Friday, December 20, 2019

The art of bassoon maintenance

I'd say the bassoon is a bit unusual in that it's possible (although certainly sub-optimal) for its players to ignore its maintenance for years at a time, and the bassoon still seems to work.  Right?  That's the way it always seemed to me.  (I know of a professional player whose bassoon has not been in the hands of a repair-person during this century.)  Yet players of other instruments seem obsessed with constant maintenance performed at least once a year.

In case there's any confusion around what I mean by "maintenance", routine maintenance on a bassoon usually involves re-seating or replacement of pads as needed; replacement of worn felts, cork stops and guide post tape; re-corking of bocal; adjustment, tightening and regulation of mechanisms; application of grease and oil; and general cleaning of the instrument.

A few years ago my very highly regarded bassoon repairman retired, and I wasn't at all sure what to do after that.  I asked around about other repairmen and received a variety of responses.  I'm pretty fussy about my equipment and I really liked the current state of my bassoon, but eventually I'd have to have it serviced again, right?   It seemed to be working just fine, but how long could I continue to deny the fact that I no longer have a repairman (and my bassoon is no longer receiving maintenance)?

In early December a good friend, also a bassoonist, offered to take me along on his next appointment at Paul Nordby Bassoon Repair in Indianapolis.  This friend said he needed work done on his bassoon, but hey, maybe I should bring mine along too, you know, just in case......(he understood my trepidation about switching repairmen and was trying to help).  After initially rejecting the idea, eventually I set my fears aside and went along with it.  Long story short, Paul Nordby accomplished something which I didn't know could be accomplished - he basically overhauled my bassoon during one 5-hour sitting.  And I watched, hovering like a helicopter parent.  He totally disassembled my bassoon while maintaining conversation (something I couldn't have done for all the tea in fact, I could barely converse while only observing).

Paul had me test the bassoon a couple of times.  I'm the type who is very affected by acoustics.  I had never heard the acoustics in Paul Nordby's studio before, so my bassoon sounded totally different to me (I realized too late that I should have tested the acoustics before the repairwork was done so that I'd have a baseline).  I was also distracted by how different it looked - it appeared to be brand new.  If I were a repairman, I think I'd really enjoy working on a new Heckel like mine because the end result is a brand new-looking bassoon which plays better than new (because it's more broken in).  The only useful information I extracted from my testing in his shop was that the bassoon still played, and that was enough to send me on my way with my friend who probably wished I had given a more clear stamp of approval.

The true test occurred a week later, unexpectedly.  The day after the trip to Indianapolis, the Columbus Symphony began rehearsing for Holiday Pops.  Unfortunately there weren't any real bassoon solos on the program so I couldn't tell much.  But the next week, we began our lengthy Nutcracker run.

Now, I've played the Nutcracker a few times in my day......untold hundreds.  (I wish I'd kept track.)  The Nutcracker proved very valuable for determining the difference in my bassoon resulting from its recent maintenance.  As many bassoonists know, there are some challenges in the first bassoon part of the Nutcracker. This is one that comes to mind:

During the rehearsal I was shocked to find out that this passage was 10 times easier than it's ever been before.  What had changed?  The only changed factor was the maintenance performed on my bassoon.  I guess it's reasonable to conclude that difficult technical passages benefit from a bassoon which is operating as well as it can mechanically.  Maybe that's why Paul mentioned a bassoonist who always came to see him right before important performances.

While in Indianapolis I was shocked by what came out of my tone holes.....I thought I did a really good job of keeping my bassoon clean.  So how on earth did debris end up in the tone holes?  I'm baffled.  I became understandably nervous as I anticipated the intonation changes which would surely result from the tone holes being suddenly cleaned out, but once I played the instrument I forgot all about that.....until I played the Nutcracker.  Now, my bassoon has always played pretty well in tune, but I'll admit that I always had to fuss with the D above middle C, the one held out for a few measures in the middle of the Arabian Dance.  After Paul Nordby's cleaning of the tone holes, the D came out in tune without tweaking.  And it cooperated nicely on the long diminuendo.

So this is why we maintain our bassoons.  If we really want them to function as the manufacturer intended (Paul quipped that he doubted that Heckel intended the instrument to be played with debris in the tone holes) then constant maintenance is necessary.

Now the only problem was that the Nutcracker became almost boring without all those challenges caused by a less-than-optimally-functioning bassoon.......


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Contrabassoon for sale

 My recent post about the contrabassoon inspired an email exchange with contrabassoonist William Safford.  He has an excellent Fox Fast System contrabassoon for sale.  For anyone who is already playing professionally or who is thinking about a possible career as a contrabassoonist, this instrument could be life-changing (and career-changing). 

The Fast system contrabassoon was developed by Arlen Fast, contrabassoonist of the New York Philharmonic.  Arlen explains in this comprehensive article why it was necessary to rethink the contrabassoon.  I know from a recent phone conversation about the Herzberg profiler with Arlen Fast  that he is an absolutely brilliant man whose mind knows no limits.
Image result for fast system contrabassoon
Arlen Fast, NY Phil contrabassoonist and developer of the Fast system contrabassoon
William Safford explained to me that the Fast system is an enormous improvement over the standard contrabassoon in the upper range starting with half-hole G.  Notes such as written middle C, C#, D and Eb are all in tune, sounding clear and resonant with matching tone colors and no cracking.  Also no cross fingerings are required (except an optional one on Eb).  The middle C to high Bb slur in the Mother Goose solo speaks with more clarity and ease than on a bassoon.  The instrument plays all the way through the treble clef with beauty, security, and resonance.

Based upon what I've heard about the Fast system contra, I'm wishing that Arlen would get to work on a Fast system bassoon!!

