Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Race!

The Orchestra gave a great concert last night.  One of our best on this trip, I thought. Heldenleben came across especially well.

A YouTube clip of the Friday night performance is available at:

And now, about the race!  We had really good weather - sunny and 50's -- much better than the hot, muggy weather of past years, so there were lots of fast times.

Over 21,000 people ran.  I finished in just under 1:36:00, my best time on this course by far.

Afterwards I joined Zach Lewis, Plain Dealer Music Critic, who also ran the race for breakfast.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Miami race tomorrow

Tomorrow is the Miami Marathon.  I've been preparing and training for this for 8 weeks, so today I'm filled with a nervous excitement!

I went to the runner's expo at the Miami Convention Center in South Beach today.

I picked up my race packet - T-shirt, timing chip, bib, etc. and bought a Spi-Belt for my daughter.  Then I went for lunch at Sushi-Siam on Lincoln Rd.  Time to carbo-load!  Below is a shot of my buckwheat soba noodles.

After the concert tonight, I'll try to go to bed early.  The race starts at 6:15!!

Thursday, January 27, 2011


We arrived in Miami yesterday. It was great to feel the warm, humid air and see the sun!

This is our fifth year residency, so everyone has their favorite places to go and favorite things to do.

Last night I combined business with pleasure by running from the hotel across the Venetian Causeway to South Beach -- about 2 1/2 miles. At 12th and Alton there is a soccer field with a track around it.  I did some interval work on the track -- 4 x 440's at my 5k race pace of 1':38".

Then I cooled down by walking to Lime - one of the best Mexican restaurants in South Beach.  Very cheap, quick good food -- a rarity for South Beach.  The baja fish tacos are the best!

I finished with a protein smoothie and went walking along Lincoln Road to watch the various flora and fauna of South Beach at its finest!

The new Nespresso store is beautifully decorated and a great place to sample all of their different flavors of coffee pods, lovingly served in cups with high design values.

Today is a day off.  I've devoted it to more mundane tasks such as laundry(my tux shirt is getting a cleaning and a soak below),

grocery shopping, practicing and reed making.

IU residency

On Monday and Tuesday of this week the Orchestra had a residency at Indiana University.  This involved master classes, a side-by side rehearsal, a concert of our own and other activities.

Jonathan Sherwin and I played in a Side-by Side orchestra with IU bassoonists, Danielle Osbun and Bobby Phillips.
After the Side-by-Side, I went for a 14-mile run with Jack Sutte. This was my last long run before the Miami race.  It was cold, but not as bad as Cleveland.  We went through most of Bloomington, circled back by some farm country, ended up back on campus, showered and went to a late dinner.

Rehearsal and concert the next day went very well. One of the most fun activities during a tour is going out with old friends after a concert.  I met Tim Clinch and Cynthia Carr and a former student of mine, Oleksiy Zakharov, who is now playing second bassoon in the Indianapolis Symphony for dinner. Cynthia and I were at Eastman together, Tim and I played in a recital at Northwestern quite a while ago.

In  the morning I had a quick breakfast with another former student, Dewayne Pinkney, who is working on a DMA at IU.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Miami Marathon

Next Sunday I'll be running the half marathon in the ING Miami Marathon.

This will be the fourth year I've run the race.  For the past two years, my time has been stubbornly stuck at 1:40:10 give or take a second (I'm nothing if not consistent!!).

I've been training for this since Thanksgiving.  That's been hard because of the weather and a very busy schedule, but this year I've done pretty well.

Check out my training plan if you're interested.,7124,s6-238-244-258-6851-0,00.html

The plan combines long runs with speed work that trains your body to sense three different paces; 5k, 10k and half marathon race paces, using the 5k and 10k to build speed.  You train your body mechanics to be most efficient at your goal half marathon pace.

Here's a photo of the shoes I'll wear for the race:

They're Brooks Green Silence.  Fun colors and made from 75% recycled ingredients.  They weigh only 7 oz. each!

The discipline of athletic training has many parallels to the study of music.  More about this in a future post.

