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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