Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dead Elvis postmortem


Elvis demonstrating the art of  brooding
What a letdown! Now that my performances of Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis are finished, I'm facing the inevitable void. (By the way, I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, and have now moved on from impersonating Elvis to impersonating an old monk on a horse in Strauss's Don Quixote.) Months of preparation, followed by four short days of rehearsals and performances, are over. Dead Elvis was my reason for being for a long time. Now what??

I recall a non-musician friend telling me once that musicians are lucky because we regularly experience completion of our "projects". Well, maybe so, and while there's no denying the fact that it's a relief to finish the final performance, it's still disappointing to have all of the excitement come to an end. Perhaps I'll be able to cheer myself up by reviewing my Dead Elvis experience....

Memorize first; practice later

In an earlier post I explained the unusual process I used for memorizing and practicing Dead Elvis, and I promised to report on the results after the fact. I'm pleased to say that my experiment was successful. Not once did I experience even a hint of a memory slip, and I will definitely use this method the next time I memorize.

This new method was simple. I just memorized the piece first, before I could even play it accurately. Then I learned Dead Elvis without using the printed music. I never looked at the music again once I had it memorized. (That's only a slight exaggeration. In truth I did actually glance at the score a couple of times to be sure that I hadn't overlooked any details.)

I constantly checked my memorization by playing along with various YouTube recordings and also with the definitive recording featuring David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta with Charles Ullery as bassoon soloist. (The album is available on iTunes for $9.99.)
Michael Daugherty's American Icons


 In the past my approach was pretty much the opposite - I'd learn the concerto, wood-shedding the difficult passages, working out phrasing, breathing and musical ideas, before adding the icing on the cake - the memorization. I used to think that approach made sense because much of the memorization happened on its own as a result of time spent practicing.

However, my new method worked better, probably because a lot more time was spent playing from memory. I'm pretty sure that working on Dead Elvis without music caused me to use parts of my brain which are not normally activated. The visual aspect was missing this time, whereas normally the visual component is paramount.

To memorize or not to memorize

Wind players are not "brought up" memorizing their music the way that string players, pianists and singers are. Traditionally, wind players are not really expected to memorize concertos, and it's quite rare for wind players to memorize contemporary works. But I chose to memorize Dead Elvis because I knew it would help me feel as though I'd left no stone unturned in my preparation, and I thought that would ultimately contribute to my performance. Freedom from the printed page appealed to me.

The Elvis reed

In my experience, it was necessary to make lots and LOTS of reeds for Dead Elvis. The Dead Elvis reed had to be a one-in-a-million reed which could do anything: fast, slow, loud, high, low, double-tongued. Over the past 6 months I carefully set aside any reed showing Elvis potential. In a broad sense, that meant that I set aside any reed which played well in the extreme high range. More specifically, it meant that I was looking for a reed that would clearly and reliably articulate a high D# (4th line treble clef) without "cacking". (For anyone who doesn't know what cacking is, it's defined in Webster's dictionary as "a distinctive noise sounding like a hoarse duck in distress which can only be produced by a bassoonist failing to hit a high note".)

Southern Theatre
Taking the reeds to work (ie. the performance venue) often changes everything. I had precious few opportunities to try the reeds onstage before Elvis week. The stage at the Southern Theatre was very hot and dry, which brings out the worst in any reed. I was generally displeased with my reeds onstage; I ended up using one that was NOT brand new. This bothered me for two reasons: First of all, I always play on new reeds, and secondly my teacher K. David Van Hoesen always said that new reeds are best for high range playing. But there was no denying the fact that this particular reed (a reed that was not brand new, although it was in "like new" condition) was best for playing Dead Elvis on my particular bassoon (a new Heckel).

The attire

In the score, Daugherty states that an "Elvis Las Vegas 1970s jumpsuit is recommended, but optional". I ordered an Elvis jumpsuit from Amazon, along with a black Elvis wig complete with sideburns.The Columbus Symphony offered to rent a costume, but I preferred to take matters into my own hands. I wanted the outfit several months before the performances so that I could become accustomed to the idea of wearing it, and I also practiced in it a few times.

This may seem a bit over-the-top, but I wore my Elvis costume for the rehearsals with the orchestra. The costume changed the experience in several ways. The bassoon got caught in the costume  a couple of times and I nearly tripped over the large bell bottoms..The synthetic material of the costume was also really hot, and I had to get used to that. The wig was hot (temperature-wise) also, and I wore the wig and sunglasses during rehearsals so that I had a chance to get used to the whole package. The sunglasses were very dark and I couldn't see much. That exacerbated the challenge of traveling to and fro on the stage while playing! There was some concern that I might end up falling off the stage.

I knew that Elvis never, ever performed in sunglasses, so I wasn't originally intending to wear the Elvis sunglasses that some bassoonists on YouTube are wearing. But then our principal violist said something to me which made sense. He said it was great that I was aiming to be true to Elvis, but maybe from the perspective of the audience, sunglasses would add to the overall effect. In fact, he offered to loan me a pair of Elvis sunglasses. He brought them to the next day's rehearsal, and it was obvious that he was right. I looked more like Elvis with the sunglasses.

The research

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I researched Elvis very thoroughly by reading many of his biographies, watching videos of his performances and listening to his recordings. Truth be known, I became a bona fide Elvis fan. His rhythm was amazing, vibrato perfectly controlled, style captivating, lyricism just right. Had his career been managed differently, perhaps the world could have had the chance to truly appreciate the enormity of his talent. He loved classical music, including opera. At times he sounded like a great operatic tenor or baritone.

The vibrato

Throughout the score, Daugherty calls for "Elvis vibrato" mainly in the solo bassoon part but also in the other parts from time to time. What exactly is Elvis vibrato?

Well, since Elvis Presley's recordings remain ubiquitous to this day, it's easy enough to find out that he was masterful of vibrato. It was very even and controlled and varying in intensity. Like many classical musicians, Elvis spent countless hours listening to recordings (and live performances when possible) of great artists, figuring out what worked and what didn't, and then figuring out how to incorporate that information into his own artistry.

Oftentimes bassoon vibrato sounds a bit undefined to me, or even haphazard. There is nothing haphazard about Elvis's vibrato - it's crystal clear, just like the vibrato of many of the great vocalists and string players. Perhaps such artists, including Elvis, have something to teach us bassoon players.

The choreography

One of the advantages of having the music memorized is that I wasn't tied down to a music stand, and I had the freedom to move all over the stage as Elvis would have. (I had to study tons of videos of Elvis performing to learn his moves.) Of course, it's very hard to walk or dance while playing the bassoon, but I sure had a good time figuring out how to move around as much as possible while still maintaining control of the bassoon. It was a new kind of challenge, that's for sure. But now I know why there are no bassoons in marching bands.

Unfortunately, there is no video recording of our performance. I'd like to see what it looked like to the audience! They were laughing throughout, especially when I had 4 bars of rest during which I engaged in some serious Elvis-style leg shaking. The intense jiggling would have jerked the reed right out of my mouth, so that particular move could only be done during a rest. I also attempted to engage the entire audience the way Elvis did. That required movement across the front of the stage so that no section of the audience would feel left out. I did some of this while playing. (I had to spend quite a bit of time practicing that. I had never before attempted to move across the front of the stage while playing the bassoon! I'm quite certain that after this experience, I actually WOULD be able to play the bassoon in a marching band.)

In the score, Daugherty directs the bassoonist to get down on one knee at the end of the piece, between the high D# and the low Bb. Only a bassoonist would understand that getting down on a knee is one thing, but getting down on a knee while successfully holding and balancing a bassoon after having just blown your brains out on a long, loud high D# is quite another matter. This was yet another of Dead Elvis's unusual challenges.

What I learned from Elvis himself

This may seem odd, but studying the biographies, recordings and videos of Elvis Presley taught me a thing or two. Elvis was a consummate performer. Not only was Elvis extremely intelligent, he also had an intuitive sense about what appealed to the masses. He died his hair black and wore black eye makeup. He dressed for success beginning when he was a teenager. He moved and danced in front of a mirror as a teen to figure out what would look good to an audience.

And he was a musical perfectionist. He totally ran the show during his recording sessions, so in essence he was also the producer of his own records. He insisted on take after take, with careful listening to the recording after each take. He was constantly tweaking the instrumentals, the background voices and his own singing.

As I mentioned, when he wasn't performing or recording or rehearsing, he spent many hours listening to recordings of other artists. He loved gospel, rhythm and blues, pop, ballads, country, rock and roll and classical. During the peak of his fame he took it upon himself to learn to play Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the piano, by ear.  (He did not read music.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Elvis's life to me was the fact that he sang and played piano and guitar in his spare time, just because making music was his favorite thing to do. When he showed up for his recording sessions, he would insist on spending hours warning up by singing spirituals in four part harmony with his backup singers. In fact, just a few short hours before his death he sat down at his piano and sang, just because that's what he did. Constantly. His love for music was that profound.

His extreme and tragic addiction to prescription medication certainly interfered with  his ability to perform optimally during his later years. At times he could barely walk, yet he still performed. But his recordings demonstrate his perfectionism as well as his gift for communicating musicially. His range of expression is something to aspire to.

During live performances (and all of the time) Elvis was very focused on his audience and on reaching each and every person in the venue. That's why he moved all over the stage (even dragging his microphone stand all over the stage during his early career). When I performed Dead Elvis, I tried to think like Elvis, focusing on the audience - the entire audience, and the overall effect (not just the music). I even tried to walk like Elvis. (Maybe it worked, because I was told that some audience members had no idea that I was an orchestra member.)


Dead Elvis provides a great opportunity for the bassoon soloist to step outside the box. Take my word for it - the farther outside you step, the more the audience will enjoy it, and the more you learn about Elvis Presley, the more YOU will enjoy it.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

What Elvis taught me about bassoon reeds

This past week I had the privilege of performing Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis on the Columbus Symphony's classical subscription series. What an experience it was!

Last night when I returned home following our final performance of Dead Elvis, I put my bassoon together and pulled out the reed I had used. Unaccustomed to soloing in front of the orchestra, I had been a bit more uptight about my reeds than usual. The reed I had used for the performances was pretty reliable, but I found that during the performances, the reed tip closed a bit due to the high temperature onstage and the dryness of the air, I think.  Now that the performances were finished, I had to satisfy my curiosity about the reed. Would the reed have responded well to having its tip opened slightly?

Normally the first thing I do when a reed tip closes is simply pull out the pliers, place the reed on a mandrel tip, and nudge the reed's tip open a little by gently squeezing the top wire at the sides. This simple procedure often gives the reed more fullness of sound throughout the range and enhances the reliability of the attacks of high notes such as the high D# at the end of Dead Elvis. A proper tip opening even allows for better control of the vibrato.

But things are not normal when a bassoonist is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. I lost my head, and decided that opening the tip of my reed would be too risky. (?????) As a result, I was uncomfortable with my reed throughout the performances, and I always had the sense that it could have been more ideal. The reed was OK, but could have been better.

My post-Elvis reed tip opening experiment was a revelation - the reed transformed from a pretty impressive one to an absolute dream-come-true, after just barely opening the tip with pliers. Too bad this magic occurred after the final concert!

I always tell my students not to be afraid to change the tip opening of a reed, explaining that it's the only reed alteration which can be reversed, and oftentimes the result of tip opening adjustment is that a mediocre reed becomes a good one. It's the easiest and most effective means of improving a bassoon reed. Why hadn't I heeded my own advice?  I guess I was so daunted by the concept of being a soloist, of being Elvis for heaven's sake, that my bassoon reed knowledge and experience flew out the window. Also, I had the notion in my head that since I had been playing such a taxing piece as Dead Elvis on the reed, I thought maybe I had worn out the reed, causing it to lose its flexibility to respond to wire adjustment. I thought that if I opened the tip and then wanted to change it back, the cane might not respond to the reversal. Now I think that's hogwash, since the reed responded so beautifully to having its tip opened.

The reason I'm kind of mad at myself about this is because I spent months searching for the ideal Elvis reed. I rejected literally hundreds of reeds. The Elvis reed had to excel in the extreme high range AND extreme low range AND double tonguing AND it had to play in tune AND it had to clearly articulate high D# (4th line treble clef). If you're a bassoonist, you know what a tall order that is.

My chosen reed was a darn good one which would have been even better if I'd taken the risk (which is not really a risk at all since it's reversible) of slightly opening the tip.

Let that be a lesson to us all.

Yours truly, rehearsing in costume