musings of a professional bassoonist

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!


Franzen Shenanigans said...

I just love your insightful posts! I have an audition coming up at the end of January. Maybe I'll surprise them with a Mahler excerpt? :D

B.S. said...

Thank you, Franzen Shenanigans. Maybe surprising the audition committee with Mahler might not be a bad idea- you can sneak it into your warm-up when you're testing the acoustics.

Good luck with your audition preparation!

T.B. said...

Guitar pickup? Ingenious! Maybe I'll swipe my husband's someday and have myself a bassooning screamfest. They'll even hear me on the street above A2 (my son)!

I remember you drilling intonation into me. You had me do all sorts of exercises. It was a good thing. I was constantly second-guessing myself as it was.

I am reminded of playing Bruckner (I don't even remember which one, but they all sound like Bruckner, LOL) and finally deciding I wasn't going to bust my chops since we were doubling the trombones pretty much the entire time. At least in the upper register there is a chance of piercing through the din!

B.S. said...

T.B.- yes, you have the choice of plugging that guitar pickup into either a tuner or an amplifier. I'll admit that I've done both!

All of your intonation exercises paid off- I was impressed by the pitch on your youtube videos!

You made a wise choice in Bruckner. The tuner serves a different purpose there- you match the brass pitch and see how high it is! Whether or not you tell the brass players of your findings is fodder for another post....

T.B. said...

Thank you... you led the way!

So would it be considered rude to turn around and stick your tuner onto a trumpet player's stand?

And here I thought that was only a community orchestra problem... ;)

So I got an email from "CSO Radio", and I am listening to the Leonora Overture/Rachmaninoff #3/Dvorak concert. I miss going to symphony concerts!! Yes, we should get to one here...

B.S. said...

T.B., if there's one thing I have learned about playing in an orchestra, it's the wisdom of befriending the trumpet players. Don't let them see the tuner- even on your own stand!

I'm SO glad that you're listening to CSO radio! The mission of our new President and CEO- to connect our music with people anytime, anywhere- is working! I love it! Someday you'll be able to see us too, hopefully, on webcasts. That's the plan.

Franzen Shenanigans said...

I have a question about the guitar pickup thinger. Is there a special kind that you use? And where do youattach it on the bocal? I have one that my husband has used that he attaches to his bell (he's a trombone player), but I'm not sure if that will work.

B.S. said...

Franzen Shenanigans, the pick-up I use is a Matrix Universal Tuner Pickup. I attach it to the bocal just above the whisper key hole. I'll post a photo of it very soon so that you can see the exact setup.

T.B. said...

So do the clear plastic panels really help shield you from the brass? I guess they could see your tuner sitting on your stand through them ;)

We REALLY enjoyed listening to the CSO Radio concert. I think I appreciated it even more because I could imagine you, Doug, Randy, Steve, David and Woody sitting there, as well as many others who have been playing in the orchestra for a couple decades more more. (Omgosh, I really have been out of college that long, LOL) It wasn't just a recording I was listening to - it was a way of feeling the connection to my roots in Columbus, which I do miss quite often.

B.S. said...

Those Plexiglas shields help a little, but most musicians in most orchestras have to use earplugs if they sit in front of trumpets. (And earplugs interfere with the musician doing his/her job!)

Now the Columbus Symphony has the trumpets sitting in an ideal location where they are not directly in back of any other musicians.

I am so glad that you are enjoying the CSO Radio! Soon you'll be able to hear our Mahler 9- probably by Tuesday.