Thursday, December 15, 2011

Winter weather and the bassoon

It's winter in our area now, so my thoughts have turned to building a fire in our fireplace, enjoying the glow of the Christmas tree and holiday activities.

However, now that the heat is on in our buildings and cars, it's also necessary to deal with the dryness caused by the heat and what it does to reeds and bassoons.

I use a small humidifier in my bassoon case, wetting it each day to impart some moisture to the bassoon.  This helps prolong the life of the instrument, keeps pads resilient and wood from contracting or even cracking.

Other remedies include adding orange peel to the inside of the case every few days and using a string dampit. The dampit should never be put inside the long joint as it may cause mold to grow in the bore there.

Reeds also require special care in the winter.

Some time ago I hosted William Waterhouse for recitals and master classes at Interlochen and Michigan State University.  It was January during his tour and I remember him noticing that reeds would dry out in his mouth while playing.  Being British, he was not used to this experience due to the humid air brought to the British Isles by the Gulf Stream!

Indeed, there are times in the winter where I have found it necessary to stop during a performance or practice session to re-soak my reed.  The dryness closes the tip and inhibits free vibration in the blades.

Humidifying your reeds while at rest is helpful.  I use a special reed case with a hygrometer and a small piece of wet sponge in an air-tight chamber to keep the reeds humidified.

A more simple solution is to put the reed box in a plastic bag with a small hole cut in it and add some orange peel to it, putting fresh peel in every couple of days.

With all of these methods, it's important not to overdue the humidity and watch for mold!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Saint-Saëns, part 2

Our concerts with Marin Alsop last week went well.  It was a difficult week for all involved with music that was mostly not standard orchestral repertoire squeezed into three rehearsals. 

We generally have four, sometimes five rehearsals for a concert cycle, so it was challenging to put the program together with less rehearsal than usual.  The first rehearsal for the week was 36 hours before the first concert, so there was also less time to react and absorb what we did in rehearsal before performing.

I'd like to spend this post talking about a particular passage in the first movement of the Saint-Saëns.  It is a passage that gives everyone involved trouble.  I'm sure it has been a problem since the inception of the Organ Symphony.  I know I've struggled with it every time I've played the piece.

This passage occurs twice in the movement and there are several other ones that are similar with articulated 16th notes.


The tempo marking is Allegro Moderato, the meter is 6/8.  The tempo usually clocks in the range of  dotted = 72-84.  Although the pattern always starts off the beat, there is always a pickupand downbeat every three bars in the bass line.

The pattern above starts with tutti woodwinds all articulating together.  Then, at the "p" marking, the texture thins out to just two clarinets and one bassoon. It is this particular spot with the clarinets that I want to examine.

What Usually Happens

In rehearsing this piece it's very easy for the woodwinds to get apart from each other and to get off-track from the strings and conductor.  This type of passages poses an extreme challenge for articulating on a woodwind instrument. Common problems are:
  • Slow tonguing speed
  • Inability to double-tongue when needed
  • Double tongue goes too fast
  • Players start the pattern after an eight rest instead of a 16th rest
  • Some players rush while others drag
The difficulty seems greatest for clarinet players, few of whom can articulate as fast as the rest of the woodwinds and fewer still can double tongue. I would place bassoonists a close second, though. 

When this passage doesn't fit together, a few things commonly happen.
  • The conductor may give ground on the tempo and slow it to help the woodwinds.
  • The conductor may ask the woodwinds to accent the beats in each bar to make sure the passage stays together.  This is a terrible idea which I would resist. The accents usually slow the passage down further by making the articulation heavier.  It also comes at a very awkward part of the pattern (see excerpt above) and gives a very unmusical inflection to the line.
  • The woodwind players agree on who will lead in the section to keep it together.
  • Some players make leave out a few notes to stay in place.
What Type of Passage Is This?

Sometimes understanding what kind of passage the composer is using is helpful in solving technical problems.  Of course, recognizing what the passage is makes for better music making, too.

Those of you with piano skills will recognize this passage as a type used by pianist/composers quite frequently.  

The bottom of the score shows the string section playing the 16th passage. On top of this the upper woodwinds play a counter melody that emphasizes the beats while the brass, timpani and basses give pickups and downbeats.

Composers for keyboard instruments used this type of phase shifted rhythm to give the piano or harpsichord a fuller texture.  The off-beat 16ths give the keyboard a more sustained sound by filling in sound between the beats.

This is usually accomplished by having the right hand take over the offbeat stuff (the string parts in the example above), giving the left hand the bass line and beats (brass, woodwinds and basses).  Generations of pianists are trained at an early age to play with the hands striking at slightly different times (instead of exactly together).

Saint-Saëns was an accomplished pianist and organist, so it's not surprising that he would use this technique.  However, it's much easier for one person to control both hands than for a whole orchestra to divide itself up this way, since the orchestra is trained to play together and not apart!

Here is another example from the last movement of the Organ Symphony.

Here the strings lead with the melody on the beat.  The same melody is outlined in the top note in each group of six in the piano parts (always the third note in the pattern).  However, this comes off the beat and sounds after the strings have played the same pitch.

Problem Solved (for now!)

By the Thursday night performance, the woodwinds got this passage together.  We did a little rehearsing separately and a few of us talked a bit about how we were approaching the 16th passages.

