Bassoon Blog

Bassoon Blog

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Shostakovich 10 & Britten Violin Concerto

This past week the Columbus Symphony with Music Director Rossen Milanov performed Shostakovich 10 and the Britten Violin Concerto featuring our Concertmaster Joanna Frankel.  For this demanding concert I found that in order to do justice to each solo and exposed passage, I had to use no less than 4 different reeds.  Furthermore, some of those reeds were used more than once during each concert.  That's a lot of reed juggling, and it goes against my usual policy of playing the entire concert on one reed to avoid the distraction of fussing with equipment.

Why did I decide to put myself through the hassle of keeping track of 4 alternating reeds?  This past week I couldn't ignore the vast differences in sound and character among my various reeds.  The program featured the bassoon over and over in a wide variety of exposed passages and I decided that in order to really sound my best on each of those passages, reed changes would be necessary.  Certainly I could have used one reed for everything, but the result would have been a compromise to say the least.

The last time I played Shostakovich 10 I wrote about it on this blog.  Apparently I didn't fuss quite as much with reeds back then.  We musicians are constantly raising our standards and expecting more of ourselves, so it makes sense that I'm more particular about reeds than I used to be.

Does that mean I'm recommending using multiple reeds for a concert?  Not necessarily - it depends upon how much of a difference it seems to make, and whether or not your concentration is reliable enough to successfully execute the reed changes.  During Friday night's concert, my concentration proved to be fallible.  I missed an exposed entrance in the Britten Violin Concerto due to nearly forgetting a reed switch (and executing it later than planned) thereby demonstrating why I normally prefer not to switch reeds.  As one might imagine, I had carefully marked all the reed changes in my parts (using numbers to identify the different reeds) but sometimes it's possible to accidentally overlook even the most clearly marked instructions. 

In many professional orchestras there is an assistant, associate or co-principal bassoon.  That person would most likely play the Britten Violin Concerto on a program such as this one.  In Columbus the principal woodwinds play everything - there are no assistants.  Playing the Shostakovich is daunting enough, but it turns out that the Britten is no stroll through the park either!  There is a solo near the end of the Britten  which, under different circumstances, would give pause:


Considering that Shostakovich 10 was on the same program, this solo was relegated to the category of “just figure out how to ensure that the high Db comes out, and don’t give it another thought”.  That meant searching for a reed that favored the high range.  And for me, it also meant planning to de-activate the low C, B and Bb keys by inserting an earplugs underneath the keys.  That's because my left thumb unintentionally depresses the low note keys whenever I use the high D key.  (Bassoonists with larger hands never have to worry about this.)

yellow squishy earplug lodged under low C key (to de-activate the low note keys)

The first movement of the Britten features an unusual repetitive solo:
 
This solo doesn’t require a special reed necessarily, but I noticed that the sound of this solo varied considerably from reed to reed.  I don’t know if my particular bassoon is more reed-affected than most bassoons, but this past week, the sound and character differences resulting from reed choices were impossible to overlook.  Furthermore, I kept changing my mind about the reed choices!  By the final concert, I had finally settled on the reed I truly liked best for this solo - a reed that I thought had a full and slightly darkish sound even on short staccatos, and it was flexible dynamically.

That same reed handled exposed eighth note passages in movement II with adequate strength and projection:
This is conducted in one beat per measure, so the 8th notes are fairly fast.  Also, this is a passage that benefits from paying close attention to the conductor.

Identifying the best reeds for Shostakovich 10 was much more involved.  The day before the first rehearsal (which took place two days before the first performance) I lined up all of my best reeds for a "reed audition".  I went through several rounds of recording the two main Shostakovich solos on each reed.  I ended up with 6 reed “finalists”.  These are the two Shostakovich 10 solos I used for the "reed audition": 

Movement 1 solo


Movement IV solo

At first I wasn't sure if I'd use the same reed for both of these solos; both require a reed that is unusually strong in the high tenor range.  Also I was looking for a reed that made it possible to match tone quality from note to note in that range.  A certain type of sound, round and projecting, was included in the search.  I ended up using the same reed for both solos.  That reed was difficult to control in some situations and did not sound good in the low range, so I didn't use that reed at all except on those two solos.

An exposed passage near the end of the first movement also required a certain type of reed - one that favors the low range but can be played softly: 

Exposed passage in octaves with contrabassoon near the end of movement I

A reed favoring the low range is definitely needed later in this symphony, but the one I planned to use later was too loud for this passage. So I used two different low reeds in this symphony, which is definitely not my usual modus operandi.

The second movement features a rather raucous outburst which must cut through the orchestra.  This is the type of passage more commonly relegated to the trombones or tuba., so it calls for an unusual reed, one that favors the low range, has a big sound, and plays in tune in the low range:

from movement II

The bassoon solo in the third movement would normally be a fairly big deal for an instrument which is so often neglected by composers!  In this particular symphony, however, it is quite overshadowed by more dramatic solos.  Still, I struggled with finding the right reed for this:

Third movement solo

I tried many different reeds for this, but it never sounded quite right. Our concert hall is extremely dry and I thought this solo needed some resonance to sound decent.  Finally, by the last concert I found a reed that I was more satisfied with.  It was the same reed that I used for the loud low solos.  Originally I didn’t think this solo needed a low reed, but eventually my nonstop experimentation revealed that a low reed was helpful in creating the illusion of resonance.

After the major solo in the 4th movement the bassoon begins a series of low exposed passages:

from the 4th movement 

This is in unison with the low strings. If you try to hear the strings (who are likely to be located quite a distance away from you) and play with what you hear, you’ll likely end up lagging behind. Instead, it’s  advisable to follow the conductor.  We often hear conductors telling the strings to listen back to the winds. This is one of those situations when we truly hope that happens.  

The final bassoon solo of Shostakovich 10 probably inspires a reed change for even the most laid back of bassoonists.  It’s not that it can’t be played on a “normal” reed, but a reed specializing in the low range may ensure that each note responds on time, with a big sound, and perhaps most importantly, in tune.  This jaunty solo presents a carefree reversal of Shostakovich’s depiction of Stalin with despair, terror and rage which had characterized the symphony until this point.

Final bassoon solo of Shostakovich 10
 
Very few composers throughout the history of western music have kept the bassoon player as busy as Shostakovich does.  I’ve often wondered what type of bassoon sound Shostakovich had in his head. It may have been the then-prevalent French bassoon, with its narrow bore, nasal sound and ease of high and lyrical playing.  (The first recording of Shostakovich 9 was made in 1946 with Koussevitsky conducting the BSO, with Raymond Allard - uncle of Maurice Allard - on French bassoon.)  Regardless of what type of bassoon playing Shostakovich was familiar with, it's our ongoing challenge to honor Shostakovich’s devotion to our instrument as best we can, even if it means changing reeds a few times.



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Sunday, April 24, 2022

Orchestral bassoon adventures: Bach St. John Passion

Columbus Symphony Bach St. John Passion with overhead English subtitles
Being an orchestral player is an ongoing adventure.  Even when you think you know what you're in for, there are so many variables - orchestra size and personnel, stage setup, conductors, soloists, tempos, number and timing of rehearsals, interpretations of the score, interpretations of the style, and for bassoonists, the functionality and quality of the reeds.

This past week, for the first time in 56 years, the Columbus Symphony performed the monumental  Bach St. John Passion.  I thought I knew what to expect.  I've listened to plenty of recordings of the piece, and I've played Baroque music before (although not nearly enough!) and I was definitely looking forward to the experience.  In this highly emotional masterpiece Bach tells the story of Jesus' betrayal, denial, arrest, trial, beating and crucifixion.  Emotion flows from start to finish, covering the entire spectrum from raw rage to the comfort of the lullaby "Es ist Vollbracht" in which Bach uses the hushed-voiced viola da gamba to symbolize comfort for the mourners.

Several weeks before our first rehearsal our music director Rossen Milanov sent detailed instructions for the continuo players (harpsichord/organ, cello, string bass, viola da gamba and bassoon).  The work is rather lengthy, so it was helpful to know in advance which arias and choruses I'd be playing.  The instructions included a link to a reference recording for stylistic guidance. 

The stylistic guidance helped with preparation.  It seems that there are varying opinions on the rules of Baroque performance practice.  We bassoonists enjoy the challenge of attempting to play the Bach cello suites, but for many of us, our experience in performing Baroque music, especially in an orchestral setting, is quite limited compared to the other periods of music history.  (This is unfortunate, because the library of Baroque music is so vast and rich.)

Our reference recording featured period instruments.  The Baroque bassoon, of course, sounds very different from the modern German bassoon.  The Baroque bassoon has a much lighter and more discreet sound, never overpowering any other instrument or voice.  It sounds more like a French basson than a German bassoon.  (Click here for a comparison of German and French bassoons.)  I tried to find a reed that I thought sounded more like a Baroque bassoon than usual.  That was not easy.

On top of that challenge, I was positioned in a new spot on stage, in front of the soloists, not far from the conductor's podium.  I was so close to the front of the stage that I could actually see audience members clearly, which is not normal for me.  The cello, organ, harpsichord and string bass were positioned far across the stage from the bassoon, and the size of the orchestra was very small.  As a result, at times I felt way too loud (and wished I had a Baroque bassoon!).

(squeezing the reed, trying not to be loud)

The experience of being present in the midst of a live performance of such a great work of musical art was absolutely indescribable, far surpassing my expectations.  Listening to recordings of this work is one thing, but hearing it performed live is a whole new experience. I felt as though I'd been transported to another world, an ancient world of emotional outpouring which culminates in immense ethereal beauty.  There were a couple of times when I nearly missed my entrances due to being caught up in the moment.  The vocal soloists Nicholas Phan, tenor; Dashon Burton, bass-baritone; Hannah De Priest, soprano; Paul Max Tipton, bass-baritone; Thomas Cooley, tenor; and Benjamin P. Wenzelberg, countertenor sounded magnificent, each singing with a total commitment to bringing the text to life.  The Columbus Symphony Chorus, prepared with great care and expertise by its director Ronald J. Jenkins, met the considerable choral challenges aptly.

Our viola da gamba player Rebecca Reed played as though transported from Bach's time--I am quite sure that she played the viola da gamba solos exactly the way Bach would have wanted them, with delicate perfection, finesse and grace.  I don't think I was alone in being transfixed (and comforted, as Bach intended) by her heavenly playing. 

Any orchestral program has the potential to affect its audiences, but the music of J.S. Bach is uniquely empowered to reach its listeners with great impact.  Bach is considered by many to be the greatest composer of all time.  Take it from Claude Debussy, who described Bach as "a benevolent god to which all musicians shall offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity".  Or in the words of Albert Einstein: "This is what I have to say about Bach - listen, play, love, revere - and keep your trap shut."  Indeed, Bach's music has been analyzed, studied, dissected and described since it was written, but the bottom line is that its effect on the listener is beyond words.

The audience members left the concert hall transformed, as many expressed profusely to orchestra members on the way out.  At the conclusion of the Saturday night concert, people were not just applauding - they were cheering.  I don't know how many tickets were sold, but I do know that those who bought tickets received therapy they didn't even know they needed.  I know that their souls were stirred, soothed, inspired and transported to that other world - the world in which mundane concerns are laid aside, and life's true meaning emerges.  


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Friday, April 8, 2022

Playing the bassoon in an orchestra


If you are a student or amateur musician who is playing in an orchestra and no one has advised you on the unofficial "rules" of orchestral playing, then this post is for you.  I had the opportunity to hear an amateur orchestra rehearse recently and it struck me that the bassoonists and other woodwind players could have used a few pointers to enhance their orchestral playing experience.

During the rehearsal I heard the conductor (who was apparently inexperienced) instruct the wind players to go with what they heard from the piano soloist instead of watching his baton.  That piece of advice contradicts my experience in the halls I've played in.  In fact, if the winds go with what they hear from a soloist in front of the orchestra, those wind players will end up lagging behind due to the distance between the soloist in the front of the stage and the position of the wind section.  Light travels faster than sound, so the visual guides (such as watching the conductor's baton or the movement of the string bows) are actually FAR more reliable than the aural guides, in situations where the winds or bassoons are on their own, trying to play with a soloist.  However, when the entire orchestra is playing OR if players beside or in back of the musician are playing---then the sound IS reliable.  For example, a bassoonist can listen reliably to brass or percussion player situated behind the bassoons or clarinet players beside the bassoons.  But it is not helpful to use the sound of a musician (or a section, like the first violins) located in front of you at a great distance, because your ears are hearing a delayed sound.  You'll be lagging behind!

This was probably the most difficult orchestral lesson I had to learn when I began playing principal bassoon in the Columbus Symphony.  While I was a student at Eastman I was fortunate to have the experience of playing second bassoon in the Rochester Philharmonic.  That was much easier because I was following the principal bassoonist, and the delay described above was his problem, not mine.  I wasn't even aware of the issue!  But once I began playing principal in Columbus I was constantly being told that I was behind until one day I asked for advice from a percussionist.  He told me to go with the conductor's baton.  Since then, I've been fairly conscientious about playing right on top of the conductor's beat, and the problem has been greatly alleviated.

If you want your ensemble playing to be as precise as possible, then have your eye on the baton either directly or peripherally whenever you are playing an exposed passage.  Again, if the entire orchestra is blasting away, that's when you can just relax and trust your ears.  The rest of the time, keep your eye on the baton either directly or peripherally.

Pay attention to your rhythmic accuracy.  Subdivide.  Watch out for coming off of ties (many musicians hold the tie too long due to failure to subdivide).  Don't play dotted eighth and sixteenth figures like triplets (again, subdivide).  Be aware of the very human tendency to rush.  (Practicing with a metronome really does help with that!)

Listen closely at all times to the other players so that you're able to match the style, volume, note lengths and articulations.  Good orchestral players are good listeners, as though they're playing chamber music.

Whenever you have a passage which has already been played by another musician before you, it's your job to match whatever that other musician did (even if it was distasteful).  I learned that from conductor David Effron at Eastman and that concept has been confirmed by many conductors since then.

These days many musicians practice with tuners.  Your orchestral playing will be enhanced by this, especially if you practice with a sound drone instead of a meter to develop a solid habit of listening for intonation.  For bassoonists especially, it's wise to check in occasionally with the visual tuner (instead of the tuning drone) just to be sure.

When playing a chord in a wind section, do not use vibrato. (Tuning is challenging enough without introducing vibrato into the mix!)  Chords in a wind section are best  tuned from the bottom up, which usually means that the wind section uses the second bassoon pitch as its reference . When playing passages with oboes or flutes (especially flutes), use vibrato as they do.  No vibrato is used when clarinets and bassoons are playing exposed passages together, since clarinets do not use vibrato.  The same is true for playing with horns.  Generally, vibrato enhances projection and is often used liberally for bassoon solos.  But in any passage where your goal is to be discreet or innocuous, it's probably best to leave out the vibrato.

The bassoon is the chameleon of the orchestra, having the ability to blend with any other instrument quite well, using our various tools of vibrato or lack thereof, dynamics and articulation.  It is also the quietest instrument.  When a bassoonist has a unison solo with another instrument (such as the horn), I have found that it's best to defer to the other instrument rather than attempt to assert my own sound.  That results in a better blend.  That also helps with matching the intonation, because if you're playing too loudly, it becomes much more difficult to hear the pitch of the other player(s).

Learn the music before the first rehearsal so that you know where your entrances are and where you'll be exposed.  That includes listening to recordings and studying scores so that you'll know how your part fits into the orchestral texture.  Don't be afraid to mark you parts with helpful information.  The first time you make a mistake, such as playing a wrong accidental, should be the last.  Mark it with a pencil to ensure that it won't happen again.  Learn to anticipate where you might be likely to play a wrong note, and mark it in advance.

Finally, there are a couple of etiquette rules.  Be very, very careful when walking near instruments on stage.  I usually go out of my way to avoid walking anywhere near an unattended instrument (whether it's in an instrument stand or laying on a chair).  Also, try to resist the urge to turn to look at other players while they're playing (or after they finish).  When considering approaching other wind players about ensemble or intonation issues, be aware of the benefit of choosing one's words very carefully!  Whenever a musician seated near you (especially beside you) is playing a solo or exposed passage which does not include you, it’s your job to FREEZE!  The last thing you want to do is distract another musician when they’re in the hot seat.  (With any luck, your woodwind neighbors in the orchestra will return the favor when it’s your turn to solo.) 

Once you've prepared as thoroughly as you possibly can, you've earned the right to just show up and enjoy the experience!   Listen to the music as it unfolds and play your part with total commitment.


Thursday, December 2, 2021

tools needed for bassoon reedmaking (using GSP cane)

These days many bassoonists forgo the burden of purchasing and maintaining a gouger, a profiler and a shaper, especially since there are several reliable sources of processed cane.  Although I profile and shape my own cane, I prefer to teach students to make reeds using cane which is already gouged, shaped and profiled (also known as GSP cane).  To make reeds using GSP cane, the following tools and supplies are required (according to my specific method of forming and finishing blanks):


GSP cane (Barton Cane is a popular source)
forming mandrel (the mandrel used for forming the tube)
holding mandrel (the mandrel used for holding the reed for wrapping or finishing)
double hollow ground knife
flat file 
rat tale file
reamer
plaque
#22 brass wire
#3 cotton crochet thread
Duco cement (or beeswax if you prefer a nontoxic alternative)
ruler
scoring tool or hacksaw blade
cutting block
broom handle
sanding block (can be made by gluing sandpaper onto a wooden block)
parallel pliers
pruners (the cheap kind, such as from the dollar section at Target)
pliers
tip cutter (the tip may be cut using a cutting block and a knife, but the results are often disappointing)
long brass mandrel tips from Christlieb Products:



















7B. Brass Mandrel Tips...
(1) Brass Forming Mandrel Tips (Long) $ 3.25 ea.
 (2) Brass Holding Tips (Short).......$ 3.25 ea.
 7B1 (Minimum order 3) .......$ 9.75

 7B2 (Minimum order 3).......$ 9.75

           













Brass Holding Tips (Short) :1/4" x 2" tapered
Brass Forming Mandrel Tips (Long) : 1/4" x 2- 9/16" tapered





Sunday, May 31, 2020

Rhythmic fingering on bassoon--a K. David Van Hoesen concept

Rhythmic (or rhythmical) fingering is a concept I rarely hear about these days, yet during my student years at the Eastman School of Music I heard about it plenty from my teacher, K. David Van Hoesen.  He believed that rhythmic fingering was an important (yet often ignored) aspect of bassoon playing.  When he first brought it up in one of my lessons, he admitted that it could be very difficult to teach.  Then he mentioned that one of his students who was particularly sharp (not in pitch, but in brainpower!) had picked up on it instantly.  I wanted to be like that student, so I've been applying the rhythmic fingering concept since that very day.

Imagine playing a series of notes all slurred.  Your fingers move from the note you're on to the next note at the precise moment of changing notes.  Next, remove the slur and play each note staccato.  Unless you've been trained to use rhythmic fingering, you will likely notice that your fingers move early, in anticipation of the next note rather then waiting until the precise moment of changing notes.  Of course if you use rhythmic fingering, then your fingers will move exactly the same way they moved when you were slurring.

Why does this matter?

As K.David Van Hoesen used to say, many difficult passages can be smoothed out with a rhythmic approach to fingering.  It certainly reinforces rhythm when tongue and fingers are synchronized.  Besides, it's awfully hard to imagine a valid argument in favor of haphazard movement of the fingers.  How can that possibly lead to clarity and rhythmic accuracy?
 "Obviously in slurred passages the tongue and fingers must be coordinated, but in separated note passages (tongued passages) the same coordination between tongue and fingers should be present, but often isn't."  - K. David Van Hoesen
Finger/tongue coordination is a consciously developed habit. When fingerings and tonguing are both rhythmically conceived, they will always coincide.  If my students have trouble with tongue/finger coordination in a tongued passage, I instruct them to play the passage all slurred, thereby establishing rhythmic fingering.  Once the passage is rock solid all slurred, then the articulation is added.  This method works amazingly well.
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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Beeswax for Bassoon Reeds

Shortly after starting my job with the Columbus Symphony, someone contacted me to ask if I taught bassoon lessons.  I wasn't sure how to respond, since I was busy trying to figure out how to play principal bassoon in an orchestra and felt that I had my hands full with that.  Teaching was not really on my radar.  So I called my teacher, K. David Van Hoesen to ask him if I should teach.  He said yes, I had to teach....I'd learn from my students.....teaching would force me to analyze what I'm doing.....it would help me figure out what works and what doesn't......etc., etc. He convinced me that teaching protects against complacency and stagnation.  So I taught.

And he was right, as usual.  A recent example of learning from my students has to do with sealing bassoon reeds.  Many bassoonists use glue to secure the binding on the reed and to prevent leakage and shifting of the blades.  I always used Duco Cement even though I have long been aware of its toxicity.  One of my students at the Capital University Conservatory of Music asked if I'd ever used beeswax to seal reeds.  No, I hadn't, and I was only vaguely aware that some reed makers do use it.  Further investigation ensued.

First I bought a brick of beeswax for $10.95 on Amazon.  Then I researched the matter online.  The one complaint I read about using beeswax was the problem of the binding becoming loose.  The way I make reeds, Duco cement is applied underneath the binding before wrapping the reed.  This prevents the binding from shifting later.  Once I began this practice, I have not had any issues whatsoever with loose binding.  So if Duco cement can be used underneath the wrapping, it stands to reason that beeswax can be used as an alternative underneath the wrapping.  The wax is fairly easy to place where it needs to be on the blank, and then a heat source such as a candle flame is used to melt it slightly, making it harden and adhere to the reed.

My students at Capital University were concerned about candles setting off the fire alarms.
(Note: This speaks volumes about their level of maturity......I recall my classmates at Eastman purposely setting off fire alarms for entertainment, especially at the dorms in the middle of the night!)  My Capital University students are not only mature-- they're also innovative.  One of them solved the fire problem by coming up with the excellent idea to use a soldering iron as the heat source.

Here is a Capital University bassoon major demonstrating the application of beeswax to seal the reed, both underneath and then on top of the wrapping.  He is using a battery-operated soldering iron (cost:$22.81):


The reed is immediately available as soon as the beeswax is applied....it hardens immediately.  You can soak the reed, cut the tip, play on it, and proceed with finishing right after applying the beeswax. The immediate availability of the reed after wrapping is a big plus, along with the non-toxicity.

CONCLUSION:

We had mixed conclusions, ranging from liking beeswax enough to use it exclusively to planning to never use it again.  My opinion is that I found the beeswax too messy to deal with efficiently and effectively, perhaps because the beeswax I ordered was the cheapest available (or because I'm a klutz when it comes to the manipulation of beeswax).  I shared one student's observation that the binding was not secure enough....I was afraid the beeswaxed reeds might fall apart at an inopportune moment!  Most importantly though, it took too much time.  I'm already a slow reed-maker, so adding a few more minutes onto my time required to make a reed is not an option.  I'm disappointed though, because I love the fact that beeswax is nontoxic (assuming the bees were not exposed to pesticides or herbicides).  I have not sworn off beeswax forever; I'll probably give it another try someday, maybe with a higher quality beeswax.

We "gave it the old college try" as my teacher K. David Van Hoesen used to say.  If worse comes to worst and you decide you prefer not to use beeswax after trying it, you can always make beeswax candles out of it!


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Thursday, January 23, 2020

The devil's in the details (Columbus Symphony Russian Winter Festival II)

This week the Columbus Symphony is performing a program of exotic masterpieces as part of its Russian Winter Festival.



This is the program:
Prokofiev - Lieutenant Kije
Borodin - Polovetsian Dances
Rimski-Korsakov - Suite from The Golden Cockerel (Le Coq d'Or)
Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture
(And there's also an encore which shall remain a secret.)

The bassoon is not featured heavily in this program as a solo instrument but there is always plenty to keep us occupied.  The details can be daunting.....I noticed that there were 3 intervals which captured much of my attention this week.  An interval, in case any non-musicians are reading this, may be defined as the distance between two notes.  And one of the main intervals vying for my attention this week is the one which opens the first movement Lt. Kije bassoon solo (played here with a metronome on 80 and a drone on Bb):



Often there is a noise between the high Bb and the F below it, thereby ruining the interval.  Smooth playing is one of the great challenges of bassoon playing...left to its own devices, the bassoon sounds pretty rough and rocky.  But in the hands of an aware player, many of those rough edges are smoothed out.  It takes some work though.  To master the interval from high Bb to F, the air and embouchure must be subtly manipulated AND the finger movement from the Bb fingering to the F must be absolutely perfect.  We must will the bassoon to cooperate, as thortugh we're reining in a defiant toddler.

In that same solo, sometimes the Bb to the E natural is also a troublesome interval, benefiting from an embouchure shift on the E.  And finally, the low D to the low Bb might be awkward.  For me it requires a forceful movement of the left thumb.  By this point in the solo, the player has surely moved back on the reed, so the main problem here is the swift and strong motion of the left thumb.

I recommend practicing this solo with a metronome.  The reason is because this is one of the many solos in which the bassoonist tends to lag behind.  Practicing with a metronome prepares the player to keep the tempo moving throughout the solo. I looked at the score to see if there was a tempo marking, and sure enough there was: 80 beats per minute.  As always, though, I practiced with the metronome on faster and slower tempos so that I'm prepared for anything.

Many recordings of this piece feature faulty intonation in this bassoon solo.  Practicing the solo with a sound drone on Bb will greatly reduce the chances of playing out of tune on the solo in the orchestra. This level of preparation may seem like overkill but I think pays off.  It's better to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

There is a tricky technical passage in the second movement of Lt. Kije which presents a different type of interval challenge - one that is solved by the fingers exclusively - between low Eb and low Gb:


I use the alternate F# key (little finger right hand) but it can be difficult to slide the little finger from the low F key to the alternate F#.  Once again, extra force is needed.....that little finger has to work hard to move cleanly from F to F#.  I recorded myself (with my phone) playing the first 2 bars of the passage a couple of times, clearly establishing the difference between the quintuplet and the four 16ths.  With a precarious passage like this one, recording it accurately provides a degree of assurance for later playing it in the orchestra.

All four of the above mentioned intervals benefit from isolated practice (meaning practicing only the interval).  I recall many a lesson with K. David Van Hoesen when one interval would be played over and over, with discussion, until it really sounded ultra smooth and connected, with the first note clearly leading to the next.  He frequently began lessons by asking to hear a broken arpeggio all slurred, paying very close attention to each interval.

The 4th movement of Lt. Kije features two bassoons and a tenor saxophone in a unison soli beginning a beat before 46:


Good intonation and ensemble are of paramount importance here.  The staccatos are ideally crisp, with clear accents, including the accented eighth at the end of each phrase (which may be the opposite of the way we often end phrases!).  The sixteenths are best double-tongued because of the tempo and character.

That reminds me of something that happened during this afternoon's rehearsal.  Our music director Rossen Milanov summarized with one word what he wanted from the orchestra: character. Similarly, my teacher K. David Van Hoesen used to insist that his students play with character and commitment at all times.  That's a valuable goal to have in mind throughout our musical endeavors.

The first time I ever used double tonguing in an orchestra was in the Borodin Polovetsian Dances.   At the time I assumed it was difficult because I was a double-tonguing novice, but I have since learned that it's an unusually taxing passage (occurring twice, with different notes):
score pages from Borodin Prince Igor (Polovetsian Dances) with tongued bassoon parts encircled
The first and second bassoons both play the exposed passage, and the tempo is extremely fast....it's in one, at a tempo of approximately 108 (remember: this is the beat per measure---it's darned fast--if the 6/8 were in two instead of one, the tempo would be 216 per beat!).  I doubt that there's a bassoonist on earth who'd be able to single tongue this, and even double tonguing it isn't easy, probably because it's relentlessly fast and it goes on for a long time.  Especially during my first experience playing this piece, I was really, really glad that I had learned to double tongue.

The first entrance of the first bassoon in the Lento of Rimsky-Korsakov's Le Coq d'Or Suite presents a different type of demanding detail:


It looks harmless.....it's nothing but a D3 in whole notes, right?   Well....the clarinets begin the soft woodwind chord before the 1st bassoon enters, and they are playing very, very, very quietly, as only clarinetists can do.  The entering bassoon is sure to sound like a bull in a china shop.  I actually considered using my flat pp fingering (which means I'd add the first finger of the right hand) but I decided it was too likely to be flat, ruining the intonation of the chord.  So I'm suffering through the entrance with the normal fingering.  I try not to drink coffee within 30 minutes of playing a piece like this, because caffeine makes it harder to control delicate entrances such as this one.  The second bassoon enters a bar later on the B natural below the D of the 1st bassoon.  (I'd much prefer to play the easy-to-control, ultra cooperative B natural!)

In movement III of the Rimsky-Korsakov, the oboe begins an Allegretto solo in 6/8 with the bassoon entering later.  The parts are kind of similar; it sounds as though they are supposed to line up better than they do, as though the oboe and bassoon are clumsily and unsuccessfully trying to dance together. The bassoon solo should equal the oboe solo rather than accompany it, while matching the oboe's staccato and general style:


There is a technically difficult tutti passage in movement IV.  It looks easy enough, but at a fast clip those grace notes leading to the low F are pretty tricky, especially because they're repeated:


The bassoons certainly can't be heard well in the above passages, but it's incumbent on us to do our best to master our entire program including loud tuttis. 

Even Tchaikovsky's bombastic 1812 Overture has some details to fret over.  On the first page there is an exposed passage (beginning in measure 45 with the cellos) which is a technical entanglement in the triplets in measures 47 and 51:

In measure 47 above I use the most basic fingering for Eb (just the 1st and 3rd fingers of the left hand plus the whisper key).  With most reeds, that fingering is in tune on my bassoon although I suspect that fingering may not be useful on all bassoons.  I use that same Eb fingering again in measure 51.  It's a little bit disconcerting the use that fingering, since it's not one that we commonly use, and it can be unstable.  It's hard to trust the fingering, but it is technically preferable. 

As you can see, I wrote in the first note of the next line (Eb) at the end of measure 51 above.  Such visual aids seem to help in difficult technical passages. (No use making a mistake because we don't know what the next note is!)

These are just a few of the daunting details of the first bassoon parts for this weekend's Columbus Symphony concerts.  If you're in the central Ohio area, you can hear it live on Friday and Saturday night at 7:30pm or Friday morning at 10am.  Hope to see you there!



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