musings of a professional bassoonist

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.


My vibrato history is odd, to say the least. During high school, my teacher didn’t believe in allowing kids to either use vibrato or play the Mozart Bassoon Concerto. (He was old school, for sure.) As a result of the vibrato ban, I developed a hangup about it. At the Eastman School of Music, I stood out as the freshman bassoonist with no vibrato. I can only imagine what Mr. Van Hoesen was thinking regarding his decision to accept me as a student! He begged for vibrato, but it just wouldn’t happen.

Then one day, Mr. Van Hoesen decided to try something unorthodox. He brought in a machine which measured air pressure. When its tube was inserted into a bassoonist’s mouth, the meter displayed any change in air pressure while the bassoonist played.

That machine changed my life. Instantly, I had vibrato, and it was pretty decent from the very start. I don’t know if that machine has worked miracles on any other students since then, but I do know that Mr. Van Hoesen asked me to help a couple of other students with their vibrato! His idea to use that machine on me was a stroke of genius.

Mr. Van Hoesen always encouraged his students to listen to recordings and live performances of the great singers, string players and pianists. That’s how we learned musicianship, including rubato and vibrato. He insisted that we take note of the way the vibrato changed according to the phrase.

One thing that I’ve noticed about vibrato from a bassoonist’s standpoint is that not only does each note on the bassoon vibrate differently, but some bassoons are more vibrato-friendly than others. In fact, I use vibrato as an important factor when evaluating an intrument. One bassoon which I liked in every other way ended up not being right for me because it was vibrato-resistant!

My new Heckel allows me to match the vibrato from note to note, without any notes sounding either too wild or too inflexible. It reminds me of the French basson in that regard.  I have always thought that the French basson lent itself to a very easy, natural vibrato.  Just listen to any recording of the great Maurice Allard! 

I practice vibrato by turning on the metronome to 60 and vibrating on long tones at either 4 or 5 pulsations per beat throughout the range. (I read an article recently which stated that vibrato sounds best at 4-6 pulsations per minute- any slower sounds wobbly. There was also speculation that pop singers' vibrato varies more in amplitude, whereas classical singers' vibrato varies more in pitch, and that the ideal classical pitch component varies by no more than a semitone around the main note.)

Inevitably, even when playing on the most agreeable of bassoons, some notes are going to be a bit tougher to control than others. Following the exercise described above, I play long tones with vibrato changing gradually from none to excessive and vise versa, with and without crescendos and decrescendos. It’s a great test of a bassoon and its player, I think, especially if the tuner is also involved!

Recently I discovered a trick that seems to work for students who are beginning to use vibrato (since I don’t have one of Mr. Van Hoesen’s air pressure gauges!): I ask students to produce vibrato on the reed by itself. It is extremely easy to produce vibrato on a reed, and hopefully that sense of ease can be carried over when the bassoon is added. I aim to avoid hangups!

My recording project

One of the first people I met when  I moved to Columbus was Harold Kohn, a chemist who also happened to be a symphony supporter and amateur bassoonist.  He lived a few blocks away and frequently stopped at my house for a chat, sometimes bassoon-related, sometimes not.

One morning my doorbell rang, and I opened the door expecting to find Harold standing there with his impish grin.  Instead, I found a very shaken Trueman Allison (a fellow bassoonist who was also close to Harold).  He  wanted to let me know that Harold was gravely ill. Although I was reluctant to intrude upon the gathering of Harold's family at what sounded like a deathbed vigil, Trueman convinced me that Harold would probably appreciate a visit from me.

I packed up my bassoon and headed for Harold's house.  His wife said he had been unresponsive for quite some time, but we went over to his bed and she asked him if he wanted me to play the bassoon.  We were both surprised that his eyes widened and he nodded his head.  So I played the bassoon next to his bed  while he laid there looking very ethereal.

He died shortly thereafter (which I hope had nothing to do with my playing), and his wife Janet asked me to play the bassoon again at his funeral.  It's fairly rare for a bassoonist to be called upon to play a role in a life passage event, and I was more nervous than I'd been in years.

Harold had been a fan of mine, and he had always thought that I should record a CD.  A few months before he died, Harold had started instructing me on how to bring it about.  So that I wouldn't become overwhelmed, he was giving me one step at a time.  First he had me identify the musicians I wanted to record with; then I asked them if they'd be interested.  Next I made a list of repertoire and ordered the music.

In a conversation with Janet after he died, she told me that she wanted to finish what Harold had started.  He had been planning to fund my recording project, she said, which I hadn't known, and she said she wanted to take over where her late husband had left off.

The Kohns' money had to be turned over to a musical organization in order for it to be available to fund this project.  Janet came up with the idea of having CityMusic Columbus take care of it, and Steve Rosenberg from CityMusic graciously asked me and my supporting musicians to perform on CityMusic's successful chamber music series as part of the deal.  The plan was that we would record shortly before our performance, and the concert would be billed as a CD release event.

