musings of a professional bassoonist

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Please fill out this easy survey for a reader of bassoon blog!

I received a request from a bassoon blog reader today who asked if I would post this online survey.  The author of the survey is a college student who is completing a research project about the use of machines in reed making.  Please fill out the form and submit it to help our fellow bassoonist!  I've pasted the form below just so you can take a quick look at it, but in order to actually submit your results, please use this google spreadsheet link.  Thank you!

I am saving time using some kind of machines.

I can make personal adjustment.

I am saving money.

I can achieve better quality than buying ready cane.

I do not know how to use the machines.

I do not know how to adjust machines.

I do not have time for making canes.

I can not afford buying machines.

I can not achieve same quality like ready cane.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Ravel Piano Concerto

One of the most challenging works for the bassoon in the orchestral literature is the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major.  It appears on many bassoon audition lists, although the specific movements vary.  Some orchestras ask for the first movement only; some ask for the third movement only.  Most ask for both.

Some bassoonists use a special high note bocal for a high solo like the one in the Ravel first movement:

I am not one of those bassoonists who switches bocals, for this or any other solo.  For me, that's just too much fussing around.   However, I do switch reeds for extreme solos like this one.  Although I can play the solo on a regular reed, it sounds better on a reed which favors the high range.


I know there are bassoonists who claim they can make a high reed, and they can even explain how they do it.  Those methods have never, I repeat, NEVER worked for me.  But fortunately, high reeds just appear in my life from time to time.  I can't say whether high reeds are caused by certain density variations in cane, or quirks of construction, but I just know that high reeds crop up when I least expect them.  They tend to be higher pitched in general, and difficult to play.  They don't vibrate as well as other reeds, and the crow of these reeds is resistant.  If one of these reeds plays high Es or The Rite of Spring easily, then I let it dry and then store it in an airtight container until I need a high reed.  I even have a special zip-lock bag reserved specifically for Shostakovich 8 reeds (reeds which easily attack high E flat, or E flat 5).

When played in the orchestra, the tempo of the above solo is usually not very strict - it's rather laid back.  Just listen to the accompaniment and watch the conductor, and it will be easy to place each note.  This solo definitely benefits from intonation practice.  I like to set up the tuner to produce a drone on E and play the solo against it, and afterwards I check the pitch of each note on a meter just to be sure.  Of course it's a big deal to get the high E in tune, but the high C# and high B are often problematic as well.  Be aware that the temperature of the stage where you perform may affect the pitch of your reeds.  In my case, the stage temperature is usually hot, and so my reeds play higher.

In my opinion, this solo should be played out, with as big a sound as possible.  I've never had a conductor ask me to play less on this solo, and it's so easy for the bassoon to be drowned out by the rest of the orchestra.

I am a huge fan of the French bassoon, and of course this part was written for the French bassoon.  I searched YouTube for an example of this movement played on French bassoon, but this was the closest I could find:

This is the Orchestre National de France, Charles Dutoit conducting, with pianist Martha Argerich.  It's definitely a French orchestra, and the bassoons are French bassoons.  However, these players exemplify the trend in which French bassoonists are attempting to sound more like German bassoons.  This trend disappoints me, since I am quite taken by the sound and lyricism of a real French bassoon.

Later in the movement there is a tricky passage in which the notes can be challenging to place accurately:

It's wise to prepare prior to the first rehearsal by practicing the 32nd note passages with the metronome at many different tempos.  Then you'll be ready for whatever tempo the conductor presents at 25.  Usually this is conducted in 3, so set your metronome accordingly.  During the rest between the two 32nd note passages, it's very easy to lost track of what's going on, thus compromising the accuracy of the second entrance.  It's advisable to learn the horn solo so that the second entrance is obvious based on what the horn player does.  If the horn player gets off, you're covered, whereas any woodwind colleagues who were relying on counting (as opposed to listening) may be left in the dust.

These notes go by rather quickly, and must be well practiced so that they sound smooth and even.  Because of the more famous solos in this piece, it's easy to neglect this difficult passage.

And what about the second movement?  There's an oft-forgotten solo there too:

Every second bassoonist knows about the solo at the top of the page, beginning on B#.  Intonation is tricky and can benefit from private rehearsing with the English horn player, who plays the solo line for the first 4 bars.  Then the 1st bassoon takes over from the English horn in the 5th measure. I like to pretend I'm an English horn player during that passage, starting the E4 at the same dynamic as the English horn finished with, and matching the English horn player's vibrato.  Conductors often like this passage to be very expressive, as someone seems to have scribbled in the rental part pictured above.  It works well to have the volume and vibrato both intensify in the middle of the 4 bar phrase, and to begin and end very subtly. 

There are a few different ways to perform the famous 3rd movement bassoon lick:

It can be performed as written, or with the 1st bassoon playing the whole passage alone, or with both bassoonists playing the entire passage.  I've done it all 3 ways, and I'd say that the least successful was the one time I played it as written.  For some reason, at such a fast tempo, it's hard to coordinate 2 players, and the two players usually sound quite different from one another.

