Teach Yourself

Interestingly, students spend many more hours in the practice room alone than in rehearsals or private lessons working with teachers. How can we spend that alone time in the practice room to greatest benefit? We learn to teach ourselves!

Young children often have outstanding hearing and great capability for aural discrimination. They can pick up on the slightest sound and notice fine details about the sounds and sound patterns they hear. Unfortunately, when children begin learning an instrument, they have to switch off their sensitive ears in order to tolerate the “sounds” they make. Then, as they improve through middle school and high school, I think it is important for them to re-engage their faculty of critical hearing to be able to make real progress. If we listen carefully, there is so much we can notice about the sounds we produce!

The main concept I’m working on in this post is assessment: the process of paying attention to the way we play, and engaging our “teaching brain” to help ourselves identify improvements we can make. For example, which intervals are causing trouble? Listen again. Are the fingerings accurate, are the finger movements precise? Then, can I design an exercise to work on each tough spot?

Often, teachers have “go to” practice techniques they like to prescribe for working on difficult passages. The most basic of these is to dramatically slow the tempo, using a metronome, and repeat the passage many times, gradually increasing the tempo. I think it was pointed out that if one repeats something 10,000 times, mastery can be achieved. The challenge is that 10,000 repetitions is awfully laborious.


“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” [Bruce Lee]

My experience is that if I engage my critical thinking skills while I practice, I can use time more efficiently and make each repetition count. I can direct my attention in such a way as to improve the likelihood that each time through will be more accurate.

Rhythm Method. The masters know that practicing difficult passages using modified rhythms really works. Here is a passage we need to improve (#1), followed by practice patterns I suggest to students on a regular basis:

#1. Original passage

The first step is to try just changing the rhythm to a dotted (long-short, #2).

#2. Dotted rhythm

And, in the interest of thoroughness, try the first practice pattern in reverse (short-long, #3).

#3. Reverse dotted rhythm

These patterns reveal things about what is awkward, and what is not. Try re-arranging the rhythm even further by assigning triplets (#4).

#4. Triplets

To be sure you’ve really played triplets, change the articulation to emphasize the triplets (#5). You may even want to accent the first note of every triplet.

#5. Triplets with slurs for emphasis

A really terrific way to clean up the fingers is to play the passage with short staccato (#6). For some reason, the fingers seem to work much more cleanly when we articulate the passage this way.

#6. Short staccato with accents


Now Regroup. Probably my favorite approach is to regroup the notes in a difficult passage in order to train my brain/fingers to see and feel the music differently. Then, after I’ve imprinted the regrouping, when I play the passage “as written,” I notice my technique is more secure and the passage is more comfortable. First plan out groups of notes according to the step-wise or conjunct motion (#7). You are looking for little chunks of scales.

#7. Regroup the notes according to step-wise (conjunct) motion


You can play the regrouped passage as is, or even better, try emphasizing the groups of notes by leaving spaces between the groups (#8).

#8. Emphasize the regrouped units.


Why do these practice approaches actually work? We aren’t machines. Our processing power is actually quite slow, but we have great powers of observation (to the point of distraction) and we notice all kinds of interesting patterns and sequences in everything we encounter. In fact, we can keep track of several things at once, it seems. I think we need to use that innate skill to our advantage.

Also, just as a general rule, I am always at war with my native clumsiness. If I can focus on the patterns that come more naturally (e.g. scales with step-wise motion), and avoid obsessing on the patterns that are awkward (e.g. wide leaps and disjunct motion), I don’t occupy my brain with so many of the non-essentials. Notice how re-grouping de-emphasizes the disjunct motion (leaps), e.g. in #9 the leap between the third and fourth note is ignored because we’ve grouped the third note with the previous note(s) and the fourth note with the following note(s). In this challenging passage (#9), I tend to see the scale groups as one pattern each.

#9. Challenging passage.


It’s easier to focus on the groups if I add some slurs (#10)

#10. Challenging passage, regrouped with slurs.


Well, spend your hours in the practice room and make some REAL progress by staying engaged, keeping your ears open, and being intentional. Of course, you will want to rinse and repeat daily. Play it like you mean it, and happy bassooning!

