unstable note can seriously interfere with our ability to hear accurately.

But tuners are just a tool to be used in practicing.  To prepare us for reliable intonation in a performance situation (when the tuner would be put away) Mr. Van Hoesen taught his students to imagine hearing the correct pitch in our heads before playing a note.  (He wanted us to really listen to that imagined pitch.)  This requires concentration and care, and to this day, when I play a note at a pitch which is less than desirable, it's because I didn't take the trouble to properly hear the note in my head before playing it.  The tuner is a marvelous tool to make sure we're on course, but it is no substitute for the ear. 

Using the Boss tuner to place each note at 440 can be helpful in preparing to perform with piano.  The reason for that is that pianos are tuned according to equal temperament, in which an octave scale is divided into 12 equal intervals.  Each note on a well-tuned piano would register at 440 on a tuner.

Although bassoonists test ourselves against a standard of A=440 in tempered scale (equal temperament), we realistically perform using some tempered tuning (especially when  performing with keyboard instruments) and some  pure or just tuning (generally used by orchestras and choruses).  Just intonation is the development of the scale based on the organic generation of tones as they occur in the natural harmonic series.  Only the tonic registers at 440, and the other notes of the scale slightly deviate from 440.  Musicians tune this way by ear.

Since the meter of the Boss tuner measures in cents, it is quite possible to use the tuner to deviate according to the above adjustments.  But it's a lot easier to do it by ear, because just intonation sounds "right." As an experiment, try playing the 1st 3 notes of a C major scale with your eyes closed.  Be sure that the E is placed where you think it sounds best, and then open your eyes and look at the tuner.  Chances are, the E will be lower than the standard of 440!  The opposite would be true if you played the 1st 3 notes of a c minor scale; in that case, the E flat would be above 440 by 16 cents.

 Pure or just intonation is based on the tonic, which acts as the anchor for the key.  When tuning by ear, each pitch is judged to be in tune if there is an absence of "beats" between itself and the tonic when the two notes are played together.  ("Beats" are the periodic swelling and then dying away of a sound  caused by 2 frequencies going out of phase.)  A sound-producing tuner works well for this test - simply set the tuner to produce a drone of the tonic and play a melody against it, striving to eliminate beats.  The leading tone (7th note of a scale) is controversial because performers may perceive that it needs to be raised, but in fact it is best lowered, according to just tuning.

As Nike says, just do it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Recent adventures

A couple of weeks ago the Columbus Symphony performed the Beethoven Fidelio Overture.  The conductor wisely asked for the chords played by the woodwinds and French horns in the opening Adagios to be played without vibrato. 

Playing without vibrato made it infintely more possible to play the chords in tune, yet it seems to be standard for bassoonists to use vibrato pretty much all of the time. Also, the sound created by the straight tones was pure and simple- very appropriate for this piece. I am now re-thinking the use of vibrato and choosing not to use it some of the time.

I've noticed that on many recordings, the 1st bassoon very often sounds sharp on Bflat3 at the end of the second line in the above excerpt.  Of course, that note is notoriously unstable on just about any bassoon, but I've decided that I'm tired of it!  I'm making it my mission to eliminate the "issues" of that note.  I'll practice long tones (straight- no vibrato!) with the tuner at all dynamic levels until the note is no longer daunting.  I promise to write a report on my progress.  Sometimes, by the way, I add the lower auxiliary key (a.k.a. the low D flat key) to that note to stabilize it, but I consider that to be a crutch and I plan to eliminate that trick after my Bflat3 stabilization project has been completed!  Adding that key changes the resonance of the note, of course.

The Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 was performed on that same concert.  The above solis from 8 after 33 to 36 provided the perfect demonstration for when to use vibrato and when not to.  The first section is played in octaves with the 1st clarinet, so I used no vibrato.  The 1st oboe takes over the top octaveat 35, so I used vibrato to match him for 8 bars until the clarinet took back the top line, and I switched back to no vibrato.  The conductor had spoken to the orchestra about matching this way.

This passage is from the Dvorak New World Symphony 1st movement.  The 1st clarinet and bassoon play in octaves, but the clarinet plays one extra 16th note before the bassoon enters in each of the 1st 3 bars.  Sometimes I just play with the intention of sticking to my guns and making sure my rhythm is accurate, not worryiing about the clarinet (or perhaps pretending to worry about the clarinet).  Sometimes I listen carefully to the clarinetist, trying to catch his 2nd 16th each time.  This is risky if you haven't ingested enough caffeine.  At any rate, awareness of the clarinet part is critical and as you can see in the above excerpt, I wrote in the rhythm of the clarinet part.  The visual component is very important.  And, I probably don't even need to say that I played this passage without vibrato because it was in octaves with the non-vibrato-producing clarinet.  In the past, I would have played this with a slight vibrato.  It matched the clarinet so much better without any!

This past weekend I subbed for an ailing principal bassoonist in another orchestra.  We performed Beethoven Symphony No. 6, which includes the slow movement soli for clarinet and bassoon pictured above.  Remembering the advice of the previous week's conductor in Columbus, I played this soli with no vibrato with very satisfying results.  Playing this way makes it possible to completely blend with the clarinet, so that it sounds like one intrument.  In the past, I would have played it with minimal vibrato, but why use any?  The clarinet doesn't use any, and shouldn't matching be our primary goal?

