A New Edition of Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor, RV 495

I’m very excit­ed today to release some­thing to the world on which I’ve spent a great deal of time: a new per­form­ing edi­tion of Anto­nio Vivaldi’s Con­cer­to in G minor for bas­soon, strings, and bas­so con­tin­uo (RV 495), pre­pared using a copy of Vivaldi’s own man­u­script. You can down­load the whole thing (for free!) at the end of this post. But first I’d like to talk a bit about my path to the piece and my meth­ods in cre­at­ing this edi­tion. I hope that this will all prove use­ful to some­one out there, par­tic­u­lar­ly since this is one of the required pieces for the 2014 Meg Quigley Vival­di Com­pe­ti­tion.

Vivaldi Autograph

I’ve played a cou­ple of Vivaldi’s oth­er con­cer­ti in the past. But my rela­tion­ship with this piece began last year, after Nad­i­na Mack­ie Jack­son did me the hon­or of ask­ing me to write the lin­er notes for the first disc in what will even­tu­al­ly be a set of all the Vival­di bas­soon con­cer­ti. I dove into the project with my cus­tom­ary gus­to — books lit­tered my desk and floor, and PDFs of mis­cel­la­neous Vival­diana deliv­ered to me by the wiz­ards of Inter­li­brary Loan sim­i­lar­ly clut­tered my lap­top screen. As far as I’m con­cerned, research is the fun part. If I could just keep find­ing and absorb­ing more sources with­out ever hav­ing to actu­al­ly write any­thing, I’d be that much hap­pi­er. But aside from the var­i­ous print mate­ri­als, I had a more-or-less con­stant Vival­di bas­soon con­cer­to sound­track — most­ly pre-release mix­es of Nadina’s record­ing, but also ver­sions by Michael McCraw, Ser­gio Azzoli­ni, Mau­rice Allard, and oth­ers.

By the time I had fin­ished the notes for Nad­i­na, I was thor­ough­ly fired-up about Vival­di and his 37 bas­soon con­cer­ti (plus two incom­plete works). So much so, in fact, that I asked Lor­na Peters, Sacra­men­to State’s won­der­ful harp­si­chord (and piano) teacher, if she’d con­sid­er pro­gram­ming one of them with Cam­er­a­ta Capis­tra­no, the school’s Baroque ensem­ble. Hap­pi­ly for me, she agreed, and I set about pick­ing a piece. It’s prob­a­bly not sur­pris­ing that I chose one of the con­cer­ti from Nadina’s disc (RV 495), with which I’d been singing along for weeks. There are many things I love about this con­cer­to. The first move­ment is fiery and flashy. The sec­ond move­ment fore­gos the upper strings entire­ly, cre­at­ing a beau­ti­ful and pas­sion­ate dia­log between soloist and con­tin­uo. The third move­ment is just all-out inten­si­ty — it starts with the whole ensem­ble in dri­ving uni­son (almost the Baroque equiv­a­lent of pow­er chords), and con­tains what I think is one of the best licks ever writ­ten for bas­soon (mm. 53–56).

I first per­formed the piece with Cam­er­a­ta Capis­tra­no in Feb­ru­ary of this year, and luck­i­ly we’ve had many chances to present it again since then. Our tenth per­for­mance will come this Sun­day, as part of the Bra­vo Bach Fes­ti­val in Sacra­men­to. This is the first time I’ve per­formed a sin­gle solo work so often, and I’ve found it to be an incred­i­bly instruc­tive and free­ing expe­ri­ence. The abil­i­ty to actu­al­ly take chances and try new things over the course of mul­ti­ple per­for­mances can shape your per­cep­tion of and rela­tion­ship to a piece in ways that are dif­fi­cult — if not impos­si­ble — to recre­ate in the prac­tice room or in a stand-alone per­for­mance. Even though I fin­ished school a num­ber of years ago, the one-and-done degree recital men­tal­i­ty is some­thing I’m still try­ing to shake. But that’s a top­ic for anoth­er post.

As soon as I’d set­tled on this con­cer­to, I knew that I want­ed to cre­ate my own per­form­ing edi­tion. At the time, I couldn’t locate an edi­tion with string parts (I’ve since found one, avail­able only from Ger­many). Plus, what bet­ter way to learn a piece back­wards and for­wards than to study the man­u­script and make up a new score and set of parts? I could eas­i­ly have used as my source the score pub­lished in 1957 as part of Ricordi’s Com­plete Works edi­tion. But the edi­tor, Gian Francesco Malip­iero, pro­vid­ed no crit­i­cal com­men­tary and appears to have made some edi­to­r­i­al deci­sions with­out explic­it­ly indi­cat­ing that he’d done so. So instead, I went right to Vivaldi’s own man­u­script.

Vivaldi's shorthand for whole-ensemble unison writing

Vivaldi’s short­hand for whole-ensem­ble uni­son writ­ing

Vivaldi’s bas­soon con­cer­ti (and indeed most of his works) were not pub­lished in his own life­time, and are only known to us through a mas­sive col­lec­tion of man­u­script scores that now resides at the Bib­liote­ca Nazionale in Turin, Italy. Most of these are in the composer’s own hand, and the col­lec­tion con­tains many incom­plete sketch­es and drafts. These are strong indi­ca­tions that the col­lec­tion was Vivaldi’s own com­pendi­um of his works, and as such, the scores are far from per­for­mance-ready. The com­pos­er made exten­sive use of short­hand tech­niques, includ­ing dal seg­ni that would be awk­ward in per­for­mance and sim­ply indi­cat­ing uni­son parts instead of writ­ing out the same music on mul­ti­ple lines (see the exam­ple at right).

Beyond expand­ing this short­hand, I endeav­ored to keep my edi­to­r­i­al hand as light as pos­si­ble. But inevitably, there were a few instances in which I made changes or inter­pre­tive deci­sions. I have detailed these in a crit­i­cal report with­in the score. I have not added any artic­u­la­tions, dynam­ics, orna­ments, or any oth­er per­for­mance sug­ges­tions; these are total­ly “clean” parts. There are, how­ev­er, a few impor­tant ways in which this edi­tion dif­fers from the Ricor­di edi­tion (and oth­er edi­tions that have used Ricor­di as their source):

  • Through­out the con­cer­to, Vival­di indi­cates that the soloist should join the con­tin­uo line dur­ing tut­ti sec­tions. Except for the few pas­sages in which Vival­di did not make such an indi­ca­tion, I have pro­vid­ed the soloist with the bass line in small nota­tion. The Ricor­di score leaves rests for the bas­soon in all of these pas­sages.
  • Mea­sures 211–214 of the Presto are in D minor in Vivaldi’s man­u­script. In mea­sure 211 it appears that he has writ­ten and then wiped away or scratched out a sharp sym­bol on an F in the Vio­la part, but there are no oth­er F-sharps marked in those mea­sures. There is then a sud­den change to D major in mea­sure 215. The Ricor­di score places the whole pas­sage in D major.
  • Mea­sure 260 of the Presto does not exist in the Ricor­di edi­tion. This comes at the end of the last solo sec­tion, and the final ritor­nel­lo is a repeat of mea­sures 23–55. In Vivaldi’s man­u­script, he wrote out a full mea­sure of res­o­lu­tion (my bar 260), and then indi­cat­ed a dal seg­no to mea­sure 23. Ricor­di omit­ted this mea­sure, and instead elid­ed the last solo cadence with the begin­ning of the final ritor­nel­lo.
  • Vival­di wrote artic­u­la­tion marks over the eighth notes in the solo part in mea­sures 249–252 and 258–259. The Ricor­di edi­tion ren­ders all of these marks as stac­cati. But in Vivaldi’s hand, the marks in mea­sures 258–259 are clear­ly longer than those in 249–252 (see below). Thus, I have marked the eighth notes in 249–252 as stac­ca­to and those in 258–259 with wedges.
Two types of Vivaldi's articulation marks

Two types of Vivaldi’s artic­u­la­tion marks

For the actu­al engrav­ing of the score and parts, I used Lily­Pond, which I also used for my fin­ger­ing charts. It can be kind of a has­sle but pro­duces very ele­gant results. Also like my fin­ger­ing charts, I’m releas­ing this under a Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion-Non­Com­mer­cial-Share­Alike license. Basi­cal­ly, it means you can use, alter, copy, or dis­trib­ute this how­ev­er you’d like, so long as you give me cred­it and don’t sell it.

It is impor­tant to note that this edi­tion does not include a key­board reduc­tion. It is suit­able only for study or for per­for­mance with string play­ers and a com­pe­tent harp­si­chordist. If you need a ful­ly writ­ten-out key­board part, I would rec­om­mend the new bassoon/piano edi­tion pub­lished by TrevCo Music Pub­lish­ing (they list it under its Fan­na num­ber: F8#23).

And now, with­out fur­ther ado, here it is:

Complete Score and Parts (ZIP)

Vival­di RV 495 — Com­plete Set

Individual Files (PDFs)

Vival­di RV 495 — Bas­soon
Vival­di RV 495 — Vio­lin 1
Vival­di RV 495 — Vio­lin 2
Vival­di RV 495 — Vio­la
Vival­di RV 495 — Bas­so Con­tin­uo
Vival­di RV 495 — Bas­so Con­tin­uo (alter­nate ver­sion with the sec­ond move­ment in score)
Vival­di RV 495 — Score

Although I’ve gone over all of this with a num­ber of fine-tooth combs, I’d wel­come any cor­rec­tions, com­ments, or oth­er feed­back.

An Inexpensive Cane Scoring Tool

Scor­ing is the process of cut­ting a num­ber of par­al­lel ver­ti­cal lines in the bark a piece of gouged, shaped, and pro­filed cane. These cuts make it eas­i­er to form the cane into a cylin­dri­cal tube and help pre­vent crack­ing dur­ing the form­ing process. Dif­fer­ent reed mak­ers have var­i­ous the­o­ries of scor­ing, involv­ing dif­fer­ent num­bers, spac­ing, length, and depth of score marks. There is also quite a vari­ety of tools one can choose from to actu­al­ly per­form the scor­ing, rang­ing from a $4 util­i­ty knife to Rieger’s €946 scor­ing machine. The tool I have used for years is close to the inex­pen­sive end of this spec­trum. It is sim­ply a tap (a tool for cut­ting screw threads) mount­ed in a file han­dle.

Parts and Assembly

Left: file han­dle and tap. Right: assem­bled scor­ing tool.

I cer­tain­ly can’t claim to have invent­ed this — I saw Pro­fes­sor James Lotz at Ten­nessee Tech Uni­ver­si­ty demon­strate such a tool when I was a bud­ding reed mak­er in high school. Miller Mar­ket­ing also sells a scor­ing tool that looks to be basi­cal­ly the same thing, made by 2XReed. I don’t remem­ber what the orig­i­nal tap and han­dle cost (I’ve been using the same scor­ing tool for about 15 years). But I recent­ly made a sec­ond one to keep in my office, and the parts came to a whop­ping $8. Here are a tap and han­dle sim­i­lar to the ones that I recent­ly pur­chased. If you’re lucky, the tap will just fit snug­ly in the han­dle — my first tool went togeth­er that way with a sim­ple fric­tion fit. If you’re unlucky (as I was with my recent parts), you’ll have to glue the tap into the han­dle to keep it in place. No big deal. There are prob­a­bly high­er qual­i­ty file han­dles out there with more con­sis­tent con­struc­tion, but this is what my local hard­ware store had.

Tap Close-up

Detail of the tap

The spe­cif­ic size of the tap isn’t crit­i­cal — you just need some­thing with cut­ting teeth (close up at right) with the spac­ing you want to achieve in your scor­ing lines. I use a tap for cut­ting 10–24 threads; the 2XReed tap looks big­ger. If you actu­al­ly buy your tap at a hard­ware store rather than online, you can just looks at all the dif­fer­ent choic­es and pick one that looks right to you.

To use the tool, first put your piece of cane on an easel. Then, hold the tool per­pen­dic­u­lar to the cane at the point you want to start your score lines — I like to start just above the sec­ond wire. Make sure that you have the edge of one set of cut­ting teeth lined up to dig into the cane, apply a bit of pres­sure, and draw the tool straight down your cane. I like to plant my thumb on the back end of the easel and use a sort of clos­ing-the-hand motion to help keep my lines straight. One pass with the tool with score about half the width of the cane. To score the oth­er side, just repeat the action on the oth­er side. You can put one tooth of the scor­ing tool the last exist­ing line to keep the prop­er spac­ing and direc­tion of your score marks. I’ve thrown togeth­er a quick ani­ma­tion of the scor­ing process:

Scoring Animation

Click to see an ani­ma­tion of the scor­ing process

Finished Cane

Cane after a cou­ple of pass­es with the tool

And there you have it: eight or nine per­fect­ly par­al­lel score marks in a mat­ter of a few sec­onds. Above right you can see a piece of cane after a cou­ple of pass­es with the scor­ing tool. I went a lit­tle too high on the left side of this piece of cane, but it’s not a big deal. It does take a lit­tle prac­tice to align the cut­ting teeth prop­er­ly, and also to make the first cut per­fect­ly straight. But get­ting the hang of it doesn’t take very long, and pret­ty quick­ly you’ll be get­ting very con­sis­tent results. The one draw­back of this method is that it doesn’t quite cut as deeply as I’d like; I like my scor­ing to go all the way through the cane at the back end. So, I typ­i­cal­ly deep­en the marks with a util­i­ty knife — anoth­er pret­ty quick oper­a­tion.

Three Early Weber Recordings

Most of the ear­ly record­ings that fea­ture the bas­soon did so in a com­i­cal fash­ion. A hand­ful of artists record­ed Quentin Ashlyn’s song “The Bas­soon” in the first decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry, and I have in my col­lec­tion a cou­ple of very strange (at least to mod­ern ears) “laugh­ing records” from the same era that include the bas­soon. In 1911, Carl Borg­wald record­ed Julius Fučík’s clas­sic “Der Alte Brumm­bär” in 1911 (released as “Pol­ka Fan­tas­tique” in the U.S.). And in 1918, Edi­son released two some­what sil­ly piccolo/bassoon duets: “The Ele­phant and The Fly” and “The Nightin­gale and the Frog”, both fea­tur­ing Ben­jamin Kohon, who would lat­er become prin­ci­pal bas­soon­ist of the New York Phil­har­mon­ic. The ear­li­est “seri­ous” bas­soon piece on disc (the ear­li­est that I’ve been able to locate, any­way) was not the Mozart Con­cer­to, as one might guess. Rather, it was Carl Maria von Weber’s Andante e Ron­do Ongarese. In fact, this Roman­tic show­piece was record­ed three sep­a­rate times between 1920 and 1938.

