Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas and bassoon swabs

If you're like many bassoonists, you may not give much thought to your swabs.....especially the care and maintenance of those swabs.  Perhaps they deserve notice, since swab malfunction can wreak havoc.

First, the bocal swab......recently the tail broke off of my bocal swab, so I will never again pass that swab through a bocal.  Why?  Well, as some of you know from firsthand experience, swabs can become stuck inside of whatever they're supposed to be cleaning/drying.  Can you imagine trying to extract a stuck swab from a delicate and expensive bocal?  Perish the thought.

This is a bocal swab with its tail ripped off (see top of photo).  Now it's the same as a swab with no tail, which is NOT recommended!
I keep the above swab only to use as an example of a swab which should never pass through a bocal.  Some swabs are actually manufactured and sold without a tail, but I do not recommend using a tailless swab.  (A swab with a tail is easily identified by the fact that it has string attached to each end.)  The reason the tail is important is because if the swab gets stuck (and nearly every bassoonist has a stuck swab story) it may be possible to use the tail to remove the swab without damaging the bassoon.  The tail at least offers hope that the swab can be pulled back out from the point of entry (in the opposite of the intended direction).

This is a proper, intact bocal swab:

an intact bocal swab with tail
Bocal swabs are easy to take care of.  I wash mine out after each use. (I run the bocal swab through my bocal once a month.  Unlike the boot and tenor swabs, the bocal swab doesn't have to be used on a daily basis.)  Since it's so small, I just scrub it with nontoxic glycerine soap and water, rinse it thoroughly, and hang it up to dry.  Washing only takes a couple of minutes, and the silk swab dries quickly.

The same swab style - silk pull-through with a tail - is ideal for the boot and tenor joints.  Washing these swabs is not as simple a matter, though, because they take longer to air dry (they're too fragile for the dryer) so you must plan the washing according to your playing schedule.  So I had to wash them today, Christmas Day, because this is my first day off from playing the bassoon in a long time.

I washed both the boot and tenor swabs today and hung them outdoors to dry (because the fresh air makes them smell good).  I just hope they'll be dry before tomorrow's Nutcracker performances.  (They will be - silk dries quickly.  On a breezy day like today, they'll be dry in a couple of hours.)

My boot swab hung out to dry
Some bassoonists don't wash their swabs, but if they did, they'd realize that while the swabs may look fine, the water used for washing tells the real story.  They're not clean.  Not at all!

Another very important part of swab maintenance is cutting off any frayed ends of tails.  Ragged tail ends may cause the swab to easily become entangled, and as many bassoonists have learned the hard way, it's absolutely mandatory to be sure that there are no knots in the swab before it is inserted into the joint or bocal.  Also, it can take a long time to disentangle a swab, and if you're in a hurry you may be tempted to go ahead and use a tangled swab.  (Don't!!)
Cutting the ragged end off is highly advisable!
Merry Christmas, and may the new year bring great reeds and gigs to all!


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Beethoven Symphony No. 4 and double-tonguing

The famous 16th note solo bassoon passage in the 4th movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 4 is one of the solos we bassoonists practice most assiduously.  Surely it takes the prize as being the fastest-tongued bassoon solo in the standard orchestral repertoire, since the average tempo of the solo is around 144 per quarter note.

The above video was recorded by my iPhone at very close range, so the sound may be unrealistically loud depending on the settings of the device used for listening.  In the video you might notice that right before the solo begins, I take a fast breath in tempo.  Breathing in tempo seems to add a layer of rhythmic security. 

This past week while the Columbus Symphony was rehearsing and performing Beethoven 4, I kept thinking of the advice I've heard uttered by so many successful musicians:  it's necessary to be 150% prepared in order to perform at 100% of your ability.

My routine for preparing the Beethoven 4 solo includes practicing the solo at a wide range of tempos from quarter = 60 to quarter = 160.  At each tempo, I practice the passage all slurred before adding any articulation.  Many problems which seem to be caused by tonguing are actually caused by imperfect fingering.  So the first issue to address is evenness of fingering.

