Friday, November 12, 2010

Old Music Feels Oddly New

My recording life started in Montreal with dozens of MSO recordings under Charles Dutoit and I am reminded of this every time that I return to this beautiful city.

This week, I am playing a concerto on baroque bassoon at a special benefit concert being held at the Salle Mercure of Centre Pierre-Péladeau. VIVA GRAUPNER features diverse concerti by Christoph Graupner and is the brainchild of Geneviève Soly, director of the baroque ensemble, Les Idées Heureses. This concert will showcase 9 concerti and will be recorded by CBC for future broadcast. Here is a recent article in Le Devoir about Geneviève's decade-long labour of dedicated championing of Graupner.

Geneviève has assembled a very lively group of musicians and the atmosphere is one of discovery as each newly-edited concerto is rehearsed (I was going to say released). I am opting to sit in the continuo section when I am not playing my solo... it is always really enjoyable to play with hot basso players and it gives me time to get really comfortable with my baroque bassoon.

Though Geneviève has strong opinions and knows this composer deeply, she is also welcomes my interpretation, occasionally exclaiming, as she dutifully makes notes in her score, that she has never done it this way yet is intrigued and amused.

Unknown to myself, I was nervous for the first reading, and confounded one of the simple rhythms in the first andante and then my F key lost a screw and twanged to the floor. Things got better though and today, I somehow was able to live in the sure knowledge that this music is lightly written in ways that allow for inspiration in the moment --- the music allows for as much invention as I am capable of mustering, either in tone, articulation or ornaments. The strings respond in kind and discover effects that I could never have imagined. Geneviève has boundless energy and enthusiasm, offering to repeat movements in different ways... this kind of pneumatic, terrier-like involvement is wonderful to me, and gives many opportunities to start to learn the voice of this composer.

And I am discovering a voice that is by turns tender, suave, dark, earthy, humorous in a ways both sly and candid --- though written sometime around 1744, this concerto (GWV 307) feels oddly new and is a thrill.

And when we walk out on stage next Monday, the microphones will be standing like slim sentinels, my silent, all-hearing familiars in my small world of endless discovery.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Friend Wins an Award and I Feel Very Very Happy

My friend has just won a very important award in the Canadian music scene. Guy Few has been awarded Touring Artist of the Year by CAPACOA.

It is so gratifying to see that his work has been noticed by the people behind the scenes in the world of touring musicians and so great that he was recognized amongst genres and disciplines beyond and including classical music. He certainly never expected this and in fact, when he told me two weeks ago that he had been nominated, I promptly made a bet with him that he would win. I bet $539.13 that he would get the award... he ignored me and began talking about something else.

To his credit, he offered to pay me on Sunday when the results were announced but of course I wouldn't let him.

In the end, I feel as glad as if I had won this myself. He is the only classical artist I know who makes his living traveling around the continent and playing art music in solo settings rather than buffered by institutions of various kinds. It is a rare and remarkable life and I am so fortunate to share some of it with him.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Orchestra is an essential experience (for me, but maybe for everyone...)

Tonight, I heard an expertly performed version of the Rite of Spring, played by two pianists and a percussion section. Though it was a curiosity, at times delightful, and historically relevant (it was Stravinsky's own version), it made me ache for the orchestral colours. Not only the frail, plangent bassoon, but the primal horns and earthy oboes, the powerful strings, the fireworks piccolo and mysterious alto flute. The piano version was like a sketch by a great master, deeply attractive, hinting a powerful shapes and colours, but never fulfilling them entirely. Lost was the fragility, the rawness, the great powerful waves of sound and rhythm.

The first record I ever owned was Rite of Spring, played by the Cleveland Orchestra. I could only play the disc at school (Prince George Senior Secondary) because we lived off-the-grid, thirty miles from the town of Prince George. We did have an electrical generator, but it provided the wrong kind of current since my Dad had salvaged it from a train... we blew up a toaster trying to use it (the generator). Anyway, when I went to university, I played the disc in the UBC library and would fall asleep listening to it on repeat. Later, I got to play the piece with Rafael Frubeck de Borgos when he conducted the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, and just a few years later, I got to tour all over Europe with the Montreal Symphony and Charles Dutoit, playing the Rite, including Paris where it all began. We recorded the work and it is written on my soul.

I love orchestral colour... to hear a great symphony from the inside is like living in a great painting... it is indescribable and unforgettable and addictive in the extreme. And it all began for me in a northern logging town that had the foresight to start a music programme and hire a superb band teacher who in turn put in a good word for me when the community orchestra started. So many good things have come to my life from that first experience. Every time that I play Mozart's 40th, I think of the time I played it with the Prince George Symphony Orchestra --- the wind section consisted of me, a flute and an oboe. On the recording, I couldn't even hear myself! How things have changed yet none of it could have happened without the first opportunity that this community orchestra gave me.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

About Time...

Time is utterly precious. Time is essential to the creation of recordings. Most musicians have very little. Time, that is.

Today, I got up at 6:30 a.m. to make breakfast for myself, my elderly Dad, my son, and Diva the Cat. I also made lunches and enough food to get me through a day of driving to compass points in the city. I drove my son to school through thick traffic, finding an unexpected shortcut and delivering him at exactly the very last possible moment. Then my Dad and I attended an hour long house inspection for my new abode and I fielded several calls from people wanting to offer me mortgages. I contacted designers, painters and movers. I cancelled my single student for the day, feeling it more important to secure financing for the new house (sorry darling!). Then I took my brave old Dad to lunch, then returned home to pick up my son's choir music that he had forgotten in the morning. Then I checked the memos from the choir and realized that today was a photo shoot for the chorus, so I went back and got my son's suit bag but realized that he lacked black socks and dress shoes. I raced across town to pick him up at school, then we went to his Dad's house and hunted for socks. The we got in the truck and drove north, stopping at 4 stores looking for dress shoes, found some, and arrived exactly on the hour of the rehearsal. We learned that the photo shoot was postponed until October 23 ---great, so we are ahead of the game! Then I sped back south and arrived just in time for my workout session with my trainer, then called my manager and arranged newest publicity and a programming meeting. Drove back up north in the oily dark sheeting rain and parade of red tail lights, found a parking spot and ate my supper in the truck (so much for the new truck smell!) then fetched my son. We stopped to buy beer for my Dad who needed a reward after a day of sitting in my truck (he said it was fun but he needed a beer)... the store was closing but the kind lady waved me in and locked the door behind me. I loved her for that. Then home and Dad heated his own supper while I tried to help my son screw the motherboard into the computer he is building. We failed and got a little sad. Dad took apart another server and it might work for the motherboard but my son decided to crash after a long day. Dad came downstairs to see if he could help clean up, but I was desperate to practise after a long day with not music and sent him to bed (sorry Dad!). So I will play for another hour then go to bed and get up at 6 to start all over again. Teaching from morning to evening in two cities, ear glued to the cell phone between times, fetching my son and trying to spend time with my Dad. Sometime this week, I must finish the editing for our recital CD, plan the release of my solo CD and finalize the recording sessions for the Canadian Conceri CDs... the time must be found in corners and behind other seemingly solid obstacles.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Talking about recording

I was part of a very interesting focus group discussion on the necessity and viability of recording art music of all genres.

I was very touched that this large government group asked "How important is it for you to make recordings?" and never once asked, " How do you justify the large number of recordings that you have made and continue to make?"

I was also touched and puzzled by my invitation to this event, since I have rarely been successful in my grant applications... maybe one in 10 applications has received any funding. The big advantage is that I use the experience to focus my ideas and I have learned to keep trying and not be bitter. It is a passionate process though, and my voice shook embarrassingly as I spoke (very briefly) about my experiences in pushing through big projects.

I will tell you more (I took copious notes) about this day-long symposium though I suppose the most interesting thing was that the wide variety of musicians represented at the table (flamenco, ojibway, south indian, jazz, celtic, accordianist and, well, me) all agreed vehemently that recording was integral to our living breathing creative lives as fully functioning artistic musicians.

Monday, September 20, 2010

CBC Concert Recording of music by John Beckwith

Tonight I had the fun of playing in a Toronto concert of music by John Beckwith. Among the many intriguing works on the programme, I played his 'Solo' for bassoon, written in 2008 for George Zukerman but never previously performed. There were duos, a trio and a quartet and the larger group also played 'Eureka,' a complex, fluid nonet for three trios which move around on the stage. Ken Winter's review in the Globe and Mail is a good description of the full concert, though he did not realize that my 'Solo" was indeed a premiere (I'll forgive him this time).

It was a real privilege to have 4 serious rehearsals with John Beckwith. He is an exceedingly gentle yet searching individual... demanding yet flexible. There is enormous variety in his music, but nothing flirtatious or coy... it is oddly lyrical and intriguingly unique.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Next Recordings

Home again to Toronto...

Before leaving Berkley, my engineer (David Bowles) played several tracks of the Braun Solos on his incredible surround sound system. This in-depth sound allowed me to hear all of the nuances that I achieved in the music, and really made me ache for the ones that I did not fulfill! But really, it is amazing to hear my ideas reflected back through a state-of-the-art playback system. This is really the gift of our period in history.

Anyway, hearing my interpretation played back to me through a sensitive, detailed sound system left a lingering and surprising revelation... the ideas mattered enormously, and the musical thoughts that I had, each and every one, could have been the exclusive intense focus of my preparation, far above any technical concerns. Musical inventiveness, phrasing, timing, gesture, all of it. Technique automatically comes to the service of these principles, not the other way around. At least, this is true at my advanced age.

Now it is time to rapidly pull together the Canadian Concerti (solo and double concerti written for me and Guy Few in the last 2 years) project for December and to plan the Vivaldi Concerti project with Nic McGegan and my wonderful string band.

This means schedules, emails and phone calls since I am putting these projects together at the last minute... years of planning have gone into them but the money has only materialized now. I really prefer to undertake these recordings when I have the dough... the ROMANZA project was financed by an eleventh hour line-of-credit and I never want to repeat that experience!!!

Monday, August 23, 2010

24 Invitations (to Imagine)

This is my working title for the Braun Solo project... we'll see if it sticks when I go to production in a few months.

We finished the recordings today at 4:00, a much shorter day than yesterday!

This project was a great experience... a return in concept to my first solo project (Telemann Fantasias, 2000) after a really hectic and tumultuous year. Yes, I played many recitals this past season and had some great musical experiences, yet the time to study and learn and consider music was entirely consumed with house renovations, sale, moving along with recovering from burglary, i.d. theft, divorce, festival problems and all that other bowl-of-cherries stuff that hits people every once in awhile. This recording project marks my new life in much the same way that the Telemann project did.

My engineer is a true musician with superb ears and early music experience. This makes him an excellent partner in the recorded performance. He passed on ideas and guided the sessions very efficiently. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have the beautiful new hall all to myself... the Green Music Center is still not finished, yet the hall is very ready for performances of any kind. Natural light floods in through high windows and is tempered with natural muslin coloured blinds... beautiful woods finish all the floors and seating areas, and I could glimpse the sky through various angles. I felt really privileged to be in this space.

Doing this project renews my desire to learn more about baroque music, but more importantly, to learn how far I can take my own ideas. Maybe I will return to my early process of practising daily by recording my work as it is amazing to step back from the printed page and from my own playing to hear the notes translated into sound. Many of the movements of the Braun required considerable invention and I wish that I had notated several versions in advance, rather than doing my usual thing of leaving it up to inspiration. The reason to notate them is to allow for multiple takes of whatever is the best variation... this can still be tinkered with on the spot (we spent a few hours with this tinkering during the last two days!) but there is nothing wrong with nailing down a few options.

A life in music is full of endless possibility... I can never be satisfied or 100% sure of my merits, yet I am always engaged, always intrigued, always looking forward to trying again.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

14 hour recording day

Today went much better.
We left for the hall at 8:30 a.m. and returned 10 10:30 p.m.

David changed the microphone placement slightly... I move back one foot from the mics to let in more room sound and to get some elbow room in my tone... the previous mic placement was so close that I felt like a giantess, which wasn't working for the music.

I felt much freer but this meant we had to re-record the first 3 movements of the Braun Solos. that was fine because I felt I knew them much better after the time we spent working yesterday.

We got to #18 --- six more to go, plus I am going to take another swing at the spikey little Scherzo if there is time.

I made 3 new reeds yesterday morning... I blew out #66 after 6 hours of recording, moved to #68. By 7:00 this evening, David complained that it sounded fuzzy, so we took a break while I finished trimming #67. I trimmed it by the crow and went straight to recording... the new reeds have the best response but they get waterlogged quickly. I will need to trim one or two before tomorrow's sessions.

Anyway, some of the pieces have become sooooo much more musical from the recording process. I have been using them as studies for my students and it is really nice to revisit them as pure music. Some movements beg for extra inventiveness on the part of the player and my producer, David Bowles, is feeding me ideas when I need them.

My big piece of recording advice for today: always bring a pencil.
And don't injure your back right before the sessions... it is a big bother.

OK, good-night little bassoonists!

Saturday, August 21, 2010


First day of recording... the Green Music Centre is an acoustically stunningly sensitive space and also beautiful to look at. We feel like the last humans on earth as the lobby spaces are still raw and under construction and the campus is deserted at the moment.

We managed to record the first 3 movements of the Braun Solos after arriving late in the day and setting up the the equipment and running the sound check... just 21 more to go Stated bluntly, my tone is beautiful (thanks largely to David's microphone placement) but I am struggling to find the flexibility and suppleness of gesture that is essential for this music. My immediate conclusion is that it is easier to prepare for these recording projects when my life is relatively stable. But the learning curve, or in this case, the response curve can kick in quickly. I still have two complete days to craft an inventive interpretation. Wish me luck because it feels like a distant goal from my present perspective.

In other news, on the long drive to the sessions, we noticed a large new sedan entering far too quickly from the on-ramp and fishtailing wildly before it executed two 360 degree pirouettes in front of us. David safely evaded by pulling onto the far left shoulder and all the other cars spread out around the cirque-de-soleil Honda sedan. After finishing a string of blue language, I looked in the rear view mirror to see the Honda sedately joining the orderly stream of slow-lane traffic. An interesting start to our adventure... a spectacular non-accident.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A New Way of Doing This

Today was a free day before the recording sessions start. And even then, the sessions will not start at the Green Music Center until late afternoon, a very civilized schedule.

In terms of preparation for the recording, I did many of the usual things, both practical and artistic that always need to be done yet the pace is much more relaxed than usual.

In the morning, I worked through all of the Braun Solos. I paid for the hall rental and copied and bound the music for David (I normally do this weeks before the sessions). I wrapped blanks just before dinner, ready to trim the recording reed in the morning.

In between, I have been thoroughly spoiled by my sophisticated and cheerful hosts. Engineer David Bowles and conductor Nic McGegan have some rare simultaneous time at home which has resulted in some excellent home-cooked meals for me and some nice rides in the Mercedes. And I must say, this is a new experience. Usually I am juggling many many practical things while getting ready for a recording and have never before had this experience of ease and pleasure prior to sessions. Aches and pains from moving and stressing about day-to-day life are fading away. I am really grateful and I am also wondering if this is something that could be aspired to in the other projects that are coming up.

I continue to aspire to some brisk tempi in the first Giga, the Scherzo and the final Bizaria... they also continue to slip away from me yet I keep imagining the ease in my hands and mind that gradually builds a reliable response... if I have to choose a different (slower) tempo for the recording, that is fine. I will still work towards my goals. Sometimes it all comes together in time... or it will later. Either way, it is useful to me to keep trying.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Right Before the Recording

Right before any recording project --- rarely is there any time for practising.
Usually the logistics have to be taken care of (chairs moved, cheques written, music copied, musicians picked up), or in the case of this project, the opportunity has to be enjoyed. A completely solo project is much easier to organize. Leaving Toronto at dawn and drinking a latte at Peet's in Berkley by noon.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Parallel play

Often when I am preparing a recording or a major recital, I will paint a series of themed works.
This was easier when my life was more settled and I could leave a painting out in the open for days at a time. Now I am both busier and tidier which has curbed the output of paintings.

Anyway, the impulse produce other art while working on music is a way of manifesting the invisible world of music into a parallel and tangible art form.

The Braun Solo recording projected has manifested itself in these small paragraphs rather than art... somehow the words are more agile than the paintings, slipping into cracks of time and not demanding as much space.

In my creating life (I am allergic to the word 'creative' even though it is often the right word), be it making paintings, preparing music or anything else, I always have to be doing something else, looking at the main goal sideways and rarely head-on. This method works well with many things though not, I repeat not, with cooking (smoke alarms figure significantly in my culinary endeavours).

It works simply --- when my mind is preoccupied with a painting, suddenly I will have a harmonic or tempo revelation; likewise, when I am playing music, I will suddenly see that I have painted the dragon's foot on backwards.

And in another way, these very Solos, these small and demanding gems, can be used when I am working hard on other music from other times. Leaving the main goal and cavorting a bit with these little bass-line melodies is a very good way to look sideways at a larger, more menacing sonatas and concerti. It is a way to fracture the despotic goals of mastery/dominion and instead, knit a genuinely playful interpretation.

OK, have to get up at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow to get to my early morning flight to Berkley. Gotta stop playing the bassoon and documenting current tempi (always interesting to see how well these works sound at a variety of speeds) but hard to since I was not able to get to it until evening... a photo shoot for another artist took place in my studio all day. Parallel play of a different sort.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I love my repairman

OK, there, I said it. I love my repairman.

Somehow, the work he did has had the effect of hours and hours of practise.

Until yesterday, I felt that I was pulling phrases out of murky quicksand, begging the voices to separate, feeling like I was pushing a wheelbarrow with my lips, trying to create a sculpture with a cudgel. Now the bassoon responds and allows me to ride my wave of thought (simple as it is), now the journey is beyond labour and in the realm of movement, ebb and flow. My ability to circular breathe has returned.

My repairman, Shane Wieler, wearing two pairs of glasses and talking fluently about the meaning of life, coaxed keys and pads back into alignment on the boot joint, replacing the leather F pad with a synthetic one, and the result is a clarity that I have been aching for. My reeds also sound better, yessir, they surely do.

And I thought I was sick of the Braun Solos, fed up with the thirteen movements in g minor (out of a total of 24 movements), chafing at the limited range combined with small fiendish difficulties. Thought I might want to re-record the Telemann Fantasias because, after all, they are glorious.

Now the sly wit of the Braun is more evident and I am charmed and fascinated anew.

I would claim it as a miracle though Shane has wrought this particular miracle many times before. Always needed, always welcomed, always makes me very very happy. And it somehow helps that I have practised hard even when the leaky bassoon was stolidly unresponsive.

Thank you

My incredible repairman was too busy to see me this week. When I called two days ago, I did not plead or beg, but simply told him that I would drop anything at anytime in the two days left before leaving for Berkley if any time became available. He promised that he would let me know.
Then late yesterday, he called to say that he would come into the workshop on his day off to give me a couple of hours.

This was an incredible gift.

All of the hard practising that I have been doing in terms of clarity is now suddenly audible. The sluggishness in the sound is gone, the is ring and kick back, no more sounding like a truck careening around a curve in the highway.

All I can say is thank you.
And good night.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Slog on, blog on

There is always a point in the preparation for a recital or recording when I feel becalmed (not the same a feeling calm!). The subconscious undercurrents of spontaneous growth and development seem to abandon me. It eventually passes once I put more time into the playing, but always an existential cul-de-sac until then.

At these moments, when clarity eludes me, I remind myself to simply search for patterns that may have previously eluded me in the music. Any phrase that consistently crashes is usually due to a misunderstanding of the patterns and grouping. The patterns illuminate meaning and also give purpose to the very basic boneheaded tasks of trying to produce a clean, musical tone or exotic tempo.

And if time allows, I try to see where my mistakes are leading me... sometimes they are like persistent children, exasperating yet also communicating something important albeit
with the wrong words. I am always open to the ideas that grow from my mistakes.

Tomorrow I visit my repairman and maybe he can give me wings.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Play it for a French guy

Today, a tree crew came to the brace huge cracked branch of the 100 year old willow that overhangs my yard and carport. They will return tomorrow to take down the branch.

I talked with the foreman while we watched the amazing acrobatics of the front guy who shinnied up to the top the tree then tarzaned across the gap to lasso and tether the cracked branch. Another good looking dude with mirrored shades was standing at the base of the tree, holding the end of the rope so that the man swinging above him would not hit the ground if something went awry.

Meanwhile, I talked to the boss. They were all beguilingly handsome tree men. The boss was gruff, bluff, tough, yet he knew what a bassoon was. And he spoke French. And I knew about different makes of chain saws and admitted to speaking a little bit of French. Ok, so I thought a bit about him later when I was practising.

Because, he had first asked, "What do you do?" and I promptly replied, "I'm a musician."

As I practised, I thought wondered what he would hear if I played this French music from 1740... I played it as if he were listening and somehow that made the music new for me again, took away the tiny doubts, and I played it as if hearing it for the first time. Well, not really, but I could somehow imagine the sensation of not having any judgement beyond the initial impression of the sound.

I am bone weary --- my tone feels very heavy today, if I consult my previous notes, there is hope that this too shall pass.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sand in the Oyster

There is simply no replacement for the alchemical compound of dissatisfaction and regular, keep-going-no-matter-what practising. If I keep going, it gets better, though rarely on the same day.

Yesterday, I felt that my playing was going to stay heavy and wooden. This afternoon I felt the same as I was in the midst of my "power hour" (playing through the complete Braun in this case) and pondered a call to my repairman (he is magical). But tonight, suddenly the clouds separated and some lightness came to my playing, revealing some new levels of technical fleetness.

Sometimes I have to be very self-centred to get the time that allows me to keep playing until the transformation takes place. After all these years, I know that my technique will always eventually become buoyant and responsive in the service of my particular lyricism, but it is usually a long gritty road to get there. The irritants eventually produce the nacreous pearl but only if I have the time to stay in contact with the bassoon. And when that happens, I return to all the music that needs that special air-lift, staying up far too late playing music that has nothing to do with the immanent project.

This is one of the many ways that I prepare for recording. Thank goodness for stretches of time and the dissatisfaction that keeps me going.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Today I donated money towards the recording project of one of my friends. I have always loved to hire my friends to play for and with me, and it has long been a fantasy of mine to contribute to other people's recording projects. And this group, the fabulous THREEDS, made it easy for me by setting up a website and sending around a note requesting (sweetly) help in any amount over $1.

Anyway, I felt good all day because of my chance to contribute. But I NEVER would have done it if they had not asked me! So, I will say it again. If you want something, ask for it, describe it, do it. Don't wish that you could do it. Instead, back your own talent and get to work. Tell people about it and eventually they will help you.

