It's that time of year again. Students are preparing for Regionals, County Honor groups, All State, etc. Nutcracker is in full swing. A lot of us are preparing music for the upcoming year. I know I'm preparing a recital of my own, plus performances at the Meg Quigley symposium and (potentially) IDRS. So, naturally, practice habits and techniques have been top of mind for me in a very big way.
For years, I've been telling students the things I was told when I was their age: "Practice this part slowly. Don't move on until you get it. Isolate the problem areas." This got me to thinking about the way in which I practice. And when I connected my practice habits with my instruction, I noticed the ineffectiveness I was engraining in my students.
The first time I told one of my students not to practice slowly, she looked at me like I was crazy. "But, my band teacher always says to play things slowly." My response to her was that slow practice is a great tool to have and I use it occasionally. But, I find it more effective, particularly for situations involving high stress (e.g., auditions, recitals, etc) to practice in alternative ways. I heard her concerns echoed amongst the majority of my students. But, when they actually applied my practice strategies to their etudes, scales, excerpts, and the like, there was marked improvement. Many of my students made improvements on sections they had struggled with for weeks and months. I wasn't such a crazy teacher after they realized they had improved.
The Lego Approach
Practicing is like building with LEGO bricks. The finished product is a sum of its parts. So, why not practice like that? My favorite way to practice is to strip the passage or phrase down to a base level and then slowly build from there. However, I always keep the metronome at the tempo I want to perform at. My justification for this is that, when playing at the intended tempo and not slower, you develop the appropriate muscle memory. It is true that slow practice also develops muscle memory. I find, though, that slow practice develops slow muscle memory. That is why many of my students (and myself included when I was younger) can play something great 10-20 metronome markings under tempo, but struggle when the tempo is brought up. They are playing the whole phrase under tempo and, thus, developing muscle memory associated with that tempo and that tempo only.
Let's apply this to an excerpt I recently coached a student on for college auditions:
The first phrase of the Overture to Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. One of those excerpts that must always been in my ready-to-go pile. So this student had been struggling with the tempo (obviously) and getting everything to connect seamlessly in order to match the celli. He slowed the whole thing down to about half speed and could play it well...until he brought the tempo back up. So, this is what we did to mitigate the difference in tempo and increase the effectiveness of his practice time.
First, strip the passage down to the barest bones. In the case of Figaro, it is the downbeat of every measure.
This is very easy to play in tempo and the success rate is 100% all of the time. Doing it this way also reinforces where the articulation is to be placed. Many students (and professionals) roll their eyes at this point because this is so easy. But that's kind of the point. Make the thing so easy you knock a lot of the psychological blocks which prevent you from playing the excerpt correctly in the first place.
PHASE TWO (A CROSSROADS)
Once you start to add more elements to a passage or excerpt, you need to be judicious about how to do it. I take two basic approaches. The first being to add thing to the end of the bar, then the front, and so on until you've built the entire thing back to together to the middle. The other being to add things sequentially until you've built the passage up front to back. For the Figaro excerpt, I add things from the back of the measure, back and forth, until I reach the middle. This creates connection between each measure, rather than having each measure be isolated. One thing to mention about this: articulation in the initial stages becomes a bit ambiguous until you get to a point where you can reintroduce articulations. For Figaro, the first couple of stages require the slurs to be eradicated. We add them back in later, but that is one slight pitfall depending on the excerpt.
So, by this method, step 2 would look like this--again, still at performance tempo:
From here, you simply add notes back to the measures. I strive to for myself (and my more advanced students) to add consistently, meaning add the same thing to each measure at performance tempo. Here's an example of what I mean:
And so on and so forth until you've pieced the whole thing back together. All at performance tempo.
Making reeds is one of the most amazing and frustrating parts of bassoon playing.
I really enjoy reed making. For me, it is a cathartic experience and gets me closer to the sound I really want, which I haven't been able to achieve with commercially available reeds.
But how do I do it? While I don't agree that there is a perfect system of reed making--and, in full disclosure, mine changes every once in a while--this is just my method. So, let's begin!
Cane: I both process my own cane and use pre-processed cane. When I process from tube, I buy Gonzalez tube cane from Anne Hodge Products, gouge on my RGD gouger, profile on my MD profiler, and shape using a Fox 2 shaper. When I use pre-processed cane, I buy exclusively from Barton Cane (Gonzalez G/S/P in Christlieb shape). I'll probably write more about the difference in shape and the flexibility of shapes later, but for now, that's where I get cane.
File: You can use any kind of file, really. There are purists who like diamond files and other assorted file materials. I use a large file I got from Harbor Freight Tools years ago for beveling and I use Tool Source files from Lowe's for everything else. I really like the Too Source files because you get small square, triangle, and rat tail files for approximately $5. You'll go through them quickly (1-2 months) but for $5...I mean...
Rubber Bands: I use (typically) size 16 rubber bands I buy in a huge bag from Office Depot. Sometimes I use thicker/wider or thinner rubber bands when I'm desperate, but #16 is a consistent thickness and stability.
