musings of a professional bassoonist

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.


Friday, August 20, 2010

When the music stand is empty....

This is when I practice best, when the music stand is empty.  There's no major performance right around the corner that I must prepare for.  I am well aware of certain performances coming up this fall, but I believe that the practicing I'm doing now, without any music on the stand, will pay off later.

August is the perfect month for this type of practicing.  I recall August 2 years ago, when I was really starting to enjoy practicing nothing but slow scales and arpeggios, paying special attention to the beginnings of articulated notes.  (It was at this time that I stopped referring to note beginnings as "attacks," since I sought non-explosive note beginnings!)  Midway through August I received a phone call from a woodwind colleague in the orchestra who informed me that that parts to the John Adams Chamber Symphony had arrived.  Immediately, I had to start woodshedding the incredibly difficult bassoon part which was to be performed in early fall.  I was disappointed to have to divert my attention away from the work that was really productive.

This August, I have been trying to find the best location in my house for practicing.  I think that the ideal practice room is neither too live nor too dead.  Recently I came to the conclusion that I've been practicing in too dead a room.  (I was going through some old recordings, and came across one of a mystery bassoonist from several years ago.  It sounded impressive, and I thought that I'd really like to sound like that.  Then I noticed that the recording was labeled and dated.  It turns out that I was the mystery bassoonist, shockingly.  I was playing in the house I used to live in, which had wood floors and high ceilings, and far superior acoustics to where I live now.)  I often record my practicing, and the dead acoustics I have now are not flattering at all!

In my current house, only my bedroom has hardwood floors, so now I'm practicing there.  It is a small room with a low ceiling, though, and the bed absorbs a lot of the sound. The room adds a ring to the sound which I'm still getting used to. 

When I was a student at Eastman, I used to practice in all types of practice rooms- sometimes in really dead rooms, sometimes in more live ones, and when I really wanted to sound my best, like right before the concerto competition, I practiced in the very echo-y stairwell (late at night, when almost everyone had left).  I remember speculating with fellow students that if we could manage to sound good in a dead room, then we could certainly sound good anywhere!  That may be true, but I think we benefit from hearing ourselves in a variety of spaces so that we are never shocked by sounding different in an unfamiliar acoustical environment.  And there's no doubt that good acoustics are inspiring.

So now, in my new practice space, I am getting used to hearing an unfamiliar ring created by the bedroom floor, ceiling and walls.  If the room were bigger, it might be a great practice space.  But the small size causes some odd acoustics.  For example, if it sounds as if 2 notes are not matching in sound, it could be that the sound waves are refracting.  I will be able to tell only when I play those same notes in a larger room where refraction is less likely.

At times like this, when the music stand is empty, I don't plan my practice sessions.  I try to let the bassoon decide.  I usually start with some sort of slow scale, paying very close attention to every last detail, from the note beginning of the first note to the taper of the final note, and making sure that pitch and tone match from note to note.  I also aim for a smooth, connected flow from one note to the next, as if blowing up a balloon while playing the scale.

Often, I will find myself focusing on a particular scale or arpeggio based on whatever seems to be needed.  (That's what I mean when I suggest letting the bassoon decide.)  For example, I have been uncomfortable with the pitch of Bflat 2 lately.  It wants to be sharp.  So this is the perfect time to wallow in Bflat major for a while, playing slow scales, thirds, arpeggios, long tones.  My Heckel bassoon (#15421) is still very new, and I believe that the notes can be trained to play in tune.  Although I don't look at it constantly, I have my Boss TU12H tuner on the empty stand in front of me, so that I can glance at it whenever I hear something askew.

I like to spend time in the extreme high range also.  I have some high solos coming up this season, and my new bassoon has yet to be tested publicly in the high range.  When I glance at my tuner during high E (E4), I am thrilled to see what my ear also tells me- that the note is not flat the way it is on so many bassoons!  I try to spend a lot of time playing various types of scales and exercises in the high range.  Most bassoonists believe that the high range of a new bassoon takes a long time to break in, and our orchestral parts rarely take us up into the stratosphere!

