Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Scoring Tool

I've developed a scoring tool that's accurate and inexpensive. It makes all the scores in one stroke, accurately distributing the scores across the width of the tube.

The blade points are staggered to fit the slight curve of a piece of cane. Scoring with this tool is best done on an easel. Just buy a 1 1/4" dowel and cut a section to length. Can also be done flat on a table, if need be.

I have made these for several months now. They can be customized for the number of scores you like to have (between 5 and 10). For those who like a space between scores down the center of the length of the bark, I can add an additional spacer to divide the blades -- for a 6-blade tool, 3 on one side, 3 on the other.

I also make them for contra cane. The price depends upon the number of blades you want - 5-7 blades, $25; 8-10 blades, $35.

If interested, visit my website.

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Special Organ

A few weeks ago, I went to a house to hear an organ concert. Both the house and the organ are unique.

This organ has its own website!

A short history: Originally built for a church in Birmingham, Alabama, an organ lover who is also a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic bought it and had it disassembled and moved to Cleveland where he built a house enveloping it.

Inside the house, the pipes are arranged in all directions and on several levels.

When it is played or when you listen to it, you are completely surrounded by pipes and organ sound!

 Yes, the organ has bassoon stops.

It is also complemented by a Bösendorfer piano with 9 extra keys! These lower strings vibrate at such a slow speed that you can actually hear the individual vibrations. There's not as much of a sense of a steady tone as there is with the "regular" keys on the piano.

Along with organ music, we heard several piano/organ duets.

Monday, October 3, 2016

K. David Van Hoesen (1926-2016)

Bassoonist and teacher, K. David Van Hoesen left us today. He passed away in the company of his family in Pittsburgh. He was 90 years old.

He was my musical "father". He taught me so much about the bassoon and also about music in general. He showed me what great teaching was all about.

He played much of his career in the Rochester Philharmonic.  

His sound was beautiful, smooth and even. Listen to this excerpt from William Schuman's "New England Triptych" and you will hear a good example.

Here is an interview  (see item 12 in the Table of Contents) I did with him shortly after he retired from teaching at the Eastman School of Music. In it he discusses the bassoon, music and his early life.

Doan Creek Trail Run

Last Saturday I participated in a most unique running event. Called the Doan Creek Trail Run, it was organized to highlight the beauty and adventure hidden in the ravine that runs from Shaker Heights, OH downhill to Cleveland and, eventually into Lake Erie.

It was organized by a local runner who says these trails constitute his morning commute!

A small race with entry capped at 50, it was run on very narrow, often treacherous single track paths that snake up, down and across the creek.

The race was actually three races in one day. a 7.5 mile loop started at 8:00, a 2-loop 15 mile started at 10:00 and a 4-loop 30 mile started at 12:00. These staggered times kept the narrow trails from becoming congested. I chose the 2 loop, 15 mile race.

I ran with a partner, Zachary Lewis, who is our music critic and fitness columnist for the Plain  Dealer. It was reassuring for both of us to run together because we were alone for much of it and there were lots of chances to slip and fall. We armed ourselves with Camelbacks, Gu and a small first-aid kit. Plenty of tree roots, slippery rocks and uneven surfaces challenged us on the 15-mile route we ran.

Obstacles of other sorts came our way. I was stung by a bee, almost run over by a boy on a dirt bike, and we nearly interrupted a wedding party posing for photos on a bridge that was part of the course.

We ran our first 7.5 mile loop at a good pace, but in the midst of the second loop, the numerous ups and downs took their toll, forcing us to walk up most of the latter hills.

It was a beautiful day with great weather conditions. Lots of small waterfalls on the course and an abundance of natural beauty combined with some rust belt decay that was interesting in its own way.

Tire Swing

That is a Chevy fender embedded in the retaining wall by the trail. Just on the other side is a winding downhill road on which many accidents occur. Maybe the workers found this on the side of the road and decided to place it in their work.

The race director had a tent with water, Heed and snacks at the finish. He even offered to let the finishers shower at his house after the run!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Rust Never Sleeps

What does the title of a Neil Young album have in common with tone production on the French Horn?

Read Principal Horn Bill Caballero's short article in the Pittsburgh Symphony musicians' newsletter to find out!

Good breath support, proper metering of the air through the instrument are essential for a great tone and smooth legato. Caballero says, "Probably 85% to 90% of my time is spent on fundamentals. Long tones, scales, tonal centering exercises." 

It's inspiring to learn that one of the best horn players in the world works on his breath control and tone every day!

However, these fundamentals are often neglected in practice. As bassoonist, Norman Herzberg said, "Mastery of the bassoon is transitory and must be renewed daily." I have written about my efforts to maintain good fundamentals here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tchaikovsky 6th -- helpful fingerings

The first bassoon part to Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony presents many challenges for the bassoonist. Much of it lies in the extreme soft playing demanded from the score.

We played this piece this summer at the Blossom Music Center, so the measures I took to make the soft playing as comfortable as possible are fresh in my mind.

The challenges start right at the beginning with the famous solo. Along with the Rite of Spring, this is one of just a few solos for the bassoon that open a major piece of standard repertoire. Like the Rite, it is in a difficult register for solo bassoon writing.

There are many solutions to helping the first E start softly, securely and down to pitch. Below is the fingering I use -- notice that the register lock is on (see the strike through on the whisper key) to allow for safe passage to the F# in the solo.
Try with the low Bb key completely closed or just part way down for a dampening effect that also can lower the pitch of the E. Adding the extra key will make the attack more resistant, so you can use a little more energy when starting.

On my bassoon I have a lever that partially closes the low B when the low Bb is depressed. You can make one of these for yourself by cutting a small strip from the backing of a notepad (like cardboard only thinner) and placing the strip in the linkage between the top end of the low B key and the arm from the B pad cup that overlaps it. This will close the B pad partially. Try different thicknesses. A match will also work.

Just remember to take it out when finished!  Also, be sure to lock the whisper key when playing this solo, so it won't pop open the bocal vent!

At the top of the second page of movement one and at the end of movement two there are some soft low A's to play. If you need to cover your sound, try either of these fingerings:

Just before the end of the exposition in the first movement comes another famous stretch of soft playing.

 In the first line, hold down the low D key and low Eb key for really soft, secure D - F and D - F# slurs.

Now for the famous "pppppp" passage! Ideally this should be played by the bass clarinet. It sounds better following the clarinet solo before it. However, if the conductor insists you play it, here is a set of fingerings shown me by Willard Elliot which work well.

Low Bb and Low D key are added to 3 of the 4 notes. The low F# may balk with this fingering combination, so I use the usual muffled F# fingering for that note, going back to the Low Bb/Low D combination for the Low D. Note, once again, the whisper key lock is on for safety!

If that's not soft enough, you can play with a mute in the bell.

In the 4th movement, both bassoons end a long passage together on a low C#.

This fingering may help, but be sure it doesn't make the C# too flat in pitch.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Rapsodie Espagnole -- the cadenza

We performed Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole last month at the Blossom Music Center.

I'd like to devote this post to the cadenza for two bassoons in the first movement.

The movement title is Prélude à la nuit or Prelude to the Night. The movement is full of impressionistic effects for the orchestra that hint at night sounds in Spanish town. Perhaps the two bassoons are mysterious gusts of wind blowing dust down a deserted street in the early hours of the morning.

Aside from the virtuoso writing and the use of non-traditional harmonies, it is notable that there is no meter throughout this cadenza.

Sometimes this passage is played in a steady tempo. I think this decision constitutes a major missed opportunity to add to the impressionistic character of this section. The lack of meter should indicate to the performers that some freedom is intended with the pulse. It's a shame to hear this duet played like an etude! It makes me wonder if the two players communicate so poorly that they found it necessary to play it steadily so as to keep their place!

Regarding pulse, I think it's important to utilize what's on the page when deciding how to make the notes play out over time.

Notice where there are fermatas and where there are none. 

Three quarter notes, but only two fermatas, so don't sit on the first quarter note B too long!

Begin an accelerando after the second hold when the sextuplets start up again. It's best to reach a steady pulse at the height of the crescendo (second bassoon has a difficult part starting here). Decrease speed as you diminuendo.

The measure before Number 9 is often played steadily, too. There is still no meter to hem you in and the indication is Très ralentir, so it's hard to understand why the sextuplet 8th notes should be steady as a rock!

As you approach the hold a broadening of the pulse goes naturally with the crescendo.

What to Expect from the Conductor

This is a very touchy passage for both players and a good conductor will mostly stay out of the way, helping only when necessary -- at the beginning and the end.

If you want it to stay that way, it's extremely important that the two players run through the passage separately as many times as necessary so it goes off predictably well in the first run-through. If trouble happens, conductors have a hard time resisting the urge to "help". You may then have to play it in a way that is quite foreign to your understanding and more difficult than necessary.

Ideally, the conductor should give a cue for starting the first note and then help with getting out of the fermata at the end just before Number 9 and that's it!

How to Lead

If you are playing first bassoon on this, you will need to sharpen your skill in leading. Below, I've marked in red where cues should be given.

Hold still for the long, held notes. Cues 3-5 could be given as steady beat in a moderate tempo. In this way, the 32nd note flourish will sound faster than the 16th note sextuplets at the beginning.

To help the accelerando start slowly, I recommend cuing the E# in the first set, then just cuing the first of each group. The Très ralentir bar can be cued in differnt ways, but the method outlined above works as well as any other one.

The very end may be taken care of by the conductor. If so, you will see one of two possible ways to end this.

1. A cue for the last quarter beat before Number 9 and a downbeat at 9.

2. A cue for the last quarter and one for the last note before 9 and then a downbeat.

How to give cues

Try to give cues using as little body language as necessary. It sends a bad signal to your second bassoonist if you are swinging your bassoon on the beats like a baseball bat! Sensitive players can pick up on small motions using peripheral vision. Just a slight motion is necessary. Be careful to be still when not cuing to avoid confusion!

Use in an audition

This excerpt is commonly used in the final round of a second bassoon audition. It often involves the candidates playing it with the Principal Bassoonist. If you find yourself in this situation, remember that it's very unlikely that any of the candidates will play this perfectly together with the Principal the first time through.

The real test comes in the second try, when you can show how much you picked up on during the first run-through. It is fine to ask a question or two, if necessary before playing it again, but don't get involved in any intellectual discussions at this point!

A fingering

If you have trouble with the slur from the high C# to G# at the first hold, try this fingering for the G#.