Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Twelve bassoons... and pyro

Apparently, yeah, that's what Handel's Royal Fireworks Music calls for. Plus, of course, a contrabassoon. And a serpent. Or so says some tuba dissertation I downloaded, Wikipedia doesn't mention the serpent. Still, that's a lot of bassoons.

The piece itself sounds like fun. I guess 18th c audiences liked pyro just as much as modern ones. The first performance was a blast; it burned down the specially built concert hall. Here's a modern performance on period instruments, I love the tall baroque contra, and the drum line of tympani. I don't see a serpent though.

For modern pyro, here's a couple examples. Rammstein's act includes a lot of fire effects. I can't imagine trying to play under the conditions onstage: notice the sheet metal firewall in front of the keyboards, trying to protect the electronics from the heat. All that fire looks pretty dramatic, though. If you like this sort of thing, their song Rammstein puts their singer in an H.R. Geigeresque costume which also includes flamethrowers.

A more poppy example (well, euro trance perhaps) is Cascada. A little less pyro than Rammstein, and a totally different esthetic. What strikes me about both of these groups is the relentless focus on the show, on the audience's experience. They are both about telling a story, evoking an emotional response, and they use every tool at their disposal in the service of their show.

Monday, December 20, 2010

More visuals: a sonogram

Thinking about tone color gives me an opportunity to geek out. I found a spectrogram generator (here's the code, and here's Wikipedia on spectrograms), and applied it to the F scale I graphed earlier. I put the frequency axis on a log scale, so that intervals are a constant length. There's tons of things visible here, you can get a direct sense of how strong the different harmonics of each note is. The fundamentals of the low notes are quite weak compared to the harmonics. And different notes can have quite different relative harmonic strengths, note to note: this reflects the changing color of each individual note. You can see the whole and half steps going up the major scale, not just in the fundamental, but also in each harmonic. The higher harmonics look a little wonky, interval wise though. The first harmonic (the octave) is basically parallel to the fundamental, the second (a twelth above the fundamental) also looks like a scale, though not perfectly smooth steps. Eg the upper D-E step (above the staff, D4-E4, so the overtone is A5-B5) looks much wider than the harmonics below. I think this is basically a departure from harmonicity, as James Kopp has written about. For that matter, the two E4's don't line up: I guess played them at different pitches. It's processing like this that allows pitch analysis and correction software to do what it does. Looking further up in frequency, I can still trace the scale up to around the sixth harmonic or so, but it becomes harder, as the harmonics become closer together. There's also things which I wouldn't expect to be there, eg there's dim bands between the fundamental and the first harmonic on the high E-F-E. It looks to be an octave below the second harmonic, so might be some kind of weird period doubling effect. Or an artifact. The fuzzy constant bands below the fundamentals are almost certainly artifacts, they change when I change things like the sampling window (these graphs done with 4096, or about 0.1 seconds).

Another view of the same data can be gotten by plotting in 3D. Here, the changes in intensity of every note are much clearer: not only the Bb3 I caught before, but a lot of other notes as well: the G3 after crossing the break, both E4's. And not just intensity (ie volume) but also color: the fundamental and the harmonic are not changing together.

I also turned the whole thing on its side, which shows all the notes put on top of each other. There's a strong but broad peak in the range 400-700 Hz, a formant, a weaker one around 2 kHz, then a cutoff around 2.3 kHz. That first formant is why the harmonics are so strong, and the fundamentals are so weak, at least until you get up high.

And finally, Melodyne's view of it.


I flirted with the idea of making a video for the YouTube Symphony, and even went to the trouble of trying to record one of the excerpts, with enough lighting that you could almost see me. I dragged most of the lights in the house into the room where I was playing, propping them up on things, with wires everywhere. Making video is not that easy, however, if you want to do it well, beyond the minor task of actually playing well. It was fun thinking about, though, and I briefly practiced a few standard excerpts. That in itself was instructive. I mean, I've spent months slowly working my set of scales from less than 60 bpm to around 70 bpm, then Marriage of Figaro is supposed to go at 144? I tried skipping all the way there, setting the metronome to 144. Then playing one note. Two notes. Practicing two notes. Then three. In different orders. Then four. Pretty soon I could play small snatches of it at what seemed like an astonishing tempo. And you know, it sounded okay, at least to my ear. I could see how, with a lot of work, it might be possible to work the whole thing out at that tempo. And people do.

The reality is that performance is very competitive. Above a certain level, everybody is very good. The video below is from one of the finalists, and here's the link to the whole batch. All that effort to play the exact same thing as everyone else -- it seems more like a sport than an art. Every sprinter runs the same 100 m in the 100 m dash, the question is who runs the fastest. How different is deciding jobs and careers based on a few bars from the Marriage of Figaro?

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What you learn from visuals

This is another take on the F scale I posted yesterday. (Yes, it's true, I did multiple takes when trying to record a simple scale!) I didn't use it because I ran out of air, and didn't get all the way down, but I did notice something from looking at the waveform. You can see the individual notes on the waveform, as the different tonal colors and different volumes of each note produce slightly higher or lower extremes on the waveform. That I'm kind of used to, though it might not happen on some more acoustically ideal instrument (probably not a bassoon!). And on the upper E and F, you can see the tone waver, as I try to support the pitch. I'm used to hearing that too, although it's a flaw. But what really struck me was the note in the middle of the picture, the Bb coming down, which starts really small then grows big. When I first listened to the recording, I thought this note sounded fine, but it doesn't look fine on the waveform. I clearly must have backed off at the beginning, and then brought the sound back to full. And now that I've seen the problem, I can't listen to the recording without hearing it too. I wonder how often I do that: yet another technical error to watch out for. No doubt I just got some tiny minuscule amount better, but I also worry that I'll drive myself crazy if I get too picky.

2 octave f scale 2010-12-17 2nd try by TFox17

Friday, December 17, 2010


Had a lesson last night. Here's the first few licks of the Mozart concerto. I was pretty happy with it at the time, so it's probably a reasonable indicator of where I am at the moment, when I'm playing at my best.

Mozart opening 2010-12-17 by TFox17

Inspired by Betsy's post on playing high F, I dug out a recording I'd made about year ago when, suddenly, for about one day, my reed and the stars were aligned and I could play a high F. At the time (Nov 2009) I realized how out of tune the high notes were, with the high F being about a full semitone flat. What I didn't realize then, but makes me cringe now, is how terrible the intonation is on the rest of the scale. It's awful. Maybe I have improved in the past year.

3 octave F scale by TFox17


I had to record a basic F scale the way it is now, just for comparison. Recorded on the iPod, with a touch of reverb (12% Large Chamber) added in Ableton. That's a little less painful to listen to, I think.
bassoon 2 octave F scale by TFox17

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas season is over

Last night we played at the Legislature, our final concert of the Christmas season. It was a very ringy space, a marble rotunda about 5 stories high, which gave about a full quarter note of sustain after every cutoff. I kind of liked it, even if the ring was mostly trumpet, I thought it worked well for Christmas music.

In playing with the orchestra, recently I've been mostly focusing on overtones. I often have a hard time hearing myself play, with the brass right behind me and another bassoonist next to me, so I push as hard as I can, go for a bright sound, and listen to the texture, trying to find my contribution to the wash of harmonics. Even if my own sound is being lost as a unique voice in the mix (and it's hard for me to know how true that is) I'm still a part of the color of the sound, and I can place my overtones in among the overtones of every other player. Not everything is like this, obviously, but a lot of the Christmas music is pretty thickly scored. I focusing on overtones after I got back from Thanksgiving, where I'd been playing for a couple weeks entirely on my own, no ensemble at all. My first notes with the group were kind of a shock, in terms of not being able to hear myself in the way I was used to. So I started just listening to sound and color, at least in the loud parts.

And this morning, I practiced alone, the first in a few weeks of focused woodshedding before my first rehearsal on Mozart, which could be as soon as Jan 11. I'll post some recordings soon, as a check on where I'm at. Really nervous about the whole thing. I'm worried that it'll suck, or that it'll get cancelled to avoid sucking. Either way would be terrible, though of course everyone will be very nice regardless. The only solution is to do the best I can.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Louchez 8

A read-through of Louchez 8, no practice, recorded on the 4G iPod touch, positioned a few feet in front and left, face of iPod towards me (so the mic hole is away). I added Small Chamber reverb in Ableton, set to 26% wet.

