Tuesday, 27 October 2015

To Memorise or Not To Memorise?

For the musician, there are few pleasures greater than watching a world-class soloist give a stunning performance. It is always inspiring to see a performer at the top of their game, interpreting a piece of music with a grace and ease to which we all aspire. Such recitals are best seen live, but even through the barrier of a video camera they still have the ability to touch us.
What tends to make these performances even more impressive is the fact that they are often carried out with no sheet music for the soloist. Not only do they deliver wonderful music, at the same time they execute an incredible feat of memory, recalling every detail of their (usually substantial) part precisely and correctly.
For other musicians this might look as though the soloist has gone a bit over-the-top and perhaps even wandered into the dangerous territory of showing off. Anyone who has never tried playing from memory might question whether it really aids the performance to a significant degree or whether instead it is more of a party trick intended to awe the audience. If you are one of those people who think memorising music is merely a gimmick, or if you are interested in trying to play from memory but have yet to take the plunge, please do read on and learn about the benefits that such a practice can bring.
William Waterhouse, in his book 'Bassoon', writes: “My own experience serving on competition juries has convinced me that those who perform from memory consistently outplay the others. […] I believe that this enables their interpretation to reflect more vividly their artistic personality.” Indeed, that is probably the primary advantage of playing from memory: freedom from the tyranny of the printed page. In my previous article entitled 'Bringing Your Playing to Life', I wrote about how difficult it is to give a fresh and lively performance while concentrating on the notes written on the page in front of you. Memorising the music removes that barrier, giving you more freedom to interpret the piece, and resulting in a more expressive performance. You are able to connect with the music and the sentiment behind it on a much deeper level, and this brings a great sense of life and spontaneity to your playing which will be even more apparent to you than it is to the listener. In many cases I think this reason alone is enough to justify the effort of memorising.
That's not to say, though, that there are not other advantages to learning a piece by heart. You will no doubt find that you are also less likely to make mistakes, seeing as you will have trained your fingers to know exactly where to go almost automatically. Rather than having to rely on the laborious process of reading the notes, interpreting them and sending the instructions to your fingers, your brain can instead simply run through a well-rehearsed series of processes. Much of the time you won't even have to consciously think about what you are doing, it will be so autonomous. In comparison, playing from sheet music begins to seem more like the risky option.
It has long been my belief that learning a piece of music (even if not specifically from memory) is predominantly a process of memorisation. When you spend time practising a complex sequence of notes, you are in fact teaching your brain to execute them automatically as soon as you see that pattern written on the page. Of course this is more applicable to fast complex passages where it is near impossible to sight-read all the notes at full speed, and it is typically these passages that benefit most from intentional memorisation. So by making the deliberate effort to commit the music to memory, you are essentially cutting out the middle man and learning the piece in a more efficient way (even if it might not feel like it at the time).
There are also advantages to memorising slower, more lyrical sections of pieces. You may not realise it at the time, but when you play a slow piece from the music you are mainly concentrating on what notes to play, and relying on your subconscious to take care of more intricate matters such as airflow and embouchure. Play without music, though, and suddenly you will find yourself concentrating on how you are playing the notes rather than just which ones you are playing, allowing you to focus on achieving a more suitable tone and smoother articulation. Once you have committed the fundamental notes to memory you are left free to address the smaller details and bring your playing closer to perfection.
When I memorise pieces, I also find myself picking up on nuances that I had failed to appreciate when reading off the sheet music. I begin to make connections between different parts of the piece and get a better feel for how the composer put the work together. Instead of seeing just a sequence of quavers, I am forced to think of it as an Ab arpeggio followed by a Gb arpeggio, an E arpeggio and a D arpeggio – and lo and behold, I realise that what I am actually playing is a series of arpeggios that descend by a tone each time. Or I might be learning a later section of a long piece and find that one of the phrases seems familiar. Looking back over the music I find it is a variation of a phrase that occurred earlier in the work, and therefore I adjust my interpretation of the related phrases accordingly. In short, memorisation frequently empowers you with a much deeper understanding of the piece itself.
If you dream of being able to play by ear, memorisation can help you along the road to that goal as well. By playing without music you develop a much more acute sense of the relationship between notes. You are forced to really listen and learn what a minor third sounds like, or a perfect fifth, neither of which you would even think about if you were simply reading notes off the page. And the more you memorise, the more you will find yourself relying on playing-by-ear to help you along the way. Because in many cases it is easier to remember a tune and then recreate that, than it is to simply learn a list of pitches and durations.
On a more mundane note, you will also be able to forget about awkward page turns. We've all encountered occasions where nothing less than superhuman speed would be necessary to execute a certain page turn, and this added pressure is less than ideal in the middle of a performance. If it's all in your head, then there are no pages that need turning.
So if memorisation is all that great, why isn't everyone doing it? Why does it still seem to be reserved for those few who find themselves performing at the Royal Albert Hall, or being broadcast to an audience of millions?
