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musings of a professional bassoonist
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1.  Practice with a drone.

Playing in tune is a constant goal of all conscientious musicians.  If a bassoonist just sits back and allows the notes on the bassoon to fall where they may, inaccurate intonation will surely result due to the inherent imperfections of the instrument.  In order to play in tune, bassoonists must constantly adjust the embouchure and the air stream (this is often done subconsciously).  Using an electronic tuner to check the pitches of individual notes may be effective, but the problem with using a visual tuner is that the player's eyes are used to assess whether or not the player is in tune.  On the other hand, using a drone forces the player to use the ears.  There are several online drone sources such as this one.  If you haven't used a drone before, just begin by matching the pitch of the drone.  Then practice scales, arpeggios and melodies while the drone is producing the pitch of the tonic (the first note of the scale).

2.  Practice long tones (ALWAYS with a drone or tuner).

Long tones are essential for the development of control over the embouchure and the air stream.  There is quite simply no other way to develop the steady air stream necessary for mastery of the bassoon.  At first, practice steady, controlled long tones using straight tones, and later add crescendos and diminuendos, always with a drone or tuner to ensure accurate intonation. 

3.  Practice with a metronome.

A steady pulse provides the foundation for rhythmic accuracy.  When playing in an ensemble with other musicians, it's easy to go with the flow, allowing the conductor and/or the ensemble to provide the pulse.  When each musician in the ensemble is also tuned in to his or her own internal pulse, the result can be a very tight and impressive ensemble.  However, for auditions and other types of solo performances, the player has no choice but to rely upon his or her own internal pulse.  This can be daunting if steadiness of pulse and rhythm has been neglected.

 The metronome is the obvious tool to use in strengthening (and testing) your internal pulse.  To test your internal pulse, use the metronome to provide the offbeats so that you must provide the downbeats, or set the metronome to one beat per measure so that you must provide accurate subdivisions within each measure.   Once the metronome is turned off, many musicians find it helpful to move slightly to the beat (such as with discreet foot tapping, for example).  It's harder to ignore one's internal metronome when there is a physical component to it (such as foot tapping).

4.  Practice scales and arpeggios.

The practicing of scales and arpeggios develops the fundamental building blocks of a musician's technique.  Listen acutely for clean transitions from one note to the next while thinking of each scale as a beautiful melody with the notes matching one another in tone quality.  This enables development as a technician and as a musician simultaneously.  The careful practice of scales and arpeggios pays huge dividends, resulting in the smoothness which is often elusive to bassoonists.  Move your fingers as little as possible (always keeping them as close as possible to the holes and keys of the bassoon) for efficiency.  Play your scales and arpeggios with a drone to ensure accurate intonation.

5.  Record your playing. 

If you record your playing and then listen to the recording, much will be revealed.   The way you sound to yourself while playing is NOT the same as the way you sound to a listener other than yourself.  Think of listening to a recording of your own voice speaking.....it sounds very different from the way it sounds to you while you are speaking.  If you really want to discover the flaws in your playing, then recording yourself is the key to thorough self-evaluation.

Recordings can make it easy to measure your progress.  Make an initial recording, then listen to it to decide what improvements to make.  Practice the improvement, then record again.  Since it's unlikely that this will be your final product, decide what further changes to make and repeat the process.  Do this a few times (maybe over the course of a few days, or maybe in one day) and you'll be able to listen to the recordings of your progress. This may seem time consuming, but it's very effective.

Also, recordings can be helpful in choosing the best reed for a passage.

6.  Become a master reed maker.

It goes without saying that the quality of a bassoonist's reeds can make or break a performance (or even a career, if that performance happens to be an audition!).  A successful bassoonist needs a steady supply of good reeds to choose from.   If you want to become a better reed maker, then make more reeds.  Each reed you make teaches you more about how to deal with the temperamental vegetable which controls our outcomes.

Unless you have a reliable and satisfactory reed source which you know is going to outlive you, it's advisable to become your own reedmaker and to make tons of reeds.

7.  Practice vibrato.

Yes, all advanced bassoonists use vibrato, but how many of us actually practice it?  Although used for musical expression, vibrato is a technique which benefits from development (even though we like to think of it as a naturally occurring phenomenon).  To begin, set the metronome on 60, pick a note, and begin pulsating the air stream with sudden steady bursts of air once on each beat.  Then produce two steady pulses for each beat, then three, then four, then five per beat.  Next set the metronome on 72, and practice slow scales in whole notes or half notes with 4 pulsations per beat.

The long tones (see number 2 above) are to be practiced at first without vibrato, since it's essential for the bassoonist to learn to control the straight tone before adding vibrato.  Once the straight tones are mastered, practice long tones with vibrato.....sometimes with a steady pulsation of vibrato and other times beginning with no vibrato or minimal vibrato and gradually increasing and then decreasing its intensity and pulse.

You'll notice that the notes on the bassoon vary regarding ease of producing vibrato.  Some notes on the bassoon are actually easier to control with vibrato than without.  The goal, of course, is to gain control of each note on the instrument with and without vibrato, and to be able to modify the vibrato according to musical requirements.....sometimes the music calls for intense, earth-shaking vibrato, while the opposite extreme calls for barely perceptible vibrato (or none at all).  Methodical practice of vibrato will ensure that the player has control of vibrato on each note of the instrument.