To begin each practice session I set the metronome at 60 and first play the entire passage all slurred.  I work on slurring at 60 until it's really perfect and reliable.  Then I single tongue it at 60, and then, believe it or not, I double tongue it at 60.

Why double tongue at such a ridiculously slow tempo?   There are a couple of reasons.  One is that it's a worthwhile challenge to play a passage first single-tongued, then double-tongued, with the intention of making the double tonguing sound exactly the same as the single tonguing. The slower the tempo, the easier it is to hear any difference between double- and single-tonguing.  The difference is often caused by the endings of the double-tongued notes.  I have found it  helpful to use the syllables "Tuk-Kut-Tuk-Kut" instead of "Tuh-Kuh-Tuh-Kuh" especially for slow double tonguing. This is a technique I learned from Arthur Weisberg's definitive treatise The Art of Wind Playing.

Image result for the art of wind playing weisberg
by Arthur Weisberg

Also, I feel that I have a better mastery of double-tonguing when I know that I can do it successfully at any tempo.  During live musical performances, tempos fluctuate.  I feel prepared only when I have the knowledge (based upon my practicing) that I'm going to be able to tongue at any tempo, even if the tempo changes mid passage.  Single tonguing is limited by the top speed of the player's single tongue.  But double tonguing need not be limited.

There are times, especially in solo or chamber music playing, when I actually choose double-tonguing over single-tonguing even when the tempo allows for single-tonguing.  The sound created by double-tonguing, if the player is skilled enough at it, can actually be preferable.  It can sound more flexible, fluid and nimble than single-tonguing.  Sometimes single-tonguing just sounds too heavy and logy.

However, I'll admit that sometimes double-tonguing on the bassoon can sound rather aggressive, and the Beethoven solo is marked "p dolce" which is the opposite of aggressive.  How does the player tame the double tonguing to the point of soft sweetness?  For one thing, the player can use a slightly slower air stream while still maintaining the high level of air pressure necessary for successful double tonguing.  Also, the double-tonguing sound varies from reed to reed.  I tested many reeds to see which sounded best for this solo.  It's possible to double-tongue on just about any reed; however, the sound varies greatly.  Thin, buzzy reeds tend to produce a very abrasive and undesirable double-tonguing sound, for example.

So I begin at 60 and gradually increase the speed, moving up a few metronome notches at a time.  The next tempo after 60 might be 65, for example.  I don't rush through this process, even though it's tedious.  Accuracy is critical, so if I begin to space out, I take a break until my concentration returns.  I don't allow myself to increase the tempo until I've mastered the passage slurred, single tongued and double tongued.  Also at the slower speeds I practice the solo slurred with varied rhythms.

At all times, of course, close attention must be paid to the grace note in the middle of the solo.  I know that some bassoonists use unusual combinations of double- and single-tonguing designed to accommodate the grace note, and I've experimented with those combinations.  However, what works best for me is straight double-tonguing, since I've found no difference between fitting the very brief grace note into the passage when slurred or when tongued.  Again, it's a fingering issue, not a tonguing issue, even though the "tuh" syllable for the first two notes (the D grace note and the C it slurs to) of the grace note measure must be slightly longer than the other syllables in order to allow time for the grace note.   I often isolate this section of the solo for careful slow practicing:

If I were to write out the syllables for double-tonguing the above excerpt of 11 notes (one of which is the grace note) it would look like this (I've highlighted the grace note D and the C it slurs to):

Tuh-Kuh-Tuh-Kuh- Teeuh -Kuh-Tuh-Kuh-Tuh-Kuh

"Teeuh" is the syllable for the grace note D and the C which it slurs to.  The "uh" part of that highlighted syllable is not tongued - the "uh" simply indicates the syllable formed inside the mouth by the tongue position during the passage when slurring from the grace note D to the C.

It's always my goal to match the double-tonguing to the single-tonguing.  I love it when other musicians ask me if I'm double-tonguing or single-tonguing!  The last thing any of us want is to have our double-tonguing recognizable as such, because that usually means that the double-tonguing is uneven.  Some bassoonists seem to hold a rather dim view of double-tonguing, as though it's somehow inferior to single-tonguing.  It doesn't have to be!

The Beethoven Symphony No. 4 solo is easier to play in auditions or master classes than in the orchestra.  That's because when the player is alone, he or she chooses not only the tempo, but also the exact starting time of the solo!   In the orchestra, depending upon stage acoustics, the bassoonist may be in danger of starting the solo too late if the violas are located at a distance.  The aural delay of the viola section which plays before the bassoon solo can cause a late entrance of the bassoon solo.  The solution?  Watch the conductor's baton, and choose to follow the visual information from the conductor rather than the aural information from the violas (which is easier said than done).  Light (ie. your visual input from the conductor) travels faster than sound (ie. your aural input from the distant violas), so when in doubt, go with the visual (the conductor) unless you're fortunate enough to play in a great acoustical environment which somehow eliminates the aural delay created by distance.  In some orchestras, the woodwinds sit quite close to the conductor's podium, enabling the bassoons to be surrounded by the string instruments.  In such situations, the problem of aural delay is  non-existent.

Getting back to the concept of being 150% prepared, I think it's accurate to say that Beethoven 4 is one of those solos which turns out to be totally different on stage with the orchestra compared to practicing it at home or school.  Part of the reason for that is the above-mentioned loss of control over the tempo and the starting point when playing in the orchestra.  For most orchestral solos, that wouldn't be a problem, but it can be a little tricky to get the double tonguing started on cue.  The bassoon reed inside the mouth is actually an impediment to double-tonguing - it's not as easy to initiate double-tonguing on the bassoon as it would be on a brass instrument, flute or recorder.  Also I noticed that I had to remind myself in the orchestra to keep the air pressure high for double tonguing......if air support is inadequate, the double tonguing loses clarity of sound and accuracy of intonation.  It's much easier to remember that nugget of truth in the quiet isolation of the practice room than it is onstage during a rehearsal which includes a nerve racking solo!

Having prepared 150%, when concert time arrives, all that's left to do is show up and enjoy the ride.




Saturday, October 17, 2015

Current rep on my music stand

STRAUSS: Don Juan, Op. 20\
  PROKOFIEV: Concerto No. 2 in G Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16
  TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
  GERSHWIN (F. Campbell-Watson, arr.): Strike Up the Band
  DVORAK: "Allegro con fuoco" from Symphony No. 9 in E Minor,
  GOTTSCHALK (Hershey Kay, arr.): "Grand Walkaround" 
  ARR. (David Frost, arr.): Yankee Doodle
  WILLIAM SCHUMAN: "Chester" from New England Triptych
  SCOTT JOPLIN (Gunther Schuller, ed.): Maple Leaf Rag
  AARON COPLAND: "Variations on a Shaker Melody"
  JOHN WILLIAMS: "Harry's Wondrous World"
  JOHN PHILLIP SOUSA : Stars and Stripes Forever 
  ROSALIE BURRELL – Paved in Gold
  SAAD HADDAD – Kaman Fantasy
  PATRICK O'MALLEY – Even in Paradise
  BERMEL: A Shout, a Whisper, and a Trace 
  BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 1
  BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 

Yes, this is the rep on my music stand right now.  All of this is to be performed by the Columbus Symphony within the next two weeks.  Among the works are Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, Strauss Don Juan, Prokofiev Piano, Brahms Symphony No.2, the infamous Chester movement from Schumann's New England Triptych, Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1, and no fewer than five contemporary works.  My music stand is toppling over from the weight of the music.