I chose the recording engineer based on recommendations from other musicians.  I first became alarmed when we showed up for the recording sessions to find only one microphone, which the engineer placed up above the quartet. We wanted to complete the recording in one session, so we didn't have a lot of time for listening to playback. I listened to the opening of one piece, and it seemed fine, so we assumed there were no problems. Imagine our surprise at the end of the session when we listened to the recording and discovered that the bassoon-the solo instrument- was distant and unclear, while the accompanying strings came through like gangbusters!  Maybe the sound engineer could fix the balance, right? Wrong- there was only one track. That initial snippet that I had heard and approved early on during the session had been a poor choice for checking balance since the bassoon was playing a melody over a delicate pianissimo pizzicato accompaniment.

CityMusic did not approve the release of the funds to pay the recording engineer because of the glaring balance problem, which was a reasonable decision, but we didn't have enough money to pay for another recording session.  For a few days, we didn't know what to do, and the CD release concert was fast approaching.

Finally it became obvious that the only thing we could do would be to record the concert. Rather than carefully recording and editing this once-in-a-lifetime CD, it would be a live recording. (I would have chosen easier repertoire if I had known it would turn out this way!)

The acoustics for the live performance were dead and dry- anything but inspiring!  The temperature in the venue was around 90 degrees because the fan had to be turned off for recording.  I had all I could do to try to keep the pitch down as the temperature soared.  As luck would have it, part of the deal for this particular performance was that I would do a lot of talking to connect with the audience. (I wouldn't have minded doing that if the concert had indeed been our CD release event.) The last thing I felt like doing during a stressful live recording session was providing stand-up comedy between pieces!

When the unedited recording was finally completed, my disappointment with the way things had turned out paled by comparison to the relief of having the ordeal finished.  I can just imagine what Harold, with his dry New York sense of humor, would have had to say about all of this!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bassoon basics for teachers and young students

1. Breathing: Use abdominal breathing. Practice breathing by lying on your back on the floor with a heavy book on your abdomen. The book should rise when you inhale and sink when you exhale.

2. Sitting position: Sit up straight in the chair, leaning slightly forward with your hips acting as a fulcrum. Your head should be in a natural position, looking straight forward, not looking up or down. Adjust the height of the bassoon so that the reed easily aims straight into your mouth.  Your sitting posture should be the same with or without the bassoon; if you are contorting to accommodate the bassoon, then it's time to readjust.

3. Embouchure: Wrap your lips completely around your teeth. (The teeth never touch the reed.) All pressure on the reed is applied from above. (Never push up on the reed!) If your embouchure is too tight you will constrict the reed, preventing it from vibrating. Your embouchure needs flexibility so that it can loosen for lower notes and tighten for higher notes.

4. Reed placement: Be sure not to place the reed too far into your mouth- generally, aim to insert about half of the blade. More of the reed should be inserted into your mouth for high notes and less for low notes.

5. Sound concept: It’s advisable to listen to recordings of bassoonists to develop a tonal goal. The solo recordings or YouTube videos of Klaus Thunemann, Gustavo Nunez, Judith leClair, Nadina Mackie Jackson, Bernard Garfield and Milan Turkovic are highly recommended.

6. Intonation: One of the most challenging aspects of bassoon playing is intonation. Most notes on the instrument have a lot of pitch flexibility, and bassoonists need help finding the correct pitches.  Electronic tuners and phone apps can be used, and using a keyboard to play the pitches is very helpful as well.

7. Rhythm: Rhythm is a critical aspect of performance, and metronome practice is essential. When sight reading, remember that rhythm is top priority. If the rhythm is right, other flaws can be overlooked, but if the rhythm is flawed, nothing else matters.

8. Musicianship: Musical sense is best learned from listening to lots of performances and recordings of great singers, string players and pianists.

9. Vibrato: When learning vibrato, it’s helpful to practice pulsating (loud-soft-loud-soft, etc.) in a set rhythm on long tones. (Try it on the reed alone first!) For example, with the metronome at 60, pulsate 2 times per beat, and when that becomes reliable, try 3 times per beat, then 4, then 5.  But first make sure that your straight tones are steady!   (Practice long tones with and without crescendos and diminuendos to stabilize your straight tones.)

10. Practicing: Never practice a mistake! If your playing isn’t accurate during a practice session, don’t continue - stop, fix the problem, then proceed.  Fix problems by slowing down!  Find a tempo at which you can play the passage, and become rock solid at that tempo before increasing it. It often helps to make up little customized exercises. For example, you may wish to focus on just one interval at first, and then gradually add more notes one at a time. Applying dotted rhythms or other rhythms is often helpful, and removing all articulation so that you are slurring everything is a great way to ensure accurate finger motion. If the problem persists despite your careful efforts, take a break.

11. Care of instrument: The bassoon should never be laid down. Disassemble it and put it in its case (being sure to swab the boot!) if you don’t have access to a bassoon stand. The bocal should be cleaned once a month, preferably with a bocal swab. Key oil should be applied every few months to each moving part.