Saturday, January 30, 2016


I'm keeping quite busy on this sabbatical! Tonight I play a recital in the beautiful Harkness Chapel on the Case Western Reserve University campus.

Joining me will be my usual partner in crime, Randall Fusco at the piano. 

I will repeat the program (minus the Bach, plus the Mignone Duo with Albie Micklich) at Arizona State University this Tuesday. The recital will be webcast via YouTube (5:00 EST)


Viktor Kuprevich, Andante and Scherzo                                                                                                                                
Glinka Sonata (Allegro)
Glazunov Chant du Ménestrel, Op. 71
Chopin Etude, Op.25, No.7  arr. by Glazunov
Tchaikovsky "Kuda, kuda" from Eugene Onegin, arr. by Stees
Tchaikovsky Melodie, arr. by Stees
Piatigorsky  Russian Dance   arr. by Stees                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Mignone 6 Valsas from 16 Valsas para Fagote Solo
Aquela Modinha Que O Villa Não Escreveu
A Boa Páscoa Para Você, Devos
6a Valsa Brasileira
Valse Quase Modinheira

Mignone Sonata Para Dois Fagotes          (Albie Micklich, bassoon)
I. Allegro
II. Modinha - Molto lento
III. Rondo - Chorinho - Allo burlesco

Reis Seresta and Carioquinha                                                                                                                    

The first half of the program consists of short arrangements of Russian pieces for bassoon and piano, some of them my own.

The second half starts with William Waterhouse's arrangement of the Bach a minor flute partita, followed by six of the Mignone Valsas for solo bassoon. I think the juxtaposition of solo Bach and solo Mignone should be interesting. In the Arizona/YouTube recital, I'll swap the Bach out and play the Mignone Duo with Albie.

I'll close with two short pieces by Brazilian composer, Hilda Reis.

The choice of repertoire is a result of collecting and listening I've done over a couple of decades. I discovered some of the Russian pieces I transcribed from listening to a recording by cellist Andres Diaz. 

Pieces by Viktor Kuprevich were given me by a former student, Oleksiy Zakharov. Bassoonist Kathleen Reynolds' recording of the Glinka Viola Sonata inspired me to try it myself.

My history with the Mignone Valsas goes back to 1993, when the trombone professor at MSU brought back a bunch of Brazilian bassoon music for me from one of his trips down there. I struck up a friendship with bassoonist, Elione Alves de Medeiros and sent a graduate student to Rio to study with Noel Devos, the man for whom the Valsas were written.

Bassoonist and publisher, Bruce Gbur sent me copies of the Reis pieces. They are charming!

I hope you can listen!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Firebird Berceuse

This week I had the opportunity to perform the 1919 Firebird Suite with the Milwaukee Symphony. As an Assistant Principal, I don't often get to play the first bassoon part, but have on occasion. The Cleveland Orchestra plays this piece regularly -- perhaps once every two years, and more often on educational concerts.

One of my most memorable experiences playing the Firebird was when we played the complete ballet with Pierre Boulez in 2005. I reacquainted myself with the contrabassoon by playing the second contra part!

So my experience with the piece may be a bit unusual, but as I found out in Milwaukee, maybe not all that strange!

As I sat in to play the piece in rehearsal, the MSO's Principal Clarinetist, Todd Levy leaned over to me and said, "It's nice to play the whole piece -- it mostly shows up in fragments on educational concerts." I wonder if this is how the piece is most often performed in orchestras now?

In a previous post, I discussed how I prepared the famous solo in the Berceuse. In that post, I avoided taking sides in the D natural vs. Db controversy.

I'll tackle that head on in this post in a minute, but first I'd like to explain how it came up.

The bassoon parts to the 1919 Suite require some study, not only because of the technical challenges, but also there are some questionable markings in the parts.

During one of the rehearsals, Beth Giacobassi (who played 2nd with me) asked about an inconsistency in the Introduction:

Should the series of eighth notes be played with the same length or is the second series to played longer because of the portamento marking (slur)?

I've always played the two sections using the SAME length of articulation -- tenuto, but with a separation between notes.

However, since I was a guest in the orchestra, I decided to defer and ask the conductor at the rehearsal break.

The conductor, the very fine and very courteous Christopher Seaman, answered the question by asking that both passages be played with separation. He stated that there were no slurs in the original, complete ballet and that the Suite contained a mistake here.

I checked later and found this not to be the case. Below is the 1911 score

As you can see, the portamento is consistent between the two passages. Perhaps the point he was trying to make was that the two passages should be played with the same length of articulation, there being no good reason for a difference. Nonetheless, he made it clear he wanted a separated group of eighth notes with each note having some substance to the sound.

Now, going up to the podium during a break to ask the conductor a question might be a more diplomatic method than having a back and forth discussion during the rehearsal, but it carries with it certain inherent risks!

Such was the case here. After the discussion regarding the eighth notes, he turned to the Berceuse, which we had just played in our run-through. I had played my favorite D natural in the solo and he asked if I would consider substituting Db.

Perhaps aware that some bassoonists have exchanged less than courteous words about which Stravinsky told them to play, he went to the piano to demonstrate support his argument.

First a little background.

The choice of D natural (once the question of what Stravinsky told "Your Teacher " to play is removed from the argument!) is often justified because of the voice leading. A D natural in Eb minor is the leading tone, and thus, provides better voice leading in the phrase than a Db since, after an interpolated Cb and a couple of Bb's, it resolves nicely to a Eb.

Another justification used is that it synchronizes with the D natural found in the violins exactly on the second beat of the bar (bar before 7):

However, you'll notice in this score (1919 Suite, Boosey and Hawkes), the bassoon part contains a Db instead of D natural.

Seaman made his argument by playing the passage on the piano with the Db in the bassoon line and the D natural in the violin line sounding together. He said this was an example of an English cadence.

If you go to the link, you can see and even play back the chord progression involved. Although it refers to its use by English composers of the 16th and 17th century, he was proposing its intentional use in a famous 20th century piece. Half of the voice leading is correctly followed by Stravinsky-- the Db does resolve to a Cb, but the D natural in the violins instead of resolving up to an Eb, goes down -- to a Db, interestingly enough.

Although Seaman's argument may seem a bit far-fetched in linking Stravinsky with 16th century music, we know that Stravinsky developed an intense fascination with music from that period, although much later in life.

Suffice it to say, I played the Db for him and he was satisfied. I'm not sure I'm going to change my habit to Db the next time I play it, but I've now heard a pretty convincing argument for the Db, instead of "it sounds better that way", or "my teacher said to play the D (natural or flat)"!

The Firebird bassoon parts, especially in the Kalmus or Boosey edition are a real mess. The copyist did a poor job of indicating note values and rests clearly.

The use of dotted lines to indicate half-bar lines and the sloppy job of indicating rests along with the accretion of pencil marks by nervous bassoonists of the past make the opening very hard to count!

In the Berceuse itself, some editions have some glaring inconsistencies and obvious omissions:

Notice how a Bb needed to be added by hand to measure 2 of the solo!  I know of one famous conductor (still working today) who insisted that the Principal Bassoonist of his orchestra play two quarter notes (Bb and D only) and a half note in the bar instead of the quarter, two eighths and a half!  They were touring with the piece, so on some nights the bassoonist would sneak the Bb back in to the solo, only to be called into the dressing room later and asked to leave it out the next night!

Also, notice the lack of a slur over the two bar group beginning at 7! Clearly this part is not perfect and legitimate questions arise about the details!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Milwaukee week

I am currently on a 6-month sabbatical from The Cleveland Orchestra. While still teaching my wonderful students at CIM, I will use some of my free time to play with the Milwaukee Symphony.

Milwaukee's Principal Bassoonist, Ted Soluri, recently won the Principal Bassoon position in the Dallas Symphony and has a leave of absence from the MSO. Thus, the need for a substitute.

Last week was my first week with the group and I thoroughly enjoyed it!  Milwaukee has a great orchestra with so many fine players. I was given a very friendly welcome and was impressed by their ensemble, great balance and intonation among other things. It was easy for me to fit in.

Rudi Heinrich and Beth Giacobassi, the two members of the bassoon section were very accommodating to me. Both are great players.

The program consisted of Elgar's "In the South", Dukas' "La Peri" (fanfare and symphonic poem), Sibelius Violin Concert (with Karen Gomyo) and the Firebird Suite.

Rudi played principal on the Elgar and Dukas. I played principal on the Sibelius and Firebird and second on the Elgar and Dukas. Beth played contra on the Elgar, second on the Sibelius and Firebird and third on the Dukas.

Milwaukee has three-person woodwind sections. Unlike our four-person sections in Cleveland, there is much more rotating from one part to another in the sections in a week's repertoire. I gather that the assistant principals play a good amount of second, along with some principal duties, while the players of auxiliary instruments (piccolo, English Horn, bass clarinet, contrabassoon) play more on the main instrument (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon) than ours do.

Thus, with this week's program order, Beth needed to switch immediately from the Elgar's substantial contra part to the second bassoon part for the Sibelius (with its treacherous second movement) with very little time to even try a bassoon note in between. She managed this beautifully every time!

 Rudi took me out for coffee on Saturday morning. We found a good place at the Colectivo coffee bar in the Third Ward neighborhood. I enjoyed a really nice cortado and bought some of their roast -- the Java Blue Batavia, a really great light roast.

Running in Milwaukee is terrific!  They have done a wonderful job in preserving the lakefront -- shame on you, Cleveland!! The Oak Leaf Trail skirts Lake Michigan and also veers into town, following the river.

The area near the Marcus Center (home of Uihlein Hall) has some interesting sights. Among them is an ice skating rink across the street.

And this church:

Wonder what they serve for Communion?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Special Recital

Last Sunday I traveled to Pittsburgh with my pianist friend, Randy Fusco to play a recital at Canterbury Place, the assisted living center where David Van Hoesen and his wife, Carol now reside. The center has a large room with a baby grand piano that is suitable for a recital.

I played a 45 minute set of arrangements of Russian music by Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and others. It will also be the first half of a longer recital I'm presenting in Harkness Chapel on the Case Western Reserve University Campus on Saturday, January 30th at 7:00pm.

Here is a photo with The Man Himself!

And one with our wives!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Farewell, Mr. Boulez!

Farewell, Mr. Boulez!

Yesterday, the world lost one of the great figures of Classical music, Pierre Boulez. Here is his

His relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra started when he guest conducted in 1965. At the time, Music Director, George Szell, desiring to focus on the canonical works of symphonic music with his orchestra, sought someone who could balance the programming by bringing a repertoire of new music to Cleveland audiences. Boulez was the perfect choice.

Few music directors at any time would have the humility or awareness that they could not provide everything an orchestra and audience needed in programming and, thus, would seek out an excellent person to complement the orchestra's offering!  I can think of many examples in which a mediocre conductor has been engaged so as not to upstage a music director!

My first encounter with Mr. Boulez (it was always Mr. Boulez with us here in Cleveland) came in the winter of 2002 during my first year with the orchestra. We played Messiaen's "L'Oiseaux Exotiques". I felt as though I was eavesdropping on an old relationship. The orchestra's sound changed the minute he started conducting! His baton-less technique seemed perfectly natural to me from the start. His every gesture was meaningful, helpful and economical. The orchestra could be playing a huge "ff", and with a flick of the wrist he could bring us back to "p". He accomplished this with a small part of one hand while some conductors require a karate chop to get a similar effect.

I'm sure there will be much discussion about his legacy in the coming days. It should make for interesting reading.

I'll close with one anecdote that sums up Boulez's approach to music perfectly. From Time Page in the Washington Post. Read it here

In later years, Mr. Boulez was by all accounts a gracious, soft-spoken and self-effacing gentleman, much beloved by the musicians he worked with. In his composition and his conducting — which he managed with the brisk efficiency of a bank teller giving change — he was the antithesis of the romanticized stereotype of egoistic, heaven-storming musician.
“Perhaps I can explain it best by an old Chinese story,” he said to his biographer, the late Joan Peyser. “A painter drew a landscape so beautifully that he entered the picture and disappeared. For me, that is the definition of a great work — a landscape painted so well that the artist disappears in it.”
- See more at:

n later years, Mr. Boulez was by all accounts a gracious, soft-spoken and self-effacing gentleman, much beloved by the musicians he worked with. In his composition and his conducting — which he managed with the brisk efficiency of a bank teller giving change — he was the antithesis of the romanticized stereotype of egoistic, heaven-storming musician.
“Perhaps I can explain it best by an old Chinese story,” he said to his biographer, the late Joan Peyser. “A painter drew a landscape so beautifully that he entered the picture and disappeared. For me, that is the definition of a great work — a landscape painted so well that the artist disappears in it.”
- See more at:

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Sense(s) of Technique

Use your senses to improve your technique!

OK, so maybe we'll leave out smell and taste, unless you're using them to avoid older reeds!

My point in using the graphic above is to introduce this post on how we can use our senses (sight, touch and hearing, anyway!)effectively for better technique while playing. 

Reliance upon sight may work for easier passages; but for accuracy and repetition, having all three at your disposal and knowing how to use them intelligently really help!


Sight is the dominant sense we use when reading music. We are visual beings. With today's heavy reliance upon looking at screens and the printed page, many say that the sense of sight is now the most dominant sense for humans.

Pattern recognition

The most important tool for great technique is pattern recognition. Seeing patterns in the music is the way to start. Knowledge of how music is structured (music theory!) can be very helpful. 

Recognizing that Bar 1 below consists solely of an F major triad, Bar 2, Bb triad, etc. makes this passage easy:


When you learn to read words, once you learn the alphabet, you read by grouping letters to form words, grouping words to form sentences, etc. Music is the same way. If you have to read each note and aren't making groups while you read music, your technique will not advance.

