Keyed Kontraptions at UC Davis

Keyed Kontraptions was the ensemble in residence at the University of California Davis Music Department 2019-2020. The residency and concert was originally scheduled to take place in April but due the the pandemic it was postponed.

Last month UC Davis was able to set up a system of low latency audio/video which allowed us to be in separate rooms but play together. This worked great and allowed us to record the concert!

 

Nomad Session – Cool Grey City

Nomad Session recently finished a large work that took place over multiple concerts. This was a commission from Nick Benavides  that he based on different landmarks aspects of San Francisco. The videography was done by Maggie Beidelman.

“What about San Francisco’s tucked away stair cases, community gardens, block sized patches of green and that one “quiet spot” in the neighborhood park with a great view that only a local can lead you to? These are the hidden spaces we are interested in and we believe that there is something more magical waiting to be discovered amidst all the fog that fills this city we call home”

“Gardens”

“Stairs”

“Landscapes”

 

Tangential Bassoon

I was recently talking to my neighbor about what I do, and it turns out that he used to be a clarinet player. He said that he didn’t continue on to a professional level because he needed to invest so much in equipment. To be a pro clarinet player, he said, he needed to buy a whole family of pro clarinets and he just wanted to play Bb soprano clarinet. So this got me into talking about the bassoon tangents that people get into, in a professional or sub-professional way. Every bassoon player plays bassoon for a while and then there are a few different directions to go experimenting.

Probably the most responsible secondary horn is contrabassoon. This is very practical since it’s also used in the orchestra and most bassoon teachers can help with it. The only obstacle with contra is getting access to one since they are expensive and unpopular. As a student in college it’s becoming standard to take out extra loan money to finance a new instrument, but usually graduate programs are more lenient on addition loans.

contrabassoon

French Basson is mostly dead at this point. People play them out of curiosity and on a hobbyist level. I had one for many years and I was never tempted to take it to a gig instead of a Heckel system bassoon. That being said, french bassoon can be a cool thing to pull out on a recital or for chamber music. My high point was being able to play the Saint-Saens Sonate on it, but it never made it out to a recital. This scratches the itch of wanting to play a historical instrument but its also pretty easy to learn.

French Bassoon

Baroque bassoon is another route that some players go. Baroque orchestras are becoming much more popular in California and New York, and so there are maybe a few more gigs for baroque players on top of regular orchestra gigs. Baroque is much more difficult to play well and isn’t as pleasing to listen to unaccompanied, so learning it can be tedious. When I have done “baroque” orchestra gigs, it usually ends up being some sort of mixed ensemble. The woodwinds and principal strings play baroque instruments, but the rest of the strings play on modern setups. I am not a baroque bassoon player but I do sometimes want to play historical literature on the authentic instruments. Baroque bassoon are also much much cheaper than modern bassoons.

Baroque Bassoon

The bassoon has recently been modernized even further with the addition of an electric pickup. With a modified bocal, players can plug into an amp and use the same filters and effects that an guitarist can use. There are so many great electric players but not so many gigs. This isn’t so much a career path as it is a way to bridge the gap and get into jazz or rock etc.

Electric Bassoon

Contrabass Instruments

Contrabass versions exist for almost every instrument now. Most of the newer instruments are scarcely written for and are mainly used in new music. There are a few newer companies making wind instruments that can go lower and lower. Eppelsheim makes my contraforte, as well as a very well received contrabass clarinet, tubax, and contrabass sax. Hogenhuis is popular making contrabass flutes.

Contrabass Recorders

Contrabass Flute

Contrabass Clarinet – Eppelsheim

Contrabass Saxophone

Subcontrabass Tuba

Octobass

Green Reed!?

Green Reed

I tried an experiment last week involving a Green Reed for Contraforte. I just harvested some cane in early January and decided to try to immediately make a reed out of it instead of letting it dry. And this is what turned out! I regular reed that sounded and acted like any other reed but it was fresh green cane and didnt need to be soaked in water before I played on it. The texture was similar to a very hard piece of cane so I had to make this thinner than I would normally. After a few days it started to dry out and warp and is now is playing very sharp. Next I’m going to try this on regular bassoon.

I would suggest trying it to all of the cane harvesters out there!

Standing Peg for Contrabassoon, Contraforte, Bass Clarinet

Standing Contraforte

I have been jealous of bass clarinet players and contrabass flute players who are able to perform standing. It adds to the stage presence for certain pieces and is more visually interesting to watch.

  The parts that I used to make this standing peg cost under $10 and I bought it all at Home Depot.

Contra peg 2

For the Contraforte, the peg used is 3/8 inch so it was easy to find a match. I used an aluminum rod since it aluminum is easier to cut. I have my cordless reciprocating saw, Peg stock, black Duct Tape, a Rubber stopper. After cutting the peg to length based on my height, I wrapped the tape around an end to fit the rubber stop. 

Contra Peg

 

Learning to Audition Better

I have entered the limbo phase of my life. I am out of school and practicing all day just waiting for auditions to come up. I’m becoming a full time audition jockey and taking everything that opens. After taking auditions for a few years I realized that I have a problem retaining my audition performance. I can remember the mistakes that I made for a few days, but after months, when I am at the next audition, I try to remember how my last audition went and I have no idea.

So I decided to start an audition journal at my grad school auditions two years ago. Its just a regular composition notebook that I keep in my excerpt binder. I get really into it during an audition and try to document everything possible. Everything from how much sleep I got the night before the audition, how much coffee that I had (for nervous people caffeine can cause shaky hands) and how the audition actually went. Before I even start packing up my instruments I start jotting down what mistakes happened and how I recovered from mistakes.

I have been recommending this to all of my friends who are taking auditions. Even just for posterity’s sake, to look back and laugh at a terrible audition disaster. This is also the best way to record the experience and know in advance how you will react in future auditions.

From my own personal audition journal I found a few patterns evolving. I don’t have stage fright, so I don’t get nervous on stage or during a performance. I do get nervous the morning of an audition but it’s based on logistics.

Like… do i have the perfect reed? did i remember my reeds? do i have the correct check in time? correct date? did i warm up enough? too much? etc.

I also skip breath marks that I have specifically written in. As if after months of practicing this piece of music and logically making a decision of where to breathe, on the spot I have a better solution. So then I am forced to take a breath in a spot that makes no sense whatsoever and is completely jarring.

So outside of the obvious “having mock auditions for friends, family, and teachers” and “recording yourself” and “find many different recordings of the pieces” I would say that the audition journal is the best way to personally track and control yourself in audition settings.

 

Building an Orchestra

The technology and resources available for making musical instruments is at an all time high. I was very impressed and surprised when I visited the Fox factory and was able to see what went in to making an instrument. I have found some interesting videos on instrument production that range from small scale productions to large factories. This is the whole orchestra in score order being made. Sorry Violas.

Flute

Oboe

Clarinet

Bassoon

Trumpet

French Horn

Trombone

Tuba

Violin

Viola

Cello

Bass

Harp

Sax

 

Woodwind Moisture Care

Large woodwind instruments have problems with water and condensation from regular playing. Not to mention the amount of playing that occurs in the lead in to a recital or audition. Contrabassoons are especially susceptible to water damage because they do not come apart to be swabbed, and most players cannot take their contras apart without damaging the seal when putting it back together.

Just last week I was talking to a woman who had bought a Mollenhauer contrabassoon in an estate sale. She bought half of it along with another bassoonist, and they shared it. But after a few months of playing and putting it back into the case one of them developed a cough, and through some sleuthing, found that the contrabassoon was full of mold! They brought it to a repairman who cleaned it out but it was never the same. We all heard about Trombone Lung a few years ago. This stuff can really cause respiratory ailments along the lines of Anthrax.

The best method for keeping a contrabassoon dry is to remove the tuning slide and leave it out on the stand for a few hours after playing. This won’t prevent all problems, on older contras water damage can even be seen on the outside of the instrument, through the lacquer.  The contra’s “wing joint” is the common problem, this is the first piece of wood after the first bend. The danger is mold, and that the mold can damage the seal of the instrument and eat away at the wood of the bore, changing the dimensions.

Contraforte has a bad side and a good side. The bad side is that there is no tuning slide, and so nothing can be opened to help it air out; the good side is the modular design which allows players to take apart their own instruments. I can safely loosen the C-clamps and remove a bend to clean out sections. Recently I removed the second bend for the first time to find that it was lined with mold. The first bore can air dry but after a certain point the circulation doesn’t dry out the entire bore. This means that I need to do regular checks and cleanings at least once every two months.

The best tools for preventing life in an instrument are rubbing alcohol and a dehumidifier. Find a small spray bottle capable of an extremely fine mist, as fine as an aerosol spray. fill it with rubbing alcohol and spray it down the bore when you finish playing and right before you swab (non-contra) The alcohol mist will sterilize the bore and the hard to reach tone holes with the added benefit of evaporating quickly. I even do this to my bassoon before I swab it and put it away. Having a dehumidifier drying out the air makes it difficult for mold and fungi to take hold.

Contraforte

 

Today I did a large scale cleaning by removing all bends and using a fine sprayer of rubbing alcohol. By spraying sections at a time and swabbing them I killed any mold spores and other microbes living inside.

Contraforte Contraforte Contraforte

I have recently invested in a great dehumidifier from Lowes which has improved the air quality. I highly recommend a dehumidifier for woodwind players or doublers. If you can imagine all of the moisture that accumulates in the air from playing multiple instruments and reed making, it makes it hard for things to dry out fully. Especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area there is constant fog and moisture from the sea. I have been keeping my instruments at 45% humidity, this has already stopped my problem of sticky pads.

Dehumidifier

The Conservatory Game

I have a few high school students that ask me about playing bassoon at the next level. They ask me about the conservatory experience and what playing in college is like. This is a big topic and every school is so varied, I can only talk about my time in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and what my friends have told me about other schools.

Each school has experienced faculty but there are usually a few star teachers in the bunch. At the SF Conservatory the star wind faculty are Steve Paulson for bassoon and Tim Day for Flute. So for bassoon I would highly recommend the conservatory for private lessons and pedagogy alone. Steve Braunstein -contrabassoon for SF Symphony- just started on faculty for contrabassoon and has been really amazing in this past year.

The academics for the Bachelors program is VERY easy. 4 semesters of theory and musicianship and a history class and a few music history classes. The masters program involves a theory and musician review and pro seminars. I had a lot of time on my hands for performance classes and reed making.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music

The conservatory offers resources to the students (sort of) There is a recording studio that students can rent time in with a technician. The campus has three performance spaces for recitals and there is rumored to be a student development office to help students. For the double reed players there is a reed room with gougers and a profiler and space to store instruments.

The real problem I have with conservatories is the market for orchestral players after school. I tell my students that in most other fields there are some jobs that they can fill, but as a musician we me never be able to make a living. On top of that the San Francisco Conservatory tuition in fall of 2014 is $40,000 per year. FAFSA will help low income families and private lenders offering student loans can sometimes cover the rest of tuition.

What I think is important to know is that most of the big time players teach a private studio on top of their school studios. So a good option may be to attend another school for a “practical degree” while still studying the instrument. That would create a better chance of having a career immediately after school.

If I haven’t scared people away from conservatories yet, then I’ll talk about the process. Applying to any college is one of the hardest parts of the degree; letters of recommendation, a resume, audition dates, audition material, transcripts, and application fees make the process very stressful. The audition itself is usually pretty painless though, since most of the good teachers are also good people. If you really want to have a good chance of being considered it’s important to meet with the teacher a few weeks before the audition and have a lesson (or two)