IN THE MONEY – focus on the tenor octave of the bassoon by Christopher Millard

IN THE MONEY – focus on the tenor octave of the bassoon by Christopher Millard

In The Money

by Christopher Millard

The tenor range of the bassoon is often called our “money register”. From the big solos in Tchaikovsky 4, Scheherazade, and Stravinsky’s Firebird, to countless ensemble passages in the core symphonic repertoire, this octave is a critical test of our understanding of the bassoon. This article focuses on just a portion of this register, specifically C#4 thru F#4 – perhaps the most difficult cluster of notes in the entire range of the modern bassoon. Of course, Sacre or the Ravel G Major concerto are initially a steeper hill to climb, but these 6 notes represent a special challenge for true mastery of the instrument. Exploration of alternate fingerings can teach us to listen more carefully to the relationship between tuning and sonority. In the following pages we’ll make a deep dive into some of the more subtle approaches to this register. This is by no means comprehensive, nor am I advocating that any of these alternative fingerings should become your primary choice. Instead, I hope you will find the explanations of these alternatives a path to improving your own well-established and preferred practices. At the end, I’ll show you how to follow a specific practice regimen that will get you out of the habits induced by the specific behaviour of your own bassoon.

C#4 – 277.18 hz

We initially learn to play this note with the ‘short’ fingering. By opening a leak at the bocal vent, the bassoon will be discouraged from resonating in the fundamental 1st harmonic for this length of bore. Instead, the next strong ‘bore resonance frequency’ – C#4 – will dominate, along with all its overtones.

C#3 [138.6 hz] in the bass clef staff, has always presented some challenges to bassoon makers. Have you ever looked at the positioning of that C# tone hole? It sits on an elevated ‘nose’ of wood and is cut at a steep angle into the bore. This strategy allows a sufficiently long tone hole to give both stability and tonal consistency with C3 and D3. When opening the whisper key, the resulting octave is typically quite true in pitch but lacks energy in some of its harmonic components. The result is a slightly weaker sonority, so we look for alternatives with more power. Regrettably, this simple short fingering is often completely abandoned when we learn the primary ‘long’ C# fingering.

Sometimes humorously called the ‘CLAW’, this big fingering is always an ego boost to the young bassoonist!

Where does this complex fingering come from in the bore?

Well, it emerges from a ‘bore resonance’ related to low F [F2]. In a sense, it’s like the ‘twelfth’ [the 3rd harmonic] of that fundamental fingered low F [87 hz]. However, we can’t produce a low F: engaging both thumbs creates two significant bore disruptions, allowing the related note C# 4 [277 hz] to dominate.

When you look at the complex lattice of closed and open tone holes on a fingering chart, you’re pursuing a kind of genealogical investigation. There are ancestors and descendants, and the ‘bloodlines’ get mixed up quickly. In the case of the CLAW, its grandfather was low F, but it now has its own firm identity as a C#. All the notes on the bassoon from F#3 up are ‘progeny’ of ancestor notes in the bottom half of the instrument. Up to D4, the family DNA is clear – just a leak from the bocal and a bit of help from vent keys will allow these first-generation offspring to function independently from their parents. But once we get to the ‘grandchildren’ in the tenor range, and the ‘great grandchildren’ higher up, the ancestors are difficult to plot on the family tree.

You might wonder why C#4 is not based on a low F# fingering – after all, that would fit our general assumption of how the harmonic series unfolds. But the bassoon family tree doesn’t work this logically! The truncated conical bore and presence of the reed causes the 3rd generation harmonics in the bore to go quite sharp. By choosing the long C#4 fingering, we are harnessing a complex acoustical phenomenon based on the evolving characteristics of that family tree.

Are you familiar with other long C# fingerings? If not, you should be! They are incredibly important to know and to understand. Without them, you may not be getting your best outcomes in some of your orchestral excerpts. First, let’s look at two ‘almost long’ C#3 fingerings:

* If we leave the right hand first finger open we can then choose one or the other thumb from the CLAW fingering, but not both.

Our choice of which thumb to use makes a critical difference to sound, pitch and potential use.

Using the left thumb on C# gives a clear and bright sounding C#4. It tends to have a little less resistance, is very clean in the attack, has a bit more strength in its higher harmonics and gives us access to a good C#/D# trill, using the left ring finger. It’s also the sharpest fingering for most German bassoons.

Now, switch thumbs! Engaging the right thumb Bb gives a darker C#3. It tends to be a bit more resistant, can be a bit problematic in the attack, but has more strength in its lower harmonics. It also gives us access to a very good C#/D trill, using the same left ring finger. It is usually the flattest of the ‘full’ C# fingerings. This fingering is not generally in common use in North America, but I personally use this fingering more than any other.

There are other ways to play C#4 – including this simple trill fingering…

… as well as the C# trill on the top of the boot. [Have you ever wondered why so few bassoons have that trill key tone hole properly voiced? It’s rarely useful. The wing/boot connection forces that tone hole to sit too low, and it is not long enough to give pitch stability when opened enough.] These weaker fingerings are occasionally useful and should be given full attention in your exploration of the tenor range.

D4 – 293.66 hz

D4 is frequently played too flat. I’ve owned and played a lot of bassoons over the past five decades and have found I’m often guilty of this.

Why is this so? After all, D4 is the 2nd harmonic of the almost identically fingered D3 an octave below. As explained above, we just open the whisper key vent to allow an acoustical leak to silence the lower fundamental. [Many also use a left thumb vent [left thumb C or D], certainly for attacking the note cleanly and for many also to sustain or elevate the pitch.] Unfortunately, the shorter the bassoon bore becomes, the lower that 2nd generation note becomes. The term I use for describing the relationship of ancestor notes to their progeny higher harmonics is ‘modal ratio’; it’s a description of how the 2nd and 3rd generation fingerings like to behave in terms of pitch identity. Part of the art of great reed making is controlling the modal ratios on your bassoon.

Unfortunately, D4 has its best tone quality when played flat, so that’s what happens! Looking for a solution beyond increased embouchure effort, many bassoonists [myself included] use the low Eb or low C# key on the long joint to keep the pitch up. I also often use the right thumb Bb key, which is more subtle and less likely to make the tone harsh. Various combinations can be used:

Many players initially find that using these corrections produces an overly bright sound.  For example, Fox bassoons, especially the Renard models, address the narrow D tuning by the design of their tone hole tubes, which are usually slightly flared towards the exit; this widens the modal ratio from fundamental to 2nd harmonic. Modern Heckels and similar larger bodied German bassoons tend to have cylindrical tone holes and narrower octaves.  Strong embouchures and good air support are necessary.  Sometimes players will compromise between the octaves; voicing their D3 slightly sharper in order that their tenor D will sit a bit sharper. [A second bassoon specialist would not likely make that choice!]  Conversely, lowering D3 and always incorporating the D4 correction can be a good strategy.

The key takeaway here is this simple fact: many bassoonists accept a flat tenor D in order to get the most pleasing – i.e. “dark” – sound.  We’ll return to the problem of sonority vs. intonation after reviewing the next 4 notes.

Eb 4 – 311.13 hz

We come to the first of the ‘false 12th’ notes, the real beginning of the 3rd harmonic area of the bassoon.

Eb 4 is based on a low G fingering. If you eliminate the fundamental G2 and the 2nd harmonic G3, this length of bore will tend to resonate around Eb 4. Remember – if your understanding of the harmonic series tells you that the 3rd harmonic of the ancestor low G should be a [grandchild] D natural, you’re forgetting that conical bore families like the bassoon don’t behave logically.

Look carefully at your bassoon; you can readily see that you’ve taken the low G fingering and opened up two massive lengths halfway down the bore!! The leaks shift the bore behaviour to the grandchild. In this 3rd harmonic, the bassoon and reed negotiate a strong resonating frequency in the bore that’s a semitone sharper than you would expect from the harmonic series. Yet, for such an odd acoustical anomaly this note is generally fairly in tune. The problem for some people [like me] is that it does not have a tonal spectrum consistent with the notes immediately above. It’s the runt of the litter.

So, if you’re a bit nuts [like me], you open that low Eb on the long joint and get a much warmer sound.

Problem is…it’s sharp, so it takes a more open oral cavity and downward adjusted embouchure to master.  However, you can certainly bring the pitch down in several ways…

 

 

One thing more about Eb4 – it’s entirely possible to play it as a 2nd harmonic of Eb3, with various additions if you wish.  These produce the second generation of the ancestor fingering, so they make some sense.  The problem is tonal continuity.

 

 

E4 – 329.63 hz

We come now to the second of the ‘false 12th’ 3rd harmonic notes and perhaps the least understood.

E4 is also based on the low G fingering, like the Eb4. By moving the first fingered bore leak up to the 2nd tenor joint tone hole, we produce a bore resonance that’s a whole step sharper than the theoretical perfect 12th. The family DNA is evolving but not necessarily in a good way; though it’s reasonably in tune it’s also thin and harsh in tone.

So, most bassoonists try to tame the uncouth behaviour by adding the low Eb on the long joint to make the sound more pleasing. Here is a standard fingering:

 

There is a trade-off for the warmer sound? It’s generally flat.

There are 4 useful variants to this fingering! Do you know them? You should become expert with all of these! I use them all depending on specific circumstances.

                                                           

 

                                                               

On many bassoons, these fingerings produce gradually sharper outcomes in addition to changes in sonority. That last one includes left thumb C# – it’s high but powerful. All of these fingerings can be used with left hand little finger on low C# as well.

Of course, E4 can also be played as a 2nd harmonic, with only one finger in the left hand. It’s a good trill fingering, but it’s not generally strong enough as a primary fingering.

Just remember, what defines all five ‘full fingerings’ for E4 acoustically is the left hand 2nd  tone hole ‘leak’.  I’ll come back to this very interesting note in the general discussion below.

 

F4 – 349 hz

The next in the false 12th series is tenor F, and it’s based on an ancestor low A. Finger low A and look at your hands; you’re selecting a bore length with the low A tone hole on the back of the boot the first open hole. Now finger tenor F. All you’ve done is create a big wing joint leak at the 2nd tone hole, which silences both the ancestor A2 and the 2nd harmonic A3. This F4 is only a semi-tone higher than the expected 12th E, but only barely….!!

I don’t love tenor F, to be honest. I’ve owned and played a lot of bassoons and never had one that played a tenor F on the high side. When you use the low Eb key for sound correction and are playing a reed that is full and resonant at A 440, tenor F usually becomes the note that takes the most effort in this range. It needs both embouchure and air support.

There are fingering options for F4. Here are two based on making larger leaks in the tenor bore:

And here is a very interesting fingering that changes the bore behaviour more significantly, creating a 3rd harmonic from low Ab!! It may seem very sharp to you at first, but it can teach us a lot about the potential for tenor F resonance, achieved when you relax your production on a sharper fingering.

 

F#4 – 370 hz

Most North American bassoonists utilize a fingering with the low F key. It’s sometimes referred to as the French F# fingering. It’s certainly my most frequent choice.

But we should begin any discussion of F#4 with the ‘German’ fingering, utilizing right thumb Bb.

Acoustically, this fingering is the easiest to explain.  It’s based on an ancestor Bb3 fingering – another of these sharp 3rd harmonic bore resonances.  This darker fingering has fallen out of favour to some extent, largely because modern bassoons seem to have evolved so that the ‘French’ fingering is stronger, less resistant, and more colourful.  But the ‘German’ F#4 is very useful in certain circumstances, especially in down-slurs like in Sacre [2nd solo] or the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra [Intermezzo].

Inexperienced players often play the F#4 too sharp; it’s a fingering that’s overly sensitive to sharper reeds and it takes time to develop the embouchure/oral cavity position to make the fingering work.  Teachers often prescribe the addition of the left-hand ring finger to correct this.

There are other tricks to help the ‘French’ fingering, all designed to control sharpness. This puts F#4 in a very different category from F4, which tends to be flat, or E4, which is also flat, but not necessarily Eb 4, which is all over the place, or D4 which is….. well, you get the idea. All families have issues.

 

 

 

 

The Challenge

This rather tedious review of fingerings all leads to the core motivation for this article. Young bassoonists often don’t pay enough attention to intonation and the potential for alternate fingerings to elevate their game.

I’ve spent almost 50 years as a principal bassoonist in several orchestras, surrounded by terrific woodwind colleagues. If you had asked me 50 years ago what I thought would be the biggest challenge of sustaining a high level of playing, I don’t think intonation would have popped out of my mouth. I’d undoubtedly have professed a commitment to phrasing, tone production and musical presence. How could I have guessed that my ongoing preoccupation, my constant companion, would be the pursuit of good intonation? The third octave of the bassoon is an absolute minefield of ups and downs. To quote Captain Kirk “It’s the Final Frontier!”.

Familiarity dulls our perception. We get so enamoured by a particular tone colour that we lose perspective. For those of you not yet blessed with high-level musical partners, the next best thing is the digital tuner.

Tuners are a touchy subject for many people, largely when they are brought to a rehearsal or performing environment. Avoiding that is simply good manners! Tuners should stay in the practice room. No, the larger problem with tuners is the endless confusion between intonation and sonority. Choosing a fingering with the best tone does not make that note any better in tune. When you sit in a practice room for hours, working on reeds, long tones etc., a beautiful tone is persuasive. A flat D4 played with maximum resonance does not magically transform into an in tune D4. Non-bassoonists sitting near you will just hear you play flat.

We need to trust our tuners to remind us where we stand relative to an ideal chromatic scale. This way when we sit down in a wind section we at least know what our particular tuning tendencies are likely to be. Armed with a basic expectation, we can immediately begin the process of adjusting to our colleagues, to the orchestration and to the harmonic implications of every note. Even in the best of orchestras, each player will have tuning issues. There is never right or wrong; there is just self-awareness and the dedication to flexibility and adaptation.

