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..........
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