musings of a professional bassoonist

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!

7 comments:

DTclarinet said...

I can't resist: I guess the bassoonist you listened to is not all he's "cracked" up to be.

B.S. said...

Very good, DT! I wouldn't have thought of that!

Betsy

T.B. said...

So was your terchnique perfect?

(bunch of comedians around here, eh?)

T.B. said...

BTW, that page looks like fun (from the balcony)! Reminds me of the Weber 3rd mvt...

B.S. said...

Well, T.B., I learned something last night in the performance of the Vogel. This is something I SHOULD have learned years ago, and it's this: never perform without access to drinking water.

I was flustered by the unusual circumstances and setting, so the thought of taking a water bottle to the performance area never crossed my mind. And I forgot that nervousness can cause the mouth to dry out. Before we even began playing the Vogel, I knew I was in trouble. Sure enough, my reed dried out inside of my mouth while we were playing.

The performance was not a disaster, though. The guests at the fundraiser were extremely enthusiastic with their applause and praise. The packed house even gave us a standing ovation.

But it was not perfect. A dry reed can't do its job, so there were a couple of passages in the first movement in which I struggled to get all of the notes out.

But it must not have been that noticeable- the violinist of Quartet Amici said he thought I had played perfectly!

Betsy

TB said...

Aw, man, that stinks. Well, at least you didn't have to blow out your tone holes?...

Congrats on the standing O! I'm sure it was well deserved!

Remember, you are your own worst critic. Not that you'd want it any other way, but if a jury of your peer(s) says it was perfect, you can probably breathe a sigh of relief. :)

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