 

 

Cashing In

So, I’m going to offer a specific exercise to develop a more critical sense of pitch. It involves using a tuner while carefully slurring from one alternate fingering to another. Not only will this reveal some previously unknown choices available with your own bassoon; it will quickly lead to a discovery about the subtle changes you will intuitively make with embouchure, oral cavity and air flow. These are the simplest of exercises, but they require patience and a commitment to really listening to yourself.

You might start with E4 and the numerous fingering options I’ve included above. Get familiar with all of them. With your eyes fixed on your digital tuner, sustain each fingering for a few seconds, then without restarting or articulating, switch to the next fingering. Keep the tuner needle STEADY. Observe how you intuitively adapt to the flatter or sharper outcomes. In the case of E4 especially, learn the order of ascending pitch for your own bassoon/reed setup.

For maximum benefit, repeat the exercise with your tuner at A440, A441 and A442. This range will cover a lot of the necessary flexibility you’ll need to play nicely with others!!

Next on my list might be C#4. I know how thrilled young bassoonists are when they learn to use the big, full C#4 CLAW fingering, but it’s not always the right choice. I’ve heard a lot of great young players perform for me in master classes playing this fingering awfully sharp and simply being unaware. For example, Tchaikovsky 4 slow movement often does better with a short C#.

C#4 and E4 have the most options, so you might start with them. Introduce D, Eb, F and F# to the practice regimen. As you move seamlessly from flatter to sharper fingerings you need to be very attentive to adapting your tone production in order to keep the tuner needle steady.

As you become increasingly familiar with legato transitions on individual pitches, you can then move to legato execution of minor and major 2nds, minor and major 3rds, and a perfect 4th – all within the C#4 to F#4 range. Play all these intervals with modified fingerings so that you start to understand how to play a well-tempered chromatic scale.

Straight tone or vibrato? Do both. When you choose to play with vibrato, listen carefully to how each of these fingerings tends to alter the size or speed of your vibrato. A flat fingering may force you to increase embouchure damping, which might add resistance and compromise vibrato continuity. A sharp fingering may force you to relax your embouchure and cause vibrato to go wild. Small adjustments for intonation have a big effect on the consistency of your sonority throughout.

The money register of the bassoon is like a messy acoustical family. There is a significant change in the harmonic spectrum and the resistance for each of these notes. These implicit tendencies exercise an unwanted effect on our phrasing. Those of you who have followed my recommendation to practice the important lyrical solos in adjacent keys will have experienced how very different the passage will sound and feel. Expanding your knowledge of subtle fingering choices will allow you to implement the lessons you learn in transposition.

Finally, let me say this. Investigation of alternate fingerings is not trickery; it’s not cheating. It’s about understanding some of the hidden truths about your bassoon. Even if your primary fingering choices remain unaltered, the process of practicing these alternatives will clear your ears and open your mind.

NEW CANADIAN BASSOON RECORDING!

NEW CANADIAN BASSOON RECORDING!

Longtime member of the Toronto Symphony, Fraser Jackson, has just released his first solo CD: Home Suite Home, recorded during the last year with his wife, the pianist Monique de Margerie, and special guests Marie Bérard (violin) Winona Zelenka (cello) and Dominic Desautels (clarinet). It’s a collection of short pieces chosen from repertoire they’ve been performing for neighbours on their front porch: mostly for bassoon and piano but with some contrabassoon, some solo piano, solo bassoon, and those wonderful guests. The music ranges from CPE Bach to Schumann to Poulenc and Bill Douglas.
Bassoon and Piano Fraser and Monique’s album
available here
Fraser says:
“After spending the first few months of the 2020 Covid lockdown cleaning out the basement and learning to bake sourdough bread, Monique and I  decided to give ourselves a musical outlet by performing on our porch in Toronto’s west end. I brought my bassoon and sometimes my contrabassoon and Monique played on a Roland digital piano. Sometimes friends or students joined us on “stage” and sometimes it was just the two of us. As long as it wasn’t raining, we played every Thursday at 5:30 and several times we even toured to other people’s porches or backyards. It kept us occupied and it was a great way to meet the neighbours; we liked it so much that after taking a break for the cold months, we continued playing concerts right through the summer of 2021. And we decided to record some of our porch repertoire as a CD.

Porch repertoire is pretty straightforward: pieces are easy on the ears, relatively short, not too tough to rehearse, and they come from all over the musical map. Usually we start with the more serious pieces and end with the jazzier material but sometimes it felt right to end with something a bit more sombre. The goal was always to distract, to comfort, to reassure, and above all to get out of the darn house.

All the recording sessions took place in our backyard studio that sits where most people would have a garage. Despite having to stop for the occasional barking dog or power tool, things went relatively smoothly although it took almost a year to record everything. Because of the changing government regulations, it was not always possible to have our engineer, Ron Searles, present in the room with us. Sessions began in December 2020 and ended in September 2021: the first piece we recorded was Automne by Jean-Michel Damase and the last was Gabriel Fauré’s Pièce. Many thanks to Ron for making it all sound as beautiful and integrated as possible.”
NEW SOUNDS FOR BEGINNING BASSOONISTS

NEW SOUNDS FOR BEGINNING BASSOONISTS

The Council of Canadian Bassoonists is very happy to announce a creation collaboration with avant-garde composer and bassoonist, Sonia Paço-Rocchia on an amazing 2-year project that will result in 12 new works introducing contemporary and extended techniques for BEGINNING and INTERMEDIATE players. Imagine the fun of learning about multiphonics, structured improvisation and live electronics at the beginning along with other basics and fundamentals!
 

Read more about Sonia Paço-Rocchia and listen to her beautiful work.

bassoonist in color Sonia Paco-Rocchia painted by Patrick Larrivee

 
The project will result in six new works for solo bassoon, one for ensemble (flexible instrumentation) and five works for any monodic instrument (including bassoon) with live electronics.
 
The composer will consult and test the works with teachers and their students, culminating in live and broadcast events hosted by the Council of Canadian Bassoonists sometime in 2023.
 
Sonia won a creation grant from the Canada Council, yet like many grants received in Canada, she did not quite get the full amount. We will work on fundraising for the live events in the coming year.
 
The music will be fun for all levels of performer and it will foster curiosity and exploration .
 
Enjoy this existing duo for two bassoons, La Boîte en Canelle.
 
 
 
COLOR, INCLUSION AND THE BASSOON by JARRETT RODRIGUEZ

COLOR, INCLUSION AND THE BASSOON by JARRETT RODRIGUEZ

Color, Inclusion, and the Bassoon

by Jarrett Rodriguez

In my previous blog post for the Council of Canadian Bassoonists (Blonde Bassoon Basics) I just scratched the surface in discussing color-based biases and my blonde bassoon. Writing about my singular experiences with a blonde bassoon could also be considered a bias in itself, and I felt the need to expand my perspective by interviewing colleagues who also perform on non-traditionally colored bassoons (i.e. blue and blonde) to compare their experiences with my own.

