Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bassoon Sound Challenges -- A Good Buzz?

 (George Goslee with George Szell)

Before I leave the topic of challenges the bassoonist must face in producing a tone that projects and has resonance and beauty, I need to investigate a few specific concepts.

In my previous post I discussed how to project the sound.  However, it's not usually possible to tell while playing if your sound is projecting or not.  What are some of the impressions or signs of a projecting tone the player experiences while playing?

Good Buzz?

I actually hate this term as applied to bassoon sound, but I thought it might catch your attention!  Seriously, though, any sound that projects needs to have a certain brilliance to it to carry to the back of an auditorium.

Judging what is the right amount of brilliance (edge, buzz, whatever you want to call it) is very difficult and extremely subjective.  Here are some thoughts:
  • The "Dark Side" It seems that everyone wants to have a "dark" sound these days.  I don't know what this means.  "The Cleveland Orchestra has a dark sound" is a comment made about our sonority frequently. 
  • Have you ever gone back stage after a theatrical performance to greet the actors?  What does their makeup look like?  Grotesque, right?! However, back in your seat it looked just right.
  • It's human nature to try to impress those around you.  However, we play for an audience in an acoustical environment.  If our sound is beautiful and mellow right where our peers can hear us, it probably won't carry past the stage.
  • Therefore, there needs to be a little bit of roughness in the sound.  Words are hard to find for this. . . A great bassoon sound up close has a purring quality or a gentle ripping sound.
  • Singers call this "squillo".  Along with the core of the sound there is a slight buzzing or ringing quality that doesn't seem to relate to the pitch being played.
  • Some of the great performers didn't necessarily sound absolutely beautiful up close.  Heifetz' sound supposedly had a bit of junk in it close up.  But far away. . . 

How to Achieve It

How do you know if your sound is beautiful and resonant far away?  The easiest way is to have a friend listen in the seats during a concert and provide honest feedback.  Recording yourself can be helpful, but may not really capture how you sound to a human being.

When you have a reed, instrument, etc. that gives the right impression to the listener, try to memorize how the reed feels and sounds right around you.  It may be a bit different from what you're looking for, but, given an honest friend, you'll have to trust it.

Try to make reeds and play on them in such a way as to reproduce the memorized impression.

Having access to a good concert hall may be difficult.  Students often have to practice in carpeted bedrooms or tiny practice rooms.  Sneak into a church or recital hall and try these things out. 

Alternatively, play in one room and have a friend go out into the hallway down 20-30 yards away and listen.

Don't Go Overboard

Orchestras are getting louder and louder.  Bassoonists are pushed to the limit to project.  It's very easy to lose track of the kind of sound you want.

A former teacher of mine (not K. David VanHoesen) played in a major orchestra.  He was a great bassoon player but, due to the extremely loud brass section, he felt the need to compete.  Often you could hear him above the brass section.  However, you couldn't tell what pitch he was playing -- the tone was all edge.

In these situations, it's best just to relax and let the brass do what they do best.  When pushed by the conductor to give more, try your best, but maybe have a diplomatic conversation with him/her at a break about balance and limits, etc. A wise conductor balances the orchestra to the solo being played.

Avoid the Dark Side

Beware of the "Dark Side".  A beautiful sound is a wonderful thing, but it must be shared with those who came to hear you.  Reserve some brilliance in the sound to help it carry.

1 comment:

  1. This is so well put and I look forward to sharing it with my students! A lot of them seem to be very fond of the low-buzz "dark" sound. I think part of this is because they get used to playing on reeds that are too old, and the "dark" ones tend to offer a more consistent sound, without requiring as much work from the player.