Louchez 8 by TFox17

Saturday, November 20, 2010

New iPod

So I got a new iPod. My old one, a touch 2G, I've been using heavily to listen to music, and also to record lessons with the help of a thumbtack microphone. Unfortunately, I dropped it while listening to a lesson recording while putting air in my tires, and the screen cracked. A week or so later the screen stopped working entirely, for a total of about 13 months of use. What is really annoying is that it was supposed to have come free with my new laptop, but I guess I filed the rebate form late, and ended up paying full price. I traded the broken unit back to Apple in exchange for a discount on the new one, a 32G 4G, which covered some fraction of the cost of the case that I got to hopefully allow this one to last a little longer.

The new one has a camera (see the pic above) and onboard mic, so it ought to be even more convenient for recording things. To test it out, I recorded the Tchaikovsky except, you can hear it below. It could use some reverb, and the mike is too close to the bassoon (it was sitting on my music stand), but I think the sound of the recording is not too terrible. The playing, on the other hand...

T4-excerpt-2010-11-20 by TFox17

Friday, November 19, 2010

Scales, or lack thereof

Wasn't much looking forward to my lesson. The week hadn't been great, practicewise, and I blew some of my little time trying to figure out how to record a video in a reasonable way. (Turns out it's hard.) The reeds I've been playing on are getting old, and I haven't found much time to work on them, or better yet new ones. After spending some time on tone (I'm still not bright enough, I know), M said to skip the scales, because "they're always fine". Sure, they're fine because I start my practices with scales, and not so rarely that's all I get to. And I'd even bumped up the metronome mark, because he'd kind of gently suggested that I ought to. So I was left facing the study, the same study I've had for like four lessons, which probably reached its peak a couple lessons ago, and which I'd started to try to get the metronome mark up, but hadn't really finished. And I began.

Well, I got through it, with some stumbles, and without even the excuse of missing days that I'd had last week. I checked the tempo, and at least I was more or less in the ballpark of where I was aiming. Then we started going through it. By the end, I actually felt much happier, as if I wasn't playing terribly. We then went through one of my excerpts, the ones for the YT symphony audition which I'm now pretty certain I won't end up doing, and then worked on the first few phrases of the 2nd movement of Mozart. It was a nice change, and it was good to play something for which the suggestions weren't "work through this slowly, with a metronome". So I felt reasonably happy after my lesson, much more so than before I went.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lesson after absence

I did get some practices in after I got back, but it all felt very weird. Only in the past day did the reed start to feel normal, and whether that's the reed becoming accustomed to playing again, or me, I don't know. I spent most of my practice time on scales, focusing on tone and fingers. Current tempo is 16ths at quarter=63 (I got encouraged to start moving the tempo, gradually, at my last lesson two weeks ago). We spent time on the etude, and it was musically improving, though my fingers didn't know it even as well as they did at my last lesson. I brought some excepts, the repertoire for the Youtube Symphony auditions, which I have half a mind to enter even though I think I have no chance of winning. Tchaik 4, Figaro, and Sheherezade, a pretty canonical set of pieces. Oh, and Mozart for the solo. I came home from the lesson feeling pretty happy. It's not that my playing was all fine, it wasn't, but I had a good excuse, and I sounded pretty good despite the technical flaws. And M's hand has been healing, and he played a bit too, so I had some examples to work from. Not bad, as lessons go.

Joost Bosdijk's master class on excerpts vaguely related to the ones asked for:

And Stephen Paulson, talking about Scheherezade:

Sunday, November 7, 2010


The rest of my life has been taking a toll on my practicing in recent weeks. First, my early morning practice started to get cut short, so I could get to work, then it would get cut entirely. Or I'd miss my evening practice for one reason or another, leaving me with only one practice in a day. Finally, on Wednesday, the day before the Telemann performance, I missed an entire day of practicing. Terrible. I practiced during the day briefly, but it was hard to make anything work. It reminded me of unhappy memories of trying to cram practicing, starting too late to advance too much, trying to figure out how to best improve an impossible situation in too little time, on the day of or before a lesson or an important event. Not a good feeling. The show? Well, it went, probably about as well as could be expected. I put my music stand too high, and my glasses kept slipping down so I couldn't see the music. Which didn't damage things too much really. I'm currently missing about 3 days in a row, on a trip, though I did get about 10 minutes of scales in at 5 in the morning before I went to catch my plane, just to remove one of those days of zero practice. I'm slowly starting to realize what a difficult instrument this is, at least to be able to play it the way I hear it in my head.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Speed, speed, and more speed

I went looking for something to play with my wife at her piano club. After a number of false starts (no orchestral reductions, nothing that was "bassoon solo and accompaniment", nothing where all the notes were locked down so that there was nothing for her to improvise on) I found the Telemann bassoon sonata, TWV 41:f3, which I discovered perusing the repertoire reviews on Thom Zantow's site. It's baroque, so more-or-less straightforward musically, a fairly good piece (based on Thom's review and the number of transcriptions), and the piano part is just a figured bass, the 18c equivalent of a lead sheet, so she can do whatever she wants, just like the jazz stuff she mostly works on. We picked the last movement to do, a 3/8 Vivace. I was a little intimidated by the 32nd notes at first, but we can do whatever tempo we want, and I could play them reasonably cleanly at eighth=65 or so, about where I'm playing my scales. I made her a recording to practice against a little quicker than that, but I had endurance problems, so I did the repeats digitally. She complained that it was too fast, but she slowed it down with software to practice against. When we started trying to put it together a few days ago, I played it in a stately three, and eventually she decided that it had to be much faster, definitely in one. And, it almost worked for me, except the tricky bits, and the 32nd note sprung rhythms sounded very different fast, more percussive and less melodic. I wrote eighth=117 on my music, and practiced it once or twice. I thought I was ready today, and started out at a brisk tempo, but she complained about speed again. Based on her preferred speeds during her solo verses, I think we're now at about eighth=145+, or about 50 bpm for the bar. We're now about twice as fast as the recording I made that was too quick. Faster is nice in one respect: it's no longer a challenge to find a spot to breathe, since the whole verse can be done in one breath without trouble. The 32nd notes turn into something that would sound good played on a snare drum, like some kind of drum rudiment. It'd be no technical problem for a percussion player, who would just need to decide whether to play alternating hands or just let the stick bounce. And yeah, it's fast, and no, it's not clean, but it's far better than I think I would have expected, given how fast it is compared to how fast I usually take things. I think it'll be good enough, given the low standards of this recreational pianist club, and kind of exciting just due to the speed.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Lesson went okay, I guess, considering my practicing. Got some compliments on phrasing in the study, got criticized for not pushing tempos. Flip sides of the same coin, I think, and both a consequence of practicing slowly sans metronome. I'm supposed to push the tempo on the scales when "it gets boring", but I don't find a scale boring at any tempo, there's so much to think about with tone, so I better start pushing tempos regardless. Still accurate, but challenge speed as well as every other aspect of playing. And I'm never supposed to practice a scale without a metronome again.