Because so few bassoonists perform (or have previously performed) on bassoons stained outside of the Early American furniture color palette, it was easy to pinpoint the few who play on non-traditionally stained bassoons to ask two qualitative questions.

1. What have you experienced in terms of being an artist performing on a non-traditionally colored bassoon?
2. What situations (or contexts) have typically influenced or affected your experiences with this?

Nadina Mackie Jackson, Mathieu Lussier, Scott Pool, and Erika Andersen each agreed to answer my questions. After many emails, direct messaging, and video calls, I was able to compare their responses and discovered that two primary themes emerged: audience connection and gatekeeping in classical music.

 

 

Connecting With Your Audience
When performing, the most important thing is not always that every note lives up to some undefined and non-universal idea of correctness. What’s universally important is that your audience is engaged and connected to the performance.

One of the most valuable and visible shared experiences is the interest from audience members and musical outsiders. People seem to feel more comfortable approaching when you have a blue or blonde bassoon. An instrument not blending into the stage background and sea of formal black attire attracts the eye of the audience, sometimes allowing individuals to see and hear the bassoon simultaneously for the first time.

Gatekeeping in Classical Music
Diversity and inclusion issues in classical music are not new, and problems of subtle (and not so subtle) exclusion remain. There seems to be a deeply conservative need for homogenization in the classical world that can extend to the choice of your instrument’s color, or even to the name of the maker. What I discovered is that each of the players I spoke to had experienced classical music gatekeeping because of the color of their bassoons, including:

* Backhanded and dismissive “compliments” from peers stating how beautiful our bassoons were but [they] would never perform on one;
* Warnings not to buy a bassoon of a non-traditional color because it would not be worth as much as a bassoon of a “normal” color;
* Statements about an unwritten requirement for section “uniformity” with implications that non-traditionally colored bassoons are somehow unsuitable for ensemble performances.

When I decided to write a blog about the color of my bassoon, I thought I was making an easy choice. I was wrong. Exploring questions about blonde bassoons led to deeper, personal reflection and some uncomfortable questions about inclusion and diversity.

If classical musicians are willing to try to block access to classical music performing because of a stain or color of an instrument, how far are the same people willing to go to continue the tradition of other biases? After all, some musicians view homogeneity as a fundamental requirement for section playing.

Unfortunately, biases and gatekeeping traits don’t stop at excluding blue or blonde bassoons. Exclusivity takes more sinister forms. “Traditional” gender conformity in formal dress attire is required and hair styles and colors are tamed. Outward expressions of unique identity are suppressed, all for the sake of looking indistinguishable on stage while an audience watches from afar. I believe that differences in look and form do not interfere with professional standards of performance. They open the stage for the future engagement both of new performers and new audience members.

Moving forward
Yes, you’re in the spotlight when you perform on a strikingly distinct bassoon. You’re also in the spotlight if you’re the only person of your demographic in your section. This increased attention can also highlight the musical story that is being told and help create a stronger connection to the audience.

I, for one, am tired of complacency in the classical music world. More specifically, I’m tired of the complacent acceptance of biases towards fellow musicians, composers, non-traditional performance venues, and the color of my bassoon. I hope to never be tamed, to never be indistinguishable, and to never know a world without the striking beauty of diversity around me. To those who warn against color, certain bassoon makers, certain types of clothing, gender expression, or any other non-musical aspect of an individual, how far does your fear of diversity run? What’s your limit for uniqueness and individuality?

Whether the bassoon is blonde, blue, green, red, black or brown, it doesn’t affect the quality or standard of a performance. Likewise, visual aesthetics, gender, sexual orientation, age, and so many other unique identifiers have no place as benchmarks for gatekeeping in classical music. Observe and learn from the musicians who break through the color barriers. Don’t change to fit into someone else’s idea of what you should be. Uniqueness is perfection.

 

Purple Haze

All colors of bassoons and bassoonists are welcomed here (and artistic hand positions)

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Beginning My Orchestral Career with the Edmonton Symphony by Bianca Chambul

Beginning My Orchestral Career with the Edmonton Symphony by Bianca Chambul

BEGINNING MY ORCHESTRAL CAREER

WITH THE EDMONTON SYMPHONY

By Bianca Chambul

BREAKTHROUGH

“We’d like to hire candidate number one.”

In an instant, my life had changed.

I had broken through what I believed was the biggest barrier to having a career as an orchestral musician: winning an audition.

PAST CONNECTIONS

It was the middle of May 2019.  I had just finished one year of my Master’s degree at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and had tied up loose ends by putting all my belongings into storage until starting my second year that August.  Just before we had wrapped up the semester, word had spread through the studio about a second bassoon vacancy in the Dallas Symphony and I decided to apply since the last professional audition I’d taken had been during the previous year.

Seven summers before, during my time with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, a faculty member shared with us eager young students, “The people you meet today will be your colleagues for the rest of your life.”  The following NYOC season, I was assigned to a chamber group with Max Cardilli, a member of the double bass section that year, to perform Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat.

National Youth Orchestra - Stravinsky
National Youth Orchestra of Canada (2013).  Left to right: Blake Pouliot, violin; Max Mauricio-Cardilli, double bass; Dave Burns, percussion; Gregory Burns, trombone; Tazmyn Eddy, trumpet; Bianca Chambul, bassoon; David da Silva, clarinet.

Fast forward six years and this connection ultimately resulted in a pivotal turning point for me when I received a message from Max the day before the preliminary round in Dallas.

All he sent was a picture of a newly-released audition notice for a bassoon vacancy in the Edmonton Symphony, below which he had typed, “Please consider taking this audition!”

I hadn’t been keeping a close eye on audition announcements in the last year and wasn’t aware of this opening.  It piqued my interest since it was a principal position and the orchestra was also in my mom’s hometown, where I have many extended family members.

The audition date was scheduled for June 24, 2019, about six weeks away. That sounded like just barely the right amount of time.

ballroom practice session
My ballroom practice session setup in the Dallas hotel before the audition, ca. May 12, 2019.

The next day, I found myself back in a hotel room in Dallas after not advancing past the first live round.  I had had doubts about taking the audition, which I had learned about fairly last-minute, but tried to convince myself that I needed to break my non-auditioning streak somehow.  What was missing was a truly vested interest that results in the drive to do the work.  Because of this, I wasn’t as disappointed as I had been in previous unsuccessful auditions, but it still felt anticlimactic.  I called my mom to share some things I had learned about my eighth rejection.

“I know one thing,” I said to her, pacing outside the orchestra’s concert hall on a beautiful day: “I’m getting out of the first round next time.  This isn’t happening again.”

SLIVERS OF TIME

I reached out to my teacher, Benjamin Kamins, to let him know both how my audition went and the news about the available seat in the Edmonton Symphony.  With Dallas behind me, I could focus my attention on this upcoming audition.  What complicated things was that the big day was scheduled a week into Santa Barbara’s summer festival, Music Academy of the West, which I was looking forward to attending.

The question was, would my absence request be approved for a couple of days, especially right at the beginning of the festival?