Matching the cello section- now that's another story.  Beginning 3 bars after N, the bassoons and celli play a unison soli for 6 bars, and then again in the 16ths in the last 2 lines.  In the hall I was subbing in, I could not hear the cellos at all!  How does a bassoonist match what he/she cannot hear?!  Well, I just make sure I'm in tune (at A=440) and go with the conductor's baton.  It's the conductor's job to be sure the matching occurs.  Since he didn't say anything or show any signs of distress, I have to assume it was OK.  The 2 bassoons also happen to be playing in unison with each other, and the 2nd bassoonist, whom I had never met before, graciously rehearsed these soli with me during intermission.

I never leave home without my Boss TU-12H electronic tuner with guitar pickup which attaches to the bocal.  This enables the tuner to pick up myn pitch even while the entire orchestra is playing.  I've been known to play entire rehearsals "plugged in."  I don't apologize for it, either, because the bassoon is a tough instrument to play in tune.  Oftentimes, the bassoon fools the player into thinking that a note sounds right at the wrong pitch because it resonates better at that pitch!

Most bassoonists will recognize the above solo from the 1st moevemnt of Beethoven 6.  It's deceivingly tricky.  Since we played in a hall unfamiliar to me, I didn't know whether I'd be able to listen to the violins echoing my eighth notes in the first and second measures, or whether I'd have to focus on following the conductor's baton, ignoring what I heard.  I tried to look at the baton, but I realized in the final performance that I was also playing by ear.  In the Ohio Theatre, that would have been a big mistake- I would have ended up being behind because of the delay in the sound.  But since the conductor wasn't grimacing or scowling, I'll have to assume that what I was doing was working in that hall.

I think that the above excerpt from Mahler 9, which the Columbus Symphony performs this week, could be used as the repertoire for a bassoon audition.  It has everything- high, low, loud, soft, obnoxious, delicate, short, long, unison lines with horns, exposed solos, accents, slurs, you name it!  Mahler really knew how to push us past our limits, yet, ironically, a Mahler Symphony is rarely seen on a bassoon audition list.

This solo, which starts at the end of the first line above, crescendos up to a high C#4.  However, it becomes all about the trumpet from C#4 to the end of the solo.  The loudest intrument always wins, and the bassoon is never the loudest!  We have no choice but to match the intonation of the loudest instrument, which oftentimes in Mahler is one of the French horns, or in this case, the trumpet.

Why are we bassoonists so incredibly daunted by low pitched solos like this one in the Adagio of Mahler 9?  This solo reminds me of the dreaded opening of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 6 (which we're also performing this season!).  I guess the problem is that the chances of equipment malfunction is so much greater in the lower extremities of the instrument.  I start sweating blood just thinking about the likleihood of my reed responding reliably!  And I spent all day yesterday trying to make the perfect reed for that solo.  To me, this solo calls for a reed switch.  I prefer to play a concert on one reed, but certain solos demand a special reed which favors the notes in the solo.  For me, old reeds are best for low playing, although I generally avoid old reeds.  We haven't rehearsed this movement yet, so my success on this passage remains to be heard.  Wish me luck!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween bassoon excerpts

Last night the Columbus Symphony performed a Halloween Pops concert under the direction of Albert-George Schram. Here's a review of the concert:
Music Review | Columbus Symphony: Pops season begins on Halloween high note

I was surprised to discover that the Halloween repertoire features so many challenges for the bassoon.  It would be possible to hold a principal bassoon audition based upon Halloween repertoire alone!

For tonguing, there is no greater test than "Sleigh-Ride" from The Devil and Daniel Webster by Bernard Herrmann.  Take a look:

Here's a closer look:

The tempo requires this passage to be double-tongued, and of course, double-tonguing is quite difficult in the lower range of the bassoon.  Low range double-tonguing varies greatly from reed to reed, and I was fortunate to find a reed that cooperated.  I still had to practice it, though, using my usual approach of first perfecting it all slurred and then adding the tonguing.  I kept my fingers very close to the holes for this passage, which is a technique promoted by my teacher K. David Van Hoesen.

I had never heard this intriguing little piece before.  It has an eerie quality to it, making it a wise choice for Halloween.  I'm glad to have another tongue-twister under my belt.

A more familiar number on this program was the Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, a Halloween staple.

At letter A, the bassoon and oboe play the melody in octaves.  This solo can be a finger twister.  I like to practice it at a range of tempos so that I'm ready for anything, and so that I'm capable of moving it if I have to.  When practicing a passage like this in which the fingers can become entangled, I focus on complete relaxation above all.  As soon as tension sets in, the fingers seize up.  This type of passage is another example of one which I practice all slurred, to ensure that the fingers are moving with total evenness.

Here's another Halloween piece which was new to me:

The solo starting in measure 21 is awkward at the fast cut-time tempo.  For odd passages like this, the best solution seems to be familiarity.  I went over it slowly many times to make it automatic, focusing on being relaxed at all times.  As soon as tension creeps in, the accuracy diminishes.

Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain is another Halloween favorite.  Two of its tricky passages appear on this page:

At the top of the page, the bassoon joins the oboe in octaves to provide the melody.  If your fingers are secure, you have the freedom to employ a bit of rubato and push ahead on the eighths.  For me, the coordination between tongue and fingers is best ensured by first practicing the passage all slurred. (I know- I keep saying this!)

Five measures after F, the 1st clarinet and 1st bassoon start an accelerando.  Once again, if your technique is secure, alteration brought about by either rubato or tempo change is no problem.  I always try to prepare passages to such a level which allows for such flexibility.  You never know what's going to happen in the orchestra.....

I'm sure there's a bassoon audition list appropriate for each holiday- in fact, I'm already envisioning a Christmas audition list.  The Tchaikowsky Nutcracker Ballet (the complete ballet, not the suite) provides plenty of fodder for a bassoon audition- add to that the Resphighi Adoration of the Magi, and every imagineable aspect of bassoon playing is covered!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Practicing on a day off

A day off from symphony services does not mean that I also have a day off from the bassoon!  That's because of the embouchure. (The embouchure is the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips around the reed or mouthpiece of a wind instrument. The word is of French origin and is related to the root bouche,"mouth.")  The embouchure has to be carefully maintained- even one day of not playing makes a noticeable difference.  Like any other set of muscles in the body, the muscles associated with embouchure can be either well-exercised and strong, or ignored and atrophied.  I don't like to lose control of my embouchure.  If its muscles are weak, I lose control- my embouchure just gives out after a certain amount of playing.  I don't know how that phenomenon presents itself on other instruments, but on the bassoon, it means that intonation goes out the window.  Tone quality suffers as well.

Thus, a day off from symphony services means that I still practice.  Usually there is a program on the horizon for which I'll start preparing, but my favorite day off practicing is done without any printed music.  This is especially valuable now, because I'm getting used to a new bassoon.  I usually start with some sort of scale work, extended to cover the entire range of the bassoon, focused on intonation, tone quality, and smoothness.  Also, scales are great for overcoming the natural tendency of the bassoon to decrescend as the the scale rises (opposite of other instruments).

I like to turn my chair so that I am able to look out the window during scales- I want the scales to be automatic, and the distraction of looking out the window helps with that.  This doesn't mean that I stop listening, though- the same as with regular practicing, if there is a lack of smoothness in any transition from one note to the next, it's necessary to stop, isolate the problem and iron it out.  The same applies to intonation.  My bassoon is brand new, and it will take a very long time (years!) to break in.  It's constantly changing.  The amount of embouchure and air pressure which caused a note to play in tune last week might be different this week!

I practice more in the extreme high range than in any other part of the instrument.  Sometimes I'll practice scales in the extreme high range only.  The reason I do this is because we bassoonists are seldom called upon to play in the high extremities, and therefore we don't spend much time up there.  Then, when we are called upon play up there, it's hit or miss- the notes may or may not come out, and when they do, they may not be in tune, and transitioning from note to note is awkward.  The obvious solution is to spend lots of time practicing up there so that the high range is familiar!

After scale work, I move on to vibrato.  Lately I have been using an exercise which I remember hearing  my flutist friends practicing at Eastman. I think they said it was an exercise developed by the famous flute master Marcel Moyse- it involves long tones, with vibrato, two notes at a time.  The first note is a half step higher than the second, and the phrase of 2 notes begins pp, senza vibrato, with a big crescendo, vibrato increasing, as the first note transitions into the second, and the 2 note phrase ends with a decrescendo to nothing.  I like the challenge of making my vibrato sound like a flutist's vibrato, with clarity and varying intensity.  This exercise is a great embouchure builder.  Sometimes at the end of this exercise, I play improvised melodies, paying close attention to the vibrato.  Usually I then add a few phrases from upcoming concerts- there are always certain intervals or exposed passages to work on obsessively!  Still, I keep my policy of no music- even the detailed work on upcoming symphony music has to be from memory.

My day off practicing routine not only maintains embouchure- it promotes familiarity with the instrument.  Do you ever feel "out of touch" with your instrument, when you have trouble "placing" notes at their correct pitches?  I have noticed that sometimes I feel out of touch with the instrument as a whole when I have had to spend a disproportionate amount of time focused on one specific program.  I can be playing each passage in that program at an acceptable level, but my global familiarity with the instrument can still be off!  There are days when I choose not to practice, so that my embouchure remains fresh for rehearsals or concerts in that same day.  I think that orchestral players can easily fall into the trap of becoming narrowly focused on only the material being performed.  The solution to that problem is the "familiarity" practicing which I am describing here-even if you can't do it every day due to embouchure-saving for rehearsals and concerts.

I often conclude these "familiarity" (or "embouchure building") practice sessions with a movement of a Bach cello suite or an etude of some sort (with printed music!).  It's so valuable to play extensive pieces like this instead of just narrowing the focus onto a few brief exposed passages of orchestral literature.  It's fine (and necessary) to practice and prepare the orchestral music, but there's so much more business to attend to if one's goal is to master an instrument!

