Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bassoon reed-making for beginners

Every once in a while I find myself teaching a high school bassoonist to make reeds.   I usually have my students use cane which is already shaped and profiled, so some of the work is already done.  However, the finishing touches (which the students are learning) are often most challenging of all

I learned to make reeds when I was 14.  The method I learned originally differs from my current reed making method, but I'm glad I started early.  There's no doubt that it takes a ton of time and experience to learn to create a good bassoon reed. 

Here are the steps I teach to young students:

Sand the inside of the dry cane until it's as smooth as glass.  Use 320 grit wet and dry sandpaper.  Then soak the cane in water for around 2 hours.

Next, score the bark using a knife or special scoring tool:


Next, fold the cane over a knife (at the fold line in the center) and place the end of a ruler at the fold. At 2 5/16" mark the cane with a pencil.  That's the line at which you'll cut off the ends of the cane:

Next cut off each end (cutting on the line marked with pencil) with pruners:

Then fold the reed, line up the edges, and apply the top wire at exactly 1″ from the bottom of the reed. Wrap string around the reed from the top wire down:

  Next, squeeze the sides of the wrapped tube with pliers or parallel pliers (very difficult to find):

Next insert the forming mandrel, being careful not to twist the reed:

Then unwrap the string at the very bottom of the reed to make room to add a wire at the bottom of the tube to ensure roundness. Wrap this wire around the tube 3 times rather than the usual 2 times.

Ideally, allow the blank to dry for at least 2 weeks. Brass mandrel tips from Christlieb are ideal for ensuring the proper shape of the tube, and they may be purchased in large quantities.

After at least 2 weeks, remove both wires from the dry blank:

Then bevel using a sanding block (made by gluing 320 grit sandpaper onto a wooden block).  Each end of the cane is sanded around 25 strokes or so - whatever it takes to make the ends of the reed halves meet perfectly.  The sanding takes place at the ends of the bark, from the bottom to 3/8" up:

This is the end of the reed before beveling:  

And after beveling:

  Then fold the reed and tie dry string around the bottom half of the tube (bark):

Apply the middle wire at 5/16' below the top wire (you will be able to see the marks where the top wire was placed):

Then apply the bottom wire at 3/16" from the bottom of the reed, and the top wire at 1" from the bottom:

Next apply Duco Cement along the edges of both sides from the middle wire down to the bottom to prevent any future leakage or loosening of the binding:

Then wrap the reed with 100% cotton #3 size crochet thread, available at places like JoAnn Fabrics and Michael's Crafts or online from crochet suppliers:

 After wrapping, cover the binding with Duco Cement and allow it to dry overnight: 

Next mark the 2 1/8" line at the top of the reed:

But don't cut the tip off yet!  Reaming is next, assuming that the reed needs it, followed by smoothing the inside of the tube with a rat tale file if needed.

Then, after soaking the reed in water,  cut the tip with a knife or a guillotine, at the pencil line drawn at 2 1/8":

Using a knife, cut the corners at a 45 degree angle:

Now it's time to finish and refine the reed, with a file, knife or sandpaper, removing cane in the area shaded below:

It is important to strive for symmetry.  Each point on the blade has 3 corresponding points, and all 4 should be equal in thickness. 

My finished reeds measure 2 1/8″ from top to bottom. The blade is 1 1/16″ long from the top of the collar to the tip, and the collar measures 1/16″. The bottom wire is 3/16″ from the bottom of the tube.  The top wire is 1″ from the bottom, and the middle wire is 5/16″ below the top wire.  Occasionally I experiment with different dimensions if a student has cane which is clearly intended to produce a larger reed.   (My reeds are on the small side.)

Good luck, and don't give up no matter what transpires!  Remember that a bassoon reed is really a much-fussed-over vegetable.

Arundo donax (future bassoon cane) growing in southern France

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas Giveaway from The Bassoon Bureau

The Bassoon Bureau is a new online shop selling bassoon quartet arrangements as digital downloads.  In order to kickstart the business, owner Michael Grant of the U.K. is offering free downloads of 12 Christmas carols.  These arrangements are sight-readable and useful for bassoonists of all levels.  If you lack a library of bassoon quartets, this is a great way to start building one. 
I particularly like the fact that Michael Grant's bassoon quartets are designed to be played by 3 or 4 bassoons.  I'm always in favor of flexibility.  If one of your bassoon quartet members forgets about the gig or gets lost on the way, you're fine to proceed with three players.

Michael has arranged some well-known classics for bassoon quartet, including one of my all-time favorites, Henry Purcell's Rondeau from Abdelazar Suite.  Also featured is a tune commonly associated with bassoon, sCharles Gounod's Funeral March of the Marionette

Incidentally, Michael, who is also a clarinetist, has a blog with a great name: "Adventures in Woodwindland".  Be sure to check it out.

You can "like" The Bassoon Bureau" on Facebook:


Thank you, Michael, for your Christmas gift to the bassoon world, and good luck with your new online shop!

picture from The Bassoon Bureau website


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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

BasSOON It Will Be Christmas

Each year the Columbus Symphony performs three very popular Holiday Pops concerts with the Columbus Symphony Chorus and the Columbus Children's Chorus.  Conductor Ronald J. Jenkins also invites special guest artists each year such as dancers from BalletMet Academy and Wright State University, and there's always an appearance by Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Columbus Symphony Holiday Pops performance
The production is always a crowd-pleaser, but Holiday Pops 2013 took the cake.  Why?  Well, this year Maestro Jenkins discovered a delightful piece to add to the program called BasSOON It Will Be Christmas by James Stephenson.  Columbus Symphony bassoonist Douglas Fisher and I performed the solo bassoon parts in front of the orchestra.
Photo: Bassoon It Will Be Christmas!
Columbus Symphony rehearsal of BasSOON It Will Be Christmas

James Stephenson
Chicago-based composer James Stephenson was a trumpeter in the Naples Philharmonic for 17 years before becoming a full-time composer.  He is currently Composer-in-Residence for the Lake Forest Symphony, and his works have been performed by the nation's leading orchestras.  BasSOON It Will Be Christmas is written for either two or three solo bassoons and orchestra.  Well-known Christmas carols are cleverly interwoven with major bassoon excerpts and the first movement of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto.  There's even a cadenza in which the opening of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 6 makes an appearance.  Here is a recording of the entire work (3 bassoon version) from James Stephenson's website.  And here is a recording of the Columbus Symphony performing the 2 bassoon version.   The bassoons were not miked or amplified in the Columbus Symphony recording.

Not all excerpts are presented in original form.  Do you recognize the excerpt in the last line?

Ending of BasSOON It Will Be Christmas

 A few years ago the Jacksonville Symphony found a very imaginative way to offer holiday wishes to its fans featuring an excerpt from BasSOON It Will Be Christmas:

It's highly uncommon for bassoonists to be featured as soloists on pops concerts, much less on holiday pops concerts, but judging by the enthusiastic audience response, I'd say it's a worthwhile endeavor.  Thank you, James Stephenson, for composing this holiday gem, a welcome addition to our solo orchestral repertoire and thank you, Ron Jenkins, for featuring bassoons on this year's Holiday Pops!

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Beethoven Symphony No. 4

A couple of weeks ago the Columbus Symphony presented, for the first time, a Rush Hour concert featuring guest conductor Gregory Vajda.  Audience members were invited to skip the rush hour traffic out of downtown, and join the Columbus Symphony in the Ohio Theatre for a free happy hour concert which included free appetizers and special drink prices.

The production was a triumph.  There were tons of people filling our massive hall....what a glorious sight!  While speaking to the audience, Maestro Vajda asked how many were attending their very first symphony concert, and approximately 20% of the audience members raised their hands.  That's a major victory for the Columbus Symphony, I'd say!  The program was very exciting, if not traumatic, from a bassoonist's perspective, since it included Beethoven Symphony No. 4.

Playing the infamous Beethoven 4 tonguing solo in the orchestra (as opposed to in the practice room or audition) is tricky, to say the least.  Because it's one of those passages which involves solo bassoon and strings, depending on the hall, it may be dicey to begin the solo on time.  In the Ohio Theatre, if I listen to the strings and come in when it sounds right, I will be late.  Even if I execute the passage at the correct tempo, it will be ruined if I begin late.
Ohio Theatre, site of challenging onstage acoustics
So I force myself to focus on the conductor's baton.  If I'm with the conductor's beat, then all is well.  To those sitting near me onstage, it may sound as though I'm jumping in early, but it's actually right, as confirmed by recordings.  In an orchestra where the woodwinds are closer to the front of the stage and more integrated into the string sections, this would probably not be as big a deal.  But here in Columbus, the woodwinds are quite far back from the conductor's podium, and far enough away from the strings that the distance is a constant issue to be dealt with.

In the edition we used, the main bassoon solo appears at the top of the page.  I wanted to be as calm as possible for the solo rather than flustered from a frantic page turn, so I wrote instructions in my part on the previous page to turn the page early.  I wrote the notes from the previous page on top of the solo page, as you can see below:

I even scribbled the instructions to look at the conductor and not listen (as if I might forget...).  Someone also wrote "louder" over the solo, but I ignored that.  Since Beethoven wrote p dolce, then p dolce it is unless the boss on the podium says otherwise (and Maestro Vajda did not say otherwise, thankfully).

My preparation for this performance of Beethoven 4 began years ago when I learned to double tongue.  I taught myself to double tongue, mainly using the excellent advice of the late Arthur Weisberg in his book The Art of Wind Playing.


In my experience, it has not been enough to just learn to double tongue.  The technique must be constantly maintained, especially when there is an exposed double-tongued passage on the horizon.   For exposed passages like those in the last movement of Beethoven 4, I begin preparation weeks in advance.

Here's how my practice routine goes:  I set the metronome at 60 and play the passage above all slurred.  When the notes are perfectly even, I switch from slurring to single tonguing.  Then I switch from single- to double-tonguing, with the goal of making the double-tonguing indistinguishable from the single-tonguing.  (I love it when a colleague asks me whether I'm double tonguing or single tonguing - that means I've accomplished my mission!)

Next, I move the metronome up 3 notches to 63 and repeat the routine.  I don't know whether most bassoonists practice double-tonguing at such slow tempos, but I believe that it's extremely beneficial.  If you can make double-tonguing sound good at a really slow tempo, then it is much more likely to sound good at a fast tempo because your basic technique is solid.

This manner of practicing is rather tedious.  Not all bassoon solos require the extreme preparation of a Rite of Spring or Beethoven 4 performance, of course, but the solos featuring extremity of range, control, finger technique, or tonguing do require a great deal of preparation in advance to ensure success.  It's remarkable how much more challenging it is to perform these extreme solos in the orchestra as opposed to playing them at home or in the practice room.  As legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz once stated, it's necessary to always be 150% prepared for a performance.

I keep going with that routine until either my brain goes numb, in which case there's no point in continuing, or until I make it up to 163 to the quarter note.  That's really fast, and no conductor would ever consider such a breakneck speed.  But it's part of my strategy - I prepare beyond the point of reason.   That way, a tempo of 152, which might seem rather fast, will be doable and not that big a deal.

The single-tonguing part of my routine obviously has to be abandoned once I reach my top single-tonguing speed, but the slurring must be done even at 163.  Incidentally, I don't know what my top single-tongue speed is because I don't look at the metronome.  I just keep moving it up by 3 notches.  I don't want to be aware of what the tempo is, because that might cause psychological hang-ups or limitations.  I can tell when I'm at 163, however.....

I do think it's helpful to try to figure out the conduct's 4th movement tempo once rehearsals begin, however, in order to be able to focus on that tempo in the final preparation stage.  I always carry a metronome in my case and have a metronome app on my phone.

Sometimes I also isolate parts of the passage, and either include them in the routine or run the routine with only the isolated part.  Here's an example of a part I have isolated:

There is one final, but critical, aspect of preparing Beethoven 4: the reed.  I remember how surprised I was when I figured out that some reeds were better than others for double tonguing.  Once that discovery was made I became ultra fussy.  Now it's really hard for me to be satisfied with a reed's double tonguing ability.   But the reed makes all the difference in the world.  I don't necessarily use a great double-tonguing reed for practicing the above-described routine, since I'd rather save that reed for the orchestral rehearsals and performances. Those reeds can only be identified by testing to hear how they sound on double-tonguing.   Fortunately, those reeds always seem to be good overall reeds, because I don't like to switch reeds during a performance if I can avoid it, and Beethoven's 4 has plenty of other exposed passages for bassoon.  I advise beginning your Beethoven 4 reed search at least a couple of weeks before your first rehearsal.  This is why it's wise to make lots and lots of reeds, so that when you need a reed which specializes in double-tonguing, you may rest assured that one will materialize from your stockpile.

Once you've done everything you can to prepare, all you have to do is show up and lay it down.   That's the fun part, right?

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Friday, August 2, 2013

Rite of Spring audio demo (finally!)

stravinsky (wikimedia)
Igor Stravinsky
Well, finally I have an actual musical example to post on my blog since the Columbus Symphony's Rite of Spring has finally been uploaded onto InstantEncore.  I wrote about preparing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring a couple of months ago, but at that time I had no audio clips of my own playing to include.  (I did attempt to record a YouTube video for that post, but I rejected each video as being flawed in some way.  All was not lost, however, because that effort was extremely beneficial in my preparation for playing the solos in the orchestra....) 

If you happen to listen to this recording beyond the opening bassoon solos, you will hear strange extraneous noises which almost sound like musicians tapping their feet.  In fact, those are the sounds of the dancers of BalletMet Columbus who performed with us.  The orchestra was on stage, not in the pit, and the dancers were in front of us.  (Unfortunately, the musicians were way too busy to be able to observe the excellent dancing......)  If it seems odd that we performed the Rite with dancers, bear in mind that it was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes.  

painting of a ballet performance on stage
Ballet Russes by August Macke, 1912



Thursday, June 27, 2013

Berg Violin Concerto "To the memory of an angel"

Berg, Alban: portrait by Schoenberg, 1910
portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910

The backstory

The ultra fascinating Berg Violin Concerto stands out in the orchestral literature as a stunning example of an instrumental requiem.  Berg was resistant at first when the American violinist Louis Krasner approached him in 1935 about writing a violin concerto.  Berg apparently thought that violin writing was just not his thing.  Krasner persisted, finally convincing Berg that this would be his golden opportunity to show that the violin could be effective in twelve-tone music.

At that time Berg, age 50, was composing his opera Lulu.  Suddenly on Easter Sunday of 1935 he received the tragic news of the death from polio of Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler (who had re-married twice after her first husband Gustav Mahler died). According to Alma, Berg was so moved that he “could not finish his opera Lulu . He composed the Violin Concerto and dedicated it to the memory of Manon.”

The concerto ended up being a requiem for Berg himself as well.  Lulu was never completed, but he did compose the entire violin concerto in four months, a record for Berg.  He died later that year (1935) from a bee sting. Berg's wife had been alarmed that he was writing the violin concerto with such a sense of urgency, but when she begged him to slow down, he replied that he couldn't because he didn't have much time if he somehow knew his own days were numbered.

And speaking of numbers,  Berg was known to have used numerology to refer to his beloved mistress Hanna Fuchs-Robettin in his earlier Lyric Suite for strings.  Rumor has it that he did the same in his violin concerto.  Once musicologists figured out the numerology in the Lyric Suite they searched the concerto for examples of the numbers Berg associated with Hannah and indeed found many examples of 10s and 23s (which refer to Hanna).

Berg uses a yodeling Austrian Carinthian folk song in both parts of the concerto.  Musicologists figured out that the original melody had some interesting lyrics:  "A bird on a plum tree has wakened me, Otherwise I would have overslept in Mizzi's bed. If everyone wants a rich and handsome girl, Where ought the devil take the ugly one? The girl is Catholic and I am Protestant. She will surely put away the rosary in bed!" And it turns out that Berg accidentally fathered a child at age 17 with the young daughter (nicknamed "Mitzi") of his family's kitchen servant at their Carinthian summer house.  (Due to social customs of the era, Berg was not permitted to have a relationship with his daughter born to Mitzi.)  Hmmmm..........Berg took it upon himself to fill this concerto with personally meaningful references, apparently. 

The concerto is famous for its use of the Bach chorale “Es ist genug” which features the following text:
It is enough: Lord, if it please Thee,
Do Thou unshackle me.
My Jesus comes; I bid the world farewell,
And go in peace to dwell.
In Heaven's house I then will find me,
My cares and troubles all behind me.
It is enough, it is enough.
As stated earlier, the concerto stands out in the orchestral reperoire as an instrumental requiem.  Might I suggest that it also stands out as an instrumental autobiography........

Relevance of the backstory

Is is important to know this information which is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the backround of this concerto?  Does the orchestral bassoonist play any better, or any differently when armed with this knowledge?

In my experience, the answer is yes.  Even if it's all in my head (and so much of playing an instrument is!) I feel more in command when I know the backstory.  And it really seems as though the story I know about the work helps determine the "tone of voice" I seek from the bassoon to use in exposed passages. 

The first bassoon part

There are numerous passages which are exposed and in general, special care must be taken to play with smoothness and accurate intonation.  The most important exposed bassooon part leads into the Bach chorale:

It's a good idea to attempt to match the contrabassoon upon entering, since the 1st bassoon is continuing the contra line.  The D above middle C (in the first full measure of the passage above) is one of the hardest notes to control the pitch of on my 15,000 series Heckel, especially when approached from below as it is here.  I prefer not to add keys to try to stabilize the note, although adding the B flat key is an option.  Some reeds cooperate better than others, but the major factor is embouchure.  If my embouchure is tired, it is far more difficult to get that D up to pitch.  I tried to be careful not to practice much before performing the Berg mainly because of wanting to be able to play that D up to pitch.  Left to its own devices, that note would come out way below pitch, and I mean WAY below.........on my particular bassoon.

Many bassoons are also a bit wild on the open F, especially in this passage where it occurs shortly after that D which had to be coaxed up to pitch.  If your embouchure has not fully recovered from the D, then the F is sure to be sharp.  (The D flat tends to be a more stable note and is less affected by embouchure, although it is indeed affected somewhat.)  Someone who played this part wrote instructions to add the pancake to the F.  That is a common solution to a sharp F, but I don't like it because it changes the sound too much for using in a solo passage.  I just sought to be sure that my embouchure had opened up enough to accommodate the F.

Below is another example from the first bassoon part.  The passage from measure 35 to the end of the excerpt is a unison passage for 2 bassoons and other woodwinds.  As you might imagine, intonation must be carefully attended to.

The Columbus Symphony performed this work at the end of our winter season, along with Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, under the direction of music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni 
with violin soloist Vadim Gluzman.  As soon as a recording of our performance is uploaded onto InstantEncore I will add the link to this post.
The rather good-looking Alban Berg dreaming up ways to conceal secrets in his violin concerto........

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

An unusual collaboration


Last week members of the Columbus Symphony joined forces with members of the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra for a gala performance for the University of Dubuque.  I have never before heard of two orchestras collaborating this way.  In my prior experience such collaborations have occurred only between a professional orchestra and a student orchestra, and are typically referred to as "side by side" concerts or rehearsals.

What a glorious occasion - it was the grand opening of the University of Dubuque's brand new Heritage Center concert hall.  World-renowned violinist Gil Shaham performed as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Columbus Symphony Associate Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson.  The program also included Beethoven Symphony No. 7 conducted by Dubuque Symphony Orchestra's Music Director William Intriligator.

The acoustics of the new concert hall were absolutely amazing.  The hall looked enormous on the inside, but it seats only 1,000.  Perhaps that is the ideal size for a concert hall, especially considering audience trends.  To me the best way to test a  hall is to listen carefully during exposed or solo passages, when I can hear what the hall is doing to my individual sound.  In the case of the Ohio Theatre where I normally perform, the hall does nothing but deaden the sound.  Who needs that!?  But in the Heritage Center, when I tapered a note at the end of an exposed passage in the Brahms, the hall continued the taper after I stopped.  It resonated! And the entire passage had sounded as though there had been several bassoons playing in perfect unison, not just one.  The hall actually enhanced my sound - and that's ideal.  (And now I'm spoiled.)

Photo: Combined members of Columbus and Dubuque Symphony Orchestra violists after a great weekend of music, friendship making all the meanwhile opening a marvelous Heritage Center at University of Dubuque. Thanks everyone!!!
the joint viola section, which sounded AWESOME

The Columbus musicians had a great time exploring Dubuque and meeting the Dubuque Symphony musicians.   I especially enjoyed getting to know Dubuque's principal bassoonist Dr. Barry Ellis who also teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and Dubuque's principal clarinetist Corey Mackey whose resume, seemingly growing by the day, is also impressive.

The spirit of cooperation, collaboration and camaraderie was palpable that week, and I doubt that any of us will ever forget our pioneering joint performance.

view of the Mississippi River from my hotel room in Dubuque