Monday, June 27, 2011

Learning from books

I've had a bit of down time, bassoon-wise. I have no pressing performance situations planned, and only a vague set of goals outtlined. So I've been doing some reading, and getting back to practicing only in the past couple of days after a week off.

There's a couple of library books I've been reading. One is Arthur Weisberg's Art of Wind Playing, written in the 70's. After some preliminaries, noting that wind instruments lack the sophistication and expressiveness of string instruments or the human voice, he starts talking about reeds. The book is supposed to be general, for all wind instruments, but funny thing, all his examples are bassoon-related. So he shows the reed tip opening on bassoon, noting that you need a smaller opening when playing quietly, in order to maintain the pitch constant at soft and loud volume levels. Well, yeah, I knew that, and I think I do it, at least some of the time. Then he points out that this means that the embouchure needs to adjust the reed tip opening during crescendos and diminuendos. I hadn't really thought about that, but it follows naturally from the connection between volume and pitch. I guess I can do that too. Finally he points out that the attack and release of an individual note is nothing more than a rapid crescendo or diminuendo, and you have to do the same level of tip opening adjustment during the attack or release as you would for any crescendo or diminuendo over that volume range, or else you lose control of the pitch of the note during the attack or release. Now that I did not know. I'd never thought about the attack or release of a note having a pitch. When I play slow scales in front of a tuner, I've always been happy if the needle is in the right position during the solid middle of the note. Tuners aren't fast enough to tell you what's happening during the attack or release. I guess I was used to the idea of inflection, where the end of a breath released note should have a bit of a lift, like a smile, but that seemed mostly a trick to avoid a complete collapse of tone and pitch at the end of a note. Weisberg wants every part of the note to be in tune. Weisberg goes on to discuss various types of attack and release,  staccato, accented, sfortzando, fortepiano etc., with the admonition to practice each kind in all registers and dynamics maintaining intonation during every moment of the note. For me, with my consciousness newly raised, it seems like plenty to try and get a clean attack and release, with a blocklike profile for the note. (Ie a square wave of volume, and a flat line of pitch.) Presumably once you can do this you can then allow intonation to shift for effect if you want it to. I think the standard bassoon staccato, that stereotyped bassoon-as-clown role, has pitch inflection which turn each note into a chuckle.

The other book I've been reading was written much earlier. It's a recorder manual by an Italian named Ganassi, and published in 1535. IMSLP has a facsimile of the original printing, but I've been reading a translated version with modern-looking music typesetting, much easier to work with. It's still very strange. I guess the earliest music I'd had exposure to was Baroque, and Renaissance was quite different. The first thing I noticed is the total absence of slurs. Every note was to be tongued. However, Ganassi notes that there are many different ways to tongue, and goes through a variety of choices for double-tonguing (teke-teke, tere-tere, lere-lere), each of which has a different effect, and which you can use for expression. Ganassi, like Weisberg, holds the human voice up as the model instrument, to which the performer should aspire. So some things don't change. I found my son's $10 plastic school recorder, and figured out how to play a scale, using lere-lere. What do you know, it came out sounding something like the minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So that was interesting. Ganassi also had lots of comments about intonation. All of Weisberg's remarks hold true, except that there's no reed tip opening to adjust. Finding a way to get acceptable pitch anywhere in the note, and especially during the attacks and releases, is non-trivial. The positive side of the story is that recorder very much encourages you to get creative with fingerings: adding extra cross-fingers, opening half-holes, adjusting their size, moving fingers close to the hole without touching -- anything to get close.

Most of the body of the book, though, is concerned with improvisation, or "playing divisions" on fragments of a melody. That's why I got the book in the first place: a friend recommended it as a resource to help figure out how to elaborate the theme in the Böddecker sonata. So it's not even a book of Renaissance music, but rather a book of examples or exercises, organized by interval, kind of like an Aebersold for 15th century improvisers. Very interesting. I'm not sure it'll be useful to bassoon, but it's fun regardless. Also, the recorder is smaller than the bassoon, which allowed me to bring one along on a work trip recently. I was able to play quietly in my hotel during off-time, hopefully not disturbing anyone. Fun!

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