I would say that there are two disadvantages to memorisation which tend to dissuade people from adopting it. The first of these is that it takes a long time. Memorisation is inevitably a lengthy, laborious process which must take place gradually over a long time period if it is to be really effective. This means that it takes a lot of effort to commit a piece to memory. Quite how long it takes depends on a number of factors, the two most obvious being the length of the piece and how 'predictable' it is. A long piece will take more time to memorise than a short one. A piece that features lots of repetition or is based upon common patterns of notes (such as scales and arpeggios) will not take as long to learn as a more modern work which is atonal or has a more disjointed, illogical pattern of notes.
There is good news, though, and that is that memorisation does get easier the more you do it. When you start out you may be able to learn a line or two in a practice session, but you will soon find that as you progress you are able to learn larger and larger chunks in shorter periods of time. So don't be discouraged if it seems to take forever for you to commit sections of music to memory – things are likely to improve if you persevere. And let's not forget that all this memorisation is sure to be a good workout for your brain, which can only be a good thing.
At this point I feel I should also mention that memorisation need not apply to entire pieces – it is also useful for small sections that you may be struggling with. So if you don't have the time to learn an entire concerto by heart, just pick the bits that you feel are trickiest and memorise them. You will still benefit from all the advantages detailed above, just not over the entire piece. I would suggest that this is a good habit to get into for learning orchestral parts as well, where it would be lunacy to memorise every note seeing as most of them are unlikely to be heard distinctly above the sound of the rest of the ensemble. Instead, pick out any solos or especially challenging sections and commit them to memory. You will find that doing so will serve you well not only for that one performance but also whenever you find yourself playing the same part in future. It's amazing how long these memories can last if they are created properly.
So that's the first disadvantage to memorisation: it takes a long time. The second is, in my opinion, the greatest, and the one that puts most people off the technique. It basically stems from fear.
Because let's face it, there is a lot that can go wrong when performing from memory. It is almost like a tightrope walk, with the performer gingerly walking along a narrow wobbly line of the correct notes while on either side of them there open up great chasms of forgetfulness, ready to be fallen into at any moment should they make the slightest stumble and lose their place in the music. It's a terrifying prospect, and one that is likely to give many sleepless nights to anyone planning to perform a substantial work without the printed page to keep them from falling.
My answer to that concern is a simple one: Don't perform without music. This may sound contradictory seeing as I've just spent nearly 1800 words encouraging you to play from memory. However, just because you intend to play from memory does not mean you can't have the music there as well. You might not need to look at it, but at the very least you should have it there, on a low down stand by your side, to be referred to should you experience a momentary memory lapse. In this way the music acts as a safety net, to catch you if you should begin to slip off your tightrope and to save you from crashing to an untimely death on the circus floor below. I personally would never perform a classical piece in concert without any sheet music at all. I may not need to refer to it, but having the part there with me is an invaluable insurance policy which I feel I would be truly foolish to abandon.
If that still sounds a little scary to you, fear not. For you can also read directly from the music as you perform and still enjoy many of the benefits of having memorised it beforehand. You may imagine that it is pointless to memorise a piece if you are going to read from the music anyway during the performance, but that is not the case. You will still enjoy greater security, a deeper understanding of the music and more freedom of expression even though you are reading off the page. Don't believe me? Try it. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Whether you don't refer to the music at all, occasionally glance at it to check some detail, or read every note as it is written, memorisation can be a great help. I think it is now appropriate for me to say a few words about the process of memorisation and how to go about it, seeing as I have spent so long extolling its virtues.
Unfortunately I cannot offer any hugely detailed words of advice regarding how to go about committing things to memory, as I believe different people find different techniques helpful. What I can do, though, is offer a few general tips and a brief summary of how I go about it.
The most important thing to remember (apart from the music, that is) is that what you are aiming to do is fix the notes into your long-term memory. As a consequence, you should refer back to it consistently over a long period of time. It's no good learning the whole thing in a day and hoping that you'll be able to recite it a month later. You must start by learning a small section, then building up the piece over weeks or months. It is widely accepted that recall is the most valuable tool when memorising information, so you should make a point of trying to play it from memory even if you get it wrong. The fact that you have made an effort to recall it means you are lodging it more and more firmly in your head. Another general tip is to refer back to it at ever-lengthening intervals. Learn a section one day, then see if you can recall it a few hours later. Then try again the next day. Then after a couple more days see if you can remember it still. Then recall it a week later. By going through this sort of long-term process you will fix it in your long-term rather than your short-term memory, and your efforts will have been well spent.
Personally I find a useful way of memorising things is to start by learning the first bit (e.g. the first bar). Once you can do that from memory, memorise the second bit. Then memorise the first and second bits together. Once you can play the entire first-and-second section without music, memorise the third bit. Then memorise the first-second-third section as a whole. Keep going like this until you feel you've exhausted your memory abilities for the time being. In this way, the earlier sections will be the ones you have done the most work on (so will be better memorised) and the later sections, having been learned more recently, are also easy to recall.
And there you have it. Memorisation. I hope I have been able to persuade you that it is not a showing-off technique, but a really valuable tool that you can use to greatly enhance your performance. There are many benefits to be gained, and really nothing to be scared of. So go on. Memorise some music. Memorise some music today.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Bringing Your Playing to Life

