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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Time to Practice

 I think I start to understand this practice thing. First though, confession time. Practice will never be one of my favorite things. Even when I was practicing for many hours in the day, I could think of maybe ten things I would rather be doing with my time. I guess that means I am a bad musician. I think I am O.K. with this. When I was much younger, playing modern bassoon, practicing was simple. I would identify the hard phrases and practice them over and over again. Working with a metronome. Slowly, as slow as I could stand. Tick, tick, tick. Move the metronome a single click faster. Tick, tick, tick. Move the metronome a single click faster. I started my musical life with a analog metronome, the one where you couldn't move it a single click faster, one would have to choose between 72 and 76 clicks. I eventually upgraded, so that I could do what I had always wanted to do, move the metronome upwards, literally one click at a time.Oh the wizardry. With this method, my technique got really good. Well, my technique in the practice room got really good.

This overemphasis on technique, with too much metronome work, left me open to a lot of tension surrounding these phrases and an inflexibility in performance that left me open to strange technical mistakes. Technical mistakes that are considered unacceptable in today's concept of a good performance. I started to get bored in my practice sessions. I wouldn't practice a piece of music unless it had hard technical passages. Musicality has always been easy to me, and so it was never something I practiced. I was doing what I thought good musicians do in a practice room, but it wasn't working for me. I started to burn out. I would then not prepare enough and I would make more mistakes. More tension. You see where this is going.

Recently I started working with an Alexander Technique teacher. I have had teachers use some basic tenants of the technique in my studies, and I have taken workshops, but I have never studied, or taken lessons, or whatever it is that one does when working with an Alexander Technique teacher. The lessons are very different than what I thought they would be. I assumed that we would work quite a bit on how I play, but I haven’t even brought my bassoon to a lesson yet. It has been a lot of standing and sitting, walking around the room, and laying down. I start to understand the basic concept of sitting and standing. It is amazing how much space can exist between your butt and the chair, after you have been guided into a standing position and are now told to sit. The space between the two seems so far away, so insurmountable, that nothing I can do will unite chair and butt cheeks. But the teacher turns my head, guides my back, and somehow I make it back down.

It is amazing that we are so terrible at using our own bodies, that the simple act of sitting and standing is so complicated that the majority of us don’t seem to know how to do it. I guess that is part of the magic of the western world. My son and I are working on the same things at the moment. He is much better at it than I am. Granted he can’t yet get from a sitting to a standing position without the aid of a couch or chair to pull up on, so I still have that advantage.

Alexander Technique lessons are a bit like meditating. We do all this subtle work, and then it is all thrown away the moment that I need to reach down to get my bag to pay my teacher. However, I am starting to be more aware of how I hold myself, and where I hold the tension. A primary problem for me is that I try to use my shoulders for just about everything, from climbing up stairs (note, shoulders are not helpful. I try not, like my son, to crawl up stairs) from walking fast, to practicing. Which is ironic, because I have spent a lot of time in my life trying to breathe correctly, and here I find that I am trying so hard to breathe correctly that I am straining my shoulders in the process. So with these lessons I am trying to bring the lessons into my practice.

With a more relaxed method of practice, I am learning what motivates me in my practice sessions. I was talking to a friend of mine about practice, and they felt their practice was an opportunity to improve on a daily basis. This use to be a motivator for me, but it is no longer. I have discovered that expression is the most important thing for me in my performance life, and so I am learning how to tie this into my daily practice. Finding a more rounded method, a more integrated method is, for me, important.

Removing the tension is part of this exploration. This allows me to bring additional focus to the intellectual and emotional aspects. De emphasizing the purely technical, aka the fast parts, and focusing more on articulation variety, the style of the piece, the rhetoric of a piece brings new meaning to me. Starting a piece and thinking about what the composer wants to say with the piece, and what I want to say with the piece is an important piece to practice puzzle. This refocus, less on the technical aspects, and more on the expression, is also helping me release some of the tension regarding "hard parts." If I have an overall concept of what I am saying, then all notes are equally important. A mistake doesn't take away from the overall effect. Of course, too many mistakes does take away from the overall effect, but I am finding a better place to play with more focus on expression.

Keeping this concept in mind as a kind of guide in my practice, with the additional help from Alexander Technique, has really helped in alleviating some of my burnout, and helps me become a better musician. What would be the point of practicing something over and over again, if we don't understand the broader idea of what is being said? Practicing technique is important, but we need to keep in mind, and we need to teach our students, why we practice technical phrases. We are more then just machines spitting out the same phrases over and over again, we are humans expressing ourselves through the platform of musical performance.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Reader's Digest Guide to the Bassoon's Development

Ten years ago I had not yet started my descent into the "Early Music Black Hole," and all I knew about the bassoon's development was that it was invented by some French guy. Then I went back to school to get my DMA, started playing baroque bassoon, and concurrently wrote a paper about J.C. Bach's bassoon concertos (yes, there is a J.C. Bach, and yes there are bassoon concertos). My thesis required a look back into the development of the bassoon, and I was frustrated by the variety of vague information, and was also intrigued. I few years later, a DMA document later, I have a few answers, still many questions, but some answers. So I wanted to share this information on my blog, because a few people might find it interesting, and it is my blog, I can throw out all my crazy theories without having to defend anything in a court of law, or musicology. Speaking of musicology. A note on notes and references. This blog post won't have any. If you have any question on my sources, please feel free to contact me, and I can either give you the source, or my actual quasi-academic article. I do have to say that all the information on instrument pitch comes from the the work of Bruce Haynes.

Our story begins, as all good stories, with the shawm and dulcian.  For those of you not in the know, a shawm is a double reed instrument with a conical bore and mostly open tone holes. For pics see here. They were built in a variety of sizes, from sopranino to bass. A dulcian is very much like a compact shawm. Basically if one took shawm, cut it in half and joined the two pieces together, you would have the basic concept of the dulcian. Pics, see here. For the bass dulcian, this was convenient for events that required walking or marching, as walking while playing a bass shawm can be hazardous. These instruments were played in consort, either of like or different type instrument. They were used in almost all parts of what today is know as Europe. They were played mostly in churches, but were also used in different venues. Professionals, amateurs, uncle Jo who would pull out the shawm on rainy days.. ok, maybe not. We know these instruments were performed over most of Europe because of surviving iconography, letters, and instruments.

However, the activities of double reed players before the 17th century in France is a matter much murkier. In France there is no surviving evidence of any double reed activities, which has lead many to state that they weren't used. I don't believe this is correct. Most of the surviving pictorial evidence outside of France comes from churches, and woodwinds weren't played in French churches until much later. The woodwinds in France were secular instruments, there is a strong connection between the double reeds and royalty, but the earliest evidence of this is from the early 17th century. One would assume though, that this connection was there before the surviving evidence.  Le Grande Écurie were the musicians of the King, of the royal stable. This ensemble was founded in the 16th century, and at least by the 17th century, included double reeds. This ensemble was used for a variety of royal functions, ceremonies, ballets, some big deal royal functions, etc. We have surviving music from 1610 which is written specifically for the King's hautbois, the kings double reeds.

To most people today, hautbois means oboe. However, hautbois (high wood) at that time meant the broader term woodwind. The woodwind instruments of the Renaissance were mostly at A = 465ish in pitch. In countries other than France, the organs which the double reeds would have played with were also at this high pitch, to save money on pipe material. This was not the case in France, the organs were at a low A = 390ish. So by comparison these woodwinds were very high in pitch.  Hautbois could mean soprano shawm, bass shawm, bass dulcian, or even flute or bagpipe. This lack of clarity has created lots of confusion, and it only becomes more confusing as we go along, when we start to get subcategories of woodwind, such as flute and bassoon.

In 1637, Marin Mersenne published L'Harmonie Universelle, which contains a large section on instruments of the time, thankfully including images. This is the first time we see a picture of instrument Le basson. The French had, at some point before 1637, decided to take the perfectly good bass dulcian, and redesign it. The instrument they designed looks like what happens when you graft a baroque bassoon and bass dulcian together. In my mind, this is the beginning of line of what would later become what we know of today as the bassoon. Taking into consideration the keywork, it is quite possible that this instrument played a low Bb. Was this why the French felt the need to create a whole new instrument? No idea. Mersenne also includes pictures of dulcians, but these instruments are not nearly as detailed as the basson. It is possible that he just wasn't as familiar with the dulcian as he was with the basson. This instrument, while having its own brand name, still was considered a hautbois, along with the other bass hautbois, such as the bass shawm, and later the cromorne (I won't get into that question here, but that is an interesting topic).

Fast forward to the last half of the 17th century. The opéra-ballet, with music composed by Lully, became very popular. This is the time when most people agree the bassoon was developed. The theory is that Lully wanted to incorporate the woodwinds into the opéra-ballet performances. The only problem was that the strings/singers were playing at that super low church pitch. So, sometime between 1637 and 1692, likely the Hotteterre family and possibly Philador family were busy at work redesigning instruments. When they were done, they had taken the high pitched instruments and created a low pitched instrument with a better indoor voice. Thus the baroque oboe and bassoon were officially born (and probably flute, but I'm a double reed player, and I haven't done a lot of research into this). 1680 is frequently given as the latest date that the bassoon could have been developed, because this is the first time basson is printed in a score. However, this honestly doesn't prove anything, as the basson had been around a lot longer then that, and score instrumentation was very inconsistent and lacking in details well into the 18th century.  There is no way to know which pitch this particular basson was. What we do know is that we have a picture of the early basson in 1637, and we have a picture of the low pitched bassoon in 1692. So it was definitely developed sometime during this time. When exactly, is not really possible to say. Honestly though, what really started to change at this time was the function of the instrument. The later low pitched bassoon wasn't so different from its earlier counterpart, but the role was changing. It went from a loud ceremonial instrument, a consort instrument, to one that could blend well with strings, as well as continue its role as the bass of the oboe band.

The newly designed instruments played an important part in the opéra-ballet of Lully. That was the original function. The new trio of double reed instruments slowly made their way across Europe, in part because of the popularity of Lully's music outside of france after he died. Elsewhere the dulcian was still being used, particularly in churches, as it still was an integral part of the church music scene. So the new French basson and the Dulcian existed side by side, as it is clear from the engraving of Johann Christoph Weigel from 1698, which shows both instrument in a workshop. On a practical level it makes lots of sense, Dulcians were partly associated with the church, and many town dulcians were pitched at the churches pitch, which could vary widely. The new French basson was at first for playing opera, and then eventually took its place as the bass of the woodwind section, but this was a long process. Woodwind design changes, like history, don't happen overnight. There was nothing inherently wrong with the dulcian, it didn't need to be upgraded or replaced. It had to do more with the function of the instruments and what became popular.

So in short. French makers sometime before 1637 made a hybrid bassoon dulcian, but it was most certainly at high pitch. Later French makers before 1692 for sure, but probably much earlier made a lower pitched version of this instrument to play nicely with the strings. The instrument rode on the popularity of the Lully operas outside of France, and eventually took over the dulcian's function. All of this was a gradual process though, and instrument changes, like history, don't happen overnight, or don't happen in a year. Attitudes about what an instrument should do change, and so the instruments change with the times.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Little Gray Fog

Here I am, writing, strike that... typing with one hand. The other hand is holding the head of my 4.5 month old. He is asleep, but I am standing with him wrapped against my chest, and if I didn't hold his head, he would wake up. Did I also mention that I am standing? No, OK, consider yourself mentioned. It is interesting typing with one hand. I am actually not too slow, or too inaccurate. The speed reminds me a little of writing things out by hand, oh the days...

This is my life right now, baby, music, reeds. Still waiting for aforementioned baby to sleep through the night. OK, I lie, I am waiting for him to consistently sleep four hours in a row at night. I am learning to practice and make reeds like a beast, more effective than ever before. Not that I have all that many gigs, new city + new baby = baby strapped to self, typing with one hand, while standing. Did I mention the room is fairly dark? Did I also mention that I am technically in the kitchen, since that is the best counter space to be had that allows typing? So, typing one handed, standing, in the dark, in the kitchen. So this is what I do when I don't have enough gigs, everyone suffers.

A couple of weeks ago I played in a chamber music concert with a few friends who also happen to also be colleagues. It was on modern bassoon, my first real recital on modern in a long time. Taking such a long break from modern and focusing exclusively on early music and then going through the experiences that I have over the last few months have completely changed how I see the world and how I approach the music. It was the first time in a long time that I truly enjoyed the music making experience. My technique on modern right now isn't the strongest because of my focus on old instruments and baby, but in the end it didn't matter. It seemed so easy to go to "the space," when performing, the gray place in the world where expression comes from. I feel that I live there right now. It could partly be that I am crazy due to the sleep deprivation, but watching this little baby grow and become a human, learning his own way of expression, pulling from that same gray space, it is inspiring.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Not Just a Pretty Face

We all talk about timelessness of certain pieces of music, particularly music from the baroque period. Can music be truly timeless? Certainly some music ages better than others, and it seems that our current aesthetic says baroque music seems to age particularly well.  However, musicians who lived in what we now call the Gallant and Classical periods thought baroque music was very much out of fashion. “Timelessness,” which is used frequently just as a synonym for “beautiful” is only a surface level description to a piece of music. We as musicians need to step it up a notch, and study the “untimeless” parts of baroque music, so that we can both better understand the music, and that we can make the music more relevant today, rather then just recreating pretty sounds.

We see these pictures of long dead composers, with their wigs and fancy clothes, and forget that they were actual living people, with rent to pay, with children to feed, and messy lives to clean up. They experienced loss, joy, and sore feet. They had times of unemployment, boredom, and too much work. White, dead, European males, they are just like us! It is easy to understand that composers who live today are humans, because they are right in front of us, they live, they breathe. We know them, we went to school with them, we talk to them, we make late night drunk decisions with them. They are not gods; they create music that is both sublime and crappy. 

When was the last time someone said “Oh, well that piece by Bach is a little weak,” or “Yea, the 2nd movement of Beethoven's new symphony just kind of drags on and on. I wish he would get to the point.” It is much easier to criticize living composers rather than dead, because we have lifted the dead so high, so that every note suddenly becomes divinely inspired.  We forget that a lot of the “perfection” of Bach’s music comes from him knowing the rules of counterpoint in and out backwards and sideways. We criticise Hindemith because he wrote a lot of duds, but he wrote some incredibly sublime music. Some pieces of music we have heard so many times, we know longer think with our critical minds, rather it is something we go back to like a comforting blanket. Which is doing the composers and the music of the past a great disservice. We cannot forget that no piece of music is perfect.

Bach wasn’t the first choice for Cantor in Leipzig. He wrote the first half of the B minor mass in order to curry favor with the elector in Dresden, not because he was inspired by some greater calling. It was a financial move. Telemann married a woman who gambled so much he had to create additional revenue sources for his family. Famously Mozart enjoyed scatological humor. I guess it is human nature to feel that the people who came before us aren’t real humans. But for people in the field of classical music, I believe it is part of our job to bring the music to life, to find ways to make it relevant today. When we elevate “old” music or composers to a godlike status, the music looses its humanness, the ability for it to resonate with our current life. It just becomes something pretty, something to decorate our wall. If we whitewash the music with instruments that are too perfect and implement romantic phrasings on the music, because music is “timeless...” then we are doing the music a disfavor. 

In a way we cannot fully appreciate the music of the past. We cannot possibly get into the past “earset” so to say. There is so much noise in our modern world, and we have so much access to music of all varieties. I am definitely not unhappy with this, but it means that we loose some of the sensitivity that is required to hear the real language of early music, the play of consonance and dissonance. The rhetoric, the gestures, of the music we play. For me, part of learning early music is to re-sensitize myself at least a little. To make sure the music isn’t just pretty, but that is says something.

It is much easier to hear the rough edges in baroque music on baroque instruments, as I have said before in this blog. For example, the f minor sonata by Telemann. OK, f minor, not the most friendly of keys, but I played this sonata for the first time when I was in middle school, on modern bassoon. It was probably wildly out of tune, but I could technically play the music. The key signature wasn’t a problem. Press down the keys, at least a close approximation of the notes comes out. Modern instruments are too exact for baroque music.  Now, take the same sonata on baroque bassoon. Infinitely more difficult. Four flats, while not as difficult as four sharps, makes the piece unstable in a way that cannot exist on a modern bassoon. Even when the piece is completely in tune on a baroque instrument, (and don’t get me started on what is in tune or not) there is a certain crunchiness, a certain feeling that one cannot create on modern bassoon. Dissonances become all the more relevant, all the more real, because they will never sound smooth on a baroque instrument. So in this way, we reintroduce the dirt of baroque music. Telemann’s piece goes from something slightly melancholy on a modern bassoon, to something so much more deep and meaningful on baroque. The piece is no longer washed over with a sparkly glaze, the piece becomes real and alive again, something that isn’t perfect, but something that is real.

For me, that is what playing baroque music is about, reintroducing the dirty parts of life back into the music, the imperfect, the messy. People lived, breathed, loved, and died just like we do today, and the music of the past that we play today should reflect this. The composers of the past were not gods; they were living, breathing, people, with the same hopes, dreams, and nightmares that we have. Well, probably not that nightmare about the carnivorous iPhones…

So no, I do not think music is timeless. There are aspects of all music that can have a sense of timelessness, but to simplify music this way I believe is to do it a disfavor. Music is so much more than the simple labels that we attach to them. Isn’t that the point, to create something that cannot be created with words alone?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Dead Still Speak

This past week, this past month really, the world lost a lot of talent, talent that influenced and shaped many people's lives. It always seems like people who live in the public eye tend to die in clusters. Someone should really look into this problem.

I have to say, with all the public mourning on the Internet and in real life, I have felt a little out of loop. I have found it very interesting that so many friends have marked how influential David Bowie was to their lives, where I have to say I had not until this week, ever heard a song by him or seen a video by him. Of course I knew of him, and that he was a highly talented, influential, and beloved person, but somehow I kind of missed the Bowie Boat.

It probably has to do with how I was raised. My family was very conservative catholic, and there was very little variety in the music that was played at home. Christian instrumental music anyone? Rock was not something that was played, and when I started listening to my own music as a teenager, it was Beethoven, not Bowie. I didn't even know the bands that were popular with my school mates in middle school. Sure, I pretended, but I have to admit, never listened to Green day. To this day I feel woefully behind in listening to all the wonderful music created in the last 30 years or so that isn't classical. So much talent in the world, so little time.

Though I find it a little ironic that I didn't discover Bowie's music earlier. What I hear over and over again from mourners is his message was that it is OK to be different, it is OK to be the weird one. Coming from a conservative family, home schooled, working in a library, playing bassoon... I was strange all right. It is a shame that I didn't discover his music when I was younger. I am still strange, but as a child I didn't think I was strange, rather I thought everyone else was.

Since his death, I have actually started to listen to his music. I have yet to listen to his newest album, but plan on after writing this blog post. I could see how coming across his music during one's youth could have a highly influential effect. No matter what time one lives in, it is (I can't come up with the right word here: wonderful doesn't quite work, awesome is dated, meaningful? fun? great?) to observe such an artist who embodies the Zeitgeist of the time, how relevant his music was, and apparently still is. The ability to tap into the group subconscious and create something out of it, creating something that speaks to people. I know I am saying this on a blog about early music, but it is a very important point that some classical musicians forget.

Whether you are creating your own new music, or recreating music from the past, it is important to find something that can speak to your public. Your public that is sitting in front of you or listening to your recording. It doesn't really matter if your audience is only a handful of people or millions of people, tapping into that source, finding relevancy, this is important. This is the key to finding one own creative greatness. As a classical musician specializing in music of dead white European males, this can sometimes become a challenge. We get lost in our own head, forget why what we do is important. Why do people still listen to Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, etc? Because there is still that connection, but in our case, it must be found. We must lead people to the deeper meaning other than the music is pretty. Pretty isn't the point of what classical musicians do,  and this sometimes is forgotten.

So off I go to begin dinner and listen to Bowie. There are worse ways to spend an evening.

Saturday, January 9, 2016


Today I rode my bike for the first time in several months. I actually made it to the third trimester with biking, but then it just became too tiring. Some people seem to get through pregnancy and birth smoothly, without much of a hitch. This was not the case with me. I managed to play until 3 weeks before birth, but it was a fight, both mentally and physically. I am happy that I begin to feel a little more normal, but it has not been easy.

Breathing was a real difficulty the entire time. Not so good for an individual who makes their living breathing in a controlled manner. However it forced me to think again about how I breathe, in part because I couldn't physically play the way that I had in the past. I have to say that in the past several years I became lazy about how I breathed while playing. I felt that I had figured things out mostly, and that it worked for me. Sure, one can always improve, but I felt like I had the basics down.

Boy was I wrong. Since I was having such a hard time with breathing, my baroque bassoon teacher and I had a long conversation on the subject, and I have to say she blew my former concept of breathing out of the water. My breathing had previously been something of an on off switch, either I was blowing air through the instrument at a certain speed, lower abdominals engaged, or I was not. Of course I varied the speed depending on which register I was playing, but the general concept throughout the bassoon's range was basically the same.

This concept of breathing seems to work pretty well with modern bassoon, but I was working too hard on the baroque bassoon. She showed me that one could have a big sound while keeping the abdominals relaxed. With the the modern airstream I ended up working against the instrument. I didn't need that much air. In fact, with less air it is easier to phrase appropriately. The difference is a little bit like the difference between a baroque and modern string bow, as far as I understand it. A modern bow one can keep the sound "stream" the same at all points ad nausium. With a baroque bow one cannot create huge phrases, but there is a flexibity within the phrase that is impossible to get on a modern instrument. This difference, big long phrases vs small phrases is one of the key
differences between baroque and modern playing. The more relaxed breathing allows for that
flexibility that is required for baroque music to be interesting.

This new concept helped me to not try to kill myself when playing, since I simply was not able to use as much air as before. Now that I have my lungs back, I am trying to incorporate this new concept perminantly into my baroque and classical instruments. I am also trying to see how I can incorporate some of the relaxed way of playing into my modern instrument. This is more difficult, as you do need a certain amount of pressure on the modern that you don't need on the baroque. I plan to play around with it on modern, and see what type of airstream I can discover. Breathing is oddly such a complicated subject, considering, or maybe because, we do it so easily without thinking most of our lives.