musings of a professional bassoonist

Thursday, February 20, 2014

High F (Bernstein Symphonic Dances)

I strongly suspect that professional bassoonists spend more time consulting fingering charts (for bassoon!) than any other professional instrumentalists.  Our instrument has infinite fingering options for many of the notes in our range.  In fact, I have even made up some of my own fingerings which I have never seen on any charts.

This past week I consulted my Cooper-Toplansky Essentials of Bassoon Technique once again to see about my high F options, as I prepared for a subscription concert featuring the Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.  I was hoping that I would discover a fantastic high F fingering which had somehow eluded me until this point.

That hope was delusional!   The only fingering which even remotely works for me is the standard one:

Furthermore, it was rather unreliable, even with high reeds.  I had to resort to something I never do - switching bocals.  I am a minimalist when it comes to bocals.  I play on the same bocal all the time (a new Heckel C1), even for screech bassoon solos like the Ravel Piano Concerto.  But I do own a high bocal which was made by William Allgood.

With the combination of a high reed, an embouchure adjusted for the extreme high range, the Allgood bocal, and the above fingering, high F became as reliable as it could be. Once set up with that combination, the only remaining factor influencing successful executions of the high Fs in the Bernstein was plenty of practice, in order to firmly incorporate the unfamiliar fingering and embouchure.  Biting the reed does not help (although biting does help for high G) but the reed must be shoved as far as possible into the mouth, and the lower jaw should be shoved out, making the embouchure more symmetrical than the typical overbite embouchure.

Some bassoons (not mine) have a high F key.  I didn't even know what a high F key would look like or where it would be placed, so I was glad to find this photo of a bassoon tenor joint on Robert Ronnes' website:

The keys near the left hand finger holes are (from left to right) high F#, high E, high F and high Eb.

I think it's accurate to state that keys for high E, Eb, F, F# and G (yes, they all  exist!) may be located in different places above and below the left hand finger holes on the tenor joint.  As many bassoonists know, the location of high E and Eb keys, both of which are common on professional bassoons, varies from bassoon to bassoon.  Bassoonists who order an instrument from a factory or maker must decide where they want the high note keys placed.

Ease of playing in the extreme high range varies greatly from bassoon to bassoon.  I'm willing to bet that on some bassoons, especially older Heckels, it is possible to play the high F without switching to a high bocal (although a high reed is surely necessary).  This may be true of other brands of bassoons as well.  

My bassoon is a new 15,000 series Heckel.  It's the ideal instrument for playing principal in the large, acoustically challenged hall where I perform, because it projects really well.  And its high range is exceptional too (although not easy), until we reach high F.  Once I sorted out the reed/bocal situation, even the high F was acceptable.  In fact, I was told by a clarinetist listening to my obsessive practicing that it sounded like a soprano sax.  (He didn't mean that as an insult - he didn't know that we spend our lifetimes trying not to sound like a saxophone!)

But I must admit - I'm not accustomed to working this hard to play the bassoon!  The high F became the focus of the week (and the preceding week as well).  Here is the passage containing the high Fs in the Bernstein:

The person playing this part before me must have had a really hard time, because as you can see, he or she had to write in the names of the notes!  There are 3 high Fs in the passage, and each is preceded by a high Bb and followed by a high E.  Therefore, practicing the 3 note pattern of high Bb, F and E is very helpful.  I practiced that pattern many times.

I also practiced the entire passage with a metronome, once the F fingering was well incorporated.  Of course, at first the metronome was set at a very slow tempo.  I didn't increase the metronome speed until the passage was flawless at the current tempo.  The reason I spent so much time working with the metronome is because in a passage like this, it would be all too easy to become overwhelmed by the difficulty of the fingerings, and to lose track of the tempo and rhythm.  (Besides, I practice with a metronome all the time anyway.)  I also practiced with an electronic tuning drone to be sure the intonation was accurate.

The first time I encountered this piece, I was in shock.  I wasn't at all sure whether or not the 1st bassoonist was really expected to play the high Fs!  Well, I now know that the answer is yes, the 1st bassoonist must find a way to pull it off.  If not, there are plenty of talented unemployed bassoonists waiting in the wings who would be more than happy to do it!  As orchestral jobs become more and more scarce, the standards for performing in those jobs must inevitably rise to a level near perfection.




Tina B. said...

"screech bassoon"... smh :(

a.k.a. "man's inhumanity to man"

but if anyone can do it, you can!!

Good Luck :)

B.S. said...

Hah! Thanks, Tina!


Anonymous said...

The original book for West Side Story has a high F in it, I think. I was hired to play a week of the touring company of WSS, and spent an inordinate amount of time preparing for the high F I expected to find in the music (bocal,reeds,fingerings, only to discover that it had been removed from the Bassoon part. I asked the conductor, and he said that they found that no one could reliably play the high F so they rewrote it into the clarinet book.
Frank Watson

B.S. said...

Wow - this is a fascinating piece of information! I am not at all surprised that the high F was removed. I wondered how many bassoon players were playing it reliably......and I wonder why it was left in the Symphonic Dances. Thanks for your input, Frank.


RichG said...

Heard an interesting story about the original high f in the book. Seems Lennie had a friend that could reliably produce that note and wanted the job, so Lennie wrote the note into the score and during the audition process he got the job. This has all the earmarks of an urban legend but I wonder.

