musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Rite of Spring

The premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring Ballet at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913 went down in history for inducing a riot.  The audience that night was expecting conventionally elegant ballet, not pagan rituals leading to the sacrifice of a young girl who dances herself to death.  The noise, fighting, and shouting in the audience rose to such a volume that the great choreographer Nijinsky had to shout out the numbers to the dancers so that they knew what they were supposed to do.  Pandemonium prevailed.

part of the set for the Ballet Russes 1913 production of The Rite of Spring

We bassoonists like to think that it was Stravinsky's music - especially his outrageously stratospheric  opening bassoon solo - which inspired such bad behavior from the audience.  Apparently, that's not entirely true, and in fact the audience noise drowned out the music during much of the performance.  According to reports, the attendees were more upset by the barbaric choreography, the Russian pagan set designs and the primitive costumes.

In all fairness, though, the opening bassoon solos really did cause some uneasiness, especially for the intrepid individual playing it for the first time ever.........

The opening bassoon solo is still mighty daunting, even now that it's been played for a full century with varying degrees of success.  (I once heard about a well-known bassoonist who received a scathing review for the Rite of Spring in the next morning's newspaper.)

When I was a student at Eastman I read a quote from Jascha Heifetz about performance preparation.  I don't know the exact quote, but the gist of it is that it's necessary to be 200% prepared, not just a mere 100%.  At the time, I didn't fully understand, but I took note of it.

Since then I have come to understand that it is impossible to create true performance conditions at home while practicing.  I know that many audition coaches recommend attempting to do just that, such as by running up and down the stairs a few times before immediately sitting down to play.  However, it has been my experience that nothing compares to playing the solo in the orchestra and in the hall, whether it be for a rehearsal or for a concert.

The possible reasons for this phenomenon are fairly obvious:
  • nervousness or anxiety which is present only on stage
  • the presence of the conductor and other musicians, who must be accommodated with regard to tempo, timing (rubato), intonation, and volume 
  • acoustics of the hall
Last week the Columbus Symphony with Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni presented The Rite of Spring in collaboration with BalletMet.  (The orchestra was onstage rather than in the pit.)

During the first rehearsal of The Rite of Spring last week, despite my careful preparation, I was caught by surprise in two ways.  First, even though I am familiar with the hall, I was shocked by the way the opening of the Rite sounded.  I don't often have the opportunity to hear myself alone on stage.  It takes The Rite of Spring for that to happen.  The extreme dryness of the hall caused certain internals to sound to me as though there were huge chasms between the two notes.  The other unexpected factor was that I found that my left thumb was accidentally opening the low D key, which threw off the pitch when it happened.  Why didn't that happen when I was practicing?  My guess is that my fingers were more relaxed during practice, and unlikely to bear down on the low D.  (For those of you who have large hands, this will never be a problem.)

Each of the two problems had a solution.  For the issue with the low D key opening inadvertently, I stuck a foam earplug under the low C and D keys so that they wouldn't open no matter how much pressure I applied.

For the smoothness factor (eliminating "chasms"), I found the following exercises, played with extreme smoothness, to be helpful:

Those exercises are deceptively difficult and I spent a great deal of time with them.  Especially challenging is the interval from E3 (the 3rd E on the bassoon) to B4.  I often isolated that interval.  Also, I turned on my chromatic tuner to check the pitches.  On many bassoons, the G3 tends to be high and the lowest note (E or E flat) tends to be low.  Another helpful variation is to turn on a drone on one of the notes in each exercise.

In the above exercises, the grace notes are added in the second line.  They should sound smooth, not standing out in any way and not being slighted.  My teacher K.David Van Hoesen always said they should be melodic - that means not rushed.  Also, those grace notes can create a "squeaking" sensation if they go too fast.  The 2 measures at big number 1 in the opening solo pictured above are especially tricky in that regard.  I found that backing off the grace notes (not putting too much air through the instrument) and not letting them be too quick helped avoid "squeakiness". 

In my opinion, the biggest challenge when playing in the extreme high range of the bassoon is intonation.  My bassoon, for example, has a tendency to play the high C on the sharp side -  higher than the other notes and higher than the 440 standard.  However, my bassoon can be coaxed to play the C down to pitch.  It takes a loosening of the embouchure and a conscious effort to play low.

Thinking of Heifetz's advice to prepare 200%, I did everything I could think of to ensure the proper pitch of high C.  Beginning a few weeks prior to our first rehearsal, I began practicing the opening solo while a loud C at 440 was sustained on my electronic keyboard.  That prevented me from allowing a deviation from 440.  Once in a while I'd turn off the drone and use an electronic tuning meter to force myself to find the right pitch without the aural assistance.  This may seem like a lot of work, but there are some notes on the bassoon which the player can be tricked into playing at the wrong pitch level, and it does take a lot of effort to overcome that.

One of the other problems associated with playing in the high range is simply lack of familiarity.  Practicing extended scales on a regular basis helps, but let's face it - we rarely play solos in the extreme high range.  The reed is critical.  Being one of those bassoonists who prefers to play on new reeds, I tried to make a new reed for The Rite of Spring but did not succeed.  On the newer Heckels like mine it is difficult to begin the high C without a "cacking" noise, and newer reeds have a greater tendency to cack.  I went through hundreds of reeds both old and new before finding the one that I trusted to not cack.  It was an old reed, but I don't think I had ever played on it before, so it wasn't worn out.  Then I had the dilemma of how to practice - I didn't want to wear out my chosen reed, but each reed played differently.  I had a box full of practice reeds which I forced myself to use at home most of the time.

I often record my practicing, and it's safe to say that I made hundreds of recordings of the opening of the Rite over the past few weeks.  Smoothness, sound and intonation issues are easily revealed that way, and to me, it's an integral part of preparation.  

It goes without saying that one's embouchure must be in top form for The Rite of Spring - but not just normal top form.  The embouchure used in the extreme high range is somewhat different from the embouchure needed for the rest of the range.  One must spend a great deal of time in the high range during the weeks leading up to The Rite of Spring.  Long tones in the high range can speed up the embouchure-strengthening process.

Even after all of that, it's still daunting.  Yet it's what we live for, isn't it?  When I began my Rite of Spring preparation routine for the last time on the Sunday of the final performance, I was stricken with sadness that the final performance was about to take place, and then it would be over.........

Photo: Ohio Theatre
L to R: Betsy Sturdevant, Douglas Fisher, Christopher Weait, Jesse Schartz, Cynthia Cioffari


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

News flash for air-traveling bassoonists (and oboists)

As of April 13, 2013, double reed players flying with their instruments will be allowed to carry on reed knives, according to this new information from the TSA.

Small knives permitted in carry-on luggage must meet all of the following requirements:
Permitted symbol The blade must be no more than 2.36 inches or 6 cm in length – from tip to where it meets the handle or hilt
Permitted symbol The blade must be no more than ½ inch in width
Thumbnail of PowerpointNot Permitted:
Not Permitted symbol Knives with locking or fixed blades
Not Permitted symbol Knives with molded grips
Not Permitted symbol Razors and box cutters

As you can see, any knives carried on must be of the folding variety.  I have never used a folding knife before, but I know they're fairly common.

One thing that hasn't changed is this last word from the TSA:  "The final decision rests with TSA on whether to allow any items through security checkpoints."  So....don't take your favorite knife!


Monday, March 4, 2013

Judging young students

The Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra Program is one of the best in the nation.  There are no fewer than 6 youth ensembles, ranging from the Junior Strings for students in grades 3-6 to the ultimate ensemble, the Youth Orchestra, which has performed in Europe, in China, and in Banff for the International Youth Orchestra Festival.  The Columbus Symphony's Associate Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson explains the program in this video:

Last week I was asked to judge the woodwind seating auditions for the Cadet Orchestra (for students in grades 7-10). I enjoyed meeting the young musicians and hearing them perform excerpts from their current orchestral repertoire.

My job was to assess the tone, setup/posture, rhythmic accuracy, note accuracy, intonation, articulation, and style/expression for each excerpt.  It was really difficult to focus on so many issues during each 5-minute audition!  What ended up happening was this: I focused on whatever stood out.

And for most of the students, even the ones who obviously were practicing a lot, it was the rhythm. 

Are we, the teachers, spending enough time teaching the importance of rhythm?  I remember being taught by Ryohei Nakagawa how to sight read: he said that the rhythm is top priority, and that if you just make sure the rhythm is right, you'll be on the right track.  His advice served me well during my audition for the Columbus Symphony.  I was asked to sight read Strauss' Death and Transfiguration.  I was rather young at the time, and had never even heard the piece.  I studied the rhythm for a few moments, asked the proctor in a whisper what the tempo should be (fortunately, he told me!), took a deep breath, and gave it my best.

Even more basic than rhythm is pulse.  I try to impress upon my students that the rhythmic pulse is the heartbeat of the music.  The heatbeat metaphor seems to work well, because they know what happens when the human heart's pulse is not steady........

Sometimes I tell my students that for the time being, the only thing that matters is the pulse.  Each measure must have the proper number of beats at a steady pulse, and nothing else matters.  It's OK to play wrong notes, out of tune, with lousy tone quality, and even wrong rhythms - all of that is OK.  Only the pulse matters, until I tell you otherwise.  I recommend the use of a metronome, and if the student doesn't have one, I ask the parent if they can download a free metronome phone app. (My favorite free metronome app is "My Metronome".)

Once that is mastered, then I add rhythm, so that only the pulse and its overlaying rhythm matter.  I think it's worth going through this rather dramatic exercise, which may take a few weeks.

The other categories I was asked to evaluate during the auditions seemed to pose fewer problems for the young musicians.  I was thrilled to see that posture was one of the categories, because I spend a great deal of time with young students on playing position, and from time to time I wonder if  I'm overdoing it.  Apparently not!  And I do believe that playing position and posture are very difficult to correct later, after habits have set in.  I was rather impressed with the postures of each of the students.  (I think a few of them of them wondered why I was looking at them so intently.....)

So......the moral of this post is that rhythm and its underlying pulse are not to be underestimated by students, by teachers, or by professional musicians. Thank you, woodwind players of the Cadet Orchestra, for that important reminder, and don't worry - steadiness of pulse is a lifelong pursuit, as evidenced by the fact that even the top professional musicians still use metronomes!

2011-2012 Youth Orchestra
Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestras


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3

Mendelssohn Symphony No.3 "Scottish" in A minor may not appear very often on bassoon audition lists, but there are certainly many reasons why it could.  Some of those reasons occur in exposed passages, and some in tutti passages.

Mendelssohn's 3rd was featured on this week's Columbus Symphony concerts conducted by guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane (who also dazzled us as piano soloist in Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4!).  Perhaps it's the second movement of this symphony which woodwind players worry about the most:

It's especially challenging at a fast clip.  During our first rehearsal of this movement I consulted my metronome and found our tempo to be around 133 to the quarter note.  While much of the bassoon writing for this movement is tutti, there are several exposed staccato woodwind passages as exemplified by the one beginning with the 16th note pickups to letter C.  The second bassoon joins in later with its own staccato solo.  Lightness is key here for the chattering woodwinds.  Throughout this movement, I think that either single-or double-tonguing can work.  I try to make double- and single-tonguing interchangeable, and the way to do that is to constantly strive to make double-tongued passages sound no different from single-tongued.

That means, of course, that the technique of double-tonguing must be practiced quite a bit.  (The reason I'm pointing that out is because I never found it necessary to practice single-tonguing except for coordinating the tongue and fingers, and that has always been a fingering issue rather than a tonguing issue.)  I like to think of double-tonguing as a choice rather than a necessity and as I said, that requires regular maintenance of the technique.  The main reasons I choose double-tonguing are for more lightness and for flexibility of tempo (if the strings take off, for example, I don't want to be encumbered by a lagging single tongue).

The woodwinds share the repeated dotted eighth and sixteenths after C.  For that passage, it's important to not allow the sixteenths to become heavy and bogged down.  I decided to double tongue there because it sounds a lot lighter and double-tonguing allows the 16ths to be shorter.  It also seems easier to blend in with the other woodwinds.

The first 4 notes of the movement are unison for two bassoons and must be in tune, of course, with each other and with the pitch standard of the orchestra.  The sound should be as strong as possible without ruining the intonation.

The other passages above are tutti and it's hard to know whether or not the bassoons are heard.  It depends upon the hall, the volume of the rest of the orchestra, and the volume of the 2 bassoons.  At any rate, we always aim to nail each and every passage in our parts, whether it's audible or not, right?

At letter F below is a very challenging tutti passage. I either double tongue the whole thing or begin with single tonguing and switch to double for the last 4 tongued measures (where "DT" is  marked in the part). 

I think that it can be too much to try to sustain single tonguing for such a lengthy passage - it becomes nearly impossible to keep up with the rest of the orchestra if the tempo is on the fast side.  That's why I switch to double tonguing in the middle, so that I can be sure to keep moving with the rest of the orchestra (which is definitely not slowing down!).

A few passages in this symphony are bona fide solos, in which the 1st bassoon should suddenly emerge from the orchestral texture.  Some woodwind players speak of "spinning the air" for a passage like this, which makes sense to me.  The way a bassoonist blows into the instrument for a solo like this is different from normal blowing - it's more focused and intense, or "spun" if you will. That approach applies to the bassoon solo from the 1st movement after C:

However, the bassoon solo pictured below, from the 4th movement, is very different.  The mood is somber, and although intensity increases somewhat on the crescendos, it remains a pianissimo solo, even when the first clarinet joins.  This is an instance where the bassoonist should not worry about projecting, since the conductor will see to it that the accompanying strings are not too loud.

The solo ends on a low A.  I think it's a good idea to find a muffled fingering which works for  your bassoon.  On my bassoon I add the low F key and the alternate F# key, both with the little finger of the right hand.  Thank heavens for that fingering, because I attempted to use the normal low A fingering during the 1st rehearsal and found it to be unacceptable.  That note has a natural "growl" to the sound, even in the softest dynamics, with the standard fingering.  The growl is very slight, of course, but in my opinion it's better to muffle the note for this very delicate phrase ending.

We just completed our 3rd performance of this program, thus ending a very enjoyable week with our guest Maestro Kahane, whose performance of the Beethoven Concerto No. 4 was so convincing that one could
easily imagine that Beethoven himself was at the keyboard!