musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, December 31, 2017

8 highly efective ways to improve your bassoon playing

1.  Practice with a drone.

Playing in tune is a constant goal of all conscientious musicians.  If a bassoonist just sits back and allows the notes on the bassoon to fall where they may, inaccurate intonation will surely result due to the inherent imperfections of the instrument.  In order to play in tune, bassoonists must constantly adjust the embouchure and the air stream (this is often done subconsciously).  Using an electronic tuner to check the pitches of individual notes may be effective, but the problem with using a visual tuner is that the player's eyes are used to assess whether or not the player is in tune.  On the other hand, using a drone forces the player to use the ears.  There are several online drone sources such as this one.  If you haven't used a drone before, just begin by matching the pitch of the drone.  Then practice scales, arpeggios and melodies while the drone is producing the pitch of the tonic (the first note of the scale).

2.  Practice long tones (ALWAYS with a drone or tuner).

Long tones are essential for the development of control over the embouchure and the air stream.  There is quite simply no other way to develop the steady air stream necessary for mastery of the bassoon.  At first, practice steady, controlled long tones using straight tones, and later add crescendos and diminuendos, always with a drone or tuner to ensure accurate intonation. 

3.  Practice with a metronome.

A steady pulse provides the foundation for rhythmic accuracy.  When playing in an ensemble with other musicians, it's easy to go with the flow, allowing the conductor and/or the ensemble to provide the pulse.  When each musician in the ensemble is also tuned in to his or her own internal pulse, the result can be a very tight and impressive ensemble.  However, for auditions and other types of solo performances, the player has no choice but to rely upon his or her own internal pulse.  This can be daunting if steadiness of pulse and rhythm has been neglected.

 The metronome is the obvious tool to use in strengthening (and testing) your internal pulse.  To test your internal pulse, use the metronome to provide the offbeats so that you must provide the downbeats, or set the metronome to one beat per measure so that you must provide accurate subdivisions within each measure.   Once the metronome is turned off, many musicians find it helpful to move slightly to the beat (such as with discreet foot tapping, for example).  It's harder to ignore one's internal metronome when there is a physical component to it (such as foot tapping).

4.  Practice scales and arpeggios.

The practicing of scales and arpeggios develops the fundamental building blocks of a musician's technique.  Listen acutely for clean transitions from one note to the next while thinking of each scale as a beautiful melody with the notes matching one another in tone quality.  This enables development as a technician and as a musician simultaneously.  The careful practice of scales and arpeggios pays huge dividends, resulting in the smoothness which is often elusive to bassoonists.  Move your fingers as little as possible (always keeping them as close as possible to the holes and keys of the bassoon) for efficiency.  Play your scales and arpeggios with a drone to ensure accurate intonation.

5.  Record your playing. 

If you record your playing and then listen to the recording, much will be revealed.   The way you sound to yourself while playing is NOT the same as the way you sound to a listener other than yourself.  Think of listening to a recording of your own voice speaking.....it sounds very different from the way it sounds to you while you are speaking.  If you really want to discover the flaws in your playing, then recording yourself is the key to thorough self-evaluation.

Recordings can make it easy to measure your progress.  Make an initial recording, then listen to it to decide what improvements to make.  Practice the improvement, then record again.  Since it's unlikely that this will be your final product, decide what further changes to make and repeat the process.  Do this a few times (maybe over the course of a few days, or maybe in one day) and you'll be able to listen to the recordings of your progress. This may seem time consuming, but it's very effective.

Also, recordings can be helpful in choosing the best reed for a passage.

6.  Become a master reed maker.

It goes without saying that the quality of a bassoonist's reeds can make or break a performance (or even a career, if that performance happens to be an audition!).  A successful bassoonist needs a steady supply of good reeds to choose from.   If you want to become a better reed maker, then make more reeds.  Each reed you make teaches you more about how to deal with the temperamental vegetable which controls our outcomes.

Unless you have a reliable and satisfactory reed source which you know is going to outlive you, it's advisable to become your own reedmaker and to make tons of reeds.

7.  Practice vibrato.

Yes, all advanced bassoonists use vibrato, but how many of us actually practice it?  Although used for musical expression, vibrato is a technique which benefits from development (even though we like to think of it as a naturally occurring phenomenon).  To begin, set the metronome on 60, pick a note, and begin pulsating the air stream with sudden steady bursts of air once on each beat.  Then produce two steady pulses for each beat, then three, then four, then five per beat.  Next set the metronome on 72, and practice slow scales in whole notes or half notes with 4 pulsations per beat.