In many orchestras, this type of situation is alleviated by assistant principals.  In the Columbus Symphony there are no assistant principal woodwinds, so I play everything.  I'd love to be able to just focus on the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 solos (and REEDS for those solos) while someone else handles some of the other rep, but I won't have that luxury. 

Although orchestral players seem to work few hours from an outsider's point of view (around 20 hours per week is spent in the hall rehearsing and performing), in reality the work never ends.  We bring it home; we make reeds constantly, we study scores and recordings, and we are often working on many different pieces of music at once.

 OK, no more time for blogging......back to the music in front of me!


Sunday, October 4, 2015

Carmina Burana....and reeds

This weekend the Columbus Symphony presented Carl Orff's Carmina Burana as the inaugural concerts for our new music director Rossen Milanov.  It was an exciting week topped off by two extraordinary performances featuring soloists Celena Shafer, soprano, Christopher Pfund, tenor, Hugh Russel, baritone, the Columbus Symphony Chorus and the Columbus Children's Choir.

Carmina Burana is one of the best-loved symphonic works of all time.  Many orchestras perform crowd pleasers such as this one regularly; the Columbus Symphony last performed Carmina Burana four years ago and I wrote a blog post about it.  For this week's performance of Carmina, I made use of my last blog post.  I reviewed it a few weeks ago and was amused by the reminder of my exhaustive search for the ultimate Cignus ustus cantat reed, which might be defined as a reed which plays easily in the extreme high range but is equally reliable in the extreme low range (if such a reed actually exists!).  But my amusement soon morphed into the grim realization that I'd better get to work.

Although I thought I had saved my Carmina reed from the last performance, I couldn't find it.  I found a box of reeds labeled "Carmina" but I was pretty certain that none of those reeds were the one.  Then I noticed that I had posted a photo of the chosen reed on my blog.  And after further searching, I actually found that reed.

My 2011 Carmina reed

Finally I'd be able to answer a question I'd been pondering for quite some time:  is it really possible to save a reed over several years for a specific solo or work, and to actually be able to use that reed years later?  Well, in this case at least, the answer is definitely no.  My formerly stellar Carmina reed is now useless - not because it had turned moldy or anything obvious like that - it simply lost its special quality over the four years since its Carmina performances.  Wood ages, after all, and the aging process inevitably affects playing quality. 

However, it may be possible for reeds specializing in the low range, such as reeds which successfully execute the opening of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 6, to be saved for the future with good results.  Low reeds are quite different from high reeds, and often older reeds are useful for low playing.  High solos, though, seem to require much more reed-related fussing, in my experience.  And high reeds have a much shorter shelf life.

So once again I had to go through a very large number of reeds to find the one which sounded best on Carmina.  My plan was to have a selection of reeds to try in the Ohio Theatre, but the same thing happened as last time - I ended up with only one reed which sounded right, and no others came close.

I have a large stockpile of reeds which "specialize" in the high range.  It takes a long time to go through all of the reeds.  At the same time, I continue to make brand new reeds, in case one of them turns out to be a high reed (and I always prefer new reeds).  The reason I go to such lengths to find the right reed is because I believe that in order for the solo to sound the way I want it to, the reed must cooperate at a very high level.  No average reed can do that.

Is it like this for every orchestral solo?  For me, yes.  We're playing Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 4 next, and I have yet to find "the" reed for that.  It's just as challenging to find a reed which has the right sound and control qualities as it is to find a good high reed. 

When testing new reeds, I set aside any reed which demonstrates strength in either high or low playing.  Some bassoonists claim to be able to manipulate any reed so that it will play well in the extremities, but I have found such efforts to be nonproductive.  It's impossible to control the innate characteristics of a piece of cane, so I prefer to allow each reed (each piece of cane) to let me know what it favors.  Some reeds, unfortunately, let me know that they're not good for playing the bassoon, period!   My reed making approach is to honor the tendency of each piece of cane, and that's how I end up with large stockpiles of both high reeds and low reeds (and, of course, piles of rejects!).  

Another interesting experiment took place this week.  One of the movements in Carmina requires the first bassoon to sustain low Gs, and the last G of the movement is held for a long time.  I noticed during the first performance this week that the reed I was using for this part (the non-solo part) of Carmina seemed to require more air than normal, making it very difficult for me to sustain the final G of the movement.  Was it my imagination, or was this reed making my job unnecessarily difficult?

To attempt to answer that question, I brought out the metronome and a few reeds, including the one I'd been using.  I held out the low G at a pianissimo dynamic while counting the beats for each reed.  Sure enough, the reed I'd been using was requiring significantly more air than the others, and I couldn't sustain the note nearly as long with that reed.  Once my suspicion was confirmed, I switched to a different reed and had a much easier time during the second performance.  Had I not been so hyper-focused on the Cignus ustus cantat solo and its attendant reed, I surely would have figured this out sooner.

It has taken many years of bassoon playing for me to reach reed-related revelations such as this one. There are so many things about reeds that continue to surprise me, such as this newly discovered fact that each reed requires a specific amount of air in order to vibrate, and the required amount of air varies greatly from reed to reed.  Also, some reeds are easier to tongue on than others.  (I'll soon begin my search for a great double-tonguing reed for our upcoming performances of Beethoven Symphony No. 4.)   Another fact which baffles me is that some reeds are actually easier to play fast on than others (while slurring) such as during the third movement bassoon lick of the Ravel Piano Concerto.  (How on earth is a reed able to affect finger technique?  I'd love to know.)

The bottom line is this:  bassoon players need A LOT of reeds to choose from!  Now, back to the reed desk........



Thursday, September 10, 2015

A unique bassoon concerto presentation

"Unique" is not a strong enough's completely awesome.  The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra offers an innovative concert experience called House of Dreams.  Described as "a magical journey to the meeting places of baroque art and music", House of Dreams features five European homes (located in London, Venice, Delft, Paris and Leipzig) where, during the baroque era, concerts were performed in those very houses against a backdrop of paintings by Vermeer, Canaletto and Watteau.  In order to create this imaginative atmosphere, the House of Dreams concerts include stage direction, narration, and projected images.

In the words of creator Alison Mackay (who also happens to be Tafelmusik's double bassist):
House of Dreams is an evocation of rich and intimate experiences of the arts in the time of Purcell, Handel, Vivaldi and Bach.  It’s a virtual visit to London, Venice, Delft, Paris and Leipzig, where great masterpieces by European painters were displayed on the walls of five private homes. These houses were also alive with music, often played by the leading performers and composers of the day.” 
Just about everyone who is involved in classical music realizes that now, in the age of the internet and endless options for entertainment and leisure, the old-fashioned classical music concert (a straightforward performance of a list of musical works, no frills, attended mostly by season subscribers) is nearly an anachronism.  Today's audience demands to be enticed.  And Toronto-based Tafelmusik has figured out a great way to do just that.

The performance below of bassoonist Dominic Teresi performing the third movement of the Vivaldi Bassoon Concerto in e minor is featured in House of Dreams.  As in all performances by Tafelmusik, each musician, including the soloist, is performing on a period instrument.  (How is it possible to sound so good on a baroque bassoon?!  In the capable hands of Dominic Teresi it sounds very much like a French basson.)


The quality of playing is amazing. (And I think the large lute - or is it a theorbo? - is the icing on the cake.)  Even more unbelievably....and this is huge.... did you notice that each musician is playing from memory?  Have you ever attended or participated in an orchestral concert which was played from memory - in which not just the soloist, but the whole darned orchestra played from memory?  I haven't.  What a fascinating concept; I wonder if the absolutely perfect ensemble displayed in this recording is partly enabled by memorization.  All of the energy and focus which would have been devoted to reading the music and its many intricate details is now free to be applied to acute listening and world class teamwork.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a city which is included on Tafelmusik's current touring schedule, audience approval of House of Dreams has been off the charts.  Check it out if you can!