This immensely tricky bassoon passage appears about halfway into the third movement, restating the piano’s opening theme. Like the excerpts from Mozart’s Figaro and Haffner, a tempo of ♩= 138-144 is perfectly acceptable for auditions, though faster tempos that also allow for clean technique should not be discouraged.1 In orchestral situations, though, be prepared for tempos of ♩= 160 and above.2 Also, be sure to observe the crescendo into the third bar before Rehearsal 15 since the horn entrance can often cover up the bassoon at this point.
Placement and Movement of the Fingers
As with all fast technical passages, players should strive to keep their fingers as close to the keys and tone holes as possible. The amount of distance the fingers must travel to close the holes is directly related to how fast we can play a passage—notes simply cannot speak faster than the amount of time it takes for the fingers to cover the necessary holes. Since we don’t often look at our own fingers while playing, we can visualize an excellent comparison between moving our fingers to cover the tone holes with bouncing a tennis ball straight up into the air with a tennis racquet. Bouncing the ball a few feet into the air means that the amount of time the ball takes to return to the racquet is fairy substantial. On the other hand, bouncing the ball only a few inches into the air allows for a much quicker series of bounces since the ball has a much shorter distance to travel. The bouncing movement of the ball at this range is also noticeably more fluid because there is only a small distance for gravity and air friction to force the ball back to the racquet. When the ball bounces at a higher distance, the slowing effects of gravity are very apparent, and the ball will even linger at the top of its bounce in a split-second of weightlessness.
All of these same properties apply to our finger technique. In the same way that gravity dictates the frequency the ball bounces in relation to the height it travels away from the racquet, the physical limits of our muscles determine how fast our fingers can reach the tone holes in proportion to their distance from them. Weisberg explains:
The absolute speed with which a player is able to move his fingers will determine the upper limits of his technique… The most important consideration, with the exception of absolute speed, is the distance that the fingers have to move. This is very much like the situation with regard to tonguing—the less distance to be covered, the better.3
To keep the distance and movement as minimal as possible, the fingers should be kept curved rather than flat.4 This position also helps to reduce tension in the finger muscles, as Jooste writes:
The starting point is relaxation. The fingers should always be relaxed, to make the precise movements with comfort. To reach this relaxed attitude, it should be pointed out to students from the beginning that it is not necessary to close the keys and tone holes with much strength. In truth very little strength of the fingers is required to keep the tone holes closed… The fingers should be kept normally round or bent as in holding and turning a round door knob. The sections near to the finger tips of the left hand will then normally close the tone holes.5
Keeping the fingers of the left hand curved and relaxed is especially important in the first few bars of this excerpt since it can greatly affect the possible speed of the repeated C – D – E♭ – D figure. Christopher Weait also points out that tension in the left hand is often the result of letting too much of the bassoon’s weight rest against it, and recommends experimenting with the angle and height the bassoon is held at to find a more relaxed weight distribution.6
Employing Alternate Rhythms to Develop Technique
Weait also discusses a number of practice patterns for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in a handout that I received at one of his master classes. One method he discusses is to shift the passage forward one sixteenth note at a time similar to Example 14.1.
Example 14.1. Ravel, Piano Concerto in G Major, Mvt. III – bars 5 to 8 of Rehearsal 14, metric displacement practice patterns
This moves the emphasis to different notes in the passage by placing them on the beats, and at first can be very disorienting to practice. Weait recommends practicing these with a light legato tonguing instead of a slur.
He also suggests condensing the meter to 3/8, which allows four-note groupings to irregular rhythmic patterns. Some examples are shown in Example 14.2 (each particular pattern should be used for the entire excerpt).
Example 14.2. Ravel, Piano Concerto in G Major, Mvt. III – bar 5 of Rehearsal 14, possible rhythmic variations
Other practice strategies Weait recommends include playing the excerpt as triplets or quintuplets, and practicing backwards from the end.7
One final note: do not feel that you must use a long E♭ fingering for this excerpt. At such a brisk tempo, whatever pitch or timbre discrepancies you notice between the long and short E♭ on your instrument are imperceptible to the audience. If the short E♭ is exceptionally unstable, though, try scraping a little on the center area just behind the tip.
1 See Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro for David McGill’s remarks on preparing technical excerpts at slightly slower tempos for auditions.
2 It is important to note that many conductors do not require the principal bassoonist to play both parts, making these much quicker tempos less shocking than they might seem.
3 Weisberg, 73.
4 For bassoonists this is particularly important for the left hand. The fingers of the right hand tend to stay more flat to reach the keys, especially if using a crutch.
5 Jooste, 73-74.
6 Weait, 69.
7 See Beethoven's Fourth Symphony for more on this paticular practice technique.