A Contrabassoon has entered my life recently and I am very excited to start using it. This instrument was owned by Steve Braunstein. He ordered it from Heckel while he was playing with the Toronto symphony, it was finished 1984. Over the summer I trialled 2 other Heckel contras and this instrument was by far the standout. I am very lucky to be the custodian of this horn for a few years.
I get asked about the Contraforte vs. Contrabassoon and I mostly stay quiet. But I think that the entire repertoire is accessible to either instrument. I would like to experiment with using both instruments this season, choosing the instrument that fits the character of the piece.
This contraforte is rentable! I have been so lucky in the last few years to get some great gigs but I can’t do every one of them. Many times there are enough bassoon players in the section to cover all of the parts but no one has a contra. So I rent out the contraforte on a short term basis. To rent the horn I need a few weeks notice and the player is required to come to the house for a brief lesson on assembly and maintenance. The rental is for use in California only, pricing is based on the project.
If you are interested in renting the contra just send me a message through the “connect” page
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.
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.
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.
I have been arranging the Bach Partita for bassoon/contrabassoon. Each of the movements can be found as PDF files on the right sidebar for your own use. I have been having fun with the contraforte recently so I did them on the CF.
This last week I had the opportunity to play the film score to “Modern Times” This is one of the final silent films and the last appearance of Charlie Chaplin’s “little scamp” character. Each performance was sold out and the audience was very receptive.
This project was my first time playing a film score along with the film, and it was stressful. The conductor has strict timing to follow and so the musical cues have little prep. He mostly watches the film waiting for certain scene changes and action to start the different orchestra cues. The fun part was playing the bassoon solos which are mostly jokey and loud. there are a few cool english horn solos and some very fast over the top tempos.
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.
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)
The little finger whisper key, or french whisper key; should become a standard key on the bassoon. It adds an extra option besides the whisper key lock and reduces fatigue in the repeated transition from low note thumb position to the flick key thumb position. The first example comes from Robert Rønnes book “12 Virtouso Studies” in the first study “Warming Up” This passage is a good example of the low register to middle register thumb shift. The left thumb need to shift from the low C key across to the whisper key. However with the little finger whisper key, you can hold down the whisper key for the entire measure. This allows the left thumb to stay in the low register position and play low C as it comes. By using the french whisper key there is the option of quickly removing it, unlike the whisper key lock. It can be added or removed during a fast passage without a reach or shifting.
The next example comes from Simon Kovar’s “24 Daily Exercises” and is a more common issue on the bassoon, the shift from the whisper key to flick keys. The usual technique is to leave the whisper key slightly early in order to get to the flick key in time. With a french whisper key a passage like this takes minimal energy with greater accuracy.
This isn’t an IDRS journal but I think it is still an appropriate place to post reed dimensions. I have only had a few months with the contraforte so far I have come to two styles of reed. One wider and one narrower, the wider shape is a real robust contraforte sound and the narrow shape is a simpler contrabassoon sound.
The wide shape is using the Reiger contraforte shape (23.25mm wide) and formed on a Reiger contraforte mandrel.
35mm blade (collar to tip)
45mm tube (collar to end)
5mm from first wire to second wire
The narrow reed is shaped on a Reiger K1 contrabassoon shape, it’s important to use a fold-over shaper for this since I still use 160mm cane. 160mm cane will not fit into a contrabassoon straight shaper which is meant to hold 150mm cane, but on a fold over shaper the tube continues further. Using this extra tube length also allows the reed to be formed on a contraforte mandrel. Besides using a different shape all of the dimensions are the same.
35mm blade (collar to tip)
45mm tube (collar to end)
5mm from first wire to second wire
The narrow reed is essential to making the CF work in every situation. This style produces a simple, dryer sound, requiring less air, and achieves an easy pianissimo response.
the wide reed is now available on kingbassoonreeds.com
I get a big kick out of experimenting with my setup and trying different options. Leitzinger bocals have been around for a few years now, and I have only heard good things about them. I play a Fox 601 which has the benefit of being very flexible, the bocal that I use completely changes the instrument.
I’m very spoiled in that I live in San Francisco and pretty close to Forrests Music. I picked up a few Leitzinger bocals to play test for the week and I decided to try different platings and different alloys. When I try bocals, two bocals of the same model and size sound so different. I don’t usually try different platings because I can’t tell if the difference is between the platings or just different bocals. I ended up with a N ML 1