Monday, May 23, 2011

Recital post-mortem #2

I finally got around to listening to the recording of my 5/6 recital.  Lots of busyness combined with a strong dislike of listening to myself on recordings put this off for a couple of weeks.

However, with a recital at the IDRS Conference looming in 10 days, I thought it was high time to give in and have a listen.

The Orchestra played a concert yesterday in Carmel, Indiana at the new Palladium Concert Hall. This is a new hall that opened in January of this year. I had some downtime during the second half of the concert and used that time to listen.

I tried to listen for the over-all effect of each piece, avoiding focusing on mistakes, unless there were several in one place. I've found it's helpful to wait a few days or a week before listening because, if I don't, I tend to focus on the little things that went wrong.  What I'm after is the big picture when listening -- what the audience hears, perhaps.

Did the Debussy (Syrinx) have the right atmosphere? (Yes, for the most part.) Did the fast notes speak clearly or were they rushed in places? (Mostly good) Was the pacing of the phrases, silences effective? (Yes.) Was the tone quality flute-like? (Pretty close.) My transcription put the bassoon in the middle and high register exclusively, where the bassoon has a less reedy sound.

It would have been tempting to transcribe this for the bassoon's low register, since that is the tessitura used by Debussy for the flute. This would have been a big mistake, since the bassoon and flute have opposite tendencies in the low register.  The flute is mellow and dark down low, whereas the bassoon can be bright and harsh.

The recording confirmed my impression that the Sciortino went the best it's ever gone.  There are still some things to clean up and to be careful with, but many of the effects (multi-phonics, shakes, etc.) came off very effectively.

The Bernaud sounded better than I remember it going! Randy is a master at balancing the piano with the bassoon without losing authority in his playing. I noticed some tone quality and pitch issues I'd like to work on in this, though.  My tone spread a little more readily at extreme ranges and on the loud end of the dynamic range. Also, I will need to continue to woodshed the technical passages in this to make sure nothing slips.

"Sortil├Ęge", went quite well. Margi was very pleased as were Randy and I. It was a challenge to make a set of free variations flow together cohesively with all the tempo changes and starts and stops, but I think we made it happen.

In general, I thought my tone quality was a little on the bright side in places in the recital, although I still managed to keep a lot of core or substance in the sound.  I'd like just a little more covered sound, though.

I found from listening, that I don't need to work to produce ringing high notes so much.  They will be powerful AND beautiful if I use a little less effort ("Use only enough effort to get the job done, but DO use enough effort"). A little roughness in the tone is OK in pieces with titles like "Hallucinations" or "Sorcels", but I wouldn't want to have that be my best effort at tonal beauty!

When I heard pitch differences with the piano, I was flat.  This means I may be a little overzealous in trying to avoid the bassoonist's usual trap of sharpness. I have a friend who likes to say, "I'd rather play sharp than out of tune!"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Playing standing up

I've never been comfortable playing standing up.

The bassoon is a heavy, unwieldy instrument that doesn't balance well when suspended for playing standing up. Standing with it puts greater weight on the left hand and shoves the right arm/hand behind your back. When suspended by a neck strap there is a lot of weight put on the neck. These factors can lead to bad posture, poor breath support and even injury.  

However, playing standing up looks better and allows the bassoon to project a little better. The audience can see more of the performer standing than when sitting. Also, the music stand doesn't tend to camouflage the performer as much as when sitting. Getting the instrument away from the floor and angling the tone holes out and off the stage a bit more is helpful for projection.

Therefore, playing standing up is the better option for recital and concerto appearances.

The solo recital I'm playing at the International Double Reed Society Conference next month contains some of the most difficult music I've ever played. I really want to be as physically comfortable playing standing up as possible.

Here are some things I've done to make myself more comfortable standing with the bassoon:


There is a tendency to lean forward when playing standing up. This is especially common when a neck strap is used. The neck strap puts all of the weight of the instrument directly on the back of the neck, pulling it forward and the rest of the upper body with it.

While this posture may look "cool", it collapses the breathing column, weakens abdominal support and strains the neck, shoulders and lower back.

Let's back up a minute and look more closely at posture.

In order to have the best support and the least amount of stress on the body, skeleton and muscles must work together as a system. Excellent support is necessary for holding the bassoon and for musical reasons.

The best posture, therefore is one that lengthens the spine and opens the breathing column and abdominal support areas.

This is a Tai Chi "horse stance". Aspects to notice are:
  • head slightly lifted - as though a string attached to the top of the head is being gently pulled upwards
  • chin slightly in - just like the bassoon embouchure!
  • shoulders down
  • back straight, small of back NOT arched, but slightly flattened out.
  • butt down, not pulled out or back.
  • knees slightly bent
  • weight on the mid-sole/heel -- not balls of feet
Bassoonists may note that this stance looks very different from how most bassoonists look when standing up. Most of us adopt the leaning forward, "plastic green army man with rifle" posture.

The "horse stance" grounds the weight of the body from head to toe. The muscles and bones line up to work as a system, not as individual parts. There is great strength in this pose.

This stance is difficult to maintain when using a neck strap, however.


A halter style strap allows the weight of the bassoon to be distributed across the shoulders, chest and back and away from the neck. There are many styles available.


Playing standing up places more weight on the left hand than when sitting down. I have experienced pain and fatigue in my left hand and fingers from practicing standing up. One way to lighten the load on the left hand is to install a balance hanger.

The balance hanger is the long, slightly curved metal piece near the top of the photo.  The holes in the strip are places for the hook from the halter. The higher the hole, the less weight on the left hand. This moves the fulcrum of the balance point closer to the left hand position (just above the top of the balance hanger).

Installing a balance hanger involves drilling a small hole in the top of the boot joint and fastening the hardware to the ring on the boot joint band. Some shimming may be necessary for a tight fit. My balance hanger was made by the Fox Products Corporation.


You're probably wondering what that thick plastic thing is sticking out from my boot joint! This is a baffle made for me by Holden McAleer. It helps keep the body of the bassoon away from my hip, clothing, belt, etc. while playing. It has the side benefit of being a counter-balance and anchor for the halter. If positioned right it almost feels like someone else is holding the bassoon for me!

The baffle is joined to the body of the bassoon using an Ergo Post. Normal handrest posts fasten to the bassoon at a right angle only. This new style handrest is pivotable, allowing for customization of the angle at which the baffle comes away from the bassoon. In the photo you can see the upright portion of the Ergo Post can rotate forwards or backwards. The position is set by the set screw below the thumb screw. The baffle (or handrest) fits in the hole in the top and is secured by tightening the thumb screw.

The baffle helps because it pops the boot joint out and away from my side a bit.

Along with clothing issues, the other problem bassoonists face on the right side is the shoving back of the right arm caused by the angling of the instrument when suspended.  This is a significantly different right arm position from that formed by sitting down. It can be very awkward.

The best solution I've found, is to play with my left side forward a bit. A staggered stance, in other words. This provides better stability than when standing with both feet in line and turns the right side of the body back a bit to give more room for the hand when dealing with the angled-back boot joint.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Recital post-mortem #1

My recital at St. Paul's is over! 
Time to attend to the care and feeding of this blog! Naturally, I've had to devote much of my time to last-minute recital preparation.

Thanks to those of you who attended. It was a successful event in many ways. I was able to present all four compositions just as I will next month in Arizona -- without break. No time for fussing or tweaking anything. Just shooting from the hip!

I'll listen to the recording I made sometime soon, but here are my first post-mortem thoughts:


In the recital, I used 3 different reeds and two different bocals.
  • Debussy reed had a pure, even tone in the high register with easy response. Not good in low register, so not appropriate for any of the other pieces on the program.
  • Reed for the Sciortino struck a good balance between ease with high e's and f's and decent low note response. All four high f's came out in performance!
  • Bocal for Sciortino (Heckel pre-war#2 - no letter designation) was new for me. It has greater ease with extreme high range than my all-purpose pre-war #2cc, but also has a great sound throughout the range. The dodgy open F keeps this from being my regular choice, but using the low E key keeps the F stable.
  • Reed for Bernaud and Griebling-Haigh worked well. My best sound with this reed.

Last month, I had a balance hanger and a baffle installed on the boot joint. The balance hanger worked well, taking much of the weight off my left hand when playing standing up. The baffle also worked well, keeping clothing away from the keywork. It will need some more tweaking, though, for optimal positioning.

More on this -- including photos --  in my next blog. 


I was generally pleased with how I handled my nerves and happy with my concentration in general during the recital. I noticed some shaking and a little nervousness during the Debussy. This is pretty normal for me. In the first piece of an audition or recital, it always takes me a few minutes to get settled.

I felt much more calm and engaged for the rest of the program. I love the music I chose and was excited to present it to the audience. My calmness was a direct result of all the preparation I've done. I started working on this program in November, so I've really logged the hours needed to build consistency and confidence and it showed in the performance, I think.

My concentration was generally good, especially during the Sciortino, which has always plagued me. I felt it lag somewhat during the devilishly difficult last page of the Bernaud, though.  I'll have to nail that down better next time.

It also helped to have Randy Fusco on stage with me. We've played together for many years, so he always makes me feel more comfortable with his presence!


Here is a list of some things I did during the last week before the recital:

  • Logistics -- dress rehearsal, checked lighting in the church, electrical outlets for recording, green room, program printing
  • Maintenance practicing -- slow practice of any technical passages that needed cleaning up.
  • Reed choices and finishing -- I leave this to the last couple of days before an event like this. The weather and your practicing can impact what you'll end up using, so it's not helpful to select anything until just beforehand.  Therefore, you need to have lots of reeds to choose from, just in case. I did some finishing scrapes on the reeds I used for the recital two days before the program and put them away until that evening.
  • Mental practice -- I did lots of mental practice of the repertoire without the bassoon. Your brain doesn't know the difference!
  • Rest - tried to get enough sleep before the program.
  • Distraction - some distraction is good in the days leading up to the program. I went to the Cleveland Museum of Art the day before and spent a few hours looking around.
  • Work on something new. I tend to get musical "tunnel vision" just before a big event. It's good to loosen up by starting on something new. I began learning the Berg Violin Concerto for this week's concerts.
More recital thought later. . .