The first time I played it, shortly after I was hired by the Columbus Symphony, I remember how unspeakably frustrating it was to practice this passage.  I was ready to toss the bassoon out the window.  The more I practiced it, the worse it sounded!  Back then, I didn't have any history with this piece, so I think I was somewhat flipped out.  (What if the performance didn't go well?  Would I fail my probationary period??)

Now, with a few performances of this concerto under my belt, I know I can do it, but it's still extremely daunting.  It makes total sense to me for the first bassoonist to play the entire passage (either alone or with the second bassoon playing in unison) rather than trading back and forth as printed.  In auditions we are expected to play the entire passage, combining the first and second parts.  That's what we're used to, so why not play it that way in the orchestra?

I've noticed one difference between practicing this excerpt and actually playing it in the orchestra - it's harder for me to get through the entire passage in one breath in the orchestra. I think it's because I play it louder in the orchestra than I would when practicing.  In the orchestra I automatically adjust the volume up to a level appropriate for projection, and that does take a lot more air.

Preparing the above passage is no different from any other as far as practicing techniques.  I slow it way down (quarter = 60) and aim for smoothness and ease.  Sometimes I practice it with altered rhythms.  But the important goal is to slow it way down.  Once it becomes easy and 100% reliable at a slow tempo, it's no problem to tackle faster tempos, since the finger motion between consecutive notes is the same regardless of tempo.  I like to practice it at a wide variety of tempos so that I'm prepared for anything, up to around 165.

There's one more passage to consider, a few bars before the end of the concerto:

This is exposed, fast and best played with a truly growling fortissimo so that it can project - the perfect last word from the first bassoon!



Thursday, January 13, 2011


File:Petrutxca de Fokine-1911.jpg
The great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) wrote his ballet score Petrouchka in 1910 and 1911 and revised it for a more moderately-sized orchestra in 1947.  Petrouchka is one of the great pre-World War I tone poems, so colorful and captivating that it stands alone in the concert hall even without the ballet dancers it was meant to inspire.  Petrouchka is set in St. Petersburg during a Mardi Gras-like festival and tells the dramatic tale of the love triangle among three living puppets: the downtrodden, mournful Petrouchka, the handsome, cocky Boor and the beautiful yet superficial Ballerina. 

Many of the greatest bassoon solos in  the orchestral literature can be found in Stravinsky's ballet scores. Stravinsky was not afraid to require the bassoon player to reach beyond his or her limits, as best exemplified by the famously high-pitched bassoon solo which opens another of his famous ballets, The Rite of Spring.

Petrouchka, which the Columbus Symphony performed this past weekend, abounds with interesting parts for the bassoon section, such as the one for 2 bassoons and contra at 58 in Part One:

It would be easy for the first bassoon to be uncertain where to come in if he/she didn't realize that the strings play pizziccato on the downbeats of each measure with grace note entrances after 58.  That's why it's so important to listen to recordings and study scores.

The following passage beginning at 73 presents quite a technical challenge:

Oftentimes, bassoon passages like the one above are lost within the orchestral context.  Not this one!  It's fairly exposed and must be played accurately.  The tempo is usually around 120 per quarter note.

The most effective way to practice is is to slow the metronome way down and, while remaining relaxed, practice it until the fingerings become automatic. (This requires a considerable amount of practicing over a period of days.)  Some musicians refer to this process as the development of "muscle memory."  It is also helpful to practice the patterns with various rhythms and, in the advanced stages, faster than necessary, so that it seems easy when slowed down to the actual tempo.

I use all standard fingerings for the passage, except for using short F# (LH: half hole, 2,3 , E flat key, whisper key; RH: 1) on the downbeat of the second measure.  The parts for Petrouchka are rental; the markings in the above passage are not mine (and I don't know what they mean!).

The bassoon solo after 95 in the Second Part can be awkward:

It's a good idea to be very aware of the clarinet parts, by listening to recordings and examining the score, so that there is no question where to place each note.  The 64th notes 3 before 97 may require some experimentation with F# fingerings.  My standard F# fingering, known as the French fingering (LH: 2, Eflat key; RH: 1,2, F key) doesn't work for me in this passage due to resultant squeaking.  The short F# fingering which I referred to above doesn't work much better.  Instead, I chose an F# fingering which I rarely use: LH: 2, E flat key; RH:1,2, B flat key.  (For some bassoonists, this is the standard fingering.)  This fingering produced reliable results, although since I don't use this fingering very often, I had to train myself very thoroughly to use it here, with lots of repetitive practice.

At 106 in the above excerpt, the bassoon seems to represent poor Petrouchka crying over his imprisonment and his rejection by the Ballerina.  The crying is best done in tune, though, and I checked the pitches of those notes with my Boss tuner before each performance.

