Monday, November 5, 2012

University Symphony and a Légére reed tryout

Had my first rehearsal with the local university orchestra last week. I've played with them before, and it's always a little nerve-wracking, since the standards are higher. I get invited back, though, so maybe it's not so bad. My best-laid plans to arrive early and get a good warm-up were messed up by dinner delays and weather, resulting in me entering the room with perhaps five minutes to get set. I had a new reed I wanted to use (about which more in a bit), but I wanted to give it a trial before the actual rehearsal. Unfortunately, while unpacking, I dropped it. It didn't chip (thank goodness), but the blades did slip. I've never seen that before, at least not so badly. One blade was displaced 3 or 4 mm. I poked at it, but mostly focused on getting my mainstay reed soaking and my horn together. So much for the new reed. The conductor called for the Bizet, the one piece I'm playing first on. So the other bassoonist and I switched spots, and he asked for the Minuet. Fine, here's the minuet. I hadn't managed to play even a note yet, but that's okay, I essentially never make any adjustments during tuning anyway. For the first section he called, I had rest, so that was fine. Unfortunately, the other bassoonist was playing, everyone else was playing (it was a wind sectional) and my rest didn't make any sense. What? It turns out there are _two_ Bizet Carmen suites, we're playing them both, and they both have a Minuet movement. Oops. I didn't figure it out because I didn't have the music for the other suite. It was in the other bassoonists folder, so we switched the necessary parts, the conductor called the next section, and I'm supposed to enter on a long pp C4 (the one above the staff). I'm not a big fan of this note, I gotta say. Always flat, hard to control, dead sounding without excellent embouchure and reed. Yuck. And playing it soft makes it even worse. I glance at my reed, which I hadn't been planning on using, and it's wide open. Probably great for belting out a tutti forte, but I'm really regretting not getting to rehearsal earlier. I pinch down, trying to close the reed enough to play soft, and do everything I can to keep the pitch up. A horrible, fuzzy, dead, duck-like sound emerged. Pain crossed the conductor's face. It turns out I'd managed to get it sharp, in addition to just sounding awful. After a couple of minutes of playing, things normalized, and the reed behaved fine.

I have been wanting to move on from that reed, though. I've been playing on it for I think six months, which even with my cleaning seems like too long. I've been looking forward to the Légére reeds for awhile. I kind of had dream-like fantasies of synthetic reeds, every one machined to perfection from homogenous engineered material, which would respond beautifully, give control in every register, play in tune with great tone always. Légére has captured a lot of the high-end single reed market, and I didn't see why it couldn't apply to double-reeds too. Because the Légéres were almost here, I'd been postponing putting effort into cane reedmaking, since these skills would soon be outmoded. A couple weeks ago I finally had my chance to try a couple. These had been ordered by a fellow student of my teacher's, an amateur who has done extensive research and investigations on reeds. He had the medium strength, and two to try out. I was really looking forward to it: finally, the end to reed difficulties. The price ($125 ea) is a little eye-popping, but compared to the cost of a bocal or a horn, not totally out of line.

My first impression was terrible. Stiff, and unresponsive. Compared to my mental fantasy, or even my existing mediocre reeds, it was quite difficult to even get a sound out, much less control the sound. I spent a while working with them, since I'd gone to the trouble to get there. They did play, and once the sound was going, the tone was nice. We did some recordings, and comparisons to my cane reed. I'd call the synthetic tone rounder and warmer, where my cane reed was a little more nasal and perhaps a bit buzzier. The synthetic was also louder, which ought to help in projection. The recordings sounded fairly similar: I'm the same player, regardless of the reed, and the tone difference is subtle. But it was just tremendously more work to get the sound out of the synthetic. And I felt it was difficult to control the sound: hard to make beautiful releases, hard to pitch tones where I wanted them. With working that hard just to get a sound, there's not much room left for making beautiful music.

Now, this is not necessarily the reed's fault. My friend had done a certain amount of adjusting of the Légéres, something which they discourage you from doing, but he's definitely a tinkerer. And perhaps it's simply and completely a question of strength: maybe I need soft, and would love a soft Légére. But I think to my son's experience with Légéres on clarinet. He loves the sound, and refuses all other reed types. But he does have trouble with clear articulation. To some extent, that's just something which is hard on clarinet, and perhaps requires more skill than he has. But I wonder if there's a characteristic of the Légéres which makes articulation more problematic.

So there we have it. Légéres exist, they do work, and have a beautiful sound. They don't work well enough for me, though, in the sense that I was hoping that they would solve my issues with responsiveness, not make them worse. I'd be interested in trying a Légére soft at some point, but I'm not sure I want to invest in the experiment just yet. With this tryout in mind, I headed back to the reedmaking room. Worked on getting my knife sharpened, worked on finishing a couple of blanks I had around, one of which was the new reed I wanted to use at the university symphony. The synthetic reeds aren't magic, they exist in the same world as cane, and face the same acoustical problems. If I can figure out how to address these problems with cane, I won't need to worry about synthetic.

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