Here's what we came up with:
  • We thought of the 16th passage as starting on the beat.  In other words, we pretended as though the passage had been re-barred so the 16th rest at the beginning of the passage was gone.
  • However, we started the passage at the right time in relation to the conductor's beat, i.e., a 16th rest's worth of time later.
  • We continued playing as though the passage were on the beat with each change of pitch corresponding to an eight note beat.
  • Assuming correct tonguing speed, we ended at the right time
In other words, we played as though we were in a slight time phase shift with the rest of the orchestra.  Above all, we didn't look up to watch the conductor, for her beat wouldn't be helpful at all.

Ka" syllable on a conductor's beat can really mess up the double tongue.

I realize there's a lot of "inside baseball" in this particular post, but I thought I'd use this one to give a detailed glimpse into problem solving with a very specific example.

I should add that others in the woodwind section may have approached the passage differently from me, but the result was the same - together.  I think the oboes and flutes and second bassoon were all double-tonguing while the clarinets and I were single tonguing. Some may have felt more comfortable thinking of this passage as starting as printed - with an offbeat 16th note. It doesn't help to force your way of looking at things on others if they're not receptive or if they just solve problems in a different way.  The end justifies the means!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Barber and Saint-Saëns

This week's program features Samuel Barber's First Symphony, Camille Saint-Saëns' Third Symphony (The Organ Symphony) and Leonard Bernstein's Serenade for Violin and Orchestra.

Our conductor will be Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony's Music Director.  Unless you count Mitsuko Uchida's occasional conducting from the piano, this will be the first time since 1977 that a woman has conducted the Cleveland Orchestra!

I have been practicing the Barber for a couple of weeks now, since it has a very difficult set of bassoon solos.  The Saint-Saëns also has some tricky passages, so I've been brushing that up, too.

The solos and difficult passages in each focus mainly on fast articulation and tongue and finger coordination. To sharpen my skills in those areas, I've been practicing my scales at different metronome markings using different articulations.


I've also been practicing fast articulation using my single and my double tongue.  For me, the tempo for the 16th note passages in the Saint-Saëns first movement can fall at the upper range of my single tongue speed and can go into the lower end of my double tongue range.

This means practicing these passages between 69-88 for the dotted quarter.  The movement is in 6/8, so that means tonguing six 16th notes per beat.  The lower and upper range are really too slow and too fast musically, but you'd be surprised at what sometimes happens in a rehearsal or performance!  It's too easy to get locked into a particular tempo and then have to change speeds.  I'll try to avoid rigidity and hope to manage these spots at many different tempos successfully.

I have a clarinetist friend who believes you should prepare technical passages so you can play them faster than they should go.  That way the proper tempo feels more comfortable - not a "white-knuckle ride".  I also believe you should  be able to make a technical passage sound musical at a speed that is slower than ideal performance tempo.  This can also be a challenge. For instance, it's hard to phrase a solo like Bolero at =66, but I've had to play it at that tempo!

Back to the Saint-Saëns, though!  The passages discussed above present some specific problems for the woodwind section because they start after the beat, yet the pitch changes make the passage sound like it's solidly on the beat, yet phase-shifted over from the downbeats of the lower strings and timpani.

Success in this (together and steady) requires a certain amount of team work and cool-headedness in the woodwinds. The passage needs to start at the right time - one 16th note after the beat and remain steady throughout. Once you start it, you can't make an adjustment, so you have to start tonguing at exactly the right speed upon entering.  With variations in tempo from rehearsal to rehearsal and performance, this may mean switching from single tongue to double tongue if the tempo is faster than the last time through.  That's why it's important to cover many different tempos in your practicing.

What I've found in the past is that I'm able to use my single tongue (always a better choice when it's a comfortable speed) for the exposed articulated passages, but that my single tongue tires during the longer "ff" tutti passages, so I rely on my double tongue for those.  However, everyone is differently endowed with tonguing speed, so some others come to different conclusions than I do in cases like this.

Ironically, after all this sweat and labor, the effect for the listener should be a pleasant, slightly off-kilter murmur -- more of a texture than a riveting technical passage! Listen to this and you'll see what I mean!


Barber wrote this symphony in one movement with four sections.  The structure corresponds roughly to the traditional four movement symphony.  There is a slow, dramatic opening followed by a quick scherzo, a lyrical slow section and a dramatic ending.

These piece contains some thorny solos for the bassoon. 

You need nimble fingers and clean articulation to make these work.  The tempo can range from about dotted =138 to the printed dotted =152.  There are also some interesting dynamics in the solos.

I listened to a very fine recording by Neeme Jarvi and the Detroit Symphony for study, but I also want to mention a classic recording of this piece.  Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra recorded it in 1954.  My parents owned an LP of this and I listened to it growing up.

The performance features my former teacher, K. David VanHoesen.  It is one of the finest examples of his playing on record.  There are not many recordings of his playing, which is a shame, because he was one of the truly great bassoonists of his time.  He made this recording shortly after assuming his position as teacher of bassoon at the Eastman School of Music and joining the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra.  Prior to that he had been 2nd bassoon in the Cleveland Orchestra(!) for two years with George Szell.

There is a clip of this performance on YouTube.  The scherzo section begins about 6'45" in.  Listen for his brilliant technique and clear articulation. You may need to turn up the volume because the bassoon solos are in very light passages. The last one -- near the end of the clip -- is unaccompanied.

The part for the Barber is not in the public domain, but those wanting to learn it can find the major solos in Schoenbach's 20th Century Orchestra Studies. This would be another piece I'd include in a list of lesser-known orchestral bassoon parts to practice on a monthly basis.  I'd hate to have to sight-read this part!