Thursday, March 31, 2011

Birth of a Piece #3


I read through Margi Griebling-Haigh's piece,"Sortilège", with Randall Fusco on Friday.  It was really great to hear the "total picture" after weeks of practicing just the bassoon part and studying the piano score.

The harmonic language of the piece is much more clear to me now.  I anticipated some ensemble issues (as did Randy) by marking some piano cues in my part, but more were needed where I didn't expect them. This is not unusual for me! I'll probably put a few more in as we learn it together. 

Randy's playing supported most of my musical nuances.  Some needed more inflection on my part.  We adjusted a few tempos slightly to help the rhythms set into a groove more.  The piece is composed as a set of free variations based on my name!  It has many sections and lots of tempo changes.  Margi is great at sketching musical moments with concision.

All the technical passages are possible with some broadening for the most difficult of them.  These invariably happen at places where it is good to let the music stretch a bit anyway.

At the end of our work I felt Randy and I had articulated many ideas we agreed upon about the piece. These were mainly related to style, tempo, rubato/ritards and colors.

I'm looking forward to our next rehearsal!

Monday, March 21, 2011

practicing goals for 3/21 week

Goals for this week:

  • Move on to C# melodic minor, #4 Bertoni
  • Spot work on "Sorcels"
  • Ready "Sortilege" for reading with piano on Friday
  • Start re-learning "Hexen" if time
  • Prep for Haydn 98 and Rach. 2nd Piano Concerto (TCO reh and concerts 3/29-4/3)
  • Produce 10-20 more reed blanks
  • Take bassoon for overhaul at the end of the week
IDRS recital program progress report:

Yesterday I recorded "Sorcels" and listened back. Much of this piece is ready to go, but the extended techniques need to sound more fluent and create the proper effect. I may need to re-evaluate some fingerings I've chosen.

Making the recording allowed me to judge how the piece comes off as a whole when I play it.  This was where my performance was most lacking. Along with making the extended techniques sound effortless and not distracting, I need to adjust how the pauses work in the piece to create more drama and more flow in certain sections.

Since I've got plenty of time before my first performance (May 6th in Cleveland), I can afford to let whole sections of this piece rest for a while and focus solely on little sections, doing some retooling of the technique and joining each section to what happens before and after it.

In addition, I'm going to try to improve my concept of the "big picture" with this piece by researching other music by Patrice Sciortino, if possible, and spend time with the music away from the bassoon to fine-tune my interpretation without the encumbrance of the instrument/reed, etc.

The Heckel bocal I've chosen for performing this piece worked well in the recording, but I'll still need to get a reed that favors the extreme high notes.  Several high "f"s!!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Myth buster #2 -- Talent can flourish in any environment

Here's another good one: Artists are freaks of nature -- they're born with their abilities intact, don't need to work hard at what they do to achieve astounding results, etc. Best of all, the belief that talent is sui generis, doesn't need a particular environment in which to flourish.

Mozart is often held up as the most famous example of this. The movie, "Amadeus", exploits this idea.

However, the evidence doesn't support this theory.  Yes, Mozart was born with talent, but his environment and upbringing had much more to do with it.  At age 3 his father started him on a rigorous regimen of musical training. After a few years of development he took the kids on tours of Europe, exposing them to music by other composers, among other things. For more on this, read Neil Zaslaw's essay, Mozart as Working Stiff

Indeed, environment is extremely important in the development of talent. Young musicians need to be in a place where others like them abound, where the exchange of ideas, performances, etc. is easy and frequent. Geoff Colvin writes in his book, "Talent Is Overrated" that most young artists quickly absorb what their first teachers have to give them and then move on to a "master teacher" and often move to a different location, usually an urban center or place where artists live in close proximity.

Mozart eventually ended up in Vienna, the musical capitol of the Western World. It was a rich environment with dozens of composers, concerts everywhere.  A great place to thrive for a musician at the time.

For a similar view on the musical development of J.S. Bach, read James R. Gaines'  "Evening in the Palace of Reason" By reading it, I discovered that Bach came from a family of musicians and composers dating back to a century before his birth. Making music for him was as commonplace as video gaming is today!

One more example and then I'll stop. From the world of jazz:

It's easy to imagine that jazz musicians, because they improvise for a living and cultivate a "hip", aloof image, don't put in the hard work or need the company of others to develop. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

You only need to read about Kansas City in the 30's or Harlem in the mid-20th century to find out that these places were hotbeds of activity. Musicians at one club would go across the street on their breaks to another club to listen to or sit with another group.  There were contests and all-star nights.

Minton's playhouse in Harlem is often cited as the place where Bebop was born. Read the wikipedia entry for Minton's, especially the sections on Monday Celebrity Nights, Cutting Sessions and Duels and Sitting in at Minton's to get an idea of the kind of crucible this environment was for the careers of many of the great jazz artists of the 1950's.

The Five Spot was another club in Manhattan in the East Village where jazz musicians, Beat poets, writers and abstract expressionist artists gathered. It's hard to believe that much of the music, poetry, art of the 1950s would have been produced without these places.

Below is a painting by Stan Landsaman  that was hung in the Five Spot and a photo of the club on a busy night.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Myth buster #1 - you've either got it or you don't

The main purpose of this blog is to pull back the curtain a bit and reveal some of the "secrets" of the life of a professional musician.

One of the most common myths regarding great artists is that they are somehow born with great talent and simply get to play around with it while others struggle mightily just to sing in tune or play a scale.  While it's true that each of us is unique and born with certain aptitudes and proclivities, research has shown that with creativity, it's mostly nurture and a little nature instead of the other way around.

In his book, "Talent Is Overrated", Geoff Colvin states what many other researchers have found: that composers and performers become successful through arduous practice and relentless self-evaluation.  He states that, for these artists, practice is "highly demanding mentally. . . continually seeking exactly those elements of performance that are unsatisfactory and then trying one's hardest to make them better places enormous strain on anyone's mental abilities."

He also notes that this kind of deliberate practice isn't much fun. "Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that's exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands."

The myth of "you've either got it or you don't" comes, I think, from what the public sees in a performance. Just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the tremendous amount of work needed to perform at a world-class level.

No one would find it entertaining or uplifting to listen to someone practice for hours, but, if done well, all that sweat and hard work results in a performance that is engaging. Paradoxically, with lots of deliberate practice, the performer strives for a sort of "planned spontaneity" in performance that gives the impression of freshness and life to an interpretation.  Never let them see you sweat!!

Jazz artists are especially prone to being given the "super talented" label.  What most people don't know is that they, too have put in long hours practicing scales and patterns, listening to and transcribing solos, improvising. Maybe it's the improvisatory aspect that gives people the impression they don't need to work at what they do!
I'm reading a great biography of jazz artist, Thelonious Monk right now.  I'm struck again and again by how hard he worked with his sidemen, teaching them his charts.

Here is a description of Monk's sessions with an orchestrator who was setting Monk's tunes for big band:

"The earliest meetings proved both productive and painstaking. Monk insisted that Overton transcribe his songs directly from the piano. They would sit together at the two instruments and Monk would patiently teach Overton each song, bar by bar, note by note. Monk had lead sheets, but he would not share them. . . on "Thelonious". . . they spent at least fifteen minutes on the first two bars alone, all the while explaining how the song should sound, what notes ought to be there and how the overtones are meant to suggest the key of Bb throughout the song. On "Monk's Mood". . . it took Overton -- an excellent pianist in his own right -- forty minutes to get through one chorus."

You get the picture. Now listen to this YouTube clip of Monk's group playing in Tokyo and don't tell me this hasn't been practiced and planned out to within an inch of it's life!!!

Thursday, March 17, 2011


I've done some transcribing for bassoon lately. The process has made me think about what makes a successful transcription.  Here are some guidelines I try to follow:

First of all, why transcribe anything?
  • Your instrument has a "low calorie" repertoire.  There are no significant works for solo bassoon by Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, etc.  Even the Mozart Concerto is second-rate Mozart (sorry, K.191!!). Transcribing music by first-rank composers makes you stretch and allows you vicariously to inhabit the world lived in by string players and pianists.
  • There is a piece you particularly love and would like to try it on your instrument.
  • There is a particular technical aspect of your playing you'd like to work on. I'm thinking of the Italian vocalises played by trombonists for working on lyricism and phrasing, for instance.
  • You would like to fill a gap in a theme-oriented program, but there is no work by the composer or period of music you choose to highlight.
  • Playing transcriptions gets us outside of a "bassoon-centric" view of music. Because the music is not written for the bassoon it makes us solve problems that do not take into consideration the strengths or weaknesses of the bassoon. I'm thinking of the breathing and phrasing issues inherent in playing string music, for instance.
A successful transcription is one in which the essence of the original music is preserved and, perhaps enriched by any new facets exposed through performance on a different instrument. Just as a really great piece can withstand multiple performances by different artists, some great works can be performed successfully on different instruments. 