Invariably, I end up playing excerpts from some of the pieces coming up this season.  (Orchestras seasons generally run from fall until the end of summer, so the Columbus Symphony's 2010-11 season begins in the fall.)  Try as I might, I just can't forget about the job-related challenges!  But I stick to my August rule of no music on the stand.  Sometimes i play a melody by ear just because i think it's a good idea to be able to do that.  I also take the time, during August especially, to hear each note in my head before I play it.  August is a great time to really get in touch with the instrument, free from job-related responsibilities.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A few basics for young students

1. Breathing: Use the diaphragm to breathe deeply. Practice breathing by lying on your back on the floor with a heavy book on your abdomen. The book should rise when you inhale and sink when you exhale.

2. Sitting position: Sit up straight in the chair, leaning slightly forward with your hips acting as a fulcrum. Your head should be in a natural position, looking straight forward, not looking up or down. Adjust the height of the bassoon so that the reed easily aims straight into your mouth.  Your sitting posture should be the same with or without the bassoon; if you are contorting to accommodate the bassoon, then it's time to readjust.

3. Embouchure: Wrap your lips completely around your teeth and push your lower jaw back, forming an overbite. (The teeth never touch the reed.) All pressure on the reed is applied from above. (Never push up on the reed!) If your embouchure is too tight you will constrict the reed, preventing it from vibrating. Your embouchure needs flexibility so that it can loosen for lower notes and tighten for higher notes.

4. Reed placement: Be sure not to place the reed too far into your mouth- generally, aim to insert about half of the blade. More of the reed should be inserted into your mouth for high notes and less for low notes.

5. Sound concept: It’s advisable to listen to recordings of bassoonists to develop a tonal goal. The solo recordings or youtube videos of Klaus Thunemann, Gustavo Nunez, Judith leClair, Nadina Mackie Jackson, Bernard Garfield and Milan Turkovic are highly recommended.

6. Intonation: One of the most challenging aspects of bassoon playing is intonation. Most notes on the instrument have a lot of pitch flexibility, and bassoonists need some sort of guide to refer to- preferably an electronic tuner like the Boss TU-12H.  This particular tuner is no longer manufactured, but I just bought one on eBay.

7. Rhythm: Rhythm is a critical aspect of performance, and metronome practice is essential. When sight reading, remember that rhythm is top priority. If the rhythm is right, other flaws can be overlooked, but if the rhythm is flawed, nothing else matters.

8. Musicianship: Musical sense is best learned from listening to lots of performances and recordings of great singers, string players and pianists.

9. Vibrato: When learning vibrato, it’s helpful to practice pulsating (loud-soft-loud-soft, etc.) in a set rhythm on long tones. (Try it on the reed alone first!) For example, with the metronome at 60, pulsate 4 times per beat, and when that becomes reliable, try 5 times per beat. It’s ideal to be able to vary your vibrato in speed and fluctuation. But first make sure that your straight tones are steady! (Practice long tones with and without crescendos and diminuendos to stabilize your straight tones.)  One of the biggest challenges of using vibrato on the bassoon is figuring out how to match vibrato from note to note, since some notes vibrate easier than others.

10. Practicing: Never practice a mistake! If your playing isn’t accurate, don’t go on- stop, fix the problem, then proceed. Fix problems by slowing down! Find a tempo at which you can play the passage, and become rock solid at that tempo before increasing it. It often helps to make up little customized exercises. For example, you may wish to focus on just one interval at first, and then gradually add more notes one at a time. Applying dotted rhythms or other rhythms is often helpful, and removing all articulation so that you are slurring everything is a great way to ensure accurate finger motion. If the problem persists despite your careful efforts, take a break.

11. Care of instrument: The bassoon should never be laid down. Disassemble it and put it in its case (being sure to swab the boot!) if you don’t have access to a bassoon stand. Don’t lay the boot flat in the case without swabbing it first. The bocal should be cleaned once every month or two, preferably with a bocal swab. Key oil should be applied every few months to each moving part.