The Miami course is absolutely beautiful. It starts in front of the American Airlines Pavilion (where the Heat plays), goes to South Beach over the MacArthur Causeway and through South Beach going back to the mainland via the Venetian Causeway finishing in downtown Miami.

Luckily we have the day off on Sunday, so I'll get a chance to relax, have a great brunch somewhere and enjoy the rest of the day.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tour prep. 2

Well, we have just three days to pack and prepare before leaving town for two weeks

Tomorrow night I'll be packing my wardrobe trunk.  Here it is with my "roommate" Jonathan Sherwin.

 Jonathan is my oldest friend in the Orchestra and was the best man at my wedding!  Here he is wedged between his contrabassoon and the wardrobe trunk.  Each of us gets 2 1/2 drawers plus space in the area with hangers.

These must be loaded after Saturday's concert because they will be shipped out to Indiana that night by our hard-working stagehands.  I will also pack my bassoon and send it in our instrument trunk.  We have room for four bassoons, a contrabassoon, reed tools, and music in that one.

One of the amenities we enjoy when on tour is our Nespresso machine.  It goes along with us on domestic tours.  Foreign tours proved too arduous for its previous model when a power surge in the locker room of the Musikverein in Vienna fried its circuitry!


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Tour preparation

We are about to embark upon a two-week tour.

Our itinerary includes concerts in Bloomington, Indiana, Miami, Ann Arbor, Chicago, New York and Newark. The concert venues range from Carnegie Hall to Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music.

The Orchestra usually offers two or three different programs for concert presenters.  This time one concert includes Ein Heldenleben, while the other is Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste.

There is often a soloist who travels with us.  This time it's Pierre-Laurent Aimard (photo on left). Aimard is one of the most accomplished pianists playing today.  He can play just about anything!  He will join us for Schumann's Piano Concerto and the Bartok 2nd Piano Concerto.

The Bartok is known as one of the most difficult concertos written for the piano. It will be fun to hear him assay this piece!

But this post is about what we do to prepare for a tour.

Foreign tours involve more preparation than domestic ones, but this one presents some unusual challenges.

First of all, we must pack clothing for both warm and cold weather. Prescriptions that may run out during the trip need to be filled in advance, bills paid, etc. I think touring is tougher for those of us without spouses or partners. Pets and children must be cared for while we're away, mail held, etc.

Musical preparation is also underway. By this weekend we will have rehearsed and performed all of the repertoire to be taken on the road. There is minimal rehearsal time during a tour, so everything must be in place. It's not unusual to have just a sound check before a concert in a new location on tour -- or even just play the concert without any chance to check out the hall.

Along with the parts I've been assigned to play, I'm understudying all the principal parts that John Clouser will play in case he's indisposed. I will take my own copies of the parts along to practice.

I'll also take my reed tools and extra reeds to break in, etudes to practice and excerpts to prepare for the masterclasses I'm giving at the Manhattan School of Music and Roosevelt University.

I'll continue this thread in another posting in a day or so.  I'll try to get some photos to upload of our preparation. . .

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Humor in our program this week

The Cleveland Orchestra's program this week may not be an obvious source for humor. It consists of:

Wagner: Tannhauser Overture
Schumann: Piano Concerto (Radu Lupu, soloist)
R. Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

One of the pleasures of playing in an orchestra comes through the sharing of great stories regarding such repertoire. Here are mine:

I remember when I was studying with Willard Elliot, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Principal Bassoonist at the time. The upcoming concert featured Tannhauser Overture.  I had tickets to hear it and mentioned it to Willard in a lesson.  He became very excited and urged me to listen for the high E in the bassoon part in the middle of the piece.

Since I was only familiar with the opening section and only had a feel for the piece as a whole, I had no idea what he was talking about.  Since the opening chorale presents the biggest challenge in the piece, I had only copied the first page of the bassoon part anyway. I was an impoverished student and was trying to save money!