Aside from being his­tor­i­cal curiosi­ties, these record­ings give us a glimpse of ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry bas­soon play­ing. And as far as I can tell, none of these record­ings have ever been re-released. Below you will find copies of all three, dig­i­tized from discs in my col­lec­tion. I’ve applied a bit of noise reduc­tion and removed the worst of the pops and clicks, but these are far from pro­fes­sion­al-qual­i­ty trans­fers. I’d rec­om­mend lis­ten­ing to these on head­phones or real speak­ers, as they may be a bit dif­fi­cult to hear on lap­top, tablet, or phone speak­ers.

Weber Recordings

The three discs in chrono­log­i­cal order. Click for a larg­er ver­sion.

The first two of these were in fact made by the same man: William Gruner, who played bas­soon in the Philadel­phia Orches­tra 1906–1917 and 1929–1951. Gruner was born in Berlin on Jan­u­ary 12, 1883 and arrived in the Unit­ed States aboard the S.S. Deutsch­land in April 1906. He became a U.S. cit­i­zen in 1914, and lived near Philadel­phia until his death in Feb­ru­ary 1971. In the peri­od between his two stints with the Philadel­phia Orches­tra (1917–1929), Gruner worked for the Vic­tor Talk­ing Machine Com­pa­ny, mak­ing numer­ous record­ings with the Vic­tor Orches­tra and numer­ous small­er groups.1

William Gruner

William Gruner, from his 1923
U.S. Pass­port Appli­ca­tion

Gruner and the Vic­tor Orches­tra first record­ed Andante e Ron­do Ongarese in June 1920. They record­ed ten takes over the space of three record­ing ses­sions in Victor’s Cam­den, New Jer­sey stu­dios. The last of these, record­ed on June 24th, was issued as “Hun­gar­i­an Fan­tasie” on the B side of Vic­tor 18684, a ten-inch 78rpm disc. The piece was severe­ly cut down to fit this for­mat: it lasts a mere three min­utes and thir­teen sec­onds. (For com­par­i­son, com­plete record­ings I have by Milan Turkovic, Nad­i­na Mack­ie Jack­son, and Masahi­to Tana­ka clock in at 9:53, 9:02, and 9:20, respec­tive­ly.) After the ini­tial 16 mea­sures of the Andante, a two bar orches­tral tran­si­tion launch­es us right into the Ron­do. The Ron­do is a bit more sub­stan­tial, but is miss­ing huge chunks (includ­ing most of that dread­ed last page of 16th-note triplets). The end of the piece has been rewrit­ten, too. Hear it for your­self:

Listen to William Gruner - Andante e Rondo (1920)

When Gruner made this record­ing in 1920, the tech­nol­o­gy involved was quite sim­i­lar to that invent­ed by Thomas Edi­son 43 years ear­li­er: the per­form­ers played into a large horn that trans­mit­ted sound waves to a flex­i­ble diaphragm con­nect­ed to a sty­lus that cut the sound direct­ly onto a wax disc. This method pro­duced record­ings with lim­it­ed fre­quen­cy and dynam­ic range and required per­form­ers to crowd around a sin­gle horn to be heard. But in 1925 Vic­tor (and many of their com­peti­tors) adopt­ed a new elec­tri­cal record­ing process that used micro­phones, vac­u­um tube ampli­fiers, and an elec­tro­mag­net­ic record­ing head. This sys­tem allowed for much greater dynam­ic and fre­quen­cy response, and pro­duced a gen­er­al­ly much bet­ter sound­ing record­ing.

Gruner and the Vic­tor Orches­tra returned to the stu­dio on Octo­ber 19, 1926, and record­ed an addi­tion­al five takes of the Weber with the new elec­tri­cal record­ing sys­tem. They used the same pared-down arrange­ment — elec­tri­cal record­ing did noth­ing to mit­i­gate the format’s time con­straints. This new record­ing was released in June 1927 as the B side of Vic­tor 20525, anoth­er ten-inch 78rpm disc. Although Vic­tor didn’t set about re-record­ing their entire cat­a­log after switch­ing to elec­tri­cal record­ing, this is in instance in which they clear­ly want­ed to re-cre­ate an ear­li­er disc. The A sides of the two discs are record­ings of Tour­bil­lon (Whirl­wind), a piece for flute and piano by Adolph Krantz, albeit fea­tur­ing dif­fer­ent per­form­ers.2

If you made it all the way through Gruner’s 1920 record­ing, you prob­a­bly don’t need to lis­ten to all of this one. His inter­pre­ta­tion doesn’t change appre­cia­bly, although it is inter­est­ing to hear the dif­fer­ences between the two record­ing process­es.

