Saturday, October 3, 2015

Extreme Measures -- Playing very softly

I've run into two instances recently in which my limits as a player were tested. I'm speaking in particular of the ability to play very softly.

In both cases, I had soft reeds that I thought would get the job done, but in rehearsal, found out the conductor wanted the passages in question softer than I was comfortable managing without taking extreme measures.

During the rehearsals, I got "The Hand" or "The Heisman". If you follow American college football, you'll know what I mean!

Here is the first solo:

The bassoon solo in the 3rd movement of Mahler's 1st Symphony. We played it at the Blossom Music Center this summer. In the first rehearsal, I played it as softly as I could comfortably, thinking that since this is an outdoor concert, I need not go to extremes with the dynamic.

Unfortunately, I was wrong!  The conductor wanted it softer, so I had to come up with a solution. I wanted to avoid muting the instrument because it is a solo and I think it should have a characteristic bassoon sound, not one that is completely altered.

Instead I found some fingerings that make this solo soft and in my comfort zone to play.

1. Use the lock for the whole solo. This necessitates venting the upper  A's  and  Bb's  so they speak in the correct octave. Vent for the whole duration of the note, so you don't lose the octave part-way through.

2. To start, alter the first  D by anchoring your right thumb on the F# post right next to the Low E key. Be careful not to contact the F# key!! Partially close the E key with the side of your thumb until you achieve a softer D that is also nicely down to pitch. There is quite often a pitch discrepancy between the Bass solo that precedes the bassoon entrance and this first note, with the Bass being on pitch or flat and you being sharp on the  D , so this little aid is helpful. Fortunately, Max Dimoff, our Principal Bass plays this solo with impeccable intonation, so he set me up beautifully!

3. Use the low Eb key on open F for a more trouble-free slur to G.

4. Your choice as to whether or not to shade the low E key for every D in the solo -- probably too much trouble, right?

5. Be sure to vent the first A!

6. Now for the most important solution -- making the A - Low A slur at the end of the phrase successful! 
  • Vent the upper A
  • for the low A, remove the vent while adding the low C# key and the thumb F# in the right hand for a comfortable, smooth slur that is very soft. Careful coordination is essential for this to work.
  • A variation on this would be to add just the F#, but the low A may be too flat on your bassoon. If so, include the low C#.
  • As this method involves lots of changes to normal fingerings in a pressure situation, you'll need to practice this quite a lot to get comfortable with it before trying it in rehearsal.

 The other passage is found at the beginning of the 3rd bassoon part in Mahler's 3rd Symphony

The slur from A to low B in the little passage at Number 1 was giving me fits when I first played it several years ago. The contrabassoon plays this passage with you, so our contrabassoonist, Jonathan Sherwin kindly showed me his solution.

Simply play the A with the low B key on (and the lock) and you'll have a better chance of landing safely on low B.

However, this past week, that wasn't good enough in rehearsal, for a very soft "ppp" was desired!  Even armed with this fingering, a soft reed and a bocal I use mainly for 3rd bassoon parts, it wasn't quiet enough.

My solution for a homemade mute! 
  • Find some flexible sponge-like packing material. 
  • Cut out a cylinder approximately 2" in diameter and 1" thick.
  • Poke a whole in the middle and tie a rubber band in a knot. 
  • Push the rubber band through the hole with the knot on one side of the packing cylinder. 
  • Leave some length of rubber band on the other end to use as a handle for pulling out of the bell
  • Insert in bell
With all of these extreme measures in place, I have so far avoided the "Heisman" gesture from the podium!

We'll see if my luck continues, for we are taking Mahler 3rd to Europe for 3 weeks this month!

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