Find groups in the lines you play that make musical or visual sense (or both!). Group pairs of high notes together and low notes together below:


Sometimes, it's important to make sure your eye focuses on one particular note or pair of notes in a passage. To find this "linchpin", play the passage several times focusing your eye on a different place on the page each time. Which choice makes the passage flow easier? Circle the note(s) with a pencil and your eye will go to it every time. Certainly the grace note in the Beethoven example below would qualify as a linchpin.

The Sequence of events

When reading music, there are a few things we must decide.

1. When to look at the music
2. How often to look at the music
3. How much music to look at at a time 
4. When to look ahead 

There is a sequence of events that must be managed. The eyes feed the brain and the brain tells the body parts (tongue, fingers, breath,etc.) what to do with the information given it by the eyes. The way this sequence plays out is dictated by the pace and difficulty of the music. 

Through practice, you can avoid a musical version of this from happening:

Circled below are the notes I look at when playing the Beethoven 4th last movement solo:

How Much 

Most musicians are prone to group large numbers of notes together -- a complete scale, for instance. With some slower tempos, this may be quite reliable. However, when the speed is quick, finding a smaller grouping is better.

I admit that at a fast tempo, I can't play more than 4-5 notes in a row securely without having to look ahead for another small group. Going from beat to beat like this often works well:


The question of when your eye should "feed" your brain is also important. If you're getting stuck on a technical passage, examine not only how much you feed your brain, but WHEN you do as well. Maybe you're looking too far ahead, maybe you're not looking ahead soon enough, maybe you're not looking ahead at all! Practice adjusting this timing and you may find a way "out of the woods" of sloppy technique!

Wandering Eyes

Our world is full of stimulation and we have become used to glancing at screens, etc. at an alarming rate during waking hours. It's hard for most of us to remain focused on one thing for very long. Males have more trouble with this than females, studies have shown.

By comparison, reading music is really boring -- just black spots on a white page!! Training your eyes to stay focused on one thing for a long period of time -- even just a couple of minutes -- can be challenging.

Notice when your eye wanders from the page and gently urge it to return. Try to eliminate the distractions in your practice area and light the room so that the music stand is a focal point.

In performance, try to ignore distractions and learn to recover your focus after you are distracted. Stare at the page if you must! Practice by having someone make noise in a hall while you're playing and see how you do!


Music is an aural art, so having a great ear is of the utmost importance. There are a few things you can do to improve your technique through training your ear.

Hear every note

Can you hear EVERY note in a technical passage? I know that I can play a passage more cleanly if I am really hearing every pitch. Try singing a technical passage slowly. Use slow practice not only to train your fingers, but to intensify how you HEAR the passage. Don't let up on this as you increase the tempo. 

Hear it before you play it

Hear the passage before you play it. Like performing with good sound and intonation, you must have a concept of how a technical passage should SOUND beforehand and try to hear it before you play it. Leave nothing to chance!

Hear groupings

Can you hear the individual groupings you've chosen while playing?

Hear your phrasing

Related to hearing groupings, but you should be able to hear the phrasing you've practiced slowly when playing up to tempo. My technique is cleaner when I've assigned a role to EVERY note in a passage.

To enhance your sense of hearing for a passage, practice it with your eyes closed.


How a passage feels under your fingers is important. Through slow practice you build muscle memory. When you choose groupings, try to get a unified muscle memory feel for the groups in your fingers and hands. 

What does it feel like to play an F major arpeggio, for instance? Try playing some "air bassoon"!

Is there a hand position that works best for a particular group? In the passage below, I rotate my right wrist slightly down and in for the G-F-G alternation and slightly up and out for the Bb to minimize finger action. The slight rolling of the wrist automatically brings the fingers closer to the keys and keeps you loose!

Maybe the rotation of left index finger for half hole is important? In measure 2 of this passage from Figaro, a slight rotation of the index finger, from completely covering the tone hole for E to slightly opening it for F#, etc., provides the finishing touch for the proper "feel" of this passage.

For the thumbs, is there a position that helps a passage become more fluid? 

To eliminate unnecessary motion in this passage I point my left thumb up towards the high C key (UP) when playing high Bb and down towards the whisper key for high G (DOWN) when playing high A.

For smooth legato, place the right thumb on the low E key as close as possible to the F# key in this passage.

To enhance your sense of touch for a passage, practice it with your eyes closed. 


For secure, brilliant execution of technical passages, we need to use the senses of sight, hearing and touch. One sense may get us through safely quite often, but there will be times when that's not enough. 

Through slow practice you can sharpen the other two senses as backups. For instance, when your eye wanders off the page, often muscle memory takes over and you finish the passage securely. And seeing a passage well on the page may get you through cleanly, but your ear will be the sense that will guide your phrasing because of how you hear the passage.