Tuesday, November 4, 2014

How I Clean Up

Image result for broom

It's Fall and time for cleaning up around here.

Accordingly, I've been thinking about how to clean up bassoon articulation.

In my last post, I raised the issue of cracking articulation, especially as pertains to page 2 of Bolero. In the previous post, I offered a fingering for high G that may clear up dirty articulation. Now I'll offer a way of articulating that works for any note or situation in which it's easy to crack.

First of all, if you don't have this problem, don't read further, unless you're just curious to learn a way to teach clean articulation. If it ain't broke, don't fix it!!

For anyone who's struggled with articulating clearly on the Bolero passage, the first note of the Bolero solo, Rite of Spring high d's, etc., read on!

A Band-Aid Solution

As I said before, use of the vent keys to clear up dirty attacks works well, but only on the famous five notes on the top of the bass clef staff.

What can you do if you crack other notes on the bassoon -- especially the ones above that range that are so touchy?

Being Clever With Your Tongue

Many young students are never told how to use their tongue when starting the bassoon past "just put the tip of the tongue on the tip of the reed".

This works well for beginners, but anyone wanting to clean up dirty articulation or match articulations with string players or other winds soon begins to experiment with other ways of tonguing.

Corner Tonguing

I never thought about this until I went to study with K. David Van Hoesen in college. He learned to tongue on the corner of the reed for a subtle, clear articulation. His colleague, the oboe teacher, Robert Sprenkle showed him this. Indeed, many oboists tongue off-center or on the corner of the reed tip.

Van Hoesen's instruction was specific.  Tip your reed so that the sides point like watch minute and hour hands at 10 and 4 o'clock. That is, with the reed tip slanting slightly down to the right from horizontal. Tongue on the right corner.

Try this and see what you think.

I actually keep my reed with the sides at horizontal and tongue on the left corner, but see which is most comfortable for you.

Release, Not Attack

Articulation should ALWAYS be thought of as a release and not an attack. Cracking is often caused by attacking the reed too forcefully with the tongue from a distance away in the mouth.

It is essential to have the tongue ON the reed (corner or off to the side of the center for a touchy articulation) BEFORE starting the note. This allows you to build up proper support beforehand for a predictable start.

A vocalization of a good articulation could perhaps be spelled out this way:




Instead of "Tah" or "Dah"

The fraction of a second needed to build up proper support is done with the tongue on the reed. Release the tongue when you want the note to start.

Think of a tennis serve or pitcher's wind up. There is a very short, precise motion involved before the ball is released.  No player simply hits or throws the ball with their hands at the point of impact. The preparation is all!  

Combining corner tonguing with this general approach to articulation should result in a  cleaner start to the notes.

Why This Works

I think this method works because, if your tongue isn't completely blocking the tip opening of the reed, some of the breath support in the prep goes into the reed already. The opening is only partially closed when the tongue touches only the corner of the reed.

The small prep of breath support going into the reed combined with an already formed embouchure may give the reed advance notice of the harmonic at which it must vibrate to excite the air column inside the bassoon so that the proper pitch is the only one present in the articulation.

A Practice

If this technique is new to you, try this:

Put your tongue lightly against one corner of the reed tip while making an embouchure. Finger a note and blow softly. Notice that some air can go into the reed.

Now practice putting your tongue on the reed corner while forming the embouchure and this time build support. Then remove the tongue from the reed.

For a predictable, subtle articulation, compress the amount of time needed to coordinate the above steps into a fraction of a second -- about the time needed for a conductor's upbeat in the tempo of the piece you're working on, for instance.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A New Litmus Test?

Clean articulation is something to which all bassoonists aspire. If it is possible to say that bassoon playing has continued to improve over the years in America, cleanliness of articulation is one area that has gotten a lot of attention and where improvement over the years (as witnessed by recordings, etc.) has been vast.

The Past

Through listening to older recordings it is clear that a certain dirtiness in articulating notes built on harmonics on the bassoon (notes above open F) was tolerated until recently. Even the best players cracked.

Awareness and Improvement

It is thanks to awareness raised by Norman Herzberg and his students and the influential European tradition of the use of the vent keys that we no longer tolerate cracking articulation on the bassoon.

A lot of effort has been spent instilling the use of the vent keys of the wing joint for clean articulation. However, the vent keys can only be used for five notes (A2, Bb3, B3, C3 and D3) so there's still a problem if cracking persists farther up the range.

Most bassoonists can articulate these five notes cleanly using this technique. A recent trend in audition repertoire lists may indicate that it's time to clean up articulation on other notes in the high register.

In at least two recent auditions -- our Second Bassoon audition and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Principal Bassoon audition  -- the following excerpt was used to separate the clean articulators and the dirty ones:

It's the second page of Bolero.

We used this excerpt in the final round of our audition. All of our finalists played at a very high level. However, NO ONE articulated the G's cleanly!

Perhaps we bassoon players have become too comfortable with the sound of a high G that cracks!

The non-bassoon players on the audition committee found it especially puzzling that even these otherwise fine players would allow such an obvious lapse in their technique.

How to correct dirty articulation on this note? One can't flick G3 on the bassoon, so other solutions must be found.

One-Note Solution

The following fingering for G3 can help clear up the attacks:

1/2 x x / x o o Ab
        w   Bb

I'd be willing to bet that if you crack G3, Ab3 and other high notes are going to crack, too. So this fingering may solve the problem for this particular pitch, but obviously it can't be used for other notes that crack.

I'll offer a solution for that works for all notes on the bassoon in the next post.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Gareth Thomas joins bassoon section

At the beginning of the month we hired Gareth Thomas as our new Second Bassoonist!

Welcome Gareth!

Currently Principal Bassoonist with the Toledo Symphony, Gareth's teachers included John Clouser and Christopher Millard. He is originally from Ottawa, Cananda.

He will play with us next month for a series of concerts and then start formally after the New Year.

It will feel good to have a complete section again after a few years of vacancies.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Building an Interpretation -- Harmony


Knowing the harmonic underpinning of a line can lead to a convincing interpretation. In the case of Shostakovich you might not think that's so important.

Just playing through the bassoon part to the 4th and 5th movement of the 9th Symphony, you barely notice a particular harmonic base. In fact, a lot of it sounds atonal.

However, a close look at the score reveals a very traditional harmony for both passages in the 4th movement.

In the first passage, there is an F major chord held throughout in the strings.  The lack of cellos (just violas and basses) and a first-inversion spelling gives the chord a disembodied feeling, but the harmony is still very clear.

In the passage above I've used a "c" to denote all bassoon pitches that fit in the F major chord. All dissonant notes are circled.


Knowing whether or not a particular note is dissonant or not opens avenues for interpretation. The "d" half note 11 notes in is quite dissonant and long in duration.  It also makes up the first note of the half note motive outlined in my previous post.

Therefore, this should be a real point of tension in the line. I make a crescendo to the "d", give it a strong beginning and hold onto it a little longer than two beats.

Another obvious tension point is the high "Db" right after the quarter rest.  To bring this out I elongate the quarter rest (this allows the F major harmony in the strings to shine through for a brief moment), stretch and increase tension on the "F" just before the "Db" and lengthen the "Db".

Since there is no meter, varying the length of the rests in this passage can add to the dramatic effect. I like to minimize the last quarter rest (before the final "Eb"-"C") in order to show that the tension is not really gone until the consonant C is sounded at the very end. I don't agree with the practice of some who like to breathe during this rest -- it lets up on the tension before it's time to do so. Don't breathe, but hold out the "Db" before the rest longer than normal length, rest and come right in with the "Eb".

Second Passage

The second passage follows suit. A major, first inversion. Look for the dissonances and consonances in this one.  They are placed strategically throughout the line. I extend the final crescendo in order to stress the dissonance of the "Bb" towards the end.

A Simulation

The effect of playing this in the orchestra can be simulated by having three other bassoonists hold the chords while you play.  You can really hear the harmonies this way!  Trade parts and let everyone else have a turn with the solo.

Alternatively, have a pianist play the chords while you play the bassoon part.  The pianist will need to re-strike the chords several times during the playing to keep the sound of the harmony alive.


I'd like to thank Doug Spaniol, Bassoon Professor at Butler University, who introduced me to the harmonies of this movement during a master class he gave for my students at Michigan State University many years ago.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Building an Interpretation -- Motives

The Motives

In this post, I'll examine the motives employed in the first bassoon part for Shostakovich's 9th Symphony. An understanding of what motives are used and how they are deployed, developed, etc., lends greater clarity and authority to any interpretation.

As such, Shostakovich descends from a long line of composers best exemplified by Beethoven, who, upon settling on a particular motive were extremely skilled in capitalizing on the most salient features of the motive through repetition and development.

Let's go to the part to see what I'm talking about.

4th Movement:

In the 4th movement I identify two particular motives. The first is the two half notes that comprise the first interval of the solo -- a perfect 4th. In the highlighted section below I show where this motive is developed over the course of the movement. 
The perfect 4th half notes go through a transformation as the movement progresses, the interval decreasing to a minor third at the end of the first section. In the second section, Shostakovich takes more liberty with the interval and the rhythm, but the reference to the opening interval is clear throughout.


I play the perfect 4th in imitation of two big Russian church bells, with lots of sound at the beginning of each note and a slight decay towards the end. This is an appropriate reaction to the enormous brass fanfare that introduces the solo. As the movement progresses, I try to return to the "bell" style each time the motive comes back. However, as the interval decreases in size, I let the "bell" shape deteriorate into a softer figure.
Time should be taken to allow each two-note "bell" have an impact.

This motive comprises the "bones" or "skeleton" of the movement. Now on to the "flesh".
The highlighted portions in this excerpt show the connective tissue that binds the "bell" motives to each other. These motives are chromatic and step-wise in nature. Very different from the perfect 4th "bell"!

As such they represent a sort of reaction to the announcement of each "bell".


Each chromatic line needs to lead to the next two-note "bell". Generally I crescendo through to the end of each group to help introduce the "bell". Rubato helps keep the line interesting and helps to avoid a static feeling to the lines.

At the end the chromatic line degrades to a simple pair of minor 2nds without any "bell". Set in the middle register, this last line, following the primal scream of the high register lines above, is like a wounded animal writhing on the ground.

5th Movement:

I identify two motives in the 5th movement. This movement is a March. The first figure imitates drum rudiments.

Imagine a regiment marching to the front to the beat of a drum. The sixteenths punctuate the steady trhythm of the eighths.


Play the sixteenths slightly louder than the eighths and make them lead to the next eighth. Have the sound of a snare or side drum in your head and you'll get the style just right.

The second motive is the group of steady eighth notes.

These are the men marching. Make the staccato consistent and dry throughout. Be careful not to creep into the "mf" range. The movement starts a bit slow for a march (♩=100), adds forces and increases tempo later on. No need to do this yourself.

There is occasionally a conductor who likes the bassoonist to accelerate to the end of this solo. Resist this if you can! Shostakovich writes no such indication and adds tempo changes later in the movement.

In my next post, I'll show how the harmonies of the 4th movement can help craft a solid interpretation of this piece.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Building an Interpretation -- The Score

The Score

Using the example of the bassoon solos in Shostakovich Symphony #9, I'll explore different ways of building a solid interpretation.

Ways I'll outline for the Shostakovich include:
  • Use of the orchestral score as starting point
  • A motivic analysis of the bassoon part
  • Harmonic analysis
  • Examination of the musical context of the bassoon part and a look at models from other works by Shostakovich 
  • Historical influences and anecdotal information   

What the score shows

The fourth movement begins with an ominous brass fanfare.

 Take a look at the score:

At the end, the tam tam strikes and the violas and basses enter unobtrusively.  As the brass cut out the strings sustain into the bassoon solo. The orchestration is notable for the absence of violins and cellos.  Scoring without violins gives the voice of the bassoon more acoustic space. The lack of cellos gives the string bed a more transparent, even disembodied feel (especially with a lack of the root of the chord in the basses).

At the bassoon entrance, the meter disappears as do the bar lines. The key signature becomes irrelevant. We are clearly not operating in bminor at this point. The tempo indication changes from ♩ = 84 to ♪ = 84, so twice as slow as the fanfare that starts the movement. 


Nonetheless, the bassoonist now has a great deal of freedom for interpretation. So what to do with all that freedom?!

The lack of bar line or meter should remind us of opera recitative or the sound of someone speaking some lines. Thus, there should be in the interpretation the sense of a dramatic recitation; a flow to the lines that mimics speech patterns with inflections and emphases. 

Towards the end of the movement, the meter returns and in the fifth movement, a strict 2/4 meter is established, along with a faster tempo.

In my next post, I'll examine the motives used in the solos and how, in the 4th movement, highlighting them can add to this sense of dramatic recitation, whereas the motives in the 5th movement bring a strict, march-like character to the piece.

Starting with the score is always a good idea, but in the case of this piece, especially so! The bassoon part lacks some information printed in the score and the great freedom accorded the bassoonist may lead to confusion or lack of conviction in the interpretation.

Please also note that metronome markings in the score are not printed in the bassoon part. Also, some excerpt books have discrepancies with the score and the bassoon part.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Building an Interpretation -- I'm back!

I'm Back!

Due to an extremely busy schedule, I've had to suspend activity on this blog for a few months.

Here's what my past couple months looked like:

1. Increased load in Cleveland Orchestra due to second bassoon vacancy. Played 2nd bassoon and some first bassoon on a Brahms DVD in January.

2. Five weeks on the road TCO.

3. Full recitals at CIM and LSU this month.

4. Half marathon and a couple of 5k races.

5. Master classes at University of Nebraska and LSU.

6. Orchestra Committee work

So something had to give. . .

Anyway, things have calmed down a bit and I'm ready to blog with some new topics that I hope will be interesting and thought-provoking.

Building an Interpretation

I'd like to start a thread here on how to build an interpretation. Let's start with some ground rules:

1. Some music doesn't require a full-blown interpretation. It is enough to play what's on the page and leave it at that.  Examples:
  • Some modern music -- especially pieces in which the composer has prescribed tempo, dynamics, etc. in minute detail. 
  • Orchestral excerpts such as Overture to Marriage of Figaro, Ravel Piano Concerto (3rd mvt) and Beethoven 4th Symphony (last mvt).
2. However, most music requires at least some personal input from the performer. This is where some bassoonists fail.  The bassoon presents so many difficult technical challenges that it's easy to become focused solely upon technical perfection and mastery of control of the instrument. Interpretation is by its very nature subjective and open to nuance and ambiguity. So it takes initiative and inspiration to build an interpretation.

3. Yes, mastery of the instrument is extremely important, but it's just the prerequisite for artistry. Artistry requires interpretation.

4. For me there isn't a "correct" interpretation for every piece of music. Nor are interpretations other than mine "incorrect".

5. There are only convincing or unconvincing interpretations.

6. It's better to have an argument than to have nothing to talk about! Too often a musical performance provokes a pleasantly innocuous response from the audience.

It's enlightening to read contemporary reports about performances in the Baroque and Classical periods. Audiences came to concerts expecting novelty and freshness. They expected to be moved to tears or to feel joy or solemnity based upon the effect of a performance on their emotions. At times there were arguments in the theater during the performance.

Many student performers have an especially hard time coming up with a convincing interpretation. While it is they who should -- through their youth and enthusiasm -- be best at novelty and freshness, too often it is an overriding desire to please or the result of much spoon feeding in their education that results in interpretations that are not convincing or are half-baked.

Shostakovich Symphony #9

In the next few posts I will use the great bassoon solos in movements 4 and 5 of Shostakovich's 9th Symphony as a vehicle for how to build an interpretation.

I will explore my own thought process in building an interpretation of this long excerpt. However, I hope through exposure to the methods I employ you will build your own convincing interpretation of this music and not just mimic what I've done!