And it makes me remember that the opportunity to help others is ALWAYS very close to me... sometimes all we have to offer is encouragement, but anything that makes it possible for others to reach their potential has the power to improve our lives in almost magical ways.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Expect the Unexpected

Sometimes, a whole day (e.g. yesterday) becomes free --- completely mine to organize as I wish.
Then, and only then, do I become so ill that I cannot stand. Certainly not with my bassoon.
I'm fine today.
Just reminding myself to always expect the unexpected.
Leave margins of time everywhere.
Keep moving.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


OK, sometimes I really spend more time behind the wheel than behind the bocal.

We left Ottawa to return to Festival of the Sound (Parry Sound)... a six hour drive. I grabbed an hour to whip through the Braun Solos. Then back to Toronto... 3 hours. Now another day of driving and I will probably play late into the night.

Driving long miles of highway, I play the movements of Braun in my mind.

Any recording is a snapshot in time... it is a glimpse of our lives and what we are able to make of them within the chaos of daily living and human responsibilities.

When I was younger, I bristled at the word "sacrifice" as I felt my life really was astonishingly comfortable despite its unusual aspects. Now, I feel that the word might be accurate to some degree.

Any musician who accomplishes something out of the ordinary has, indeed, sacrificed the pleasures and comfort of an "ordinary" life in exchange for the rare yet certain moments of ecstasy that come from pushing oneself as far as possible to express a solo voice in a huge number of settings.

Any musician who chooses a very stable and reliable existence (tenure track teaching or established symphony) will sacrifice, for the most part, the opportunity to fully present their individual voice. And for some, this is no sacrifice!

Many of my symphonic friends look at my recordings or my large paintings, and say that they "wish they had the time." I have a variety of bitchy responses, but the main one is: no one has time for anything in the mad dash of our lives.

To really play well, we must be self-driven.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival - Guy & Nadina

Today, Guy and I played our last recital of our current programme... we are not sad yet it was an important moment and wonderful to play for a large, enthusiastic crowd.

We have played this programme dozens of times in the last 18 months for audiences across Canada and in the U.S.. We have performed shorter versions of the same programme for almost 1600 young people ranging in ages from five years to 14 years old.

And every time we play the music, we have to revisit the difficulties, acknowledge the dragons that hide in the shadows, sketch out our vision and go through a rapid evolution to aim for our best playing. The joy becomes constant... we know it will be fun and that the audience will hook into our pleasure in playing. But my point is, nothing is ever carved in stone. The technique is never to be taken for granted though it sure helps to meditate on the years of practise that have gone into my repertoire and to have faith that it will pay off.

Likewise for the recordings... preparation is steady, constant and will continue long after I finish the final take. I have continued to practise all of my recorded repertoire and find that the act of making the disc is only one more step in understanding the music.

Buzz and Crow - concerts for children

Always, as I am preparing for a recording, real life is taking place. Of course, real life for musicians involves lots of fantasy and today we got to take some fantasy to the stage at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival with our new children's show, Buzz and Crow. Guy and I presented a wordless act of theatre that reveals both our instruments and archetypal characters... in this case, the eternal child (Buzz/Guy) and the benevolent yet dark magician (Crow/Nadina). We had very vivid responses from both the children and the adults in the audience.

So today, I only played my favourite warmup movement from the Braun Solos that I will be recording in just over two weeks. For the last three years, I have used Capricio (No. 13) as a way to check in, to see if my hands are light and relaxed, if my reed responds quickly and easily.
This piece helps me monitor my technique but it also makes me very happy.
OK, to bed... another recital tomorrow at noon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Inauguration of the House

There is not always time to practise or make reeds. So the schedules flex to fit the circumstance.

I am on the road, going early to the Ottawa Chamber Festival because of Guy's engagements, bringing my son and getting my mother set up with caregivers (a little flock of bassoon student angels), packing the truck and re-packing the truck and then forgetting all of our CDs that we would have sold at our concerts in Ottawa.
No matter, just keep moving.

Left Toronto in the midst of holiday traffic but arrived to spend the first night in my old Dad's newly built log house. He is still adding the finishing touches, but he had the loft all ready for us, and the next morning, I played the complete Braun Solos before packing the truck again, picking up Guy in Parry Sound, and heading to Ottawa.

I had to drag myself away from the playing in the loft, aware that it really was a special occasion to have this opportunity to be the very first musician to perform in the house (all houses need to be concertized in this way). But more than that, the sound was beautiful, resonant and responsive. This is practising of a different kind and I felt very fortunate.

When I went downstairs, my old Dad was (for once) not working, but sitting on his single piece of upholstered furniture and listening quietly. I am very very fortunate.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Chaos and Eros and Trucks

I never listen to music while I am doing something else. It divides my mind and spirit and makes me really irritable.

With one important exception...

When I get in my big silver, now-beat-up-but-still-fabulous truck,
I turn on my stupid rock station.

And from that, I get the pulse, the timing, the rawness, the seemingly unabashed
candour that I am also searching for in art music, both in my own performance and that of others. And not all of the bands are great but some of them really find something that hits home hard. I like that

Regarding the Braun, it is French baroque music, ergo erotic and humorous at some level.
Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out when I am caught up in our classical training
anxiety about correctness, then I remember that fabulous technique is only attractive when
combined with lightness (humour) and passion (eros). Oh, and reeds and scales. Whatever.

Speaking of trucks, I like to quote my friend Valdy (folk singer Valdy) who says that he drives for a living and plays music for pleasure. I spend more time in my truck than behind a bassoon but the experience has been productive! Now I just have to get my CD player fixed.

Reading and Re-reading

Interpreting a work of music often feels like my process for reading a book.
If the book is very good and inspiring, I often have to tear through it, guiltily leaping ahead,
gulping down paragraphs, skipping sentences, all with the sure knowledge that I will read it again and possibly again. In this way, my imagination etches slowly an understanding that feels lasting even as it is soon silted over by layers of other influences. The first reading is really a sketch, the second is a visit, the third might be a collaboration.

The Braun Solos can be learned quickly despite the ingenuous (and ingenious) complexity of the technical puzzles, yet returning to them over and over reveals an unexpected possibilities. Playing them contiguously (including from the end back to the beginning) also reveals relationships and I begin to look forward with pleasure to the next one. And surprisingly, through repetition, understanding dawns and movements that initially seemed barren, lengthy and dull begin to take on new meaning. Frequent repetition leads to subtle but endless variety...aridity usually follows from genuine repetition without variation.

A novel that is read aloud will always take on the voice of the reader.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Blog or Blow?

Here is a new dilemma --- when a scrap of time presents itself to be used in any way I want (well, almost), the first question is: do I trim a reed or woodshed one of the psycho movements of the Braun Solos... and now a third option.... do I stick with my commitment to blog daily (almost) about the process of recording?

I am going to try to do all three in the remaining 20 minutes before the world starts knocking at my door in the shape of furniture movers and brilliantly talented students.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Braun Solos and Canterbury Tales and Reeds

When I was young, we (the tiny gaggle of bassoon students in my particular orbit) thought it was pitiful to attach a narrative to a piece. Now that I am old,
I see, if not always narrative, then drama, plot and character in every piece that I play. In other words, a story. When I was young, we used the word "objective," thinking that it meant a pure neutrality that faithfully presented the art. Now I run screaming silently from such interpretations. I am utterly subjective, feeling quite certain that the only way to experience the genius of another is through our shared humanity.

It is summer and somehow that always means time for reading.

I have managed to get to some books that I have long wanted to enjoy, the most recent being the Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer identifies stock characters (though it has been a long time since a munciple has been a common fixture of everyday life!), then proceeds to surprise us with their activities. Braun presents a collection of common enough movements along with highly individualistic ones, particularly the two Bizarrias but also the nutty Fantasias, Caprices and the Concerto. All but one under 3 minutes, many under 2 minutes and some less than a minute. The works can be sequential and predictable if approached in a literal way, but become much more interesting when animated with particular & peculiar characters.

OK, reeds --- the process of producing reeds really does take time... today I trimmed 2 reeds, made 3 blanks, wrapped and waxed three blanks, and it felt like a huge indulgence, a spending of time that normally is so difficult to find.

And I think of the different reed-making personnae of my teachers and colleagues--- the sculptor/artist (Roland Small), the artist/analyst Sol Schoenbach), the scientist/motivational guru (Christopher Millard), the healer/scientist (Norman Herzberg). The process is always the interesting thing and reflects the core talents of the maker rather than any absolutely definitive system.

As the Crow Flies (Reed Crow, that is)

The bassoon sometimes seems like the embodiment of a giant prehistoric bird... after all, we have a wing joint (only one though) and the sound that the reed makes is a crow.

Returning to my incessant rant about the necessity (though I know it is also a luxury) to make new reeds every day. The warmth, immediate response and clarity of a new reed is irreplaceable. I trim quickly and with reasonable success, yet always with a measure of honest relief when it works. I test the crow of the reed very near the end of my trim, looking for a fine grained caw with a disposition of medium, high and some low partials in the sound. Then I play, and adjust, play and adjust.

The wheel of time must be broadly understood in order to keep the reed cycle in order. I need a stash of at least 20 blanks to feel comfortable, and if I fall behind in this mandate, I abandon the trimming of reeds until the blank bank is full again. This means playing on old reeds until I can return to a logical daily rhythm that includes making blanks, wrapping blanks, trimming reeds and practising. Regardless of how well I understand this, it is a fragile structure of time that has to be carefully protected, something that is almost impossible given the complexity of our lives. Particularly heading into concert tours or recording, reed-making is never a straight path but rather a cycle of dips and backtracking, catching up and getting ahead then falling behind, all things that resemble the flight of the most insolent, raucous and clever bird, the glossy black crow.

Today, I finally was able to sit down in the bright light of morning to make a fine, responsive reed before heading off to rehearsals for my kids' show with Guy (Buzz and Crow). I just feel more centred when the reed is shiny and new. Now back at the loft, I have time to practise some more though we are heading into the wee hours of the morning.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Green Music Center, Sonoma University

I am really pleased that we will be recording the Braun Solos at the beautiful Green Music Center of Sonoma University in late August.

The Invisible House of Music

Everyday things morph into unexpected challenges if I don't pay attention... yet another cute little dragon grows into a monster as paperwork, address changes, tax returns trail in my wake.

When I was young, I ached for time to practise and study. Nothing has changed save the knowledge that whatever thought I hold in my mind will take root over time and grow into the thing that I imagined. So I must be careful with my thoughts as they are sometimes the only domain that I can command.

There is so much stuff that has to be done every day yet every little aspiration that lives between the chores can build momentum and exist, at first fleetingly and eventually as a tangible reality.

I have a bound book of lists that help me remember my goals. I work to catch my thoughts when I feel trapped by my duties and remember to laugh at myself. I bitch to my friends with no effort to be noble (this is very good). And, as I have mentioned before, my old father calls every day at 7:00 to report on his house building project and to remind me that the world lies before me every day, that vitality and pleasure in our craft is everything in this life. The rare day that can be dedicated entirely to music is always unforgettable. And that is precisely what happens during the recording hours or concert hours.

If I can touch on any part of my work as a bassoonist in the midst of the chores, then this adds some part of the invisible house of music... over time I know that I can add another room and invite people to visit. I practise late at night and make reeds early in the morning. There is always time for everything though sometimes, alas, not for boredom.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Voice and Reeds

Some people, like my trumpeter-best-friend-in-the-world Guy Few, have the skill to modulate their voices to the point that I need to be very attentive in reading the clues. Some, like me, have voices that break the moment that sorrow and doubt strike my heart.

The voice of the bassoon comes from our whole integrated system of body, mind, reed, bocal, bassoon and yet, this can always be affected by the reed.

Even if I am at the apogee of my conditioning, in the best shape possible, I still need a brand new reed to achieve the limberness, warmth and fluidity that I crave. Conversely, if I am in poor condition, or the bassoon is leaking, a good reed can be obscured.

This is where I depart completely from the training of my youth. For me, it is never a question of 'breaking in a reed', but rather, finding 45 minutes to fully trim a reed before my recital, concert, recording, or even private practise session.

The critical point is to fully trim.

I have many memories of doing the rapid trim with Guy either asleep on the floor (before our SUNY Fredonia recital) or bouncing madly up and down with questions (late on the evening before our Hummel recordings). It is another test of skill to manage my easily-bored-yet-always-engaged colleague while I search for the response that I want. Both of those reeds were successful. Others, trimmed in solitude in starkly mirrored, echoing dressing rooms have missed the mark and then I have played a reed that is a couple of days old. Or the time we went on tour in B.C. when I had a terrible cold, and all of my reeds seemed to possess the same congestion. It wasn't until my ears unblocked that I could trim a reed. But I always keep trying because maybe this experience will pay off the next time I have a cold!

Usually I try to head into any concerto or recording event with at least 3 newly trimmed and unplayed reeds. Then I make one as close to the event as humanly possible. Sometimes this becomes challenging when we have to set up the chairs, drive the conductor to the venue, hand out cheques etc etc but really, multi-tasking is the essence of being a versatile musician!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Back to Basics

ALWAYS at some point in a big practise cycle (i.e. heading towards a concerto, recital or recording), I will do a complete technical review.

For the last few years, my warmups for playing always are based on the Braun Solos or Bach passages. Then, when I am moving into high gear for French recitals or concerti, I move up in the tessitura and use the Telemann Fantasias as my warm up.

But when I want to review the fluidity of my tone and playing, I return to the technical routines of my youth. And these are not strictly warmups, but rather lengthy, comprehensive reviews of technical patterns, i.e. chromatic, major and harmonic minor scales in all intervals, all slurred, full range. And these cannot be called 'warm-ups' because sometimes they take hours to complete.

I am searching for improved resonance, fluency, responsiveness.

Then I return to the repertoire and see what has changed in my sound and my maneuverability.

And contemplate the fact that there is some alchemical process that welcomes and defies an logical preparation. The act of following any prescribed process leads beyond logic and in the end, it is imagination and the time spent with the bassoon that creates the voice.

The truly ridiculous thing is that I am not really happy EVER unless I have the freedom of time that allows for scale practise once in awhile. Not sure I should admit that.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Always learning as I go… I am discovering that this blog will become too long and am now going to set up a separate blog page… my next post will announce the link.

Meanwhile, plans for the recordings keep floating along. Presently working on nailing down a recording venue in Berkley for the middle of August. And working on preliminary bookings for the concerto recordings… this project of Canadian concerti involves so many very busy people that I will probably have to record each concerto as a separate session… usually we jam our projects into two days of recording with (sometimes) one rehearsal… this will not work for the new concerti!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Wild imagination...

Difficult to believe, an orderly existence in necessary for a wild imagination. And a wild imagination is necessary for a resonant interpretation. Order may come in the form of a constant love, or a routine. Or having all of the wretched moving boxes emptied and recycled. But there must be order of some kind. Both the Braun Solos and the Telemann Fantasias, I feel my physical self always regrouping, reorganizing and becoming stronger, more focused, centred and limber. Of course, the first stage (before I am in good shape) is a kind of melodious amorphia, very distressing yet recognizable and passing phase.

In Braun's own very true words --- "Written expressly for developing the embouchure and familiarizing the hands to difficulties, as much for this composer as for others."

In other recording news: Today I began the booking for the Canadian Concerto project --- Guy and I will record some of the solo & double concerti that were written for us in the last two years by Mathieu Lussier and Glenn Buhr along with the double concerto by Alain Trudel.

Booking recording sessions is like building a human pyramid --- first you have to decide which are the indispensable participants (foundation) and then you juggle the others until you have a reasonably stable structure. Then someone takes a picture.

We have an Ontario Arts Council grant for this recording (an important part of the foundation) and the music has all been written (another lovely building block). More later... gotta practise before the clock strikes midnight.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Crazy days...

... anchored now and then by playing the music and making the reeds. Reeds start at 6 a.m. and then life clamours, with finally a respite for practising after midnight.

I am grateful to live in houses and with people who allow such strange hours.

Late as it is, my thoughts return to my old house and the marvellous geometry of echos that it produced... I prepared for all of my solo recording in that house and loved the living quality of the reverberations. I prefer to record in vibrant acoustics rather than in muffled studios.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I often pose this question to my students ---

"When time is short, which is more important: making reeds or practising?"

The correct answer, according to me, is "yes," but I have many autonomous thinkers in my coterie, and they suggest that better answers are "both" and "neither."

The plain fact is that you will benefit from either occupation though the true luxury is to have time for both.

Either way, the practical (reeds) and the artistic (practising) can be tackled in small, steady yet constantly interrupted increments, building to a body of work. Points of music that knit a life.

The beauty of these rare baroque pieces for solo winds (Braun & Telemann) is that they are all very short, evocative miniatures... complete with repeats to encourage variation and invention.

The other beauty is that there are no copyright restrictions and I do not have to spend time filling out paperwork for permission to perform and record.

Baroque music treads lightly in the paperwork planet.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Heading into any recording project...

Means the mandate to be in the best shape possible. How do I get there? Mostly by doing it, by always being in motion, being vibrant in actions even when I feel unequal to my ambitions.

A friend of mine told me that he once worked as a longshoreman... after the first day he was aching head to toe, despairing of every having the strength to do the work. He asked one of the much older, grizzled, very strong men if there were any exercises that he could do to make his job easier (my friend is, of course, a health nut). The longshoreman looked down at my skinny, intellectual friend and said "Yeah --- exercise by throwing barrels onto ships".

Having said that, what exactly is a recording project and how do I prepare for it? For me, it is my best playing at the time and that comes from physical connection with the bassoon and the arc of aspiration that has started months and years before the actual recording date. The quality of my reed making depends enormously in the level of physical refinement and connection that I have at my command.

And the best way to that is through playing vital music. Though I am recording music by Jean Daniel Braun, I find other short baroque works, mostly bass lines but sometimes flute solos, to be a fantastic prepa ration, a very active meditation that leads to calmness within a flurry of activity.

"Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen" from the Johannes-Passion holds endless fascination for me. It is an example of a work that allows for serenity through choreography - knowing the position and relaxation necessary each finger combined with the absolutely connected flow of air - these are the goals and the focus of my active meditation. The fact that I fail endlessly while nonetheless creating a proximate version of this beautiful, acrobatic line does nothing to discourage me. Quite the opposite. A terrier-like approach to the devotions of performing.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Little Braun Blog...

I have wanted to record the Braun "Solos" for two years and I finally have a window of time in mid-August that fits with David's window of time.

I am often asked about the recording process, how I get things done and why I do it. Of course, what people really want to know is how much it costs and how I can afford it. We can talk about that too, though later.

Aside from money, some of the major orchestral section bassoonists have told me that they are reluctant to record solo works because they want to be evolved enough to produce a definitive performance. My thought process is entirely different.

No performance is definitive but a deeply considered one is always interesting and is always one more step along the way.

Instead of wondering if it is "right" (as we so often do with Baroque music), I ask instead, what could this music say? How could it be said? And some of that has to be done by trial and error yet the eloquence of the music always emerges though it may take many hours for me to find the voice that transmits this eloquence. It is an alchemical process.

And somehow the act of recording allows for immersion in "third person" listening... this can be very healthy if I am listening with interest, patience and curiosity.

This season, I have recording projects that range from bassoon alone (I pay for these from my loonie jar) to large concertos with orchestra (funding from OAC and from generous sponsors). Instead of trying to make sense of it all afterwards, this will be a running note book and maybe you can send questions to help me address the areas that are of wider interest. Sometimes the only time that I really have answers is when I am in the middle of it all.

My life has been so busy in the last two years with an epic journey from the old to new --- new management, new house, new website, new ID documents, new bank account, new life. Same cat (Diva) and phone numbers. I am feeling ridiculously good at the moment. Stupid as it may sound, throughout the chaos, I kept making reeds (though far fewer than usual, as one of my students pointed out when he read my reed journal) and exercising (sweating is always good). My old Dad always calls me at 7:00 every single night, even if I can't always answer. These are the things that kept me sane, along with the Braun solos.

I find that when I am going through dark times my musical goals stay very strong though it can feel very very hard to get to them. Sometimes these ideas have existed in my mind for so long that I neglect to tell the other participants that we are going to start recording next month, but sometimes luck is on my side and my chosen team is available!

When Guy Few and I first began working together, I wrote up a five year recording plan that ended with a film project. The plan still exists but time has stretched to fit around funding challenges. Anyway, we released two of the recordings, won a big prize for the first one and generated record sales on our recital tours in the 2009/10 recital season. We premiered the new concerti for our third project and got a grant that covered part of the costs, but it has taken me two years to build up enough savings to finish this project.

Since then, other concerti have been written for us and other projects have branched out from our original plans --- Guy and I have recorded a recital CD (Afterhours) that has been awaiting my editing attention... this disc will be ready for Christmas 2011 too. On other fronts, my organizing skills were honed during our two year tenure Grand River Baroque Festival for two years (we resigned after our highly successful 2010 season).

The large scale of our creative projects is so stimulating, but the contrast between these full scale, very expensive productions and the simple, show-up-with-my-bassoon solo projects is a pleasure in itself.

But it all comes back to one thing: I love to play the bassoon. And I love working with hot musicians, even dead ones though that sounds weird and gross. Composers (wanted: dead or alive), soloists, orchestras, engineers --- they are all musicians to me. Even the hot backstage guys, yeah, Chris dragging me around as he pulled my wing swab free at the River Run Centre and Gill holding up my dress's long train so that I could dance on the opening night of the Grand River Baroque Festival... music in an intensely social activity that comes from individual dedication.

Like the Telemann "Fantasias", I play the Braun "Solos" daily as a way of finding my voice, the one that always eludes yet tantalizes me in various degrees, a voice that projects warmth, loft, flexibility, agility, suppleness of thought and expression. Sometimes it is so good to pursue these things in solitude before returning to join the bigger chorus. And sometimes, you just need a room of your own before you can start anything. And when I am out of shape, these works sound so wooden and heavy. Yet by playing them every day, and someti mes stopping at a church in an unknown town, and playing through the whole opus, I become better. At this point, recording the music is my way to live my choices... it really feels necessary and in no way does it feel like I have frozen the interpretation.

If you want to record, here is my equation:

Recording = Music (practise it all the time even if you cannot make the recording for 10 years) + Planning (writing budgets for grant applications will really help you figure it out --- writing concert programmes will really help you figure out a good CD programme) + Filing (create order in your practical materials and you will find the actual production quite straightforward.

Believe it or not, money is not needed until you have done all of the above.