musings of a professional bassoonist

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!