Perhaps the bassoon solo which most people associate with Petrouchka is found in the Valse:

The first note of each measure, the detached and staccato E flat or D, should sound like a swift kick, I think, and can be somewhat bold.  The remaining five notes of each measure, though, are legato and refined, taking great care to ensure a smooth connection between F and A flat especially.  I tried several different fingerings for the staccato E flats to find the one which was in tune when played with the "kick" character.  That fingering turned out to be LH: 1, 3, whisper key; RH: 1, B flat key.

Here is the Columbus Symphony's performance from this past weekend which included Petrouchka, with Enrique Diemecke guest conducting.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The dog ate my reed

Although my dog is widely known for his ability to keep my playing in check through his selective howling during my practice sessions, he harbors an unfortunate addiction.  He loves to sneak around behind my back, snatching and devouring any wayward bassoon reeds.

I managed to pry this one from his clenched jaw before it embarked on its intended journey through his digestive tract.  He did, however, manage to ingest the most delectable part of the reed: the ever-so-carefully crafted blades. 

Luckily for the dog, this was my "embouchure maintenance" reed.  An "embouchure maintenance" reed is a reed with undesirable playing characteristics which, instead of throwing in the trash, I keep in my mouth when I'm not playing the bassoon, with an embouchure formed tightly around it.  ( For anyone unfamiliar with the term, embouchure is defined as the application of the lips and surrounding facial muscles to the reed and/or mouthpiece of a wind instrument.  The position of the jaw is also involved in the formation of an embouchure.)  Sometimes I blow into the "embouchure maintenance" reed, but that doesn't really seem to make a difference.  The point is to build up the embouchure muscles without actually playing the bassoon. 

Why not just practice the bassoon to build up the embouchure? you might ask.  Well, I am practicing the bassoon, but after a certain point (when the player becomes too tired) continuing to practice does more harm than good, and I need an embouchure of Herculean strength this week.  I need an embouchure which is stronger than that which can be attained through mere practicing.

Why?  Well, my music stand is overloaded this week:

This is the list of pieces I am preparing to rehearse and perform this week, beginning tomorrow:

Beethoven Symphony No. 8
Britten Soirees Musicales
Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major
Rimsky-Korsakov Overture on Russian Themes
Shostakovich Festive Overture
Stravinsky Petrouchka
Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto No. 1
Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 2 "Little Russian"
Tower Made in America

You can see why I think I need a strong embouchure (among other things).  I am daunted!

Yet, as always, I remind myself that anyone who is employed as a classical musician is fortunate.  I'm not sure how I'm going to manage to perform each of these pieces at a professional level all within the same week, but I'm ready to give it my best shot.

B-a-a-a-a-d dog!


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy new year!

Today's the day to start numbering your reeds at #1, that is, if you're interested in keeping track of the number of reeds you make per year.  I have not done this in the past because I used to re-start at #1 each time I switched cane.  That's no longer necessary because I've been consistently color-coding the reed thread according to cane type.  In fact, I even sub-divide.  Rigotti cane from Midwest Musical Imports is a different color:
 from Rigotti cane from Woodwind Brasswind:

On top of that, I have a reed notebook for recording any observations which may improve my odds of reed success.  It seems to me that the only way to know what works is to keep track of any changes.

Keeping track of one's cane and results can cause disappointment if a great source dries up.  The highest number of good reeds for me were made with cane from a source called "All Bassoon Cane" which was located somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.  Unfortunately, the business no longer exists, and nobody knows what happened to the proprietor or his inventory!

Hercules DS561B BASSOON/BASS Clarinet Stand
In case any readers are in the market for a bassoon stand, I ordered a Hercules DS561B stand for bassoon or bass clarinet from for $66.95 (shipping included), which makes it the most affordable bassoon stand available.  The Hercules stand is very sturdy and secure, and I highly recommend it for home use.  For schlepping, though, I prefer the more common Fox bassoon stand which weighs less than 2 pounds, compared to the much larger 6.4 pound Hercules stand.

Has anyone encountered problems finding #3 crochet thread for wrapping reeds?  In Columbus it has become increasingly difficult to find the thread in formerly reliable sources such as Joann Fabrics.  (Well, I can still find it, but the colors are disappointing.)  I found a good internet source, which sells #3 bamboo crochet thread for $2.29 per spool, in great colors! 

Aunt Lydia's Bamboo Crochet Thread Size 3  <font color="CC0000"><b>Sale!</b></font>
Aunt Lydia's Bamboo Crochet Thread Size 3 Sale!

Aunt Lydia's Bamboo Crochet Thread Size 3 at discount prices! 100% bamboo from viscose is an earth friendly sustainable and renewable resource with a recycled core and label. A size 3 crochet thread with a luxuriously silky hand. 100% bamboo. Size 3. 150 yards. Machine washable.

Happy new year!