When we play a piece of music, what is it that we are primarily aiming to achieve? Anyone with an ounce of musical instinct will find this a simple question to answer – we are trying to interpret a work of art in such a way as to make it resonate with the listener. In many cases we aim to make an emotional connection with our audience, and allow them to feel the sentiments that the composer was trying to convey when they put the notes down on paper in the first place. Sometimes we want to make people smile. Sometimes we want to make them weep. But in all cases our main purpose is to take the dry, dead notation in front of us and make it meaningful. In short, we are trying to bring the music to life.
     The problem, though, is that this is not always a simple matter. It is often difficult to make that sort of connection with a piece of music when you as a performer are faced with a page of black and white coded instructions telling you when to play this note and when to play that, when you should get louder and when you should get quieter, when you should speed up and when you should slow down. It is all too easy to concentrate so hard on obeying these (often highly specific) instructions that we forget to connect with the real underlying message that is present amongst the dots and lines.
     Perhaps part of the problem is in the way we think about classical music. Over the years composers have become more and more pedantic about the way their music is to be performed.  Look at a score from three hundred years ago and you will find very little instruction regarding how the piece is to be interpreted. No phrasing or accents, and probably not even any dynamics. Look at a more recent score, though, and you may well find it so detailed as to be near incomprehensible on first inspection. Classical music has become so much more complicated that composers must make their notation specific to the point of being finicky so as to get their message across. Of course, this can leave the performer feeling stifled and unable to deviate from that which is printed before them.
     In order to free ourselves from these shackles which prevent us connecting with the music, it may help to take a look at a genre that places considerably less importance on notation. I am talking here about jazz, in which large portions of the music tend to be ‘improvised’, made up by the musicians on the spot and completely unplanned, save for a chord progression that may have been previously worked out for them to follow. Anyone who has ever watched high quality improvised jazz will know what a difference this makes to the music, and how primitive it can make classical notation look in comparison. Because there are no strict boundaries to be adhered to, jazz musicians are able to much more easily immerse themselves in the music. The notes that they play are completely determined by how they feel at that moment, and just about anything is allowed. I even remember seeing, on a recent television documentary, a pianist get up in the middle of a piece and do an impromptu dance around the piano while the rest of the band kept playing. Music doesn’t get much more immersive than that.
     And isn’t this, at the end of the day, what we are trying to achieve in classical music as well? O.K., so doing a little dance in the middle of a concerto might be a bit too much, and I don’t suggest launching into an extended ad lib solo halfway through Brahms’ F minor sonata. But we should still aim for that same strong connection that jazz musicians feel when they improvise. Our music may all be predetermined, but that’s not how it should feel to a listener. Every phrase should be as though you have had a thought or an emotion which you immediately feel compelled to express in musical form. After all, that’s how a lot of this music will have started out: as free improvisations by the composer.
     What I’m saying, then, is that we should try and play everything as though it is improvised. Even though we may be following specific instructions on a page, we should make it sound as though that is not the case. As though the music is a direct manifestation of our own thoughts and feelings at that place and time. And then, despite the barrier of notation, we may be able to really bring our playing to life.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

How Many Instruments Can You Play?

     As a woodwind doubler keen to involve myself in musical theatre pit orchestras and other such ensembles, over the past few years I have made a concerted effort to expand my range of musical instruments. From starting out on clarinet many years ago, I have since learned to play bassoon, saxophone, flute and even some ukulele. So it's a common occurrence for me to be asked by inquisitive friends and relatives, "How many instruments can you play?" It seems like a simple question on the face of it, and more often than not people intend it as a conversation starter rather than a prompt for deep philosophical debate. Nevertheless, it's a question that is in fact a lot more difficult to answer than it may at first seem.
     The first issue it raises is one of perception. Non-musicians appear to have a different understanding of the process of learning an instrument to musicians, and I would argue that non-doublers also have a different understanding to doublers. People who play one instrument or don't play at all imagine that every time you pick up a new instrument you are starting from scratch. Therefore it should take just as long for you to learn saxophone as it did to learn clarinet, and it should take just as much effort to learn flute as it did bassoon. Of course, those of us who have actually faced these challenges and tackled multiple instruments know that this is generally not the case, especially when they are closely related. When I learned to play alto saxophone, I already knew how to read music - there was no need for me to re-learn that skill. The embouchure, too, came very naturally after having played with a similar embouchure on clarinet for so long. I didn't have to re-learn how to tongue, or how to breathe with sensitivity to the music. For that matter, I soon discovered that I actually knew half of the fingerings as well, seeing as they bear such a close resemblance to those of the clarinet! The end result, then, was that after years of learning to play the clarinet, I was able to pick up the saxophone in a matter of weeks before being able to perform on it in a pit band for a local musical theatre company.
     Now, I'm not saying that on account of these similarities I don't consider clarinet and saxophone to be different instruments. But what about instruments that are more closely related? Is the tenor saxophone truly a different instrument to the alto? Or do the similarities between them mean that I should class them as essentially the same thing? Should I tell people that I play two instruments: alto saxophone and tenor saxophone? Or that I just play one: saxophone?
     Problems arise if you start to classify such similar instruments as completely distinct. For example, I have no doubt that I could play a soprano saxophone to a reasonable standard after a small amount of practice to allow me to familiarise myself with the instrument. But would that mean that I had learnt to play an entirely new instrument, something that a non-musician would expect to take years? Or would I merely be exercising my skills as a saxophonist and therefore not breaking any new ground? For that matter, should I claim the soprano as one of the instruments I can play already, seeing as I no doubt could pick it up with very little work? Or should I hold back from making such claims on account of the fact that I have never actually played the instrument before? You see, this is why I feel it is often simpler just to say I play 'saxophone' rather than listing the range of related instruments that I have played or potentially could play given the opportunity.
     There's another problem with classifying closely-related instruments as separate. Because if we adopt that viewpoint, surely the Bb clarinet is a different instrument to the A clarinet? And by that token, all orchestral clarinettists are doublers, playing as they do two distinct instruments. Even though the only real difference is that one is slightly longer than the other. To be honest, I would feel like a bit of an idiot if I told people that I played two instruments: Bb clarinet and A clarinet. I don't think I have ever met a clarinettist who would make such a bizarre claim. They would only profess to play one instrument: the clarinet. But then what about bass and sopranino clarinets, which make quite different demands on the player to soprano clarinets? For the sake of (relative) brevity I shall leave these out of the discussion for now, but hopefully my overall point is clear: it is very difficult, if not impossible, to define where one instrument ends and another begins, and this makes it quite hard for me to say how many instruments I actually play.
     Another factor that makes this question so difficult to answer is that is makes no reference to ability. I think most people would agree that just being able to get a sound out of an instrument does not mean you can 'play' it. I once got a few notes out of a friend's oboe, but I certainly don't claim to be an oboist. I once plucked the strings of a double bass, but I'm no bassist. So it's fair to say that you must reach a certain level of competence on an instrument before you can be thought of as able to 'play' it.
     Which leaves us with the question of how to define such a level. Is it when you have passed a certain grade with the ABRSM? Surely not - there are many excellent musicians out there who have never taken an exam in their life. Perhaps when someone is good enough to perform then they can be regarded as able to play the instrument? On the face of it this seems fairly reasonable, but ultimately it too is difficult to quantify, seeing as there is no set standard for performers. You get some excellent performers and some dreadful ones. Just because I can get three notes out of an accordion and I choose to go out busking with it, that doesn't mean I can play it.
     It also depends who I am talking to as to whether I say I can play an instrument. If I'm talking to a schoolchild, I'll happily tell them that I can play something even if I'm not hugely confident at it. But if I'm talking to a professional musician with years of experience, I'm likely to be a bit more reserved about such a thing, perhaps saying that I can play it 'a bit', or that I can play it but not very well. After all, these people will have higher musical standards (no offence, kids) and so I am more wary of claiming to be something that I'm not. So you see, even my own ideas of whether I can play an instrument vary greatly depending on the situation.
     And what about ownership? Can I claim to be able to play an instrument if I don't actually own (or at least have access to) one? Superficially this seems a little silly. Of course you can play something without owning one. Well, that may be true in the wider scheme of things, but when we're talking about professional woodwind doubling it is not necessarily the case. It's no use me being able to play baritone saxophone if I don't actually own one. I'm still just as useless to someone looking for a baritone saxophonist for a gig. If I don't have access to a contrabassoon, that's as good as not being able to play it at all as far as an orchestral fixer is concerned. Therefore I am wary of claiming to play an instrument that I don't own and would consequently not be able to perform on if requested.
     Does it matter how long ago I last played it? Say, for example, that the last time I played a bass clarinet was three years ago. Would I be a bass clarinettist (assuming for the sake of argument here that we count the bass as being distinct from the soprano clarinet)? Probably not. So what is the cut-off time, after which you cease to be able to 'play' something? And does it vary depending on how much experience you had playing that instrument beforehand? All questions that need to be answered before I can count the number of instruments I play.
     Maybe the most fundamental issue, though, is that of spoons. No, I've not gone mad - this is a genuine point I'm making. Spoons. You see, I play the spoons. The last time I played them was two days ago. I performed on them, in fact, in a paid gig as part of a trad. jazz group. So if anybody plays the spoons, I do. And yet I am always reluctant to list them among the instruments that I play.
     Why? Well, they're not a proper instrument, are they? They're more of a joke instrument, a novelty. Nobody actually plays the spoons - it's just a bit of fun. And to be honest, I doubt many of the people who ask me how many instruments I play would really count the spoons among them. It's just not right.
     And therein lies the problem. Why do I class the clarinet as a musical instrument but not the spoons? Why is the flute something I claim to be able to play, but I would never say that I play, for instance, the 'picture frame and doughnut', even though I have no doubt I could get a sound out of such a thing? In short, how do you define 'musical instrument'?
     Let's try looking in the dictionary - they tend to be reasonably good at defining things. The Penguin English Dictionary lists, as its second definition of 'instrument',