How is bassoon vibrato produced?  Some say it's produced in the abdomen and some say it's produced in the larynx.  Even when it is produced abominably, there are sympathetic vibrations which appear higher, such as in the neck, and sometimes the bassoon itself moves with the vibrato.  The source seems to vary depending upon the speed of the vibrato.....the faster the vibrato, the higher the source (faster vibrato seems to be coming more from the larynx than the abdomen). 

8.  Listen to great musicians.

In order to learn to be a fine musician, it's necessary to expose yourself to many examples of world class musicianship as expressed by vocalists, pianists, string players, etc.  Whenever possible, attend live performances.  The rest of the time, make use of YouTube and other sources.....there's no excuse these days for musical ignorance.  The finest musical examples imaginable are available 24 hours a day, free of charge.  Each time we listen to a great performance, our musical intuition is bolstered subconsciously.  The bassoon can be a challenging instrument to play at times, but that's no excuse to allow musical standards to fall by the wayside.  The inspiration derived from great instrumentalists and vocalists helps keep us on the right track.

Remember......you are a musician first, a bassoonist second.



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15 days ago |
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The optimal bassoon playing position is established without the bassoon.  Many musicians are familiar with the Alexander Technique which basically teaches people to release unwanted muscle tension while sitting, standing or moving.  Problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injuries, all too common among musicians, are often alleviated using the Alexander Technique.

This is an example of what it looks like to apply the Alexander Technique to the act of sitting:


This is the ideal bassoon playing position.....now all that remains is adding the bassoon and then placing the arms in playing position.


The above sitting posture should be absolutely unaffected by the introduction of the bassoon and the insertion of the reed into the mouth.  Obviously the arms must be moved in order to accommodate the instrument, and the positioning of the arms should be as natural and relaxed as possible.

the posture should NOT be affected by the bassoon

I'm no expert on Alexander Technique, but I've had a few lessons and found them to be immensely beneficial.  I've spent a lot of time working with students on playing position since I'm convinced that it makes a difference.   I begin by asking the student to sit comfortably in the chair with good posture as indicated by the photo at the top of this post.  Then the bassoon is brought into that playing position.  It's challenging to talk students into not moving the body to accommodate the bassoon!  The goal is to adjust the bassoon, not the player.  The seat strap may be manipulated up and down as well as backward and forward in the chair to place the bassoon in the right position. 



Additionally, I advise my students to position the bassoon high enough so that when the reed is inserted into the mouth, all of the pressure on the reed is applied from above.  The jaw should be dropped and prevented from pushing up on the reed.  If the bassoon is positioned too low, the jaw will automatically push up on the reed, constricting the sound and raising the pitch.  The lower lip supports and surrounds the reed, but the pressure on the reed is felt in the top lip and the top front teeth.

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To me the playing position includes the position of the reed as it enters the mouth.  If I see a student's reed entering at the lower lip, I can be sure that the student will be inadvertently pushing up on the reed.  (It's better, I think, if the reed hits the top lip as it enters the mouth.)   I often demonstrate (or ask the student to demonstrate) how the sound improves when the pressure is applied only from above.  This is accomplished by raising the bassoon, dropping the jaw, and applying pressure only on top of the reed.  This is the intersection of embouchure and playing position.....it's impossible for me to talk about embouchure without also discussing the point of entry of the reed into the mouth, which is also part of the playing position.  (When teaching bassoon embouchure specifically, I instruct students to wrap their lips over their teeth and drop the jaw back as far as it will go, creating an overbite.  Pressure is applied to the top of the reed, and pushing up with the jaw is best avoided.)

This is the playing position and embouchure which I think enables a desirable bassoon sound.  The abdomen is free to expand for breathing and vibrato and the reed is allowed to vibrate while being dampened on top for a robust yet round sound.  The lack of tension in the playing position will most likely prevent any performance-related injuries.



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25 days ago |
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blade from Herzberg bassoon reed profiler

10.  You've laid the groundwork to make the task as daunting as it can possibly be.  You've hidden your notes about how to sharpen the blade, you've stashed your diamond sharpening stone in an unknown location, and you have no idea what you did with the photos you took of each step last time you sharpened........

diamond sharpening stone and its leather sheath

9.  You know that you're supposed to sharpen the blade after 50 pieces of cane have been profiled, but you pretend you've lost count.... even though you number each reed.  The guilt can be paralyzing.

8.  Since you don't sharpen the blade very often, you know you're not very good at it.   In fact, it's entirely possible that you suck at blade sharpening even more than you realize.

7.  You are never really sure if the burr is there (and if it IS there, it certainly isn't very obvious).

6.  Since you aren't sure you actually have a burr, you sure as heck also don't know when it's been successfully removed.

5.  A newly sharpened profiler blade could very well result in reeds which are too thin.

4.  If you sharpen the blade often enough, eventually there will be  nothing left of it.

Keep doing this, and eventually there'll be nothing left!

3.  Blade sharpening takes too much time, so your schedule won't allow it.

2.  It's unlikely that your colleagues are whispering behind your back about your neglect of your profiler blade.

1.  Most people don't go around sharpening profiler blades ever.......geez.  It's not fair.

the blade installed in the profiler, where it belongs


And by the way, I'm gearing up to sharpen my profiler blade.  This post will hopefully result in action, now that I've exposed my excuses.






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29 days ago |
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Once you've played the Nutcracker a few dozen times, it may be worth considering articulating each note with the "ka" syllable.  That way you might be able to alleviate boredom while at the same time strengthening your double tongue.  (Of course, your "ka" must be strong enough that your colleagues won't be able to detect the deviation.  Also, I have discovered that certain passages simply do not lend themselves to starting with the "ka". Discretion is advised.)

There are certain types of playing situations which provide ideal opportunities to improve one's playing in creative ways.  For example, I always advise my students who are learning to double tongue to take advantage of boring passages in their band or orchestra music to practice starting each note with the "ka" (or "ga") syllable.

The reason for this is because single tonguing requires only the "ta" articulation, while double tonguing requires the "ka" as well (which is something we've not been called upon to do until we double tongue).  To double tongue a string of 16ths, the tongue travels from its usual "ta" position near the teeth to farther back in the throat for the "ka", resulting in the articulation "ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka" instead of the single tongued "ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta".  The reason double tonguing often sounds uneven is because the "ka" syllable is so much weaker than the "ta".  And that's simply because we haven't practiced the "ka" nearly as often as the "ta".

Bassoon students often complain of boredom during band rehearsals, so I advise working on either vibrato or the "ka" syllable at every opportunity.  That way they're putting in some valuable practice time while fulfilling band requirements.

And it's not just good advice for students.....I do it too.  I don't think there's any such thing as a "ka" which can't be improved upon, so during tonight's Nutcracker performance I articulated most of the notes in my part with "ka".  I'm sure no one noticed.

Another technique I like to practice in the orchestra (when I can get away with it) is circular breathing.  This is quite tricky due to its visual component......my version of circular breathing, which is still in its infancy, seems to require my cheeks puffing out as well as my eyes rolling back in my head.  I'm always worried that someone might happen to be looking at me (the conductor, perhaps, or maybe an overly enthusiastic audience member with binoculars) so I'm fairly cautious with the public circular breathing.  I wouldn't want anyone to mistake my circular breathing for a medical emergency!

(Update:  I have begun incorporating circular breathing into the Nutcracker so that at times I'm starting with the "ka" and circular breathing in the same passage.  As luck would have it, the conductor glanced at me last night while I was in the throes of circular breathing.  His casual gaze morphed into alarm until I resumed a normal countenance.)

With such challenges before us, it's rather impossible to become bored with bassoon playing.  Even when the immediate task at hand is dull, we can spice it up with breathing, articulation and vibrato exercises, each of which will raise our level of expertise.



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29 days ago |
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This is a common question posed by those who marvel at the notion that a musician might be involved by necessity in an intricate wood-carving craft.  It does seem somewhat preposterous...it would be like string players making bows or brass players producing mouthpieces or pianists carving ivory.  These days, even clarinet and saxophone players, who used to at least buy large numbers of wooden reeds to sort through even if they didn't actually make the reeds, seem to be gravitating toward synthetic reeds.  Only double reed players engage in the antiquated art of reed making, it seems.

Once people find out about this, they naturally wonder how much time we spend on this activity.  Most people who dabble in arts and crafts do so only when the whim strikes.....is that how it is with reed-making?

Not exactly.  Our reed-making determines, to a large degree, our level of command over our instrument.  If we wish to triumph as double reed players, we make reeds.  Constantly.

For a long time I didn't really know the answer when asked how long it takes to make a bassoon reed.  Part of the reason is because my reeds are made in three phases spread over a period of at least two weeks. It's not possible to make a reed from start to finish in one fell swoop.
Examples of reeds at the end of steps 1, 2 and 3

Finally I decided to do the research.  I timed each step.  My conclusion was it takes a total of 45 minutes for me to make one bassoon reed.  First the blank is formed (see step 1 on the left in the photo above), followed by a waiting period of at least 2 weeks, if possible.  Next the blank is straightened out by taking off the wires, and the cane is beveled, the wires are placed on permanently, and the tube is wrapped (step 2 in the middle of the above photo).  After the Duco cement dries overnight the reed is ready to be finished.  In my case that means cutting the tip, reaming the reed and finally using the Reiger tip profiler (step 3 on the right above).  Occasionally the reed is finished at that point, but often hand-finishing with a knife and/or file is needed.

My students often ask me how many of the reeds I make are good enough to use.  That question always makes me think of my reed-making teacher, the renowned Los Angeles studio bassoonist and teacher Norman Herzberg. who always told me that one out of twelve reeds worked for him.  He was, of course, a master reed maker, but he also had sky-high standards.  Anyway, the answer I often give to my students is that one out of twelve reeds is good enough to use in the orchestra, but the truth is that I don't know exactly.  If a reed doesn't play well at first, I usually keep it anyway, hoping that someday it will magically turn into a usable reed.  (That does happen once in a blue moon.)

Using the above data, it's easy to figure out that it takes no less than nine hours for me to make a usable bassoon reed, assuming that one out of twelve is good enough to use professionally.  For me, a reed lasts only one week, so the hours spent on reed-making add up quickly!  The payoff from constant reed-making is control over the instrument and a desirable sound, so there's no question that the time and effort is well spent.


blue moon
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31 days ago |
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The heroic Christopher Weait
One of the first famous bassoonists of whom I became aware during high school was Christopher Weait, through his solo and chamber recordings and his reputation as co-principal bassoonist of the Toronto Symphony.  What were the odds that someday we'd end up living in the same city?  Luckily for me, Mr. Weait left his position with the Toronto Symphony in order to teach at The Ohio State University in Columbus, where I ended up living also after joining the Columbus Symphony.

Because of the stellar reputation which preceded him, he always struck me as being larger than life.....with a wife to match.  (Ask anyone who knows Padge Weait....she is an amazing and  multi-talented person who seems to be capable of doing or creating anything.  And she's a cellist to boot.)  We've been very fortunate to have a person of Mr. Weait's experience and abilities right here in Columbus.

He has frequently performed in the bassoon section of the Columbus Symphony, to the delight of the entire woodwind section.  His personality, always positive, jovial and thoughtful, has been perfect for shaking up our attitudes.  Whenever we see him onstage we know that we're headed for a good time.
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Columbus Symphony Rite of Spring bassoon section including Christopher Weait in the middle
On top of all of this, he's a conductor.  He conducted the final orchestral concert at the IDRS conference in Bloomington, Indiana in which I was soloist in the Mozart bassoon concerto.  Although it's unspeakably daunting to perform for such an audience, the fact that Maestro Weait was conducting made it one of the most memorable events of my life.

Another talent of his is arranging music, as evidenced by this video of Marriage of Fagotto by Christopher Weait (published by Weait Music) performed by bassoon professors Susan Nelson of Bowling Green State University, Bill Jobert of Wright State University, and Karen Pierson of The Ohio State University:


Mr. Weait has always had my back, whether it meant stepping in to play principal bassoon at the last minute if I had an emergency, coming up with music from his vast library, or even loaning me his instrument.  And he's always willing to lend an ear for bassoon coaching or life counseling.  Although he's "retired" now (and his version of retirement means working long hours each day arranging music and operating his business, Weait Music) this truth remains: for any bassoon-related emergency in central Ohio, who do you call?  Christopher Weait.

This past week Mr. Weait played a critical role in my life once again.  Thursday night, after a long and stressful day of rehearsing a difficult program which included Shostakovich Symphony No. 15,  I was putting away my bassoon on stage at the Ohio Theatre when the unthinkable occurred.

(Mind you, I'm one who is swab-obsessed, constantly warning bassoonists about the perils of careless swabbing, admonishing others to never to allow a swab with a knot in it to enter your bassoon, advising to always use a swab with a tail on each end so that it can be pulled out from either end, forever forbidding students to swab while distracted.   I've even written blog posts about swabbing.  In one of the posts I describe in detail the traumatizing horror of getting a swab stuck inside the tenor joint of my bassoon and how it took the efforts of six people including a world class bassoon repairman to extract the swab.)

So what was "the unthinkable" which occurred on stage at the Ohio Theatre last Thursday evening?  You guessed it.  My swab was stuck in my tenor joint.

Once I realized the swab was stuck (and I mean it was STUCK....it was tightly jammed near the top of the tenor joint, and it wasn't going anywhere) I panicked.  Where was the tail which should have been hanging out from the other end?  I don't know.  It was nowhere to be seen......it must have been lodged inside the bassoon.  Quickly losing the ability to function, I turned to second bassoonist Doug Fisher, who tried to remove it.  Then I turned to principal clarinetist David Thomas, who has had prior experience with stuck bassoon swabs thanks to me.   He said that he had been advised to twist a stuck swab very tightly to the point where it might come out.  All the twisting in the world wasn't going to get my swab out.......we tried.  And tried.  Second clarinetist Anthony Lojo, although experienced in instrument repair, was afraid to get involved after the dramatic stories I had told him about stuck bassoon swabs.

Meanwhile, Doug Fisher was on the phone calling Christopher Weait.  As we all know, in this day and age, no one ever answers his or her phone.  But heroes do.  Mr. Weait said to bring the bassoon right over.  By this point it was clear that I was in no condition to drive, so Anthony Lojo, himself a hero, offered to drive me (in snow and freezing rain, no less) the considerable distance from downtown to the far north suburb where the Weaits live.

We were greeted at the door by a smiling and confident Mr. Weait, swab extractor in hand.  It looked like a very long metal prod with a screw welded onto the end of it, and a handle on the other end.  He explained that the late bassoon repairman Jim Laslie had made it for him many years ago. 

Padge and Anthony looked on expectantly as Mr. Weait calmly inserted the tool while I held the ailing tenor joint.  Although terrified to the point of being nearly unconscious, I could tell when the tool had engaged the swab.  There were a few failed attempts during which I'm sure everyone in the room was beginning to wonder what would happen if the tool couldn't extract the swab.......bassoons have been ruined by the extraction of stuck swabs.  I don't think any of us were actually breathing during this procedure.

And then it happened.  As though surgical extraction of stuck swabs is a daily occurrence, Mr. Weait gently and heroically swished that swab right out of the joint.  Once we resumed breathing, we regarded the wayward swab.....it was hardly even damaged beyond a slight snag.  And the inside of the bore of the tenor joint remained intact as well.  Mission accomplished.  Crisis aborted.

(We tried to figure out how it happened.......there was no knot in the swab; in fact, it came out looking normal.  Yes, there was indeed a tail on each end, although only the end being pulled was actually visible during the time the swab was stuck.  Where was the other tail during the crisis??????????  Apparently I was guilty of the crime of swabbing while distracted.)

The whole event had been so traumatic that I was barely able to comprehend that just like that, my problem was resolved.  Practically in a trance,  I thanked the Weaits, as though there were any words equal to the situation.  Anthony and I went on our way.  The next morning, instead of having to explain to the personnel manager and music director why I'd be unable to play in the orchestra, I played the dress rehearsal as though nothing had ever happened the night before.

Mr. Weait has been a rock for many students and colleagues throughout his illustrious career.  How fortunate for the rest of us that his "retirement" hasn't diminished his ability to perform heroics!



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10 months ago |
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Jean Francaix

Composer and pianist Jean Francaix (1912-1997) was born in Le Mans, France to musician parents who encouraged the development of his clearly evident musical talent.  He began composing at age 6 and during childhood he captured the attention of the renowned composition teacher Nadia Boulanger who took him under her wing. She considered him to be one of her best students.

Francaix became popular during the early 20th century, especially after the formation of the Trio d'anches de Paris in 1927 by bassoonist Fernand Oubradous.  Francaix was quite prolific, producing more than 200 works including film music, but his passion was chamber music, especially for winds.

He avoided the group of composers known as Les Six.  Although he was friendly with Poulenc and other members of Les Six, Francaix felt that he had no business joining their group because he never questioned the traditional needs of his audience or the foundations of his compositional style.  His style may be described as being tonal, neo-Classical, elegant, rhythmically incisive, vibrant, light and well-grounded in tradition.

Francaix's stated goal of his music was to "give pleasure".

It's easy to admire such a rare degree of self-assurance and clarity of purpose.

Bassoonists who have performed his works are all too familiar with the technical challenges his parts present.  He likes to explore the bassoon's range through dangerously wide leaps.  (I often wonder if such leaps are any easier on the French basson for which Francaix wrote.....probably not.)

Francaix's interesting use of rhythm is an identifying characteristic of his music.  He's not afraid of the quintuplet, as evidenced in the Prelude of the Divertissement:


This section is full of quintuplets in one instrument juxtaposed over quadruple rhythms in the other instruments.  My teacher K. David Van Hoesen taught me to be at ease with quintuplets. He had a simple method for figuring out how to evenly fit 5 notes into one beat:  He told me to think of the word "geophysical" to divide a beat into 5 equal parts.  The words "geophysical year" would be used for adding the beginning of the next beat to the end of the quintuplet. 

A fine example of Francaix's use of wide leaps is found in the Allegretto assai:


Measures 3 and 4 after 17 are particularly daunting.  However, as I like to point out to students, those two measures are mercifully preceded by two measures of Eb major arpeggios.  (I'm constantly looking for examples in the music I'm preparing to show students why we must practice our scales and arpeggios.)  And the next few measures after the daunting measures are also arpeggio-based.  Between number 18 and number 19 we have a perfect example of Francaix's endearing use of playful rhythms.

At the end of the same movement is another great example of why we practice arpeggios.  If you know your arpeggios, you won't even have to practice this (except for one measure before 22):


One of the most challenging passages for me begins 3 measures before 32 in the last movement:



Moving from high B to low C# in no time is asking a lot of the left thumb (and of the embouchure, which must suddenly jerk into place for the low C#).  The printed tempo of 92 to the measure is very fast!  Francaix must have known some awesome bassoon players, one of whom, as we know, was Fernand Oubradous (who must have practiced his famous and enduring Enseignement Complet du Basson religiously!).
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On January 4, 2017 at 2pm at the Columbus Museum of Art, four musicians from the Columbus Symphony will be performing a unique program on the museum's Mozart to Matisse series.  The program includes the Francaix Divertissement.  Here is the museum's description of the event:
Columbus Museum of Art, in partnership with Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO), presents this afternoon series pairing lectures exploring works from CMA’s collection with chamber music performances. Participants will look at depictions of costumed performers in art, such as clowns of the commedia dell’arte by Jean-Antoine Watteau and Pablo Picasso and ballet dancers by Edgar Degas, complemented by musical works performed by CSO musicians. Cost of this program is $20 for nonmembers and $5 for members. To guarantee your seat, please register early. This program is sponsored by CMA Docent Alums.
Musicians:
Bob Royse, oboe
David Thomas, clarinet                                  
Betsy Sturdevant, bassoon                                                          
Orlay Alonso, piano           
Program:
FRANCAIX: Divertissement pour hautbois, clarinette et basson
POULENC: Trio pour piano, hautbois et basson

If you live in or near Columbus, we'd love to see you there!



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1 year ago |
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from yesterday's memorial service for K. David Van Hoesen
Yesterday, October 8, 2016, a memorial service was held for K. David Van Hoesen at the Chapel of Canterbury Place in Pittsburgh.  Mr. Van Hoesen, who had retired as Professor of Bassoon and Chair of the Wind, Brass and Percussion Department of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, died on Monday at age 90. 

The venue was packed, undoubtedly like his musical performances throughout his life.  Joining the Van Hoesen family (his wife of 66 years, Carol Morse Van Hoesen; his daughter Gretchen S. Van Hoesen and her husband James A. Gorton, his daughter Catherine A. Van Hoesen; and his granddaughter, Heidi Van Hoesen) were many friends and admirers of Mr. Van Hoesen, including many former students (listed alphabetically): Douglas Fisher (Columbus Symphony Second Bassoon), Phillip Kolker (Baltimore Symphony Principal Bassoon, retired), Judith LeClair (NY Philharmonic Principal Bassoon), George Sakakeeny (Eastman School of Music Professor of Bassoon), Martha Scholl (Rochester Philharmonic and Buffalo Philharmonic Bassoon Sections) and Betsy Sturdevant (Columbus Symphony Principal Bassoon).

Betsy Sturdevant, Gretchen Van Hoesen, George Sakakeeny, Douglas Fisher, Judith LeClair, Martha Scholl, Phillip Kolker
There were many other students of Mr. Van Hoesen who wished to attend but couldn't be released from performance duties on such short notice, and several of them had prepared remembrances which were read during the service.

The audience included several members of the Pittsburgh Symphony including Nancy Goeres, David Sogg, Jim Rodgers, Cynthia DeAlmeida, Scott Bell and Chris Allen.  Even the musicians who had not been his students reported that they were incredibly moved by the service.

Family members offered written remembrances in the program which offered great insight into the home and family life of the man who was so loved and revered.  Each of Mr. Van Hoesen's former students in attendance and also former Eastman Professor of Violin Oliver Steiner spoke during the service.  Several meaningful recordings were played, including a delightful rendition of Fritz Kreisler's Schön Rosemarin performed by Mr. Van Hoesen and Judith LeClair with Judy's husband Jonathan Feldman on piano.  We were also treated to a stunning recording of Mr. Van Hoesen performing the Mozart Bassoon Concerto which I don't think any of us had heard before.

There were two live musical performances which Mr. Van Hoesen would have loved: George Sakakeeny and Gretchen Van Hoesen (principal harpist of the Pittsburgh Symphony) played A Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn, and Heidi Van Hoesen (principal harpist of the Toronto Symphony) performed the Andante from Violin Sonata No. 2 in a minor BWV 1003 by J. S. Bach.

Everyone in attendance agreed that the service was beautiful and as well as comprehensive.  Mr. Van Hoesen was a very talented and intelligent man whose fascination and curiosity about such topics as electronics, acoustics, machinery, astronomy, poetry, literature, ham radio, and yes, even bassoon reeds lasted his lifetime.  The service brought out each and every facet of his being.  The remembrances from his students made it became clear that although his musical beliefs and his high standards were consistent, the manner in which he interacted with each of us had varied greatly.  Perhaps that was the secret of his marvelously successful teaching.

Several main themes seemed to be repeated over and over, such as his kind, patient, calm demeanor; his emphasis on beauty of sound and accuracy of intonation; and perhaps most importantly of all, his insistence upon prioritizing musicianship rather than giving in to the encumbrances of the bassoon.  His teaching was so expansive beyond mere bassoon playing that perhaps he would be best described as a life coach.  Each of us left the ceremony inspired to carry on the legacy of this great man.

The Van Hoesen family has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St., Rochester, NY 14604 (please write "for the K. David Van Hoesen bassoon scholarship" on the memo line of your check) or to Mid-Atlantic English Springer Spaniel Rescue.


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Program from yesterday's Memorial Service
Yesterday a Memorial Service was held for K. David Van Hoesen at the Chapel of Canterbury Place in Pittsburgh.  Mr. Van Hoesen, who had retired as Professor of Bassoon and Chair of the Wind, Brass and Percussion Department of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, died on Monday at age 90. 

The venue was packed, undoubtedly like his musical performances throughout his life.  Joining the Van Hoesen family (his wife of 66 years, Carol Morse Van Hoesen; his daughter Gretchen S. Van Hoesen and her husband James A. Gorton, his daughter Catherine A. Van Hoesen; and his granddaughter, Heidi Van Hoesen) were many friends and admirers of Mr. Van Hoesen, including many former students (listed alphabetically): Douglas Fisher (Columbus Symphony Second Bassoon), Phillip Kolker (Baltimore Symphony Principal Bassoon, retired), Judith LeClair (NY Philharmonic Principal Bassoon), George Sakakeeny (Eastman School of Music Professor of Bassoon), Martha Scholl (Rochester Philharmonic and Buffalo Philharmonic Bassoon Sections) and Betsy Sturdevant (Columbus Symphony Principal Bassoon).

Betsy Sturdevant, Gretchen Van Hoesen, George Sakakeeny, Douglas Fisher, Judith LeClair, Martha Scholl, Phillip Kolker
There were many other students of Mr. Van Hoesen who wished to attend but couldn't be released from performance duties on such short notice, and several of them had prepared remembrances which were read during the service.

The audience included several members of the Pittsburgh Symphony including Nancy Goeres, David Sogg, Jim Rodgers, Cynthia DeAlmeida, Scott Bell and Chris Allen.  Even the musicians who had not been his students reported that they were incredibly moved by the service.

Family members offered written remembrances in the program which offered great insight into the home and family life of the man who was so loved and revered.  Each of Mr. Van Hoesen's former students in attendance and also former Eastman Professor of Violin Oliver Steiner spoke during the service.  Several meaningful recordings were played, including a delightful rendition of Fritz Kreisler's Schön Rosemarin performed by Mr. Van Hoesen and Judith LeClair with Judy's husband Jonathan Feldman on piano.  We were also treated to a stunning recording of Mr. Van Hoesen performing the Mozart Bassoon Concerto which I don't think any of us had heard before.

There were two live musical performances which Mr. Van Hoesen would have thoroughly enjoyed: George Sakakeeny and Gretchen Van Hoesen (principal harpist of the Pittsburgh Symphony) played A Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn, and Heidi Van Hoesen (principal harpist of the Toronto Symphony) performed the Andante from Violin Sonata No. 2 in a minor BWV 1003 by J. S. Bach.

Everyone in attendance agreed that the service was beautiful and as well as comprehensive.  Mr. Van Hoesen was a very talented and intelligent man whose fascination and curiosity about such topics as electronics, acoustics, machinery, astronomy, poetry, literature, ham radio, and yes, even bassoon reeds lasted his lifetime.  The service brought out each and every facet of his being.  From the messages from his students it became clear that although his musical beliefs and his high standards were consistent, the manner in which he interacted with each of us had varied greatly.  Perhaps that was the secret of his marvelously successful teaching.

Several main themes seemed to be repeated over and over, such as his kind, patient, calm demeanor; his emphasis on beauty of sound and accuracy of intonation; and perhaps most importantly of all, his insistence upon prioritizing musicianship rather than giving in to the encumbrances of the bassoon.  His teaching was so expansive beyond mere bassoon playing that perhaps he would be best described as a life coach.  Each of us left the ceremony inspired to carry on the legacy of this great man.

The Van Hoesen family has stated that in lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St., Rochester, NY 14604 (please write "for the K. David Van Hoesen bassoon scholarship" on the memo line of your check) or to Mid-Atlantic English Springer Spaniel Rescue.

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K. David Van Hoesen at the 2007 IDRS conference in Ithaca, NY

The first time I met K. David Van Hoesen I was a high school student.  He was not at all what I expected.  After all, he was the esteemed professor of bassoon at the Eastman School of Music.  I never expected such a famous man to remind me of a teddy bear.  He had an easy smile and a quick chuckle.  He was calm, easy-going and peaceful - the perfect guru for a high-strung, overly eager bassoon student.  I auditioned at only one college - Eastman.  No one else would suffice once I met him.

For college music majors, the private teacher is hugely significant.  The school is chosen based upon the private teacher.  The relationship between the music student and private teacher can make or break a career; it can make or break a life.  The teacher is like a parent, but without the baggage.  He or she is a guide through the sometimes treacherous transition from childhood to adulthood.

K. David Van Hoesen was the guide into adult life for dozens and dozens of bassoon students, many of whom now hold positions in the world's top orchestras.  There is no question that he was one of the greatest teachers of bassoon that the world has ever known.  But he was so much more than that.

I'm sure I'm not the only student of his who received counseling from him on every topic imaginable.  There were bassoon lessons during which the bassoon never left its case, and those lessons may have been among the most important.  He gave advice freely, even to the point of evaluating my boyfriends (or lack thereof).  Undoubtedly, he was as good as any trained therapist at analyzing his students' idiosyncrasies.  In fact he psychoanalyzed me before my first successful orchestral audition, and I have always attributed that win to his brilliant observations of my sometimes not-so-helpful behavior.

Once during freshman year I arrived at my bassoon lesson totally distraught over a situation with my roommate.  He called the dean on the phone right then and there and I was immediately moved into a single room.  When I complained once about ensemble assignments, he called the conducting staff while I listened.  He was definitely a full service bassoon teacher.  Because of his teddy bear-like quality, he was easy to talk to, and he always had a wise response.  When I told him I was depressed about not knowing what the future held, he responded that he knew exactly how I felt and that he benefited from going for walks in which he intentionally noticed the flowers and other uplifting sights.  (During my final visit with him in Rochester, NY, he suddenly stopped himself mid-sentence to point upwards and comment, with wonder in his voice, on how the birds had lined up so neatly on the overhead utility wires.  He never stopped appreciating those uplifting moments.)

His students are known for musicianship and quality of sound, and his manner of promoting his concepts was sometimes unconventional.  When I was a freshman I was afraid to use vibrato due to some inexplicable hangup.  He coaxed a few times to no avail.  So finally he showed up one day with a mysterious machine that measured air pressure.  He had me stick a tube in my mouth which was connected to the machine, and he wanted me to play the bassoon that way.  He instructed me to make the needle of the meter on the machine move with a regular pulse.  And there it was.....vibrato!   In fact, it shocked both of us in that it actually sounded decent.  A few weeks later he asked me to help a couple of other students improve their vibrato.  (That was certainly a confidence-builder!)  Who on earth besides him ever would have thought of using a machine to teach vibrato?  I probably wouldn't yet be using vibrato if K.David Van Hoesen hadn't been such a creative thinker that day.

Tone quality was so important to him.  Early on during my freshman year he had me play the beginning exercises in the Weissenborn Practical Method for the Bassoon, which most of us had abandoned long before college.  But he wanted me to go back to those basic exercises and just focus on developing a full sound.  I was embarrassed and hoped desperately that no one could hear me practicing the simple etudes, but Mr. Van Hoesen knew what he was doing.  I daresay no one would say today that I don't play with a full sound.

On those rare occasions when we had the opportunity to hear him play the bassoon (he had retired from the Rochester Philharmonic before I attended Eastman), it was heavenly.  His sound was truly incomparable, so smooth and velvety and ineffably appealing.  We knew we had chosen the right instrument when we heard him play it.  He'd pick up his bassoon every once in a while just to demonstrate one interval.  And that one interval was unforgettable.....I can still hear it.

Reading Barry Stees' blog post about Mr. Van Hoesen reminded me of another incident from my freshman year.  I vividly recall the day I approached Mr. Van Hoesen in tears because of an assignment I wasn't ready for:  I was scheduled to play principal bassoon in William Schuman's When Jesus Wept with ESSO (Eastman School Symphony Orchestra) on a Prism Concert.  (Prism Concerts were nonstop programs showcasing many facets of Eastman's music program including both large and small ensembles.  These concerts were popular and successful for many years and the concept was imitated by other music schools.)

There was very little time between the first rehearsal and the concert.  Basically, I was being asked to transform myself from a clueless kid to a mature master within a period of five days!   I was in a state of inconsolable panic, but somehow Mr. Van Hoesen managed to get through to me.  He coached me on each note, on each transition from note to note, on each nuance of dynamics and vibrato.  (Thankfully, this occurred after he had brought in the vibrato machine!)  He taught his students to listen to recordings (and I mean recordings of all of the great singers, string player and pianists) to develop our musical maturity, and to study recordings of specific works we'd be playing.  So I found Mr. Van Hoesen's recording of When Jesus Wept and listened to it over and over:



Like magic, it worked.  Mr. Van Hoesen's careful, patient coaching coupled with many repetitions of his recording paid off in spades.  He greeted me backstage after the performance, beaming from ear to ear.

Even though he was such a brilliant teacher, he was open to interpretations and styles which differed from those he taught, as long as the ideas were presented convincingly.  I always admired that about him.  He even encouraged his students to study with other teachers during the summers.  He wanted what was best for his students, not what was best for his ego!

He always demonstrated living a well-rounded life.  Once when I was rolling my eyes over having to read Dostoyevsky for literature class, he said, "But you have to read Dostoyevsky in order to be able to play Tchaikowsky!".  (Later during the same lesson he said of a passage in Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 4:  "If your face isn't turning bright red while you're playing that passage, then you're not playing it right!")  He often spoke of his non-musical hobbies such as tinkering with machines and his telescope, and of fishing at his beloved Lake Placid.

On top of all this, he was clairvoyant.  I had a marathon lesson with him before my audition for my current job, and as I walked out after the lesson he informed me with great conviction (the same way that he had instructed me to play each excerpt!) that I was going to win the audition.  (Regarding an earlier audition, he had said, "You're gonna give 'em a run for their money!" and I was the runner-up for that job.)

When I teach bassoon students I'm constantly being guided by his words, to the extent that I often pause and tell the students about the great man I'm quoting.  Rhythmic fingering, note preparation, broken arpeggios, avoiding static notes (EACH note has to have motion!), just like chess (not making a good move too soon!), carefully listening for and locating the ring in each note, and insisting on accurate intonation at all times----these are a few of his trademarks of which my students are now beneficiaries.

When the news came that Mr. Van Hoesen had passed away this morning, I wanted to be numb and pretend it wasn't so.  If I ignored the news, I could pretend that this was just like any other Monday......but the memories began to infiltrate my thoughts......,memories of the patient, careful sessions when he was imploring me to listen, really listen to the sound of that note.....was it ringing?.....was it resonating in the best possible sense?.......was this the right placement of the note?

And then the movement to the next note......was the transition from the last note to this one smooth and creamy?.....were my fingers moving as though molding clay?.....was the air supporting the movement from the first note to the second?......is this how a great string player would sound?......had I been practicing my broken arpeggios?......how might the vibrato assist in the transition?......and what about dynamics?.......

As the news began to sink in, I wondered how I would be able to face the students who would begin showing up at my door shortly.   But of course the answer is obvious.  Along with all of Mr. Van Hoesen's students, I'm passing it on, with more enthusiasm than ever.

Thank you, Mr. Van Hoesen, for so aptly demonstrating what's important in music and in life.

K. David Van Hoesen at home in Rochester, NY amongst a forest of bassoons


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