musings of a professional bassoonist

Friday, December 25, 2009

The reed making habit

One of the benefits of maintaining this blog is that I am under constant self-induced pressure to practice what I preach.  I have preached that reed making is a habit which must be practiced daily to hone one's reedmaking skills and to provide a plentiful supply of reeds to choose from.  I stated that my goal was to make a minimum of one reed per day.  That goal seemed reasonable and worthwhile.

My longtime habit was thrown off by a change in scheduling of the Dr. Phil show.  Until recently, the Dr. Phil show aired daily at 10am, which proved to be the ideal time of day for me to make reeds (as long as I didn't have a 10am rehearsal).  In October Dr. Phil was moved to a late afternoon slot, and for some inexplicable reason, I can't/won't make reeds late in the day.


Dr. Phil had provided the perfect backdrop for reedmaking, because it was unnecessary to look at the TV screen- I just listened.  And learned.  (An added benefit of the Dr. Phil backdrop was that I was able to use my new found counseling skills to help troubled friends and acquaintances.  It's amazing how many problems can be dissipated by merely asking the famous Dr. Phil question: "So how's that workin' for ya?")


Glancing at the reed rack, I realized that the blanks on that rack had been formed weeks ago.  I had entered into a full-fledged reed slump.  I can't totally blame Dr. Phil for that.  These days, it's more important than ever before for orchestral musicians to do whatever they can to help the orchestra.  Here in Columbus we volunteer in various ways, such as playing for fundraisers and serving on committees.  Right now, the relationship between the musicians and the management is better than ever, so I am inspired to spend a lot of time helping. 

The question "How's that workin' for ya?" had to be applied to my own life, as I realized that my reed reserves were diminishing to a dangerously low level.  Although I make a fair number of reeds, I also use a lot of reeds!   I began to imagine trying to get through the difficult programs in January without enough reeds to choose from.  Slacking off on reedmaking was definitely NOT working for me!

During the first week of January we are performing the Sibelius Symphony No. 5 which features a major bassoon solo.  Bflat3 is a prominent note in the solo, so I'm going to have to have one of those reeds which is particularly stable on Bflat3.  (I vividly recall rejecting 50 reeds before I found one with a stable enough Bflat3 the last time I had a solo with prominent Bflat3s!)  Clearly, I need a huge supply of reeds right now.

Like any other habit which has been broken, it can be challenging to reboot the reedmaking habit.  I decided to just do it.  I was motivated by the fact that I have a new batch of cane to try: Rigotti from Woodwind Brasswind.  It's cheaper than any other source of Rigotti, and it looks good.  The gouge is even, as you can see here:


Since I have fallen behind, my minimum now has to be raised to 2 per day.  As I started working on my first blank, I wondered why I was so resistant to this activity.  It's really not that painful, yet ask any bassoonist what he/she thinks of reedmaking, and you'll probably be rewarded with eye-rolling, groaning and expletives.  But it's really not that bad, once you overcome the resistance and actually get started.



And at least we have tangible results to show for our efforts.  On the first day of my return to reedmaking, after finishing 2 blanks, I was fairly pleased with myself and actually wanted to extend my reedmaking session.  So I wrapped a couple of a couple of previously made blanks, and here's the result of just that one reedmaking session:


It never fails that when I return to reedmaking after a break from it, I make mistakes at first because I haven't been practicing reedmaking.  This time I forgot to score the bark before forming the tube.  I suspect that the reason I forgot is because I recently experimented with no scoring to see if scoring really makes a difference.  It does; the tubes sometimes crack too much down the middle when the mandrel is inserted without scoring.  If that center crack is too deep it can ruin the blades.  Fortunately, the reeds I forgot to score turned out fine, with no dangerous cracking, but it's a risk I prefer not to take.

Since I'm always promoting the concept of the reedmaking habit, I decided to research the question of how long, or how many repetitions, it takes to form a habit to the point where it becomes automatic.

Check out this interesting study on habit formation.

As you can see, "automaticity" was reached after an average of 66 repetitions!  That's daunting.  Maybe habit formation is not the best approach.

I try to enhance the reedmaking experience in whatever ways I can.  (If it's not exactly going to be a habit, then at least I'd better make it as appealing as possible to increase the odds that I'll keep doing it.)  I turn on the TV, and since there's a good chance that I won't like what's on, I make sure I have a good supply of opera recordings from the library to choose from, as an alternative to the TV.  Here's today's selection, which proved to be perfect for reedmaking:


 I bring the dog into the room so that I have some company during those long, lonely reedmaking sessions.


I turn on the colored lights.


I throw some peanuts out on the driveway to encourage squirrel activity which I can view through the window when my eyes need a break from reed scrutiny.


A bassoonist's best reedmaking motivation is, of course, the desire to sound as good as possible. A substandard reed can be mighty embarrassing!




Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiday Pops, a Columbus Tradition



One of the Columbus Symphony's most popular programs each year is the Holiday Pops featuring Chorus Director Ronald J. Jenkins and his Columbus Symphony Chorus.  The 130-member Chorus, made up entirely of volunteer singers from central Ohio, performs major orchestral choral works from Bach to Mahler, always at a very professional level.   The Symphony is incredibly fortunate to be affiliated with such a group.

For his Holiday Pops programs, Maestro Jenkins has figured out a formula which works year after year, never failing to please his audiences.  He has a lengthy list of tried-and-true favorites which he rotates, and each year he adds a few new selections.  There is always a child conductor chosen from the audience to conduct Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride.  This year the Maestro chose to feature one of his favorite soloists: our fine concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee, in two movements from Winter from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.  Read the review from the Columbus Dispatch to see how successful this program was: 
From a bassoonist's perspective, the Holiday Pops should prove to be a relatively easy show, an opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the tunes, right?  Well, not necessarily.....


The opening bassoon passage in One December, Bright and Clear looks harmless enough at first glance.  Then I notice the clef.  Then I notice the key signature.  I worry.  I practice.  The conductor starts.  The Children's Choir, full of energy, pushes the tempo.  It's fast.  I hope for the best.  It's time: I play.  Afterwards, uncertainty.  Did it sound OK?

Fortunately, I have the luxury of being able to listen to the concert after the performance, now that the Columbus Symphony is audio streaming.  The entire concert is streamed here:
http://www.instantencore.com/music/details.aspx?PId=5054059

When I listened to the above passage on the stream, I was amazed at how innocent it sounded!  The instrumentation (flute, piccolo and high bassoon, which I often refer to as "screech bassoon") works very well with children's voices.  I was not sorry that I had spent so much time obsessing over that passage, trying to make sure it was in tune and as smooth as possible.  The most effective way to practice it seemed to be slowing it down (of course) and placing fermatas on the high B and high C# to be sure that those notes were secure and in tune.  It also helped to emphasize the high C#.  This is the forgotten range of the bassoon which I have written about in other posts.  I spent a lot of time simply playing the passage slowly, over and over, listening to tone quality, matching, and intonation.  My goal is to make this range sound just like the rest of the instrument.  Why should it sound weak just because it's more difficult?  It's our job to make everything sound easy!

Sometimes musicians have a more casual attitude towards pops concerts. Because of passages like the one pictured above, I find it dangerous and unwise to be casual.  The passage was difficult and exposed, warranting a good deal of attention at home. 


Here's an example of a solo brief in length but endless in possibilities for flubbing.  (This is from the charming The Night Before Christmas by Randall Alan Bass.)  Any bassoonist can see that the fingerings do not exactly fall into place naturally.  It would be infinitely easier to play without using the A vent key on the final note (A2) but it is too likely that the note will crack without venting.  For F#3, I used the full fingering (LH: 2nd finger + E flat key; RH: 1st, 2nd and 4th fingers) as usual.  I very rarely resort to the short fingering (LH: 1/2 hole, 2nd finger, 3rd finger + E flat key; RH: 1st finger and I definitely would not use it for this.  To practice the above passage, it worked best for me to just slow it down and play it all slurred.  The solo is kind of out in left field (not surrounded by 16ths in other instruments), so it's more critical than ever to subdivide 16ths in your head during the beats leading up to the solo, while carefully watching the conductor's baton to be sure that the subdivisions are placed accurately.


The third most challenging excerpt from this concert happens at measure 111 in the same piece.  It's a soli with the piccolo.  Toward the end, the B4 and A4 grace notes provide much practicing fodder.  The bassoonist almost has to will it to happen!   (Granted, it's more difficult on a newer Heckel like mine than on an older one because the new instrument's bore is larger so it's much more challenging to manipulate the left thumb keys, especially if your hand is not large.)  Normally, I'd use the whisper key on the G#3 following the grace notes, but in this case I left it out, since the note sounded fine without it.  I try very hard to stick with standard fingerings whenever possible, but this passage proved to be unreliable with the left thumb having to travel all the way down to the whisper key on the G#3. 

This very enjoyable concert closed with a vist from Santa and Mrs. Claus, and with the entire orchestra, chorus and childrens' choir donning Santa hats.  I am sure that in Columbus, Ohio, many people consider this concert to be the essential starting point for the holiday season.





Thursday, December 3, 2009

Columbus Symphony: On the Cutting Edge

This month the Columbus Symphony's popular Holiday Pops concert will be audio streamed on columbussymphony.com and  http://instantencore.com/contributor/contributor.aspx?CId=5092462 Also, as a special bonus to ticket holders, a download card will be offered which contains an access code for downloads of 3 selections from the concert. For those who own an iPhone or iPod Touch, the Columbus Symphony has an impressive new app which features the audio streams as well as a schedule of concerts and the latest news, videos, buzz and blog posts.  The sound quality of our audio streaming is rather amazing on the iPhone!

 
Download the

I think it's fabulous that, thanks to our new internet presence, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra is now connecting people to music anytime, anyplace.  The old symphony orchestra model isn't working as well as it used to, as evidenced by the severe financial problems currently plaguing many U.S.orchestras.  (For example, read here about the Honolulu Symphony situation:  http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091107/ap_en_mu/us_symphony_bankruptcy )  Although the future cannot be predicted for any symphony orchestra, I consider myself fortunate to be part of an organization which is now on the cutting edge of classical music trends.

How does internet exposure affect the musicians?  In the past, I always used to think about how things might be different for us if our concerts were broadcast nationally via public radio.  I speculated that the added pressure of national presence would be good for our level of performance.

Sure enough, my perception is that the orchestra sounds better now, knowing that our work is available for worldwide scrutiny!  It seems as though each one of us is accepting a higher degree of individual responsibility for the musical product.  It's not that we were irresponsible before, but perhaps we are now inspired to reach even further toward our personal best.

It's so rewarding to receive appreciative calls and emails from faraway friends and relatives who have just heard the Columbus Symphony on the internet!  Undoubtedly, I am more determined than ever to present my best possible bassoon playing now that we are performing for an infinite audience.

No matter where you're located, you can listen to our concerts at your convenience.  Here is a link to our audio stream of Mahler 9, performed  2 weeks ago by the Columbus Symphony with Gunther Herbig conducting:

http://instantencore.com/music/details.aspx?PId=5053695



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