Friday, October 23, 2009


One of the unusual aspects of playing in the Columbus Symphony is that we regularly perform opera.  This week features the condensed version of Pagliacci.  The condensation is interesting- the orchestra does not appear to be reduced much, probably because of the full complement of strings.  The reductions appear in the woodwinds and brass- there are two flutes, one oboe, two clarinets, one bassoon, two horns, two trumpets and a tenor and a bass trombone.  What this amounts to is that each wind part has additional music to fill in the missing parts.  I've played the original version before.  This one is infinitely more difficult, and I've had to practice it diligently each day since I obtained the part. 

Although there are many exposed bassoon passages in this version of Pagliacci, the above solo stands out.  It is truly operatic- the bassoonist is a singer.  In this staged production, the woodwinds are seated on risers in the very back of the stage, behind the brass!  (I have wondered if this might be a response to my persistent request to not be seated in front of the trumpets!)  The singers are very far away from the winds, and we can barely hear them.  Thus, it is not practical to expect to derive inspiration from the vocalists, and I just pull out all the stops and apply my best operatic vibrato to this solo.

I have noticed that many bassoonists tend to stop the vibrato on pickup notes for some reason- in this solo, that note would be the E2 at the end of the first line.  While I admit that sometimes that technique can be useful for creating tension before resolution, I can't imagine Caruso or Pavarotti singing this solo that way.  I vibrate on the E2 as well as each of the other notes.  One of my colleagues maintains that I should bring a neck strap and stand for that solo.  I'll have to clear that with the opera company first.....

The above page is daunting indeed.  The appearance of this page bothered me- it may not be clearly evident in this photo, but the page is completely marked up with accidentals penciled in which should have been obvious from the key signature.  Due to the arrangement of the orchestra on stage, with the cello section located a mile away from the bassoon, it sounds like a bassoon solo to myself and those around me, even though the cellos play it also.  I rewrote the page, eliminating the unnecessary markings:

Although the above photo isn't impressive, this re-write has rendered the passage playable!  I thank bassoonists Ryohei Nakagaw and Otto Eiffert for teaching me the surprising importance of the visual aspect of the music.  My preparation often involves tweaking of the visuals.

I'm pleased to report that it's raining today in Columbus , Ohio!  This means that my reeds will be in top form for tonight's Pagliacci....

Friday, October 9, 2009

Beethoven 9

Each time I prepare an orchestral work, I prioritize the passages to which I will devote most of my time, effort and reedmaking focus.  Of course, in Beethoven Symphony No. 9, my top priority is the solo below:

We seem to perform Beethoven 9 rather frequently in the Columbus Symphony, including this very week, and I've noticed an interesting phenomenon regarding this solo.  Bear in mind that this problem could be unique to the Ohio Theatre in which we normally perform.  The stage is very deep, so the woodwinds sit rather far back, behind all of the strings.  In other orchestras, the bassoon section seems to be surrounded by strings, which is certainly preferable for ensemble.

In the Ohio Theatre, the winds must place their notes with the conductor's baton.  Any attempt to listen to the strings will result in shouts from the podium that the winds are behind.

The solo in question poses a problem due to its placement on the page.  The solo is complicated enough that most bassoonists want to keep their eyes on the music.  A furtive glance at the conductor's baton could result in the bassoon soloist getting lost, as the wandering eye searches for its place upon returning to the page.  Therefore, most bassoonists' eyes tend to remain glued to the solo passage, which frequently causes the bassoon's counter melody to lag behind the viola section's melody.

Here's my solution:

I xerox the solo, cut it out and tape it to the top of the page.  (I'm hoping that it's easy to dismantle, since the parts belong to conductor Gunther Herbig.)  This setup allows me to keep my eye on the solo while still having a great periferal view of the baton.  In an ideal world, the bassoonist would have the luxury of simply listening to the viola melody and fitting the counter melody over it.  In the real world of the Columbus Symphony, that is not possible, but the above solution works well.

I came to this after some experimentation.  The last time we performed Beethoven 9, I asked the principal clarinetist to discreetly conduct, mirroring the conductor's baton.  That solution did work, but I don't like to impose upon my colleagues for such unusual favors.  (Besides, what if the clarinetist forgot about his assignment?)

There are many exposed bassoon passages in this symphony.  One which often inpires conductors to claim they can't hear the bassoon is this, beginning with the pickup to letter O:

I was quite pleased when Maestro Gunther Herbig announced yesterday that the bassoon was too loud in that very passage!  That incident proved what I've been saying about my new Heckel #15421- it really does have superior projection power.

The third movement is a known chop-buster.  Orchestras usually use double the woodwind parts for Beethoven 9 to enable then best possible sound and intonation from the soloists.  The Columbus Symphony is in financial distress, so we are not using doublers.  Especially for the first bassoon player, that means relentless playing throughout the lengthy slow movement- it's quite a test of embouchure strength.  For me, endurance preparation involves obvious embouchure strengthening exercises such as long tones, but in addition to that, I carry a reed around during the week prior to the first rehearsal and I keep it in my mouth as much as possible, forming an embouchure around it and sometimes even crowing it. 

