musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The behavior of bassoon sound waves

Bassoonists beware! Every once in a while we are asked to step outside the box and do something unusual, such as perform as solo bassoonist for a funeral, as I did yesterday. I am one of those players who is hyper reactive to acoustics, much to my own detriment. So, one would assume that I'd be extremely careful about the placement of my chair, especially for a solo performance, and especially when I had options, right?

Well, apparently not. I guess I lost my head due to the daunting nature of the event. When I was at home practicing my Bach cello suite for the funeral, I was imagining performing in a large old church replete with stone surfaces. We've all played in such churches before, and the sound is pleasantly flattering.

When I was a student at Eastman, I used to relish sneaking into the stairwell late at night to practice concertos. I sounded great in there, as anyone would. The reverberation was phenomenal, with nothing but hard metal and cement surfaces, and of course the stairway's height surely added to the effect. I sounded SO loud! I had to be judicious with my timing, though, waiting until nearly every other student had left the building. It was that loud! I found it incredibly inspiring to practice there, and I made sure to visit the stairwell before juries.

Well, I was expecting to experience similar acoustics in the funeral venue. I had never seen this particular church before. When I arrived, I was disappointed by its apparent 1950s or 1960s architecture. (Heaven knows why I had been expecting a stone cathedral from the 1800s....) Inside I found soft surfaces abounding, including fulling carpeted floors. I was even shocked by the lighting. The old stone churches I've enjoyed playing in have been notoriously dark, so I had brought a stand light. Well, I certainly didn't need it since the church was bright as could be.

My chair had been set up in the very front where it really stood out, especially considering the bright lighting. I didn't like that, since this was a funeral and I was not the one who was supposed to be the star of the show. So we moved my chair off to the side, near the organ. This being a funeral situation, I didn't think it would be appropriate for me to test the acoustics. What mourner would want to hear random bassoon sounds while entering the sanctuary for a funeral? I just didn't think it would be a good idea, nor did I consider it necessary.

This is where all of my better judgement flew out the window. How could I forget about the behavior of sound waves? My new chair placement was a few inches from the organ, so as to allow the people receiving communion to be able to pass by on the other side of my chair. The organ was located on my right, near the area from which the highest number of notes emit from the bassoon. That fact should have been a huge red flag for a person who obsesses over acoustics as I do. (The organ, incidentally, provided just about the only hard surface in the entire building.....)

Many bassoonists are aware of the problem that occurs when we are positioned too close to a hard surface. It becomes impossible for the player to achieve a consistent sound in which the tone qualities of the various notes on the bassoon match one another. This is because the sound waves are actually reflected, refracted, deflected, scattered and even absorbed by the hard surface. Each note emanates from a different position on the bassoon, thereby creating an unequal alteration of sound waves. Even changing notes by a half step creates a radically different sound.

When I began the Bach during the funeral, I was mortified by what I heard. The reed I had chosen had been mighty impressive at home - it had been focused, pleasant-sounding, easy to control and well in tune. But in the church it sounded like something plucked out of the trash heap. Each note took on a unique timbre of its own, unlike the timbre of any other note. The overall tone was alarmingly reedy, as if any one adjective could be applied to the heterogeneous cacophony.... Of course, there was nothing I could do but keep going, hoping desperately that it didn't sound as bad to others as it did to me. The fact that the deceased had been a professional music critic further exacerbated my horror.

There were two factors at play (and the reed actually wasn't one of them, as I confirmed when I arrived back home). One was that the church was shockingly dead acoustically, which obviously I could not control. But I could have controlled the other problem. Had I positioned myself in an open area away from any objects, at least I would have stood a fighting chance of matching sound from one note to the next. The resulting tone would have been dead and lifeless due to the acoustics of the venue, but at least the sound would have been homogenous.

When the Columbus Symphony plays in the pit for opera or ballet, I refuse to sit against the wall of the pit because of this phenomenon. Luckily our second bassoonist is willing to take the wall seat, causing his sound to be unevenly reflected, refracted, diffracted, scattered and absorbed by the wall. He's a good sport.

Similarly, I'm fussy about the placement of my music stand - the stand has to be far enough away from me that my sound cannot be affected by it. Although the issue would probably not be detectable during tuttis, it is noticeable during orchestral solos - yes, even a mere music stand can impede our efforts to evenly match our notes! (OK, I'll admit that that the problem created by the music stand being too close is barely noticeable, but still.......)

I think that producing a smooth, consistent sound is one of the primary challenges of bassoon playing. Yesterday I seriously undermined my efforts in that regard by ignoring the laws of physics!


1 comment:

Cathy Roberson said...

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