musings of a professional bassoonist

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.......

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Pulcinella

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!

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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!

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Scheherazade

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!

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