The big news is medical -- my teacher ripped some tendons in his left hand while working on a bicycle. He can't play at all at the moment, or is stopping to speed healing, anyway. Good thing it happened after his big recital, but still scary. My first teacher once got a viral infection, which basically paralyzed half of his face. It was caught quickly, and he recovered, but still, if you're relying on your physical condition to make a living, even thinking about these things can be frightening. I sometimes have nightmares about losing a pinky, maybe in an accident, or through some weird Yakuza ritual, and I don't even rely on playing. I hope he's healing quickly and well.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Lesson tonight, and I don't think it's going to be a good one. Unfortunately, the rest of my life is severely cutting into my practice time. Hopefully it's transient, but annoying anyway. I feel like it takes something like an hour to just get reacquainted, and before that the fingers are unsmooth and imprecise, the half-hole notes crack, and it's hard to make progress. I've still gotten some practice everyday, but on Tuesday I wouldn't have had any practice at all had I not played some scales during the break. And I haven't been able to do the 2x/day thing that was working well. Ah well, consistency is key, I guess, just keep on going. But nothing is seeming easy at the moment.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A recital

M had a recital this afternoon -- Dutilleux, Saint-Saens, and the premier of a brand new sonata, written by the piano player. It was a nice show, for a small but appreciative audience heavy in the bassoon players in town. I quite liked the sonata -- it had very vocal parts at times, with a nice sound from the bassoon. The Dutilleux is not a piece that I'm familiar with, though I knew he'd been working on it (especially the high F, which is probably easier on the French bassoon it'd been written for). The Saint-Saens is a lovely piece, and he took the 2nd movement crazy fast. All in all a lot of fun, and good conversations at the reception afterward. The third orchestra in town is playing a piece that requires four bassoons, and they only have two, so I might have scored a gig later. That'll be fun if it happens.


my lesson went fine. i chose to move on from milde #5, though I had the option to spend another week "polishing it". i guess i kinda felt like i'd learned everything in a musical sense that i could, and the technique has reached a long slow plateau. doesn't mean it can't be played better, doesn't mean i can't play it better, but it does mean that i felt ready to work on the next one.

this one is #6, full of F arpeggios. i tried it kinda slow on friday, and yesterday, after almost missing a complete day of practice during a day of chaos, i forced myself to sit down and play, if only briefly, before heading to bed. wanting to take it easy, i soaked my most vibrant reed, played some relaxed scales, then took a look at #6. looked pretty easy. and i wanted to take it easy, so i played it as if it *was* easy. no metronome, since the notes were all so easy i wouldn't need to spend hours in metronomic practice, laboring to work up a few bpm, straining for every note, then struggling to calm the fingers and everything. no, it's all easy, so i could just focus on making a beautiful tone, and a beautiful line, and finding beautiful music. sure, i didn't know all the notes, since i'd just starting, but since it is so easy, they would come naturally, i wouldn't need to worry about them. if i'd goof on one, i'd run over it a few times, they are all easy, so that should take care of it, and keep the fingers from interfering with the phrase. and because it's easy, i could start thinking, right from the beginning, as to how to stretch and pull the phrases, where the dynamics should be to bring out the changes, how the articulations and leading tones can be used to outline the key notes of the phrase.

it's all a crock of course. i don't actually think it's any easier than any of the others, but this is a conscious attempt to work it up while being beautiful the entire way. no straining, no struggling, no fighting to relax the fingers and fighting to get the notes, just easy, the whole time. we'll see how it goes.

(i tried playing the mozart as if it were easy too. and maybe it helped, inside of my head anyway, although i certainly didn't hit every note.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

YouTube Symphony

YouTube did a symphony thing last year, auditions by uploaded video, putting together an international orchestra to play a newly commissioned work (I think it was anyway). Interesting process, and for schmucks like me, there was a great set of masterclasses recorded, by members of the London Symphony, which are basically all worth watching, whatever you play. They're doing it again this year, with classes for both orchestral players and improvisors. The piece is some kind of electronica-classical fusion, by Mason Bates. Here it is, with the composer playing producer/DJ on the laptop:

And I gotta say, I love the concept. I spent quite a while listening to dance oriented electronica on YouTube, when I was getting back into music. I really think there's stuff to do here. But at least on a first listen, this piece, or maybe this recording of it, doesn't work for me. Groove is maybe the word I'm looking for, to describe what might be missing. Maybe it's familiarity -- we like music we're used to, which is why making pop music hits requires a positive feedback loop of massive radio play. But I dunno. Maybe I'll try again when it's not 4am (but when better, really, to test club music?)

Or maybe it's just because a few minutes earlier I ran into Elgar's Nimrod again, in this amazing recording, a piece which I probably haven't heard since I played it in some band decades ago. And I wasn't trying to pay much attention to it, but damn, what a piece.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Room acoustics

Listening to recordings of myself, I'm struck by how much notes pop in and out, with different volumes and colors even for close notes. Most of that is me, of course, and some of it will be characteristics of the reed, as well as inherent properties of the bassoon as an instrument, but I got curious how much is controlled by the space where I'm recording. It's a basement home office, basically a small converted bedroom. Reading about recording acoustics, and generally, bigger is better, room dimensions matter, and acoustic treatment is the first place you should look to improve your recordings. I guess small rooms tend to have modes which are further apart, since the fundamental is higher. And if you get unlucky with the ratios, modes will line up, giving you a really strong response at one frequency, and much less at another. Better is many modes all together. So I found a mode calculator, and a nice discussions of room acoustics, and plugged in my room measurements.

That result is not pretty. The 250-400 Hz range is where the fundamental lies for the tenor range. And some of those joined resonances basically turn into ringing for some notes but not others.

For reference, here's a plot for a nice room, designed by plugging ideal numbers into the calculator. So that's what good looks like.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Another week, another lesson. I'm in a cramming mode right now, because I don't think I'll be able to get these practice sessions back later. Maybe you can't cram at the last minute, you have to start now. (Kind of different from cramming for an exam.) If I'm going to stand in front of a group and try to play Mozart, in just a few months time, I'd like to not suck, or at least, suck as little as possible. So I have to cram now.

So how do I practice, given the constraints of my life? Well, every day, obviously, zero exceptions, since a lost day requires days to recover before you make progress again. And multiple sessions per day are better than one giant session. Sleeps probably count more than sessions, since new neural connections are formed during sleep. My well-read wife tells me 20 minutes is enough, so if I can sneak a short nap in between the practices, that should help. And basically, I get up early, and try and do a good practice before I need to do other things, and then practice again in the evening. Mornings sometimes I'm late, and only get to scales, and sometimes the evening gets missed, for one reason or another. Scales, etude, Mozart, that's it for the moment.

Oh and reeds. The extra wear from more practicing has I think started to degenerate my reeds faster, despite the cleaner. So I did spend some time this week trying to frantically trim a reed or two closer to playability. Especially since M blamed over-closed reed for some of my sound problem, so I've been trying for a more open tip, yet controllable. Difficult. I blew most of yesterday evening fiddling with G11, lightening it up dramatically (the spine and heart had gotten out of balance with the rest, and needed reducing, since I'd done lots of previous work just shaving the sides and tip). I felt comfortable enough with it that I played it at the lesson, though. And I guess it worked well enough that M didn't feel the need to examine it, try it, or fix it.

Anyway, the scales went fine at lesson. I'd move the metronome up to 61, and have been trying for 16ths, but just played 8ths at the lesson. So maybe it's not surprising that M said they were "well-prepared". Lots of practicing, and quite often, scales is all that I get to. Hopefully it'll pay off in everything else.

Now if I could only apply the same skills to my day job. I wouldn't mind being well-prepared there too, but somehow it's not so easy.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Checkin on tone

To see if my recent activity has had any impact, I decided to rerecord XXVI, which I last looked at back in January. First time through was terrible, was probably as bad as it used to be. This is attempt #3:

XXVI-2010-10-04 by TFox17

And the old one, now copied onto Soundcloud:
XXVI-2010-01-31 by TFox17

Listening critically, I think my tone is not as much improved as I'd hoped, but maybe it's going in the right direction.

A cadenza

A YouTube commenter remarks that this style of cadenza, where the performer is quoting contemporary material, pulling bizarre stunts, and doing their damnedest to impress and entertain the audience, is actually more spiritually authentic to Mozart's era than playing anything "Classical" would be. I've no idea if that's true, but it sounds good. The main remark I can think about cadenzas, made by M, is that everyone is dogmatic, but no one agrees. So really, you can do whatever you want.

Friday, October 1, 2010

This is my favorite blog post!

Lesson went fine, I guess. No time spent on tone exercises, and not much on scales, so my sound was either okay, or hopeless. For the etude, Milde 4, I tried to really charge into it with energy, hoping that the time I've put in (has it been 3 weeks?) was enough to get me through it with some cleanness and at speed. And it wasn't clean, but it was faster than the rather relaxed tempo I'd chosen last week. After I was done, M picked apart my phrasing, intonation etc. I was able to fix things, but I noticed that I wasn't doing the fixing at the same speed as I'd played it. Then it was on to the solo work, and he didn't want to hear the opening of Mozart again, instead starting on the last passage before the development, just after the first trilly part. Which was kind of too bad, since I had spent all my time practicing the opening, and didn't have the notes under control for this part at all, especially the long squirrely bit before the big cadence and high G trill. Still, we got some good work done.

The squirrely bit starting a m. 67 (John Miller calls it the melismatic section in his master class the concerto) is nasty for me, fingerwise, and always has been, back to when I first saw it in junior high. I'd been putting off practicing it, so that I could clean up the opening. I'm reminded, though, of a blog post I read not long ago, with a piece of psychological advice for handling surprise audition excerpts: whatever they hand you, say to yourself, "This is my favorite excerpt!". Enthusiasm is contagious, and your thoughts affect you. Positive thinking is hard, especially in domains which are dominated by trying to avoid failure, so you spend your time thinking about mistakes and avoiding them. Positive thinking is hard, and needs to be practiced too, but it's absolutely essential. I think it works, too. When later, I looked at that bit while practicing, I caught myself hesitating, stopped, thought "This is my favorite part!" (the exclamation point is important), and really, it helped.

There's another school of thought which holds that the student should come to the lesson with the notes prepared, so that they can then learn the art of music at the feet of the master. I certainly thought about that, when confronted with a section of the piece that I'd explicitly *not* prepared. But I think this is wrong. I've been well convinced by a book (The Perfect Wrong Note) that musicality and vivacity is not some kind of surface glitter, that you can sprinkle on the piece at the end once the solid but dull framework of 100% perfect notes has been painstakingly constructed. No, musical life has to be there the whole time. Every scale. Every slow long tone. Every pitch exercise. Every first reading, and slow laborious woodshedding. The thing is, the musicality comes from microdetails like pitch, intensity, timing variations, inflections, and if you've practiced the notes 100 times without thinking about or trying to feel those details, you've simply locked them in wrong. So, make beautiful music, at every point, even if it's full of "mistakes". And, the thing is, learn to accept mistakes, because even later, it'll still be full of mistakes, although the number and type of mistakes may change. It'll always be full of things that could have been better. And it can still be beautiful music all the same. (Or so I'm trying to convince myself.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


As an example, here are a couple bars of Milde 4, taken from my runthrough at the beginning of my 9/23 lesson.
Milde4-9-23-lesson-excerpt17m01s(init) by TFox17

My tone in general isn't really vibrant and projecting enough. To address this, from a playing perspective, we've been working on a bunch of things like wrapping lips tight around teeth, to reduce the area of lip damping the reed, tighter lips, so the reed is held in a harder surface, lips supported by teeth (but never biting! the difference between biting and support has never been obvious to me), sometimes different things in the mouth/throat (but opening your throat seems incompatible with closing your jaw for support), and most of all and always, working on support in the air column. Not just a little bit, nor just a little bit more, but basically as much as physically possible, all the time. From a reed perspective, wider tip opening, with some thinning of tip and sides to get the stiffness down.

Here's another attempt, not yet successful, from later in the same lesson.

Milde4-9-23-lesson-excerpt25m40s(bad) by TFox17

Here's an attempt that's better:
Milde4-9-23-lesson-excerpt26m50s by TFox17
I think the key there was less pressure on reed, more open jaw. Or something, maybe I just had more air pressure.

And finally, my teacher playing the lick.
Milde4-9-23-lesson-excerpt25m05s(M) by TFox17

Tone is a really difficult subject, incorporating zillions of reputed effects, some of which may matter, or not. Googling, I found a post from a flute player, tackling some of the same kinds of questions. And a flute is much simpler, mechanically, than a bassoon, since there's no reed, it's just hard metal and player.

Flams and frailty

I've been practicing quite a bit recently. I figure that, if I can consistently get up early, I can get a session in before I need to help get the kids out the door and get to work myself, and also do a session after the kids have gone to bed, and end up with two practices a day. This is probably more effective than a single longer practice, and I don't have the minutes to spend on a single long practice anyway. Plus, if you're able to take a nap sometime, you can get the neural growth benefits of learning while sleeping. My wife, who reads the neuro literature, assures me that 20 minutes is as good as a full night, at least as far as learning is concerned.

I need the time, too. Here's advice from an anonymous Hannover grad student, forwarded to an IDRS board:

Work on sustaining your tone - LONG sustained TONES with tuner in front of you!
STOP vibrating until you have absolute control on your tone. Just so you know: vibrato is only a mean of expression, thus you use it when you decide you want to add color to a note that is important. When you decide you want to vibrate don't do it below the low F - it's ugly - think open string cello string, otherwise it sounds like a 72 year old baritone singer! Later on after you fixed your problems and get a solid tone, don't vibrate all the time, it's like not vibrating at all. Less is more this time. Do vibrato exercises for 6 months - 1 year, without actually vibrating in your playing! Don't use your vibrato randomly, or to hide your pitch flaws.

NO VIBRATO! I promise things will be better. PATIENCE! and lots of practice!

4 hrs of practice a day MINIMUM! STANDING! I am very serious...any respectable future artist/bassoonist should be beyond comfortable doing that. It will improve everything!

Aprox. 2 Hr of "warm up":
1.long tones from low b flat, nice round resonant, full, singing tone ( not ff) to the highest note you possibly can, and back - same even nice round tone ALWAYS. Try to have a firm embouchure, but not squeeze. Just let the air flow!!! Don't be scared!

2.Stacatto on the same note from low F to the highest note in 16th notes , equal, 8 beats each note. Start at a lower tempo. quarter note 116...and try to achieve a goal of lets say 140. lol

3. Trills, half and whole step...on all fingers...start slow and controlled! in mf-f.

4.SCALES: control so its sounds like a piano...THAT exact. in 8th notes and then 16th notes, legato, stacato, two slurred two tongues, slur every 2 16th notes, and then move the slur one 16th note. This is the msot important part of your routine for even fingers. See that you always have a nice, round even tone. The problem is the sound dying in the tenor register.
-different patterns in slow 16th WITH METRONOME ALWAYS! But you have to also do them in THIRDS, FOURTHS and ARPEGGIOS
- different articulation. First slow, controled and then increase speed over time.
DO THEM EVERY DAY! not every other day, not three times a week ..and so on! Practice with the metronome marking at the highest where you can play everything even, clean and clear!!!! so as low as quarter note 60...or less! The point is NOT speed, but accuracy!

Start with Weissenborn, then Milde! JUST those two will be great for now.
ALWAYS - very important - be careful at every tie, every link note to crack, no pop, no hiss, no weird percussive sound. When you tongue it should always be clear, but not hard! Listen to lots of singers, opera how they phrase...good ones: Pavarotti, Domingo, try to be as smooth as them, listen to Dag play, Azzolini, Thunemann!
Try to also work on your imagination in playing, make a plan.

Not only will make you better, but it will make you GREAT! But it will ONLY make you as great as you are willing to REALLY be picky about the accuracy of them! All of this I am telling you is pointless if you are not REALLY picky! Don't let anything slide, everything clean and perfect!

A little advice: I hope you are serious about this...otherwise you might think of an alternative career. It is really hard to make it as a good bassoonist, there are plenty of good bassoonists. But if you really love it and are COMPLETELY dedicated to music and bassoon then go for it, you are made for it. But it is all up to you. Remember: when YOU don't practice, SOMEONE else is! Ok? But this has to be an EVERY DAY thing, otherwise you're wasting YOUR time and resources.

ALL has to be done STANDING up. Lessons, practice, not ensembles of course!
Try investing in a Heckel Bocal: CC2 or CC1. Those are the best. I use on, Dag uses one, and every other good bassoonist uses one! Call to try some. I know they're expensive, but if you ever decide to sell them, they're easy to sell! It will make ALL the difference in the world!

Practice with the metronome marking at the highest where you can play everything even, clean and clear!!!! so as low as quarter note 60...or less! The point is NOT speed, but accuracy!

ALWAYS play on good reeds!

Forget about solo/orchestral suff for 6 months! Ok? Because you have a whole lifetime to play those. But if you don't get the fundamentals right, you're screwed..bad habits that will haunt you and you will have problems all your life with. So, 6 months doesn't seem that bad, eh?

I spend a lot of time on the scales. More than M says I should, really. But I'd really like to be clean, and my ear is well tuned to hear all the junk between notes. Sometimes I spend time practicing flams. Based on a drum flam, I'll take a note transition, say B to D above the staff (B3 to D4) and intentionally play it wrong, moving first one of my fingers before the other, then again reversed. This allows me to hear what the various inaccuracies sound like, and then identify what kind of mistake I'm making when I try to play it clean. The point between at which the note is clean is often surprising to me. It's astonishingly difficult to be as precise as the ear can hear: temporal resolution in hearing goes down to 10's of microseconds, JASA 113:2790, a time difference that can't even be represented in CD quality audio, since it's at ~100kHz. Note transitions are orders of magnitude slower than that, of course, I'd guess maybe 10-100 milliseconds, but it still demonstrates that there's tons of time for beautiful, or less than beautiful, music in between the notes. So, thinking about note transitions, plus relaxing my hands (especially pinkies) while blowing hard enough to make beautiful tone, for every note in the scale... and just my scales take me quite a while.

As a result of this unaccustomed practice regimen, I've started to experience a variety of physical symptoms. I had abdominal soreness one day last week for a day, doubtless a sign of increasing muscle use. A few days ago I spent a day with my lips feeling sore and perhaps somewhat inflamed. I've abraded enough skin from my lips to make me worry about what it would cost, in terms of practice, to actually develop a cut. And I've had some jaw muscle pain, which makes me wonder if I'm clenching, either while playing or during the rest of my life. I also have some thumb joint pain occasionally, particular in the left thumb, but as I focus on keeping every finger curved and relaxed at every moment while I'm playing, and keeping the motions small and from the largest joint possible, I hope these spontaneously resolve. Avoiding pain is probably important, Stephen Caplan has an article re training for double reed players to avoid pain, and I recall long sections about running injuries in The Lore of Running devoted to diagnosing and correcting the problems without stopping running.

Is this level of investment sustainable, long term? Or even necessary, long term? Probably not, and I've already started to get some pushback. But I'm hoping that there are skills that once acquired don't require multiple hours a day to sustain. After all, I'm an amateur, but I'd like to be able to make the horn play.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Mozart, with orchestra

I play in a modest community orchestra. Is it the best orchestra in town? No, but it was the most enthusiastic when it heard that I was a bassoonist looking for a place to play, a year ago when I'd just picked up my horn again. Last season, our conductor programmed a movement of Mozart's flute concerto, starring our flutist and my friend R. I guess he liked it, because at the end-of-season party in the spring he chatted with me about doing solo repertoire again, this time with bassoon. I tried to sound as enthusiastic as I could without immediately committing, since, well, it's not actually all that easy a piece. And I'm still in the beginning stages of coming back. Nevertheless I practiced over the summer. And started lessons, one of the main purposes of which was to help prepare, and evaluate whether doing it was reasonable. I explained the situation at my first lesson, and the response was, "Sure, no problem, you have lots of time." Of course, that was before he'd worked with me much. At my last lesson, M said something like "Maybe you could work on the piece this year, then get it programmed for next year. Sometimes hard problems disappear after a break like that." But I'd never really given a definitive answer, and still spent most of my practice time trying to play scales cleanly at moderate tempos, and work up my etude.

This evening was the first rehearsal with our conductor back (he'd missed the first rehearsal of the year). I wasn't looking forward to it, since I was of mixed mind. On the one hand, I don't want to suck. When R played the flute concerto, I thought, wow, I'd love to do that, and in a couple years maybe I'll be ready. It's a life-long dream, really, playing a solo piece in front of an orchestra. When I was in high school, playing in the orchestra, I had no idea how it ever happened that one might get put in front. And a couple years after I left, my teacher had another student at the same school who did play a concerto movement with the orchestra. That was Vance Lee, who later became a pro with the Hong Kong Phil. I was so jealous. So life-long dream, never thought it would happen. I once read an article about a business magnate whose dream was to conduct some symphony. Being rich, he hired a major orchestra to play under his baton. Win-win, really: he gets to realize the dream, without having to both devote his life to music plus win the conductor lottery; and the orchestra got a donation of I think it was $250k, back when that was real money. He was, according to the orchestra members interviewed in the article, apparently quite good: he really knew the music, came in with the score memorized, and was technically able to conduct the group. So that was one way I could imagine to become a soloist: get rich, then buy it. But now the opportunity has come, but I'm not ready. And maybe can't be ready in time.

On the other hand, the future is uncertain. My original imagined timeline gave me another year. Heck, M's comment at last lesson was about another year. But I don't know if I'll even be living here a year from now. If I'll have a job. If I'll still be able to spend lots of time practicing bassoon. If my conductor will still be leading that orchestra, and if he'll still have lost leave of his senses, and want me to play the solo. So many uncertainties. Maybe I'd rather do it badly than not do it at all? And the opportunity may come only once per lifetime.

So yeah, of mixed mind, and realizing that I'd have to talk to him about it. At rehearsal tonight, he gave a short speech to the orchestra talking about the season, and talked about programming solo work in a vague way, but mentioning using "someone in the winds, maybe a bassoon" (looking at me) but also leaving himself room to schedule some vocalist, and alternate years with internal and external soloists. At break I went to talk to him, told him I'd been practicing, and started lessons, but there was a lot of work to be done, but the future is uncertain, and I'd rather do it badly than not do it at all. Which he basically took as a Yes not the Maybe I Hope So But I'm Not Certain I'll Be Ready This Year that I think I'd intended. He said, everyone could always be more ready. He said, Thanks, you've taken a load off my mind. So that's it, it looks like I'm committed. Mozart Bassoon Concerto, Kv191, first movement, this spring. Me. Standing in front of an orchestra. Assuming, of course, it's not a total disaster. Easy for the guy waving the baton to say it'll be fine, I'm the guy struggling to play scales cleanly at 60 bpm. A total disaster is possible, of course, in which case I think we'd take it off the concert and play something else, we've done that before.

And oh yeah, I ended up volunteering to serve on the executive. I didn't really want to, but what goes around comes around.

On not flicking

The octave keys, or flick keys, are unique to the bassoon. There are octave keys on other instruments, of course, but they are part of the fingering, held down for the entire duration of the note. On the bassoon, the key is used only when initiating the note, to prevent a split attack, a brief multiphonic when tonguing, then released to avoid affecting the tone of the held note. They aren't necessary on most slurs, just tongued attacks. Also, there are three of them: one for A, one for Bb, B, and C, and one for D. Or that's the theory, anyway. Many students learn simplified fingerings which ignore these, and then must later learn, with great difficulty, to add them in order to advance. Some schools of playing ignore them entirely, accepting the split attack as part of the color of the sound. Then, there's how I first learned, when I was about 13. My teacher taught them as part of the fingering: that's how you play those notes, with those keys held down. His idea was that it would be easier later learn to release them after the attack, than learn to add them later. And its true, it's deeply ingrained for me, when I go to play one of those notes, my thumb goes to the key. My first bassoon didn't have a D key, so when I got one with a D, I had to learn to use it. It's still not as natural as the others, but I'm pretty good about getting it down.

Of course, now I have two problems. One is using them when it's not necessary. Slurred scales, I'm still going to those keys, even when there's no possibility of a split. This is a problem because it's wasted motion, and reduces fluency, as well as messing with the tone and intonation of the note. And getting off them quickly enough: to avoid the split, you just need to crack the hole open momentarily at the right moment, and then the rest of the note is unaffected. By default I'm jamming the key down, then start to think about releasing it. There's also risk: there are some nasty squeals hidden in a careless brush across the wrong key at the wrong moment. So I use those keys more often than absolutely required, and hold them down too long.

This comes up from the Mozart, the opening notes to the first trill section, which has a sixteenth-note D4 on the main first downbeat. I'm struggling with fingering this note anyway, since I've added the Eb vent to the fingering. But I'm pretty good these days at flicking it... good, right? No: M noted that at that speed, the D key is down for probably half the note, screwing up more than 50% of a rather important (but fast) note, and that D doesn't split anyway. I tried, and it's true: no multiphonic, even with no key. *sigh* So now I have to relearn again, learn to *not* flick my D's.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Had a lesson yesterday. It sucked. I mean, I guess I wasn't expecting much, coming just a few days after having a week off, and I also missed practicing Wed evening entirely (though I had gotten a few minutes in the morning), but still, it sucked. Lack of confidence didn't help, so I experienced the "I played this better when I was practicing" sensation, but that's connected to practice, too. There's a confidence that comes from preparation, you know more or less how it will go. Knowing that you're badly prepared, on the other hand, can wreck your ability to even fake your way through something even to the level that you're at. Better to be well prepared, or to at least feel like you're as prepared as you can be, given your constraints. All psychology I guess, beyond the obvious (more practicing).

That, and the recording I tried to make cut out after the first few minutes.

So, what'd we do. Spent time on tone, playing just C3, the C in the staff. He took my reed, G11 I think?, and opened it up, to brighten the sound, then shaved lots off sides and tip to reduce the strength. An improvement, but then it felt sufficiently different when playing to be yet another distraction. Part of the process, though: gotta be able to play a forte, gotta be bright enough to be heard, and have to do whatever it takes to make that possible.

Scales. I currently play my set of scales as 16ths, quarter note a little under 60 bpm. I'd calculated how fast I'd need to move this up to play at say 120 in a year, improving on a log scale, and it starts about 1 bpm per week. So I'd moved up to 60, since the schedule says I need to be at 61 by the end of September. Whether 120 is a reasonable goal is totally debatable: the ABRSM starts at quarter-note=50 at Grade 1, and goes to 132 at Grade 8, but doesn't seem to specify whether the scale is 16ths, 8ths, or what. I'm guessing 8ths. Range is up to D5, slurred, legato tongued and staccato, major, melodic and harmonic minor, plus thirds (F, G only), chromatic and whole tone, and triad, dominant seventh, and diminished seventh arpeggios. I could do all that slowly now, I think. Barrick Stees does specify speeds, and starts at 60, ends at 120, over the whole range of the instrument up to about a high E (E5). That's college-level, for performance majors who presumably have more time to practice than I do, and four years to get through it anyway. Still, 120 is maybe a reasonable ultimate goal, even if the time frame is unreasonable. That said, M listened to my scales (done worse in lesson than at home), and suggested: 1) dropping the speed by a factor of two or so; eights or quarters and 2) focusing on how far my fingers move. So explicitly practicing the range of finger motion. He hasn't complained about that in awhile, but he definitely complained at my first lesson, when again I think I was nervous. I seem to recall my old teacher advocating that fingers would naturally come closer to the instrument as speeds increased, but maybe the direction of causality is reversed. So now, when I practice, I just need to think about 1) new fingerings 2) totally unfamiliar embouchure 3) very different air support 4) exactly how far I'm moving my fingers, while of course 5) relaxing completely at all times. Easy, huh.

We spent some time on the etude (Milde scale study 4, which I tried to take slowly, but played terribly anyway) and Mozart, but I've mostly forgotten what was said. And I have no recording.

I did practice this morning, since I probably won't get to tonight. Spent it all playing a C major scale. *sigh*

Monday, September 13, 2010

A week off

An unexpected trip to spend time with my parents, and now I'm trying to recover from a week away from the horn. After a couple of days it starts to come back, but the process is painful.

Starting to think a bit about anatomy of the lips: I'm just curious what the names of the muscles are that I'm trying to train. I'm trying to develop the lips-curled-around-the-teeth thing that M advocates, rather than the just-slap-the-lips-on-the-reed-and-blow thing that I seem to do naturally. There are, unfortunately, a lot of them, and it's not so easy to figure out which ones are controlling the process, and how. Doesn't matter, anyway, you learn faster by listening and trying things.

Did realize on interesting thing, while trying to clean up some flips and junk between notes, working on Milde 4. Going between a B2 and D#3 (ie B to D# in the bass staff), I still had some junk, even when very slowly and precisely moving all fingers simultaneously. But simultaneous movement is, I now realize, wrong: you want the *holes* to change simultaneously. But the Bb key starts to open its holes as soon as you touch the key, whereas opening a hole with a finger may take more motion before it's open, and closing a hole requires completion of the motion. So cleanness requires synchronization of all the mechanical delays to get the pitch to shift cleanly. Nothing for it but more practice, I guess, and focusing on those note transitions.

Another aspect is that, as you speed up, the junk between the notes occupies more of the total time of the note. So you have to be really clean in order to play fast clean. I guess this is why everyone says to practice slowly to play fast. Still, I hope I do end up getting faster at some point.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

An electric trumpet setup

Here's another complex audio/electronic setup. Ben Neill's "mutantrumpet", which has 3 bells, two sets of valves, midi controllers, 3 laptops, controlling video and audio. I'm particularly interested in the pickup and the pitch-to-midi converter, seeing as I bought a Little Jake a few weeks ago and am still working on getting it fully up and functional. He describes the sound coming from the leadpipe mic as being "like you're inside the instrument", and doesn't use it for audio, rather just for pitch, from which I'd gather that the sound isn't that nice/useful, at least as compared to a bell mic, which he also has.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Weekly goals

Weekly lessons are going to be tough. It's now fall, so schedules will be more regular, so I'll miss fewer lessons due to mismatches, and will need to be prepared on a weekly basis for whatever I'm presenting that week. This isn't very many practice sessions to develop and learn whatever major concepts or changes I need to do based on the previous lesson. So maybe being specific week-to-week will help.

This week, my goal is to not spend a week slowly ramping up the metronome, then get stopped after the first note to talk tone for half the lesson. So relaxation, embouchure, air, throat, conception of tone and hearing the goal before playing. Probably this means everything slower than I'd like, *sigh*, but maybe the sound will be better.

Started working reeds again. Threw a couple away without much work, which is a milestone. I had better blanks on which to spend my time, and I guess I've learned that construction problems can't really be fixed. G9 was one, it felt giant, I guess it was one of my wide experiments. XX was the other, the cane slipped at the shoulder. Currently fighting Nxx, trying to get it acceptably soft without killing E3. At the moment it's both tubby and too hard, which seems like a contradiction, but there it is.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Embouchure and relaxation

Played Milde 3. Went a little better than I was expecting, but since I was expecting pretty terrible, that's not saying much. M then complained about my tone, and we spent 10-15 minutes working on the first note, G3. I guess my worry about the notes turned into tension, which turned into bad tone. So I spent that time in relaxation and breathing exercises. I have a hard time believing that tension, say in my shoulders, can affect the tone directly; after all, how much are my shoulders vibrating? But I guess everything is connected. And the way that the air moves matters. I know that the oral cavity has an impact, and can consciously arch my soft palate and open my throat, but this is an intentional tensing of certain muscles, not a relaxed state. So it's all a little confusing, if you think too hard about it. The right approach is to have a conception of the sound in your head *before* you play, and then everything comes naturally.

We also spent time, yet again, on my embouchure. Wrapped around teeth, thin, to dampen the vibrations as little as possible. If I take a "natural" position, just put my lips on the reed, I get the fleshy red part of the lip, which is wrong; I need to have them drawn in further, so that the outer edge, where the skin begins, is just touching the reed. I can do it if I'm thinking about it, but that's kind of the problem; if I'm struggling to play something it'll slip and return to the incorrect posture. I should really record my lessons, to see if I can hear all these changes on tape. I think the overall effect is positive, but it goes away the further off the lesson becomes. I guess that's why lessons are recurring.

What else. Started playing Mozart. Lots to learn there. And oh yeah, Milde 3 got reassigned, so I'll have another shot in a week.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A bad job on Louchez 7

Was feeling a little frustrated at the lack of progress on my project to record all the Louchez studies, so I turned on the mic for #7. At first it was a total disaster, but after a number of runs, I got one that was merely terrible. I've posted it below. It's frustrating, because it's a pretty piece, but I'm not able to take it quickly enough to give it a light, 6/8 allegretto air, plus all the goofs (and worse yet, the *fear* of goofs) make it feel stodgy. So it sucks. Maybe it's the best I can do, right now today? Fine, whatever, but why should that affect how the listener hears it? It's either effective and works, or it's not.

Louchez7 by TFox17

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lesson notes

So let's see. Played some of my scales. We talked about tone in the upper register, and tried to fix my embouchure again. Apparently I tend to press straight down with the lips, rather than having lips wrapped around teeth, and just placed against the reed to seal, basically without pressing. This lets the reed vibrate as much as possible, like a cymbal, which is damped by something soft like a finger, but can ring and ring when placed against something hard. And we changed one of my fingerings back, B4, putting back the Eb vent that we removed a few weeks ago, trying to get the pitch correct when doing D minor scale. So that'll be some weeks of practice to work through. I'm still not totally comfortable with the other fingering changes, in particular adding the Eb vent on D3 and D#3, so there's plenty to work on. We added one more scale, Bb, plus its relative (melodic) minor and arpeggios.

We spent a good deal of time on Milde 2, which I knew reasonably well since it's been three weeks. Stuff I learned: the bottom notes of the arpeggios should be treated like a cello, which would let them ring on a low string while completing the notes on another. We can't do that exactly, but with a certain amount of weight and lengthening of note (but not accent) you can kind of give that effect. Pay attention to where the cadences are: the line needs to resolve, and the big note is the first note of the bar ending the cadence, not the top of the run which leads from it.

Spend some time on Elgar too. I played all the way through it without stopping, and with little in the way of clams; it's mostly not that hard. The runs I'm to practice v.e.r.y.s.l.o.w.l.y, I guess my faking wasn't clean enough. Still lots of detailed phrasing that I don't get until after it's been freshly demonstrated; it'll be work to internalize it. The fortes need to really open up, open throat, tight embouchure, breath support. Marlon Brando shouting "Stella!" at one point (C?), a reference I don't get, but I guess I could google it. I'm starting to feel like this piece is approaching an equilibrium, not there yet, but getting there. Some parts make no sense without the piano, hope to get that sorted out some time.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tables of scales

I find combinatorial categorization almost pathogically compelling, so I couldn't resist pushing a little further about scales and tetrachords. I made a table with every tetrachord I've run across, picked abbreviations for them, and included synonyms from Arabic (Maqam) and Turkish (Makam) traditions, then tried to lay out as many scales as I could in terms of those tetrachords. For the scales, I looked at the seven modes of each of several source scales (major, melodic minor, harmonic minor, harmonic major, and double harmonic), including the fancy mode names and synonyms where I could find them (mostly from Wikipedia, especially the modes article).

Finally, I made tables of what scales get produced by combining tetrachords. Here we can see the names that get attached to all the combinations, and also all the blank spots on the map, scales we can play that have no name.

I had to draw some limits. I ignore the microtonal tetrachords, limiting myself to scales that can be played on an ordinary Western instrument. I had to include several tetrachords that don't give a perfect fourth: the Lydian tetrachords, which fill a tritone, and the diminished tetrachord, but I didn't write down every permutation or rotation of intervals to invent new tetrachords, I just included the ones I found reference to. I'll leave it to someone else to figure out why Lydian #2, m3-s-T, is in the canon, but the just-as-reasonable-looking m3-T-s is not. The perfect fourth tetrachords can be combined arbitrarily into scales making an octave, separated by a tone, but we need to do something different for the non-perfect ones. Either we need to combine a Lydian (tritone) tetra with a diminished, separated by a tone; or we need to put a Lydian with a perfect and separate by a semitone. Similarly, there's a couple places where an augmented second joins the two.

I also skipped some important scales. The major and minor pentatonic scales, and the related blues scale, an elaboration of the minor pentatonic, don't fit easily into a tetrachord concept, both because they have the wrong number of notes (all the above scales are heptatonic, ie have 7 notes) and because they don't have a fourth. I'll skip the bebop scales, despite their awesome names (A Doriolian ♭5? B altered quintal?) for a similar reason: they are octatonic, basically inserting a passing note into another scale. You can of course outline four note patterns in these, but it's hard to see the scale as being constructed of them. Or maybe I'm just lazy.

At some point, of course, this kind of exercise becomes silly: mapping out and analyzing parts of harmonic space which are unused, not because they are great new territories for invention and creativity which you and you alone have realized, but rather because they suck. The world's cultures have been making music for a long time, and if a scale is undiscovered, there's likely to be a good reason for that. Still, it's kind of fun to try and get a global picture of the possibilities, patterned after the scales we are used to.

Oh, yeah, the table is here, done up as a spreadsheet so it's easy for me to fix.

Refs: Wikipedia,, various jazz harmony books,

Added: Another mammoth list of modes is here, 1200 of them, part of the astonishing microtonal scale analysis and construction program Scala. It's written in Ada, and has a 9/11 Truth icon at the end, just in case you need additional evidence that the author is looney, but really, I think that list of scales should be sufficient.

Monday, August 9, 2010


So I sat down at the keyboard, deciding that I would figure out major and minor scales, and what triads they contained at each position, and got lost just in the major scale. See, the whole TTsTTTs thing always bothered me -- so asymmetric. Why two tones, then a semitone, followed by three... never made sense. Why not the other way around, or some other pattern. And the whole layout of the piano keyboard contains this pattern. The structure of the major scale is built into the interface. It's mathematically unpleasing, which is one of the reasons why, when extending my interval practice into scales and arpeggios, I often stuck to the totally symmetric ones, built entirely from a single interval: chromatic, whole tone, dim7, augmented.

While diddling, I remembered reading a claim that the scale is in fact symmetric, being built from two identical four-note tetrachords, each consisting of a perfect fourth divided as TTs. That claim confused me at the time, too, since it's clearly not symmetric. Still, it kinda is, since you've got the same note pattern in each half (approximately half, anyway) of the octave, separated by a whole step.

So what happens if you start minor, eg C-D-Eb-F, ie TsT? Does repeating that in the upper half give you one of the minor scales? Well no. You get a Dorian mode, which has a minor feel, from the flatted third, but is not one of the classical ones (natural, harmonic, or melodic). To get melodic minor (going up melodic, TsTTTTs, sometimes called jazz minor if you're planning on playing the same notes going down) you put the major tetrachord on the top, TTs, since those notes are the same as the major scale. Fine, so different scales can get built by combining different tetrachords. That's kind of interesting, since we can therefore use the tetrachords as an organizing concept to relate different scales which have parts which sound the same. To build a natural minor, we use the last tetrachord, sTT, on the top. If you build a scale from two of those, you get the Phyrgian mode, C-Db-Eb-F G-Ab-Bb-C. I guess it's almost obvious that building a scale from two of the same of any these tetrachords (what wikipedia calls diatonic tetrachords, and names the three Lydian, Dorian, and Phrygian) has to give you a mode of the major scale, since the semitones are the same distance apart. But there are only three of them anyway. I suspect pianists learn those shapes, and use those patterns in playing.

The asymmetry of the major scale comes from placing the upper tetrachord a whole step above the lower tetrachord, but not vice versa. So we can distinguish upper and lower. This is not the only choice, and other choices give us other scales. Each tetrachord covers a fourth, so to make a complete octave, we need to add a total of two semitones. We can put them both between lower and upper, giving the major scale, so that the last note of the upper tetrachord, C, is the same as the first note of the lower tetrachord; or both after the upper tetrachord, so that the last note of the lower tetrachord, F, is the first note of the upper tetrachord, giving us the Lydian mode. Conceivably we could divide them equally, with a semitone between lower and upper, and another between upper and lower. This gives the eight note scale, C-D-E-F-F#-G#-A#-B-C, a scale for which I don't know a name. It sounds kinda like a whole tone scale, but with passing tones inserted. Like the whole tone scale, it is symmetrical, or at least, more symmetrical than the major scale. Might be worth looking at what scales are generated by those choices for the other tetrachords.

