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Each year the Columbus Symphony performs three very popular Holiday Pops concerts with the Columbus Symphony Chorus and the Columbus Children's Chorus.  Conductor Ronald J. Jenkins also invites special guest artists each year such as dancers from BalletMet Academy and Wright State University, and there's always an appearance by Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Columbus Symphony Holiday Pops performance
The production is always a crowd-pleaser, but Holiday Pops 2013 took the cake.  Why?  Well, this year Maestro Jenkins discovered a delightful piece to add to the program called BasSOON It Will Be Christmas by James Stephenson.  Columbus Symphony bassoonist Douglas Fisher and I performed the solo bassoon parts in front of the orchestra.
Photo: Bassoon It Will Be Christmas!
Columbus Symphony rehearsal of BasSOON It Will Be Christmas

James Stephenson
Chicago-based composer James Stephenson was a trumpeter in the Naples Philharmonic for 17 years before becoming a full-time composer.  He is currently Composer-in-Residence for the Lake Forest Symphony, and his works have been performed by the nation's leading orchestras.  BasSOON It Will Be Christmas is written for either two or three solo bassoons and orchestra.  Well-known Christmas carols are cleverly interwoven with major bassoon excerpts and the first movement of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto.  There's even a cadenza in which the opening of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 6 makes an appearance.  Here is a recording of the entire work (3 bassoon version) from James Stephenson's website.  And here is a recording of the Columbus Symphony performing the 2 bassoon version.   The bassoons were not miked or amplified in the Columbus Symphony recording.

Not all excerpts are presented in original form.  Do you recognize the excerpt in the last line?

Ending of BasSOON It Will Be Christmas

 A few years ago the Jacksonville Symphony found a very imaginative way to offer holiday wishes to its fans featuring an excerpt from BasSOON It Will Be Christmas:

It's highly uncommon for bassoonists to be featured as soloists on pops concerts, much less on holiday pops concerts, but judging by the enthusiastic audience response, I'd say it's a worthwhile endeavor.  Thank you, James Stephenson, for composing this holiday gem, a welcome addition to our solo orchestral repertoire and thank you, Ron Jenkins, for featuring bassoons on this year's Holiday Pops!

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4 years ago |
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A couple of weeks ago the Columbus Symphony presented, for the first time, a Rush Hour concert featuring guest conductor Gregory Vajda.  Audience members were invited to skip the rush hour traffic out of downtown, and join the Columbus Symphony in the Ohio Theatre for a free happy hour concert which included free appetizers and special drink prices.

  1. Photo: Skip the rush hour traffic tomorrow and join us for a FREE happy hour concert (including free appetizers and special drink prices) at 5:30 pm at the Ohio Theatre! More info:  Social Columbus,, (614) Magazine, Columbus Alive, Columbus Monthly Magazine, CityScene Magazine, Outlook Columbus Magazine, Columbus Commons, Downtown Columbus, Experience Columbus
The production was a triumph.  There were tons of people filling our massive hall....what a glorious sight!  While speaking to the audience, Maestro Vajda asked how many were attending their very first symphony concert, and approximately 20% of the audience members raised their hands.  That's a major victory for the Columbus Symphony, I'd say!  The program was very exciting, if not traumatic, from a bassoonist's perspective, since it included Beethoven Symphony No. 4.

Playing the infamous Beethoven 4 tonguing solo in the orchestra (as opposed to in the practice room or audition) is tricky, to say the least.  Because it's one of those passages which involves solo bassoon and strings, depending on the hall, it may be dicey to begin the solo on time.  In the Ohio Theatre, if I listen to the strings and come in when it sounds right, I will be late.  Even if I execute the passage at the correct tempo, it will be ruined if I begin late.
Ohio Theatre, site of challenging onstage acoustics
So I force myself to focus on the conductor's baton.  If I'm with the conductor's beat, then all is well.  To those sitting near me onstage, it may sound as though I'm jumping in early, but it's actually right, as confirmed by recordings.  In an orchestra where the woodwinds are closer to the front of the stage and more integrated into the string sections, this would probably not be as big a deal.  But here in Columbus, the woodwinds are quite far back from the conductor's podium, and far enough away from the strings that the distance is a constant issue to be dealt with.

In the edition we used, the main bassoon solo appears at the top of the page.  I wanted to be as calm as possible for the solo rather than flustered from a frantic page turn, so I wrote instructions in my part on the previous page to turn the page early.  I wrote the notes from the previous page on top of the solo page, as you can see below:

I even scribbled the instructions to look at the conductor and not listen (as if I might forget...).  Someone also wrote "louder" over the solo, but I ignored that.  Since Beethoven wrote p dolce, then p dolce it is unless the boss on the podium says otherwise (and Maestro Vajda did not say otherwise, thankfully).

My preparation for this performance of Beethoven 4 began years ago when I learned to double tongue.  I taught myself to double tongue, mainly using the excellent advice of the late Arthur Weisberg in his book The Art of Wind Playing.

In my experience, it has not been enough to just learn to double tongue.  The technique must be constantly maintained, especially when there is an exposed double-tongued passage on the horizon.   For exposed passages like those in the last movement of Beethoven 4, I begin preparation weeks in advance.

Here's how my practice routine goes:  I set the metronome at 60 and play the passage above all slurred.  When the notes are perfectly even, I switch from slurring to single tonguing.  Then I switch from single- to double-tonguing, with the goal of making the double-tonguing indistinguishable from the single-tonguing.  (I love it when a colleague asks me whether I'm double tonguing or single tonguing - that means I've accomplished my mission!)

Next, I move the metronome up 3 notches to 63 and repeat the routine.  I don't know whether most bassoonists practice double-tonguing at such slow tempos, but I believe that it's extremely beneficial.  If you can make double-tonguing sound good at a really slow tempo, then it is much more likely to sound good at a fast tempo because your basic technique is solid.

This manner of practicing is rather tedious.  Not all bassoon solos require the extreme preparation of a Rite of Spring or Beethoven 4 performance, of course, but the solos featuring extremity of range, control, finger technique, or tonguing do require a great deal of preparation in advance to ensure success.  It's remarkable how much more challenging it is to perform these extreme solos in the orchestra as opposed to playing them at home or in the practice room.  As legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz once stated, it's necessary to always be 150% prepared for a performance.

I keep going with that routine until either my brain goes numb, in which case there's no point in continuing, or until I make it up to 163 to the quarter note.  That's really fast, and no conductor would ever consider such a breakneck speed.  But it's part of my strategy - I prepare beyond the point of reason.   That way, a tempo of 152, which might seem rather fast, will be doable and not that big a deal.

The single-tonguing part of my routine obviously has to be abandoned once I reach my top single-tonguing speed, but the slurring must be done even at 163.  Incidentally, I don't know what my top single-tongue speed is because I don't look at the metronome.  I just keep moving it up by 3 notches.  I don't want to be aware of what the tempo is, because that might cause psychological hang-ups or limitations.  I can tell when I'm at 163, however.....

I do think it's helpful to try to figure out the conduct's 4th movement tempo once rehearsals begin, however, in order to be able to focus on that tempo in the final preparation stage.  I always carry a metronome in my case and have a metronome app on my phone.

Sometimes I also isolate parts of the passage, and either include them in the routine or run the routine with only the isolated part.  Here's an example of a part I have isolated:

There is one final, but critical, aspect of preparing Beethoven 4: the reed.  I remember how surprised I was when I figured out that some reeds were better than others for double tonguing.  Once that discovery was made I became ultra fussy.  Now it's really hard for me to be satisfied with a reed's double tonguing ability.   But the reed makes all the difference in the world.  I don't necessarily use a great double-tonguing reed for practicing the above-described routine, since I'd rather save that reed for the orchestral rehearsals and performances. Those reeds can only be identified by testing to hear how they sound on double-tonguing.   Fortunately, those reeds always seem to be good overall reeds, because I don't like to switch reeds during a performance if I can avoid it, and Beethoven's 4 has plenty of other exposed passages for bassoon.  I advise beginning your Beethoven 4 reed search at least a couple of weeks before your first rehearsal.  This is why it's wise to make lots and lots of reeds, so that when you need a reed which specializes in double-tonguing, you may rest assured that one will materialize from your stockpile.

Once you've done everything you can to prepare, all you have to do is show up and lay it down.   That's the fun part, right?

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4 years ago |
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stravinsky (wikimedia)
Igor Stravinsky
Well, finally I have an actual musical example to post on my blog since the Columbus Symphony's Rite of Spring has finally been uploaded onto InstantEncore.  I wrote about preparing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring a couple of months ago, but at that time I had no audio clips of my own playing to include.  (I did attempt to record a YouTube video for that post, but I rejected each video as being flawed in some way.  All was not lost, however, because that effort was extremely beneficial in my preparation for playing the solos in the orchestra....) 
If you happen to listen to this recording beyond the opening bassoon solos, you will hear strange extraneous noises which almost sound like musicians tapping their feet.  In fact, those are the sounds of the dancers of BalletMet Columbus who performed with us.  The orchestra was on stage, not in the pit, and the dancers were in front of us.  (Unfortunately, the musicians were way too busy to be able to observe the excellent dancing......)  If it seems odd that we performed the Rite with dancers, bear in mind that it was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes.  

painting of a ballet performance on stage
Ballet Russes by August Macke, 1912


4 years ago |
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Berg, Alban: portrait by Schoenberg, 1910
portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910

The backstory

The ultra fascinating Berg Violin Concerto stands out in the orchestral literature as a stunning example of an instrumental requiem.  Berg was resistant at first when the American violinist Louis Krasner approached him in 1935 about writing a violin concerto.  Berg apparently thought that violin writing was just not his thing.  Krasner persisted, finally convincing Berg that this would be his golden opportunity to show that the violin could be effective in twelve-tone music.

At that time Berg, age 50, was composing his opera Lulu.  Suddenly on Easter Sunday of 1935 he received the tragic news of the death from polio of Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler (who had re-married twice after her first husband Gustav Mahler died). According to Alma, Berg was so moved that he “could not finish his opera Lulu . He composed the Violin Concerto and dedicated it to the memory of Manon.”

The concerto ended up being a requiem for Berg himself as well.  Lulu was never completed, but he did compose the entire violin concerto in four months, a record for Berg.  He died later that year (1935) from a bee sting. Berg's wife had been alarmed that he was writing the violin concerto with such a sense of urgency, but when she begged him to slow down, he replied that he couldn't because he didn't have much time if he somehow knew his own days were numbered.

And speaking of numbers,  Berg was known to have used numerology to refer to his beloved mistress Hanna Fuchs-Robettin in his earlier Lyric Suite for strings.  Rumor has it that he did the same in his violin concerto.  Once musicologists figured out the numerology in the Lyric Suite they searched the concerto for examples of the numbers Berg associated with Hannah and indeed found many examples of 10s and 23s (which refer to Hanna).

Berg uses a yodeling Austrian Carinthian folk song in both parts of the concerto.  Musicologists figured out that the original melody had some interesting lyrics:  "A bird on a plum tree has wakened me, Otherwise I would have overslept in Mizzi's bed. If everyone wants a rich and handsome girl, Where ought the devil take the ugly one? The girl is Catholic and I am Protestant. She will surely put away the rosary in bed!" And it turns out that Berg accidentally fathered a child at age 17 with the young daughter (nicknamed "Mitzi") of his family's kitchen servant at their Carinthian summer house.  (Due to social customs of the era, Berg was not permitted to have a relationship with his daughter born to Mitzi.)  Hmmmm..........Berg took it upon himself to fill this concerto with personally meaningful references, apparently. 

The concerto is famous for its use of the Bach chorale “Es ist genug” which features the following text:
It is enough: Lord, if it please Thee,
Do Thou unshackle me.
My Jesus comes; I bid the world farewell,
And go in peace to dwell.
In Heaven's house I then will find me,
My cares and troubles all behind me.
It is enough, it is enough.
As stated earlier, the concerto stands out in the orchestral reperoire as an instrumental requiem.  Might I suggest that it also stands out as an instrumental autobiography........

Relevance of the backstory

Is is important to know this information which is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the backround of this concerto?  Does the orchestral bassoonist play any better, or any differently when armed with this knowledge?

In my experience, the answer is yes.  Even if it's all in my head (and so much of playing an instrument is!) I feel more in command when I know the backstory.  And it really seems as though the story I know about the work helps determine the "tone of voice" I seek from the bassoon to use in exposed passages. 

The first bassoon part

There are numerous passages which are exposed and in general, special care must be taken to play with smoothness and accurate intonation.  The most important exposed bassooon part leads into the Bach chorale:

It's a good idea to attempt to match the contrabassoon upon entering, since the 1st bassoon is continuing the contra line.  The D above middle C (in the first full measure of the passage above) is one of the hardest notes to control the pitch of on my 15,000 series Heckel, especially when approached from below as it is here.  I prefer not to add keys to try to stabilize the note, although adding the B flat key is an option.  Some reeds cooperate better than others, but the major factor is embouchure.  If my embouchure is tired, it is far more difficult to get that D up to pitch.  I tried to be careful not to practice much before performing the Berg mainly because of wanting to be able to play that D up to pitch.  Left to its own devices, that note would come out way below pitch, and I mean WAY below.........on my particular bassoon.

Many bassoons are also a bit wild on the open F, especially in this passage where it occurs shortly after that D which had to be coaxed up to pitch.  If your embouchure has not fully recovered from the D, then the F is sure to be sharp.  (The D flat tends to be a more stable note and is less affected by embouchure, although it is indeed affected somewhat.)  Someone who played this part wrote instructions to add the pancake to the F.  That is a common solution to a sharp F, but I don't like it because it changes the sound too much for using in a solo passage.  I just sought to be sure that my embouchure had opened up enough to accommodate the F.

Below is another example from the first bassoon part.  The passage from measure 35 to the end of the excerpt is a unison passage for 2 bassoons and other woodwinds.  As you might imagine, intonation must be carefully attended to.

The Columbus Symphony performed this work at the end of our winter season, along with Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique, under the direction of music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni 
with violin soloist Vadim Gluzman.  As soon as a recording of our performance is uploaded onto InstantEncore I will add the link to this post.
The rather good-looking Alban Berg dreaming up ways to conceal secrets in his violin concerto........

4 years ago |
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Last week members of the Columbus Symphony joined forces with members of the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra for a gala performance for the University of Dubuque.  I have never before heard of two orchestras collaborating this way.  In my prior experience such collaborations have occurred only between a professional orchestra and a student orchestra, and are typically referred to as "side by side" concerts or rehearsals.

What a glorious occasion - it was the grand opening of the University of Dubuque's brand new Heritage Center concert hall.  World-renowned violinist Gil Shaham performed as soloist in the Brahms Violin Concerto conducted by Columbus Symphony Associate Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson.  The program also included Beethoven Symphony No. 7 conducted by Dubuque Symphony Orchestra's Music Director William Intriligator.

The acoustics of the new concert hall were absolutely amazing.  The hall looked enormous on the inside, but it seats only 1,000.  Perhaps that is the ideal size for a concert hall, especially considering audience trends.  To me the best way to test a  hall is to listen carefully during exposed or solo passages, when I can hear what the hall is doing to my individual sound.  In the case of the Ohio Theatre where I normally perform, the hall does nothing but deaden the sound.  Who needs that!?  But in the Heritage Center, when I tapered a note at the end of an exposed passage in the Brahms, the hall continued the taper after I stopped.  It resonated! And the entire passage had sounded as though there had been several bassoons playing in perfect unison, not just one.  The hall actually enhanced my sound - and that's ideal.  (And now I'm spoiled.)

Photo: Combined members of Columbus and Dubuque Symphony Orchestra violists after a great weekend of music, friendship making all the meanwhile opening a marvelous Heritage Center at University of Dubuque. Thanks everyone!!!
the joint viola section, which sounded AWESOME

The Columbus musicians had a great time exploring Dubuque and meeting the Dubuque Symphony musicians.   I especially enjoyed getting to know Dubuque's principal bassoonist Dr. Barry Ellis who also teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and Dubuque's principal clarinetist Corey Mackey whose resume, seemingly growing by the day, is also impressive.

The spirit of cooperation, collaboration and camaraderie was palpable that week, and I doubt that any of us will ever forget our pioneering joint performance.

view of the Mississippi River from my hotel room in Dubuque


4 years ago |
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I'm not even sure of what to say about this other than to observe that this is a video of 32 metronomes placed on a flexible surface.  Each metronome is turned on, and multiple tempos conflict.  But after a couple of minutes of magical adjustment, the metronomes end up perfectly synchronized. Even the unusually defiant red metronome in the far right row, second from the front, ends up giving in at around 2'40''.

This would not happen if the metronomes were placed on a solid surface, because the communication among the metronomes requires a flexible medium.

Flexibility is the name of the game.... in life, in music, and in magical marching metronomes.

4 years ago |
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This coming week the Columbus Symphony is performing a series of Young People's Concerts on weekday mornings for public school students.  These students, some of whom have never heard an orchestra before, will play a part in determining our future (or lack thereof).  It is essential for an orchestra to be clear about its reasons for existence, and to be able to communicate that to its supporters, both future and current.

The following TED video explains what I mean by that:

Simon Sinek shows that great leaders and organizations (including orchestras) inspire.  People don't buy (or support) what you do - they buy why you do it.

A few years ago Sinek discovered that there is a pattern in the way that great leaders and organizations think, act and communicate, and it's the complete opposite of the way everyone else does it.  To illustrate his point he uses the "golden circle" which contains the words why, how and what:

Every organization on earth knows "what" it does, and some know "how" they do it.  But few know "why".

Making profit is not the "why", since making profit is a result.  The "why" is about the following:
  • What is your purpose?
  • What is your cause?
  • What is your belief?
  • Why does your organization exist?
  • Why do you get out of bed in the morning?
  • And why should anyone else care?
Getting back to the golden circle, most leaders or organizations think, act and communicate from the outside in, from the clearest (the "what") to the fuzziest (the "why").

But inspired organizations, regardless of size or industry, all think, act and communicate from the inside out. They begin with the "why".

Sinek uses Apple as an example.  If Apple followed common market strategy, their message would be: "We make great computers.(the "what")  They're beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.(the "how")  Do you want to buy one?"

Instead, Apple markets this way."We believe in challenging the status quo.(the "why")  We believe in thinking differently.(the "why")  The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly.(the "how")  We just happen to make great computers.(the "what")  Do you want to buy one?"

Apple reverses the order of the information, beginning with (and emphasizing) its "why".  Apple thinks, acts and communicates from the inside out. 

People don't buy what you do - they buy why you do it, because they believe what you believe.

A fascinating aspect of Sinek's concept is that it's grounded in the tenants of biology.  If you look at a cross section of the human brain, its three main sections correspond to the golden circle.  The outer section, the most recently evolved part of the brain, is known as the neo cortex.  It is the site of rational and analytical thought and language.  It corresponds to the "what" of the golden circle.  The more ancient brain is made up of the reptilian brain and limbic system. This is the emotional part of the brain, the source of feelings (including loyalty and trust), behavior and decisions, and it corresponds to the "why" of the golden circle.  When an organization communicates with that part of the brain, using the "why", it is in contact with the part of the brain which controls behavior and decisions. 

A symphony orchestra's mission statement offers a clue as to whether the orchestra is inspired, like Apple, or whether it's struggling like so many other orchestras.  I found the following mission statement on the internet for an orchestra whose identity will remain concealed:
The ABC Symphony's mission is to advance a symphony orchestra of the highest artistic standard for the enrichment and well-being of the area. This mission is achieved through a strong connection to the community, and in-depth understanding of the marketplace and a commitment to providing programming that meets the needs and desires of the community. The ABC Symphony performs a diverse array of classical, pops, family and educational concerts each season, reaching an estimated 500,000 people through live performances and radio broadcasts.
ABC  Symphony clearly understands its "what" and even its "how".  What's completely missing is its "why".  I'm willing to bet that ABC Symphony has difficulty attracting the donations it needs to sustain itself.

Perhaps it would be possible to reset its mission (and its level of success) if ABC Symphony asked itself the following questions:
  • What is your purpose?
  • What is your cause?
  • What is your belief?
  • Why does your organization exist?
  • Why do you get out of bed in the morning?
  • And why should anyone else care?
Ideally, those questions would be asked of the board, management and musicians.  And the answers would determine the orchestra's future, because if the orchestra doesn't know why it exists, it's going to be very difficult for that orchestra to inspire support.

Imagine this mission statement:
The ABC Symphony believes in the power of classical music to transform lives.  We present classical, pops, educational and family concerts, in various venues and media, so that our music is able to touch each and every life in ABC City and its environs.
 I'd donate to that orchestra, because I, too, believe in the power of classical music to transform lives!  How about you?


4 years ago |
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How to Handel loiterers? 

Give ’em a blast of the 


graphic from The Columbus Dispatch

According to a recent article in The Columbus Dispatch, some people view classical music as a deterrent to crime.  We've all read reports of classical music being blasted outside of subway entrances and convenience stores, with the apparent result of reduced loitering and the prevalence of peace.

Does this mean that classical music repels, rather than attracts, people?  NOOO!  That notion is absurd, seeing as how the convenience stores certainly do not wish to get rid of paying customers with their classical serenades.

The Dispatch article referred to classical music being played outside of the YMCA in downtown Columbus, where apparently there have been problems with loiterers.  I just happened to be walking past that YMCA yesterday, and I heard a rather rousing rendition of Eine Kleine Natchmusik being broadcast.  If the goal was to stop loitering, it was failing.  There were several men, very possible residents of the Y, standing around talking.  They weren't fighting or arguing or behaving in a menacing manner - they were holding a quiet conversation.  As far as I could tell, the music had a calming and beneficial effect.  If the goal was to restore peace, it was working.

In 2004, the British Transport Police piped classical music into the London Underground to see if the crime rate would be affected.  The result was that robberies decreased 33%, staff assaults decreased 25% and vandalism decreased 37%.  There have been similar reductions in crime elsewhere following the deployment of classical music in crime-ridden areas.

There have been studies conducted at numerous universities examining the use of different types of music to reduce stress.  The British Journal of Health Psychology reports that researcher Sky Chafin at the University of California, San Diego tested the effects of jazz, pop and classical music in reducing blood pressure following incidents which caused high levels of stress.  The participants listening to classical music recovered much more quickly than those listening to jazz, pop, or silence. 

Yes indeed, classical music has a measurably soothing effect, even on hardened criminals.

So do classical musicians have reason to become upset upon hearing that their music is being used as a crime deterrent?  Hardly!  I think we should be flattered.  Before we know it, symphony orchestras will be forming partnerships with their local police departments. 

Just think of the endless examples of classical music being used to sell products on TV.  In this example, the Verdi Requiem was used to sell Doritos during the 2011 Super Bowl:

Frito-Lay doesn't consider classical music a repellent!  So, classical musicians, stop worrying about your music being used as a repellent, and rejoice in its powers to soothe and to sell!

4 years ago |
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Here's one to check out! The Philadelphia International Music Festival (PIMF) offers a series of classical music programming to students of all ages and skill levels in the United States and around the world, creating the unique opportunity of spending fourteen days immersed in music education and performance with members of the esteemed Philadelphia Orchestra.

PIMF includes four program options: orchestral studies, solo performance studies, college audition preparation, and piano studies for pre-college students (information available at, as well as a separate program for college students and young professionals (information available at: All programs include private lessons and master classes with members of The Philadelphia Orchestra (including principal players), solo performance and competition opportunities, chamber music, daily private practice, optional daily music study courses, faculty recitals featuring principal players from The Philadelphia Orchestra, and more. Contact their office for further details at: 856.875.6816

There are still openings for students of all ages and skill levels!

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4 years ago |
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The premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring Ballet at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913 went down in history for inducing a riot.  The audience that night was expecting conventionally elegant ballet, not pagan rituals leading to the sacrifice of a young girl who dances herself to death.  The noise, fighting, and shouting in the audience rose to such a volume that the great choreographer Nijinsky had to shout out the numbers to the dancers so that they knew what they were supposed to do.  Pandemonium prevailed.

part of the set for the Ballet Russes 1913 production of The Rite of Spring
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We bassoonists like to think that it was Stravinsky's music - especially his outrageously stratospheric  opening bassoon solo - which inspired such bad behavior from the audience.  Apparently, that's not entirely true, and in fact the audience noise drowned out the music during much of the performance.  According to reports, the attendees were more upset by the barbaric choreography, the Russian pagan set designs and the primitive costumes.

In all fairness, though, the opening bassoon solos really did cause some uneasiness, especially for the intrepid individual playing it for the first time ever.........

The opening bassoon solo is still mighty daunting, even now that it's been played for a full century with varying degrees of success.  (I once heard about a well-known bassoonist who received a scathing review for the Rite of Spring in the next morning's newspaper.)

When I was a student at Eastman I read a quote from Jascha Heifetz about performance preparation.  I don't know the exact quote, but the gist of it is that it's necessary to be 200% prepared, not just a mere 100%.  At the time, I didn't fully understand, but I took note of it.

Since then I have come to understand that it is impossible to create true performance conditions at home while practicing.  I know that many audition coaches recommend attempting to do just that, such as by running up and down the stairs a few times before immediately sitting down to play.  However, it has been my experience that nothing compares to playing the solo in the orchestra and in the hall, whether it be for a rehearsal or for a concert.

The possible reasons for this phenomenon are fairly obvious:
  • nervousness or anxiety which is present only on stage
  • the presence of the conductor and other musicians, who must be accommodated with regard to tempo, timing (rubato), intonation, and volume 
  • acoustics of the hall
Last week the Columbus Symphony with Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni presented The Rite of Spring in collaboration with BalletMet.  (The orchestra was onstage rather than in the pit.)

During the first rehearsal of The Rite of Spring last week, despite my careful preparation, I was caught by surprise in two ways.  First, even though I am familiar with the hall, I was shocked by the way the opening of the Rite sounded.  I don't often have the opportunity to hear myself alone on stage.  It takes The Rite of Spring for that to happen.  The extreme dryness of the hall caused certain internals to sound to me as though there were huge chasms between the two notes.  The other unexpected factor was that I found that my left thumb was accidentally opening the low D key, which threw off the pitch when it happened.  Why didn't that happen when I was practicing?  My guess is that my fingers were more relaxed during practice, and unlikely to bear down on the low D.  (For those of you who have large hands, this will never be a problem.)

Each of the two problems had a solution.  For the issue with the low D key opening inadvertently, I stuck a foam earplug under the low C and D keys so that they wouldn't open no matter how much pressure I applied.

For the smoothness factor (eliminating "chasms"), I found the following exercises, played with extreme smoothness, to be helpful:

Those exercises are deceptively difficult and I spent a great deal of time with them.  Especially challenging is the interval from E3 (the 3rd E on the bassoon) to B4.  I often isolated that interval.  Also, I turned on my chromatic tuner to check the pitches.  On many bassoons, the G3 tends to be high and the lowest note (E or E flat) tends to be low.  Another helpful variation is to turn on a drone on one of the notes in each exercise.

In the above exercises, the grace notes are added in the second line.  They should sound smooth, not standing out in any way and not being slighted.  My teacher K.David Van Hoesen always said they should be melodic - that means not rushed.  Also, those grace notes can create a "squeaking" sensation if they go too fast.  The 2 measures at big number 1 in the opening solo pictured above are especially tricky in that regard.  I found that backing off the grace notes (not putting too much air through the instrument) and not letting them be too quick helped avoid "squeakiness". 

In my opinion, the biggest challenge when playing in the extreme high range of the bassoon is intonation.  My bassoon, for example, has a tendency to play the high C on the sharp side -  higher than the other notes and higher than the 440 standard.  However, my bassoon can be coaxed to play the C down to pitch.  It takes a loosening of the embouchure and a conscious effort to play low.

Thinking of Heifetz's advice to prepare 200%, I did everything I could think of to ensure the proper pitch of high C.  Beginning a few weeks prior to our first rehearsal, I began practicing the opening solo while a loud C at 440 was sustained on my electronic keyboard.  That prevented me from allowing a deviation from 440.  Once in a while I'd turn off the drone and use an electronic tuning meter to force myself to find the right pitch without the aural assistance.  This may seem like a lot of work, but there are some notes on the bassoon which the player can be tricked into playing at the wrong pitch level, and it does take a lot of effort to overcome that.

One of the other problems associated with playing in the high range is simply lack of familiarity.  Practicing extended scales on a regular basis helps, but let's face it - we rarely play solos in the extreme high range.  The reed is critical.  Being one of those bassoonists who prefers to play on new reeds, I tried to make a new reed for The Rite of Spring but did not succeed.  On the newer Heckels like mine it is difficult to begin the high C without a "cacking" noise, and newer reeds have a greater tendency to cack.  I went through hundreds of reeds both old and new before finding the one that I trusted to not cack.  It was an old reed, but I don't think I had ever played on it before, so it wasn't worn out.  Then I had the dilemma of how to practice - I didn't want to wear out my chosen reed, but each reed played differently.  I had a box full of practice reeds which I forced myself to use at home most of the time.

I often record my practicing, and it's safe to say that I made hundreds of recordings of the opening of the Rite over the past few weeks.  Smoothness, sound and intonation issues are easily revealed that way, and to me, it's an integral part of preparation.  

It goes without saying that one's embouchure must be in top form for The Rite of Spring - but not just normal top form.  The embouchure used in the extreme high range is somewhat different from the embouchure needed for the rest of the range.  One must spend a great deal of time in the high range during the weeks leading up to The Rite of Spring.  Long tones in the high range can speed up the embouchure-strengthening process.

Even after all of that, it's still daunting.  Yet it's what we live for, isn't it?  When I began my Rite of Spring preparation routine for the last time on the Sunday of the final performance, I was stricken with sadness that the final performance was about to take place, and then it would be over.........

Photo: Ohio Theatre
L to R: Betsy Sturdevant, Douglas Fisher, Christopher Weait, Jesse Schartz, Cynthia Cioffari


4 years ago |
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