B.S. said...

Rich, that's a great story! It wouldn't surprise me if it's true, because why else would Bernstein have written it? I have really wondered, and your explanation is as good as any....

Thanks for the story!


Oliver Ludlow said...

This note is painful. Thanks for the advice! My old 1940's Riedl bassoon doesn't even have a high D key, but I'm going to give the high F note a go...

B.S. said...

Hopefully, the high F will be no more difficult on your bassoon than it is on one with a high D key. Good luck, Oliver!


TFox said...

I'm subbing a couple rehearsals with a local amateur orchestra. Just checked their website, and it looks like Symphonic Dances is on the program. I'm a little frightened now, I can't even do E's reliably...

B.S. said...

Don't worry - if you're subbing for a couple of rehearsals, I think you'll be forgiven for playing certain notes down an octave. Rest assured that it happens all the time! And you're better off knowing about the issues in advance so that you're not caught off guard.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

" Heard an interesting story about the original high f in the book. Seems Lennie had a friend that could reliably produce that note and wanted the job, so Lennie wrote the note into the score and during the audition process he got the job. This has all the earmarks of an urban legend but I wonder. " It's true ,with a slight correction : The player in question was a classmate of Bernstein's at Curtis . There is no audition process for obtaining a chair in a Broadway show , players are chosen by the composers ,conductors ,orchestrators etc. The player in question was named Sanford Sharoff and he came from the Dallas orchestra to NYC in the mid fifties at Bernstein's invitation to take the principal chair in the New York Philharmonic ( he ultimately decided not to ) but a chair was written for him in all of Bernstein's later shows i.e. West Side Story , Candide , and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue . Sandy was a brilliant player and a spectacular teacher . I benefited greatly from my years of study with him ,and he taught me much more than music .

B.S. said...

Thank you for this corrected story, Anonymous. I've heard of Sanford Sharoff, and if his practical range extended to high F, it's easy to imagine that he was indeed a brilliant player. Also, Bernstein's invitation to play principal in the NY Phil is another clue.

Thanks again for your input!


Anonymous said...

One other comment ; Sandy had a down to earth sense of humor . When Iasked him about the high F early on in our relationship he said the trick was to wear a tight athletic supporter . On a more practical note ( no pun intended ) the passage is doubled with the alto saxophone ( for color ) and as the saxophone has the predominating voice , if you miss the F , it is unlikely to attract attention .

B.S. said...

Hah! After your last comment, I was wondering what he would have advised for the high Fs! Now I know. That's great! Maybe his sense of humor was part of the reason for his success.

Our saxophone player is unusually discreet. He seems to attempt to NOT overpower the woodwinds, and that's why I felt totally exposed on the high Fs. I should have spoken to him, and will next time! He was definitely not loud enough.


Anonymous said...

Just for fun ,let me offer another example : the alto sax has the lead , it's what the listener hears ( any recording of the dances or the prologue in the show makes this evident . by adding the bassoon , the bassoon provides a certain amount of " bite " to the tonal texture like adding spice to a dish . Another analogous example of this sort of thing occurs in the opening of " Der Rosenkavalier " in which the horns predominate but the listener is usually unaware that the horn parts are doubled with the celli which serve the same function to add some edge and a sort of " je ne sais Croix " to the tonal palette . Finally , for anyone with an interest , " The Sound of Broadway Music " by Steven Suskin is a beautifully researched and written book about show orchestration that brings to light the complexity of composing for this medium .

Anonymous said...

I can confirm the Bernstein/Sharoff connection. While playing West Side Story at Harvard in the early 1970s, Bernstein walked into the rehearsal and sat down next to me. We talked a bit, and after missing the high F, he said, "I realize I wrote a really hard bassoon part, but I wrote if for my friend Sandy Sharoff." I told him Sandy was my teacher and he responded, "I thought I detected a little Sharoff style in your playing." Needless to say, I still play that way and still can't hit the high F.
Peter Rothbart,

Anonymous said...

Hi Betsy,
I'm going to try the same procedure as you described for playing the west-side story dances. It is the best fingering; I use a Yamaha PN bocal, and I normally also NEVER change bocals; last week we played Ravel piano concert and I played it on my CC1.
Your blog is very interesting; thanks a lot for the best a-h trill, I used it when we had a CD recording of the Nutcracker. I'm principal of the G├╝rzenich-Orchestra Cologne in Germany and we recorded it with Dmitrij Kitajenko a few months ago. Before I used the other one you described (which I use f.e. in Symphonie Phantastique without problem), with the same problem, that in 6% of the attempts it can fail...
Back to the Symphonic dances; I played it 10 years ago with a bocal, where a good bassoonist made a little hole in a special place (not too far from the reed..).
That worked even better than the yamaha, because it is like an extra Octave-Key.
Especially the slur b-flat to f in this quick tempo works perfect.
We tried to make a copy whith an old bocal of mine; but it didn't work! Seems to be very important where the hole is exactly and how big it is.
Good evening and greetings from germany,

B.S. said...

Thomas, thank you so much for your interesting comment! I really enjoy reading about what has worked for other bassoonists. I've heard others describe the little hole in the bocal for high notes.....I wonder why someone doesn't figure out exactly where to place the hole, and sell them! I think many of us would buy one.

Thank you again for taking the time to offer your experience, and I hope to hear from you again!