During the second rehearsal of the day yesterday I noticed that I was so exhausted near the end of the 3rd movement that my eyes had trouble following the end of one line to the beginning of the next.  Whenever this happens (sometimes it's due to repetitive music which all looks the same) I employ a technique I learned from my teacher Ryohei Nakagawa: Draw a symbol at the end of one line and draw the same symbol at the beginning of the next line.  Then at the end of that line, draw a different symbol, followed by a repeat of that symbol at the beginning of the next line, as follows in the third, fourth and fifth lines below:

The eye automatically follows the symbol- you don't have to think about it.  This technique has made my life easier many times.

In the near future, the Columbus Symphony may be offering live streaming.  I'll keep you posted!  Meanwhile, our Beethoven 9 with Maestro Herbig from 2 years ago is featured on InstantEncore where the bassoon solo is featured in the next to last excerpt.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

What do YOU think?

The above excerpt is the beginning of the soli for flute, oboe and bassoon in the second movement of Beethoven Symphony No. 7.   How do you think the first beat of the third measure should be played?  This question has bothered me for a long time, because I've heard it played "flipped"(almost double dotted), and I've heard it played as straight 16th notes (on the beat in both cases).  Furthermore, when the strings play this melody earlier in the movement,  they often play it differently from the woodwinds, even in world class orchestras!  My research has shown that the strings often flip the appogiatura, and the winds tend to play it as straight 16ths.

 What's your take on this?  Should the winds match the constant 16ths being played in the strings accompanying this soli?  Or does artistic flair demand deviation?

Please post your comments soon, because I'm rehearsing this movement tomorrow morning, and I'd like your feedback to use in any potential discussion with the flutist and oboist!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

How I "woodshed"

I decided to keep a log of my progress in woodshedding  a tricky page of the Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra by Daniel Schnyder which the Columbus Symphony is performing this week.  Of course, the most technically challenging parts are often found in unknown contemporary pieces.  The page  I used for this study is shown above (click on the photo to enlarge) and the marked tempo is 132 to the quarter note.

First, I searched for a recording.  Fortunately, iTunes has this piece with Steven Schultz performing as soloist.  Schultz, bass trombonist of the Berlin Phil, is to be the soloists for this piece in Columbus, so I'll know his tempos in advance- a definite benefit.

Next, I read through the part and marked any helpful pointers, such as any unclear or easy-to-miss accidentals.  I marked the beats wherever the rhythm was unusual.  (I never hesitate to allow the pencil to make my life easier!  The last thing I want to do is practice a mistake.)

Here is a record of my practice sessions:

Day 1
session 1
I removed the articulations, playing the passages all slurred, first just slowly without metronome, and then with the metronome at 60.  My students never seem to like to hear this, but there is great value in slurring, to be sure that the finger motion is totally accurate.  I like to practice with the metronome on the offbeats- in other words, the metronome beats on the "and" instead of on the beat.  This is a technique I learned from a friend who  is a great jazz musician.  I noticed his impeccable rhythm, and he said it was due to offbeat metronome practice.  After playing reliably at 60, I experimented with faster tempos.  75 was too fast, but I was able to play accurately at 70, and did so repeatedly.

session 2
Later the same day, session 2 lasted around 15 minutes.  I continued playing all slurred at 70, and to alleviate boredom, I concentrated on smooth legato, pushing through the phrases as if blowing up a balloon.

Day 2
session 3
Session 3 took place the next day.  A lot of surety was lost over night- I had to backtrack and isolate a few of the passages, slowing them down below 70.  I usually started each session without the metronome, just searching for tempos slow enough to be accurate, and isolating the passages needing the most attention.  I should mention that I am always careful about rests and breathing:  I never ignore rests, even in this type of tedious practice, and when the slow tempos necessitate extra breaths, I make sure to repeat the last note before breathing to get the interval from that note to the one after the breath.  (I do this when practicing scales as well.)

session 4
The same day, session 4 didn't go well.  I had to keep isolating passages and slowing them way down.  (It takes a long time to develop the familiarity which makes these passages playable.)

 session 5
Session 5 took place the same day.  I started the session by isolating the trickiest passages slowly, without metronome, before running the entire page at 70.  I started thinking about whether I'd be single- or double-tonguing the articulated notes on this page.  Since many of the notes were in the low range, I thought that single tonguing would be preferable.  During this session I added the printed articulation, using single tongue, and my ending tempo for this session was 90.

 Day 3
session 6
On day 3, I started with slow isolated "reminders" before playing the whole page with metronome.  I know that my pre-metronome prep has been successful when I can play through the page with no errors when I turn on the metronome.  I kept moving up the tempo until reaching 115 and finding it too fast.

session 7
 I tried playing part of the page at 132 and decided I'd have to double tongue.  I began practicing the page with printed articulations at a very slow tempo, using double tonguing.

 session 8
In session 8 my tempo with double tonguing was up to 105.  Every now and then I played the page all slurred again to be sure that the finger accuracy wasn't slipping.

session 9
Session 9 took place after I had been practicing a lot of other things and I was tired.  It didn't go well, and I put the bassoon away.

session 10
Still on day 3, session 10 took place at the beginning of a practice segment so that I wasn't tired.  I pre-practiced (slow isolated sections) carefully, for a longer amount of time than usual, and that paid off. 

Day 4
session 11
On day 4 I had only one session due to time constraints.  As always, I started slowly, isolating, playing all slurred at first without metronome.  Adding double tonguing, I got the tempo up to 110.