The long tones (see number 2 above) are to be practiced at first without vibrato, since it's essential for the bassoonist to learn to control the straight tone before adding vibrato.  Once the straight tones are mastered, practice long tones with vibrato.....sometimes with a steady pulsation of vibrato and other times beginning with no vibrato or minimal vibrato and gradually increasing and then decreasing its intensity and pulse.

You'll notice that the notes on the bassoon vary regarding ease of producing vibrato.  Some notes on the bassoon are actually easier to control with vibrato than without.  The goal, of course, is to gain control of each note on the instrument with and without vibrato, and to be able to modify the vibrato according to musical requirements.....sometimes the music calls for intense, earth-shaking vibrato, while the opposite extreme calls for barely perceptible vibrato (or none at all).  Methodical practice of vibrato will ensure that the player has control of vibrato on each note of the instrument.

How is bassoon vibrato produced?  Some say it's produced in the abdomen and some say it's produced in the larynx.  Even when it is produced abominably, there are sympathetic vibrations which appear higher, such as in the neck, and sometimes the bassoon itself moves with the vibrato.  The source seems to vary depending upon the speed of the vibrato.....the faster the vibrato, the higher the source (faster vibrato seems to be coming more from the larynx than the abdomen). 

8.  Listen to great musicians.

In order to learn to be a fine musician, it's necessary to expose yourself to many examples of world class musicianship as expressed by vocalists, pianists, string players, etc.  Whenever possible, attend live performances.  The rest of the time, make use of YouTube and other sources.....there's no excuse these days for musical ignorance.  The finest musical examples imaginable are available 24 hours a day, free of charge.  Each time we listen to a great performance, our musical intuition is bolstered subconsciously.  The bassoon can be a challenging instrument to play at times, but that's no excuse to allow musical standards to fall by the wayside.  The inspiration derived from great instrumentalists and vocalists helps keep us on the right track.

Remember......you are a musician first, a bassoonist second.



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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Bassoon playing position (sitting)

The optimal bassoon playing position is established without the bassoon.  Many musicians are familiar with the Alexander Technique which basically teaches people to release unwanted muscle tension while sitting, standing or moving.  Problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injuries, all too common among musicians, are often alleviated using the Alexander Technique.

This is an example of what it looks like to apply the Alexander Technique to the act of sitting:


This is the ideal bassoon playing position.....now all that remains is adding the bassoon and then placing the arms in playing position.


The above sitting posture should be absolutely unaffected by the introduction of the bassoon and the insertion of the reed into the mouth.  Obviously the arms must be moved in order to accommodate the instrument, and the positioning of the arms should be as natural and relaxed as possible.

the posture should NOT be affected by the bassoon

I'm no expert on Alexander Technique, but I've had a few lessons and found them to be immensely beneficial.  I've spent a lot of time working with students on playing position since I'm convinced that it makes a difference.   I begin by asking the student to sit comfortably in the chair with good posture as indicated by the photo at the top of this post.  Then the bassoon is brought into that playing position.  It's challenging to talk students into not moving the body to accommodate the bassoon!  The goal is to adjust the bassoon, not the player.  The seat strap may be manipulated up and down as well as backward and forward in the chair to place the bassoon in the right position. 



Additionally, I advise my students to position the bassoon high enough so that when the reed is inserted into the mouth, all of the pressure on the reed is applied from above.  The jaw should be dropped and prevented from pushing up on the reed.  If the bassoon is positioned too low, the jaw will automatically push up on the reed, constricting the sound and raising the pitch.  The lower lip supports and surrounds the reed, but the pressure on the reed is felt in the top lip and the top front teeth.

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To me the playing position includes the position of the reed as it enters the mouth.  If I see a student's reed entering at the lower lip, I can be sure that the student will be inadvertently pushing up on the reed.  (It's better, I think, if the reed hits the top lip as it enters the mouth.)   I often demonstrate (or ask the student to demonstrate) how the sound improves when the pressure is applied only from above.  This is accomplished by raising the bassoon, dropping the jaw, and applying pressure only on top of the reed.  This is the intersection of embouchure and playing position.....it's impossible for me to talk about embouchure without also discussing the point of entry of the reed into the mouth, which is also part of the playing position.  (When teaching bassoon embouchure specifically, I instruct students to wrap their lips over their teeth and drop the jaw back as far as it will go, creating an overbite.  Pressure is applied to the top of the reed, and pushing up with the jaw is best avoided.)