I went to the concert and waited for the passage with the E to come up.  Before it, Willard actually stopped playing and switched reeds.  He had made a special reed just for this passage! The E came zinging out over the whole orchestra!  At the end Willard was smiling and laughing during the applause, enjoying his success with one of his colleagues.  

Next month I'll play this piece on our tour in Chicago's Orchestra Hall, where I originally heard the "E".  If I get the E to come out, I doubt if it will carry like Willard's did!

The next piece is the Schumann Piano Concerto.  There is a great story told about Zubin Mehta and Daniel Barenboim who are friends.  Barenboim had been engaged to play the piece with the New York Philharmonic with Mehta conducting.

The first movement starts with a big orchestral chord closely followed by a solo entrance for the piano.  At the concert, Mehta started the orchestra before Barenboim was ready, so there was some roughness in the start of the piece!

The second movement starts with a few piano notes closely followed by the orchestra.  Barenboim made a point of starting this movement before Mehta was ready and got his friend back for what he did in the first movement!

We are playing Ein Heldenleben many times this year.  It seems like wherever we are on tour, it's the big piece.  I'm keeping track of the number of performances in my part.

The more I play it the more comical it seems.  The whole thing seems like a really corny silent movie with a very broad plot.  The hero is blustery and self-absorbed, the beloved's music is treacly sweet with lots of ornaments and portamentos.  The critics are obtuse and obnoxious.

The first section presents the hero's motive in over-blown (sometimes literally so!) late-Romantic style.  It is in the form of an opening movement concerto tutti section. 

We get a huge dominant prep on Bb with lots of pregnant pauses. Normally this would signal the entrance of our noble protagonist as soloist, (cf. the preparation and entrance of the solo cello in Don Quixote).

But no! During the pauses, the critics are sharpening their pencils, getting ready to write a damning review! The final G.P. precipitates a raucous critical attack.

The rhythm of the critic's motive involving the tubas fits perfectly with the syllables of the name of a local music critic!  Note that some of the critics go home before the concert is over.  They have already filed their reviews with the newspaper -- only the tubas remain near the end to intone their prohibition against writing parallel fifths!

Even the battle scene strikes me as funny.  The entry of the three off stage trumpets reminds me of the 3 Stooges (Hello, hello, hello!)!

Does anyone out there have any good stories to relate?

If you're in the area this weekend and can go to the concert, I hope you'll enjoy it!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Magpie!

Shakespeare has been described as an intellectual magpie, stealing from others and not beholden to one method of writing a play.  He was known to steal plots from various sources and vastly improve them dramatically.

Bach could be thought of this way, too.  He was very knowledgeable about Vivaldi's music and earlier music as well as the styles current in his day. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was to take old forms and contemporary styles and write the best examples of them the world ever produced.

Steal from the best!

In my own humble way I like to follow this way of operating.  I like to take what's best from a performance and try to incorporate it in my own to see if it works for my situation. 

I'm not afraid to look for something compelling anywhere -- even in a performer I don't usually care for.  There's almost always something useful to be found in others' performances -- even if it's just an example of what not to do!

Naturally, I'll go to performers I really admire first and glean what I can from them. Although, even with them you can't use everything.

For instance, in a previous post I singled out Walter Guetter's Firebird for praise. 
I hope you'll listen to it. 

Here's what I get out of it:
  • A beautiful sound; very clear and ringing
  • Dead-on intonation
  • Smooth legato
What I don't like about it:
  • The 2-bar phrasing
  • The vibrato is too fast and intense
My job here is to co-opt what I admire and translate it in my own performance and leave what's unnecessary or distracting.

I believe too often musicians are quick to dismiss a performance if they hear something they don't like.  Poor recording quality has kept many from learning from the great artists of the past.  Glaringly bad intonation or tone quality may cause you to ignore revelatory phrasing or brilliant technique.

Be like the magpie and build your nest from the things you "steal" from others!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Firebird follow up

We had our rehearsal with the dancers today.  They have rehearsed to a recording that features some very big liberties with tempo and lots of rubato.

This is very common in my experience.  I remember playing Rossini's Semiramide Overture with the Joffrey Ballet many years ago.  The piece went so fast, most of it was a blur.  The dancers referred to it as "Confetti", not as "Semiramide".  "Confetti, please everyone!!"

This illustrates a point about orchestra playing I'd like to emphasize.  I feel it's very important to come into the first rehearsal with a well-conceived plan for how you want to play major solos, etc., and play that way when the solos first come up.  BUT THEN, you need to be very flexible in order to give the conductor (or the dancers) what they want if it differs from your approach.

I often feel like playing in an orchestra has some similarities to being a maitre-d'hotel in a great restaurant.  He (or she) knows the regular patrons so well, knows where they like to sit in the restaurant, knows what they like to order, knows what specials are especially good that night, having sampled them beforehand, and has this information in mind when patrons show up to be seated.  However, sometimes diners want something different and the waiter needs to show resourcefulness and flexibility.

Yesterday I spent about an hour practicing the Berceuse and recording myself using 2 different bocals and several reeds to see what combination would work best.  My choices worked well today in rehearsal.  However, I don't always find that to be the case because my reeds can play a bit differently at home versus Severance Hall. The Cleveland area has many micro-climates that are variously effected by Lake Erie.  Some reeds that sound great at home, don't at the hall.

Playing the Berceuse with our Orchestra is a dream because you can look over at the second violins while playing and notice how little bow they use during your solo.  They all know it's a bassoon solo and try to accompany.  Severance Hall is a treat to play in because there's rarely a need to force your sound.  It goes out easily.  I wish everyone could have this experience. God knows I've played in a lot worse situations!!

The concert is at 2:00pm tomorrow, but is sold out.  Anyone still wanting tickets may be able to get standing room or proms seats, though.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


This weekend we play the 1919 version of the Firebird Suite.  I'm really looking forward to the concert.  It's a family concert featuring TCO with the Joffrey Ballet Academie.  We're also playing a number of shorter pieces they've choreographed, mostly Russian in nature.  I'm sure there will be a lot of aspiring young ballerinas in the audience!

In preparing for the Firebird, I'll spend much of my time on the Berceuse, of course.  That's what I'd like to discuss in this post.

I'll use my #2CD prewar bocal for this solo since it sounds the best in this range and try to find a reed that has a very warm, even tone in the solo register with an effortless legato.  The reed doesn't need to have a big sound, but needs to be very homogenous in tone quality from note to note in the solo.

For a great legato the blade thicknesses must be perfectly balanced so the blades vibrate together at all points.  I'll use my dial indicator to check this, as I can't really tell symmetry from a reed lamp or by feel when scraping.

I'll try to record myself a few times to be sure I'm not missing anything when playing it.  I'll listen especially for good pitch and rhythm.

Regarding rhythm:  The triplet figure in measure 3 is often mistakenly played as an eighth followed by two sixteenths, even in recordings of great orchestras!  Subdividing the quarter notes of the beginning of the bar will help avoid this trap.

This piece presents some challenges for intonation.  Bassoonists choose bocals and instruments partly based on how well they play in the "money" range!  This is a good test piece for such purchases!

  • Bb  To center my first Bb, I listen like crazy to the strings and harp in the introduction for pitch reference and tone quality.  
  • Db  Depending upon the fingering used, the next note (Db) can sound muffled or bright and sharp. This note must be matched beautifully to the Bb in tone and pitch.
  • Cb  Should not be sharp.  In fact, it sounds best if it's slightly leaning back towards the Bb (its resolution 2 notes later).
  • D  Should not be flat.  We're in eb minor, so this leading tone should point up towards its resolution two notes later -- Eb
  • Bb to F  This perfect fifth will stick out if it's not in tune.  The key is finding the center of the Bb again from the Eb before it.
To help give the line more direction I think of the Bbs and Ebs as magnetized anchors in the phrase that draw Cb (in the case of Bb) and D (in the case of Eb) into their orbit.  It's a bit controversial to say this, but playing the Cb and D in equal temperament hurts the expression and direction of the line in this slow solo. Slightly favoring (very slightly!) these notes helps direct the line.