Now that I've justified the urge to transcribe, it would be tempting to run amok and transcribe all of my favorite non-bassoon pieces! Since I'm pretty sure no one wants to hear the last movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto on the bassoon, I must list some precautions and prohibitions involved in the process.

If the transcription is intended for public performance make sure to keep the public's expectations and reactions in mind. Therefore, avoid transcribing:
  • A very popular work closely associated with the original instrument, e.g., Debussy's Premiere Rhapsody for Clarinet. It may actually work well on the bassoon, but knowledgeable audience members will come away from your performance wanting to hear the piece again on the "right" instrument. 
  • A piece that's awkward on your instrument, such that, when performed, your effort is obvious and distracting to the listener.
  • A work that doesn't sound good when played in a different tessitura. 
Slight blog digression here!  I just transcribed Debussy's "Syrinx" for bassoon.  This would seem to violate two of the principles listed above. It does, but it also fits perfectly into a themed program I'm presenting at the IDRS Conference this June.  Since I do not plan on publishing my version or performing it again after the Conference, I think I'll be able to squeak by on this one.  Conferences are places to try out things that may be extreme and impractical in other situations. Besides, there won't be very many flutists there to mock me!!
  • Don't transcribe a work that really needs to be played in its original key if this can't be done on the bassoon. It is generally best to transcribe in the original key. The color or mood of a piece is often defined by its key, so can be important for the character of the piece.
  • On the other hand, if the key isn't so important, transcribe and transpose when the logic of the piece works better in another key for your transcription setting.
Blog digression #2! I just transcribed three Shostakovich string quartet movements for bassoon quartet. In one movement, the range of the string parts is from low Db in the cello to leger line G in the first violin. In order to fit this on four bassoons, I transposed the piece down a minor third.  This put the 4th bassoon (cello) part on low Bb and the 1st bsn (violin) up to high E (down an octave). This is the only key in which the transcription would work. Another key would necessitate lots of multi-octave displacements, robbing either the lowest or highest voice of its character.
  • When transcribing vocal works (arias, vocalises,etc.) avoid those with lots of declamation or recitative on the same pitch.  These passages are meaningless without the words.  Try for pieces with lots of melisma and instrumental-style flourishes.
  • Choose good, but lesser-known work by a major composer, e.g., Beethoven F major Romance for Violin.
Bassoonists, trombonists, saxophonists, bassists, etc. are all avid transcribers. What are your reactions to the above?  What points would you add to my lists?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

practicing goals for 3/14 week

Yesterday I set the following goals for this week's practicing:

1. Polish up and record a performance of Sciortino's "Sorcels".  It's time to see where this one is after 3 months of practicing and woodshedding the difficult passages.  When I listen to the recording I should be able to see if the extended techniques (flutter tonguing, multiphonics, timbre trills, extreme high notes, etc.) sound effective and get a sense of how my interpretation comes off.  Is there a sense of the "X Factor" in my performance yet? More about that in a future blog!

2. Get "Sortilege" ready for a read-through with Randy on Monday.  This means getting basic control of all technical passages and crafting a rough-draft of interpretation and control of tempos, primarily.  More about playing with a pianist in a future blog (sorry about all the teasers!).

3. Move on to f# melodic minor in my scale routine and #3 Bertoni.

4. Process 24 pieces of cane (Rigotti and Razzco cane from tubes), making blanks to put on the drying rack.

5. Finish three blanks and reshape 10 blanks.  The 10 blanks have a shape that I was trying out that was too wide at the tip, so I'll sand/file them down to my usual width.

This would normally be way to much to accomplish with the usual teaching load and orchestra week, but I'm relatively free this week from orchestral duties.  I only play the off-stage banda part in Don Giovanni (fully produced opera this week and next), so there will be lots of down time.  I can escape to a practice room in Severance Hall once I'm sure when I'm not needed and work on reeds and practice.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Practicing - planning ahead

It's a good time to look ahead.  Spring is almost here, my students are on spring break, my work load in the Orchestra is light for the next few weeks.

While I'm certainly going to relax a bit more during this time, it's also a great opportunity to plan ahead.

What have I got coming up in the next couple of months?
  • Full recital at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights on May 6th at 7:30pm
  • Three performances at the International Double Reed Society Conference, May 31-June 4, Tempe, Arizona
Now is a good time to look at the calendar and set some goals.

Setting goals is one of the most important jobs for any musician involved in studying at a music school, taking lessons or preparing self-produced concerts.  It helps structure practice time and helps weed out wasted time and energy.  Believe me, there's a lot of wasted time in most people's practice habits!

I divide goals into three categories:


Short term goals are those in which the work must be done in a short space of time - anywhere from a day to a week. This week for me this means:
  • very focused practice of difficult passages in this week's orchestral music to ensure perfect execution is repeatable in rehearsals and concerts. 
  • Tweaking a couple of nearly-finished reeds and moving them into a state in which I know what they can and can't do well so I can rely upon them for this week's concerts.
  • Achieving speed and evenness in my scales (this week it's b melodic minor)
  • Working on my legato playing
  • Learning a Bertoni etude


This could be any goal you want to reach in a matter of weeks. For me this means primarily reed making. My drying rack is nearly empty of blanks.  With some big recitals and lots of orchestral playing looming in the next couple of months, I've got to replenish my supply.
  • Splitting, pre-gouging and gouging cane from a couple of different sources. I'm very afraid of relying upon one source for good cane.  Using different sources gives me more versatility in reed choices.  Some cane works well for soft playing, other works well for solo playing, etc.
  • Profiling, etc. to make blanks that I allow to dry for several weeks.  My goal is to have 50 blanks on my drying rack by the beginning of April. That should give me some good choices for the end of April/early May and on into June when I don't want to be spending time gouging, profiling, etc.
  • Going through some 40 reeds I've left aside because they didn't seem worth finishing at first to see if there are some "late bloomers" in the bunch.  I always find a few this way!  With the weather changing, some reeds that don't work well in winter may perk up!


    These could be any big concerts, auditions or recitals for which you are preparing.  They could also be any goals you have for improvement that just take some time -- embouchure change, posture/hand position changes, end of semester goals you set with your teacher (improving intonation, learning vibrato, etc.).  Ideally, short range goals should be set up to integrate with long range goals so you can see improvement along the way and sense what amount of effort is enough.  Long range goals can easily fade away without concrete benchmarks set in the form of short range goals. Below are my long range goals and some goals I've achieved in reaching them.

    • Prepare five pieces for performance and arrange and prepare movements of 3 Shostakovich string quartets for performance.
    I arranged the Shostakovich pieces over Christmas break. My friend, Rich Shanklin put them in Finale format for me last month.  TrevCo has agreed to publish them.  My students and I read through them last week to check for mistakes.  My quartet, The Men Who Don't Bite will start rehearsing them at the end of April.
      The pieces are Debussy's Syrinx (which I've arranged for bassoon), Patrice Sciortino's Sorcels, Alain Bernaud's Hallucinations, Margi Griebling-Haigh's Sortilège and Miguel del Aguila's Hexen.

      This is a huge amount of difficult music to learn, so I've had to prioritize, fast-tracking some pieces, putting others on hold.

      The only piece I've played before is Hexen, so I've let that one go so far. I've just read through it a few times to refresh my memory.

      Margi finished her piece a few weeks ago, so I'm just starting to work on it.  Randy Fusco, my pianist, and I will read through the piece for the first time next week. That leaves Debussy, Sciortino and Bernaud.

      The Bernaud and Sciortino are by far the most difficult pieces of the group.  I started working on them in December (a lead time of 6 months!).  Details about how I have worked on them in a future blog. Suffice it to say that I can now play the most technically difficult passages in the Sciortino at performance tempo with great accuracy when isolating them, but am not secure about their accuracy in a run-through yet.  The passages in the Bernaud remain under tempo but are within 90% of performance tempo, ditto about a run-through of this one.  The first recital is 2 months away, so I'm comfortable with the progress on these two.

      In addition, I've done some listening, especially to Syrinx (several flute recordings), but also to the Bernaud.  No recording of the Sciortino exists, but I've been in touch with the dedicatee, Alexandre Ouzonoff, who has promised to help with the piece. More on listening to recordings in a future blog.

      I've made most of the broad artistic decisions about the pieces (program order, tempos, style, etc.), but remain open to changing them when performances get closer. This holds especially true for Sortilège and Hallucinations, because they are pieces with piano. More about working with pianists in a future blog!

      In reviewing my progress I can state the following with confidence:
      • Because I've given myself plenty of time to prepare, I'm on track so far to have these recital programs in good shape by the time May and April come around.
      • Progress on the technique of the new pieces is on track
      Along with reed making and continued practice I'll do the following in the coming weeks:
      • Start re-learning Hexen and perhaps coach it with Randy playing the piano reduction a few times to get ready for playing it with the string orchestra in Tempe.
      • Continue the work on Margi's piece. Play it for her to get her input.
      • Take a break from the note-crunching practice on the other pieces. Get back to it in a few weeks.
      • Instead, study the piano score of Hallucinations to see how it integrates with the bassoon part and search out other music by Bernaud and Sciortino to learn more about their styles.
      • Go back to my recordings of these pieces to absorb other players' ideas and more perfectly form my own.
      • Start recording myself performing these pieces in a few weeks.
      Well, now that I've written all this down, I really have to do it!  Time to go, I've got some cane to split!!

        Tuesday, March 8, 2011

        A Day in the Life 1

        This is the first posting in response to a request for a run-down of what I do from hour to hour during the day. I'll try to keep this interesting.  Don't worry, you won't be getting tweets from me when I have a hangnail!!

        It's tough to outline an average day for me, because there's really no such thing. Those craving routine would be well-advised to avoid the life of a performer!

        What I'll do instead is give you a blow-by-blow account of a day in which I have a lot of time to myself and a day when most of my time is taken up by responsibilities.  I believe handling both scenarios well can be difficult.

        Today I was free until 7:30pm when I had an orchestra rehearsal.

        It was a good day to stay home because my daughter was home sick.

        7:00am wake up
        Breakfast, newspaper, email

        9:00 process steesbassoon orders from Austria, New York, Indiana and Nevada

        10:00 - 12:15 practice - warmed up with my version of Herzberg scales in b melodic minor. Learned Bertoni study #2, worked on the Dvorak and understudied the Mahler 4th for this week's concerts, practiced repertoire for my IDRS program.

        12:15 lunch

        1:00 packaged orders to send out

        1:15 trips to post office and drug store

        2:00-4:00 process cane

        4:00-5:30 Relaxed, read a biography of jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk, showered, packed bassoon, etc. for rehearsal.

        5:30 dinner

        6:45 arrived at hall early to try bocals on stage

        7:30 rehearsal

        9:00 home to write this blog!

        Saturday, March 5, 2011

        Miami in March

         March is a great time to be in Miami.  The weather is perfect -- not too hot, never chilly and mostly sunny and breezy.

        Looking out my hotel room window I was struck by the similarities between the cruise ships lining up to set off for their journeys and our concert hall, which used to be called the Carnival Center (after the cruise ship line).

        We played three concerts here this time -- one pops-oriented one with Bolero, Carmen Suite, Roman Carnival, etc. and two symphonic concerts with Enigma Variations, Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Bolero. Audiences have been great this time around.

        It's not always easy to get to a concert here.  The Miami Heat play just south of us and often during our concerts.  Thursday night we competed with a Heat game and President Obama's arrival in South Beach for a fund-raiser!

        Thursday, March 3, 2011

        Miami coffeeI

        I've been searching for good coffee in Miami for a few years now.  There are several places to try, starting with Cafe Paul on Lincoln Road in South Beach and the predictable Starbucks. Espresso should never be served in a to-go cup, however.

        There is also great Cuban style coffee everywhere if you like the thick sweet coffee they make.

        However, I haven't found a place that makes really great espresso with love and care for each individual cup.

        Yesterday, though, an Illy espresso bar opened in the lobby of the Bayshore Marriott, where we stay. Illy is about as prevalent in Europe as Starbucks is in the US, so it is a reliable brand. I went in and tried a double. It was pretty good. The place has potential. It may take them a while for the espresso to live up to the $4.25 price for a double but an auspicious start at any rate!

        Tour life

        We are back in Miami for a week. This is a great time of year to get away from Northeast Ohio and enjoy some sun and warm breezes. I do enjoy our visits here!

        I was looking at my hotel room desk today and thought the messiness might make a good photo still-life.

        Reedmaking tools, reeds, Kindle, snacks and nutrition supplements for exercise dominate. Fortunately, the dirty laundry was already bagged!  Sometimes the bathroom turns into a laundry area on longer trips.

        We are playing some colorful music this week:  Bolero, Enigma Variations, Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Berlioz Roman Carnival, Carmen Suite, etc.

        Our conductor is Giancarlo Guerrero, who was just named Principal Guest Conductor for our Miami Residencies.  He brings a big personality and friendly nature to his music making that should work well here.