Day 5
session 12
I prepped slowly without metronome.  The page I'm woodshedding includes a section with meter changes which cannot be accommodated  by the metronome, so it was necessary to do some playing with no metronome.  Besides, I normally started each session slowly and without metronome anyway, just to remind myself of note patterns. (When I do play the page with metronome, I have to skip the measures with meter changes, which is OK because none of the tricky note patterns occur in those measures..)  By the end of this session I was playing the page nearly up to 120.

session 13
Finally, during session 13 (day 5) I was able to play this page with the recording- in other words, up to tempo.  I am always amazed when this happens!  (After my first reading of the page, I had feared that I would never be able to play it up to tempo!)

Each day until the final performance, I will continue running through this page slowly, sometimes slurred and sometimes with articulation, to re-inforce the solidity of the technique.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Instrument Search

During my years at the Eastman School of Music I played on Heckel #6114 which was built in 1924. I have long suspected that it was a phenomenal audition instrument. (For that reason, I wish I still owned it!)

What makes a bassoon a good "audition instrument"? I my opinion, it has to do with the ease of playing, especially as determined by the listener(s).

It became apparent to me at an early age that listeners are very affected by a sense of ease of playing. When the New York Woodwind Quintet performed in my hometown of Binghamton, NY, I was struck by the playing of bassoonist Arthur Weisberg. I found out after the concert that many people were taken by his playing, including non-bassoonists. What was his secret?

A few days after that concert I had a Youth Orchestra rehearsal, in which conductor Bernard Shiffrin raved about Arthur Weisberg's playing, adding to the growing list of Weissberg admirers. Maestro Shiffrin was able to pinpoint the source of Weisberg's allure- it was the fact that he made bassoon playing seem easy. And, as Mr. Shifrin remarked, who ever thought that playing the bassoon could be easy??!!

I vividly recall an incident a few years after that, at the Eastman School of Music in Mr. Van Hoesen's studio when another student was trying out a Heckel for possible purchase. Mr. Van Hoesen asked me to listen to the other student play first on the trial Heckel, and then on my Heckel #6114. Afterward he asked me what my impression was.

Without hesitation I said, "My bassoon sounded much easier to play," to which Mr. Van Hoesen exclaimed, "Bingo!" The other student wisely rejected the bassoon, which, like mine , was an older Heckel.

Even Heckel bassoons with close serial numbers can be quite different from one another. They are hand-built by fallible humans, and they are made of plant material - maple trees- and like snowflakes, each tree is unique. On top of that, each bassoon was customized by Heckel. Furthermore, many of them have been around for decades, and during that time the instruments have been fiddled with by various repairmen, some of whom undoubtedly did more harm than good. Cracking, dry rot and broken tenons are just a few factors that add to what I will euphemistically call the "individuality" of each instrument.

But there's no question that some bassoons sound easier to play than others, for whatever magical reason. Presumably, there is also be a correlation between the player's and the listener's perception of ease, at least to some degree. I do remember a few times when I was ready to toss Heckel #6114 out the window because I was so frustrated with it, yet I know that it had a winning sound, based on the fact that I owe many of the listings on my resume to that bassoon!

Why, then, did I ever give it up? The Columbus Symphony plays in a very large, cavernous hall in which projection on any insrument is a challenge. Generally, lower pitches are lost. Also, each orchestra has its tendencies regarding accompaniment- the strings here often sound too loud when playing underneath woodwind solos.

Then there's the issue of pitch- the Columbus Symphony plays consistently at A = 440. Given the temperature of the hall (hotter than we'd like it, usually) and the tendency of my old Heckel to ride high on the pitch, it was very challenging to keep the pitch down. It has been my experience that the older Heckels have played at a higher pitch level. When I acquired my 13,000 series Heckel, I had a much easier time maintaining the pitch at 440, even on a hot stage. Also, the 13,000 projected beautifully, according to people sitting out in the hall. The same was true of my Heckel Crest which I played after the 13,000 series.

My 13,000 series, however, was definitely more challenging to play than than 6114. I fought to make delicate entrances and struggled with various fake and alternate fingering, many of which I made up myself out of sheer desperation. I had to practice longer to prepare- it was more difficult to achieve smooth, legato, well-crafted phrases. I did manage to get it in tune much of the time, using a vast array of odd fingerings and even accessories stuffed into the instrument- but at least the results of my labor could be heard in the audience!

The 13,000 series instrument did not sound easy to play- probably because it wasn't! I took a couple of auditions on it, to no avail. In one audition, things were actually going quite well- the committee had allowed me to play through the entire list- until I reached the final excerpt, the opening of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 6. That's when it became all too apparent that I was jumping through hoops to play that bassoon, and one of my "creative" fingerings failed. Out came a noise that had little to do with Tchaikowsky or the bassoon!

Fortunately, a bassoonist friend managed to open my mind to the possibility of trying an older instrument- an old prewar 8,000 series Heckel.  I liked it enough to purchase it, marveling at how easy it was to play compared to the 13,000 series!  The honeymoon lasted a few short weeks, as I gradually came to the realization that I was frustrated with what I perceived as its lack of power- the 8,000 series bassoon seemed to have a limited range of dynamics and expression.  I didn’t like the constant feeling of confinement.  My frustration was confirmed when a colleague traveling to Rochester took my bassoon to K.David Van Hoesen for him to try.  Mr. Van Hoesen determined that the bassoon had a flaw, as if someone had "monkeyed with the bore," as he put it.

I moved on to a brand new Heckel Crest which I purchased in 2001.  That bassoon definitely could take on whatever I put into it.  What a powerful instrument!  Many guest conductors and soloists performing with our orchestra issued gushing compliments to me when I started playing on the Crest. I thought that I finally had the right setup.

Eventually, though, I began to believe that the sound of the Crest was too dark.  When I listened to recordings of the Columbus Symphony, I was disappointed with the sound of the Crest..  It was not offensive in any way, but it was dark to the point of sounding dead- devoid of life!  Again, Mr.Van Hoesen stepped in for confirmation, assessing its sound as "hollow."

Two very generous friends who happen to own multiple vintage Heckels offered me opportunities to try their postwar 9,000 series Heckels.  I was very impressed with the sounds of these two bassoons, yet the problem of projection which I have found in older bassoons persisted.  That was discouraging, because I really enjoyed playing on the 9,000 series instruments, and they certainly worked well in chamber music or small orchestral settings.  But the final straw occurred when a conductor stopped the orchestra after the Berceuse solo in the Firebird to say that he couldn’t hear the bassoon solo well enough (on the 9,000 series bassoon I was playing that day).  I was crushed.

That’s when I had the good fortune to try Heckel #15421 which had been imported from Germany by Midwest Musical Imports in Minneapolis.  I wasn’t on the original waiting list to try the instrument, but timing was in my favor.  The U.S. economic crisis undoubtedly forced others waiting for the instrument to back out, and the bassoon was sent to me shortly after I contacted Midwest Musical Imports.

My expectations were minimal, because I had tried a new Heckel 41i when I bought my Crest, and I liked the Crest better!  (The Heckel Crest is only slightly less expensive than the Heckel 41i- the main difference between the two seems to be that the Crests are not customized by the Heckel factory.)

Well, I knew halfway through my first scale that I had no choice but to purchase Heckel #15421!  The decision was crystal clear- the instrument was that good.  I took it to a symphony rehearsal that same day, and it fit right in- blending when necessary, soaring above the orchestra during solos, and playing in tune and with a desirable sound.

Indeed, Heckel #15421 seems to be in a category of its own. Perhaps this one is ideal- a bassoon that auditions well AND performs well on the job. It projects via complexity of sound rather than sheer mass of sound, and it seems more agile than the 13,000 series and the Crest. After years of searching, experimenting, buying and selling, I’m finally satisfied.  This bassoon combines the best elements of each of my previously-owned instruments, and offers a consistently appealing, sparkling sound.
It is as close to perfection as a bassoon can be!  I'm not cocky, though- it is still a bassoon, after all.....


I began making reeds when I was 14, so I’ve had a lot of practice.  A while back I set a goal for myself of making a reed a day, after hearing a successful oboist speak of his self-imposed requirement of making two new reeds each day.  (Oboe reeds are quicker to make!)  I have fallen short of my goal, for sure, but at least I am regularly making reeds. (At the end of any given day, I have either made at least one reed during the previous 24 hours or I’m feeling quite guilty!)

During my college years at the Eastman School of Music I made reeds like crazy over the summers so that I’d pretty much have enough to last throughout the school year.   I don’t think that was a very good idea- like any other technique, reedmaking must be practiced and maintained.  Whenever I take a break from reedmaking (it’s always a reluctant break, of course, caused by too much repertoire to learn!), I notice a huge difference when I resume- my technique has suffered!  (I accidentally forget to score the bark, or my knife slips during the shaping process, for example.)

After much experimentation I have settled upon a method of reedmaking with which I am comfortable (for the time being!).  I reached a point exasperation with my reeds in my job with the Columbus Symphony, and to address that problem I decided to study reedmaking with Norman Herzberg  in Los Angeles.  He very graciously agreed to set up my Herzberg profiler to the specifications of my Eastman bassoon professor, K. David Van Hoesen.   As far as I know, that was the only time Mr. Herzberg set up one of his profilers to Mr. Van Hoesen’s specifications.

As a result, my reeds are what I consider to be Herzberg/Van Hoesen hybrids- the best of both worlds.  Mr. Van Hoesen and Mr. Herzberg are revered as highly influential bassoon teachers of recent decades- each was a genius, yet the two couldn’t have been more different regarding their approaches to playing and teaching.

I suppose most bassoonists seek the ideal setup (bassoon + bocal + reed) which offers total control, yet a strong, pleasing sound from top to bottom of the range.  That’s a tall order.

For me personally, the Van Hoesen reeds favored the high range and the Herzberg reeds favored the low range; likewise, the Herzberg reed tended to be flatter pitched while the Van Hoesen reed tended to be higher.  Other bassoonists have played each of these two styles with great success, of course, as evidenced by the playing of Mr. Herzberg and Mr. Van Hoesen and their many students, but for me, the best reed is a hybrid of the two styles.

Besides the Herzberg shaper and profiler, the other major piece of reedmaking equipment I use is a Reiger tip profiler.  Most of the time, my reeds play when they come off of the tip profiler; I prefer not to finish the reeds by hand if I can help it.  Inevitably, though, many reeds do need to be hand-finished, with a bit of light knife scraping, filing, or sandpapering.  I like to leave as little room as possible for human error- the unavoidable variation in cane is already more of an obstacle than I’d like!

I prefer to play on new reeds- the fresher, the better!  I remember with horror how, during my Eastman days, I used disgustingly ancient reeds on a routine basis.  At the time, I’m sure I thought I was getting away with it, but now I know better.  Newer reeds offer a crisp, clear, sparkling and flexible sound that cannot be had with an aged reed.

In the Columbus Symphony I prefer to use a new reed each week.  There may be a way to either preserve or resurrect older reeds, but I have not figured out the key to either.  Each bassoonist has his/her individual preferences and tolerances- for me, new reeds rule!

The specifics of how I form blanks

First things first- I turn on my 7" digital TV purchased from CVS.  I don't exactly watch the TV- I listen and maybe glance at it now and then.  Dr. Phil provides the perfect backdrop for reedmaking; however, if there's nothing good on TV, I listen to operatic, symphonic or chamber music.

Prior to soaking, I sand the back of the dry cane (the non-bark side) with 320 grit sandpaper until it is as smooth as glass.  Then I soak the cane in water for at least 2 hours.  Then, with a pencil, I bisect the stick of cane across the exact center:

I use that line to center the cane on the shaper: 

A dime is the perfect screwdriver for the set screws on the shaper, which make an indentation of a circle at the center on the ends of the cane.  Those circles fit into raised circles on the profiler barrel, as you'll see later.

 I shape the cane with an exacto knife:


When I take the cane off the profiler, the circle left by the set screw is visible.  It may be helpful to click on the photo below for a better view:

 The circle indented in the cane fits onto the raised circle on the profiler barrel:

 I use the profiler blade to cut a line on each end of the cane at the top of the collar:

I remove the barrel from the profiler in order to remove the top layer of bark with a knife, using the lines I just made as a border. This step preserves the profiler blade, so that I don't have to sharpen it as often:

Machine profiling comes next:

Here's the shaped and profiled piece of cane:

Next I score the bark using a scoring tool from Miller Marketing:

 I fold it over a knife (at the fold in the center created by the profiler) and place the end of a ruler at the fold. At 2 5/16 “ I mark the cane with a pencil to show the line where I’ll be cutting a small amount off each end of the cane:

Next I cut off each end (cutting on the line marked with pencil) with pruners:

Then I fold the reed, line up the edges, and apply a top wire at exactly 1″ from the bottom of the reed. I wrap string around the reed from the top wire down:

The next step may be foreign to many reed makers. I use a tool called parallel pliers (very, very difficult to find) to nudge open the wrapped tube:

Next I insert the forming mandrel, being careful not to twist the reed:

Then I unwrap the string at the very bottom of the reed to make room to add a temporary wire at the bottom of the tube to ensure roundness. I wrap this wire around the tube 3 times rather than the usual 2 times:

Ideally, I allow the blank to dry for at least 2 weeks. Once I remove the reed from the forming mandrel, I insert the reeds onto brass mandrel tips from Christlieb to ensure the proper shape of the tube.

After at least 2 weeks, I remove both wires from the dry blank:

Then I bevel using a sanding block made by Norman Herzberg.  Each end of the cane is sanded around 25 strokes or so- whatever it takes to make the ends of the reed halves meet perfectly.  The sanding takes place at the ends of the bark, from the bottom to 3/8" up:

Before beveling:  

After beveling:

Then I fold the reed and tie dry string around the bottom half of the tube (bark):

I apply the middle wire at 5/16' below the top wire (I can see the marks where the top wqire was placed:

Then I apply the bottom wire at 3/16" from the bottom of the reed, and the top wire at 1" from the bottom:


Next I apply Duco Cement along the edges of both sides from the middle wire down to the bottom to ensure that the binding never becomes loose:

I then wrap the reed with 100% cotton #3 size crochet thread, available at places like JoAnn Fabrics and Michael's Crafts:

 After wrapping, I cover the binding with Duco Cement and allow it to dry overnight: 

Next I mark the 2 1/8" line at the top of the reed:

Reaming is next, followed by smoothing the inside of the tube with a rat tale file if needed.  I use the holding mandrel on the right below to tell when I've reamed enough- when the reed fits down to the black line, I'm finished with reaming:

Then, after soaking the reed in water,  I cut the tip with a guillotine, at the pencil line I drew at 2 1/8":

 Then the tip is finished with a Reiger tip profiler:

Using a knife, I cut the corners at a 45 degree angle:

Sometimes, at this point the reed is finished.  Often it's necessary to refine, though, with a file, knife or sandpaper, removing cane in the area shaded below:

My finished reeds measure 2 1/8″ from top to bottom. The blade is 1 1/16″ long from the top of the collar to the tip, and the collar measures 1/16″. The bottom wire is 3/16″ from the bottom of the tube.  The top wire is 1″ from the bottom, and the middle wire is 5/16″ below the top wire.

Bassoon students often buy their cane already shaped and profiled so that the amount of work required to make the blanks is greatly reduced.