There are some nasty viruses going around in our area. While John has recovered, he wasn't quite ready to resume his usual role by Friday, so I'm playing the whole program on these concerts. Phil Austin, our recently retired second bassoonist, is back substituting on third bassoon for Till Eulenspiegel. It's fun to play with him in the section again!
When faced with a sudden increase in your workload, it's important to prioritize. It may be unrealistic to expect everything in the parts to feel comfortable and secure by concert time, so learning to let go of certain things that aren't vitally important is helpful.
What to Look For
I'd never played Strauss' Aus Italien before, so that piece required the most study. I did some listening and as much practicing as I could in the short time between assignment and performance. Listening with the music in front of me, I picked out sections where there were bassoon solos and important lines so I could make sure those were in really good shape before the concerts. Also, I always look for any "pp" passages or anything low and soft because those spots often require delicacy and finesse. It's also good to know what instrument(s) you're accompanying in those places before you play them.
What to Let Go Of
With a long, taxing piece like the Strauss, it's necessary (considering the heavy program and my short learning time) to find places in the music that you can let go of, if needed.
At the end of the first movement, there is a soaring bassoon solo with a couple of high Bbs that is preceded by a taxing five-bar passage of whole notes. If I had an assistant playing this line, I could rest and get ready for the solo. Indeed, in the "old days" of the Cleveland Orchestra (including my first year) we routinely played these big pieces with extra players doubling the lines to beef up the woodwind texture in tutti passages. The players could also be used to give the principal players some relief.
Since it was one on a part, I had to play the passage before the solo. It was exposed enough that the 1st bassoon voice would be missed.
In situations like this I try to play as comfortably as possible. That means not too loud or too soft. Both extremes tire the embouchure.
In "ff" passages there are opportunities to either lay out or play less to save the embouchure as well.
In cases where time is really short for learning a piece, you can also let up on tutti passages of extreme technical difficulty. It's better to stay out of the way and let the other bassoonists or whomever you play with carry the ball. Fortunately, unlike some of his pieces, the Strauss had no extreme technical passages.
Moving up to first bassoon for Till Eulenspiegel offers some challenges. I would include this piece, along with some others such as Daphnis and Chloe Suite #2 and the Firebird Dance Infernal in a list of pieces that you should practice on a monthly basis whether you are playing them or not simply because the passages in them are so difficult as to be nearly impossible to learn in a short space of time. That way, when a performance of one of these comes up, you're ready.
One of the few advantages of growing old is that there's not much you haven't seen or practiced before. It's nice to be able to rely upon years of experience when a tough piece of standard repertoire comes up.
The passage excerpted in the previous post is just one of several in Till that offer a supreme challenge to the technique of any bassoonist. Years of slow practice and previous experience in performance made it possible for me to brush these passages up and get them ready for performance in just a few days.
Nevertheless, I found myself having trouble with a particular three-note combination in this passage. It's the Till motive.
When playing the slur, sometimes a note wouldn't speak or there would be a squeak in the middle of the motive.
After trying it many times and getting frustrated, I decided to take a more calm approach and see if I could figure out what actually was going wrong. I was able to narrow it down to two technical problems.
1. I wasn't always covering the half-hole going from G# to A. While not hurting the A, it really caused trouble with the F, which sometimes squeaked or didn't speak at all.
2. Sometimes I was glossing over the fingering for F after the A. It's important to "gun" for the A to get the spirit of the motive clear, but since the tempo is so fast, it's easy to miss the F on the way to the B. By focusing more on the F and really trying to feel the F fingering in my hands the motive came out clearly.
I did a lot of slow practicing to get a clear feel for the left index finger closing the half hole and for the fingers in both hands feeling the F fingering securely. By the way, there are some fingerings for the F that make this slur easier, but they all sounded false and out of tune when I tried them.
I tried very hard to relax and be calm when the passages came up in rehearsal and performance, too.
Everything came out clearly in the performance last night, but I've got two more to go. We'll see how it goes!