We could also symmetrize by not demanding we end up with an octave. You lose the idea of the scale as a closed circle, but maybe it could work anyway. Without adding any gaps, just extending the TTs (Lydian) tetrachord, two fourths make a m7, and you start moving through the circle of fifths as you go up the scale, every part sounding kind of in a major key, but mutating as you go: C-D-E-F, F-G-A-Bb, Bb-C-D-Eb, and so on. Or if you put a whole step between both upper and lower, you get something similar, but moving up by fifths instead of by fourths: C-D-E-F, G-A-B-C, D-E-F#-G, A-B-C#-D, ...

You might have noticed I skipped harmonic minor. It's that minor third, which doesn't occur in any permutation of TTs. Wikipedia puts this into a separate class of tetrachords, calling it chromatic, with two semitones and a minor 3rd. Lots more scales can come out of here no doubt, and almost certainly as well from another class of tetrachord that I wouldn't have thought of, because you can't play it on a piano: major 3rd, quartertone, quartertone.

Finally, why a fourth? This, at least, I have a good answer for. It's the smallest perfect interval, and the perfect intervals are unique, not because they have simple integer ratios of frequencies (though they do), and not because we call them a special name (though we do), but rather because it is for perfect intervals alone that we have hardware in our brains to measure. Perfect intervals are innate, all other intervals are learned and cultural. And the fourth is the smallest one.

So I didn't figure out major and minor, but I did manage to clear up a longstanding confusion of mine over the symmetries, and lack thereof, of the basic major scale. Seems like enough for an evening.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Little Jake pickup test

So I picked up one of Trent Jacob's Little Jake pickups. After some trouble with the installation (a DIY job, and let me tell you, I didn't try it on one of my good bocals), I'm now playing with it. You're supposed to use it with a preamp, either a custom or something like the LR Baggs Gigpro. I'm putting it straight into the input of my audio interface, an M-Audio FastTrack Pro. It needs a fair bit of gain to get an acceptable signal level, but the FastTrack preamp is kinda noisy at very high gain, so I'm thinking about getting a proper preamp. Here's a short sample, first recorded with the Little Jake, next recorded in parallel with a decent quality (but rather old) dynamic mic, an AT802.

Little Jake Test by TFox17
Little Jake Test Control by TFox17

A couple of things to point out: the Little Jake does a very good job of rejecting outside noise. It won't feedback, if you're using it to drive a loud amplifier in the same room. When I've played against a delay, or self-recordings with a mic, it was always a struggle to get the signal through amp loud enough that I could hear it while playing while also avoiding feedback. Even without feedback, there's still effects, such as some uncontrolled reverb from the signal leakage. So that's the primary purpose of using a pickup, is to avoid stuff like that. You get side benefits too. Key clacks are gone, for instance, and ambient noise in the room is gone too. The only thing you're getting is the sound actually inside the bassoon. Of course, external sounds can propagate to the inside of the bassoon too, but the bassoon sound is so much louder there, that they are swamped out. It's a signal to noise thing, kind of the ultimate version of close miking. It's not perfect: I was recording while playing a metronome through headphones, adjusted rather too loud (don't ask), and I could end up making out a bit of the metronome sound in the Little Jake recording.

The tone color, however, seems quite different from the far field mike recording. Not a big deal, I think, since mostly people use this as a starting point for effects, as opposed to looking for a true bassoon sound. Still, interesting.

Updated: For reference, as a comparison of microphone differences, here's my other microphone, an AT2020 condenser mic, against the 802. They've been normalized, to try and get their volumes equal, but are otherwise unprocessed. Mic location is bell height, about 5 ft in front of the bassoon, a few feet in front of the wall, with the mics both facing forward, and within a few inches of each other. When I did this yesterday I was surprised at how different they sounded, but today I'm surprised at how similar they are. Certainly there's a lot of things the AT2020 hears that seem to be gone in the 802, but I seem to need the nice headphones to hear them (the laptop speakers aren't enough), and they all seem to be things I'd rather not hear anyway (breathy noises, that kind of thing).

AT2020 Test by TFox17
AT802-Test by TFox17

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Scales inside of scales

When I started playing again, I didn't want to be locked into my existing limited models, notes off the page, all major scales, plus the occasional foray into the three minors they teach you in school. If you expand your horizons, however, there are a very large number of possible scales to play with, even if you limit yourself to the ones common used in some musical tradition and ignore the infinities of mathematical possibilities. So I grabbed some of my wife's jazz theory books, typed in the names of some scales, and picked one at random to play from time to time when I was in the mood. I soon got to be able to distinguish a melodic from a jazz minor, minor and major pentatonic, remember the names of all the modes, and so on. I couldn't play them fast or fluently, but I could puzzle through them one at a time, and I felt like I was learning something.

Still, there's always stuff you miss. For instance, it seems reasonable that a minor pentatonic fits inside a minor scale. But there's more. The inimitable Paul Hanson explains something I wouldn't have guessed: in fact, you can fit *three* different pentatonics inside. For a Dorian, you have a minor pentatonic available starting on the 1st, 2nd, and 5th scale tones, all without leaving the scale. (Likewise, you could do major pentatonics starting on 3, 4, or 7, with similar embeddings for any other mode.) In this video, he demonstrates with bass player Craig Harris.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Another week, another lesson

Milde Scale 1 went well this time. Really well in fact, I think better than I've ever played it in practice. It got so I was nervous about ruining the streak of smooth notes, and messed up from losing focus. I'd done lots of practicing, missing only one day, and I'd played twice yesterday and also twice today, before my lesson. It doesn't seem like things improve, but I guess they do. I was going to ask about the finger movement thing, but it didn't happen, so

Still complaints about tone in upper register, despite my work in that direction. Especially A4 and up. Lips firm against teeth but as loose as possible against the reed mute the reed less apparently, if that doesn't sound too contradictory. All support from the air, very fast air. No biting or anything like that of course. G4 is a good note to start on, since it's easy to get a good tone there, and then work up. Thin and dead is what I'm trying to avoid.

Elgar: very long lines, look for the dissonant downbeats->resolve figures (appogiatura). It's all very exposed, so every aspect of every note counts. I think this is the first piece I've played which has been hard due to phrasing, rather than just notes.

Scales: just keep the ones I'm working on, C F G D, their relative melodic minors, and arpeggios, maybe slowly work up speed. I played them at 60 in the lesson, which felt comfortable, though I've also been working them slower in practice, eg 53.

Bocals: I played on a new-to-me bocal, a CD1 I got off of eBay. It feels different than my other one, thinner and more metallic somehow. Probably no audible difference to an external listener, but it feels quite different anyway. For reed, I played on G5. I formed a bunch of tubes before I went on vacation, and really need to start finishing some of those reeds.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Had another lesson. Terrible, in part. The fingering changes is one reason, another is the time off I took, and I'm still getting back up to speed. But Milde 1, the first scale study, was both slower and more uneven than I'd played it at the last lesson. Parts of it he just said, there's nothing I can say to help you there. And the lesson on Elgar Romance covered nearly identical ground as the previous one. Which is to say, I've made precisely zero progress.

Still, I learned things. For instance, apparently my embrochure is wrong too: not enough wrapped around the teeth. I spent a year playing long tones with an incorrect embrochure, I guess, not to mention the decade of playing when I was younger. Anyway, he said that a thinner embrochure, ie less lip on the reed, would damp less, and let the high A4 ring more, and match the lower A's. So yeah, yet another thing to change.

And while practicing tonight, trying to figure out why I can play the second bar of Milde 1 okay by itself, but never after the first bar, I realized that I have two positions for my left hand. If I start in the bottom register, my hand is wrapped a little more, and my fingers extended more, but in the tenor register I put the ball of my first finger a little more in front to support the weight. This affects how I move the fingers, and whether I can only bend from the knuckle or from the ball (not sure the right anatomical descriptions of these). Anyway, I'm trying to learn to be consistent, so that if I play a scale up, I don't need to shift. So that's yet another thing that I didn't know existed, not to mention the things I knew were problems, but hadn't figured out how to fix yet. So much to learn.