I'm not a big fan of raised leading tones, but in this case I think it works.  More about this in a future post.

I'd like to avoid the question of D or Db in the last solo, since it's been debated ad nauseum in the bassoon world.  Suffice it to say that Stravinsky told different prominent American bassoonists different things during his career!  I'll be playing D natural.

For inspiration, I'll listen to a recording featuring the father figure of German bassoon playing in America, J. Walter Guetter.  The recording, made in the early years of electric recording, is from 1935.  Guetter's tone shines through with clarity and beauty.  Listen for the call and response between Guetter and Tabuteau.

The Berceuse starts about 1/3 of the way into this mp3.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tchaikovsky 6th

We're playing Tchaikovsky 6th this weekend.  Although our Principal Bassoonist, John Clouser, is playing the first part (and beautifully, I might add), it's my job as Assistant Principal to understudy the part in the event he is indisposed.

I take this responsibility seriously, so I've given a good deal of thought and practice time to being ready to play this if need be.  My thoughts are based on the many times I've played the piece in the past as well.

The most important issue with the Tchaikovsky 6th is coming to terms with the opening solos. That begins with being comfortable with reeds.  I've spent several hours in the past week trying to zero in on reeds that might be able to help me play the opening comfortably.

You need a reed that responds easily in the low register and has a mellow, even tone quality down low.  It doesn't need to have a big sound or even play well above the staff, since the dynamics are soft and you can change reeds when the solos are finished.

Therefore, many bassoonists use a special reed for this solo.  The reed's blade could be a little longer than usual to combat the usual sharpness in the low register.  The wires could be more oval to allow for lower pitch and easier response.  The blade near the collar or first wire could be thinner than usual to mellow the low register and lower the pitch.  All of these things can help.

Many bassoonists modify the fingering or even the instrument a bit to ease the response and pitch of the low E.  I pull the long joint out 1/4" and using the low Bb key to muffle the E.  Make sure the whisper lock is on! I do not use the low C# key in this case.  It makes the sound too prominent.

I also have a spatula attached to my low Bb key and a special lever placed at the other end of this key to help with this.  

The work was done by Frank Marcus.  The key and lever are attached by screws, so not permanent.  Depressing the low Bb key with this setup closes the low Bb pad and the lever lowers the B pad halfway to the tone hole.  The virtue of this latter action is lower pitch whereas the closed Bb mainly serves to muffle the E.

This works great for low D and Eb.  Low C can be muffled this way, but it's awkward to do so.

Other solutions involve using a mute in the bell or large end of the long joint or placing a match stick under the bridge in the low D mechanism to lower its pad or doing the same for the low C.  There are lots of solutions.

The goal is to provide consistency and comfort when executing this solo.  The bass section will not be sharp with you if you are riding high and you definitely want to keep the conductor out of your hair!

This week the famous "pppppp" four notes before the development section in the first movement are being played on bass clarinet.  If you have to play them, muting is really helpful.  Having a friendly clarinet colleague who won't play impossibly soft before you have to come in is also good! 

What It Is and What It Isn't


When I was young I aspired to play in a major symphony orchestra. However, for much of my youth this life seemed shrouded in mystery.

What did those people do when they weren't on stage? Did they still practice as much as I did? Did they struggle with reeds?  Was learning new music hard?

Now I play in the Cleveland Orchestra and teach at the Cleveland Institute of Music.  

I'd like to use this blog to help pull back the curtain a bit and show those coming up in our profession what my daily life is like.

In this blog, I will:
  • Share tips on practicing and performing
  • Discuss repertoire TCO is playing
  • Show how I prepare for big events like recitals, concertos, etc.
  • Give opinions on bassoon sound, interpretation, technique, reed making, recordings, etc.
In this blog, I will not:
  • Share personal information
  • Blog about trivial topics or anything I don't think would be of interest to bassoonists and other musicians
See the list of tags for specific topics that might interest you.

Thanks for visiting and reading!