Thursday, December 24, 2015

Con Vibrato

I have been thinking about vibrato a lot.  About 2 years ago I had a vibrato crisis wherein I decided I hated my vibrato and pretty much cut it out of my playing as much as possible.  Fortunately, because most of my work is within quintet playing, I can actually get away with a lot of straight tone or at least very little vibrato.

As my private studio has grown to the largest ever, I find myself needing to teach vibrato and not having much success.  In fact, I think I have only confused my students as I have endeavored to approach it utilizing different practice techniques in hopes of striking on one that will work for each of them.  

One of my principal teachers developed my vibrato using measured vibrato exercises:

= 60
Pulsing ’s
Pulsing Triplets
Pulsing 16th notes

Increasing the tempo to develop many different speeds and with consideration for the the different effort required for each note.  

In addition to developing my vibrato on bassoon with these exercises, I have also used vocal vibrato techniques to develop variation in the width of the vibrato, intensity, and color.  These were centered around manipulating pitch in both my classical and jazz vocal studies.  I found these exercises to be very powerful for me and have attempted to teach my students on the use of vibrato through vocal/pitch exercises...

...which has been a pretty obvious failure.

After two recent and disheartening conversations with students who both proclaimed their hatred for vibrato and confusion with creating it, I realized I needed to get serious with finding a solution.

Thus, I returned to the basics.

Any time I want to remind myself of fundamental concepts I begin by turning to 3 main sources:


 Secondarily, I use 2 more sources with equally excellent insight:

In my effort to remind, perhaps even reteach myself the fundamental concepts of vibrato, I read what each of these sources had to say.  I found Donington's comments on the aural phenomena of decay with sustained, unvarying tones to be fascinating and highly recommend it as reminder of the importance of using vibrato.  I had an EPIPHANY when I read Weisberg's section on vibrato and realized I had been leading both myself and my students astray with too much emphasis on manipulation of their pitch.  Mr. Weisberg reminded me that the physical action one takes to create vibrato on bassoon is a manipulation of VOLUME.


I immediately adjusted my thinking as I played two concerts after reading this and found myself feeling more in control and better able to produce a beautiful vibrato.

It seems obvious and simple and when I worked with two students using a volume exercise, they had immediate success.

What did I learn from this:
  • In teaching, it is of course important to share what has worked for you.  However, it is of even greater importance to find resolutions that address the specific concerns of the student - which often manifest differently from your personal experiences.
  • never hesitate to re-learn in an effort to re-teach.
  • you can't remember everything you have been taught or every source you have read.  Return to those sources as often as needed to be reminded of the fundamental skills you need to pass on.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Communicating Value

 "What I have learned is that the best thing I can do as a 
teacher is ALWAYS value myself, my knowledge, my experience 
and invite students to find a way to share in that."  

That is a lovely statement and I'm really impressed that I wrote it in my blog post last year.  In one sense, my career is more stable than ever before.  In another sense, it seems to always be changing and progressing in new and exciting ways.  One constant remains: assessing value.  For myself and for others.  The more demands are placed on my time by ensembles, students, and colleagues, the more essential it is for me to communicate the value of what I do and the time I have.

I'm sure we have all seen this humorous pie chart on Facebook in recent months.  Though exaggerated, there is an excellent point found here that illustrates the challenge many musicians face when it comes to communicating their value: crippling self-doubt!

Do I deserve to ask $$$ for private lessons?
Am I good enough to ask the second chair clarinet player to tune to me?
Am I important enough to let them know they spelled my name wrong...again?

As musicians, we spend so much time analyzing and criticizing what we do - in an effort to constantly improve - that we tend to lose perspective on what we are offering and how we should be valued.
Then there is the risk that if we do communicate our own value, people/booking agents/ managers/personnel managers/students' parents/etc look at us like we just dwarfed into a 1980's Supermodel Diva.  

There has to exist a middle ground wherein we can respectfully communicate what we need to fulfill a contract without going overboard.

Two recent experiences have taught me the value and the confusion that seems to exist among musicians when it comes time to communicating their value.

This summer the Chinook Winds filmed an episode of 11th & Grant for Montana PBS.  It was an amazing experience: HD foundation, hair and makeup artists, costume changes, lights, camera, ACTION!  We arrived the night prior for sound check and an orientation.  This included the producer asking us, "Now tell me what you need for tomorrow?  Anything!  Anything at all!"  We glanced at each other and offered a tentative, "Water...?"  He asked about dietary concerns, craft services (catering), water temperature (room temp or frozen), and honestly, we didn't even know what to ask for.  For that matter, we didn't even know what we could ask for.  

The whole second half of filming day we were standing.  Having survived to play bassoon another day after 4 major back surgeries, I was slightly terrified about filming for hours standing with my bassoon.  In a moment of bravery I pulled the producer aside and very deferentially asked, "Would it be possible to have my bassoon stand brought to me between takes so I can take it off of me?"  Whereupon a young man was assigned the sole task of having that bassoon stand at my side along with my water bottle the moment "CUT!" rang out in the studio.

Such a small thing to ask, so important for me, and so easy for them to accommodate.

This illustrates the best case scenario for communicating your value: identify an actual need, communicate with kindness, and show gratitude.

In comparison, we spent last week on tour with an arts network in Montana.  We played 12 school shows and 1 community concert in less than 72-hours.  This is the second time we have performed with this presenter and we love the people, the performances, and the opportunity to share our craft.  A member of the foundation graciously hosts visiting musicians for meals in her home, preparing incredible meals with great love and care.  She shared with us how another artist they were bringing in provided them with a 6-page list of demands.  Everything from where meals should be prepared to when they should arrive and how much beer to have on hand.  As she detailed some of the more outrageous points, she laughed and said, "You know, we can only do so much!"  

Was that performer communicating his value - sure!  But at what cost?  What's the point in making unrealistic demands that you know won't be met and may only risk your future collaborations?

Communicating your value requires an honest self-assessment of what you have to offer, what you need and weighing that with what can be reasonably provided while still maintaining positive working relationships.  

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Masterful & Gracious

(Found this post saved in drafts and figured I better get it published!)

Masterful & Gracious...
...are probably the two words I could best compliment a musician with.  This weekend I had the opportunity to witness and enjoy musicians who embodied both of those characteristics.  Our symphony concert this weekend welcomed and featured the Brubeck Brothers Quartet.  This will probably be my favorite concert for this symphony season because the Quartet was both masterful and gracious.  Chris and Dan Brubeck, Dave Brubeck's sons, were everything you might not expect from "big name" musicians.  Upon first seeing them with their colleagues, Mike DeMicco and Chuck Lamb, one might wrongfully assume that these accomplished musicians would be bored by a performance with a regional orchestra in central Montana.  However, these world class performers were anything but.  They were engaged, patient, and very gracious as they worked carefully to share with our orchestra and our audience music that was deeply personal for them.

As a quartet they have performed with truly incredible, full-time, professional orchestras led by some of the most accomplished conductors in the world.  It was wonderful to watch Chris lead the orchestra with his wisdom and insight.  I imagine he encouraged and directed us the same way he has directed any of the orchestras they have performed with.  The good humor he shared with us continued between the four of them as they performed.  It was profound to watch their faces as they performed.  The smiles that they shared - like watching the subtle recognition of a great inside joke!  As one musician finished a solo smiles would spread through the quartet.  Chris would then turn to focus his positive energy on the next soloist.  As each member soloed in turn, his colleagues observed with great tenderness, respect and enjoyment the music that was being created for that one moment.  

At times it almost felt like I was spying on something much more intimate than a performance in a hall that seats 1,700+ people.  They invited us into their family, their memories, their music and their artistry.  They were truly masterful and gracious. 

This beautiful musical experience was further elevated by the fact that it was my last performance with Dr. Useon Choi, our clarinetist for the Chinook Winds Quintet and the Principal Clarinetist of the Great Falls Symphony.  It washed over me just prior to the concert as we sat on stage warming up.  I shed tears thinking about drawing to a close this particular chapter of our life as a wind quintet.  Dr. Choi, just like the Brubeck Brothers Quartet, is a musician that I would describe as both masterful and gracious.  He swept into this community 2.5 years ago with his stunning, young wife and, without hesitation, devoted himself to the task of sharing music at the highest level.  Playing for the community and university bands, teaching, hosting 2 international clarinet festivals, organizing masterclasses, creating performance opportunities for local clarinetists at all levels - all his work was a manifestation of his love and joy for music!  Dr. Choi is both masterful at his art and truly gracious with all those he works with.

These experiences made me pause and reflect upon my career and how others would describe me as a person and a musician.  Have I been masterful?  Have I been gracious?

I think that sometimes I have been.

I recognize that going forward I need to be both more often.

New Season, New You

Not to sound like an Oprah soundbite, but I do really love the saying, "New Season, New You!"

There is something very rejuvenating about taking advantage of the seasonal opportunities to approach your work, your life, with a new outlook and a fresh perspective.  After a crazy and exciting summer fundraising for the Chinook Winds to film for PBS and present at the International Horn Symposium, it feels like fall and the new school year are just as exciting as ever.

This fall I added the title (and duties) of University Professor to my schedule.  As the new adjunct Professor of Bassoon for the University of Montana School of Music, I travel over the mountains every Wednesday to teach my students and rehearse with my faculty colleagues.  This development was completely unexpected and wildly exciting for me.  Though I have worked very hard to define my career as a performer, I know, as well as anyone, that being an educator as a musician is integral.  The past few years I have experienced phenomenal growth as an educator - especially as a homeschooler!

As I begin a new season (new you) I am thinking and spending a lot of time on my materials as an educator.  Getting my reed making manual into a document, sharing my favorites resources through a syllabus, and MAKING REEDS!

I will be sharing these materials on here as I continue to develop them for my students.

Cheers for a new season!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Tragedy of Store Bought Reeds

For every reed player, there exists the potential for truly tragic moments during their professional careers.  I'm not talking about botched solos or malfunctioning keys - of course those are always risks.  What I'm referring to is the potential to forget an essential, nay, THE ESSENTIAL, genesis piece of what they do:
The Reed Box.
Every traveling musician has pulled over countless times within the first 5 miles from home to do the panicked re-check.  Seat strap?  Music? Concert Black?  etc etc etc
More often than not all is well and you continue on.  Every once in a while you discover you have left something behind and you return home, retrieve the item and, with a sigh of relief, congratulate yourself for remembering in time.
Then there are the truly tragic moments that happen ONCE and once only during a musician's career.  In my case, I drove over 200 miles from home for my monthly residency with the Billings Symphony.  Having taken this trip many times with nary forgetting a thing, I was confident that all was well and everything I needed would be in its place upon my arrival for rehearsal that evening.
I should have immediately questioned my own confidence.  Upon settling into my hotel room I thought I would pull out the bassoon and play for a few minutes.  I unzipped my case to retrieve my reed case and it wasn't there.  I immediately urged myself to *wake up* and look again.  Surely, I was dreaming a bad dream.  But second, third and fourth looks proved that I had truly left my reed case at home.  I called my husband who confirmed that it was sitting on my desk in my studio. 
It was 5:17 pm. 
I called the local music store which remained open until 6:00 pm.
I arrived by 5:27, grabbed one of every type of bassoon reed they had, a reed case, and then pleaded my case to the incredibly sympathetic sales associate (it's a small state for pro musicians).  With a bill of $100+ for the reeds and case, she gave me a huge discount and then encouraged me to record my thoughts on the manufactured reeds since I have not played on any since...1994?

 I returned to the hotel room by 6:10 pm giving me a solid 50 minutes before I needed to head to rehearsal.  Plenty of time to fix/finish a reed. 

I purchased the following reeds and found them in the listed condition:

Eastman Medium Soft -
large crack from tube traveling into the blade
overly thinned corners mangled by the case
35 cents flat
nutty conservatory sound (dark and mostly desirable tone)

Jones Medium Hard -
20 cents flat
very reedy/robust tone
bad bocal fit
very "poppy" response but no finesse
"The Jones Bassoon reed is one of the finest commercial bassoon reeds available. Each piece of cane is selected for exact diameter and wall thickness. Following a number of mechanized steps, the reeds are assembled by hand and the string is coated with the strongest lacquer available. The reeds are then tested and adjusted, as necessary, before packaging."

Emerald Medium -
narrower tube and shorter than the other Emerald reed
30 cents flat

Emerald Medium Soft -
30 cents flat

Lesher Medium -
40 cents flat
immediately responsive
completely floppy
horrible bocal fit
"Marlin Lesher reeds hold up to the most discriminating of tastes. Beautifully cut and wound, they produce a great sound."

Fortunately, I had my tools and was able to set straight to work trying to make even 1 of these reeds sufficient for a Christmas Pops concert but also capable of playing a read-though of Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Sprech for rehearsal that eveningHonestly, I was appalled by all of them!  It was a positive confirmation of why I NEVER permit my students to play on manufactured reeds.  Yes, they are all responsive which works great for the amateur/student embouchure.  However, every other aspect of these reeds was horrendous.  I know these companies claim they "play test" these reeds.   At 3,500+ feet in elevation, to have a reed play flat is pretty impressive.  We all know reeds go sharper with elevation.  So, if these reeds are made at 500 feet elevation or less, and the bulk of the bassoonists purchasing them are at those elevations, I can't even begin to imagine how low the pitch must be for them. 

Every bassoon teacher fights the young bassoonist biting with a tight and tense jaw/embouchure.  Of course they would have to in order to have any hope of raising the pitch on these reeds.  Which is EXACTLY the opposite of what we want to teach our students.  Even after working with them to raise the pitch on all of them, they were all still flat.  They were unplayable in any meaningful way.

This was the order of merit as I headed into rehearsal:  Eastman, Emerald, Lesher, Jones.  It was pretty depressing since I know these are basically reputable reed/cane suppliers.  In fact, I have been buying cane from Jones since 2009 and have recommended Jones to students and colleagues because of the consistency of their cane. 
Unfortunately, I really felt duped and pretty frustrated that these reeds had 1) cost so much and 2) were not truly useful.  I charge my students $10 for my handmade reeds and finish them to suit each student's particular setup.  Clearly I am undercharging and should go into business as a high elevation reed maker!
I walked into that rehearsal panicked because I knew that NONE of the reeds had come within 20 cents of the A-440 I was going to need to tune at. 
Here's where the story turns from TRAGIC to MIRACULOUS.
I sat down in my chair feeling defeated and greeted my wonderful 2nd bassoonist, Paul.  He turned and exclaimed, "Oh, Elizabeth, look what I got in the mail today!"  He reached down into his case and pulled out a BRAND NEW Légère synthetic reed!

This is why I am a woman of faith who believes in miracles, people...MODERN DAY MIRACLES!
I played that Légère the whole weekend and didn't touch those awful, expensive reeds. 
Was I total moron to forget my reed case?  Obviously!
Was I naïve to believe I could purchase a functional reed from a local music store?  Apparently.
Are Légère reeds amazing, consistent, dependable, and career-saving?  Clearly.