Contraforte Rainbow

December 2013 was a very important month for me because of the purchase of a Contraforte. This horn was owned by Lewis Lipnick of the National Symphony in Washington D.C. (who is an amazing person and an amazing player) When I bought it, I drove my little Prius from San Francisco to Washington DC to pick it up and drive it back. Now that I have had it for a year I think I am in a better place to talk about my experience with this instrument. My reason for writing this is the same reason for this entire website, basically consumer reports. So many cool new gadgets have been coming out in the woodwind world recently without much user reviews. When I spend money on new equipment I do research to see how it is received by players before I decide to purchase it.

Origin Story (skip this)

In my undergraduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory I played a little contrabassoon here and there as needed but it never stuck with me. Then after graduating I went and played contra with the San Luis Obispo Symphony for a year. The symphony had an Amati contrabassoon that I was allowed to borrow and keep in my possession full time and this is when I started getting into contra. By having a contra at my house that I didn’t have to share, I put in some practice hours and messed around with reeds. I ended up really liking contrabassoon and decided to go back to the conservatory to study contra with Steve Braunstein of the San Francisco Symphony (another amazing person and amazing player) I was using the SFCM Fox contra which is in need of service and a better bocal so I was frustrated. I was looking around the used contrabassoon market all summer and fall looking for anything worthwhile, but the contra market is slow/limited, very difficult to play test without committing to buy. My thought at the time was that many people have middle range contras with the intention of upgrading sometime in the future, but I would rather just spend some money on a nice contra now and have it for the rest of my life. So I contacted a few big players all around America to see if they new of any contras for sale. Lew got back to me and said that he was selling his current Wolf Contraforte (#35 circa 2009) and replacing it with a new CF which had a few updated acoustics.

January-March

For the last year or so I had been playing contrabassoon for at least an hour a day so I was used to the fingerings, air pressure, and reeds. I am the kind of person who takes a while to adjust to new instruments, even to the point that play testing instruments for a few minutes is a waste on me. So when I first had the Contraforte I really didn’t like it. I was able to play low notes slowly and sort of go through the fingering chart and play the full range. There were huge problems immediately; I was very sharp, I only had one reed, and I could only play forte and louder. I new that the contraforte needed reeds that were larger than the contrabassoon but I didn’t realize that I needed special machines. So I was going to be completely reliant on Hank Skolnick to make all of my reeds for me. I decided within the first month of having the CF that I needed to have my own gouger and profiler if I was going to make this instrument play correctly for me. So with a little student loan money and the help of Steve B and Chris van Os I got a pair of machines. I tried all sorts of dimensions and shapes but 160mm cane with the Reiger contraforte shaper was always the best result, and still what I use. I should mention that the CF comes with an adaptor to fit regular contrabassoon reeds but middle F# cracks nonstop and so does tenor Db. I read somewhere that they also can make a bocal which is slightly longer and fit a regular contrabassoon reed, which might be better than the adaptor (which creates a dramatic flare in the bore right at the beginning) The CF does not have a tuning slide and is built closer to 442 than 440. Compared to a CB this is strange, but similar to bassoon you just learn to make a reed that plays in tune since there are no moving parts for tuning. I was at this time very primitive in the reed stuff and experimenting with the gouge, profile, thick/thin rails, think/thin heart, think/thin tip. Each reed in the reed case was individual and I wasn’t able to duplicate the same reed, the tones possible with those reeds ranged from distant muted tuba to amplified chainsaw.

April-June

I needed to have a recital to graduate and I had been spending way too much time on contra and not enough on bassoon. So I put a contraforte show together with the Mozart oboe concerto, a Mignone Waltz and Sonatina d’Amore which is a contrabassoon duet. The contraforte played great despite a few operator errors, and was received very well. I was experimenting with narrower shapes at this point using a Rieger K1 with 160mm cane. This created a simpler reedier sound a lot like a contrabassoon. The SFCM orchestra was playing Don Juan, the big oboe solo in the middle is accompanied by a drone low G in the contra. At the time, this narrower shape was the only way that I was able to play quiet enough. I always had a few of these narrower reeds in my reed case, the issue was that the internal volume of the reed was not enough for the entire range of the instrument. It seemed that I could make a reed with a resonant low register but too thin in the higher register; or a high note reed that was sharp in the low register.

July-September

Over the summer I bought a few more gadgets, with the help of Trent at Midwest Musical Imports. I bought the contraforte stand and gigbag from Wolf. The stand is huge asset, since the horn doesn’t come apart it isn’t possible to clean it out very much. Leaving it out on the stand is essential so that it is able to dry out. For reeds I was completely on the Rieger C2 which is the contraforte shape, this is the shape I have used full time since. The San Francisco Opera was auditioning utility bassoon and contrabassoon and I took the audition along with everyone else from the Bay Area. It seems like the CF is something that people invest in after they hold a contra position, so not many contrafortes have been in auditions. I played alright but nothing special and I didn’t pass into the finals. This was a good hurdle for me to audition on a new horn and it made me more comfortable playing in public. The end of the summer was mostly playing contra duets with people, not so much to show the instrument but to work on blending with other contras and finish sorting out pitch issues.

October-December

Recently I have been continuing my quest for stealing repertoire from other instruments. The range of the contraforte allows me to borrow cello music and the quick response lets me play high woodwind pieces. My last recital had the Brahms Cello Sonata no.1, the Hindemith english horn Sonata, and Syrinx. The contraforte performs great with piano, since I didn’t change the piano parts some of the voicing clashes with the range of the contra. However the tone of the CF is still clear over the piano. I have settled on a reed design which uses the wider reed shaper, Rieger C2, and I leave the blade quite thick. I clean up the collar area and even out the tip but the profiler from Chris van Os is adjusted in such a way that I need to do very little. Having a heavier tip creates a darker sound with easy high notes and the reed doesn’t warp as much in humidity/temperature changes.

Contraforte Reed

Things to Remember about Contraforte

*It’s heavier than a contrabassoon

*Contraforte cane cannot be processed on contrabassoon machines

*Most parts and pieces can only be replaced by Wolf

*Larger dynamic and notation range

*Stable intonation and timbre

Contraforte Kontraforte

San Francisco is a hub of new music and small ensembles. One of these newly formed groups, is a chamber orchestra called Elevate Ensemble. This is a unique ensemble in that they perform rare works that don’t receive enough attention. Their next show is on October 10 at 8pm at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  Come to hear..

 

Hanns Eisler     Nonet no.1

Walter Piston     Divertimento

Danny Clay     Bethlehem Triptych

Richard Wagner     Siegfried Idyll

Tickets available for $15 at eventbrite.com

 

Elevate Ensemble

Tax deductible contributions with AWESOME PERKS can be made at hatchfund.org

 

 

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.

 

Robert Rønnes has written a great method book called Twelve Virtuoso Studies. I have been working with this book for over a year now and it has been an asset for my technique. This has been especially helpful on contrabassoon and contraforte for down slurs. Excerpts like Elektra have large down slurs that need to be clean AND sound like it’s easy. So the first exercise “Warming Up” is all middle and low range, which isolates large interval slurs. Running through this every day on contra has made a noticeable difference in my playing.

 

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)

skywalker

This last week I had a chance to record a session a Skywalker Ranch with the San Francisco Wind Ensemble. We even had the opportunity to work with Leslie Ann, the very talented recording engineer of Skywalker sound. In total we recorded:

Ida Gotkovsky: Poeme du Feu

David Maslanka: In Memoriam

Boris Kozhevnikov: Symphony 3

Darrol Barry: Prevailing Winds

Besides having fun at Skywalker, this gig was very different for me in that it was with a wind ensemble. I haven’t played with a wind ensemble since high school and I wasn’t very aware of my own bassoon sound at that time. Wind ensembles have saxophones, euphoniums, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and multiple clarinets doubling each part. So in this situation the bassoon section is at a loss; with an entire sax family and clarinet family the bassoon is barely audible. Not to mention that any dynamics I performed hardly made a dent in the overall sound of that passage. The bassoons place in a concert band a very limited and unflattering. Much of the bassoon part is rhythmic background, if it is a moving line then it is doubled by saxophones or euphoniums. I think I will stick to orchestras from now on!

 

Contraforte Reed

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.

160mm cane

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.

160mm cane

35mm blade (collar to tip)

45mm tube (collar to end)

5mm from first wire to second wire

contraforte reed

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

Leitzinger Bocal

 

contraforte stand
contraforte stand

After a long search,  I have finally found an instrument stand for the contraforte. This was a find off of eBay and it was made by Aureum. This seems to be a generic low-woodwind stand that can adjust to fit many different instruments, it certainly fits contrabassoon on top of contraforte. The top of the stand is completely adjustable in height, width, and angle that it hold the contra. My only complaint would be that the peg cup at the bottom of the stand is too small, but I might remove it and add a different one.

I am unable to find out where this stand can be bought. It’s a company in Korea and I don’t think that they have any U.S. distributors. I have seen a few of these pop up on eBay though!

contraforte stand

Reed Thread
Reed Thread

Probably the least important part of reed making is reed thread. This is the most visual and artistic aspect of the process but serves little purpose. There are a few shapes that require wrapping to seal properly (Hertzberg) but outside of that, good shaping and Duco cement will suffice. Threads are available at double reed supply stores. I have been looking for other sources of reed thread (for cheaper) but have come up short. I know people who prefer cotton thread, and for those people “Aunt Lydia’s” thread is availabe at many stores. I don’t personally like how Duco cement works with cotton. Nylon size FF thread or 138 can be found at many online retailers. I have been using OMEGA thread. Its a nice nylon thread but its thicker than FF so maybe it isn’t usable for oboe/english horn. It comes in 90 different colors and its very cheap. This is great for bassoon and contra reeds and it doesn’t take as much thread to create a turban. I have a friend who buys all of her thread off of the thread exchange. They sell larger spools and in many colors. And of course all of the double reed supply stores have thread. Most of my thread is from RDG Forrests and Charles