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Boismortier Concerto & Maurice Allard

Bernard Wahl - Nonesuch.jpg

I was a young bassoon student (the case almost touched the ground when I carried it by the handle) taking lessons once a week with Wilbur Simpson (for many years second bassoonist with the Chicago Symphony). One week, before we headed upstairs to his bassoon studio, he ushered me into the living room and said, “I want you to hear this!” He carefully laid an LP on the turntable, located the needle and turned up the volume. Enthusiastically, he exclaimed, “Wait ’til you hear this–a french bassoonist with a marvelous tone!” For my first experience hearing the french bassoon, I was blessed with the round sound of the incomparable Maurice Allard (1923-2004) performing Boismortier’s Concerto in D. Read William Waterhouse’s biographical sketch of Allard.


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Glickman/Popkin Bassoon Camp

The Glickman/Popkin Bassoon Camp is a ten-day summer camp for bassoonists 18 years of age and above, of any skill level.

DATES for the 2016 Glickman Popkin Bassoon  Camp
May 30 – June 9

Each day includes master classes, reed making classes, ensemble activities and recital hours. Also included are bassoon repairs, bassoon makers, music and tool vendors, and many ways to relax and learn through social engagements.

Established in 1978 by Loren Glickman and Mark Popkin and located at the beautiful Wildacres Retreat Center in Little Switzerland, NC.

                    bassoons_andrew_cuneo     mcgill_d     hollingsworth3

This year, the guest artists are:

  • Andrew Cuneo, principal, St. Louis Symphony;
  • David McGill, professor of bassoon at Northwestern University and former principal, Chicago Symphony;
  • Harrison Hollingsworth, principal, New York City Ballet Orchestra.

A limited number of scholarships are available for those students who apply and meet the requirements.

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Dancing fingers

tenUnless we are very secure in our “digital” technique, we may encounter fast, technically difficult passages and experience the nauseating feeling of “digital” overload! If the speed we can manage with confident manual dexterity is exceeded, fingers twitch and dance about as if frantically probing the darkness for a light switch! Our fingers sketch the interval patterns–we’re rolling the dice with the notes on the page. Sure, there’s one chance in 272,160 that we randomly might grab the right fingering for a given note, but that level of accuracy will get us fired! So, how can we gain security with our finger technique and increase our speed limit?

Most everyone knows that consistent slow practice is the key to developing technical superiority. Starting slowly and steadily, we gradually increase our speed while maintaining accuracy. Little by little we painstakingly work to program our fingers with many and multiple combinations–for every possible interval. In fact, if we could smoothly, quickly, and accurately perform every possible interval on the instrument (every single note to every one of the other notes), we could say we have mastered the fingering technique on the instrument. Let’s get started!

We’re using Herbert L. Clarke’s Second Study for our technical workouts this semester. Here is the pattern:Clarke_Second StudyOnce memorized, this exercise is a great way to work on velocity in all keys. Some of the patterns will feel easy, and some will be quite awkward to start. We’ve been in the habit of playing the pattern the first time at a slow tempo, then picking up the speed on the repeat. In some cases, it’s a good idea to repeat the pattern multiple times at different tempos. As Clarke advised, “REMEMBER that to improve, one must master difficulties each day.”

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Practicing slowly

Many great performers have much to say about practicing slowly. Orchestral musicians especially have the habit of setting the metronome at a slow speed (maybe half tempo) and gradually increasing the tempo a notch at a time to eventually bring a difficult passage up to full speed. Since flawless accuracy is the goal, so many repetitions ultimately pay off.

One concern, though, is that if we don’t pay attention while practicing slowly, we really don’t improve very much. Great athletes practice complex plays or strategic movements in “slow motion” in order to analyze precisely where every part of the body must be in order to perfectly execute the maneuver. Just moving slowly isn’t enough–mindful technical analysis at a slow tempo is the goal.

So, practice a challenging passage slowly. Pay attention to every movement of your fingers. Notice where glitches occur, then back out and try again in order to “fix” the problem. If this passage is like the pattern a wide receiver will run to evade the defender and make a spectacular catch in the end zone, every footstep will be carefully mapped. The angle of the body, the position of the hands, and the gaze of the eyes all will be a part of the design.


On the bassoon, complex fingering patterns and movements combine for every interval. Become sensitive to how every accurate fingering feels so that you may be able to recognize errors. Choreograph the passage and learn where you need to focus your concentration. Where do you need to be looking? Make the most of your “slow motion” practice in order to perfect even the most difficult music. bumblebee

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Wide leaps

Ruggiero ostinato multikey

As we are working on tuning/voicing/articulating passages featuring wide leaps, a little etude is in order 🙂 I’ve provided multiple keys to cover more interval content.

I suggest practicing this exercise with varied tonguing and slurring patterns. Of particular importance is to play the lower notes more prominently, and the upper notes more quietly. Try playing the lower notes longer/stronger and the upper notes shorter/lighter, for example. As always, keep your metronome & tuner handy!

Note on the source: This is a basso ostinato pattern known as “Ruggiero,” derived from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso “Ruggier, qual sempre fui, tal esser voglio” [Giuseppe Gerbino and Alexander Silbiger. “Ruggiero (i).” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed December 2, 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/24116.]
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Milde op. 24

I like Ludwig Milde’s Twenty-Four Scale and Arpeggio Studies, op. 24. These etudes are great for daily maintenance and workout. I don’t know what it is, but I really like #8–it’s probably because the upper middle register slurs are good vitamins, especially in D major!

Milde_op24_p11IMSLP has a link to the Sibley Library copy of the the Hofmeister edition of Milde op. 24. There are a few wrong notes in this edition (easily corrected), but it’s nice to have a convenient electronic copy for your bassoon music archive.

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First tools for reed making/adjusting

Here’s a quick shopping list for the (few) tools needed for beginning reed making/adjusting:

Mandrel. I recommend the forming mandrel #2130 sold by Womble Williams. You can make your own holding mandrel with a mandrel pin and a do-it-yourself handle.


Pliers. I made many reeds with a pair of 6-inch needle-nose pliers I purchased at Ace Hardware in 1970. Just be sure your pliers have a built-in wire cutter.

pliersWire. #22 soft brass wire is best. Sometimes craft stores carry wire like this, but you may want to check the double reed shops.22brasswirePlaque. It is important to protect the reed when you are working on it. I like a traditional arrow-head contoured plaque–available at double reed shops.

plaqueFile. I like my Grobet files, but any 4-inch warding file will do the trick.


Sandpaper. #400 grit wet-or-dry sandpaper is very handy. I use it to sand the reed tip (to improve response) and for fine finishing of the reed blades.

sandpaperWe like to use cotton thread to wrap bassoon reeds. Nylon thread tends to stretch and squeeze the tube closed. Cotton #10 crochet thread is an inexpensive alternative to the various specialty string available for wrapping reeds, and it’s available in many colors!

aunt-lydia-s-classic-crochet-cotton-size-10-6Duco is probably the most popular glue used to seal and waterproof the thread.


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Baroquemusic.it is a terrific resource! There are a few solo pieces for bassoon (including two Vivaldi concertos—RV501 and RV487—and the Boismortier concerto in D) and considerable chamber music with prominent bassoon parts (e.g. Zelenka trio sonata #5, ZWV 181). A special favorite of mine is Biagio Marini’s Affetti Musicali (1617) which features great early Baroque writing for bassoon. The scores are immaculate, many produced directly from manuscripts. MIDI files are included. We used the MIDI files for a concerto in Garageband to easily create a handy accompaniment (muting the solo track and adjusting the tempo) for practicing. The editions are also indexed and linked through IMSLP.

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Paul Nordby Bassoon Repair

nordbyLast week, I had the great good fortune to have my bassoon adjusted by Paul Nordby in Indianapolis. What a genuinely nice man and wonderful bassoon specialist! My bassoon plays better than ever! In the 1970s, I had taken a bassoon to James Laslie, the terrific bassoon repair expert with whom Paul apprenticed. I think Mr. Nordby is every bit the skilled craftsman and artist Mr. Laslie was—what an outstanding legacy! It takes about four months lead time to schedule an appointment with Paul Nordby, and it is well worth it. I thought I knew what needed attention, but when Paul was finished, he had eliminated numerous leaks and plenty of key slop. I’m such a jock, I just play the instrument I have in front of me. Mr. Nordby knew what I REALLY needed to make my instrument EXCELLENT!

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