Monday, December 27, 2010

Orchestral relevance

My friend, colleague and fellow blogger David Thomas recently posted his well-informed thoughts about the changing role of the performing musician.  David lists the irrefutable trends which have contributed to the financial crises for orchestras nationwide:
  • the slow decline in classical concert attendance since the 1960s
  • the aging of the audiences
  • the explosion of vivid competition for entertainment dollars
The third point, competition for entertainment dollars, is huge, and it largely explains the first 2 points (declining and aging audiences).  The internet provides amazing options for listening to and watching world class performances anytime, anywhere.  The most striking example of this is the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.  There are also countless performances of orchestras and chamber groups offered on YouTube free of charge.

Of course, the internet options are a double-edged sword for us musicians.  An important part of our ongoing development involves listening to music, and now our options are infinite.  These days there's no excuse for musical ignorance - we are able to easily find internet performances of any piece of music we are preparing.   We can access world class performances of any orchestral or chamber work right now, often without spending any money.  That's miraculous!

The infinite internet options (including musical performances as well as video and TV streaming and social media) potentially provide competition for live, in person orchestra performances.  Internet options are an essential aspect of the social trend known as cocooning.  Cocooning, quite simply, is the tendency of people to spend their leisure time at home, using computers, TVs and game consoles for entertainment. 

For those who choose to buck the cocooning trend, and instead, venture out into the city of Columbus for an evening of entertainment, there are now many more entertainment options in real life as well (not just on the internet).  During its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, the Columbus Symphony was one of the only acts in town, although competition had begun to materialize, as exemplified by the founding of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in 1980.  Now, the performing arts options are so numerous (including theater troupes, dance companies, opera, choral, chamber groups including chamber orchestras, jazz ensembles, and folk, world, and renaissance music groups) that local arts groups compete with one another.  In addition to competing for audiences, each arts organization seeks donations from the same local businesses, foundations, and individuals.

In Columbus, I believe that there is another factor or trend which has affected the symphony:
  • the decline of downtown
Twenty years ago, downtown Columbus experienced incredible growth.  A stunning shopping mall called Columbus City Center was built right in the heart of downtown.  It was connected to the Ohio Theatre where the Columbus Symphony performs.
Columbus City Center attracted shoppers from all over the Midwest.  Symphony patrons typically enhanced their concert-going experiences with shopping, dinner and drinks at Columbus City Center before and after the performances, for a true night out on the town.

This year Columbus City Center was demolished, following a dramatic decline in which most of its stores went out of business.  (New malls built in the suburbs created competition which could not be overcome.)

Columbus City Center became a ghost mall as store after store shut down.

What's the solution?? What can be done to minimize the effects of these trends?

During the 1980s and 90s, the symphony was important in Columbus, since a large number of people wanted to hear live classical music, and there was no oversupply of options available for  socializing and entertainment.  At that time, venturing downtown was exciting, as Columbus City Center  was constructed and opened.   The symphony's relevance during the 80s and 90s must somehow be recaptured, perhaps by dissolving the barriers between audience and orchestra and by showing the public how the orchestra can enhance their lives in myriad ways and help define the community.

One solution is already being taken care of.  The non-profit Capitol South Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (Capitol South) has built a brand new park, Columbus Commons, on the former City Center site.  I like the new (not yet finished) park, which unofficially opened this month.  Despite the cold  and blustery weather conditions, I've enjoyed walking through it on my way to Nutcracker performances.
Upon completion, Columbus Commons will include cafe, a fountain, a carousel, and a large concert amphitheater!  Certainly there is link between the revitalization of the downtown core and the thriving of the symphony, at least here in Columbus.  (Is it mere coincidence that the symphony peaked when the Columbus City Center Mall thrived, and that the mall and the symphony declined simultaneously?)  I'd like to think that the grass being planted in the ground at Columbus Commons symbolizes new growth for the symphony as well as for the city.

The brand new venue for outdoor concerts in Columbus Commons could be a real shot in the arm for the Columbus Symphony.  We already have a successful outdoor summer series, Picnic With the Pops, taking place at Chemical Abstracts near the Ohio State University, but our summer schedule includes a lot of free time during which we could be performing elsewhere.  The more we perform, in as many different locations as possible, the more relevant we become to the community, as Columbus citizens begin to associate the ever-present symphony with various events, festivals and venues.

Community spirit is part of the reason why  local orchestras still exist in spite of the internet.  So many cities are proud of their symphony orchestras!  Musicians of full time orchestras live in the community and provide services such as teaching and coaching for students.  They perform in chamber groups as well as in the orchestra, and ideally, they are highly visible, performing all over town for many different events.  Here in Columbus many orchestra musicians have performed for fundraisers for various charities (including the symphony itself).  When we perform in smaller settings, we have the opportunity to really connect with the audience with conversation in addition to music.  Such interaction works wonders in establishing the musicians as relevant community members.

The Columbus Symphony, along with several other U.S. orchestras, has already embraced the internet's ability to offer music anytime, anyplace.  Our recordings of recent concerts are streaming on InstantEncore
free of charge.  Has that caused a decline in our ticket sales?  On the contrary!  Ticket sales remain solid, and corporate donations are increasing, perhaps due in part to the evidence that we are technologically up-to-date and therefore relevant as evidence that Columbus is on the cutting edge.

The restructuring of the administration to include the symphony under the umbrella of the successful and highly regarded Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) was a bold move undertaken last season when the symphony faced continuing financial instability.  Such innovative restructuring was an important part of the solution here in Columbus, since it reduced administrative costs and reassured civic and corporate leaders that the symphony is now well-managed.  In addition, the symphony hired a new leader, our dynamic music director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni whose fine international reputation is sure to help re-establish the orchestra's relevance in the classical music world.  

Collaboration with other local arts organizations is another solution which is already being implemented here.  The Columbus Symphony regularly performs with BalletMet Columbus and OperaColumbus.  We perform side-by-side rehearsals and concerts with the CSO Youth Orchestra, and have collaborated several times with the Columbus Gospel Choir.  Hopefully more such collaborations will be part of our future, further increasing our community visibility as well as our relevance to other arts organizations.

The very obvious solution to the trend of aging audiences is to grab the attention of the children, our future audience members.  It's not enough to just present concerts, any old concerts, to young audiences - we must find a way to connect, and therefore become relevant to the young concertgoers, to the point where classical music is considered an essential part of life!  Conductor Leonard Bernstein created a large segment of today's audiences through his nationally televised Young People's Concerts during the 1950s and 1960s.  Bernstein figured out how to make classical music fascinating, enticing and relevant.  It is now the job of symphony orchestras to follow Bernstein's example and show our future audiences why our music is relevant - why 300 years ago, William Congreve wrote the poem which includes the famous quote: 
Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve gig and the power of music

Milford Hills UMC

Many musicians worked late last night, on Christmas Eve, myself included.  I performed a church gig which featured various combinations of chorus, orchestra and organ in works by Handel, Rutter, Bach, Holst, traditional carols, and Gregorian chants.  Although quite interesting, the program was not particularly bassoon oriented, so I was afforded the opportunity to just listen rather than having to worry about mastering my instrument.

A year ago I played the same Christmas Eve gig, and at the beginning of tonight's program I began having flashbacks to a year ago.  My sister had been very much on my mind last year, and I remembered texting photos of the beautifully decorated church to her last Christmas Eve.

The organ in the church is one which has the ability to shake the earth - that's how powerful it is.  The very talented organist performed Weihnachten, Op. 145., No. 3 by Max Reger (for solo organ) both years.  During the Reger, the lights were turned off, leaving the huge church in total darkness.    This year when the Reger began, I flashbacked again to a year ago.  I hadn't known that it was my sister's last Christmas, because her cancer was in remission.  The piece is spooky and ominous-sounding, and last night something happened as the tremendous crescendo built up.  I was completely overtaken by the music, in an indescribable way which seemed to somehow involve my sister.

When she died this past fall, I didn't talk about it or even mention it to many people.  I left Columbus to attend her funeral, but hardly anyone knew.  A friend suggested that maybe I should write about it on this blog, and discuss what it's like to go on with business as usual at a time like this.  But I couldn't.  In order to keep playing the bassoon and functioning, I had to NOT think about it.  There were times when the music we were rehearsing or performing would make me think of her, but in order to function as a bassoon player I had to push those thoughts away and be very businesslike. 

Last night was different, though.  The lights were off, nobody could see me crying, and I wasn't even playing during that portion of the service.  It was the perfect opportunity to allow the music to take effect. My guess is that every person in that church was deeply affected by the organist's performance of  the Reger Weihnachten, but each of us had a different issue or perspective which responded.  The music performed its therapy on whatever ailed each one of us.

When I left the church last night, I could tell that I had been internally re-arranged during the Reger Weihnachten.  And to think, I was paid to be there.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lest we forget

Every once in a while we benefit from a reminder of why we do this - why we push ourselves relentlessly to be the best possible musicians we can be regardless or in spite of compensation or appreciation from outside sources.  One of the most famously inspiring examples of such a reminder is found in the speech delivered by Dr. Karl Paulnack to the incoming freshman class of the New England Conservatory of Music in September 2004:

"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing
appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would
imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your
emergency room and you're going to have to save their life. Well, my
friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and
bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that
is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you
do your craft.

You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell
yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a musician
isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I'm not an
entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue
worker. You're here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a
spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works
with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come
into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.  

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I
expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this
planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of
equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a
military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the
religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war
as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is
to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit
together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do.
As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the
ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives."
Thank you, Dr. Paulnack.  I needed that.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nutcracker update

During last night's Nutcracker performance I decided to change my fingering for the high A-B trill in the bassoon solo in No. 11:

For reasons I cannot explain, the high A-B trill fingering I have used ever since my very first Nutcracker is unreliable.  I don't know why I remained loyal to this fingering:

Mysteriously, the fingering works perfectly when I first take the bassoon out of its case.  The trill works quite a few times at first, and there doesn't seem to be any problem.  Then suddenly, inexplicably, something changes and the fingering fails, with a cacking noise replacing the high B in the trill.  Once this change occurs during a practice session or orchestra service, the cacking continues each time the trill is attempted!  It's confounding.

It might seem obvious to some bassoonists that if the cacking begins only after repeated executions of the trill, the logical solution would be to not practice it before a performance.  But I am too obsessive to restrain myself from testing it, over and over, before a performance!

Finally, in the middle of last night's Nutcracker, I decided to solve the problem once and for all.  As long as other fingerings exist, why not find a reliable fingering for the High A-B trill?

Early this morning I pulled out my Cooper/Toplansky Essentials of Bassoon Technique.  I tried all of the fingerings for that trill, thanking my lucky stars that there were so many choices, and decided upon the one that had popped into my mind last night during the Nutcracker:

This one never cacks, even the hundredth time it is played.  It is slightly awkward due to the 2nd finger right hand having to go up when the 3rd finger left hand goes down, but my original fingering wasn't exactly easy either.

But a problem does exist.  I have practiced the original fingering thousands upon thousands of times (ask any member of the Columbus Symphony).  That fingering is in my DNA.  Now suddenly I'm supposed to have a new (and awkward) fingering ready to go by tonight's performance?!

In the past when I've had to "reprogram" like this, I've used the technique of keeping the bassoon out all day (normally I put it back in its case whenever I'm not practicing) so that I can continuously pick up the bassoon and play the new trill fingering, within the context of the Nutcracker solo, then set it down and do something else briefly (or practice something else), followed by another go at the passage, ad infinitum, in the hopes that I can make the trill automatic by tonight.  I have found that the most helpful thing I can do at this point is to remind myself before playing the passage to leave the 4th finger right hand on the F key for the A4 which begins the trill, since that is the most unusual and unnatural aspect of this new trill fingering.  Whenever I do remind myself to leave the 4th finger on the F key, the trill is a success.

Have you ever encountered a problem with this trill?  What was your solution?


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

High F

Sigh.  High F.  Sure, I can squeeze it out using a high note reed or an Allgood high bocal, but I want to be able to add F5 to my repertoire of everyday notes.  My goal is to be able to include F5 in scale practice using my everyday Heckel CC1 bocal.  (Is this goal reasonable?)

My current bassoon (Heckel 15421) enables me to play reliably up to high E (E5) on regular reeds (as opposed to "high" reeds), and I am glad that my scale routines can cover the bassoon from Bflat1 through E5 without altering my equipment in any way.  But now I want to expand to F5!

This is the only fingering I've had any success with:

It only works for me some of the time, on certain reeds.  I am using a very tight embouchure which is parallel (no overbite).

Do you have any solutions?!  Please comment here or send me an email at  I will post the solutions in a later blog post.  I'm interested in any information or suggestions offered, even if it involves alteration of equipment!



Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Nutcracker


Until recently, bassoonists typically used to roll their eyes and issue a guttural "aughhhhhh!" whenever Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker was mentioned.  After all, it contains some of the most confounding bassoon passages ever written, and it is often performed ad infinitum throughout the entire month of December with multiple performances per day!

Things have changed.  From my perspective with the Columbus Symphony, being offered the opportunity to perform in the Nutcracker pit represents a major victory.  Last season, BalletMet Columbus was unable to afford to hire the Columbus Symphony to accompany its Nutcracker performances, and they used recorded music. 

The musicians were obviously unhappy about the ballet company's use of recorded music, as were many audience members who voiced their disappointment to the ballet management.  The musicians feared that we would never again perform with the ballet, since once such a change is made, it usually turns out to be permanent.

We were lucky, though.  BalletMet's board and management (along with the also financially strapped OperaColumbus board and  management) sincerely wished to work out a solution which enabled continued collaboration with the Columbus Symphony.  Last summer the boards and managements of all 3 organizations (symphony, ballet and opera) worked out a deal.  Because the symphony was also having severe financial problems, it was remarkable that a solution was reached.  The musicians had to vote on a variance to our master agreement to allow reduced pay for ballet and opera services, and the variance passed.

This is the version of the Nutcracker which we're using:

The orchestration was reduced by David Itkin.  Any bassoonist who has encountered the Itkin reduction will report that this part is even more difficult than the original.  There is only one bassoon in this version, so yes, some of the second bassoon parts are included.  Also the bassoon part contains lines originally assigned by Tchaikowsky to a horn or trombone.  The string parts seem to be original, but the woodwind and brass parts are quite altered.

It's a safe bet that this is the most challenging bassoon passage in any version of the Nutcracker:

The tempo of this passage can make or break the bassoonist's success, of course, but the tempo is usually uncomfortably fast!  I have practiced it by slowing it down and altering it in every way I can think of:  playing in duple rhythm, playing all slurred, playing with various rhythms and articulations.  Sometimes in performance, the way I watch the part as it goes by seems to make a difference.  If I take care to watch each note in succession, that helps.  (I seem to normally ignore the printed music, especially with something like this which I have practiced a lot!)

The 3rd phrase of the following bassoon solo in Act II used to frustrate me to no end:

Now, suddenly it is easy on my 15,000 series Heckel.  I have no explanation, other than that the degree of difficulty of this passage varies greatly from bassoon to bassoon.  Just pick your favorite high A-B trill fingering, and that's it.

The infamous B octaves at the end of the Arabian dance played in the original by 2 bassoons is always tricky to tune:

But in the Itkin version, the lower octave is played by the second clarinet - violĂ  - problem solved!  Itkin is either a genius or a lucky experimenter.

As an example of the unexpected surprises transferred from other instruments to the bassoon in this version, the following appears in the Dance of the Flowers:

The scalar passages at the top of the page are unfamiliar, but playable, as are the horn choir parts beginning at H.  Chances are, the music sounds perfectly fine (and normal) to the audience.

Classical musicians are beginning to open our minds to change. Perhaps we would have balked at the idea of performing the Itkin Nutcracker reduction 10 or 15 years ago.  We're beginning to ponder the notion that flexibility may be required of us if we want to remain employed as musicians.  And I think it's safe to say that all of us are more appreciative of the work we're offered, since we can no longer take it for granted.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Best of Baroque

Please forgive me for taking a short break from blogging. Ill be extremely busy over the next couple of weeks, but I intend to resume writing as soon as I can.

Meanwhile, here's a stream of a recent concert by the Columbus Symphony with our new music director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni:

Best of Baroque

It's a terrific program including Stravinsky's Pulcinella.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Adjustments to the instrument

My new Heckel bassoon #15421 has not yet been sealed or tuned.  It has been in its pristine state since I acquired it.  I have not wanted to make any changes to the instrument while it is so new, due to the necessary breaking in and settling period. 

There were a couple of issues which I finally decided to address.  My teacher, K. David Van Hoesen of the Eastman School of Music didn't talk a whole lot about the specifics of bassoon mechanics, but there was one point he insisted upon.  He said that the height of the G key pad (which is located above the A tone hole) was critical.  And I knew that mine was not right, as seen in this photo:

The G key pad is way too high.  Mr. Van Hoesen insisted that the metal on top of the G key pad should be flush with the top of the metal guard surrounding the bottom of the hole.  When the height is too high, like mine, the bassoon's low A is sharp.

Any change to the instrument, even adjusting the height of a key pad, has the potential of widespread effect since the bassoon is acoustically so complicated.  For one thing, I was afraid that lowering the key pad would lower the pitch of A2, an octave higher than low A.  That note was reliable and I didn't want to mess with it.

Fortunately, a dear friend set me straight.  He said that the change may not affect A2 at all!  I guess there's no point in attempting to apply logic to the bassoon.  I should know that by now!

So I finally did it- I lowered the height of the G key pad to make it flush with the guard:

Not only is the low A pitched lower as a result of this change, but miraculously, the A2 is unaffected!  As a further bonus, Bflat2 is now much more stable and reliably pitched.  I think there's a very good reason why Mr. Van Hoesen focused on this one critical aspect of bassoon adjustment. It seems as though the intonation of my entire instrument fell into place after making this adjustment.  I am sure that this was one of the trade secrets of the legendary woodwind repairman of the 1900s, Hans Moening of Philadelphia, whom Mr. Van Hoesen respected greatly.

I made the change by sticking a thin piece of cardboard on top of the black rod or pin which extends through the  interior of the boot to operate the G key:

The view below shows the 2 rods.  The rod used for this procedure is the top one, the one closer to the bocal. The cardboard is placed between the top of the rod and the bottom of the key mechanism:

You'll know you're doing the right thing when you see that the height of the G key pad has changed.  As I said, this very slight adjustment has changed the entire instrument for the better.  I highly recommend it!

Next, I decided to tackle the problem of the wing joint not being able to be fully inserted into its receiver in the boot:

This is as far as it would go.  I can only guess as to how this might affect intonation, and I can clearly see how it affects the placement of the left thumb keys.  (The thumb keys on the wing joint end up being higher than the thumb keys on the long joint.)

It should be a simple matter to remove some of the string wrapped around the wing tenon, right?  Well, it wasn't.  I hadn't attempted to do this since the 8th grade, so I'm out of practice.  But I also ran into a hurdle.

Mr. Van Hoesen had instructed his students to find the end of the string, unwind it a bit, and see if the joint fits into its receiver before cutting the string.  If it fits, you make a loop in the middle of the string and pull the end through to secure it in place.


  I used a piece of wire to find the end of the string, but the search was in vain.  Finally I had to give up on finding the end of the string.  I used scissors to cut into the string:

When I pulled on the string to unwind some of it, I was shocked to end up with this mess:

There were no fewer than 3 pieces of string hanging off the tenon!  By this time my stomach had turned inside out and I began to panic.  (I'd just destroyed a priceless and irreplaceable instrument!)

I immediately thought of the great bassoon teacher Norman Herzberg, who was my reed-making teacher.  Mr. Herzberg's advice for any bassoon-related emergency was "dinner and a movie," followed by a refreshed effort to address the emergency.

That's what I did.  And when I readdressed my emergency, a piece of string somehow extracted itself from the mix, and I ended up with what I wanted- one end of string to make a loop with and pull the end through.  A fairly substantial amount of string was removed before the joint fit completely into its receiver:

As you can see, all of this work was done over a towel.  Another legendary bassoon teacher and instrument mechanic, Hugh Cooper, taught me to do that.  He said it would be a big mistake to ever take any action without holding the bassoon and its parts over a towel, just in case the unspeakable occurs.

To complete the job, I applied to the tenon the cork-grease-like substance which came with the bassoon:

Here's the finished tenon::

And it fits like this:

Just right!

Another issue which is easy to overlook is that of inserting the wing joint so that it is correctly lined up with the boot:

Just eyeballing it every time you assemble the instrument is not likely to result in accuracy.  Many bassoon repairmen make marks on the boot and wing to line up during assembly.  I just applied 2 thin pieces of masking tape to line up on my bassoon:

The blue tape on the whisper key rod above is there to ensure that the whisper key closes when the pancake key is depressed.  Of course, this is an extremely common point of malfunction on bassoons.

That's enough bassoon alteration for one day, I think.  Just a word of caution, as originally delivered by Mr. Van Hoesen:  Don't ever perform any kind of maintenance or alteration - not even oiling of the keys - right before a performance!  You never know when something might go wrong.......


Monday, October 25, 2010


This past weekend the Columbus Symphony's performed Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite with our new Music Director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni.  Pulcinella is the first piece of Stravinsky's neoclassical period, and is full of unique challenges for the 1st bassoon.

The first challenge is to obtain a reed which can do everything called for in Pulcinella.  It has to favor the high range and the low range, it has to have a big sound and a more subtle ability to accompany.

The first solo passage occurs at rehearsal #1:

My teacher at Eastman, K. David Van Hoesen, spent a lot of time coaching me on Pulcinella.  He said that the passage at #1 should be played with a very full sound throughout, with no crescendos or diminuendos, with strict rhythm.  Of course, the bassoon should not overbalance the oboe solo which begins on the downbeat of  #1; the voices should be equal.

The first entrance in the Scherzino is also to be played with a very full sound:

Tempo-wise, the 1st bassoonist is at the mercy of the 2nd bassoonist who sets the tempo with 8th notes underneath the 1st bassoon melody.  The 2 passages between #20 and #21 are also prominent passages.

The Allegro is quite fast, and the most challenging passage of the movement begins 2 measures before #36:

Mr.Van Hoesen taught his students a very unusual set of fingerings for the first measure of this passage.  It involves keeping the low F key depressed from the 2nd note (G#) through the 5th note (also G#).  The high A is played with the right hand plus the low F key.  The passage is difficult to play in tune with these fingerings- the G#s and A have to be coaxed up to pitch- and the passage is very awkward at first with these fingerings.  But once you get used to it, the results are better than if you try to use standard fingerings, especially if the tempo is on the fast side.  Our tempo was fast, but I didn't mind at all.  It makes things very exciting and energetic.  These are the Van Hoesen fingerings for 2 measures before #36:

The trill passage later in the same movement goes by quickly.  As with each of these excerpts, time spent with the metronome will pay off.

As you can (barely) see above, I penciled in a high B at the end of the1st line.  I do whatever I can to see to it that the visual aspect of the music is as clear and helpful as possible.  There's no point in screwing up if you can avoid it by writing in a visual cue.  (When I was beginning to practice this excerpt, I kept missing the high B.  As soon as I penciled in the B at the end of the line, I stopped missing it!)

The passage ending the 3rd movement is awkward because of the fingerings and the increasing tempo:

There's something about the role of the left hand 3rd finger in this passage which makes it difficult.  I have a theory that because the bassoon rests on the left hand, the 3rd finger may simply be physically strained, especially if this piece is played at the end of a concert or rehearsal.  I tried to adjust the balance of the instrument during the measures leading up to this solo so that it leaned more to the right, taking pressure off the left hand.  It seemed to help.
In the above passage, I had practiced it the traditional way, with a crescendo as well as an accelerando leading up to the end.  Our conductor asked for a subito piano on the last 2 measures, so I had to adjust my mindset a bit, which is fine with me.  I think it's important for an orchestral player to be flexible.  Once in a while I have to take a little time to reprogram my brain for certain changes, but I'm always open to new ideas, especially when they come from a respected conductor like Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

The Tarantella is in one and it's fast!

The 2 bassoons trade off during the 2 measures before #56.  At #57, the 1st bassoon has the ability to provide rhythmic stability for the rest of the orchestra.  It's important to check in with the conductor to be sure that your tempo is accurate!

Many bassoonists consider the Toccata to be the scariest movement of the piece.

The passage beginning one measure before #69 is one of the Pulcinella excerpts which I started practicing weeks before we played it.  I began by practicing it all slurred at a very slow tempo with the metronome.  When I mastered it at the first tempo, I increased it.  During each practice session I started at the very slow tempo and increased it.  (That way I'd be experienced at playing the passage at any tempo!)  Eventually my top tempo reached 120 (the tempo which is printed in the part) which is quite fast.  I kept going though, until my tempo was considerably faster than 120.  That way, 120 would seem easy.  On most recordings the tempo is slower than 120, probably because of the 1st bassoon part!  I think it's wise to be prepared for any tempo, even after rehearsing with the orchestra.  Oftentimes tempos adjust in performances, which is one of the reasons why live music is so exciting.  I wouldn't want to be left in the dust due to inadequate preparation!

You can see in the passage above that I penciled in a "C" above the high B# and a "D" above the high C#.  That's because I decided to use the high C key for B# and the high D key for C#.  That's what sounded best, although that was definitely NOT the easiest fingering choice.  On my new Heckel, those keys are hard to reach without an enormous left hand.

The 1st bassoon does a lot of accompanying in the Gavotta, and then suddenly rises out of the texture at #76:

The high D in the third measure after #75 is tricky for 2 reasons, I think.  First, the 1st bassoon has been playing constantly in that movement and the player has had no chance to reset the reed or suck the moisture out of the bocal.  Secondly, you don't really have the option of choosing a high reed for this piece- there are too many other issues to worry about!  Normally, a high D would be no big deal for a principal bassoon player, but in this context it's a bit daunting.

 Variazione 2a immediately follows the above Gavotta, with no break.

It's important not to cover the solo flute and horn and later the flute duet.  In this piece the flutes will probably be sitting in an unusual spot, since there are no clarinets in the piece, and the flutes will most likely sound very different to you in the Pulcinella configuration.  Therefore the conductor must be relied upon to assess the balance.

Variazione 2a is one of those passages which varies greatly from reed to reed.  The challenge is to make it sound clean, and on most reeds, it doesn't.  In fact, I used this movement as the basis for my reed choice.  For some reason, it's much more nerve-racking to play this in the orchestra than at home.  (With most excerpts, there's not such a difference between home and stage, in my experience.)

Although Variazione 2a is a tremendously big deal to us bassoonists, it's actually a mere accompaniment. When preparing this movement, I practiced it at every tempo imaginable, with the metronome of course.  Ideally, it will sound relaxed and easy.  That's the goal.  Good luck. 

After that workout, the 1st bassoonist should be able to coast to the end of the piece, right?   Not exactly. The 16ths in the measure before and 4 after #95 in the Minuetto below should project, but the eighths are best blended with the cellos.  On our stage, the cellos were located far enough from the bassoon that it never sounded blended to me- it sounded like I was out in left field.  This is one of those spots in which the 1st bassoon has to be sure to be with the conductor- it's very easy to lag behind between #95 and #96.

In the Finale, the 16ths such as those after #103 should be quite aggressive.  Even if you're able to single tongue at 144 to the quarter, double tonguing is more appropriate for aggression and velocity.

No doubt, the 1st bassoon player has a lot going on in this piece.  I can't wait to play it again!


Friday, October 15, 2010

An amazing bassoon recital

Karen Pierson

The Ohio State University School of Music's Weigel Hall was the site of Karrie Pierson's bassoon recital this evening.  Karrie is Associate Professor of Bassoon at The Ohio State University, for those who don't know.  The program was staggeringly ambitious:

Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859): Adagio in F Major, Op. 115
Jean Francaix (1912-1997): Concerto for Bassoon
Damian Montano (b. 19--): Duo Concertante
Bernhard Crusell (1775-1838):  Concertino for Bassoon

Each piece was virtuosic and full of character.  Karrie's sound is indescribably appealing; it's dark yet sweet, present yet discreet.  Her accompanist, Maria Staeblein, also from the OSU faculty, matched Karrie perfectly without ever overpowering the bassoon. 

Of course, the Francaix Concerto is rarely performed, for good reason.  (Many bassoonists consider it unplayable!)  Somehow, Karrie was able to make even the Francaix sound easy!  This is only the 3rd time in my life that I have heard this piece played live.  It was a real treat.

The Montano was the most avant-garde piece on the program, although it definitely matched the other pieces in its appeal.  I especially enjoyed the note bending which Montano called for.

Karrie's career has included much playing and teaching.  After studying with Hugh Cooper and Norman Herzberg while obtaining her degrees in bassoon performance, she played principal bassoon in the Omaha Symphony.  Then she taught at UT Austin before joining the Houston Symphony where she played prior to accepting her appointment at The Ohio State University.

Karrie plays on a 9,000 series Heckel.  I love the way Karrie is able to make her instrument sound smooth, even and flexible throughout its range, with vibrato which is at all times clear and well-controlled.

I also marveled at Karrie's reed-making skills.  Her reeds excelled in both the low and the high range, unbelievably, and seemed to be both light and powerful.

Karrie received a standing ovation for her superb performance, as you might imagine.  It was well-deserved indeed!


Monday, October 11, 2010


Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade features what I believe to be the most famous bassoon solos in the orchestral literature.  I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to perform Scheherazade this past weekend with the Columbus Symphony under the direction of our brand new Music Director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

I vividly remember the first time I played the Scheherazade solos with orchestra.  I was quite young and had been just hired by the Columbus Symphony.  I was nervous, to say the least- so nervous that I was in a partial blackout throughout the Andantino solo.  (The cadenzas later in the movement inspired a near-death experience......)

It's not much different now!  It is somewhat beneficial to have past experiences, I suppose, but to me it's radically different each time.  The conductor is different, the people surrounding you in the orchestra are different, the reeds are different, the hall may be different, the bassoon may be different, your perspective is surely different.  Most important of all, though, is the issue of constant improvement.  It has to be better each time!

Scheherazade is a story about one of history's greatest storytellers and the tales she weaves.  Scheherazade is the young bride of the king of Persia (aka the Sultan). The Sultan was upset that his former wife cheated on him, so he decided to take a new wife every day and have her executed the next morning.  But it all stops with Scheherazade. She marries the Sultan in order to save all future young women from this fate.  She tells him fascinating stories, leaving him in such suspense each night that he can't execute her the next morning for fear of not hearing the end of the story.  After 1,001 of these well-told tales, the Sultan relents.

In other words, this bassoon solo has to be so captivating  that it has the power to save lives!  Wow.  That's a tall order.

The interpretation of this solo is an individual matter; we each have our own stories to tell, after all.

One bit of advice which may help in preparation for the Andantino solo is that it's really helpful to practice with accompaniment.  I like to set an electronic keyboard to sustain the chords that the strings play during the solo, using a setting that sounds like string instruments.  So for the very opening, use Bs and F#s in octaves in the bass clef. Of course, this method of practicing has to be segmented because the chords change, but that's OK- I do a lot of segmented practicing anyway.  The first chord will get you through 10 bars before you have to reset the keyboard to As and Es which will take you through the next 9 measures, and so on.

For solos like those in Scheherazade, recording myself is an important part of the preparation.  I use my iPhone to record myself.  Sometimes I sync the phone with my computer to enable playback through my Bose computer speakers, but even just listening to the recordings through the phone gives plenty of information as to whether or not I'm on the right track. 

This time when preparing Scheherazade I discovered something new about the cadenzas which occur later in the second movement.  My ability to execute these solos is affected by the chosen reed!  I have never understood how a reed can effect the execution of fast technical passages, but the last time I performed the Ravel Piano Concerto with its speedy bassoon part in the 3rd movement, I came to the realization that inexplicably, some reeds made the passage easier to play.  The same is true for the cadenzas in the second movement of Scheherazade:

This past week I changed reeds after the Andantino solo since my "fast" reed was not flexible enough for the Andantino solo.  I prefer not to be constantly fussing and switching reeds, but if it really seems to make a difference, I'll do it.

To practice these cadenzas, I made up exercises for each one which involved careful speeding up and slowing down, striving for control and evenness at all times.  Sometimes I just practiced the patterns over and over slowly.  In the second cadenza, it helps to keep track of each of the first 5 high Gs.  As you can see above, each G has a number above it from 1 to 5.  At first this might be confusing, but it seems to be a good way to mentally keep track of what you're doing.

Over-practicing passages like these can cause problems when the hands become "muscle-bound."  That's why I like to start practicing these cadenzas several weeks in advance so that I don't have to cram during the week of the performances.

If any readers have any possible explanation for why some reeds facilitate fast playing, please let me know!


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Scheherazade on YouTube

Undoubtedly, many musicians turn to YouTube when preparing pieces to be performed.  A long time ago, to study repertoire I used to either buy the CDs or borrow them from the library.  Gradually, the classical selection at local libraries began diminishing, even though Columbus has one of the best library systems in the country.  So I started buying recordings on iTunes.  That can be expensive if the piece you need is only available in an album costing $11.99 or thereabouts.

Now, YouTube is where I turn first when I'm studying a piece.  Sometimes YouTube offers the added benefit of visuals of the orchestra, the conductor and the soloists if applicable. 

Next week the Columbus Symphony is performing Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade.  The bassoon solos in that piece may very well be the best known bassoon solos in the orchestral literature.  We all know those solos really well, right?  That doesn't mean it's easy to perform them- quite the opposite.  It's darned daunting.

I discovered some very interesting Youtube videos featuring the bassoon solos in Scheherazade.  Here's one of Stephen Paulson, Principal Bassoon of the San Fransisco Symphony, demonstrating examples of his approach to musical phrasing and sound production at the request of Michael Tilson Thomas for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra:

Here is a video of the Philadelphia Orchestra performing the second movement of Scheherazade under Eugene Ormandy, with Bernard Garfield on bassoon and a young Richard Woodhams on oboe:

Here is part 2, which features the bassoon cadenzas later in movement 2:

Next we have the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit with Whitney Crockett (who is currently playing principal in LA) on first bassoon.  This video begins near the end of the first movement, so hang on- the Andantino bassoon solo is coming right up (and the cadenzas are included on this video):

The next video features the Vienna Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev:

And here is Gergiev rehearsing the Rotterdam Philharmonic, featuring Bram van Sambeek, Principal Bassoon:

I also like this NY Phil recording, which, unfortunately I have no audio for, but it features Principal Bassoon Judith LeClair:

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Do you have a favorite recording or video of the Scheherazade bassoon solos?


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Survey results

Thank you, readers, for your thoughtful responses to my 4 nagging questions!  Some of you responded by commenting right here on bassoon blog, and some emailed me.  I've compiled your answers here: 
1. Do you dry out your swabs after swabbing?
This response really rang true to me: 
"No, I don't bother drying out my swabs. I tend to think that keeping the bore "dry" doesn't necessarily mean bone-dry. I think the important thing is that there isn't moisture that has pooled, beaded up, or otherwise collected." The reason that makes so much sense to me is because many bassoonists take steps to humidify the insides of their bassoon cases.  If we wanted the bassoon to be bone dry, why would we humidify it??
Most respondents said that they used silk pull-through swabs, and not one bassoonist said that he/she dries the swab after use.  One bassoonist said he uses cotton as opposed to silk. And while we're on the subject of swabs, my latest youtube search turned up Terry Ewell's instructions on how to make your own swab:
2. Who is your repairman (or who have you heard positive comments about)? Listed in random order:  James Keyes, Chad Taylor, Neil Allen (UK), Benson Bell, Jim Laslie, Paul Nordby, Bruce McCall, Fox Factory, Keith Bowen, John Friedman, Tony Milone, Paul Covey, Holden MacAleer, John Yeh, Carl Sawicki, Chuck Huebner
3. Which left thumb keys do you use for high C4 and above?
I agree wholeheartedly with this response:
"I think that the flexibility of being able to use multiple fingerings is a part of the mastery of the instrument. That applies to a number of notes on the horn!"  This bassoonist said in his email that he chooses the fingering based upon the reed.  Ultimately, that's what I do also- I choose the fingering based upon the reed and the passage in question, even though when I practice scales I tend to use one set of fingerings.  In my case that means using the high D key for C4 and higher.
Other responses:
C key for C4
D key for C4
C + D keys for C4
D key for C#4
C + D keys for C#4
D key for D and above
4. What type of seat strap do you use?
Hook (by far the most common!) 
A strap with a buckle which attaches to a key ring  
Dutch leg support
(Note from Betsy: I use an adjustable cup seat strap, which never interferes with the functioning of the G or Aflat keys which one bassoonist mentioned concern about.  Older bassoons with smaller boots might have that problem with cup seat straps.)
Several respondents commented that it is highly unlikely that the hook will in any way damage the instrument by applying too much pressure, even though that was a rumor I have heard.  I agree. Thank you all!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What lurks inside the bassoon??

Many musicians read with horror the NPR article about "trombone players' lung" which circulated a few days ago.  A mold called fusarium was detected inside the trombone of a musician suffering from chronic coughing and according to the article, "mold and bacteria could grow in any brass instrument."  It's not much of a stretch to imagine mold and bacteria growing in bassoon bocals (and reeds) as well!  To compound the problem, bassoonists are known to regularly "suck in" and then, in the attempt to avoid gurgling sounds and fuzzy attacks, we actually swallow the contents of the bocal.  Ewww.......

Come to think of it, this could be the main reason why I always prefer to play on new reeds.  Long before scientists ever examined the interior of the trombone, I was leery of the dark interiors of reeds and bocals.  Wood, due to its porous nature, is even more likely than brass or other metals to trap and grow bacteria and mold!  The older the reed, the more time it's had to attract and harbor such toxins.  And since the reed is in direct contact with the player's mouth, I think it makes sense to be very afraid of what's inside of them.  Mold and bacteria thrive on darkness and moisture, so after playing, I rinse my reeds with water and then leave them out to dry off.  (I have paid dearly for that habit, though.  Since I don't keep my reeds in the bassoon case, it's not unusual for me to show up at work without my reeds!)

To further promote bacteria-free reeds, I always brush and floss my teeth before playing, every time.  Most bassoonists carry toothbrushes in their cases  for this purpose.  Sometimes we are offered snacks during rehearsal breaks.  I do not indulge unless there's plenty of time to brush and floss before playing again.

As a more indirect precaution, I always wash my hands thoroughly before playing the bassoon.  If there is any bacteria on your hands, there's a great likelihood of introducing that bacteria into the reed.

If I find it necessary to clean a reed more thoroughly, I wash it carefully with hot water and soap and then soak it in hydrogen peroxide.  This is the procedure recommended by a biologist whom I questioned once about the most effective way to clean a reed.

Keeping bocals sanitary is easy as long as cleaning is frequent.  The bocal I'm using now is only a year old, and I have swabbed it every 2 weeks with a silk pull-through bocal swab.  The bocal looks quite clean and nothing comes out on the swab (although bacteria is invisible).  I wash the swab after each run-through and then hang it outside in the sun to dry.  The sunlight has a bleaching effect.  For the wing and boot joints I also use silk pull-through swabs, and every few days I wash them and hang them out in the sun to dry.

After reading about the toxic trombone, I considered pouring rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide through the bocal for extra sanitizing but decided against it due to the drying effects of alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.  I don't want to dry out the cork on the bocal!

 Do you have any other ideas to add which might enhance the safety level of the bassoon playing experience?


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Monday, August 30, 2010

lesson with Klaus Thunemann

Sometimes when I have a few spare minutes I browse youtube to see if I can find anything  interesting, and i'm rarely disappointed.  I was fascinated by this lesson taught by Klaus Thunemann, who communicates clearly even to those who don't speak German!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Nagging questions

One of the most perplexing, nagging questions I have regarding the bassoon has to do with swabs.  I have 2 swabs in my case: a pull-through silk swab for the boot, and a pull-through silk swab for the tenor joint.  Swabs scare the devil out of me.  I am one of those unfortunate bassoonists who has had a stuck swab, and mine was BAD.  It was stuck in the tenor joint, and I think it happened because of knotting in the string.  (I no longer allow even the slightest knot to appear in either of my swabs!)  I can't describe the procedure which finally extracted the swab because it was so traumatic, but it involved Herculean efforts on the parts of 4 people, one of whom was bassoon repairman Carl Sawicki who provided amazing telephone coaching.

Back to the question: I have never understood how the wet swabs could possibly dry out between swabbings.  I always roll them up and place them back in the closed bassoon case after I swab.  I would think that the swabs would have to be left out to air dry in order to really dry out, but I don't do that for fear of dust getting on them.  (I have an obsessive fear of tiny particles getting under one of the bassoon's pads.  During the Nutcracker ballet, there were a couple of times when a few tiny paper snowflakes came down into the orchestra pit during performances.  Each time, I jumped out of my chair and ran out of the pit, with the bassoon, for fear of a wayward snowflake wrecking the instrument.)

I am curious about what other bassoonists do about drying out their swabs (or not).  It's important, because running a moist swab through the boot can undoubtedly lead to problems since the wooden side is supposed to remain dry at all times.  I drop the rubber weight of the swab through the wooden side first, so that the moist, lined side does not get the wooden side wet.

I mentioned Carl Sawicki who is my highly regarded repairman in Texas.  I am curious about who else is highly regarded in bassoon repair.  A good bassoon repairman is hard to find, and each of us should have a backup repairman in case our favorite becomes unavailable.  So who do you use?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, August can be a great time to practice productively, free from the challenges related to learning specific orchestral parts.  I have been spending a lot of time practicing in the high range- in fact, some days I only practice in the high range.  (That's a good way to strengthen the embouchure, also.)

Ever since I received my new Heckel I have been trying to figure out the best possible fingerings for each of the high notes.  It takes time to break in the high range, so the fingerings I chose at first are not currently the best.  Now, I find that using the high D key is best for C4 and higher.  On C#4, I no longer use both the C and D keys; I use only the D.  I'd like to know which left thumb keys other bassoonists use for the high notes.

Do you have an opinion about types of seat straps?  Some players prefer cup straps, which I'm using now, but some prefer hook straps.  How about you?  I've heard some bassoonists claim that the hook type can place too much stress on the U-tube, which seems odd to me.

OK, that's probably enough questions for one post.  To consolidate my questions, here they are:

1.  Do you dry out your swabs after swabbing?
2.  Who is your repairman (or who have you heard positive comments about)?
3.  Which left thumb keys do you use for high C4 and above?
4.  What type of seat strap do you use?

Please either comment at the end of this post or email me at  I will post the results, anonymously so that no names are attached to responses.



Thursday, August 26, 2010

bocal placement

For quite a while I have been wondering about the issue of how exactly to line up the bocal when assembling the bassoon.  Whenever I try someone else's bassoon, invariably I find that the other bassoonist places the bocal at an angle which is awkward for me and I have to turn the bocal to the right to be able to play on it.  I decided to analyze bocal placement to see if I should make an adjustment.

Bocal placement, the exact angle from which the bocal emerges from the tenor joint, may seem like an odd topic for a blog post.  However, it influences the manipulation of the left thumb keys.  Unless the player happens to have a very large hand, it can be nearly impossible to depress the high D key without accidentally depressing the low B flat key, and possibly also the low B key which automatically depresses low C and D.  That's not good, since the depression of any of those low keys alters the pitch and timbre of the high D.  The older Heckels don't present as much of a problem with left thumb reach, but the newer Heckels can be very challenging this way.  Other brands vary regarding left thumb reach, and of course the size of the player's hand is a factor.

The angle of the bocal determines the angle, or the placement, of the bassoon in the player's hands.  The slightest change in the bocal position results in considerable change in the playing position of the bassoon, and therefore the ability of the left thumb to reach the high D key without obstruction.

I asked a colleague how he determines the angle of the bocal.  His answer was that he lines it up the whisper key pad with the nub on the bocal.  (When I lined up my bocal with the nub, it ended up being farther to the left than I normally place it.)  That seems logical, but look what happens as the whisper key is gradually closed:

If the pad is parallel to the nub with the key open, the key closes at an angle, and the pad rests on the nub at an angle:

The bassoon can function like this, but I'd say that the above angle at which the pad hits the nub is not ideal,  not optimal.

So I turned the bocal slightly clockwise, to the right.  Now, the bocal looks like this with the whisper key open:
Because the whisper key rotates as it closes, it now closes perfectly:

For years it had been my habit to line up the bocal with the high A key, so that it looked as if the end of the bocal lined up with the A key.  (I was instructed to do that by one of my teachers.)  On the other hand, most bassoonists seem to line it up with the high D and C keys, which is much farther to the left.  After the above analysis, I am now lining my bocal up so that the whisper key pad closes perfectly on the bocal nub, which means that I am now placing the bocal slightly father to the left than previously, and it looks as though the end of the bocal is halfway between the A and the D/C keys. 

While this may not seem like a big deal, I am happy to report that this bocal placement has also created a playing position for the bassoon which maximizes unimpeded left thumb reach of the high D key.  Hmmmm....maybe the Heckel factory intended for it to be this way.