Saturday, February 23, 2019

Six bassoons later: what I've learned, where I'm at.

"Sometimes you do things in life just to figure out what you don't want to do in life."  - My Dad

The same principle can obviously be applied to trying bassoons in the pursuit of finding The One.  

All of the instruments I have trialed have strengths and weaknesses.  For the price you would pay for each of them, my feeling is that they are all priced quite reasonably and all sit in the $17,000 - $24,000 range.  

The Moosmann 222-CL, Leitzinger Model II, and Kronwalt are all solid instruments.  If you are in the market for a bassoon be sure to try these bassoons - they have a lot to offer!  However, they are not right for me and the goals I have set for this process.  They are also all thick wall bassoons.  

This has been the most important realization I have made during this process:  The instrument I need for the sound I desire and the type of playing I do falls within the capabilities of a "thin wall" instrument: the Yamaha 811 & 821 and the Moosmann 150E have presented as the best options for my needs.

Thin wall bassoons are typically associated or  modeled after the much sought after Heckel pre-war sound.  Not every manufacturer carries or even identifies with thin or thick wall bassoons.  Also, these identifiers are relative and vary with regard to actual measurements.  However, there are clear differences in how these instruments play - whether the manufacturer chooses to identify them as thick/thin or not.

Thin Wall vs. Thick Wall

Below is a great graphic and explanation from the Yamaha website:

A bassoon with walls of regular thickness has a rich sound, with a high degree of flexibility that can easily produce sound with a soloistic, song-like and expressive quality. More power is required when playing a bassoon made with heavy, thick walls, but its sound has a uniquely solemn, dark quality, and is particularly suited to orchestral performances.
Standard wall thickness YFG-811 (left), and thick wall YFG-812 (right)
Standard wall thickness YFG-811 (left), and thick wall YFG-812 (right)


What on EARTH does this word mean to bassoonists and why do we use it to describe the abilities of instruments that are very different from each other?

Flexibility of pitch

Flexibility of sound

Here is what I have learned after reading and re-reading descriptions of these instruments by the manufacturers, vendors, and players then pairing those thoughts with my own experience playing these instruments and chatting with other players as well:

Flexibility in a bassoon is the ability of the instrument to make changes in pitch with ease.  For example, in chamber music, if the player wants to match quickly to another's tendency, can the pitch be adjusted quickly and with ease.  It does not refer to the overall pitch being unstable.

Flexibility also refers to the instrument's ability to play in different timbres (bright or dark) across all ranges and dynamics.  

When you read manufacturer's descriptions they use flexibility to describe both thick and thin wall instruments.  This is partly why it's confusing to a buyer, novice or experienced.  

I think these concepts have been elusive in my own understanding because I play a Fox 601, thick wall bassoon, and I do not find it flexible in these ways.  Concepts of flexibility are foreign (even confusing) to me because I haven't experienced it in 10 years of playing on a thick wall instrument.  The thick wall models are built for power, projection - read every instrument description from every manufacturer for a thick wall instrument - and consistency (wherever it may lay, it's not budging), a bassoon built for the large orchestra.

From the Fox website, notice what word is missing from this description of the 601 model:


Whereas thin wall instruments are flexible and capable of projection through clarity of tone rather than through power.  I would describe the word power as quantity and speed of air used to create volume.  They also have flexibility of pitch (from what I have now experienced) and flexibility of sound.  It's a very different approach to building and playing an instrument.  

As I reflect upon my own playing and use of a thick-wall instrument, I realize now how I landed upon a 601 as my best choice 10 years ago and why I now want something drastically different.  For a young bassoonist who wants a huge sound, the 601 (and any thick wall bassoon) is a total blast to play!  Performing with the Chinook Winds quintet, laying foundation for 4 powerhouse solo players, my 601 was fantastic!  Prior to that, playing in Army bands, free-lancing, graduate school; again, the sheer power available to me was perfection!  I listen back to all my recordings from that time period and I love what I hear.  My sound, my style of playing make sense in context.

Then everything changed...

I had a major back surgery that required my abdomen to be cut vertically for 8 inches.  My recovery was long and my playing as a result has changed.  I feel this in how I generate vibrato across all ranges, how much physical work is required to project into a hall and in the work required to create tapers that can compete with the most nuanced clarinet player.  I also recognize the physical demands required by a thick wall instrument have become more challenging simply because I'm older.  I have battled 4 back surgeries in addition to neck and shoulder issues.  

As I have moved from full-time performance into higher education, I do more solo playing now.  My quintet dynamic has also changed from full-time work with 4 young, powerhouse players.  Now playing in a university faculty quintet means very intermittent periods of rehearsal and performance - some semesters there is almost none.  The change in personalities and playing style has required me to be a very different player.  

Currently, I play principal only with a community orchestra (Idaho Falls Symphony) rather than with salaried/tenured regional orchestras (Great Falls, Billings).  This requires more delicacy and (here it comes) flexibility to blend well and provide what is needed.  I have also been playing second bassoon consistently for 3 seasons now (second to a Heckel 6000) - something I have never done before and an entirely different skill set!

All of this explains why I have easily gravitated towards the thin-wall models during this process.

There is however one caveat.  

In my last blog post, I stated the desire to have an instrument that could handle a huge sound when needed - something I felt the 6000 Heckel I played on couldn't quite deliver (of course I could be wrong).  I hear the greatest potential for this very specific ability in the Yamaha models.  The Moosmann 150E is lovely to play, so easy in the bottom octave, so stable and responsive in the top octave - really impressive!  But I also hear, and have received confirmation from my oboe colleague, that the Moosmann doesn't push out like my Fox does and it was missed in performance.

Now what?

Many thanks to Justin Miller and Midwest Musical Imports, I have been permitted to keep the Yamaha 821 and Moosmann 150EDLX for an extra long trial.  I am taking them to Seattle for a 7-day residency with Trio de Bois and a concert with the Ensign Symphony and Chorus onstage at Benaroya Hall.  This next week will reveal a lot about what these instrument can offer and how they will/will not meet the goals I have set for this process.

In addition, as I have gained even greater clarity and wisdom from this process, I am setting up trials on a few more bassoons before I make a final decision: Fox 460, Puchner 6000, maybe a Fox 680.  I am trying to find a newer Fox 201 and any and all Heckels - both are really hard to come by.  I was on the waitlist for a Benson Bell but, not surprising, it was purchased before it got to me.  

The journey continues!  Be sure to check out my YT channel for more comparison videos of instruments.  


Sunday, February 10, 2019

In the Market for a New Bassoon: First Impressions

First, I have to give a HUGE thank you to everyone who has left comments, sent messages and emails to offer insight, help, even potential instruments for sale as I have shared my videos.  THANK YOU!  I really appreciate the feedback - keep it coming!

A culmination of several events over the past 6 months has pushed me into the market for a new bassoon.  Only about 10 days into the process, I have already learned so much.  I'm always peeking at the cost of bassoons - don't we all?  And who doesn't enjoy the vendor hall play-testing at various conferences?  However, the reality of how much the market has changed since I purchased my Fox 601 in 2009 has been humbling.

Here are my initial thoughts:

  • playing a bassoon for 10 -15 minutes in a vendor hall is not how you trial a bassoon.  It's a good place to start but shouldn't be the singular litmus for a $25,000+ purchase.
  • it's concerning to me how much a person can spend on a fairly mediocre instrument. 
  • this is a highly subjective process filled with colorful adjectives, intangible concepts, and unquantifiable components of value. 
    • enlist the help of people you trust.
  • everyone has an opinion!  This isn't a bad thing.  Absorbing years of experience, wisdom, and insight from others can afford you the data needed to distillate meaningful axioms for the process.
    • it can also help you filter the dearth of well-intentioned, "I love my bassoon, so you should buy the same!"  It's deeply personal for each of us and when we fall in love, we just want others to have that same joy!
The last few days playing a Leitzinger and a Yamaha (videos to come) have allowed me to concisely articulate what I want in a new bassoon:
  • I want an instrument that keeps all the things I love about my current instrument, improve upon the shortcomings I currently struggle with, while not introducing new complications.
The result of this clarity has quickly led me to a better understanding of how and why bassoonists keep inching up their budget.  It is easy to see, at this early point, how bassoons in the $20K-$30K price range are really quite similar.  It becomes more a question of an exchange of challenges rather than a question of wholesale superiority.  

The Leitzinger and Yamaha bassoons are fine instruments but they both have concerning flaws.  They have features that would resolve some of my concerns but new ones I flat-out DO NOT want to deal with whilst breaking in a brand new bassoon.

Which reminds me: for many years I have cautioned students about buying brand new because we all know it will take at least 12 mos for the bassoon to finally start settling and opening up.  Which mean the instrument you try-and-buy will not be the instrument you end up with.  Now, if what you try-and-buy is something you immediately love, rational thought and experience dictate that most likely it will only get better.  Conversely, if there are significant concerns, who knows?  They could get better or they could simply remain. 

Back to me and my needs ("Enough about you, let's talk about me!").

What do I LOVE about my instrument:
  • apparently I love my keywork!  I didn't think it was that important to me but playing on bassoons with a few less keys, rollers, and different placement quickly made me realize that I want those details to remain on a new instrument OR I need to be prepared to pay for custom work after purchase.
    • I did this when I bought my Fox 601 with Keith Bowen and it was money well spent.  Also, really quite affordable to make changes to keywork.  
  • I like the option to play with a HUGE, full sound that doesn't start to split or just cave in on itself.
    • What does that mean?  See comment about adjectives, intangible and unquantifiable aspects of a bassoon.  All I can is that I played a gorgeous 6000 series Heckle this weekend that was absolutely marvelous but was never going to play with the huge sound that I have used on my own instrument especially in chamber and solo performances.
What specifically do I want in a "new" instrument:
  • I want stunning tapers!  No, that's not about my reeds.  My reeds can taper.  I want a taper that doesn't turn me inside out in the process.  The Leitzinger Model II has that taper - WOW!  It keeps the sound spinning without the urge to tragically cut out right before that beautiful moment when sound dissolves into silence - think: clarinet.    I want that!
  • I HAVE TO HAVE a responsive and in-tune (as much as possible) top octave.  The 6000 Heckel I had the great fortune to play this weekend had the free-est, most in tune, responsive top octave I have ever experienced.  There simply was no fight!  They spoke, they were in tune, they moved easily into the next note.
  •  Nuttty core to every note.  Capable of a full tone no matter how short you play.  This is very much the player but also very much the ability of the instrument, in my opinion.  Any master player can make almost any instrument sound pretty awesome.  But I am convinced there are also master instruments that, when paired with a master player, well, *MAGIC.*  I heard it at Meg Quigley from multiple bassoonists.  I heard it from all the teachers with whom I studied.  In my life as a Wild West Bassoonist I don't hear it and likely I'm the one who needs to be creating it for my students and the ensembles in which I perform.  I'm failing them.  
That's my current list of needs from my next instrument.
  • keywork
  • ability to manage a huge sounds
  • stunning tapers
  • brilliant top octave
  • nutty core
Really, is that too much to ask?

This is also way my budget has grown in the past 10 days.  I'm moving from my initial budget of $20K-$30K into the next bracket and wondering: what can $35,000 get me?