Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Birth of a Piece #4


I'm in the home stretch for my recital on May 6th here in Cleveland. Randy and I have been working a lot on Margi Griebling-Haigh's new piece, "Sortil├Ęge".  

Yesterday we played through the piece for Margi and rehearsed it some afterwards. She had some good suggestions, in particular, ways in which to achieve the mood of certain sections.

Randy and I had made some small changes to the piece in her absence.  We tinkered with a few tempos and ritards, accelerandos, etc. We wanted to see if those worked for her, too.  We ended up keeping some and restoring others.  We've all been friends for a long time, so there was a very comfortable environment for making criticisms and discussing musical ideas.

This is not always the case with a composer! I've commissioned lots of music from many composers in my career. Each person is different to work with. It is important for the performer to judge what kind of interaction with the composer is helpful or possible or even if one is desired at all.

I can think of one composer whom we intentionally kept out of rehearsals because of his overly critical and micro-managing behavior in the past! We didn't let him hear the piece until the premiere!

Another composer who's written a lot for me has the philosophy that once a piece is written, the composer needs to let go and enjoy the new life given it by the performers.

What experiences have you had working on a new piece with the composer?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Working... #3 : Bassoon vs. piano

I'm sure many of you have been to bassoon recitals and noticed that balance is often an issue when bassoon and piano are paired.

Liz Demio, who has probably performed with all of the orchestral instruments, says that the bassoon is the most difficult to accompany. I should point out that Liz is married to a bassoonist and knows the repertoire inside and out.

Indeed, when in uncaring hands, the piano seems to swallow the bassoon sound whole, reducing it to mere stage choreography in the worst instances! Why is balance such a big problem?


A little physics is helpful here. All notes on the bassoon, regardless of the fundamental, have a fixed region in which their harmonics are most prominent. This is called the formant. The range of these resonance peaks on the bassoon has been found to be between 450-500Hz[1], or roughly around the same pitch as high A to B.  

Click on this link to see some graphs I made of various notes on the bassoon. You will see the strongest harmonic for each note falls in this range. Indeed, harmonics in this range are usually stronger than the fundamental frequency for a given note! 

Notice in what part of the piano's range the bassoon's formant exists and you'll identify the problem. The bassoon's formant is right in the middle of the piano, in the heart of the right hand's range where most piano melodies are written.

Pianos are made, voiced and tuned to be richest in tone in this range!  Smart composers will avoid direct competition between bassoon and piano wherever possible.

Below is the opening of the Saint-Saens Bassoon Sonata. It is an example of good, effective writing for bassoon and piano. The piano right hand notes are limpid and light and the left hand counter line lies below the bassoon. The bassoon part comes through with no trouble and the pianist doesn't need to play less than the indicated dynamic to make the passage work.

Next is an excerpt from the Marsch in Hindemith's Bassoon Sonata. It is an example of piano writing that is too busy and heavy for good balance with the bassoon.  The counterpoint in the right hand stays mainly in the range of the bassoon's formant, putting out a fog through which the bassoon can project only with great difficulty.  The left hand octaves are heavy and too ponderous for the bassoon. The pianist must play at "mp" to make this passage work.

The bassoon, by the way, has the melody at this point. Perhaps Hindemith thought we'd heard enough of the melody and wanted to feature his counterpoint!


Another issue to deal with when playing with piano is articulation.  The pianist must be adept at muting the percussive effect inherent in piano articulation. For more on this, read Randy's excellent comments on my previous post. In addition, it is essential that the bassoonist articulate with special attention to focus and clarity of pitch on each note if the sound is to have a chance to live.


The way pianos are often tuned and voiced makes playing in tune with them more difficult. Piano technicians often "spread" the intonation of the piano's low and high range to reinforce harmonics and enrich the sound of the instrument.  A lower-than-normal low register in the piano can wreak havoc with the sharp tendency of the bassoon's low register!  David Van Hoesen used to ask the piano technicians not to lower the low notes on the piano in his studio at Eastman to keep the pitch back into sync with the bassoon.
Many musicians find the piano's equal temperament tuning imparts a dull lifelessness to voice leading and harmony. Starting with Pablo Casals, many string players use "expressive" intonation even when playing with piano, disregarding the tuning discrepancies that can result. 

For an interesting take on this, read Ross Duffin's excellent How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony and Why You Should Care

[1]John Backus, The Acoustical Foundations of Music, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.(1969), 104.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Working with a pianist #2 -- the 1st rehearsal

The first rehearsal with a pianist is the most important one. In it the working relationship is established, interaction begun and goals are set.

Here are some things I try to do BEFORE the first rehearsal:


When you get your pianist a copy of the score, reserve one for yourself. Spend at least some time practicing from the piano score, reading the bassoon part.  Your eye will wander down the page and you'll see what's going on while you're playing. Spend some time with the score without the bassoon. Copy helpful piano cues into the bassoon part. If you have some piano skill, play some of it to hear what the harmonies sound like.


Prepare for the first rehearsal like a conductor. Think about where cues and prep beats are helpful. Craft the beginnings of an interpretation. Notice where the nuances are in the music (ritard, rubato, places where the time is flexible, etc.) and practice showing them in your playing before you get with the pianist. Be responsible for cut-offs and silences.


In the first read-through, along with having all the notes in place, try to show dynamics, tempo changes, style very clearly.  I make a habit of almost over-doing these things so the pianist becomes especially attentive to your interpretation.  Pianists who accompany a lot are very solid players and will tend to take over if they don't feel real authority coming from you.  There is nothing wrong with this on its face, except that you may not always agree with what's being done.  You've worked much longer on the piece than they have and know it better (it's assumed!), so don't throw away all that study and play passively.

After the run-through, go back and work on things together. Slow metronome work is helpful in places so both can see how things fit together. Keep the pencils handy!  I always add more cues to my part after the first reading! Work on anything either of you doesn't understand until it's very clear what to do.  

Talk about your goals for the piece.  Some parts may not be up to tempo yet. What is your goal tempo?  Is it realistic for the pianist in the time allowed? What style or colors do you want to bring out? What effect should the piece have on the listener?

Finally, get the schedules out and work backwards from the recital/concert to block out rehearsal time.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Working with a pianist #1

It's a good time to write about working with pianists.  I'm in the midst of preparing a big recital program with my friend, Randy Fusco.  Around the country, college music students are working with pianists on jury pieces and recital pieces.

There are many things to consider when playing with piano.  In this posting, I'd like to focus on personal interaction.

Issues arise in working with a pianist that don't often come up in private lessons or orchestral playing. Forming a real partnership and working on the music together instead of simply taking instruction from a conductor or teacher make this relationship different and, at times, challenging for a young person.

In thinking about this, I decided to speak with Randy and Liz Demio (a collaborative pianist at CIM) to draw on their experience in working with instrumentalists.

Here are some of their ideas:
  • Be sure you're familiar with the working rules of your school's accompanying program. How many rehearsals are you allowed with your pianist?  How do you communicate/apply to get a pianist to play for you? Where do you leave the piano part? Most schools have a set of rules or a student handbook that explains all this. 
  • When assigned a pianist, make contact well in advance of your recital/jury. These people are very busy and need lots of lead time to plan. Last-minute planning on your part can lead to a rush-job with your recital!
  • Conduct as much of your communication as possible face-to-face. Do document communication using email, etc. in case of dispute, but talking in person is best.
  • Use common courtesy when dealing with your pianist. This is a relationship you want to cultivate!
  • If you find a good pianist, treat them like GOLD!! A great pianist can make you sound better than you really do! If treated well, they may be more amenable to granting special favors when needed (recording sessions for auditions, competitions, etc.). 
You can use the skills learned in working with a pianist in other situations in life. I count my musical and personal relationships with Randy and Jeffrey Gilliam (pianist at Western Washington University) as two of the most important I've had in my musical life.  They taught (and teach) me much about artistry, understanding harmony, rhythm and pulse and pacing in a musical piece.

    Friday, April 1, 2011

    My bassoon to Baltimore

    Last weekend I had two days off.  When looking at my calendar, I didn't see a bloc of free time this large until June vacation.

    Although I hadn't noticed anything clearly wrong with my bassoon, I thought it would be a good time to schedule an appointment with Holden McAleer, my bassoon repairman. Holden does great work and enjoys the one-on-one with his clients talking about the bassoon and making adjustments to the instrument.

    Just up Harford Rd.  from Holden's shop is a local coffee roaster, Zeke's.  Of course, I went in and had a tour.  They mixed an espresso blend for me right out of the green coffee vats.

    Zeke's just opened a storefront cafe.  It serves their coffees and sells bags of their roasts along with pastries and sandwiches.  I spoke with Todd, one of the employees.  He designed the logo -- a crab holding a coffee bean.

    I had an excellent espresso there.  Very full flavor and great crema.

    While Holden worked on my bassoon, I went to the Federal Hill section of Baltimore and lunched at Ryleigh's Oyster Bar. There were seven different kinds of East Coast oysters on the raw bar menu.  I tried the Chincoteague from Virginia and one from the Maryland part of the Chesapeake.

    I also had the Maryland crab soup and a pint of "Raging Bitch" Ale.  Somehow my mouth formed the words, "I'll have a Raging Bitch, please." when the woman behind the bar asked for my order.