Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The contra bassoon vs the contraforte

Well, the debate continues. After reading this article http://m.smh.com.au/entertainment/music/flatulent-contrabassoon-gets-a-modern-second-wind-20101015-16nin.html and the comments on the sound of the contra bassoon I was intrigued to find http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-classical-beat/2010/10/contrabassoon_contraforte_audio.html where you can actually hear Lewis Lipnick sounding fantastic on BOTH instruments.

I did try the contraforte at IDRS in Birmingham in 2009 and really couldn’t see how we could use it in place of the contra as it is SO very different. But from these audio clips the difference is not as huge as I thought. I would be interested to hear from contra players who have played a contra forte and especially from those who have played it in a professional orchestra and why!

http://www.guntramwolf.de/englisch/f_modern.html#kontraforte has Guntram Wolf’s information on the development and http://www.Eppelsheim.com/kontraforte.php?lang=en has sound links.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Helping Your Child Practise

A note to parents of the young bassoon player.

As a parent of the budding bassoonist you play a key role in helping them make rapid progress. After all you have already found a bassoon teacher, paid for the books, the reeds, the hire or even purchase of the instrument and endured the first fantastic cow noises coming from the new addition to the family! You could of course sit back and hope that their weekly lesson of half an hour will bear fruit and transform them into the next soloist and speed their progress into the National Youth Orchestra OR you could get more involved! But how?

From my experience the pupils who get distinction in their exams and make rapid progress have a great deal of support at home. Not that you are expected to teach the bassoon - that's my job. But working with parents on ways to help their child practise constructively and regularly (without undue nagging or "pressure") and by sending recordings of lessons and "how the piece goes" by email to the parents to put on the student's ipod, I have seen a huge difference in speed of progress this year.

Most teachers keep a notebook that they send back with your child after a lesson. This lays out what they have done in the lesson, what they want the child to practise and a place for you to make notes and in some cases sign off the times that the young player has actually practised! But even in schools where this is part of the rules the practise book gets neglected. A short note from you back to the teacher in this book is a huge encouragement that we are not writing notes into a void.

The child who doesn't want to practise at all is not being discussed here - that's a different story. But the willing pupil will usually have chosen the bassoon because they have heard one being demonstrated at school by someone like me and have realised for themselves that it is a wondrous noise unlike anything else. But the sound that comes out of their bassoon (or in the case of the small ones out of their mini bassoon or tenoroon) can bear little resemblance to what they heard. And the task becomes getting enough progress FAST enough so that they can sound good and get to play in their school ensemble as that's when the real fun starts - the bassoon is really a social instrument and doesn't stand up well to years of solitary confinement.

By getting agreement on how much time they can practise (around the sports club, the swimming, the friends, the TV, and the ever increasing "homework" from school) we can then start to monitor progress. This is much more important than "time spent". Progress is what they want and we all want. If they can do this effectively in the least time and have fun whilst doing it then we are all happy. And when things are going slowly that's the time to go back and forth with notes in the book or even call to discuss. With the lazier pupils I often make this into a game of how they can practise better in less time and point out I give no rewards for time wasted blowing down the bassoon with no progress.

As a teacher I want my pupils to learn WHAT and HOW to practise so that they can see, hear and feel the progress and enjoy that progress. Some are exam driven, others reward driven and some (the ideal bassoonist) are happy to go up to their room and tinker and experiment and come back and say "I found bottom Bb!" the next week.

If you are a parent of a pupil of mine already you will know you get emails/sound files and recommendations as well as writings in the "practise book" each week. With these tools and an open dialogue back and forth the whole "learning adventure" is greatly aided.

Here's to constructive practise and happy blowing!


Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Big Double Reed Day, London 10th October 2010

It’s official - preparations for the Big Double Reed Day at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on Sunday 10th October 2010 are not only underway, we have a WEBSITE all alive and shiny. http://www.bigdoublereed.com/

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Crook Repairs

Sometimes a small adjustment to a crook (bocal) makes a big difference to the playing angle and playing comfort for a bassoonist and can prevent long term strain of both neck and hands. After all the bassoon doesn't naturally fit the human body by any stretch of the imagination! I have always had to do little bending of a bassoon crook for my height and playing position so that my head and hands are at a comfortable angle. I haven’t needed the full “English Bend” that some makers provide (and which Heckel used to call "berger" bend and now seem to call "flat bend") which seems to work especially well for very tall people as it drops the hands/shoulders to a comfortable height when using a seat strap, spike or dutch leg support.

If there is more than a few centimetres bending needed I have usually had a repairer do this by filling the crook with a metal that melts at boiling point (such as Field’s Metal or Woods Metal) to make sure the walls don’t split or collapse. This involves re-corking and the right materials to hand, so I have done many bends just by filling the crook with table salt to give some support internally. For a small change on a new crook this has worked. Also I have risked bending the metal with nothing inside with no bad results and indeed watched one maker bend a new crook for me in front of my eyes (though he did tell me not to watch!).

However I recently did a small bit of bending on a crook which resulted in not only a split but a split right across and I suddenly found myself with two bits. Aaargh. My "crook bending without a safety belt on" days are over.

David Lock is a name known to most UK bassoonists. He has not only produced endless supplies of reeds and contra bassoon reeds for decades, he has also saved the day on repairs for many years. Although he is reluctant to take on metal work these days he has a very talented son Steve who lives a few minutes away from him (in deepest Suffolk) and repairs oboes, clarinets and of course bassoons! This week Steve saved the day by repairing the mess I had made below. Not only repaired, but actually works better than before! (Though I wouldn’t recommend it as a regular method of softening up a crook). Steve tells me he is totally happy to take on more bassoon repairs and I would highly recommend him: steve@utopians.co.uk

Though of course I am hoping not to repeat my mistake on unsupported crook bending again!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bassoon Reed Reamers

Having bought and cursed a variety of reamers over the years from cheap to very expensive I have recently found one that ticks ALL the right boxes and is really the Rolls Royce of reamers!

It reams out the back of a reed a) rapidly b) without blisters on my left index finger (I’m left handed) c) wet or dry d) right into throat - so throat is left a uniform size and remedied if I have made the throat a bit too small e) with a ring round the top of the reamer to set the depth I want it to go onto the bassoon crook. Oh and f) it's SHARP. Very sharp!

I usually make reeds in batches of ten and used to dread the reaming bit as ten in a row was cramp and blister inducing! This is now more like pealing some potatoes but more fun.

I have tried Pisoni, Rigotti, Reiger (and still use the diamond finishing reamer when out and about to keep in my bassoon case) and some lesser known and often ended up using a combination of them in the finishing process. All a bit painful really (literally!)

The supplier of the magic reamer?

Barrick Stees - Assistant Principal Bassoonist of the Cleveland Orchestra. He teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the University of Akron. The reamer was designed by Ken Potsic


Look under "products"

In fact the whole site is something I have referred to again and again over the last two years as I have found his reed making advice very very sound and helpful.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The aches and pains of bassooning

Last year I was experiencing a great deal of discomfort playing the bassoon and contra bassoon. I ended up going for some physio to help correct this but it only made matters worse. I met another bassoonist, Fiona Bryan, on a gig and commented on her great posture and said "ah Alexander Technique". When she told me she taught it I immediately asked for a lesson. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I should return to Alexander Technique as I had seen it work on others and had a brief attempt to get lessons whilst I was studying at the Guildhall! (In those days it was only the string players who got this as part of their course.. times have changed).

After the initial frustration of wanting instant results and Fiona pointing out that years of habit are not undone in five minutes I settled down into a routine of using AT to make changes. I found that keeping regular lessons and sessions made a huge difference as big gaps in between just led to old habits slipping in. However, a year down the line I can see a big difference in my general posture and more importantly I don't HURT all the time! If my back or muscles become painful I know I can control this and take the time to use the techniques to get me back on track. I had wanted something where I could do all the work and not go to someone to "treat" or "adjust me" and most of the work in Alexander Technique is indeed on your own. However, my concept of being able to do it all myself was only partially correct as the hands on work from someone trained is essential and makes all the difference between success or failure and has yielded much faster results.

As there are immediate benefits and long term improvements to be had I continue to work on using more and more of what I have been learning. And this of course is starting to pay dividends with my breathing and posture when playing. And nobody seems to mind me lying on the floor with a book under my head before a gig as long as I don't clutter up the corridor too much...

I can't stress enough just how vital learning this technique is for any performer as we all put our bodies through twists and contortions to play/sing/dance or whatever. But of course it applies just as much for anyone in any walk of life as good posture and freedom from back pain makes life a lot more fun!

For those in London Fiona Bryan teaches from home and can be found at

There is also a great book that covers the basics well called Body Breath and Being by Carolyn Nicholls.