Thursday, March 28, 2013

Auditioning via DVD

A few days ago, I spent part of my morning reviewing auditions for this summer's Kent/Blossom Music Festival.

Each summer, three bassoonists are chosen to attend the Festival.  Included are private lessons, chamber music coachings, chamber music concerts, free tickets to Cleveland Orchestra concerts at the Blossom Music Center and a chamber orchestra concert and side-by-side concert with the Cleveland Orchestra.

This will be my first summer as bassoon instructor and I'm very excited to be part of the Festival.

Like many other places, Kent/Blossom has begun requiring recorded auditions in the DVD format. While this adds time and expense for the students in what is already a demanding pursuit, the format gives the institution more flexibility.

To review the applicants I don't have to wait to receive CDs from admissions or go to a room to listen with others to playback.  I can just visit a website (Kent/Blossom uses Decision Desk), log in as an administrator and start listening and watching.

Another advantage of this system is that I can look at a person's complete application including contact information and recommendations.  No need to collect files with hard copies and return them.

Scoring is done on the site and there is a place for comments as well.  Rankings can be adjusted later if need be. Administrators can view my rankings immediately and act on them.

CIM has also begun using this format in its audition process as a precursor to live auditions.  Outgoing Admissions Director Bill Fay says the time commitment and preparation required to put together a DVD audition may discourage some less-serious applicants who are just "window shopping" from applying, saving them time and expense and saving us time by eliminating some applicants who are either not up to the standard or not serious about CIM in the first place.

I found the process interesting and want to share my impressions.  Maybe what I have to say will help those of you making these DVDs present yourselves better to those adjudicating your talent.


Since I'm not a videographer, I'll just make a few comments about the video aspect.

1. Position the camera so the viewer can get a good look at you.  An angled shot is best, especially if there is a music stand directly in front of you.

2. A video shot from the seats in a large recital hall tells us nothing about how you play.  We can't see fingers, hand position, embouchure, posture, etc. Conversely, don't opt for an extreme close-up.  A shot that includes all of you and a bit of the area around you is best.

3. Try to choose a location that is good acoustically and visually.  While this is not always possible, you want to sound and LOOK your best.  Treat the recording like a face-to-face interview.

Having said all this, I feel that the visual aspect of your presentation is secondary compared to HOW YOU SOUND.  When I view these recordings, most of my attention is on listening, not watching.

Sometimes, though the video will corroborate something I hear in a person's playing.  If the playing sounds tight or forced, maybe I can also see something in the body language that reinforces this perception.


The sound quality for the Kent/Blossom applicants varied greatly from person to person.  While this shouldn't make a difference, it really does.  Spend the time and funds necessary to reserve a good acoustic space (recital halls are best), get someone to operate the equipment who knows what they're doing (a recording engineer) and someone to be your recording session "valet".  This person can sit in the hall with the music and help you with comments on different takes, get water, help move equipment, etc.

Now that technology is so advanced and readily available, it's tempting to just record yourself on your phone and submit. Of course we'll listen to you, but all things being equal, if you were judging these things which would you choose -- a professional level recording or one done on a phone?

Try to eliminate things that would distract from the impression you're trying to make. These include excessive key noise and embouchure leaking.


Of course, the most important component in someones recorded audition remains THE MUSIC. I think most people can ignore a less-than stellar audio and visual recording if the playing is compelling.

In reviewing the submissions for Kent/Blossom this summer, I was impressed by the high quality of the playing.  As has been the case for many years now, there are great bassoon players at more music schools than when I was a student.

The required repertoire is:

Mozart: Concerto K. 191 (first movement exposition and second movement)
Mozart: Marriage of Figaro (recapitulation)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 (2nd movement final solo)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade (second movement and cadenzas)
Stravinsky: Rite of Spring (opening)

Here are some general comments on what I heard:

1. The players I liked the best were the ones who adopted a different style, sound, etc. for different excerpts. These players exhibited a versatility of approach that made it clear they weren't just "playing the bassoon", they were playing the music.

Let me elaborate.

Dynamics are a good example.  In the above repertoire, only the first movement of the Concerto and Sheherazade have a full range of dynamics.  Marriage of Figaro has only extremes (pp, p and ff) and I would say the ff is not a Mahler or Strauss ff!

The 2nd movement of the Mozart, Tchaikovsky 4th and Rite are NOT LOUD excerpts!

One more: Sheherazade and Marriage of Figaro are worlds apart in style.  They should not sound the same. Figaro does not need a lot of dynamic shaping to its lines.  It should just be a quiet, accurate murmur. Sheherazade on the other hand should demonstrate the full range of espressivo in a person's playing.

2. Since it's possible and advisable to record excerpts, listen back and re-record, there's really no excuse for an erratic pulse in any of these.

3. Double tonguing in Figaro needs to be smooth and even with no stuttering and not at a tempo that is different from the slurred runs that preceed it.


Lastly, there are a few picky little things to mention.  I wouldn't bother with these if I hadn't noticed them in other situations as well (e.g., our recent Second Bassoon Audition).

These things are like having bad breath.  You may not notice it yourself, but if someone mentions it to you, you are embarrassed to realize you had without knowing it and vow to put a stop to it immediately.

1. Do not place a fermata on the last note of the second movement of Tchaikovsky 4th.  Occasionally a conductor will ask for this, but let's not volunteer this ourselves.  Pretty soon everyone will be asking for it if you do -- and it's not in the music.

This is how it appears:

The fermata is on the REST, not the F.  When the excerpt is played by itself, the long F should be counted out carefully with a slight sense of ritard, cut off at the end of the quarter note and that's all. 

2. Playing the quintuplet figure in the Rite of Spring as a sextuplet with an eighth note on the C. Well, it's certainly easier to play this way, but the rhythm is not correct.  The emphasis in the phrase is on the B after the grace notes, anyway. Grace notes tend to preceed important notes in a phrase.  They highlight stresses in a phrase's structure.

Correct is:
3. Playing the end of the recap of Marriage of Figaro with a crescendo and accents on the lower octave A's.

The octave displacement of the A's at the end of the phrase should serve to relax the intensity.  They come after the culmination of the tongued passage and merely serve as a bookend to the phrase.  No need to shout here!

4. The F quarter note at the end of the phrase in mm.10 and 33 of the second movement of the Mozart Concerto should not be played full value.

In the score, you can see that holding out the final F in the solo line will cause it to clash with the F# in the bass line -- a very un-Mozartean dissonance!

Milan Turkovic suggests changing this F to an eighth note in his notes to the Universal Edition of this piece.  For more on the Mozart Concerto see previous posts in this blog.

I think Turkovic is right.  We don't have the manuscript of this piece, so we'll never know if this was added later by someone else, an omission by Mozart or sloppy copying, but it's clearly wrong to observe the quarter note here.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Off Label Checking For Leaks

Finding the Leak

What do a jeweler's screwdriver and cigarette paper have in common?  Combined they form an effective tool for checking bassoon pads for leaks!

A pin vise like the one used to house small screwdriver heads like those used by jewelers doubles as a handle for holding the strip of paper.

This is called a pad feeler.

Cut a narrow strip of cigarette paper and tighten the vise around one end to fasten it to the handle.

Slide the end of the strip under the edge of the pad.  Be careful to place the strip so that it only contacts one edge of the tone hole and doesn't touch the tone hole on the other side.

Press or release the key needed to close the pad on the tone hole. Slide the paper out from under the pad and notice whether there's any friction or "grab" when doing this.  If the paper just slides out with no friction, then you've got a leak.

Check the pad every 90 degrees or all four compass points (N, S, E, W).

There should be about the same amount of "grab" on all four points of the pad with just a little bit more "grab" on the point farthest away from the rod to which the pad cup is soldered.

If you notice a leak using this method, by telling the repair technician where to look, you may save time and money at the repair shop!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Splitting Cane Off-Label

Splitting Cane and Saving $$$!

Those of you who make reeds from tube cane or anyone who is curious about how this is done should read this.

These are photos of a tool sold known as a cane splitter.  They come in different shapes and sizes. Costing between $60-$150, I find these tools to be a complete waste of money and even detrimental to finding the best section of a piece of cane to use.

Here's why:

The most important attributes to look for in a piece of cane are symmetry and straightness. However, no tube is perfectly round or perfectly cylindrical.  Nature has curved and warped the cane.  It's up to the reed maker to select pieces or sections of the tube that are as straight and uniformly curved as possible.

The cane splitter simply cuts the tube into three or four sections. By using it it is not possible to select the section of the tube that yields a symmetrical curve.

Let's back up for a minute, though.

Selecting the tube diameter: 

First it's best to find the diameter of the tube by using a circle drafting template ($5).  You can find these in craft stores or office supply stores.

A radius gauge sold by double reed suppliers can work, but only measures one section of the tube.  The curve of the cane may increase or flatten out in the other parts.

The circle template is much cheaper and measures the circumference of the tube.

The tube should fit in either the 24mm or 25mm circles. The tube should not vary more than 1mm from end to end nor have a bulge in the middle.  Cane from these tubes will yield the best tip openings.

Now you can split the cane. Splitting the cane dry will make the job easier although it doesn't matter if it's already soaked.
Cane split incorrectly:

This is a diagram (pardon my crude drawing!)showing a tube split into four pieces.  Since no tube is perfectly round, most cane tubes have a place in the round where the diameter is smaller or larger than the average.

A four-way split is preferable to a three-way because it can yield a more or less symmetrically curved piece of cane.

However, the tube illustrated above is split in such a way as to yield pieces that have a "hockey stick", asymmetrical curve.

It's all about tip openings, folks!  A symmetrical curve to the tube section will tend to yield a more symmetrical tip opening on the finished reed because of the "muscle memory" in the cane.

Correct splitting:

Here is a method for finding the right orientation for your splits.  I learned this from Mike Sweeney and I think it was first developed by Arlen Fast, so thanks to these bassoonists.

Using a caliper ($15.00), find the point on the tube where the diameter is smallest (or largest diameter if you prefer).  Mark this point on the tube with a marker. 

Fit the tube into the proper circle on the template again.  Line the marked spot up with one of the four compass points marked on the rim of the circle and rotate 45 degrees. Mark the four compass points.  This is where you will split the cane.

As the diagram shows marking and splitting this way will yield four symmetrically curved pieces of cane.

Now use your X-acto knife or other sharp thin blade to split.

If there is a knot or a node where a branch sprouted on the cane, don't use that section. If the tube has a noticeable change in diameter at one end I'll throw away that part when cutting the split pieces down to size prior to gouging.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Off-Label Wood Carving Tools

Wood Carving Tools

Wood carving is a noble craft that is as old as civilization.  There are many tools used to make a wood sculpture like this one from the Renaissance.  These include chisels, gouges and sanders.

Some of these are easily adaptable to reed making.

Several years ago I developed an interest in wood carving, bought some tools, but never followed through in learning how. The tools stare at me from their perches above my work bench in the basement.  I felt bad about spending the money and never using them.

Could I use any of them for reed making? 

This is a gouge I use for chipping in the collar on my reeds.  The curvature of the gouge matches the curvature of the shaped/profiled piece of cane perfectly.  About 1" in diameter.  It's incredibly sharp and you can chip in a beautiful, straight collar with just one cut.

First score the collar mark with a razor blade or other sharp knife. (Notice the radiator hose clamps!  Another off-label use!)

Then chip in the collar with the gouge.

This gouge is expensive--about $50! So it's pretty impractical to buy one just for this step in reed making.  I include it as an example of what you might find laying around your house that could be used for reed making!

This next tool, used in wood carving and related crafts is a sanding stick.  They are VERY cheap and practical.  They can be ordered with sanding belts of varying coarseness (120-600). 

The stick is spring loaded.  You compress the stick to fit the belt on and let go to put it in place.  You slide the belt on the track when the nose becomes embedded with sanding dust to find a clean spot.

These are great for those who don't have a fancy profiler and need to remove a lot of excess cane from the blank when starting finishing work.  I don't think it's a great tool for fine tip work, but it is really fast and easy for working on the rails, heart, collar area and getting a very thick tip down to close to finished. You hold it like a pencil.  Use with a cutting block and plaque for support. Here's a short movie.

I ordered my sticks from Klingspor's Woodworking Shop. A set of three sticks goes for $9.45!


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Off-label dowels

Off-label Uses For Dowel Rods

Most hardware stores have a good selection of hardwood dowel rods in various diameters.  A dowel rod will set you back $2-$3. I use long 1" dowels to dry cane after gouging.

By banding the gouged pieces to the dowel for several days, you accomplish two things:
  • The gouged pieces will retain their original curvature when dry.  Most pieces curl up after gouging or profiling if left to dry without binding to a dowel.
  • You can change the curvature of the gouged piece if it's too curved or not curved enough.  Cane diameter has implications for the shape of the tip opening the reed will have.  Too big a diameter (for me 26mm or larger) will result in a tip opening that's too flat.  Too small (23mm. or less) lends an opening that's too arched.  Flat will have a weak high register, arched a weak low register, yielding a one-dimensional reed.

I also cut small sections (about 4") from a 1" and a 1 1/4" dowel for use in sanding the gouge.  The 1" is great for smoothing out the gouge and preparing the cane for further processing.  Just wrap a cut sheet of sandpaper around the dowel section and sand with the cane laying in a 1" diameter bed.

For more on preparing the cane for profiling, etc. by sanding the gouge see my instructions on my website.

Sometimes I run into a batch of cane that's too soft to use.  One way to nudge the cane into the "Useable" category is to experiment with the gouge.  You can thin the gouge until it's .005" thinner or more by sanding with the 1" dowel as described above.

Another way to adapt the cane for use is to make the gouge more elliptical (thin sides, thick center).  I do not like cane that's gouged concentrically (just as thick on sides as the center).  It just doesn't seem to work with my bassoon.  Concentrically gouged cane yields reeds with tips that collapse readily.  By modifying the gouge to make it more elliptical, you remove the softer, pithier cane away from the bark on the sides of the gouge.  This leaves only the harder can nearer the bark and adds a stiffness to the reed at the sides of the blank.  As a result, tips stay open more readily during playing.  The reed blade has more spring to it.

Here's my method:

Since the gouged piece of cane is split from a tube that's roughly 1" in diameter, it stands to reason that sanding with a 1 1/14" dowel will sand only the sides of the gouge first, yielding the elliptical shape I desire.

First place the piece of cane in a bed that is 1" in diameter.  An old-fashioned child's block set may have one of these.

Using a carpenter's pencil (because of the really wide lead), mark a thick stripe down the center of the gouge.  When sanding watch for the point at which you begin to sand away the pencil mark.  When you notice this, stop.  You will also notice cane dust embedded in two places in the sandpaper but not in the middle of the sandpaper.

Here's a little movie of the sanding: