Come join us in San Francisco this Saturday at 8pm, in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Concert Hall. Tickets are still available at
A few months ago I worked on a project that required a romantic era contrabassoon! The basis of the project was to track the development of the contra over time and play some of the music written for each instrument.
Here in the Bay Area we are very lucky to have David Granger who is a period bassoon expert. And he was generous enough to let me use one of his period contras for this project.
Although I ended up getting in a few practice sessions on it; I found that I’m not a great period player, and this instrument has much more potential than what I could perform. I was able to play some Beethoven and Brahms on it but I never was able to get a high Ab which is in Brahms’ 3rd Symphony.
Both of David’s period contrabassoons were made by Wolf in the style of the Viennese contras. This is a unique instrument because it can be tuned to A=415 or 440 with the use of two different lengths of bocals. The bocal looks similar to a bassoon bocal but has a drain and is upside down when assembled with the crook.
When I practiced different instruments in the same practice session I was getting frustrated with the Romantic instrument. I liked it on its own, but if I played a modern instrument and switched back to romantic then it seemed so unstable and difficult to play. Period bassoons in general have a less focused sound, and so I’ve never gotten into performing on them.
The reeds here are supplied by Wolf and were made by Stefan Pantzier I tried my hand at making a few and they turned out okay. The shape is similar in dimensions to the Contraforte C2 shape but with a shorter tube. The thing I didn’t try was adjusting the gouge to something more appropriate to the era. In the time before gouging machines people gouged by hand and purposefully gouged the center thinner. This meant less work had to be done in profiling and finishing a blank.
The newest addition to the reed desk is a Stroboconn Tuner. Stephen Paulson has one of these in his bassoon studio at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It was always so fun to use his so I started hunting to find one of my own. I ended up finding it on eBay and they continue to pop up from time to time. The tuner is two separate units and they are both quite heavy so shipping was complicated.
The display is on the top unit, it’s arranged like a keyboard and incased behind glass. There is an interesting feature between the “white keys” and “black keys” There is a plaque on the left side of the display which reads: “Instrument in key of” and an adjustable sliding mechanism. The key options are C, Eb, Dd, Bb and F; this is for people playing transposing instruments so they don’t have to do transposing math while they are playing into it.
The bottom unit is for calibration which allows for adjustment in cents. For example some orchestras tune to A=442 which would be the change from 0 (A=440) to 7 on the tuner. This tuner works on tube technology and its my understanding that most of the tuning is done in the lower unit and the top is just the display.
Nicolas Lell Benavides is currently a composer in residence with the Elevate Ensemble. He recently wrote a piece titled ‘Summer of ’69’ which is a multimedia work involving projected video and chamber orchestra. This was fun to play and utilized a minimalist composition technique, by giving players short musical games that we would play when cued. This was also my first performance on my new instrument, I picked it up earlier in the week!
I finally got to perform the Franck Sonata, which I had just been practicing for fun. This was originally a violin sonata and was such a great piece that cellists began to play it as well. I am playing off of the Jules Desart edition of the Cello Sonata which works on the Contraforte just fine. The Pianist is Britton Day (who is amazing!)
I am giving a Contraforte Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on October 25 at 8pm. This is in the main concert hall, open to the public, and free. The program will be..
Brahms Cello Sonata no. 1 e minor
Erb Red Hot Duets for two Contrabassoons
Franck Cello Sonata
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
I just bought a Snark tuner to try out. Many of my colleagues have it and they have nothing but positive things to say about it. I have had clip on tuners before, or at least an extension to plug in to my regular tuner.
The Snark is very quick and responsive, there is no lag time waiting for the tuner to focus on the pitch. There are settings to either pick up vibrations directly from the instrument or to pick up sound through the microphone. The pitch level can be calibrated from 415-466.
This tuner is great for bassoonists because it can easily clip onto the bocal, or onto a oboe/clarinet bell. I actually purchased this tuner for my contraforte and like most tuners it cannot register the lowest octave. That would be my only drawback.
I have some basic care tools that I use to maintain my instruments. Key oil, cork grease, bore oil etc. But there are some things that I have found to be very useful especially in buying a used contraforte. The contra was in the use of Lewis Lipnick, a very accomplished and busy player. It had some tarnish on the keys, and I don’t trust myself to take it all apart to clean it. Contrabassoons and contrafortes also suffer from water problems. Contra is the only woodwind instrument that never EVER gets swabbed!
I found these silver polish strips to be amazing! You get a wet paper towel, wipe down the tarnished area and then just wipe it with the polish wipe and its done. I also have “acidic hand oil” like we all do, but mine can damage the plating of instruments over time. So this is a very easy way to keep my keys from damage. These I found at Bed Bath and Beyond
The other great find is Silica gel packets; this is a form of desiccant, or a chemical that removes moisture from the air. I bought a couple packs of these and I keep two in the contra case at a time. When the contra is put away in the case, the instrument is still filled with moisture and warm moist air. These packets help dry out the air inside of the case. I bought mine off of Amazon