Forming Mandrel: I use Christlieb forming mandrel tips on a Fox removable handle. Christlieb sells a mandrel handle, but I lost mine years ago when I lost all of my tools, so this Fox handle works well.
Drying Rack: My drying rack was made for me by my former teacher, Carolyn Beck. It is a walnut strip with 9 holes in it. You can get acrylic ones, wooden ones, and all sorts on line...or you can go to Lowe's and buy an outdoor stair cap (in the lumber section by the doors) for about $4 and drill holes in to it. Whatever floats your boat.
Step 1: Soak your cane
I soak 5-10 pieces at a time (with a full time job, it's often tricky to devote a lot of time to the reed table). I boil water in an electric kettle then pour it over the cane in a plastic container or bowl. I find that putting water over the cane instead of placing the cane in water helps it soak more effectively.
Step 2: Bevel
I go back and forth between using a file and using a knife depending (mostly) on the density of the cane. I was originally taught to use a wide flat file at a 27-33 degree angle (that I have never once measured in my life). The point of beveling is to allow the tube to form as a complete circle. If you don't bevel, the sides won't line up and leaking will occur at the bocal.
Step 3: Wrap the Top Third/Half
Using a wide(ish) rubber band cut in half (so it is long), wrap tightly on the top third to half of the cane (I usually judge this based on the thickness of the rubber band). Tie it off like you would tie off a balloon, pulling tightly.
Step 4: Wrap the rest of the reed
While holding the side of the blank, insert the forming mandrel. Some cracking is normal. Then, using the remaining bit of rubber band, tightly wrap the bottom 2/3 to half of the exposed tube. Once you reach the bottom of the tube, continue wrapping back up the tube until you reach just enough rubber band to tie off.
Step 5: Snap, Crackle, Pop!
Once the reed is tied up, place the mandrel pin on the drying rack. Leave the upper wrapping on anywhere from 15 minutes to overnight. Leave the bottom wrapping on for 1-2 days before wiring.
Stay tuned for part 2 once these reeds are done forming!
Now that I've moved in to a new place with a larger, dedicated bassooning space, I can finally get to my reed experimentation! Inspired by Christin Schillinger's book and Eryn Oft's amazing blog and YouTube channel, I've decided to dive right in with reassessing my procedures in blank making.
My basic blank making method is as follows:
In trolling the interwebs for the past few weeks, I've downloaded and copied some 20+ reed making methods from various bassoonists and university teachers. Overall, the techniques are basically the same--which makes sense when you consider the reed needs to get from a straight piece of cane to a round reed. But, subtle differences can make a large difference as every bassoonist ever will tell you.
I decided to combine my methodology with that of other bassoonists in the Western US first, if for no other reason than geographic prejudice. In all, I made 10 blanks using the basic blank construction method I'll outline below shortly. Within these blanks, there are three variations having to do with wires.
The basic construction method was mine combined with Elizabeth Ball Crawford's reed making method. Prof. Crawford is the Bassoon professor at BYU-Idaho and before that was in Montana with the Chinook Winds and various institutions. Here's how I modified the construction method:
When I first met Peter Kolkay, he used an electric mandrel which purported to burn the reed in to shape (with no real damage done to the cane). EBC's method of lighting the forming mandrel tip with a lighter is a GREAT substitute. I found that heating it and the inserting it in to a fully wrapped reed did make it easier to form without cracking through the tube. It also allowed the pretty tightly wrapped piece of cane to go further on the mandrel with less force, keeping the butt opening consistent despite any inconsistancies of the rubber band bind.
As I said earlier, I constructed all of the blanks in the same way (save for the two I tried beveling after forming--I just can't figure it out). But I did use variations in the wire, based on some posts Eryn Oft made.
All of my wires were placed (from the shoulder) @ 27mm, 18mm, and 6mm. The first, base level reed, uses a double wrapped first wire, second wire, and third wire. I made three that use a triple wrapped wire for the first wire, and three that use a triple wrapped wire for the second wire. Eryn explains the triple wrapped first wire better than I ever could (frankly she does a lot of things better than I do!) and I'm very excited to see the results.
I've seen quite a few articles going around about musician etiquette and how to not get fired. One example is this article, written by my good friend and mentor Dr. Janis McKay. These articles are amazing and teach people (including me!) a lot about being a colleague. We are trained to be performers, soloists, teachers, etc...but it is very hard to learn how to be a good colleague.
Even harder, in my opinion, is to learn how to be a good artist-employee. This article is written from two perspectives. 20% of this article comes from my experience as a professional bassoonist. The other 80% of this article is based on my experiences as a professional personnel manager, contractor, and employer.
As many of you may know, I recently finished my DMA in bassoon at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. My final document research was an analysis of Poulenc's Trio for oboe, bassoon, and piano through the lens of sexual politics. In short, my reading of the Poulenc Trio finds that Poulenc uses the bassoon as the representation of the gay voice in the socio-political sphere by means of tonal manipulation, phrase interruption, and other techniques; the piano as the heteronormative discourse often assumed in gendered/sexualized readings of music; and the oboe as a force attempting to balance the two, much as Poulenc tried to do in his own life. The document is forthcoming from the University of Nevada and you better believe when it's available, I'll link to it.