Listen to William Gruner - Andante e Rondo (1926)
Fernand Oubradous

Fer­nand Oubradous

The French bas­soon­ist Fer­nand Oubradous record­ed Andante e Ron­do Ongarese in Paris in 1938, accom­pa­nied by the Orchestre de la Société des Con­certs du Con­ser­va­toire under the direc­tion of Roger Désormière. Oubradous was born in Paris on Feb­ru­ary 12, 1903. He won his Pre­miere prix from the Paris Con­ser­va­toire in 1923 — after only a sin­gle year of bas­soon study. He played with the Paris Opéra, the Orchestre Lam­oureux, the Orchestre de la Société des Con­certs du Con­ser­va­toire, and the Trio d’Anches de Paris. In addi­tion to Weber’s Andante e Ron­do Ongarese, Oubradous record­ed con­cer­ti by Mozart, Weber, and Bois­morti­er and a great deal of cham­ber music. But his first job after grad­u­at­ing from the Con­ser­va­toire was as music direc­tor of the Théâtre de l’Atelier, and he received much acclaim as a con­duc­tor through­out his career. Oubradous died in Paris in Jan­u­ary 1986.3 For more on Oubradous, see these two sites (both in French): fernand.oubradous.free.fr and Fer­nand Oubradous — Site de l’association Fou de Bas­son.

Oubradous’s record­ing of the piece is near­ly com­plete, thanks to it being issued on both sides of a twelve-inch 78rpm disc (L’Oiseau-Lyre O.L. 14). This is like­ly attrib­ut­able to the fact that Édi­tions de l’Oiseau-Lyre has always had a more spe­cial­ist and schol­ar­ly focus than more mass-mar­ket com­pa­nies like Vic­tor. Side A is the Andante, which is just over four min­utes long. The Ron­do (on side B) is slight­ly longer at four min­utes and six­teen sec­onds. The Ron­do had to be cut down a bit to fit; forty-two mea­sures have been excised. This is most­ly most­ly repeat­ed themes and sec­tions of orches­tral inter­ludes, but the entire last state­ment of the ron­do theme has been removed as well. There’s one oth­er inter­est­ing change: the four mea­sures of quar­ter-note trills in the mid­dle of the last flashy sec­tion have been tak­en out of the solo part and giv­en to one of the orches­tral bas­soon­ists!

Listen to Fernand Oubradous - Andante et Rondo Hongrois (1938)

It’s clear that record­ing tech­nol­o­gy and disc man­u­fac­ture had improved quite a bit in the 12 years since Gruner’s sec­ond record­ing. The bas­soon is clear­er and more present (the fact that he was play­ing a French bas­soon helps, too), and the orchestra’s sound has far more depth and def­i­n­i­tion. Frankly, the qual­i­ty of the bas­soon play­ing is much high­er, as well. Although this par­tic­u­lar record­ing hasn’t been rere­leased, you can occa­sion­al­ly find Oubradous’s Mozart Con­cer­to on CD on Ama­zon, or as mp3s here.


  1. John Ardoin, The Philadel­phia Orches­tra: A Cen­tu­ry of Music (Philadel­phia: Tem­ple Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1999); William Gruner, Peti­tion for Nat­u­ral­iza­tion, March 20, 1913, Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Peti­tions for the East­ern Dis­trict of Penn­syl­va­nia, 1795–1930 (Wash­ing­ton, D.C.: Nation­al Archives and Records Admin­is­tra­tion, micro­film series M1522, roll 93), 335; William Gruner, 165–03-6373, Social Secu­ri­ty Death Index, 1935-Cur­rent (Pro­vo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Oper­a­tions Inc, 2011); William Gruner, Draft Reg­is­tra­tion Card, Sep­tem­ber 12, 1918, World War I Selec­tive Ser­vice Sys­tem Draft Reg­is­tra­tion Cards, 1917–1918, (Wash­ing­ton, D.C.: Nation­al Archives and Records Admin­is­tra­tion, micro­film series M1509, roll PA83), 278. 

  2. The ear­li­er disc (Vic­tor 18684) fea­tures flutist Arthur Brooke of the Boston Sym­pho­ny, while the per­for­mance on the lat­er disc (Vic­tor 20525) is by Clement Barone, a mem­ber of the Vic­tor Orches­tra and for­mer­ly prin­ci­pal flutist of the Philadel­phia Orches­tra. 

  3. Jean-Pierre Seguin, “Fer­nand Oubradous: A Half-Cen­tu­ry of Wood­wind His­to­ry,” trans. Philip Got­tling, The Jour­nal of the
    Inter­na­tion­al Dou­ble Reed Soci­ety
    , no. 14 (1986),
    http://www.idrs.org/publications/controlled/Journal/JNL14/JNL14.Seg.html

Bassoonasana -or- Yoga and the Bassoon

Bassoonasana

I start­ed prac­tic­ing yoga about a year and a half ago. The stu­dio I attend is devot­ed to Bikram Yoga1, a form of Hatha yoga that con­sists of a pre­scribed series of 26 pos­tures and two breath­ing exer­cis­es done in a 105°F room over the span of 90 min­utes. It’s intense. One writer pro­claimed that “if Chuck Nor­ris did yoga, it would be Bikram.“2 I first went to class at the behest of my wife Veron­i­ca (a 6–8 class­es per week devo­tee), and was sure I wouldn’t like it. But I found the class’s com­bi­na­tion of men­tal and phys­i­cal chal­lenges to be com­pelling, and I’ve been going reg­u­lar­ly (more or less) ever since. I try to go to two or three class­es per week, but I haven’t always man­aged to main­tain this in the thick of the semes­ter.

I say that I teach music, but a good deal of my instruc­tion could, I sup­pose, be called phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion. Play­ing the bas­soon requires the coor­di­nat­ed inter­ac­tion of more body parts than most oth­er instru­ments. All ten fin­gers must be able to move both inde­pen­dent­ly and in dozens of dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions; mus­cles of inhala­tion and exha­la­tion must be fine­ly con­trolled; form­ing the prop­er embouchure is crit­i­cal; tongue, jaw, and throat posi­tion all have influ­ence on the sound a play­er pro­duces; for most set-ups, the left arm must sup­port some of the instrument’s weight. And of course there are the more gen­er­al issues of pos­ture, eye con­tact, cue­ing, and expres­sive or time-keep­ing ges­tures.

In the ser­vice of all of these things, I firm­ly believe that stay­ing fit is an impor­tant part of my musi­cal rou­tine. There are cer­tain­ly lots of types of exer­cise to choose from, and each offers its own par­tic­u­lar ben­e­fits. I’ve found my yoga prac­tice to be help­ful to my bas­soon prac­tice in many ways, across both the phys­i­cal and men­tal realms. I’d like to share some of the lessons or crossover skills that yoga has pro­vid­ed me. Pret­ty much all of these apply to musi­cians in gen­er­al; some of my com­men­tary is just very bas­soon-spe­cif­ic.

Breathing

The most obvi­ous con­nec­tion between yoga and play­ing bas­soon relates to breath­ing. The class­es begin with an exer­cise that involves slow deep breath­ing (along with sim­ple arm and head move­ments). One of the pur­pos­es of this exer­cise is to explore 100% of your lung capac­i­ty, both when inhal­ing and when exhal­ing. This is some­thing I often work on with bas­soon stu­dents — being in full con­trol of your air means under­stand­ing both the top and bot­tom lim­its of your lungs. I find that young stu­dents in par­tic­u­lar often don’t real­ly have a con­cept of what a deep breath is until I get them to fill their lungs to their absolute max­i­mum. Once they’ve felt what 100% capac­i­ty feels like, it’s usu­al­ly much eas­i­er for them to take an 85–90% breath and play with bet­ter sup­port and a big­ger sound. Even though I know the lim­its of my own lungs very well by now, the breath­ing exer­cis­es in yoga help me refine and main­tain my con­trol over my mus­cles of res­pi­ra­tion.

Balance

Six of the class’s twen­ty-six pos­tures involve bal­anc­ing on one leg, often while extend­ing oth­er limbs out into space in var­i­ous ways. Although stand­ing up and play­ing bas­soon is less acro­bat­ic than many of these pos­tures, it still involves being in a some­what unnat­ur­al posi­tion with a heavy asym­met­ri­cal object alter­ing your cen­ter of grav­i­ty. I’ve found that work­ing on these pos­tures has helped me feel more secure in being mobile when I’m stand­ing up and play­ing.

Proprioception

Every pos­ture involves var­i­ous minu­ti­ae of body posi­tion­ing: place­ment of the hands, rota­tion of the hips, angle of the feet, direc­tion of your gaze, engag­ing cer­tain mus­cles or mus­cle groups, etc. Keep­ing track of all of these things requires a very well-devel­oped sense of pro­pri­o­cep­tion (per­cep­tion of the posi­tion and move­ments of the body). This sense is also essen­tial in bas­soon play­ing. Can you tell with­out a mir­ror whether your embouchure is set up cor­rect­ly? How far your fin­gers are lift­ing above the keys and holes? Whether your left thumb is head­ed for the prop­er flick key? If you’re rais­ing one shoul­der, stick­ing an elbow out, or engag­ing in some oth­er unnec­es­sary motion as you play?

Relaxation

In addi­tion to pay­ing atten­tion to the var­i­ous body parts engaged in a par­tic­u­lar pos­ture, part of the prac­tice of yoga is relax­ing the parts of the body not direct­ly involved. When engaged in a dif­fi­cult pos­ture, it’s very easy to let ten­sion creep into oth­er mus­cles and joints. This most often man­i­fests in the face via gri­maces, flared nos­trils, and the like. Teach­ers often give reminders to relax your face or even to smile at the most awk­ward, dif­fi­cult moments of class. The abil­i­ty to relax under pres­sure is vital to musi­cal per­for­mance, as well. If you let ten­sion build up — par­tic­u­lar­ly in dif­fi­cult musi­cal pas­sages — you won’t play as well, and you make your­self more prone to repet­i­tive stress injuries. Also, relax­ing the fin­gers you’re not using at any giv­en sec­ond will keep them clos­er to the bas­soon, increas­ing tech­ni­cal facil­i­ty.

Listening

The teach­ers explain each pos­ture as the class does them, but they do not per­form the pos­tures them­selves. And unless you’re next to par­tic­u­lar­ly advanced stu­dents, watch­ing those around you can be of lim­it­ed val­ue. Thus, your main source of infor­ma­tion about the pos­tures is the teacher’s ver­bal descrip­tion. While you’re bal­anc­ing on one foot, using your pro­pri­o­cep­tors to tell you what your oth­er foot is doing, relax­ing your face, and remem­ber­ing to breathe, you have to reserve enough brain pow­er to pay atten­tion to the teacher’s instruc­tions. They will often pro­vide cor­rec­tions once you’re in a pos­ture too, so you can’t tune out in the mid­dle. Sim­i­lar­ly, you have to be able to keep your ears open for audi­to­ry feed­back while you’re read­ing a dif­fi­cult musi­cal pas­sage, pay­ing atten­tion to your fin­ger height, relax­ing your shoul­ders, care­ful­ly man­ag­ing your air, and per­haps keep­ing one eye on a con­duc­tor.

Patience and Acceptance

Even after a year and a half of yoga class­es, I can’t touch my toes with straight legs. My ham­strings are still too inflex­i­ble, but I’m slow­ly improv­ing. In every class there are peo­ple far more flex­i­ble than me who can reach well past their toes — even some who can touch their fore­heads to their toes. Rather than let­ting this frus­trate me, I try to have patience with myself and take the long view. Judg­ing myself based on those more advanced than me (many of whom have been prac­tic­ing yoga for far longer than I have) is unpro­duc­tive at best and depress­ing at worst. But I can take what they do as inspi­ra­tion, and con­cen­trate on mak­ing grad­ual progress. I think that every musi­cian has had the expe­ri­ence of being flab­ber­gast­ed by hear­ing some­one far more advanced per­form on their instru­ment. The best way to respond to such an expe­ri­ence is not to think “I’ll nev­er play that well,” but to think “I want to be able to do that — what can I do to work towards his or her lev­el of per­for­mance?”.

Fur­ther­more, it’s easy to focus on your per­ceived defi­cien­cies while not rec­og­niz­ing the things at which you excel. For what­ev­er rea­son, I seem to be nat­u­ral­ly quite good at Rab­bit pose, the most intense for­ward bend of the entire series. I didn’t even real­ize I was good at it until my wife remarked on it. While it’s cer­tain­ly impor­tant to iden­ti­fy and work on the things you’re not so great at, it’s also good to pick out the things you already do well. This will both bol­ster your con­fi­dence and allow you show off your best qual­i­ties effec­tive­ly. Not so great at rapid tongu­ing? That’s ok — keep work­ing on it. But in the mean­time, don’t for­get to show­case that [rockin’ high reg­is­ter | vel­vety tone | fast fin­ger tech­nique | what­ev­er your strength is].

Discipline

When you take your first Bikram class (at least at our stu­dio), the teacher tells you that your goal is to just stay in the room for the entire 90 min­utes. The peo­ple who laugh at the seem­ing sim­plic­i­ty of that goal are often the same peo­ple who fail to attain it. As I said above, between the heat, the dif­fi­cul­ty of the pos­tures, and the hour-and-a-half dura­tion, this class is intense. The only time I have sweat as much as I do in a Bikram class was in high school drum­line camp, car­ry­ing 30-pound tenor drums and march­ing on black­top in the noon­day sun of Ten­nessee in August. And just like in drum­line, in Bikram you are expect­ed to lis­ten, to do what you’re told when you’re told to do it, to stay focused, to remain still when you’re at rest, and to ignore the beads of sweat drip­ping down your face. Devel­op­ing this sort of focus and abil­i­ty to shut out dis­trac­tions is essen­tial in being a calm and col­lect­ed per­former.

Determination and Perseverance

This goes hand-in-hand with my dis­cus­sion of dis­ci­pline above. Many of the pos­tures involve hold­ing very dif­fi­cult posi­tions for what seems like an eter­ni­ty. In fact, there’s one sim­ply called Awk­ward pose that involves bal­anc­ing on your tip­toes while crouch­ing with your thighs par­al­lel to the floor and lock­ing your arms straight out in front of you. The easy things to do are to either not go ful­ly into the pos­ture (half crouch, don’t go all the way up on your toes, let your arms sag, etc.) or to just quit halfway through. But nei­ther of those paths lead to improve­ment. Even when you lose your bal­ance or grip in a pos­ture, the teach­ers exhort you to get right back in and try again. The same goes for musi­cal prac­tice and per­for­mance. A tech­ni­cal pas­sage isn’t clean? Don’t gloss over it, prac­tice until it’s 100% cor­rect. Don’t break that slur for a breath — keep push­ing to the end of the phrase (you’ve explored the low­er end of your lung capac­i­ty, right?). You make a mis­take in per­for­mance? Let it go and play the snot out of the rest of the piece.

Conclusions

As I said above, there are plen­ty of choic­es in how to exer­cise, each with dif­fer­ent ben­e­fits. Play­ing the bas­soon at a high lev­el is such a phys­i­cal act that I think it’s essen­tial to find some form of reg­u­lar phys­i­cal activ­i­ty that works for you. This form of hot yoga has worked well for me, but in the past I’ve also expe­ri­enced great ben­e­fits from swim­ming (par­tic­u­lar­ly in the realms of air man­age­ment, lung capac­i­ty, and effi­cien­cy of oxy­gen pro­cess­ing). What­ev­er you choose to do, be mind­ful about it — fig­ure out how it can help your musi­cian­ship, both direct­ly and indi­rect­ly.


  1. The epony­mous founder of this style of yoga is a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure, and is cur­rent­ly embroiled in law­suits that allege rape, sex­u­al assault, and oth­er supreme nas­ti­ness. If I can love Wagner’s music while despis­ing the man, I can cer­tain­ly reap the ben­e­fits of this yoga with­out sup­port­ing its prog­en­i­tor. 

  2. Olivia Solon, “Bikram Yoga: Is It Worth the Sweat?Huff­in­g­ton Post, 03/01/2012. 

TuBassoon at U-Nite

TuBassoon at U-Nite

TuBas­soon with mod­ern dancers dur­ing a U-Nite pro­mo shoot for Good Day Sacra­men­to. (Craig Koscho, Sac State Pub­lic Affairs)

On the evening of April 11th, I per­formed as part of the sec­ond annu­al U-Nite, a mini-fes­ti­val of the arts at Sacramento’s Crock­er Art Muse­um. The event fea­tured fac­ul­ty and stu­dents from the var­i­ous parts of Sacra­men­to State’s Col­lege of Arts and Let­ters. Per­form­ers and exhibitors were sta­tioned around the muse­um, pre­sent­ing short pro­grams of music, dance, film, the­ater, visu­al arts, and the writ­ten word. My col­league Julian Dixon and I played in one of the gal­leries as the duo TuBas­soon.

Sur­round­ed by gor­geous Cal­i­for­nia land­scape paint­ings, we played 25–30 min­utes of music drawn from numer­ous sources. We had pre­vi­ous­ly played P.D.Q. Bach’s “Dutch” Suite for bas­soon and tuba, so that was an easy choice. Although there are at least a cou­ple of oth­er works writ­ten specif­i­cal­ly for bas­soon and tuba, we end­ed up adapt­ing the rest of our reper­toire from oth­er sources. We played the first move­ment of Mozart’s gor­geous Sonata, K. 292 (for bas­soon and cel­lo), one move­ment of a Tele­mann canon­ic sonata, and a suite of short tuba duets by Wal­ter Sear.

The morn­ing of U-Nite, Julian and I were part of a live seg­ment on the morn­ing show Good Day Sacra­men­to. We’re play­ing P.D.Q. Bach’s “Pan­ther Dance” in the back­ground while reporter Court­ney Dempsey inter­views U-Nite’s orga­niz­ers:

Inci­den­tal­ly, if TuBas­soon con­tin­ues, we might just have to make Courtney’s descrip­tion our mot­to. Tubas­soon: A lil’ tuba, a lil’ bas­soon.

After our evening per­for­mance, I was able to catch City­wa­ter’s per­for­mance of a new piece by Stephen Blum­berg, which was great. But unfor­tu­nate­ly, between grab­bing a bite to eat from the muse­um café, get­ting set up, and talk­ing to audi­ence mem­bers after our per­for­mance, that was all I was able to take in. But this video col­lage from Sac State’s Office of Pub­lic Affairs pro­vides an excel­lent overview of what I missed, and shows off the excel­lent range and diver­si­ty of the event: