musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Wizard of Oz

Symphony orchestras these days must explore new ways to attract audiences and stir public support.  Here in Columbus we've performed shows such as "Barbie," "Video Games Live." and "Lord of the Rings."  This week, our venture into the realm of the experimental continues with the original 1939 classic film "The Wizard of Oz."  The instrumental music has been removed from the sound track, and the Columbus Symphony will perform it live tonight while the movie is projected onto a large screen onstage above the orchestra.  Here's a brief description of the Symphonic Night at the Movies event from the Columbus Dispatch. I am amazed at conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos' ability to keep the orchestra coordinated with the film.  Read Columbus Symphony horn player Julia Rose's description of what it was like to play along with a movie.

I am equally amazed by the level of difficulty of the film score.  I have a newfound appreciation for the work of bassoonists such as Norman Herzberg and Don Christlieb who were famous for their movie studio recording in Los Angeles during past decades.  I have heard stories of the studio musicians being expected to sight-read the rehearsal (the one and only rehearsal!) just before recording began!  To add to the excitement, apparently the music was often re-written on the spot!  Clearly, those studio musicians were superb sight readers with outstandingly reliable technique. Norman Herzberg was famous for teaching his bassoon students how to develop that sort of technique.

Unlike the L.A. studio musicians who originally performed this music, I had the luxury of being able to obtain my Wizard of Oz part in advance of the two rehearsals.  Still, I ended up being surprised by the number of very exposed bassoon licks, many of which are very tricky.  On top of that, we have to be extremely nimble, following the conductor who is at the mercy of the twists and turns of the yellow brick road.

My part was full of challenges; I'll point out a few here.  One of the most challenging passages I've played in a long time accompanied Toto bringing good news (albeit bad news for the bassoonist):
It doesn't look terribly daunting at first glance, does it?  Hah.  It's in two, and the tempo is fast- so fast that I'm using the short F#3 fingering, which I rarely resort to:
Although the passage is tongued, the tonguing is not the problem- the fingerings are the problem.  Most of my early practice time on this was done without the tongue, slurring everything. I'm hoping that will pay off during tonight's performance.

In the above passage, you can see that I wrote in the 2 subsequent notes at the end of measure 32.  I often do that when a challenging passage is continued on the next line and the notes on the next line are not intuitive or not part of an obvious pattern.

Here's an example of one of the unusual solos which require the bassoonist to be on high alert for the conductor's sudden launch out of a fermata.  As you can see, I decided to employ my oft-used technique of writing the passage at the top of the page to increase my chances of being with the conductor (this passage actually appears in the worst possible location: the bottom of the page):

During yesterday morning's rehearsal I found myself accidentally repeating a line, which sometimes occurs when 2 or more lines look similar on the page.  Whenever that happens, I automatically employ the technique taught to me by Ryohei Nakagawa: I draw a geometric shape at the end of one line and repeat it at the beginning of the next line.  Then I use a different shape for the end of that line, corresponding to the same shape at the beginning of the next line.  It never fails to solve the problem:

Although the 1st bassoonist is sure to be wiped out by the time the end of the movie is on the horizon, this totally exposed solo appears on page 49 of the bassoon part:
There is a ritard printed, but it doesn't happen!  The bassoonist has to barrel down to low Bflat on a reed which just moments earlier had to pop out solos in the bassoon's stratosphere.  I think the title of this number has a typo; it should be called "Bassoon Ascension" or maybe "Bassoon Descension."

P.S.(next day)  Last night's Symphonic Night at the Movies was a huge success, with a packed hall and a very appreciative audience. Read the rave review from the Columbus Dispatch.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

One more thing

Yesterday one of the performances of the Columbus Symphony's Sierra, Beethoven and Brahms program from this past weekend was uploaded onto InstantEncore where it is now streaming:

I learn a lot from listening to these streams.  In the past it was frustratingly impossible for musicians to obtain recordings of our concerts, but now our recordings are streaming on the internet shortly following each concert.  For those of us in the woodwind, brass and percussion sections especially, it's great to have this resource.

While listening to the second movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 2, I realized that, in my earlier post pertaining to this concert,  I had forgotten to point out one of the most important details of this movement.  Three measures after A, the 1st bassoon starts to tag along with the 1st horn player in his/her solo:

This is tricky.  The goal is for the bassoon not to be noticed.  It's a HORN solo!  The first time I played this when I was a novice in the Columbus Symphony, I thought that the bassoon should be heard in that passage- I considered it a horn and bassoon soli.  The polite principal horn player never said anything, but I can just imagine what that seasoned veteran thought!

Since then I've grown up a bit, and I now recognize the greater goal of blending perfectly with another instrument.  To the best of my knowledge, the bassoon is the quietest instrument in the orchestra, the one with the smallest dynamic range. And because we can't match the projection power of any other instrument, whenever we have a soli in unison, I believe that our wisest approach is to defer to the other instrument, not trying to overpower or compete, but instead aiming to blend in and match intonation.

Fortunately, our principal horn player has good intonation so that pitch placement is not a guessing game.  I also marked his breaths in my part so that I would not be holding over any notes longer than he did.  I never asserted the bassoon sound, that is, not until I was on my own, branching off from the horn solo beginning on the 2nd half of the 3rd beat of measure 24.

Of course, I played without vibrato until I branched off on my own.  The horn plays without vibrato, and I wanted to match.  Also, vibrato draws attention, and that's what I was trying not to do.

When I listened to this passage on the stream, I was pleased.  The bassoon was inaudible!  (And I really was playing....)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Don't try this at home!

I've never been much of a cook.  My efforts in that realm have been known to require the presence of the local fire department.  The main problem is that I tend to forget that I'm cooking.  I have ruined many pots and pans by leaving them on the stove for hours, while forgotten food cooks to a crisp, until the pots eventually explode.  Or worse.   I realize that a crock pot would be a reasonable option for someone like me, except that I don't like anything that would come out of a crock pot.  Not that my scalded, charred ruins are exactly appetizing......

Considering my history, I should have known better than to conduct an experiment on my cane which involved a pot of boiling water.  But I didn't associate reedmaking with cooking.  Not until today.

I decided this morning that I wanted to make 2 blanks while watching Sunday morning political analysis on TV, but I hadn't been soaking any cane.  (Normally I soak the cane for a few hours.)  Remembering that some bassoonists boil their cane to prepare it for reedmaking, I decided to quickly boil a couple of sticks of cane, for just a minute or so. (People who really do know how to cook would call that "parboiling.")  So I poured water into a pot with 2 sticks of cane and turned on the burner, full blast, of course.

Then I did what I always do when there's a pot cooking on the stove; I went into another room, became distracted, and forgot all about it. 

A couple of hours later I became aware of an acrid odor similar to what I usually smell when I cook.  But I was fairly certain that I wasn't cooking, so I began checking all over the house, trying to identify the source of the increasingly noxious fumes. 

I reached the kitchen to find the pot in flames.  I have become rather adept at extinguishing fires; as I doused today's fire, I realized that it was my now unrecognizable cane which had been ablaze.  I watched the cane smolder, recognizing this as a sight I had not beheld before.  My main regret is that upon encountering the blaze, I had lacked the presence of mind to grab my camera to memorialize the sight of cane in flames.  For the future, I vow to consider consider photo ops prior to extinguishing any fires.

At any rate, there won't be any reedmaking going on here today.  Maybe I'll cook something (other than cane, that is).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Beethoven, Brahms and Sierra

This week's Columbus Symphony classical subscription concerts featured conductor Andreas Delfs and pianist Andre Watts in Roberto Sierra's Fandangos, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" and Brahms Symphony No. 2.  Predictably, the musicians were ultra concerned about the Sierra piece, since none of us had played or heard it before.  It has been our experience that contemporary music often presents hitherto unheard of technical challenges.

The first step in preparing for this week was to download recordings of the Sierra on iTunes.  There were 2 recordings available; after I listened to the first one, I decided to spring for the other one also (even though it meant buying an entire album) because I was hoping for more clarity regarding the level of exposure of the bassoon parts.

One of the passages I was worried about was this one:

The tempo is 96 to the quarter, which seems reasonable until one tries fitting up to12 notes into a beat. 

The other passage causing the most concern was this one, which was even more exposed than the above passage:

I used the same approach to tackling each of these passages.  First I slowed the metronome way down to a tempo in which I could actually play all of the notes accurately.  Some sections were nearly impossible at any tempo, in which case I turned off the metronome temporarily and just isolated the tough spots, trying to learn the notes even though the tempo was ridiculously slow.  I'd break down a passage into just 2 notes, then adding another to make 3, then 4, etc., as slowly as necessary. Then the metronome was turned back on, and eventually I'd graduate to a slightly faster tempo for each passage.

Realistically, it's unlikely that any bassoonist would be able to play these excerpts perfectly, so I also had to practice another way.  I guess it could be referred to as "fake" practicing, which amounted to turning on the metronome at 96 and attempting to produce the contour of the composer's intentions.  (I suspect that "faking" is easier on the other woodwind instruments.  Faking on the bassoon sounds too much like incompetence!)  Although I was resistant to this approach, I think I became fairly adept at it. (I do wonder, though, if my colleagues sitting nearby in the orchestra would agree!)  My worst problem was that at breakneck speeds, it was difficult to maintain proper hand position on the bassoon, and we all know what happens when the fingers slip out of position.

The faking would not have been at all effective without the careful slow practice which preceded it, I'm sure.  I never fully committed to the admission of faking, of course; in my mind the possibility of a miracle remained viable.

The Beethoven Emperor Concerto has a bassoon solo in the first movement which is often problematic.  It starts at the end of the second to last line on the first page of the 1st bassoon part:

This may sound strange, but I have learned that the position of a solo on the page can determine my level of success in staying with the conductor.  The position of the above solo is dangerous!  Most bassoonists are somewhat concerned about this solo, and our eyes remain glued to the bottom of the page while the conductor waves his or her arms frantically in the futile attempt to get us to follow.  It's amazing how often on live broadcasts this passage sounds behind.

My solution is this:

I taped the first part of the solo to the top of the page, where I'm able to see the baton peripherally even if I'm not looking directly at the conductor.  Once I start the solo at the right time and tempo, the rest is easy and I can look down at the bottom of the page to complete the solo. 

There are several awkward moments in Brahms Symphony No. 2.  One occurs in the first movement in octaves with the first clarinet:

In measures 326 and 327 we are presented with the problem of slurring from A2 down to A1.  Sometimes it's possible to execute that slur.  But since it is not 100% reliable, we can't take the chance.  I strongly recommend lightly tonguing the lower A.

The same problem occurs later in the movement in an exposed slur from D3 to D2 in measures 498 and 500, as if Brahms intended the piece as an exercise for the first bassoon to practice downward slurs:

A bassoonist friend of mine had the good fortune to have studied in Paris with the great French basson master, Maurice Allard.  I love my friend's description of his lesson in which Maurice Allard addressed the issue of difficult slurs:

I was playing an etude and painstakingly observing a wide slur. Allard advised lightly tonguing the slur; cheating, if you will.  He said, "Il faut mentir un peu, comme tu mens a ta femme: doucement." ("Lie as if you are lying to your wife: sweetly.")

The dotted eighth and sixteenths within the melody which appears several times in the bassoon part poses an interesting challenge, since it must be handled differently each time it occurs.  The priority is to be sure that the figure is rhythmically accurate and uninfluenced by the triplets which permeate the movement.  The opening of the movement is the easiest to place accurately:

The key is to subdivide the beat into 4 sixteenths during the conductor's preparatory beat.  Of course, the 32nds should be carefully placed as well, not starting late, and not rushed.

The next time the passage appears, at letter D pictured below, it is accompanied by a triplet rhythm in the treble woodwinds. The best way to handle this is to listen to the triplets, and place the 16th just after the 3rd triplet.  Subdividing into 4 sixteenths is dangerous due to the triplets which would very likely interfere with accurate subdividing into 4 equal parts.  The next time after that, beginning at one measure before E pictured below, the best solution is to not listen to the underlying triplets in the violins.  Why?  Due to the distance factor, the bassoonist will end up being late.  In this instance, I intentionally don't listen to the violin triplets; I subdivide the beat (beginning several beats before the entrance) into 4 sixteenths.  It's important to be watching the conductor's baton carefully while subdividing, to be sure that your placement is accurate.

The orchestral literature contains many passages like the following from the Brahms 3rd movement, in which the woodwinds play staccatos after the strings have been playing them for a few measures.  The woodwinds often get started late on their staccatos.  The reason for this is, again, the distance factor.  I have learned to count while watching the conductor's baton to increase the likelihood of entering on time.  The bassoon passages at the opening of the 4th movement are great for practicing smooth, even, discreet playing which is well supported by the air stream and with fingers moving minimally, very close to the instrument.  I sometimes imagine blowing up a balloon when playing passages like this to create the proper air support. 

The following bassoon passage at the opening of the 4th movement offers a great opportunity for practicing smooth, even, discreet playing which is well supported by the air stream and with fingers moving minimally, very close to the instrument.  I sometimes imagine blowing up a balloon when playing passages like this to create the proper air support.

It's been another week full of challenges and opportunities for improvement!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Vogel workout

This is a week of much variety.  Last night the Columbus Symphony rehearsed Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 4 with the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra in a "Side by Side."  Columbus Symphony Associate Conductor Peter Wilson was very pleased with the progress made during the course of the evening, as the students responded remarkably to hearing the pros demonstrate the style which Maestro Wilson was looking for.  Most professional orchestras these days recognize the importance of connecting to music students and to children in general, and our work schedule reflects that

This weekend we are performing a Pops concert with singer Dianne Reeves and, in yet another effort to reach out to younger audiences, a Family Concert which introduces the instruments of the orchestra.  (The Sorcerer's Apprentice is being used to showcase the bassoon section.)

The week ends Sunday evening with a symphony fundraiser performance by Quartet Amici, of which I am a member, featuring the J.C. Vogel Quartet No.1 for Bassoon, Violin, Viola and Violoncello Op. 5. The Vogel Quartet is very charming and I'm glad that we're adding it to our repertoire.

Like most classical quartets for bassoon and strings, the Vogel features some challenging technical passages for the bassoon.  A couple of them appear near the end of the 3rd movement:

This week most of my practicing is focused on the Vogel, since I've never played it before.  My goal is to make the bassoon part sound as clean as possible, with a totally even sound, perfect intonation, and perfect terchnique.

Last night I listened to a recording of a well known bassoonist.  He's one of my favorite players, and his playing sounded very clean.  However, some of the note attacks in the mid range cracked (A2, Bflat3 and B3).  Obviously, that player does not use the A and B vent keys to start those notes.  The word "attack" is fitting when the note cracks!  I prefer to think of note "beginnings" rather than "attacks" and to produce the sound accordingly (beginning the sound rather than attacking the note).  The beginnings and endings of notes are critical to an optimal performance, in my opinion.

The last bassoon I played on before I purchased my new Heckel was a 9000 series Heckel.  It did not have water tubes in the finger holes.  (Water tubes seem to create a seal with the finger covering the hole, thus eliminating cracking.)  As a result, that bassoon often cracked on the attack of G1, G2 and G3.  The amount of half hole I used on G2 and G3 did not affect the tendency to crack, and since there are no vent keys which affect the articulation of G2 or G3, there was nothing I could do about it.  Cracked note beginnings are audible, and I don't know why we bassoonists sometimes seem to let ourselves off the hook on this issue.

Is it because of habit?  Are we so accustomed to hearing cracked attacks on the bassoon that we don't notice anymore?  That's one of the reasons why I tape myself.  I really don't want to get away with anything!  Sometimes I use my iPhone to record a practice session; I just use the "Voice Memos" app which comes on the phone, and it works amazingly well.  If I want to hear it through my Bose computer speakers, I email it to myself from the phone.  Technology makes it so easy for us to raise our standards of bassoon playing!

Of course, each bassoon differs in its tendency to crack.  I'm lucky with my new bassoon- it only cracks on A2, and that only happens occaisionally  Since it is impossible to predict when the note is going to crack, I typically use the A vent on the attack of A2; I don't leave the vent down for the duration of the note because it raises the pitch.  If the vent is opened with a quick flick of the thumb, it does not raise the pitch because the opening is so brief.  In other words, I use the same flicking technique for the attack of A2 as for slurring to A2.  On the last bassoon I owned, I used the A vent for A2, the B vent for Bflat3, B3 and C3, and the C vent for D3.  Although I was constantly experimenting, most of the time I held the vent keys down as part of the fingerings for those notes (which tended to be flat pitched).  That was so much more tedious than what I do now on my new Heckel.  To me, there's no point in using vent keys on an instrument which doesn't need them, so, as I said, I now only use the A vent on the attack of A2.  (Obviously, I also flick the vent keys for slurring to A2, Bflat3 , B3, C3 and D3.  As far as I know, flicking for slurring is universal among bassoonists.  It's only the flicking, snipping or venting of articulated notes which seems to be in question.)

Playing chamber music is good for orchestral bassoonists, I think.  One obvious benefit is that it strengthens our soloistic abilities.  Bassoon solos in the orchestral literature are so few and far between that it makes sense for us to create extra opportunities to solo.  Most of the classical quartets for bassoon and strings are much like concertos for bassoon (accompanied by a very small 3-piece orchestra, which is perfect for balance!). 

In fact, the way I'm preparing the Vogel is the same way I'd prepare for a concerto performance.  First I use the printed music and the metronome, practicing all slurred and with different rhythms, the same way everyone practices technical challenges.  The one extra aspect of my preparation which I think makes a big difference is that I memorize passages like those shown above, and I move to a location where I'm looking out a window.  Perhaps my most productive practicing takes place this way, with the printed music taken away and very careful listening taking place.  I like to use intuitive means of working out any technical snafus; for example, I discovered that it helped to break a certain diminished 7th arpeggio into 2 parts, with a lengthy period of careful isolation of the 2 parts prior to putting the complete arpeggio back together again.  If what I'm doing isn't working, I stop and change it.  When I start to lose focus, I stop practicing.  Tempo doesn't matter; length of time of the practice session doesn't matter; the number of notes isolated at any given time doesn't matter; only perfection matters.  I'm really glad that the symphony doesn't have a classical subscription series this week, so that I have the luxury of being able to practice this way.

Next week's classical subscription concerts and rehearsals should be a breeze after this week's Vogel workout!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Audio stream of last weekend's concert

Use the above link above to access the audio stream of the Columbus Symphony's concert from Saturday.  This is the program:

George Manahan, conductor
Aleck Karis, piano
January 8, 2010

Mozart: Symphony No. 38 "Prague"

Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Wimds

Sibelius Symphony No. 5
  Tempo molto moderato- Allegro moderato
  Andante mosso, quasi allegretto
  Allegretto molto

Here is a review of the concert from the Columbus Dispatch:

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Semantics of Sibelius

A phrase marked soto voce is followed by a phrase marked un poco piu p.  I spent considerable time thinking about that.  It drove me crazy.  "Under voiced" or "hushed" is followed by "a little more piano."  WHAT does that MEAN?

Is the second phrase stronger or weaker?  I have to decide; I have to prepare the 1st movement bassoon solo in Sibelius Symphony No. 5.  So, unless conductor George Manahan requests otherwise, I am choosing to play it slightly stronger than the first phrase.  I made the decision based upon the fact that the 3rd phrase is marked mf, and the 4th is poco meno f, followed by piu mf, then poco f and finally cresc. poco a poco al fff dim.  

What we have, perhaps, is one enormous crescendo, with several hairpins along the way, followed by a brief diminuendo..

I did struggle with this conclusion.  For example, poco meno f follows mf.  In other words, ""a little less forte" follows "medium forte."  Wow.  How can I be sure that poco meno f is louder?  And how on earth can I be sure that piu mf (more medium forte) should really be stronger than its preceding poco meno f (a little less forte)????

I am not at all sure.  But it's a bassoon solo, and it's my job to prepare it to the best of my ability.  It doesn't do much good to listen to recordings, because the dynamic range of the bassoon is so limited that these nuances are all but indiscernable.

I am reminded of the words of my teacher, K. David Van Hoesen:  "I don't care how you play the music, as long as it's convincing!"

Whatever I decide about the semantics, I have to sell it to the conductor and ultimately to the audience.  After my decisions are made, I practice those decisions until they are convincing.  Then, when I'm feeling adequately prepared, I tape my practice sessions in order to hear my renditions from the listener's perspective.  That's when I'll really know if my decisions were sound, or if changes may be in order.  The taping sessions also point out issues with vibrato and note matching.  It's important to be positioned far enough away from walls or large objects which may distort the sound of the bassoon.  Sometimes even metal music stands create problems if they're positioned too close to the player.  (In the orchestra I always shove my stand as far away as possible, much to the dismay of the oboists who sit in front of me!)

I researched this symphony to see if anything had been written about Sibelius' intentions.  No luck.  But I learned some interesting facts: this symphony was commissioned by the Finnish government for Sibelius' 50th birthday on December 8, 1915, which had been declared a national holiday.  At the exact moment of Sibelius' demise in a nursing home in 1957, his 5th Symphony was being performed in nearby Helsinki.  His 5th Symphony had given him a lot of trouble- never satisfied with it, he revised it many times after its premier.  Maybe that explains the verbose yet confounding directions he left for the bassoon player......

Friday, January 1, 2010

The dreaded deed

What better day than New Years to take on the dreaded deed?!  Although I am traumatized by the task of sharpening my profiler blade, I talked myself into doing it today so that I can start off the new year- the new decade, actually, with my reed making equipment in top shape.

First I took a few reference photos to help with reassembly of the profiler after I've sharpened the blade.  It's easy to make a mistake, so reference photos make sense to me. Here's are two examples:

Next I unscrew and remove the knob (handle) of the cutting head:

I use an Allen wrench to unscrew the blade assembly:

Here's the blade:

This is the diamond sharpening stone given to me by Norman Herzberg for sharpening the profiler blade:

Although it was hard to photograph this while using my right hand to sharpen, this is the technique for sharpening the blade, with the forfinger pushing the blade into the stone while the thumb pushes the blade from the bottom to the top.  The stone must be moistened with water before use.

This photo is more clear, although the hand position is not shown:

This pushing of the blade into the stone must be done until a burr is noticeable on the other side of the blade at the top.  Then the blade is flipped over, and a couple of light strokes should remove the burr.

Now it's time for the always challenging step of re-assembly.  I still use my drawing from my reedmaking tutoring with Mr. Herzberg:

Between that and the photos, I'm all set to start putting it back together.

I use the Allen wrench to slightly tighten the screw:

At the same time, I hand tighten the knob which raises and lowers the blade assembly:

Next, I use the blue pie-shaped shim provided by Mr. Herzberg to test the height of the blade:

The shim should barely be able to pass through under the blade.  If you're careful about this step, then testing with actual cane should be a breeze.  For me, this step takes a long time to get it just right.

Voila!  My "new" blade looks good, and it passed the test when I profiled 2 sticks of cane.