April 22, 2011

More Air!

Filed under: 20-minute,bassoon,Mark Norman,music,skills — Mark Dalrymple @ 6:35 pm
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Halloween tree

Another one of Mark Norman’s favorite phrases back when I played in his bands was “More Air!”. Playing a wind or brass instrument requires air. Many amateur musicians don’t Play Out enough. This can be linked back to not using enough air. Hence, When in Doubt Playing Out requires More Air!

Mark used to work with the Music and Arts chain of music stores in Northern Virginia. For whatever insane reason, they let him make a radio commercial. It of course featured tuba, since Mark is a tuba player. The commercial was a “lesson” with Dr. Adidibandyopatai (or something like that), with a hilariously terrible Indian accent, repeating “Morrre Aiirrrrr!  Morrre Aiirrrrr!” to his struggling tuba student. Over this tableaux Mr. Norman intoned the availability of private lessons at Music and Arts. It was probably the most surreal commercial on the local radio at the time.

To this day, Sharlotte and I still say “Morrre Aiirrrrr!” to each other.

I myself have had a More Air moment. I’ve always had pretty good technique on trombone and bassoon, but kind of a fuzzy, weak sound. I had one or two lessons with Mark, and we did the usual exercises of using wind power to keep a piece of paper pinned to the wall as long as possible, and blowing into weird torture devices to suspend a ping pong ball in a column of air. But the advice of, “dude, just use more air. Fill those lungs and blow” is what did it for me.

Pushing More Air through your horn leads to other improvements in your playing. You need to collect a large lungful of air in the first place (unless you’re an oboe player, of course). You can’t collect a good quantity of air if your posture is bad. Sitting up straight, on the edge of your chair lets you inhale more deeply. Poof. More Air!

You also have to learn more control over your instrument. Sure you could force a lungful of air through your trombone at mach 3, but it’ll last five seconds and sound terrible. You need to learn control over your air. By making your More Air last longer, you’ll get better tone, a better dynamic range, plus be able to sustain longer phrases. More Air in the lungs let you keep a constant column of air going into your horn for a longer period of time. A consistent air column means you have less work to and fewer adjustments to make from moment to moment.

Maybe you’ll need a different reed or mouthpiece to support putting More Air through your horn. That’s one reason why I like the David Brundage bassoon reeds: you can push a huge amount of air through them before the sound starts distorting. If you have to fill a church sanctuary with sound during a solo piece, you need to have the volume and projection that come from moving More Air through the horn.

It’s amazing, but that two word piece of advice was the start of a chain reaction that has drastically improved my playing over the 15-some-odd years since I first heard it.



April 1, 2011

Brundage Reeds

Filed under: 20-minute,bassoon,music — Mark Dalrymple @ 2:21 pm
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Contra punctus

I am a bassoon player. The bassoon is one of those of those weird double-reed instruments which require a double-reed. Most bassoon players (and oboe players) make their own reeds. I have tried valiantly in the past to make my own reeds, but I suck at it. Huge quantities of suck. You already know I don’t like to practice, all alone in a room somewhere. You can imagine my opinion of sitting alone in a room, alone, with a knife scraping on reeds. That ranks even lower than practicing.

My spousal overunit is an oboe player, and she seems to love making reeds for four different members of the oboe family. More power to her. She likes to say to her students who are learning to make reeds “keep a laundry basket next to your reed desk. Put your old and broken reeds in there. When you fill it up, you’ll have learned enough to make good reeds.”. I can sympathize with the 10,000 hour thing, but I have many other things I’d rather do with that time than make reeds.

The reed making process is interesting, though. Get some wet cane (I bought my pre-gouged, shaped, etc), fold it over, attach some wires, crunch the end to make a tube, wrap it with string, let it dry, wet it again, cut off the end, and then start scraping.  That’s a bit of labor put in to it before you start finishing it. The scraping process is very iterative. Take some off the blade. Ut oh it’s gone flat because it’s too soft. Cut a little off the tip. Now it’s sharp because it’s harder. Repeat.  When you’re ham-fisted with a knife, like me, you can easily destroy an hour’s worth of work in seconds.

I made my own reeds for awhile, during college and after I got out. Once I got a job, I was happy to exchange money for someone else’s time. My friend Nancy started selling her own reeds which were utterly fantastic. I loved playing on them. I took some lessons on making reeds like hers, but it was a disaster. So I just kept on buying them. Unfortunately she had a life meltdown and quit the reed business suddenly.

Luckily the principal in the community orchestra I was playing in had discovered Brundage reeds. She had been playing on them for awhile and had a very nice sound. David Brundage is a bassoonist with the Army band in DC and makes bassoon and contrabassoon reeds. You can get his stuff from Ann Hodge, at pretty reasonable prices considering the quality of the reeds. I got a handlful of his reeds and really liked them. Not quite as much as Nancy’s, but they’re still good.

I like the Brundage reeds because I can take them out of the tube, put them on the bassoon, and reasonably play a rehearsal on them. They make a nice sound and can accept a lot of air before gronking out. They also last forever. Santa Claus brings me six Brundage bassoon reeds and one contra reed every HannuKwazaSolstamas. That will last me the year. Sometimes I don’t even use all six.

After the first playing out of the tube, they get pretty stiff. I Kramerize them at this point (a term introduced to me by Dr. Keith Jackson, trombone professor at WVU. I have no idea what the derivation is). You Kramerize something by playing for a period of time at double-forte. A half-hour usually breaks them in. I usually do this before a rehearsal, or while we’re playing a piece that’s brass-heavy.

After that, I just adjust by squeezing at the wires. I’ve never taken a knife to a Brundage reed. They play great. Highly recommended.


March 26, 2011

It’s a small world

Filed under: 20-minute,bassoon,music,small world — Mark Dalrymple @ 3:20 pm
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Speaking of BassooneryColin Barrett, I had a small-world experience with him awhile back. Back when I worked for Google, I would go to the mothership out in Mountain View a couple of times a year. At Google I had met AnneKate™ Halsall, one of the webmasters. Together we launched a pretty difficult project, which forged one of those friendships in adversity and shared pain and suffering. On one of my Google visits, I was lamenting the lack of good Mexican food back home in Leechburg.  The closest Mexican was a Taco Bell 5 miles away. AnneKate said “let’s go to this great hole-in-the wall Taqueria. They have awesome burritos.” I’m always up for burritos. Colin met us there.

While waiting for the goodies to arrive, we started chatting.  Colin and I have hung out on IRC and exchanged email and technical questions, but hadn’t met in person, in general knowing each other by reputation. Somehow the discussion got turned towards music, leading to the inevitable “what do you play” question.”  Oh, trombone and bassoon. Not many people know about the bassoon”, which is true. During instrument petting zoos, instrument demonstrations, or just being out in public with it, people go “what is that thing? Is that legal?” Turns out Colin’s dad is principal bassoon of the Honolulu Symphony, one of the major symphony orchestras. So yeah, Colin knows all about bassoons.

Awesome! It’s great to meet someone who is actually familiar with the instrument, things like reeds, and so on. Turns out Colin is not a bassoon player (bummer), but has played violin in orchestras. After that we had a good afternoon talking music.

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