Each of the twenty-five main excerpts includes a brief historical overview of the work that it is taken from, along with any relevant information regarding its programmatic aspects. Direct quotes from the composers are included as often as possible in an effort to give the reader a direct window into the composers’ thoughts and compositional processes. In regards to the programmatic elements, I primarily focused on the storytelling role of the bassoon excerpt itself. My choices here were very subjective, and for most pieces it was not my intent to try to explain the meaning of the entire work; instead, the discussions are based upon the issues that I feel are most important for players to understand and be aware of.
For example, it seemed unnecessary to rehash the entire synopsis of The Marriage of Figaro in order to discuss excerpts from the Overture; after all, the plot can easily be found elsewhere online, and Mozart’s overtures had no relationship to the stories of the operas themselves. Therefore, the plot of Marriage of Figaro has no real affect on a player’s possible interpretations of the excerpts. On the other hand, a piece like Ravel’s Piano Concerto might have no actual plot or story, but it is important to point out Ravel’s jazz influences since that could affect a player’s interpretation, particularly of the first excerpt.
Along with this historical information, each excerpt includes pedagogical commentary based on my own views as well as those advocated by a number of other bassoonists. For the most part, I limit my discussion of other authors’ views and recommendations to the advice I find most useful, but I do bring up points I disagree with when I feel it is appropriate. I would like to take this moment to clarify that I have nothing but the utmost respect for every bassoonist I reference in my writing, even if I may disagree with him about certain issues. I would like to make special mention of David McGill, whom I disagree with on more points than any other author I discuss. It goes without saying that I, like many bassoonists of my generation, think of him as one of the greatest musicians to ever play the instrument, and certainly would never proclaim to "know better" than him in regards to any single aspect of bassoon playing. In McGill's case, I simply have more opportunities to disagree with him because he has been gracious enough to give us two very important and extensive resources in the form of his orchestral excerpt CD1 and Sound in Motion book.2 All of my remarks throughout this project are based solely on how I prefer to think of and play these excerpts, and I do not intend for readers to ever take away the impression that I think I am "right" and that someone else is "wrong." Of course, I still have my own strong views and opinions that I express throughout my writing, but in the end they are simply that—my own opinions.
Overall, my philosophy towards bassoon pedagogy is to try and answer the “what, where, when, how, and why” of playing the instrument, and this has been my approach for the pedagogy content here as well. Take, for example, the subject of vibrato—we can ask the following questions of any excerpt with a lyrical component:
- What kind of vibrato should we use (fast/slow and narrow/wide)?
- When and where should we use it?
- How do we produce that kind of vibrato?
- Why should we use that specific type of vibrato in that specific spot in the music?
The same questions can be asked about articulation, reeds, voicings, breath support and embouchure, etc., but examining every facet of these twenty-five excerpts in that sort of detail would be time prohibitive and outside the scope of this dissertation. Instead, I have focused on some of the most important and least discussed issues for each specific excerpt. Many issues—like fast tonguing and reed adjustments—apply to a number of excerpts, so to alleviate redundancy there is a separate section on fundamentals that examines some of these issues.
When I do bring up specific issues or practice techniques that apply to more than one excerpt, I focus the discussion on the particular excerpt that will benefit most from it. For example, I discuss the benefits of proper finger placement and relaxation for the third movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto, but those concepts are applicable to every technical excerpt. However, the reason I chose to discuss finger placement with the Ravel excerpt instead of the others is that the repeated C – D – E♭ – D figure requires moving the first three fingers of the left hand over and over (with an awkward cross-fingering for the E♭), so keeping the fingers curved and close to the tone holes can cause a noticeable improvement in fluidity.
I have also included a full harmonic analysis for many of the main excerpts, for the primary purpose of helping with intonation considerations. For example, when the bassoon has the third of a major chord, the note should be lowered slightly; when the bassoon has the third of a minor chord, it should be raised. Additionally, the analyses can be used to find the dissonances and tension between the bassoon line and the harmonies, which we can then highlight in our phrasing.3
A number of the pedagogy sections also examine the melodic skeletons and fundamental lines of those excerpts. These sketches were influenced by my study of Schenkerian analysis, which explains that most tonal melodies can fundamentally be understood as stepwise and/or arpeggiated lines. For example, the fundamental line of the Bolero solo descends stepwise from scale degree ♭7 to 1, while the fundamental line of each phrase in the Firebird solo can be seen as an expanded cadential movement from scale degree 5 to 1. I have kept these sketches and explanations as simple as possible, and hopefully it is apparent to users that an extensive understanding of Schenkerian analysis is not necessary to see how and why the melodies can be reduced to these fundamental lines.
The analytical and pedagogical content here is intended for bassoonists of an undergraduate level and higher, although I believe that younger students will also benefit from the discussions on fundamentals. I hope these discussions will highlight the type of critical thinking that every player should be engaged in. Where is the tension? Where is the relaxation? How can we show this in our playing—through dynamics, vibrato, tempo fluctuations, or some combination of each? What is the fundamental line of the music, and how should that inform both our larger and more nuanced gestures? What note groupings or style of articulation can we use to give technical passages more character, while also making them easier to play? Most important of all, though, is what can you do to make the music sound natural—and why? Remember, if your own musical plan is not clear to you, then it will most certainly not be clear to the audience; the clearer your musical intent, the more engaged the audience will be with your performance.
1 David McGill, Orchestral Excerpts for Bassoon, Summit Records DCD 162 (CD), 1994.
2 David McGill, Sound in Motion: A Performer’s Guide to Greater Musical Expresssion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007).
3 See the phrasing discussion for Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony.