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!

Monday, December 2, 2013

What's In Your Bag?

What's In Your Bag -- Or Instrument Case?

My daughter is a talented photographer. Among photographers there's a lot of discussion about equipment, often starting with the question, "What's in your bag?"

Let's try that for the bassoon!

In Your Case

What do you routinely keep in your case?

In mine, I've got:
  • small photos of my daughters -- got to get my wife's photo in there -- oops!!
  • earplugs
  • cigarette paper
  • extra pivot screws (get these from your repair technician)
  • grease and oil for keywork
  • mini drill for cleaning out bocal vent (my favorite bocal seems to collect stuff from time to time)
  • cork grease for the tenons
  • US Customs Certificate of Registration for Personal Effects Taken Abroad
  • metronome, tuner
  • small screwdriver
  • small brush
  • swab 
  • extra reeds in cases
  • 2 extra bocals
What's in your reed tool pouch?
  • 2 reed knives
  • set of needle files
  • sandpaper (400 and 600)
  • reamer
  • mandrel
  • several placques (I lose them easily)
  • cutting block
  • razor blade
  • file brush
  • tweezers (for picking up screws, etc.)
  • pad slick (for reseating a pad)
  • small bit of stick shellac (for gluing a pad)
  • two screwdrivers -- one large for pivot screws, one small for long screws
  • pencil
  • spring hook
  • pliers
In my valise:
  • music
  • extra pencils
  • extra ear plugs
  • mute
  • soakers (extra -- I tend to lose these, too)
  • reading material
  • phone
In my locker:
  • extra seat strap
  • neck strap
  • another mute
  • tails and dark suit
  • black shoes and socks
  • Nespresso coffee pods (!)
  • coffee cups, spoons, sugar
  • toothbrush, toothpaste
  • small, hand-held butane torch
  • low A extension
I asked repair technician, Ken Potsic what he would recommend bassoonists keep in their cases.  Here is his response:

2  screwdrivers, 1 for pivot screws and 1 for rods - or 1 small miniature screwdriver with interchangeable bits. 

Small spool of thread, like from a sewing kit.  This can be used for loose tenons and for binding pivot screws.  Sometimes, especially on a new instrument, when the weather changes some keys will start binding. This can usually be remedied by wrapping some thread under the head of the offending screw.  Better than just loosening it, as it will not fall out when tightened down with thread under the head.  Thread can also be used to bind a tenon cork which may be coming loose.  

1 almost spent (to save room) roll of electrical tape.  This can be used to cover a tone hole on the bassoon which may be leaking due to the pad falling out, or a key getting bumped.  This can be a lifesaver for those who have a separate back A-flat key.  That key often gets bumped and bent and can be easily taped over in the event of an emergency.  

An extra whisper key pad (usually 12mm on most bassoons) and a little chunk of pad glue.  One could also carry a mini Bic lighter, or hope to find one when/if the need arises.

A pack of cigarette paper for checking pads, drying pads etc.  Also might consider a few sheets of the Yamaha "Powder Paper" for sticky pads.  

Cork grease!  Especially if you have tight tenon corks.  Forcing tenons and bocals can cause bent keys, split bocals, and can even lead to a broken tenon like the one I repaired this month.

Swabs that work, of course.
So, what's in your case?   Please share!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Beethoven's Metronome Markings: Tempo choices

Beethoven and the Metronome

Musicians have long puzzled over Beethoven's metronome markings.  To our ears many of his choices seem too fast. Conductors have had to make a conscious choice whether or not to heed the markings he put in the music.

Radio Lab

In a show originally aired in February of this year (which I heard last night while driving home from my concert), the Public Radio show, Radio Lab bravely dove into the issue. Click on the link and you can listen to the show. The hosts enlist the help of Alan Pierson, conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and a quartet of string players from the Philharmonic to play excerpts from the 3rd and 5th Symphonies at Beethoven's expressed markings.

The show's participants cite four of the most commonly listed reasons for why Beethoven may have chosen his speedy markings:

1. Defective metronome -- they dismiss this out of hand with a quick reference to an expert. More about this later.

2. Copyists' errors -- they find this explanation untenable and so do I.

3. Deafness/disregard acoustical considerations (hall, instrument response time, etc.). This one may have some merit, but ultimately may not explain some of the more extreme speeds he chose.

4. Vierordt's Law. Karl von Vierordt found that people tend to overestimate short durations of time and underestimate long. He found a "point of indifference" existed at around 94-96 beats per minute. I found the hosts' desire to settle upon this explanation as the answer in the last few minutes of the show to be lacking in support and a bit foggy in logic. Their explanations fail to account for such details as beat unit (quarter note, half note, etc.) or beat subdivisions used in a piece of music, both of which have a direct bearing on the pace of the beat assigned to a piece.

The ability to find a tempo that brings out the essence of a piece is one of the most important skills for a performer. Beethoven was one of the most highly trained musicians of his time and was perfectly able to replicate steady, predictable tempos when desired. Thus, I don't find the show's final explanation for the fast tempos to be wholly acceptable.

The Scientists

The issue came up again last month in an unlikely source -- the October issue of Notices of the American Mathematical Society. In the article titled, "Was Something Wrong With Beethoven's Metronome" the authors -- scientists, engineers and mathematicians -- provide a view on the subject not usually covered by musicians.  As such it is worth exploring and may provide a definitive answer to the perennial problem of whether to use Beethoven's expressed markings.

The article reopens the debate about the condition of Beethoven's metronome. As mentioned in the Radio Lab show, his original metronome has been found. However, not mentioned in the show is the fact that the weight at the bottom of the oscillating beam (the wand with the metronome markings on it) is missing! Thus, the "expert" on the show who states that the metronome "worked just fine", doesn't say what was used for the fixed weight or wherea substitue weight was placed when the device was tested.

The early metronomes were constructed using double pendula -- two weights -- a fixed weight on the bottom, usually hidden in the wooden housing and a movable one near the top end of the beam. The position of the fixed weight was set by the manufacturer and the movable weight was calibrated for adjustment by the performer.

At some point after getting his metronome, Beethoven, like countless other musicians after him, dropped his and damaged it.  He says in a letter that he is upset and is delaying the publishing of his Hammerklavier Sonata because his metronome is not working properly.

The Mathematical Society publication's authors study two scenarios.

First, Beethoven drops his metronome and it falls standing up on the floor.  The fixed weight shifts down the beam so it is now farther away from the balance point. They show that this maladjusted metronome would register a different calibration of tempos.  As an experiment, for the "correct" metronome they place the fixed weight at 5 cm from the balance point; on the broken one they place it for comparison at 7 cm from the balance point.

Their results show that for fast tempi, the "broken" metronome in this case will go slower than the factory calibrated one. In order to get the "broken" metronome to beat at the same speed as the "correct" one, a higher calibrated speed needs to be chosen.

Second, the metronome falls upside down and the fixed weight shifts towards the balance point. Here's a description of what might have happened from the article: 

Let’s envision the following hypothetical scenario. Unknown to him, the metronome Beethoven 
is working with is damaged in the sense that the heavy weight hidden by the wooden case
has been displaced. Assume Beethoven puts the movable weight on his metronome to correspond
to the marking of approximately =110. Somewhat puzzled perhaps, he finds the visibly observed
marking seems far too slow, around =70 to 80. The markings on the metronome beam 
with the light movable weight that he can clearly see do not correspond to his desired tempo.
Beethoven, dissatisfied with the slow movement of the visible metronome beam, then
moves the weight until he is satisfied with the much higher marking.

Thus, in this experiment, a marking of ♩=110 on the correct metronome would correspond in speed observed to ♩=138 on the broken one. 

While a bold hypothesis, it's hard to argue with its suppositions. 

There is a small trend in symphonic music of performing Beethoven's symphonies at his prescribed metronome markings. Perhaps these recent investigations will put this practice to rest.

Here are some clips of performances using these speeds. Also scroll down to sample noted performances at different tempos.

Metronomes also have some "off-label" uses.  Runners sometimes use a metronome to calculate or maintain a particular pace by timing foot strikes with the beat. Elite runners have a gait that is about 180 strides per minute.

In a related story, I also heard on the radio yesterday that metronomes are being used to help improve chest compression technique during the administration of CPR.  It seems that blood circulates best when the heart is compressed at around 100 times per minute.  The show's experts suggested using Walter Carlos' "Fifth of Beethoven" or Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" as reference points.

I prefer the first movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto!!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Travel Coffee

Making Good Coffee When You Travel

If you like good coffee, you know it can be hard to find when you're traveling. Everyone has their morning routines and making the coffee is one of them. 

When staying in a hotel in the US, you are usually left with one of two options for in-room coffee.

1. A dried out disc or packet of coffee of unknown age in a filter . Following the instructions for making usually results in the "Brown Crayon in Water" style of coffee popular with Americans in decades past.

2. If you double the packets to strengthen the coffee or if you venture down to the breakfast room you often end up with the ├╝ber dark roast with a burned taste.

Going out to find the good stuff can be time-consuming and frustrating. I've got a routine that allows me to have pretty good coffee in the room.

This is my mini coffee grinder. It is a manual burr grinder with an adjustable grind. The coffee is poured into the top chamber and the grounds drop into the clear receptacle below. The capacity is small; you can make one or two cups of coffee at a time. The grind is pretty accurate considering the low cost of this cute little grinder.

The handle detaches for safe packing.

The grinder is made to be paired with the equipment needed for pour-over, single cup style coffee making. Along with a grinder like this, you'll need a ceramic cone for extraction. Plastic cones are fine, but a ceramic cone, if heated first, retains the heat necessary for better coffee brewing.

Some hotel rooms have a hot pot. Use this or, in lieu of one, use the hot water run through the coffee maker for pouring.

You can bring your own roasted coffee or buy some beans in a store in the town you're visiting. I pack mine in a Mason jar for freshness.

Hario, the maker of the ceramic cone, sells the filter paper that fits in this cone, but you can fold a Melitta filter (#4 or #2) to fit in the cone. They are easier to find.

Pouring the water at the rate necessary for a good extraction is difficult if you don't have a dripper, so I bring this along, too.

The spout is narrow and angled just right for aiming the stream and controlling the rate at which the water hits the grounds. There is a certain amount of technique involved in a good pour over, but just using this dripper will greatly improve your coffee!

Remember to keep everything hot! Boil extra water in the hot pot or pour some hot tap water from the hotel room bathroom tap into the dripper while you're setting everything up and grinding. Heat your cup with hot tap water as well as the cone.

Here's an instructional video for getting a great pour over: