musings of a professional bassoonist

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.....


dclark said...

Hi Betsy,

Thanks for visiting my blog. I enjoyed reading about the search for your Heckel and I'll be reading about your reed making as well.

Dale Clark

B.S. said...

Hi Dale- Thank you for visiting and commenting. I'm going to add your blog to my sidebar if I can figure out how!

Best wishes,

benjamin said...

Franzen Shenanigans said...

Hello! Stumbled across your blog and LOVE it! Thanks for sharing all your knowledge and insight. Can't wait to read more!

B.S. said...

Dear Franzen,

Thank you! Please let me know if there is any topic you'd like to suggest.

dclark said...

Hi Betsy,

I was reading your post about double tonguing. I know that keeping your fingers close to the toen holes helps with the technique. When I practice Beethoven 4 excerpts I often parctice slurring the fast passages, getting the difficult passages as smooth and even as possible before double tonguing. I also find that finishing the tip as thin as possible without losing the pitch or tone is a necessity and I always end up with a better reed overall.