musings of a professional bassoonist

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.