     'a device used to produce music'.

This definition is, of course, completely useless seeing as it is no more possible to define the word 'music' than it is to define 'art'. By this definition anything can be considered a musical instrument. And we only have to look at some of the contemporary music being produced today to realise how close this is to the truth.
     So at the end of the day, how many instruments can I play? In all honesty, I don't know. And I won't know, until someone gives me reliable and specific definitions for the words 'instrument' and 'play'. Until then I'll just have to be content with handing out copies of this essay to anyone who dares to ask me such a thing. That'll surely teach 'em!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

How to Play Lower than Bb on the Bassoon

     What is the bassoon's lowest note?
     To someone with a little bassoon knowledge the answer to this question appears blindingly obvious. "Low B flat", they reply. After all, this is the note that is produced when all of the tone holes on the instrument are sealed and its entire eight-foot length is engaged in tone production. A basic knowledge of acoustics will tell you that it is not possible to descend lower than this note.

     What is the bassoon's lowest note?
     Someone with a little more bassoon knowledge will know that there is a little more to this than it may appear. They will confidently respond with "Low A". Take a quick look on Wikipedia and you will find that its diagram of the instrument's range descends down to this A, and indeed this note is used in a number of prominent pieces of music. The most famous is probably Nielsen's Wind Quintet Op. 43, which concludes with this deep tone. It is also commonly to be found in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, as well as a number of other 20th century compositions.
     There are a number of ways to achieve this low A. The most common nowadays is through the use of an extension, i.e. an extra piece of tubing inserted into the end of the bassoon. This has the effect of flattening the low Bb by a semitone, thereby producing an A. These extensions can be bought professionally made, or put together quite easily from plastic or even cardboard tubing. It is even possible to improvise an extension by rolling up a piece of sheet music and pushing it into the instrument's bell, leaving around 10 cm protruding from the end. The main advantage of this is that it gives a note that is consistent in timbre and response with the rest of the instrument. In other words, it is more or less as easy to play as the unmodified B flat would be, and its tone also matches that of the B flat. However, with such an extension it becomes impossible to play the B flat itself, and the low B also becomes somewhat muffled. The extension can also cause problems with other notes over the whole range of the bassoon, and therefore it is common to only insert it for passages where it is required.
     Instrument manufacturers have in the past attempted to bring the bassoon closer in line with modern composers' requirements by manufacturing low A bells. Using such bells it becomes possible to play any chromatic note in the bassoon's range, as well as the low A which is accessed by an extra key for the left hand little finger. Essentially it is like the flute's low B footjoint, which gives the instrument an extra semitone. This seems the most definitive way to solve the problem, but it failed to catch on in a big way, probably due to the extra weight, complexity and expense which it introduced to an already weighty, complex and expensive instrument.
     There are a few pictures available online of these low A bells, which give a better idea of their form and functionality. Here is a Heckel bassoon that came fitted with both a standard low B flat and an extended low A bell:
     And here is a low A bell that was custom-made for a Moosmann bassoon:
     There is one more way in which it is possible to reach a low A, although it is one that I personally have never managed. It involves fingering a low B flat and loosening the embouchure sufficiently so that the pitch of the note is 'bent' down by an entire semitone. This also involves moving the lips to the very tip of the reed, and of course the reed itself must be a good one for such a technique to work. Despite my best attempts (and my best reeds) I have never been able to replicate this effect, which leads me to conclude that either my reeds are not as excellent as I think they are, or the technique works better on some bassoons than others and mine just so happens to be one of the less enthusiastic ones. In his book 'Bassoon', William Waterhouse states that a really good reed will be capable of playing all the way up to a high F and, by note-bending, down to a low A. If this is true then he must have possessed some pretty remarkable reeds, as far as I can see.
     To be frank, it doesn't surprise me that I am unable to bend such a low note by an entire semitone. My experience on clarinet, flute, saxophone and bassoon tells me that in general the higher a note is, the easier it is to bend its pitch using the embouchure. On clarinet, I can bend a C (two ledger lines above the treble stave) down to around an A a minor third below, but I cannot bend a low E (below the stave) at all. The same on bassoon: I can bend a middle C quite significantly, but the low B flat maintains its pitch remarkably well no matter what I do with my embouchure. Whilst I congratulate anyone who is able to bend a low B flat down to an A, I am not hugely disheartened by my ability to do so.
     So there you have it. The bassoon's lowest note. An A, which can be achieved by any of the three methods described above. Short of adding increasingly cumbersome extensions to an already unwieldy instrument, it is impossible to play any lower.
     At least, that's what I used to think.
     I was wrong...

     What is the bassoon's lowest note?
     A few days ago I was browsing the internet, feeling secure because I had enough bassoon knowledge to be aware that its lowest note is an A below the bass stave, when I opened up YouTube and found my eye caught by an intriguing title in my suggested videos. It was called 'Bassoon Techniques - Impossible Notes!' (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zD5PanRVzec), so, feeling understandably intrigued, I clicked on it. I suggest you do the same now.
     What this video shows you is that it is possible to play lower than a B flat using special fingerings. Particularly surprising is that fact that these fingerings do not appear to use the entire bore length, yet they are capable of producing tones that sound lower than the note we usually play with all tone holes covered.
     I say 'sound' lower, because judging by the comments below the video the actual effect is an illusion. Apparently the sounds produced are actually multiphonics which somehow confuse the ear (and my electronic tuner, for that matter) into interpreting them as notes lower than B flat. I would be interested to know exactly how and why this works, but for the time being I am satisfied that if a note sounds like it's lower than a B flat, then for all practical purposes it is.
     The video details fingerings for notes down to an E below the B flat, but I would suggest that the G flat is probably the lowest you can go before it starts to sound truly repulsive. With a little practice it is possible to get a reasonable tone on the A and A flat, and I have managed to produce a reasonable-sounding G, but the lower you try and go it seems the more distorted the sound gets. Still, as a party trick those low E's and F's are hard to beat!
     Having had a go at the notes, I have found that my instrument sometimes responds better to slightly different fingerings to those detailed in the video. These are the fingerings that work best for me, which may be useful to anyone trying this technique themselves:
     I feel that the main value of these extra notes is as a novelty - they are fun to play, and it is always satisfying to be able to push the boundaries of your instrument. Their main disadvantages are that they are difficult to play (although diligent practice may be able to overcome this) and that their tone is very harsh and inflexible (although this may be desirable in certain circumstances). However, I believe there may well be occasional uses for these magical low notes.
     Firstly, they provide yet another method of playing low A, which is one note that we do come across from time to time. Using this method, it is possible to play the low B flat as well and the rest of the instrument is not affected at all, which may be advantageous in some cases.
     Secondly, they may come in handy for those times when we are called upon to play a contrabassoon part on bassoon, due to the unavailability of a contra. In such situations it is advisable to transpose as much as possible down the octave so as to bring the part to its intended pitch, and therefore these extra notes may come in handy. In addition, the rattly tone that they produce is reminiscent of a contrabassoon, so it may be possible to give a fairly convincing impersonation of one.
     Thirdly, there are those times when we are called upon to play a carelessly-edited new piece or arrangement in which overzealous copy-and-paste-ing has given the bassoon some notes beyond its standard range. Usually we would have to miss them out or play them up the octave, but with these fingerings we may be able to play them as written anyway. To me, that is more than a little satisfying.

     What is the bassoon's lowest note?
     Lower than you'd think.

Monday, 14 April 2014

How to Slide Between Keys – and Win!

Today I would like to share a little tip with you that seems to be rather a well-kept secret in woodwind playing. To be honest, I can understand why it’s not that widely discussed and by the end of this post you will probably see why as well. But believe me, once you start using it you will find it an invaluable trick which will come in handy in many situations.
It concerns the process of sliding between keys, a clumsy part of woodwind playing technique but one which is common to just about all instruments in the family. For the clarinettist and the oboist it is often necessary to slide the little finger from one key to another, and even the flautist must occasionally slide from the low C sharp to the D sharp key. The bassoonist has an even harder time, having to slide his right thumb between four different keys and his left thumb between nine! This is not always convenient and can serve to interrupt the flow of certain passages of music.
In some cases instrument manufacturers have sought to remedy this by the introduction of rollers on the edges of keys, but these are not always available on all models of instrument, and for the clarinettist and oboist they are an extremely rare option. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have the same smoothness of sliding on keys which aren’t equipped with rollers?
What this really needs, then, is some sort of grease to act as a lubricant as your fingers slip from key to key. But you can hardly be expected to carry a pot of grease around to dip your fingers in whenever the going gets tough. Apart from being inconvenient and blatantly disgusting, it would be difficult to measure out a small enough quantity so as not to clog up the instrument’s mechanism, especially in the middle of a performance.
And this is where things start to get ever so slightly revolting. Because Mother Nature has kindly provided us all with our own natural source of grease that we carry around with us every day of our lives. In the middle of our faces. I’m talking, of course, about the nose.
That’s right, believe it or not the side of your nose is the ideal source of grease for lubricating you finger so that it can slide from key to key. I had never even considered this before it was first pointed out to me, and if you’ve never tried this then you may be similarly taken aback. But try it out now and you’ll see just how perfect it is. Go and get your instrument, and try sliding from one key to another. Now try the same thing again, but before you do, slide the appropriate finger down the side of your nose. See how much smoother the action is?
The real beauty in this trick is just how subtle it is. Nobody notices such a small gesture, which means that you can use it whenever you need without fear of getting strange looks. I recently used it to help with the first clarinet part of Nielsen’s flute concerto, where I had to slide my left little finger from the low E to the low F sharp key. In the bars rest leading up to this little flourish, I discreetly slid my little finger down the side of my nose. I’d even written ‘NOSE’ on the music to remind me (and also to confuse the next person to play that part). Then when it came to the semiquavers in question I was able to execute them simply and smoothly, with no jerkiness in the action.
So there you have it – the secret to smooth sliding. To conclude, I would like to encourage you not to be put off by the slightly unhygienic nature of this technique, but rather to embrace it as a remarkably useful part of your playing.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Bassoon Bureau Caption Competition

Yes, it's that time again! Time for another competition, another chance for you to win a bassoon quartet of your choice at www.thebassoonbureau.com.

This time I'm trying something a bit different, in the form of a caption contest. If you visit http://www.thebassoonbureau.com/#!caption-competition/c125w you will find a quirky bassoon-related picture that is just crying out for a witty caption to go with it. All you have to do is come up with a funny, whimsical or amusing comment to accompany it.

Then, once the closing date has passed and all entries have been received, I will look through them all and pick my personal favourite as the winner.

The prize, once again, is a free copy of any of the bassoon quartet arrangements for sale on The Bassoon Bureau.

