Thursday, December 19, 2013

Play with a Pro does it again - breathing revelations

Ever since launched I have been singing their praises, as it quickly turned into one of the most valuable teaching resources I have ever used. Also for my own playing it gave me access to teachers who I would never have met and helped me make new progress on the bassoon and contra bassoon. There is one area that I have continued to research which I hadn’t found covered ANYWHERE on the web or in print in a way I could instantly use and that was “breathing”. I had breakthrough moments of course, from different discussions with my Alexander technique teacher Fiona Bryan and with other players of wind and brass instruments. One big breakthrough was talking with one of the trumpet players in the Ulster orchestra about Kristian Steenstrup and the teaching he was doing following on from the teachings of Arnold Jacobs (tuba legend). I had come across and more recently read the biography of Arnold Jacobs by Brian Frederiksen. Then thanks to Patrick McCarthy in Belfast blowing on a strange tube with a ping pong ball and cylinder in the green room before an Ulster Orchestra concert I was lead to the book “Teaching Brass” by Kristian Steenstrup. This book filled in so many gaps and gave me fundamentals that made sense and stripped away years of strange ideas of “which muscle shall I contract to blow”. I started using these ideas myself and in my teaching but still felt I needed more practical guidance. I even got some of the devices I saw on the Windsongpress site (found them on along with their Flow Ball that I have been using in teaching for over a year).

Then a few days ago Adam Simonsen (founder of sent me news of these new breathing videos where Steenstrup puts it all into action. I watched them straight away as I hoped they would be the missing key for me. And they are.

In the main video, Adam is taken through the principles of Kristian’s teaching and shown the various aids that he uses (some of which I already have but didn’t quite understand how to USE). Adam asks all the questions and runs into all the confusions of ideas that I myself have had (and am sure other wind players have) so it was a great way to present the information. Then at the end of these videos we are given a whole exercise routine to do with Kristian. Finally each set has a live masterclass with an instrumentalist. You get to choose which bundle you download so that it applies to your instrument but to be honest I have learned as much from watching the brass players and other wind players as I have from the bassoon player. The most striking thing for all of them is the instant improvement in sound and the delight on their faces on how easy it is if you get the breathing right!

Once again there is plenty of time to “try before you buy” as there are clips of all the videos on Youtube (though carefully edited so that you need to see the full video!).

Just in time for Christmas, these videos are too good to miss. Here’s to happy blowing in 2014!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My Leitzinger Bassoon Adventure

Several bassoon players have been emailing me asking me about the new Leitzinger bassoon that I had ordered and that I picked up last week so I thought rather than answer lots of emails and calls I would do a blog post with the story so far! But please feel free to ask questions.


For over a year I have been talking about getting a Leitzinger, often to the response "a what?" (and that was from bassoonist friends not string players or bus drivers). Once I had decided and ordered one the waiting began...but  the great day arrived when I flew to Frankfurt to pick up my new bassoon from the workshop of Stephan Leitzinger. The days since then have been full of bassoon revelations so I thought them worth a blog post as in terms of bassoon "news" this is BIG news.

Based on my experiences over the last few years with the crooks and more recently with the bassoons I have decided  that if anyone else wants to find out more then they are welcome to email me with questions. I have accumulated rather a lot of information in the last few years and want to help other UK players find out for themselves. So if you have any questions contact me by email or via the contact page on my main website and meanwhile I will try and find time to make a UK website for this information on Leitzinger bassoons. 
Meanwhile, read on....

Immediate impressions:

Fingerings (the technical bit):

After five concerts on this bassoon I am loving all sorts of unexpected things in addition to the things that I was expecting from my try outs on other Leitzinger bassoons. Top A with left hand only anyone? Adding ring finger right hand doesn't change the pitch enormously just the colour which as a left hander opens up a lot of difficult finger work to simplification! How about leaving off the endless Eb or C sharp LH little finger on all sorts of notes that I used on my old bassoon?  How about top A flat simple fingering (just RH 3) being the same pitch as adding what I needed before (Bb key and RH 2 and 3) to make it sound nice? Even RH Bb and F key which is a nice slur fingering is the same pitch (and not sharp). How about forked Eb being totally fine with just a fork? Yes adding little finger LH changes the colour but it's stable without. And doesn't need RH 1 or 2 with Bb key. Top C with just LH 1 and C speaker key? No problem. Bottom F not sharp, bottom G not flat and bottom Ab not even flatter? Just blow!  Bottom E D and C - not sharp. Just blow! In fact if you start doing strange embouchure changes as needed on most instruments you can make these notes flat on this bassoon - it just doesn't need that change. The list goes on. Basically my main re-learning this week has been to blow lots of lovely warm and open air down the thing and not do any strange fingerings or embouchure manipulations. This makes playing legato and playing MUSIC on it much more fun.

Dynamic Range and Sound:

Then there is the pianissimo. Less air means it goes quieter. Erm obvious I know but most other bassoons I have played or tried clamp up or don't play quietly with little effort. Now when you open up and really tank it the bassoon just gets louder!

I remember seeing the Times review from Richard Morrison who had gone to see the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra perform Beethoven 9 in November 2011 when David Peterson (who plays a Leitzinger) was playing fag 1. The next day's review included "the principle bassoon - with a tone like a chocolate liqueur - was alone worth the price of the ticket". (Ed: found the exact clipping and quote from 7 Nov 11 and corrected this 25.5.13). And although so far I still sound like Tom playing the bassoon rather than anyone else and can't vouch for how much chocolate is coming out I can say that it is a flexible sound yet very warm. And when you blow the thing HARD it doesn't go nasty. It just gives you more sound.

The problems? Erm - keywork in a different place to my old bassoon and a fair amount of operator error. But with the provided left hand rest and right hand rest that you can move into endless different angles with an allen key I am there now and have stopped hitting the wrong keys...the last two concerts have been a joy.

The Story So Far:

If you are in a hurry then here are the bullet points:

  • Leitzinger has been making bassoon crooks ("bocals" for those of you outside the UK)  for decades. Somehow the UK didn’t hear about it but they have been big in Europe and the US for some time. They solve all sorts of tuning issues and have a flexibility and dynamic range that makes them a bit of a “once you have tried and liked you will never go back” proposition. He has also been making bassoons for some time and there are over 80 of them out there with many german players going from their favoured makers to Leitzinger. There are quite some stories on this subject!
  • I met Stephan Leitzinger at 2009 IDRS in Birmingham and got my first crook from him (a silver thin walled free blowing S2V that really helped my old Mollenhauer pre war bassoon). I tried his bassoons but coming from a pre war Mollenhauer and a day of trying instruments on different stands at the show I didn’t really know which end was which by the end of the day.
  • When I got my Heckel a few months later the S2V crook saved my bacon for ages as it worked on the Heckel and enabled me to make the transition from an old pre war instrument to a huge 13000 series 1980s Heckel without too much bloodshed. I then bought an MD1V for nice top notes and sharper pitch at the British Double Reed Day 2010. (the various models can be seen here - Leitzinger Crooks

  • Saint Saens Bassoon Sonata on Heckel 13000 series with Leitzinger crook
  • I carried on getting crooks from him to suit this instrument and converted quite a few other players along the way (“oh you mean the bottom doesn’t HAVE to be sharp, the tenor doesn’t HAVE to be flat and top C can actually be flat enough and not sound like a strangled ostrich” etc.etc.) My rather large collection of crooks (and my maintaining to the other members of Reed Rage that you can NEVER have too many crooks that leads to them mercilessly taking the micky out of me) is now quite impressive, though in reality I have only been using two - a lovely S2F silver for second playing and my M1F platinum described in more detail below.

  • The great crook journey led me to invite Stephan Leitzinger over to the Big Double Reed Day 2011 at the Guildhall. I tried the bassoons in earnest and now appreciated that they were much easier to play quietly on as well as loud and seemed really flexible. In fact the main thing I came away with from that day was that I wanted to play MUSIC on these bassoons and not just blow scales up and down. 
  • After Big Double Reed Stephan emailed me to suggest I might like to get a Leitzinger bassoon. I emailed back a long hollow laugh concerning my lack of worldly riches…I am not sure how well that  hollow laugh translated at the Frankfurt end of the email but the seed had been sown deep in my bassoon consciousness.
  • A year passed rather quickly and I found myself at another Big Double Reed Day but with less classes of fifteen year olds playing bassoon and oboe to conduct and more time to try the bassoons. I decided after really playing a few of the bassoons on the Leitzinger stand that I was going to own a Leitzinger...only to find my fellow Reed Rager Alex Davidson had tried the demonstration model, played it to our colleagues in the hall who had gone "WOW", had fallen in love with it and announced she was buying it! That left me putting in my order knowing I would have months of waiting wondering quite how that all happened! But of course it did give me several more chances to try a Leitzinger for real and some very fruitful duet sessions with Alex where I confirmed my decision was a "sound" one.
  • January 2013 came and I was given the task by an Australian player who buys reeds from me  of choosing a Leitzinger from two of them that Stephan had made as she was unable to come to Europe. An ominous task (in her words “don’t screw it up”). I chose well and she has been delighted with her instrument (phew). Her email concerning her experiences made me wish I had kept the one I chose for her! 
  • I have been out with the Ulster Orchestra rather a lot in the past few years and got used to playing my Heckel in the Ulster Hall with its special brand of reed idiosyncrasies (read “London reeds don’t work here”…)I decided that once I had the date for picking up my bassoon that I better have the Heckel ready as a back up in case I couldn’t actually play the thing and duly left my old bassoon at my lodgings ready to revert if needed.
The Ulster Hall, Belfast

  • I flew to Frankfurt last week, (thanks to my frequent visits to the Ulster Orchestra and the air miles I have collected on BA!) and picked up the new beastie and came to Belfast for some Verdi requiem action for the end of season concerts. The expected carnage of a new instrument in the heat of the moment failed to come - it went well and I found myself much less tired in the embouchure department than usual. It has been a really pleasurable week finding out that this new machine reaches parts that other bassoons don’t reach with a flexibility that I have been searching for for a long time! My old bassoon has not been needed as a back up and I now have the interesting task of getting two bassoons back on Friday on the plane.

Two Leitzingers in conversation.

Other Thoughts and discoveries:

There is no huge Leitzinger factory where these instruments are being churned out. There is a small team with Stephan Leitzinger at the helm with his incredible passion for creating instruments that will be played and enjoyed in orchestras. There is no student model. There are not about to be thousands of these instruments. They are what they are - a superbly hand made German bassoon that takes the tradition of sound and colour and just does it extremely well.

My Leitzinger is darker than yours....

First impressions for those trying a Leitzinger for the first time:

It’s not a total “Marmite’ proposition but there is an element of that in trying these instruments for the first time, mainly because you don’t need to pressurise them into playing loud and soft. It’s more like SINGING down them. Lots of air and an open feeling and off they go! This combined with the fact that they are happy on a lighter reed than most means you can miss the plot when just trying one out with your existing set up.  

The Back Story:

This is the full story for those who have stayed with this post so far....

In 2008 I went out to the Trondheim Symphony orchestra as an extra and did four weeks with them. I had a great time with a lovely bassoon section. The first bassoon (Sarah Warner Vik) is from Perth Australia and has a very fine 12000 series Heckel. When I played with her she was using a Leitzinger crook. “A what?” was my question of course as in the UK this was a name I hadn’t heard from anyone! The second bassoonist, Kia Svare, chimed in with “haven’t you heard of Leitzinger?”. So I thought I had better find out fast as this was obviously a deficiency in what I thought was a reasonably encyclopaedic knowledge of bassoonery!

Trondheim really is a long way north!
A web search later and an email explaining what I was after to Herr Leitzinger led to a short email reply which quite frankly didn’t make a lot of sense. It did say “excuse my English” so I thought the secret was probably to get my rantings translated. Off I went  to solve this breakdown in communication (as my German is non existent!) and duly contacted a friend of mine who is a cellist in the Salzburg Mozarteum orchestra. Susi took my long ramblings about tuning, dodgy notes on my old pre war Mollenhauer, tone and reed tolerance and did a splendid job of translating this into German. I sent it off and within days received NINE Leitzinger bocals of various shapes and sizes in the mail! I was blown away (and realised that it was about time I learned German… a realisation I am still having five years later but haven’t actually actioned yet).  But as I then found out Leitzinger would be exhibiting at the IDRS in Birmingham I held off from buying one of the nine all very different crooks. 

And so on arriving at IDRS I did pretty much make a B line for the Leitzinger stand. Well actually more of a C or D line as I got lost amongst a lot of other stands and was suitably tired and confused by the time I arrived at Stephan’s stand. He remembered me from my email and the translation and handed me an S2V. I tried it. He handed me another. I tried it. “This one is more resonant”. I liked it! “What about all the other numbers and crooks in your boxes?”.  A knowing shake of the head and a simple comment that we had found the right “bocal” (and the fact that I had tried nine that he had sent me in the mail) made me decided to stop messing around. I bought my first Leitzinger bocal. And never looked back? Not entirely true as I tried all sorts of Heckel crooks when I got my Heckel a few months later. But I kept coming back to the Leitzinger as when you actually sat down to play music (rather than tonking out some loud scales) I found I could do so much more on the Leitzinger. Quieter, louder, more in tune. And that statement has applied right through my crook explorations and ultimately with the bassoon exploration. More control, more in tune, easier to play yet more dynamic range (especially pianissimo) than any other bassoon I have tried.

The next development was Leitzinger bringing out his “F” series of bocals. This interested me as he talked about “extraordinary sound”. And plated with platinum. Mmm. So when I was looking for a first bassoon crook which would be a bit sharper than my S2V and with a bit more oomph this sounded like what I was after. I got a bunch more sent over in various shapes and sizes ranging from silver plate to platinum to the top crook M1F. By mean top I also mean the most expensive one! We lined them up at the bar so to speak, and sampled them one by one in the Ulster Hall with Julian Partridge at the helm blowing them one by one and me standing at the back of the hall. I had already done this in my bassoon room and recorded some excerpts but wasn’t’ completely decided as I was hopeful that a silver one might do fine. Ulster were doing Beethoven 1 that week and Julian went through the crooks (including his old Heckel C1) one by one tonking out a phrase from the first movement. One leapt out at me - I was near the back of the hall but it sounded crystal clear. “What’s that?” Julian looked… “um M1… F”.  (“Damn, that’s the expensive one” I thought). And that’s the crook I use every day still for Fag1 and chamber music. When I need to be invisible and creep around I have an S2F silver which on the Heckel is a bit like putting a mute on. Very useful! But the M1F is what sings.

The Bassoon Adventure.

When Stephan had planted the seed at 2011 Big Double Reed for me to think about playing a Leitzinger bassoon I didn’t really have much to go on. Just a few try outs at IDRS and Big Double Reed. So when Dan Emson Jukes announced he had been out to Frankfurt to buy some crooks and ended up buying a Leitzinger bassoon it was too good an opportunity to miss. I drove down to see him with my Heckel and M1F. 

The blind test:

Now the next development is where it gets intriguing and where a lot of people who have tried these bassoons in passing don’t quite connect: Dan and I did duets. We swapped instruments. We swapped crooks and experimented. And I said “hmm the Leitzinger is so lovely to play but just feels under powered compared to my bassoon”. Then came the blind test. I went upstairs and Dan played both instruments one after the other. Same phrase from a Danzi quintet. First one - lovely rich sound. “Ah my Heckel” I thought. Second one - quieter, still a lovely sound but somehow not as present and not as juicy. “Mmm. The Leitzinger”.  Off I trot downstairs to confirm my suspicions. Wrong. 100% wrong way round! The second one was my instrument. I did the same test on Dan and his flautist wife Jemma who had been through all this in Frankfurt but still had the stable idea that the Heckel was going to be louder with more projection. They also got it wrong. The Leitzinger was just more flexible and actually from a distance capable of more SOUND. Not necessarily sounding LOUD but just “more sound”. And that’s the story that comes up again and again when you get in the hall and play on these instruments.

