Thursday, March 1, 2012


I've already written about my struggles to play softer, but recently I've been trying to see if I can play louder too. Such basic things. The standard exercise, given to beginning students to convince them that they can, in fact, play louder, is to put the lips over the entire reed, so the blade isn't hindered or even touched by the lips at all, and blow. The sound is ugly and out of control, but loud. The principle of playing loud well is similar: the less embouchure pressure on the reed, the more vibration and more volume. There've been a couple of things that made me think that louder is something I need work on. One was sitting next to the bassoon student in the university orchestra, and trying to say something useful to her as she worked through an exposed technical bit in a Haydn symphony. ("Helpful" advice is always risky, I know, but you'll have to take my word that we know each other well enough that it was appropriate.) The only thing I said was play louder. Project to the back of the hall. Make the conductor tell you to shush. Let the fingers ride on a stream of air. I was also thinking, although I didn't say it, that even if the notes aren't perfect, if the sound is good, and loud, and played with conviction, the audience will accept it, despite the errors. In a sense, error in tone is worse than a wrong note, since inadequate tone affects the entire passage, whereas a wrong note passes quickly. When my son is practicing clarinet, I'm constantly on him about tone too. Blow through the horn, I say, sounding like the conductors of my high school marching band. I thought that was lame advice at the time, only appropriate for playing in the middle of a football field, but I'm a little more mature now. So, having advised my son and my sectionmate that louder sounds better, I slowly developed a sneaking suspicion that perhaps I too could use a little more "projection", which is to say, volume.

A related experience came at a lesson a couple weeks ago. We were looking at my part in the same Haydn symphony, and my teacher played through it. And he kept on playing after the exposed fast bits, blowing through fortissimo tutti whole notes. And man, I was taken aback by how loud he could play. And yes, the tone does shift at high volume, spreads a bit, but that's not necessarily a negative. Think of the characteristic brassy sound of a trumpet playing loud, filled with high harmonics generated by a supersonic shock in the bore. This isn't a flaw, but another tone color to be cultivated. On bassoon, there's also a lot of junk noise you can hear from a foot away, particularly some hiss from losing air around the reed. This could be considered a flaw, but I don't think it'd be an audible problem in a full orchestra. It's more important to get volume into the bassoon tone color of the chord.

The other inspirational comment came from my wife. We were quibbling a bit over something or other, and she admitted me that, despite having gone to my concerts for years, she could hardly ever hear me, even during solos. Ouch! And it stings more due to likely being true. I think one of my problems is hearing the balance authentically. I think I tend to get comfortable, and play to what sounds good to me. And I like hearing a bassoon-rich orchestral sound, but since I'm a few inches away from the bassoon, and many yards from the strings, what sounds bassoon-rich to me is totally inaudible to the audience.

So, how to play louder? Part of it is reed. The reed has to vibrate well, and has to be open enough at the tip to accept a large flow of air. Embouchure is important. A hard embouchure, that will not dampen the vibration, and as little pressure as possible. (Note the distinction between the firmness of the lips and the pressure exerted by them. You can press either soft or hard using a marshmallow or a screwdriver, and these four cases (high pressure/soft implement, low pressure/soft implement, high pressure/hard implement, low pressure/hard implement) will all have different effects on the vibration of the thing you're damping. I should really try this with a cymbal or something.) And lots of high velocity air. Control the pitch with the air stream, since the lips aren't doing it. Easy enough to say, I guess. Doing it is another matter.

No comments:

Post a Comment