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! 


  1. A conductor friend just asked me about the origin of the tradition of the bass clarinet playing those 4 notes. I've never been asked to play those pppppp notes, but I am curious about the origin of the tradition. Do you happen to know? Thanks.

  2. Hi, Lori,

    I don't know what got this started. It seems likely that enough bassoonists had trouble with playing it softly that someone somewhere thought up the idea of having a bass clarinet on hand to play the 4 notes. There certainly was a time in the early 20th century in which making changes to a score was not frowned upon. See what Mahler did to the Beethoven symphonies, for instance. 4 oboes play the oboe cadenza in the 1st mvt of the 5th, for instance!