This is the playing position and embouchure which I think enables a desirable bassoon sound.  The abdomen is free to expand for breathing and vibrato and the reed is allowed to vibrate while being dampened on top for a robust yet round sound.  The lack of tension in the playing position will most likely prevent any performance-related injuries.



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Monday, December 18, 2017

Top 10 reasons to avoid sharpening your bassoon profiler blade

blade from Herzberg bassoon reed profiler

10.  You've laid the groundwork to make the task as daunting as it can possibly be.  You've hidden your notes about how to sharpen the blade, you've stashed your diamond sharpening stone in an unknown location, and you have no idea what you did with the photos you took of each step last time you sharpened........

diamond sharpening stone and its leather sheath

9.  You know that you're supposed to sharpen the blade after 50 pieces of cane have been profiled, but you pretend you've lost count.... even though you number each reed.  The guilt can be paralyzing.

8.  Since you don't sharpen the blade very often, you know you're not very good at it.   In fact, it's entirely possible that you suck at blade sharpening even more than you realize.

7.  You are never really sure if the burr is there (and if it IS there, it certainly isn't very obvious).

6.  Since you aren't sure you actually have a burr, you sure as heck also don't know when it's been successfully removed.

5.  A newly sharpened profiler blade could very well result in reeds which are too thin.

4.  If you sharpen the blade often enough, eventually there will be  nothing left of it.

Keep doing this, and eventually there'll be nothing left!

3.  Blade sharpening takes too much time, so your schedule won't allow it.

2.  It's unlikely that your colleagues are whispering behind your back about your neglect of your profiler blade.

1.  Most people don't go around sharpening profiler blades ever.......geez.  It's not fair.

the blade installed in the profiler, where it belongs


And by the way, I'm gearing up to sharpen my profiler blade.  This post will hopefully result in action, now that I've exposed my excuses.






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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Starting with the "ka"

Once you've played the Nutcracker a few dozen times, it may be worth considering articulating each note with the "ka" syllable.  That way you might be able to alleviate boredom while at the same time strengthening your double tongue.  (Of course, your "ka" must be strong enough that your colleagues won't be able to detect the deviation.  Also, I have discovered that certain passages simply do not lend themselves to starting with the "ka". Discretion is advised.)

There are certain types of playing situations which provide ideal opportunities to improve one's playing in creative ways.  For example, I always advise my students who are learning to double tongue to take advantage of boring passages in their band or orchestra music to practice starting each note with the "ka" (or "ga") syllable.

The reason for this is because single tonguing requires only the "ta" articulation, while double tonguing requires the "ka" as well (which is something we've not been called upon to do until we double tongue).  To double tongue a string of 16ths, the tongue travels from its usual "ta" position near the teeth to farther back in the throat for the "ka", resulting in the articulation "ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka" instead of the single tongued "ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta".  The reason double tonguing often sounds uneven is because the "ka" syllable is so much weaker than the "ta".  And that's simply because we haven't practiced the "ka" nearly as often as the "ta".

Bassoon students often complain of boredom during band rehearsals, so I advise working on either vibrato or the "ka" syllable at every opportunity.  That way they're putting in some valuable practice time while fulfilling band requirements.

And it's not just good advice for students.....I do it too.  I don't think there's any such thing as a "ka" which can't be improved upon, so during tonight's Nutcracker performance I articulated most of the notes in my part with "ka".  I'm sure no one noticed.

Another technique I like to practice in the orchestra (when I can get away with it) is circular breathing.  This is quite tricky due to its visual component......my version of circular breathing, which is still in its infancy, seems to require my cheeks puffing out as well as my eyes rolling back in my head.  I'm always worried that someone might happen to be looking at me (the conductor, perhaps, or maybe an overly enthusiastic audience member with binoculars) so I'm fairly cautious with the public circular breathing.  I wouldn't want anyone to mistake my circular breathing for a medical emergency!

(Update:  I have begun incorporating circular breathing into the Nutcracker so that at times I'm starting with the "ka" and circular breathing in the same passage.  As luck would have it, the conductor glanced at me last night while I was in the throes of circular breathing.  His casual gaze morphed into alarm until I resumed a normal countenance.)

With such challenges before us, it's rather impossible to become bored with bassoon playing.  Even when the immediate task at hand is dull, we can spice it up with breathing, articulation and vibrato exercises, each of which will raise our level of expertise.



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Saturday, December 16, 2017

How long does it take to make a bassoon reed?

This is a common question posed by those who marvel at the notion that a musician might be involved by necessity in an intricate wood-carving craft.  It does seem somewhat preposterous...it would be like string players making bows or brass players producing mouthpieces or pianists carving ivory.  These days, even clarinet and saxophone players, who used to at least buy large numbers of wooden reeds to sort through even if they didn't actually make the reeds, seem to be gravitating toward synthetic reeds.  Only double reed players engage in the antiquated art of reed making, it seems.

Once people find out about this, they naturally wonder how much time we spend on this activity.  Most people who dabble in arts and crafts do so only when the whim strikes.....is that how it is with reed-making?

Not exactly.  Our reed-making determines, to a large degree, our level of command over our instrument.  If we wish to triumph as double reed players, we make reeds.  Constantly.

For a long time I didn't really know the answer when asked how long it takes to make a bassoon reed.  Part of the reason is because my reeds are made in three phases spread over a period of at least two weeks. It's not possible to make a reed from start to finish in one fell swoop.
Examples of reeds at the end of steps 1, 2 and 3

Finally I decided to do the research.  I timed each step.  My conclusion was it takes a total of 45 minutes for me to make one bassoon reed.  First the blank is formed (see step 1 on the left in the photo above), followed by a waiting period of at least 2 weeks, if possible.  Next the blank is straightened out by taking off the wires, and the cane is beveled, the wires are placed on permanently, and the tube is wrapped (step 2 in the middle of the above photo).  After the Duco cement dries overnight the reed is ready to be finished.  In my case that means cutting the tip, reaming the reed and finally using the Reiger tip profiler (step 3 on the right above).  Occasionally the reed is finished at that point, but often hand-finishing with a knife and/or file is needed.

My students often ask me how many of the reeds I make are good enough to use.  That question always makes me think of my reed-making teacher, the renowned Los Angeles studio bassoonist and teacher Norman Herzberg. who always told me that one out of twelve reeds worked for him.  He was, of course, a master reed maker, but he also had sky-high standards.  Anyway, the answer I often give to my students is that one out of twelve reeds is good enough to use in the orchestra, but the truth is that I don't know exactly.  If a reed doesn't play well at first, I usually keep it anyway, hoping that someday it will magically turn into a usable reed.  (That does happen once in a blue moon.)

Using the above data, it's easy to figure out that it takes no less than nine hours for me to make a usable bassoon reed, assuming that one out of twelve is good enough to use professionally.  For me, a reed lasts only one week, so the hours spent on reed-making add up quickly!  The payoff from constant reed-making is control over the instrument and a desirable sound, so there's no question that the time and effort is well spent.


blue moon
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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The heroic Christopher Weait

Related image
The heroic Christopher Weait
One of the first famous bassoonists of whom I became aware during high school was Christopher Weait, through his solo and chamber recordings and his reputation as co-principal bassoonist of the Toronto Symphony.  What were the odds that someday we'd end up living in the same city?  Luckily for me, Mr. Weait left his position with the Toronto Symphony in order to teach at The Ohio State University in Columbus, where I ended up living also after joining the Columbus Symphony.

Because of the stellar reputation which preceded him, he always struck me as being larger than life.....with a wife to match.  (Ask anyone who knows Padge Weait....she is an amazing and  multi-talented person who seems to be capable of doing or creating anything.  And she's a cellist to boot.)  We've been very fortunate to have a person of Mr. Weait's experience and abilities right here in Columbus.

He has frequently performed in the bassoon section of the Columbus Symphony, to the delight of the entire woodwind section.  His personality, always positive, jovial and thoughtful, has been perfect for shaking up our attitudes.  Whenever we see him onstage we know that we're headed for a good time.
Image may contain: 4 people, indoor
Columbus Symphony Rite of Spring bassoon section including Christopher Weait in the middle
On top of all of this, he's a conductor.  He conducted the final orchestral concert at the IDRS conference in Bloomington, Indiana in which I was soloist in the Mozart bassoon concerto.  Although it's unspeakably daunting to perform for such an audience, the fact that Maestro Weait was conducting made it one of the most memorable events of my life.