The closing date is Wednesday 2nd April. Have fun and good luck - I can't wait to see what you remarkable folks can come up with!

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Experimenting with Fingerings

To the beginner woodwind player, the subject of fingerings is essentially a simple one. You have a fingering chart that tells you precisely which holes you need to cover and which keys you need to press in order to produce a particular note. In some cases there may be one or two alternatives which have been built into the instrument in order to make certain passages easier. But by and large the fingering chart is the be all and end all, and mastering it will arm you with the fingerings that will accompany you throughout your playing career.
If you take this approach, though, you soon run into problems. It’s not long before you find passages which, under your standard system of fingerings, pose absurdly complex technical problems. The natural thing to do when confronted with such difficulties is to persevere and work hard to overcome the issues, until eventually you are able to battle through the music with the fingerings you have been taught. After all, nobody said that learning an instrument was going to be easy.
But in many cases there is a better way. And this way presents itself once you realise that fingerings are not fixed, concrete things. In some cases, there is only one way to play a particular note, but in many – if not most – cases there are a variety of different options to choose from. This is especially true for high notes, and with experimentation it is often possible to find a combination of fingerings are considerably more practical in a specific situation than the standard ones.
To take this idea further, the fact is that many fingerings are not an inherent part of an instrument’s workings. Again, this applies mainly to the high notes, which are not ‘designed’ as part of the instrument. For the vast majority of wind instruments, the original makers did not sit down and plan what fingerings would be used to produce the high notes. Rather, they made an instrument with a certain range and then discovered that by using different fingerings it was possible to overblow into a high register. Some fingerings were found to work better than others, and it was those ones that over many years became the standard fingerings for the high register. They tend to work well, so we stick with them most of the time. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other fingerings for the same notes which can be used under certain circumstances.
The matter is further blurred by the fact that no two instruments are quite the same. There will always be small differences in dimensions and bore characteristics, and as a result a particular fingering may work better on some instruments than others. At the end of the day it is up to the player to try out different options and find the one that works best for his instrument in most situations.
What I am saying, then, is that there is no such thing as a ‘cheat’ or a ‘false’ fingering. Yes, there may be multiple fingerings for the same note. One might play in tune the best but have an awkward fingering and so is most useful in fairly slow passages. Another might be poorly tuned but have a very simple fingering, and therefore will be useful in fast music where the note goes by too quickly for tuning to be really noticeable. Yet another fingering might sound slightly muffled, and therefore come in handy when playing quietly. But they are all just as valid as each other.
To give an example from my own experience, the low A on my bassoon has always tended towards flatness when played with the standard fingering. For a long time I struggled with it, desperately trying to ‘lip it up’ and bring it in tune. Then one day I discovered that the tuning was vastly improved if, in addition to the standard fingering, I also depressed the low D key. Now I use that fingering whenever I can, and it has helped improve my playing as a result.
Or what about the throat B flat on the clarinet? The standard fingering is convenient for most situations, but it produces a note that is muffled and poorly tuned. Contrast this with the side-key fingering which is much more cumbersome under the fingers but gives a note with a good tone and tuning. Which one you use under which circumstances is entirely a matter of personal preference.
Worth noting at this point is the story of Ian Anderson, well-known as the flautist for the prog rock band Jethro Tull. When he learnt to play the flute, he had no fingering chart to refer to and consequently used trial and error to work out a set of fingerings that worked for him. It wasn’t until he had played the instrument on twenty-eight of the band’s albums that he was given a fingering chart and realised that, as he put it, “eighty percent of [his] fingering was incorrect”. He then essentially re-learnt the instrument with the standard fingerings, and found great benefits in his new technique. Now, I would disagree with his use of the word ‘incorrect’ in this context, and his story clearly highlights the advantages of learning the standard fingerings to start off with, but my point is that even then fingerings are not set in stone, and there is always room for experimentation to achieve different effects.
To go back to the bassoon for a moment, if you really want to get an idea of just how many different fingerings there can be for one note on an instrument, try looking at the bassoon fingering guide on the website of the International Double Reed Society. LINK It’s mind-boggling just how much variation is possible. Or have a look at this post on the consistently excellent blog of Bret Pimentel, which gives sixty different fingerings for high F sharp on the bassoon. LINK
So don’t be afraid to try different fingerings. Play around with overblowing or using alternative keys. Not only will you make a lot of music easier to play, but you will also gain a much deeper understanding of your instrument. And that, in my opinion, can only be a good thing.