And so I placed an order. A proper order this time and not “yes that would be nice”. The wait began and then a few weeks ago the email arrived inviting me to Frankfurt in May.

The Trip:

Last weekend was quite a trip in bassoon terms! Arriving at Frankfurt airport having come off the early flight and been on an early flight from Belfast to London the morning before wasn't exactly my idea of a rest. And I knew I would be on the early flight back Monday morning to teach at the City of London Boys school.

Frankfurt - a modern city.

I was picked up from the station by Stephan Leitzinger and soon arrived at HQ. Arriving at The Leitzinger workshop I was greeted by two heart warming sights. Firstly my new bassoon!

And then as I was tired and hungry Stephan's wife Martina brought up a snack with some fantastic cheeses!

My day with Stephan Leitzinger was an exploration - could I play this new instrument or not? Reeds, some Weissenborn studies, some excerpts... all seemed to work. It also involved finding two matching crooks for the bassoon, some small adjustments to key work for my huge hands, lots of questions from me, lots of laughter and stories from both of us and Stephan back and forth from his workshop.

During the day Stephan also did some adjustments to Alex's Leitzinger that I had brought with me.  I took hers with me even though this meant I would have to bring TWO Leitzingers back on the plane. And thanks to BA this was no problem.

The parking "pod" back to the car park at Terminal 5 - where I was stuck for 20 minutes - the only breakdown in technology all weekend! Still, my two friends seemed unperturbed.

A day in London teaching and trying out my new bassoon and I was back on a plane to Belfast. The added bonus was that with a Verdi Requiem on the programme meant Alex was also coming out so we got to have TWO Leitzingers in the section. Alex was able to add her many years (well weeks actually) of experience to my “oh what about this note and that note and this fingering” which was a great help. As we were fag3 and 4 it was great to find out how easy it was to play the quiet low passages ppp and in tune!

Leitzinger twins play Verdi

On Monday morning after the weekend of two Verdi performances  I was in the Ulster Hall for rehearsals on the next programme.  Julian Partridge (Ulster Orchestra member for the last ten years and very happy camper on his Leitzinger M1N crook on his old and lovely Fox 201) picked up my new Leitzinger and started blowing.

 I wandered off the stage and it sounded great. But then I started to walk back down the hall. It still sounded great and in fact sounded the SAME. I have done this many times as he has blown on his Fox  and there is a point where most bassoons just gets a bit lost.  I didn't have a chance to hear it without some violins practising and a clarinet and horn as well all twiddling through bits that we were about to play. But there it was  - the bassoon sound. Not LOUD. Just lots of SOUND. Big fat German sound but not heavy. Just singing. It carried all the way to the back of the hall. Which was interesting to me as it confirmed what I had heard when comparing my bassoon to Dan's Leitzinger earlier in the year and what other players had said. In fact the feedback on these instruments from conductors and string players is what makes your bassoon ears stand up and flap in the wind! 

That's probably enough information for one night but not without four final bullet points:

  1. The Leitzinger bassoons seem quite happy on simple fingerings. In fact adding keys as I did all over the place  on my old bassoon isn’t needed and interestingly doesn’t change the pitch of many of these notes - just the colour. They play well with just simple Eb, simple tenor fingerings that just work and an even scale. The hardest thing is learning to just blow and NOT compensate when years of muscle memory tries to intervene.
  2. They don’t seem to play sharp. I was expecting the instrument to play very sharp for UK and I still have no idea how the continental players get to 444 on a number 1 crook. With the same crook and reed my old bassoon is sharper.
  3. The sound character is very dark and they seem very comfortable on a reed that on other instruments would dip on E and C sharp and generally be a nightmare. In fact I went through ten reeds with my old instrument and eight of them dipped and only two were good. I then went through all ten and they ALL worked on the Leitzinger. Other players have commented on this and the fact that they can play on lighter reeds.
  4. The instruments seem to be quite  chameleon. Alex commented that since getting her Leitzinger she has played in many different situations and found she could blend well - one with a modern Heckel, another with Puchner and another with a Moosmann as well as in her regular trio 
So all in all a very memorable week in Leitzinger land! If you have any questions email me or contact me via my main website

Tom Hardy