So I was very pleased when it was announced that Sandro Caldini had found and edited a second edition of Poulenc's Trio. This is so exciting as both a scholar and performer because the changes Poulenc made really bring the bassoon and oboe to the fore, eliminate some of the doubling in the piano, and truly mark this piece as Poulenc's departure from the shackles of pianistic wind writing!
You can check out the video here which includes Sandro's lecture as well as a full performance by Saxton Rose, Nicholas Daniel, and Naruhiko Kawaguchi:
Lately, I've come across a lot of articles and blog posts about how to win auditions, how to land a job, how to be happy with your practicing, etc... While these article are meant to be encouraging, I view them through my trademark lens of cynicism. These types of articles, time and time again, tell you that practicing and listening to recordings and having a good reed and being hyper professional and reminding yourself of your strengths in times of sorrow will eventually lead to a job.
But you know what?
Maybe it won't. Actually, it probably won't.
During my academic and professional career, it has been engrained in to my psyche that hard work and determination will eventually pay off. Getting advanced degrees will lead to full time university employment. Making 30 reeds a week would perfect my reed making technique to a precise science. Completing the Milde or Weissenborn or Orefici or Oubradous would mean I could do anything, that I'd be invincible. Anything less than that meant I was a failure.
So, what did all of that lead to? Some of it paid off and some of it didn't. I've been very fortunate to perform and make money doing so, including a long term stint with The Redlands Symphony and substitute opportunities with the Las Vegas Philharmonic. I've also been very fortunate to see the other side of the arts business in my administrative roles. I have a substantial amount of teaching experience at every grade level, including college, and am very lucky to have that under my belt.
But then again, I'm still baffled by reed making. I don't really understand much about performance practice before the Classical period. My knowledge of non-bassoon repertoire is narrow and I have a very focused agenda when it comes to analysis and interpretation. I have failed at a lot of things and there comes a point where too much becomes too much.
If you've failed in your life at anything--making a reed, playing an error free performance, riding a bicycle, whatever--your natural reaction was probably one of frustration and despair. Something I try to embrace is this mantra which I have as the backdrop on my phone:
"The Most We Can Do Is Our Very Best"
But if you're doing your best, and you feel like your best isn't good enough, you may want to give up. That's how I felt all through my undergrad and my Master's degree. "I'll never be as good as..." or "If only I could just....then I'd be happy," were thoughts that constantly flooded my head.
When I first started making reeds under the tutelage of Dr. Carolyn Beck, I used a composite of ABS plastic reduced in acetone. It worked well, sealed all the little cracks and kept the wires in place...forever. But, it is highly toxic, you have to seal reeds outside, and if it gets on you--forget about it!!
During my doctorate with Dr. Janis McKay at UNLV, I started using thread and Duco cement. This is a typical binding step, used by many bassoonists across the world. I didn't like the toxicity of Duco and experimented with beeswax one summer, but nothing really outlasted Duco. I has never been great at wrapping the end knots. I've experimented with cotton thread, nylon thread and even thicker FF+ thread.
However, Duco is getting harder and harder to find in stores. So, I remember a few blog posts I read about glue guns. So, I stopped by Michael's today and decided to try some stuff!
Here's what I bought:
2 packs of silk embroidery thread (one pack fluorescents, one pack variegated), a glue gun, and a ton (OK, it was 100) of glue sticks.
It took me a minute to get the hang of it, but here are my overall impressions:
I can use thread still to get me the color I love! The glue gun is a little messy and the reeds look like heck, but I like not feeling light headed!!!
More to come once I finish them!!
In preparing for my next recital, I took to YouTube to find recordings of some newer pieces that weren't available on Spotify. Specifically, I was looking for a recording of David Amram's Bassoon Concerto, which I fully intend on programming for my November recital at UNLV. I wasn't prepared for what I found.
The only recording of the concerto I found on YouTube is from Canadian bassoonist Eric Mohr. It was brilliant. And then I went stalking and found that all of his videos are AMAZING. Check it out here if you have some spare time. It's quite the treat. Bravo, Eric!
The trio I play with, Metalwood Trio, recently was contracted to play a wedding at a golf resort in Vegas. As the staff arranger (which is a fancy title for I arranged everything), I arranged several pieces for us. My favorite arrangement is Wedding Day at Troldhaugen, originally for piano by Edvard Grieg. I liked it so much, I thought I'd share it with all of you---for free!!!
Download the score and parts below:
Please enjoy! If you perform it, let me know!!
This week's #freshfindsfriday is a special one for me. This is the 3rd movement ("By the Sea") from Four Atmospheres of Edgar Allan Poe by English composer Jonathan Ellson. This piece is special for me because, in 2007 I commissioned it! This was the first commission I undertook and was so excited at the way it came out. I haven't actually ever performed it (for whatever reason), so I thought I'd share some of it here for you!