musings of a professional bassoonist

Friday, April 15, 2011


My teacher, K.David Van Hoesen of the Eastman School of Music, used to say that the Bolero solo was the most daunting bassoon solo in the standard orchestral literature, due to the high likelihood of some sort of unfortunate malfunction.

It also happens to be the solo I have encountered most frequently during my tenure as principal bassoon of the Columbus Symphony.  In fact, I performed it during my very first rehearsal and concert with this orchestra.  (That's called "trial by fire".)

The Columbus Symphony recently performed Ravel's Bolero with our Music Director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni.  It should have been easy, right?, seeing as how I had played it many times.........well, not exactly.  First of all, each time I play a piece, I approach it as though it's the first time, regardless of past experience.  In reality, each time truly IS a new experience.  The reed is different, the bocal and/or instrument may be different, the conductor is probably different, the hall may be different, but most importantly, I am not the same as I was the last time we played the piece.  I am either a better or a worse bassoonist, depending upon how much I have been practicing and whether I am on the right track regarding equipment (instrument, bocal and reeds).

The first thing I do to prepare (and this would take place at least two weeks before the first rehearsal) is to practice a couple of exercises to ensure reliable finger technique.  I think that finger technique has to be the top priority, since technical failure is top challenge, followed closely by reliable execution of the high Dbs.

Before I begin, I make an adjustment to my instrument which must be done each time I play a high solo.  My bassoon (Heckel #15421) has a larger diameter than older Heckels, and because of that, it is impossible for me to reach the high D and C keys without also hitting the low Bb, low B and/or Low C keys.  I de-activate the low note keys by wedging a foam earplug under the low C key:

It's tricky to get the ear plug positioned correctly, because if it's shoved in too far, then the low D key is also de-activated.  In the case of Bolero, that would create a problem because the pitch of the Db at the end of the solo would be too sharp if the low D key is not functioning fully.

The first exercise is one which was given to me by Christopher Weait, a legendary bassoonist (former principal of the Toronto Symphony and OSU bassoon professor) who happens to live in Columbus:

I practice this over and over, to the dismay of my colleagues within earshot.  (Most of it is done at home, though.)  The tempo is best kept slow, since smoothness and reliable fingering are the priorities.  If it can be played perfectly accurately at a slow speed, it can be played at any speed.  It's important to not practice a mistake!  If the slightest thing goes wrong, I stop and focus on that interval before returning to the exercise.

The next exercise involves high Db, so at this point I'll mention my approach to high solos.  I am a minimalist when it comes to changing equipment - I change as little as possible.  Many bassoonists change bocals for high solos - I do not, even though I own an outstanding Allgood high bocal.  The only thing I change for high solos is the reed.  For Bolero I search for a reed that has a reliable high Db.  Some bassoonists have high and low reeds which they save for future use, but for me, new reeds work best, even for high and low solos.  My approach to reeds is that I keep trying new reeds until one of them displays the quality I'm looking for.  Of course that means that I have to make a lot of reeds, but this approach works best for me.  Some bassoonists say that they're able to make specific reeds, like high reeds, but so far, I have not been successful with that.

Here's the other exercise I practice ad infinitum:

I think it's important to honor Ravel's wishes, even in this exercise.  He placed accents on the 2 Dbs, as indicated, and on the G - not on the final Db.  For some reason, many musicians ignore Ravel's markings.

When the fingerings are secure, I begin focusing on intonation.  It doesn't matter how accurate the fingerings are if the solo is out of tune!  I play a drone on G to play the exercises (and eventually the entire solo) with.  I use a tuner which produces sound, or an electronic keyboard, or an online source which produces pitches.

The metronome is also an important tool for preparing Bolero.  Most of the time, for Bolero and everything else, I use the metronome to mark the offbeats.  That's a technique I learned from a very successful jazz musician and educator, although I have yet to run into another classical musician who does it.  My metronome clicks on the "and" of one, the "and" of two, the "and" of three, etc.

Of course, there's nothing different about my metronome - it's just that I'm choosing to recognize its click as the offbeat.  Practicing this way is more effective than the traditional use of the metronome on the beats because it forces the player to produce his/her own beats.  Those beats are "checked" by the metronome's offbeats.  Lots of metronome practice is advisable for the Bolero solo, especially since while playing the solo, the bassoonist may not be able to hear the ultra quiet snare drum.  I practice the entire solo with both the drone on G and the metronome on the offbeats. 

It's always nice when the conductor chooses a tempo which seems "right".  Apparently Ravel marked the tempo at 72 in the score, and I think that's the tempo that our Music Director conducted.  I always practice Bolero (and every solo) at many different tempos so that I'm ready for anything. 

The bassoon solo follows the calm, relaxed, quiet flute and clarinet solos.  It's a worthy goal to think of attempting to match that laid back quality, even though the realistic bassoonist may fully expect the Bb entrance to sound like a veritable explosion compared to the delicate ending of the ever-so-graceful clarinet solo! 

I wonder if it's any easier on Ravel's intended instrument, the French basson..........



Amy said...

Beautiful piece! Thanks for sharing! My prof was telling me about her trick to not pinching/lipping the reed by playing with a pen stuck in the side of the mouth. It's an ugly-ish sound, but workable, and definitely a good trick. Just speaking of neat tricks and all...

Tina B, said...

The orchestra practiced Bolero with Alessandro on May 25, 1997. Andrew and I wandered into the theater to listen, before our wedding in the pavilion :)

Matt said...

Hi Betsy,

I was Googling around looking for music/bassoon blogs to follow and I came across yours. I don't know how I managed to miss it before! Your post on Bolero gave some great tips for practicing that I never really thought of before.

I'm currently blogging about my experience as a freelance bassoonist and audition-taker. You should drop by and check it out.

Looking forward to more posts!


Matt said...

Oops, I posted the wrong address! Here's the real one.

Anonymous said...

Good post, and gave me some different ways to practice this. Interesting that you find a new reed works better for you on the high notes. I find that old reeds tend to do better for me in the high register. I might have given up on them for normal use, but I would use them for Rite of Spring of Bolero.

B.S. said...

Anonymous, yes, old reeds definitely work best for some bassoonists (including myself, once in a while) in the high range. Some of my "old" reeds are really just reeds I had set aside for later use in high solos.


Anonymous said...

Having just done the Bolero solo for the first time I can't see what all the fuss is about. There seem to be only two problems: (i) make sure the crook (bocal) is good on high notes otherwise the repeated Dbs are hard work, (ii) Don't get stressed.

There is one very useful short cut : finger Bb as follows : LH 1 2 3, RH 1 2 4, LH thumb speaker 2 and C# keys. Then to get C (seventh note of the solo) all you do is release RH 1 and 2, NOT moving the LH thumb at all (as opposed to moving it to speaker 1 as you normally would for top C). In other words, play the C as if it were a trill from Bb. Works fine and removes one awkward finger change.

The true professional would say this is a cheap expedient and no substitute for endless practice using the "correct" fingering. Maybe, but in a high-profile situation the end justifies the means . . . .

B.S. said...

Anonymous, I'm glad to hear of your success with Bolero. Later today I'll try your fingering suggestion. It may come in handy since I'm performing Bolero again soon....


Anonymous said...

From "Anonymous" re fingering . . . I'm terribly sorry folks, when I said remove RH 1 and 2, I meant LH (LEFT HAND) 2 and 3. I cannot tell left from right without thinking (and that day obviously could not tell 1 from 2!)

So to summarise (with my brain in gear) : Top Bb, LH 1 2 3 RH 1 2 4 LT on A and c# keys. Top C, same but remove LH 2 and 3.

This is an odd fingering that works well, but you have to think in advance when using it. When playing the rest of the solo (i.e. the notes after the top Db) it's as well to revert to standard fingerings so it all becomes automatic again.

BassoonJedi said...

Betsey, I'm playing the solo in October and wonder if you have a good fingering for the "grace notes" I hear many pros using from high C to high D-flat. They aren't written in, but I'm wondering if it will help my D-flats speak with a more beautiful tone. There seems to be a delay and the tone is strident at times. Thanks bunches for your awesome blog. :)

B.S. said...

Bassoon Jedi, do you mean there's something like a glissando between the high C and the high D-flat? On my instrument, I can sort of get that effect by moving my left thumb early to the high D key from the high C key. That would definitely help with the delay which you described. And for me, the tone of the high D-flat varies from reed to reed. Reeds that favor the high range often produce the most appealing sound on the high D-flat. Good luck!


BassoonJedi said...

Sorry... I meant from the high B-flats in the second phrase (measures 6 & 7 of the solo) to the D-flats. Agreed very much about the reed and the tone! Surprising how two reeds can sound so similar in the lower registers but the extreme upper register - totally different!

B.S. said...

I thought that's what you meant! For me, the best way to do grace notes (like a trombone or saxophone glissando) is to actually finger the high B and then high C (in between the Bb and the Db). I use the regular fingerings. My left thumb keys are pretty slippery, so it's not too difficult to do this. Again, this would vary from instrument to instrument. If your thumb keys don't work really easily and smoothly, then this would be a lot more tricky. If that's the case, try oiling the keys. It might help!