Here is the Musical Chairs ad for William's contrabassoon for sale:

Fox Fast System Contrabassoon #5xx

Fox Fast System Contrabassoon #5xx, pic 1
Fox Fast System Contrabassoon #5xx, pic 2
Fox Fast System Contrabassoon #5xx, pic 3
Click images to enlarge

Price: $39,000 USD

One owner. The patented five-vent register system, with two semi-automatic mechanisms and three keys, greatly improves intonation, tone, and clarity of attack of the mid- and high ranges, with more than a four octave range and simplified fingerings. It is equipped with the standard Fast system keywork, plus F# trill and right thumb Ab keys.

In excellent condition, it has an incredibly even, resonant, and clear scale.

It is the right instrument for a professional or aspiring professional contrabassoonist. Fast-system instruments are being played by members of the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, and others.

Available immediately. Includes the instrument freshly serviced at the Fox factory, one Fox #2 bocal, and the original hard case. Located in upstate New York.

Link to the issue of the Double Reed, with information on Fast system:
William Safford
Tel: 518-281-8153  Email:

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Contrabassoon for Dummies

This post is intended for the type of contra player who still needs a fingering chart.
 If you are a bassoonist who is suddenly called upon to play the contra for the first time, maybe as a student receiving a seating assignment in band or orchestra, or as a professional serving as an emergency replacement for the real contra player, then this post is for you.  This is a presentation of a few basic facts about the contra which will most likely enable a clueless bassoonist to conquer the contra.

There are a few basic differences between bassoon and contra.  The one which stands out the most to me is the contra's lack of whisper key.
It's true....there is NO whisper key on the contra!

Once we get over the fact that there's no whisper key, the second major challenge is hand and finger placement.

I had a lot of trouble figuring out where to place my right hand and fingers.  I kept trying to place my first finger on the alternate Eb key.
Another difference between bassoon and contra is the manner in which Eb2 (the second octave Eb on the instrument) is played.  This is the contra fingering for the note:

Here are the keys for the left hand fingers.  As you can see, the Eb key is situated above the C key and below the D key:

Here are the keys for the left hand fingers (not labeled are the low Eb and low C# keys which are the same as on the bassoon).  Notice that there are no open holes for the fingers on the contra.
The contrabassoon does not require the use of half-holes.  Instead, the second octave F#, G and G# require no first finger of the left hand at all.

There is a movable hand rest or hand support on the contra:

The player's left hand goes underneath the support.  The support is adjustable, and it can really help stabilize the hand position if it's correctly adjusted.

Unlike the bassoon, the contra has a tuning slide which is moved by pushing or pulling the ring at the bottom:

And the contra has a spit valve, which in my opinion should be used liberally:
It seems to be helpful to blow into the contra while opening the spit valve.  If you don't remove the reed first, you might find yourself creating an embarrassing noise.

What about the reed?  I had no idea where to buy a contra reed so I did some quick research online and saw a recommendation for GoBassoon contra reeds.  I ordered one and it looked perfect.  I know from my experience with bassoon reeds that looks can be deceiving, but when I played on this reed I was thrilled with its sound and response.  I highly recommend GoBassoon contra reeds.

Hopefully this post provides enough information for the novice to get through the first rehearsal.  If anyone tells you that you shook the stage, you'll know you're well on your way to conquering the contra.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Characteristics of a top-notch wind quintet

Today I was blown away by a recital by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet presented by Chamber Music Columbus in the Southern Theatre.

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
The touring quintet performed the following works, with an intermission in the middle: 

Mozart: Three Fantasies for mechanical organ
Haas: Quintet, Op. 10
Ligeti: Six Bagatelles
Nielsen: Quintet for Winds, Op. 43

The Southern Theatre acoustics generally enable a very present sound, but the quality is dry (with no reverberation).  A lesser ensemble would have struggled to sound good in such a dry acoustic, but not this group.  These players knew how to skillfully finish each phrase in a way that made up for the dryness of the hall, almost as if they created their own resonance by the way they tapered the ends of notes and phrases.

It's safe to say that I've never heard a wind quintet of this quality before, not even on recordings.  What a tall order it is to successfully blend such an ill-matched group of instruments, yet this group pulled it off.  The instruments matched as well as they possibly could have; the level of homogeneity was astonishing.

How did they accomplish this?  To me it seemed that each player willingly and easily "took the back seat", only springing forth with extra volume when called upon by a solo line.  Much of the time, the entire ensemble took the back seat, with the blend...the perfect blend.....being the top priority.  No one tried to stand out as a virtuoso - there was no competition for the spotlight.  If one player did have a prominent line, the other four players totally accommodated that player as if their lives depended on it.  Consideration was the name of the game.

Never was the sound of any individual player forced.  Each player was a master of the pianissimo.  And when all five of them played pianissimo together, the sound was not five times louder than one instrument playing pianissimo - it was true pianissimo.  It may well have been the quietest wind playing I've ever heard.  Yet when it was time to shine, each individual rose to the occasion.  I thought the horn player had the smallest sound I'd ever heard UNTIL it was his turn to take a solo, and then I found out how wrong I was - he was also a brilliant and commanding soloist!

The audience expected a great performance.....they're from the Berlin Phil after all.  But I think everyone was amazed at just how impressive they were!  During the concert I found myself mentally listing the outstanding characteristics of the ensemble, and here's what I came up with:

Characteristics of a top-notch wind quintet

1. Blending of sound is prioritized, which often means that the louder instruments back off.
2. Ensemble (playing perfectly together) is prioritized at all times.
3. Pianissimo playing is highly refined, with perfect intonation.
4. Tremendous attention is paid to note endings and phrase endings.
5. Each player is constantly considerate of the other players' parts.
6. The individual sounds are never forced.

Today's concert program with a mistake on the cover!