Another talent of his is arranging music, as evidenced by this video of Marriage of Fagotto by Christopher Weait (published by Weait Music) performed by bassoon professors Susan Nelson of Bowling Green State University, Bill Jobert of Wright State University, and Karen Pierson of The Ohio State University:


Mr. Weait has always had my back, whether it meant stepping in to play principal bassoon at the last minute if I had an emergency, coming up with music from his vast library, or even loaning me his instrument.  And he's always willing to lend an ear for bassoon coaching or life counseling.  Although he's "retired" now (and his version of retirement means working long hours each day arranging music and operating his business, Weait Music) this truth remains: for any bassoon-related emergency in central Ohio, who do you call?  Christopher Weait.

This past week Mr. Weait played a critical role in my life once again.  Thursday night, after a long and stressful day of rehearsing a difficult program which included Shostakovich Symphony No. 15,  I was putting away my bassoon on stage at the Ohio Theatre when the unthinkable occurred.

(Mind you, I'm one who is swab-obsessed, constantly warning bassoonists about the perils of careless swabbing, admonishing others to never to allow a swab with a knot in it to enter your bassoon, advising to always use a swab with a tail on each end so that it can be pulled out from either end, forever forbidding students to swab while distracted.   I've even written blog posts about swabbing.  In one of the posts I describe in detail the traumatizing horror of getting a swab stuck inside the tenor joint of my bassoon and how it took the efforts of six people including a world class bassoon repairman to extract the swab.)

So what was "the unthinkable" which occurred on stage at the Ohio Theatre last Thursday evening?  You guessed it.  My swab was stuck in my tenor joint.

Once I realized the swab was stuck (and I mean it was STUCK....it was tightly jammed near the top of the tenor joint, and it wasn't going anywhere) I panicked.  Where was the tail which should have been hanging out from the other end?  I don't know.  It was nowhere to be seen......it must have been lodged inside the bassoon.  Quickly losing the ability to function, I turned to second bassoonist Doug Fisher, who tried to remove it.  Then I turned to principal clarinetist David Thomas, who has had prior experience with stuck bassoon swabs thanks to me.   He said that he had been advised to twist a stuck swab very tightly to the point where it might come out.  All the twisting in the world wasn't going to get my swab out.......we tried.  And tried.  Second clarinetist Anthony Lojo, although experienced in instrument repair, was afraid to get involved after the dramatic stories I had told him about stuck bassoon swabs.

Meanwhile, Doug Fisher was on the phone calling Christopher Weait.  As we all know, in this day and age, no one ever answers his or her phone.  But heroes do.  Mr. Weait said to bring the bassoon right over.  By this point it was clear that I was in no condition to drive, so Anthony Lojo, himself a hero, offered to drive me (in snow and freezing rain, no less) the considerable distance from downtown to the far north suburb where the Weaits live.

We were greeted at the door by a smiling and confident Mr. Weait, swab extractor in hand.  It looked like a very long metal prod with a screw welded onto the end of it, and a handle on the other end.  He explained that the late bassoon repairman Jim Laslie had made it for him many years ago. 

Padge and Anthony looked on expectantly as Mr. Weait calmly inserted the tool while I held the ailing tenor joint.  Although terrified to the point of being nearly unconscious, I could tell when the tool had engaged the swab.  There were a few failed attempts during which I'm sure everyone in the room was beginning to wonder what would happen if the tool couldn't extract the swab.......bassoons have been ruined by the extraction of stuck swabs.  I don't think any of us were actually breathing during this procedure.

And then it happened.  As though surgical extraction of stuck swabs is a daily occurrence, Mr. Weait gently and heroically swished that swab right out of the joint.  Once we resumed breathing, we regarded the wayward swab.....it was hardly even damaged beyond a slight snag.  And the inside of the bore of the tenor joint remained intact as well.  Mission accomplished.  Crisis aborted.

(We tried to figure out how it happened.......there was no knot in the swab; in fact, it came out looking normal.  Yes, there was indeed a tail on each end, although only the end being pulled was actually visible during the time the swab was stuck.  Where was the other tail during the crisis??????????  Apparently I was guilty of the crime of swabbing while distracted.)

The whole event had been so traumatic that I was barely able to comprehend that just like that, my problem was resolved.  Practically in a trance,  I thanked the Weaits, as though there were any words equal to the situation.  Anthony and I went on our way.  The next morning, instead of having to explain to the personnel manager and music director why I'd be unable to play in the orchestra, I played the dress rehearsal as though nothing had ever happened the night before.

Mr. Weait has been a rock for many students and colleagues throughout his illustrious career.  How fortunate for the rest of us that his "retirement" hasn't diminished his ability to perform heroics!



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