Friday, July 27, 2012

Running for Charity

I haven't blogged about running for quite a while.  I continue to run and keep in shape.  This summer I'm working on building my aerobic base and getting ready for some races this fall.

The main goal this fall will be the New York City Marathon!

I'm running as part of Team Boomer.  Team Boomer is run by former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, Boomer Esiason.  He is very involved with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation through the Boomer Esiason Foundation.

That's a charity that's near and dear to my heart as my 10-year old neice, Allie Plymale has CF.  She's my hero and I'll be running in her honor.

A requirement for participation in the race through Team Boomer is raising a certain amount of money.  I started at the end of June and it has gone pretty well.  

All of the money I raise will go to fight Cystic Fibrosis.  I'll be paying my own expenses to get to the Marathon.

Some of you reading this have already donated.

If anyone else would like to, I would greatly appreciate it! 

You may donate by going to my fundraising page or by sending me a check if you prefer not to donate online.

Team Boomer is highly rated by Charity Navigator and donating is easy and very secure. 

This will be the only time I'll use this blog to ask for donations.  Thanks very much for your support in ANY AMOUNT.

Here I am finishing the 2009 Boston Marathon!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Breathe, Don't Blow

(K. David Van Hoesen)

Breathe, Don't Blow

This is the title of an article written by C. Robert Reinert and Alan Goodman.  It was published in the Double Reed in 1998.  I find it to be the best explanation of how to create a beautiful, resonant sound on the bassoon.

Please read this article before reading further in this post.

High Points and Reactions

Although Reinert and Goodman use some jargon, the article is very concise and clearly written.

After a short introduction, they state that the most important part of making a beautiful sound happens before the sound is initiated.

"Technique aside, there is nothing more important than being able to visualize the sound, the quality, the ease, the inevitability of a beautiful tone."

If there is no tonal concept for guidance, the player will not be able to focus.  This will be readily apparent to anyone listening.

Next come the following statements:

"It is the presence of resistance that determines the quality of tone. Too little resistance produces a weak tone, thin and poor. Too much resistance produces a tone heavy, thick, and unmanageable to attacks and coloration."

"The least amount of resistance that produces a full tone is recommended."

I couldn't agree with this more!  Sometimes we get stuck on the idea that more resistance is good because it allows us to push more air into the reed.  While this may feel good because we're putting in more effort, the will not be commensurately more resonant.

Reinert and Goodman explain:

"Waves travel, not air. Waves do not travel as a consequence of being "blown" by a large stream of air.  Blowing harder does not project the sound.  Carrying power is supplied by the fullest resonance of overtones."

This is brilliantly put! If the reed, bocal or bassoon won't resonate or if there are impeding tensions in the player's body, no amount of blowing can "create" a projecting, resonant, beautiful sound.  You cannot force a bassoon to resonate.

In this matter I believe the bassoon (with its flexible reed) is closer to a stringed instrument (with its pliant strings) than a brass instrument.  What happens when a string player presses the bow harder and harder against the strings?  The result is just like the description of resistance above.  Not enough produces a thin tone, too much produces a tone that is too thick and unmanageable.  Somewhere in between the player must find the resistance that's just right. (Take that, Goldilocks!)

So how is the desired sound created? Through the use of "pressure energy".  I found this to be a somewhat elusive term.

However, by reading further, it occurred to me that maybe they are referring to the pressure of the excess air in the lungs at the end of the inhalation phase of breathing -- the simple need to expel air to equalize the pressure in and outside of the body.

There are two ways to do this, one by simply blowing (easy for soft, hard for loud).

The other is by supporting the sound by using two opposing forces.

Inhalation pressure is built up during inhalation and "held" during exhalation.  Exhalation pressure is exerted during exhalation only.

The two forces work together.  The analogy used of two hands pushing against one another is perfect for the description of abdominal support necessary for a resonant tone.

It is important to note the emphasis on the muscles of the abdomen and back in their discussion.  There is never a sense of pushing or pulling these muscles in as you play, rather the midsection exerts an outward pressure.  This can be felt as the "reluctance" of the pressure of inhalation to yield to the pressure of exhalation.  A yin and yang of pressures!  You can't have one without the other.

Yes, the chest and abdomen will naturally draw in at the end of the breath, but proper support comes through the gentle resistance to this action.  Singers talk of "raising the sternum" for support.  My teacher, David VanHoesen advocated expanding the chest out slightly with a bit of an arch in the small of the back for a more resonant tone.

Try these and see if you hear more resonance in your sound.  Don't take these actions to the extreme.  There should be no pain or tension involved!

As the 2012 Summer Olympics approach, I find much inspiration in learning from the athletes.  Watch the sprinters at the start.  There is NO tension in their bodies.  It would be counterproductive for a sprinter to tense up prior to starting -- so why do we musicians tend to do this before initiating the sound?? Tension is the enemy of resonance!

After the start, the best look fluid and graceful, even while applying maximum effort for speed.  They have learned to direct all their energy towards their goal -- a winning time.  As musicians we should always strive for a sound that has resonance and beauty!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bassoon Sound Challenges -- A Good Buzz?

 (George Goslee with George Szell)

Before I leave the topic of challenges the bassoonist must face in producing a tone that projects and has resonance and beauty, I need to investigate a few specific concepts.

In my previous post I discussed how to project the sound.  However, it's not usually possible to tell while playing if your sound is projecting or not.  What are some of the impressions or signs of a projecting tone the player experiences while playing?

Good Buzz?

I actually hate this term as applied to bassoon sound, but I thought it might catch your attention!  Seriously, though, any sound that projects needs to have a certain brilliance to it to carry to the back of an auditorium.

Judging what is the right amount of brilliance (edge, buzz, whatever you want to call it) is very difficult and extremely subjective.  Here are some thoughts:
  • The "Dark Side" It seems that everyone wants to have a "dark" sound these days.  I don't know what this means.  "The Cleveland Orchestra has a dark sound" is a comment made about our sonority frequently. 
  • Have you ever gone back stage after a theatrical performance to greet the actors?  What does their makeup look like?  Grotesque, right?! However, back in your seat it looked just right.
  • It's human nature to try to impress those around you.  However, we play for an audience in an acoustical environment.  If our sound is beautiful and mellow right where our peers can hear us, it probably won't carry past the stage.
  • Therefore, there needs to be a little bit of roughness in the sound.  Words are hard to find for this. . . A great bassoon sound up close has a purring quality or a gentle ripping sound.
  • Singers call this "squillo".  Along with the core of the sound there is a slight buzzing or ringing quality that doesn't seem to relate to the pitch being played.
  • Some of the great performers didn't necessarily sound absolutely beautiful up close.  Heifetz' sound supposedly had a bit of junk in it close up.  But far away. . . 

How to Achieve It

How do you know if your sound is beautiful and resonant far away?  The easiest way is to have a friend listen in the seats during a concert and provide honest feedback.  Recording yourself can be helpful, but may not really capture how you sound to a human being.

When you have a reed, instrument, etc. that gives the right impression to the listener, try to memorize how the reed feels and sounds right around you.  It may be a bit different from what you're looking for, but, given an honest friend, you'll have to trust it.

Try to make reeds and play on them in such a way as to reproduce the memorized impression.

Having access to a good concert hall may be difficult.  Students often have to practice in carpeted bedrooms or tiny practice rooms.  Sneak into a church or recital hall and try these things out. 

Alternatively, play in one room and have a friend go out into the hallway down 20-30 yards away and listen.

Don't Go Overboard

Orchestras are getting louder and louder.  Bassoonists are pushed to the limit to project.  It's very easy to lose track of the kind of sound you want.

A former teacher of mine (not K. David VanHoesen) played in a major orchestra.  He was a great bassoon player but, due to the extremely loud brass section, he felt the need to compete.  Often you could hear him above the brass section.  However, you couldn't tell what pitch he was playing -- the tone was all edge.

In these situations, it's best just to relax and let the brass do what they do best.  When pushed by the conductor to give more, try your best, but maybe have a diplomatic conversation with him/her at a break about balance and limits, etc. A wise conductor balances the orchestra to the solo being played.

Avoid the Dark Side

Beware of the "Dark Side".  A beautiful sound is a wonderful thing, but it must be shared with those who came to hear you.  Reserve some brilliance in the sound to help it carry.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sound -- Challenges for the Bassoonist

 (George Goslee 1916-2006)

There is no perfect instrument.  All instruments have inherent strengths and weaknesses.

The mighty tone of the piano, the King of Instruments, is forever doomed to die away seconds after being struck. The noble violin is limited by the bow, the glorious voice by its breath.

The bassoon tone is one of great subtlety and character.  Its tone is chameleon-like, adding lustre to just about any instrument with which it is paired. Many bassoonists were first attracted to the instrument by its sound.

However, when compared with the piano or violin, it is a seriously limited instrument.  Aside from its technical challenges, there are sonic problems that must be addressed.

A quick perusal of works by great composers shows how the bassoon can be used effectively in the orchestra.  The bassoon is the "utility" player of the wind section.  It can play a great bass line, spin a counter-melody, accompany an oboe or flute solo and even carry the solo line itself.

However, there are reasons why composers feature the bassoon as soloist in the orchestra less often than most of the others.


One of the first problems with which a bassoonist must contend is projection.  This is not normally a problem for instruments like the oboe or saxophone which naturally project.  Indeed, players of these instruments spend a lot of time taming their tone to make it fit in!

When the bassoonist tries to project in the manner of a trombonist or clarinetist, the result not successful.  The decibel range of the bassoon is simply not as large as that of the trombone.

Indeed, sometimes the bassoon section just becomes "flyover territory" for the brass section!

So if the bassoonist can't (or doesn't want to) compete with the trombone section, what is it that does make a bassoon sound project?

I believe that projection comes from the resonance and focus in the sound.


This is a great term.  Think of the sound you make as being so compelling that it causes a sympathetic vibration in the listener's body -- a re-sounding if you will.

Resonance on the bassoon is not created by force.

Try this:  take a C# in the bass cleff staff and make a crescendo by using more and more force.  What happens!  You reach a point at which using more air actually makes the tone smaller. The resistance of the C# combined with the increase of air speed inside the reed creates a vacuum, causing the reed to collapse, dampening its vibrations and giving a diminuendo!

Thus, at a certain point, using force backfires.  While the C# is an extreme case, the same principle holds true for the rest of the notes on the bassoon.

Instead, the reed and instrument must be freed to vibrate. The player must let things vibrate and not try to make them vibrate. Creating resonance means using an energetic airstream, but also staying "out of the way" of the reed, cushioning or holding the sound instead of pushing or shoving it.

A lot of my work with myself and with students involves finding ways to support, yet stay out of the way of resonance and "letting it happen".


One of my favorite qualities of the bassoon tone is its great subtlety and versatility.  However, these same qualities give a less straightforward impression to the listener than that of the trumpet or piccolo, for instance. I believe this is due to a lack of focus in the bassoon's acoustical makeup.

The bassoon tone is known to have rich harmonics and a relatively weak fundamental.  Perhaps this is why it blends so well with other instruments.  The partials fill in frequencies lacking in the other instruments, while the weak fundamental keeps the bassoon from sticking out.

Above is a spectrograph of my low B.  I recorded my low B in a recording studio, along with several other pitches.  (Thanks to Bruce Gigax for recording and Ross Duffin for graphing the frequencies.)

In the graph, the strength of a particular component of the sound (resonance peak) is measured in decibels on the vertical axis.  These are shown as the peaks with very sharp slopes.  Interspersed are other peaks in the shape of a line that are probably due to room resonance and not part of the sound. Notice also the large red area under the peaks.  This is where the "noise" in the sound resides.

The horizontal axis measures the frequency of each peak for Low B.

1st peak = Fundamental = 62 Hz (approx.)
2nd peak = 1st harmonic = 124 Hz or equal to B in bass clef staff
3rd peak = 2nd harmonic = 186 Hz roughly F# in bass clef staff

Low B is one of the most unfocused notes on the bassoon. Play this note into a tuner and you may notice that you get a stronger reading for F# than you do B.  This can be confirmed by checking the graph.  The resonance peak for the 2nd harmonic (F# - third peak from the left on the graph) is stronger than the resonance peak for the fundamental (1st peak from the left). Indeed some tuners may confuse this note for an F#.

The shortness and relative similarity in height of each resonance peak provide physical evidence of why this note is so unfocused. The ear has trouble picking out the predominant resonance for this note.

Here is a more focused note (C3 or first ledger line C).

In this graph you can see that the peaks are much more distinct and vary greatly in height.  Also, the "noise" area is much lower than in the B spectrograph. This C has a clear, ringing tone.

I'll deal more with acoustics in a future post.

A spectrograph of oboe sound or violin sound would show a much stronger fundamental and even better defined resonance peaks.  A recent analysis of violin sound (a 2007 California State Science Fair project!) found that between 70-92% of an individual pitch resided in the fundamental alone.  That left 8-30% for the harmonics of the pitch. These instruments have much more focused tones than the bassoon.

How To Focus

Putting aside instrument and bocal quality, a focused sound can be attained by a fastidious attention to the scrape of the reed.  This is especially true in the tip area.  I find that getting the slope of the tip just right and having the right amount of change of thickness from center(spine) to sides is essential.

When I get this scrape just right my sound has greater resonance, almost like viewing something in 2 dimensions and then suddenly putting on 3-D glasses. I've written about this in more detail in a previous post.

Another element essential for focusing the sound is embouchure placement. Try playing a note, but taking more or less reed in the mouth and see what positioning does for the focus of the sound.

Perhaps the most important part of producing a focused sound is in how the airstream is used.  Some instruments practically focus themselves.  You just have to blow into them. Those who have played the saxophone know what I'm talking about!

Not so with the bassoon.  The player must use a very disciplined airstream to focus the sound.  An open oral cavity, throat and chest are balanced with a firmness in the abdomen to support and direct the air towards the reed.

In my next post, I'll provide a link to a wonderful article on how to use the air when playing the bassoon, "Breathe, Don't Blow" and give my reactions to it.  I think it's the best thing I've ever read on how the air should be used to play the bassoon.