Following Mr. Kamins’ advice, I contacted Music Academy’s administration and Dennis Michel, second bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony, who would be teaching at Music Academy along with Mr. Kamins.

Mr. Michel encouraged me to take the audition and within a few days, the administration graciously granted my request.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Outliers, analyzes why certain people stand out and succeed while others don’t.  There is often only a sliver of time to take advantage of the right opportunities, and I had the right support system to follow through.  The Music Academy gave me their blessing to go ahead with the audition, and then my parents agreed to cover my travel and accommodation expenses.  Without these two elements rapidly falling into place, this chance could have slipped through my fingers.

SIX WEEKS TO GO

The Edmonton Symphony audition was the ninth time I applied for an orchestral position.  I started taking auditions during my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto when I had no clue how to reliably prepare for one.

In 2015, I purchased an audition course created by Rob Knopper, percussionist at the Metropolitan Opera.  I didn’t seriously dive into it until two auditions came up in 2017, a year after I had graduated from the University of Toronto.  When I began implementing Rob’s principles in auditionhacker, I finally broke my streak of not getting out of the first round to making the finals in one audition and advancing in another.

To summarize, it involved steps that may seem obvious to experienced players, but ones that I didn’t think of: using timelines to realistically schedule in the required work, creating a playlist, thorough excerpt research, making repertoire booklets, a rigorous self-recording and note-learning component, and mock auditions.

Rob Knopper

For anyone who is serious about pursuing a career in orchestral performance or even modifying their process for learning solo repertoire, I would strongly recommend looking into Rob’s course.  He also has a Facebook group called “the auditionhacker alliance: a place to talk about auditions” where people share audition advice, ask questions, and Rob provides short videos on key topics available on his YouTube channel. His website features a blog that addresses specific topics about the industry and his organizational methods.

noa kageyama

Another worthwhile course I invested in was Dr. Noa Kageyama’s Beyond Practicing home-study course. Dr. Kageyama teaches performance psychology at Juilliard and is the author of the Bulletproof Musician blog.  This is where I began learning more about centering, which was another contributing factor to passing the first round of those two auditions in the fall of 2017.

Once I returned home from Dallas, I jumped into the process yet again for the Edmonton Symphony.  I usually like to focus on one large task at a time, but now I had to juggle learning solo repertoire for Music Academy of the West in addition to preparing audition excerpts.

This resulted in an over-practicing injury.  I made the mistake of more or less recording myself for an entire day, bar by bar, starting at ten in the morning and finishing at ten in the evening.  While I did take breaks, it was still far too long, and I had to take a few days off afterwards, losing momentum in the process and making it harder to get back on track.

Although I recovered, it definitely wasn’t worth it.

When I travelled to Music Academy of the West in mid-June (ten days to go), I gathered up some friends who were willing give constructive feedback for mock auditions.  One time it was totally unexpected: two of the bassoonists came into my practice room spontaneously and asked to hear some excerpts, without warning.  Stuffy and sharp, the reed I was using was barely good enough for a practice reed, yet here I was playing on it anyway.

Oops.  I went along with it and decided that it would be good adversity training.

After playing a few requested excerpts, I said, feeling humbled, “I know which reed I won’t be using for the audition.”

I’m grateful they showed up that day.

music academy
My three bassoon buddies at Music Academy in the summer of 2019: Luke Fieweger, Kipras Mažeika, and Nicolas Richard.

DOUBTS

Over the phone, likely during a homework call, a friend of mine in middle school asked, “What if you don’t want to do music anymore?”

The thought that I might pursue a different path at some point had never even occurred to me.  “I’ll decide then,” I replied, not missing a beat.

My confidence was unwavering.

Fast forward about a decade later, and the doubts crept in during the two years out of school after finishing my performance undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto.  I developed a heavy freelance schedule coupled with teaching.  While this was a fun year, I realized that I definitely wanted an orchestral position, but was beginning to feel directionless.  If I was living at home with my parents with no audition breakthroughs, did I really have a shot at this?  And if I realistically had little chance of succeeding, why was I upstairs trying to practice and figure out reeds?

It was the first time I had ever felt like this about the bassoon and a career in music.

It was the summer of 2017.

On the night of August 5, 2017, at one o’clock in the morning, I came downstairs to find my mom in the family room, and I shared my feelings of serious doubts about the career path I had chosen and had once been so certain of following.

As usual, she listened empathetically, encouraging me not to give up yet.

Her prediction was that a breakthrough was just around the corner.

A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to perform as a substitute doubling on third bassoon and contrabassoon with the Toronto Symphony for Mychael Danna’s score to Life of Pi.

The day after that performance, I made it to the finals in a principal audition for the first time and advanced to the semifinals in another audition the following month.  In early 2018, I was accepted into the Masters programs and summer festivals of my choice.

Life of Pi soundtrack

That feeling of uncertainty ebbed and flowed, but with each of these culminating successes, it became less and less powerful.  Through this experience, I learned one thing: sometimes, when you’re on the verge of giving up, you may be closer to achieving your goal than you think.

rice bassoon studio recital
Rice bassoon studio recital in Duncan Recital Hall, March 2019.  From left to right: Julia Paine, Julianne Mulvey, Corinne Crowley, Tucker Van Gundy, Kai Rocke, Isaac Schultz, Kipras Mažeika, Bianca Chambul.  The attire theme was “funky socks.”

THE DAY BEFORE

At about four o’clock in the morning, I took an Uber to the area where the Santa Barbara Airbus would pick me up to drive to the LAX.  The flight to Edmonton was several hours, and after I arrived I checked into the Westin hotel.

When I took out my bassoon, I had a heart-stopping moment where the reed was hopelessly flat and free.  It felt awful, just like any day before any of the previous auditions I’d taken.

At least it responded though.  I made a few tweaks to it and then practiced a bit.

The reed was only two days old at that point – too new for an audition – and it was the best I had in the case.

When I told the concierge why I was here, he kindly asked if I wanted some tea before bed so I could wind down.  I thanked him and he sent it up to the room.  It was one of those seemingly small but impactful gestures that made me feel a little less alone.

This was after I had practiced until past nine o’clock in the basement computer lab.  I ran my excerpts and recorded them, still not feeling so great about tomorrow.

AUDITION DAY

The Westin was a short walk to the hall.  I had to get there earlier in the morning, around nine o’clock, to draw numbers.  This was only the national round, so there were thirteen candidates there.  Number fourteen was a no-show.

We were in a comfy lounge.  Privately, I would have preferred to keep to myself, but I knew some of the candidates there and ended up having some light, casual conversations with them while we pored over our music and waited for the draw.

The personnel manager came into the room and shared the list with us beforehand.  This was where things really took a turn.

The first round was the first movement exposition of the Mozart concerto, either the opening or recap of Figaro, Bolero (no repeated Gs), and something that made my heart stop.

An unusual excerpt from Pulcinella.

It just so happened that that was the one excerpt on the list that I had not studied.

That’s actually an understatement.  I hadn’t even listened to a recording of it.

In other words, I had flown all the way from Santa Barbara, spent my parents’ money, and didn’t know how one of the excerpts on the first round went.

I was mortified.

Then came the draw.

Not number one, I thought as we were invited to gather around the table and pick our poison.  I already had a strike against me.

I unfolded the piece of paper.

A fateful vertical line broke up the whiteness of the sheet.

vertical line

Shortly after, I was escorted into a private dressing room by the personnel manager.  A coded door revealed a large, well-lit space with some lockers, a table, and a counter in front of mirrors surrounded by lights.

I believe the audition was scheduled to begin at ten o’clock, which left me with about half an hour or so to warm up.

I didn’t play much.  I felt confident about the first three excerpts, and just practiced starting them several times.  The reed I had worked on yesterday was responsive and seemed to be working, which was a miracle.  Knowing me, it was probably quite unstable, but I liked how freely it took the air.

Once I felt all right about starting the first three excerpts, I decided it was time to listen to Pulcinella.  According to my watch, it was about 9:40 a.m.

The WIFI password was posted on the wall.  I opened YouTube on my phone and searched for the excerpt.

pulcinella

This isn’t the exact recording I found, but it does contain the excerpt.  The original clip on YouTube was also played either by the LSO or another British orchestra.

Rob Knopper outlines a detailed excerpt research component in his auditionhacker course that involves studying multiple high-quality recordings and how to select the best reference recording to add to a playlist.  It’s a very thorough process, and something I had done for the other excerpts on this list.  In this case, I would realistically barely have time to listen to even one recording of this Pulcinella excerpt.

The first thing I thought when I heard the track was, This is faster than I thought.

Not off to a great start.

The second thing I noticed was that there was an unwritten rit. at the very end of the passage.  Based on the time constraints I had, I guessed that this was likely a performance practice.  I decided to take the chance and incorporate it, perhaps not as much as on that recording, but enough that the committee would know that I knew there might be an opportunity to take time there.  I also made a note not to perform the excerpt as fast as I heard it, just comfortably.

I played it through, remembering a brief discussion of the grace notes during one lesson.  They were essentially just actual written sixteenths.  I worked on those a tiny bit, and started the other three excerpts again to make sure they were very solid.

It wasn’t ten o’clock when the knock came.  Time to go onstage.

Enter candidate number one.

I was introduced to the proctor backstage, who said a few words and asked me if I was ready before opening the door to the stage. Before me lay a red patterned carpet that led to the center of the hall, which was a stunning space.

winspear stage
View of the Winspear stage from the audience.  This photo was taken by videographer Erik Visser during a recording session for Jean-Daniel Braun’s Largo-Double-Largo and Capricio.
winspear view from stage
View from the stage. Erik Visser captured this photo during a recording of Beethoven’s second duet for clarinet and bassoon, with the clarinet part performed here by ESO first violinist Ewald Cheung.  Ewald and I played this piece regularly during outdoor summer chamber music concerts during the pandemic.

There was a screen in the audience that didn’t fully cover the width of the ground seating, but I saw no one.

Even though the orchestra provided a copy of the excerpts, I chose to use my own music.  It was unusual to see familiar parts typed using different engraving, so I had chosen to make my own packets using screenshots from IMSLP editions that visually looked familiar to me.  I had the list of excerpts written and each excerpt tabbed (again, as per Rob Knopper’s course), so I was as ready as I could be on this front.

“This is candidate number one,” said the proctor as soon as I was seated. From behind the screen, a warm male voice welcomed me and let me know that I could begin whenever I was ready.

I took some time to center.  I found a red exit sign as my focal point and focused on removing the tension from certain muscle groups, particularly my arms, by doing a little stretch and rotating my wrists, maybe a little shoulder roll.  I heard the opening of the excerpt in my head.

mozart

Time to play.

My sound effortlessly filled the hall.  It was more reverberant than what I was expecting.  It was kind of unusual, and I tried to focus on playing rather than being swept up by this beautiful resonance around me.

The Mozart passed, seemingly without incident.  No one spoke.

I centered myself again, not analyzing what had just happened, but noticing that there hadn’t been a train wreck.

Figaro.  Whisper lock on.  Here we go.

Okay.  It was done.  Again, no comments.

Center again, another stretch, hone in on the focal point, hear the opening measure.

Bolero.  An I like this one kind of tune.  It was on the list for rhythm, and hopefully I wouldn’t crack those repeated high D flats and not accent the final unaccented D flat.

Bolero

Check.  Still not a word.

Now for Pulcinella.

pulcinella sheet music

Center once more.  I can’t remember if I looked over it a bit before beginning.  Just a comfortable pace plus that unwritten rubato, and the grace notes as straight sixteenths.  That’s all.

Off I went.

And then it was done, finishing with that tiny slowing up of time, not quite as much as in the recording, leading up to the high A.

“Thank you,” said the nameless voice.

I collected my belongings, stood up, and approached the proctor.  Once we were backstage, she gave me a compliment and I thanked her, assuming that she said that to everyone.

I wasn’t sure of anything.  All I could think was that if I advanced, I would understand why, but if I didn’t, I could find every reason for the committee to eliminate me from the pool of candidates.

It was kind of a hazy limbo.  Things just felt okay but not great.

I now had to wait for twelve other people to go after me.  I went back to the lounge and looked over excerpts, and spoke with some other candidates who were waiting for their turn.  I understand now why it’s wise to bring a snack.

When the personnel manager entered the room again, my adrenaline shot through the roof.  Since I pulled number one, I would know instantly whether I had advanced or not.

“Thank you, everyone,” he said.

Stop my beating heart.

“Candidates one, eight, and nine have advanced,” he said.  “The rest of you are free to go.”

What?

I advanced, I thought, stunned.  I had survived pop-up Pulcinella?

Someone else from the administration came by with the list of excerpts for the second round.  Although I’ve forgotten the exact order, I remember thinking to myself that it was quite a bit of music.

It started with the opening of Tchaikovsky 6 and finished with both solos of The Rite of Spring.  In between, there was Shostakovich 9, two excerpts from Beethoven 4, the opening of the Mendelssohn Scherzo, plus the solo and cadenzas from Schéhérazade.

So I had somehow managed to dodge a bullet by the skin of my teeth in the first round.  I approached the personnel manager and asked, “Will we be re-drawing numbers?”

“No, you’ll keep your same numbers.”

It felt like another bomb had dropped.  Now I had to start the second round too?

I had done it once, but could I do it again?

Once more, I was escorted into the same dressing room to warm up.  I am not sure that I had a full thirty minutes this time.  Thankfully each of these excerpts were all standards.  Like the first round, I played the opening of most of them and looked at specific points that were typical traps for me.  The main thing was being able to start the Tchaikovsky.  That opening always feels like two excerpts, kind of like the syncopated donkey slurs in the third movement of his fifth: you think you’ve survived it, but then it comes around again and you’re not out of the woods until you’ve been through it a second time.

Once more, the personnel manager came to get me.  I don’t remember what time it was.

Once more, the proctor led me, bassoon and booklet in hand, reed on bocal, to the stage door before she opened it and allowed me inside.

Again, I was told to begin when I was ready after the proctor announced my number.

Here comes the solo bassoon recital.

Tchaikovsky to start.  Both low E entrances seemed to go smoothly.  In context, it probably should have been softer, but I went with what came out and adjusted from there.

Schéhérazade is such a lovely melody.  It was my chance just to sing without too much fear in the first solo.  The cadenzas can be scary, but they ended up happening without incident.

Beethoven 4 is an excerpt that feels like it’s over before it even starts.  The requested portions were the tutti passage from measure 20 to the downbeat B flat in measure 25, along with the famous solo.  I managed to avoid the exploding fireworks aesthetic that threatens to surface in these bars every time I have to play them.

Shostakovich was wonderful to play in the space.  The acoustics gave me room to lean into the hall during the wailing solo of the fourth movement and allow my sound to open up and project to the last rows of the audience.  A comment I’ve received in the past is that I play the fifth movement staccato eighth notes in too much of a pecky manner, and this is something to look at if I ever play the solo in concert.  My goal was to go for a sarcastic character, but if more than one person mentions similar tendencies in your playing, it’s likely something to reconsider.  I am not sure if I played them particularly short in this context, but the acoustics of the hall probably would have made up for it.

Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first minor blip on the radar that I noticed.  I became slightly tongue-tied during a single group of repeated sixteenth notes, and a wisp of a thought flew through my mind: They’re not going to count that against you.  I wasn’t afraid.  I recovered from that split second of feeling unseated, kept going and finished.  The excerpt otherwise seemed all right.

Mendelssohn midsummer nights dream

Now for The Rite of Spring.  The last two excerpts on the list.

I centered for the opening as I had done with all the ones prior to it.  I played from the beginning until three measures after rehearsal 3, and that was when I became distracted.

It felt like the best I had ever played The Rite of Spring cold on the first try.  Even though I had been physically playing beforehand, I hadn’t done several attempts at that opening C prior to starting the solo.

I had managed to stay calm after each excerpt up until this point, but my elation was causing me to lose focus.

One more to go: the reprise.

I centered for the final time. The high B came out nicely.  Time to develop it with vibrato and then move.

That was when everything got crunchy.

I completely butchered the next beat, including the B flat to C flat grace notes. Out of tune because of uncoordinated fingers, plus a cracked sharp G flat slurred to from the B flat.

Needless to say, I was absolutely mortified.

Keep playing, keep playing.  I recovered by the time I played the last high B flat in the first measure.  I just had to get it out of my system, I figured.

Had I just ruined my best professional audition playing to date with that single excerpt right at the very end?

As soon as I was done, I immediately whipped my head around to the proctor and began frantically mouthing, Can I do that again?

“Would you like to try that again?” a different voice asked mercifully as I was having my silent meltdown.

Now was my chance.  I was grateful for the lifeline, but I had to remind myself not to answer the panel in order to preserve my anonymity.

I centered again, one more time than I thought I’d have to.

I restarted the reprise.  Maybe the B was too present, but I went with it.  I felt it was okay, but not brilliant.  At least nothing blew up in my face this time.

“Thank you,” said the same voice.

The proctor complimented me again once I got up and we exited the stage.  I thanked her, still believing that she was just being polite.  Again, nothing seemed certain at all.  If I advanced, I’d understand why, but if not, I’d also understand why.

More limbo.

Back at the lounge, once the other two candidates had played, the three of us had a pleasant conversation.  One candidate and I talked about all the tricky bits of the excerpts and how things can just feel rough overall.  I mostly listened and agreed.

Then the personnel manager came back in.

There went my adrenaline.  Who would they cut this time?

“Thank you, everyone,” he said.  “We’d like to hire candidate number one.”

It was the first time in my life where I understood it was possible that someone might faint after hearing shocking news.  I felt dizzy.

“Whoa …” said one of the other candidates.

Standing next to a table, I reached out and held a chair for balance.

“Do you need a moment?” the personnel manager asked.

“Sorry?” I said.

“Do you need a moment?” he repeated.

I knew he was speaking English but I couldn’t seem to hear or process what he was saying.

“I’m sorry?” I said again.

“Do you need a moment?” he said, slightly louder.

“Yes, yes,” I said, still holding onto the chair and changing positions.

But suddenly that moment was gone, and the personnel manager was asking me if I wanted to go meet the committee.  Of course, the answer to that question was yes.

I was so very much not all there that he had to show me the stairs, which were in plain view, since I was essentially going to walk off the stage.  “The stairs are there,” he said, pointing.

“Oh, right,” I said.

(Yes, you really did just hire me.)

I ascended the stairs and then turned left to walk down another flight that led to the audience level.

As Rob Knopper says, there should be a Taking Auditions: Do Not Operate Machinery warning label for all candidates.

Once I was on the other side of the screen, each panel member introduced themselves and congratulated me.  I was barely processing anything, in total shock.  I remember looking at the ESO’s chief conductor, Alexander Prior, realizing that I was seeing him in the flesh and would actually be working with him after having watched an interview of him on YouTube backstage at the Winspear.

I shook hands with each member of the committee and thanked them, trying to maintain my composure.

alex prior
Max Cardili
Max Cardilli (Photo credit: Dale MacMillan)

When the greetings were done and I turned to leave, Max Cardilli shot out from behind the curtain with a huge grin on his face.

I’m so grateful that he told me about the audition.

I headed back to the dressing room to pack up and make some phone calls.  Mom nearly collapsed in the pasta aisle at NoFrills when I told her I’d won the job.

I then reached out to Mr. Kamins.

“Hi, Bianca.  How are you?” he said, sounding intentionally unhurried.

“Mr. Kamins,” I said seriously, “I won the job.”

He congratulated me and gave me some advice: “Bianca, really make sure that you take the time to just enjoy this moment.”  We spoke further, but that was the main thing I remembered, and in hindsight, I wish I had savoured the aftermath a little more.

BACK TO REALITY

One of the main lessons I learned is how quickly you have to come back down from cloud nine after a victory. The reality is that I had to fly back to Santa Barbara the next day and play in a masterclass.

I walked back to the Westin.  As I entered, I saw the same concierge who had sent up the tea for me the night before.

“How did it go?” he said with a smile.

“I got the job!” I said, unable to contain my excitement.

Messages from friends and family started flooding in, along with a few more calls.

It’s funny how fast word spreads.  Within two days, the news was posted on both the Meg Quigley Competition and Music Academy of the West’s Facebook pages.

It was a whirlwind.

Bianca Chambul

I had an interesting mindset shift post-audition.  Mr. Kamins said to me, “People are going to look at you differently than they did before.”  It’s like time was split in two.

What might have been a potentially self-sabotaging idea was the realization that I was in some way representing the Edmonton Symphony and that I magically had to be so much better overnight.

Unfortunately, I wound up falling on my face somewhat after a long day of travel when I arrived at the Music Academy bassoon masterclass that afternoon.  Mr. Michel was, ironically, directing a class on less commonly-requested excerpts (cough, Pulcinella), and I was scheduled to play the solo from Verdi’s Requiem along with the end of Figaro that isn’t always asked.  The Verdi was also on the ESO audition, so at least I had spent some time looking at it.

Verdi one
verdi two image

I had had a chance to try my reed in the warmup space beside the main chamber where the masterclass was held in Hahn Hall.  It was a beautiful space with lots of light and minimal clutter, just like the entire property.

The reed seemed okay … or rather, I was trying to convince myself it would be.

But when I got out there to play, it was a different story.

My audition-winning reed wasn’t so flashy today.  In fact, it had transformed into one of those condemned pieces of cane that feels simultaneously too weak and too strong.

How precisely was this happening?  I had just won an audition – wasn’t I supposed to be amazing and faultless?

The reality is that nothing had changed.  I still had the same hang-ups that I did before the audition.  There was no magical overnight transformation.

REEDS CHANGE

Mr. Michel was nice, my playing not so much.  That was also what made it even worse: Mr. Michel shared with the audience of patrons that I had just won an audition.

I had brought out my pliers and was, as casually as I could appear, adjusting the reed during the class while he was speaking to everyone and to me.

Then came time for Figaro.

Another oh dear moment on this reed.

Figaro music

I crashed my way through it, still in disbelief that I had used this precise reed to win the audition when it currently sounded like I had picked it up off the floor after having stepped on it.

Please don’t ask me to play this again, I thought, once the ordeal was over.  It isn’t going to get any better.

Mr. Michel asked if I could do something slightly different, though I don’t remember what.  I braced myself to play the excerpt again on this useless piece of arundo donax, accepting that it would be what it would be.

Sure enough, it wasn’t much better.  At least I was surrounded by friendly faces, but that somehow also made it more humiliating.

Once the four of us had each finished playing our assigned excerpts for the class, it was time to thankfully relax and have dinner at the cafeteria.  One of our Compeers (festival donors who are partnered with Music Academy fellows) came up to me from the audience and asked sympathetically, “Are you tired?”

It was a rude awakening after the high I had been on the previous day, but my spirits weren’t dampened for too long.  (I managed to shake it off once I was playing contrabassoon for Shostakovich 11 that evening.)

This was the biggest aha moment where I truly understood that cane changes with humidity and elevation.  I had adjusted that reed to suit 2,200 feet above sea level with the dryness of a desert and had returned to a climate that was perfect weather with higher humidity.  No wonder it freaked out.

I have no idea where that reed is, and I’m not even sure if I still have it.  I just remember that it was coated in sparkly purple glue.

TYING UP LOOSE ENDS

The rest of my summer was spent juggling Music Academy activities, trying to stay afloat amid rapidly deteriorating reeds (and a frighteningly low number of functional ones that were coming up the proverbial pipeline), while being in communication with the ESO and figuring out how I would organize an international move from Houston up to western Canada.  In addition to that, I had to file for a leave of absence from Rice and contact the school’s Office of International Students and Scholars to terminate my visa status.  Being able to discuss the load of tasks with Mr. Kamins helped ease the overwhelm.

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

One of the highlights of Music Academy’s program is their partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra.  The Keston MAX Fellowship selects twelve instrumental musicians by audition to spend two weeks in England performing alongside LSO musicians and taking advantage of masterclasses.  At the Music Academy of the West, students also benefited from having the LSO members play side-by-side with us in the orchestra.

I thought of taking the audition, but there was one snag: the trip to London overlapped with my Rossini concerto performance at Rice in April 2020.

I spoke with Mr. Kamins about this, and he assured me that we would work something out if my audition was successful.

CENTERING 2.0

My preparations for the audition resulted in a connection with trumpeter Bill Williams, who specializes in the mental skills required for high-pressure performance situations.  He offered weekly thirty-minute sessions for Music Academy students for a number of weeks and combining those with the package he handed out to us helped me step up my centering game even further.

The first time I signed up for a session, Bill asked how he could help since my process had worked for Edmonton.  I asked if he could read through the steps of centering so that I could actually focus on doing them properly under his guidance.  I was specifically working on the four or five standard excerpts that were required for the LSO Keston MAX Fellowship.

I had shown up with a reed that wasn’t particularly great.  It wasn’t terrible, but I definitely wanted to be playing on something different for the real audition, and I explained that to him.  I knew that as a trumpet player he couldn’t assist me in that direction, but I went with what I had that day.

Bill guided me through the steps (“make sure you have your eyes open”) as I was honing in on my selected focal point below eye level.  The excerpt I had chosen to play first was the opening phrase of the Mozart concerto exposition.

Bill Williams

Bill Williams (photo courtesy of the Music Academy of the West)

When I was ready to go, I just went for it.

“How did that feel?”

I was surprised.  “I haven’t practiced this excerpt [since preparing for the ESO audition] and the reed I’m using isn’t particularly great.  But that felt so easy,” I said.

We talked about the experience and tried a few more things.  In another session, we worked on Beethoven 4 and that also was noticeably improved.

Practicing these mental skills is like exercising a muscle, much like how we practice our instruments.  It’s something we can get better at, and I had seen enough of what this trumpeter and performance psychologist had shared with me to realize that there was a way to take this set of skills to the next level.

THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME

There were two rounds of the LSO fellowship audition.

The first round was done in typical blind audition style for a panel of Music Academy faculty.  I was one of two who advanced.

The second round, held about a week later in front of two London Symphony musicians, was where I committed to putting my new centering skills to the test.

As I went through Bill’s centering process, I felt much more secure at the beginning of the audition rather than feeling like I was warming up as I was playing.  When I got to Beethoven 4, it was the best I had ever played it using that process.  What a feeling.

It wasn’t a perfect audition, but it had been an overall pleasant experience because of the mental quiet that the centering techniques provided.

Soon afterward, the results were announced.

I had won the bassoon fellowship.

THE ROSSINI CONCERTO

While at Rice, I had competed in the winds category for the concerto competition in March 2019 and had been awarded the opportunity to perform with the school’s chamber orchestra in April 2020.  When I told Mr. Kamins about winning the LSO fellowship, he informed the Rice administration and delivered some surprising news.

One of the faculty members at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music was scheduled to perform a piano concerto with the Rice Chamber Orchestra at the end of September.  He offered to switch his performance date with mine in April, which was terrific.

shepherd school of music
Snapshot of the Shepherd School of Music concerto competition semifinals for winds, brass, percussion, and harp, held on March 6, 2019 in Stude Concert Hall, where I collaborated with Eliza Ching for a panel of faculty members.

I could now take advantage of the opportunity to actually participate in the LSO fellowship, and perform the Rossini concerto in Houston before the Edmonton Symphony’s season would start.  The catch was that I went from having nine months to prepare the Rossini to now only having two.

But there was no other way around it, and it’s a miracle that it worked out.

THE INTERNATIONAL MOVE

Fast forward to the end of the festival, when I had to fly to Houston to meet the movers to take everything from storage and send it all the way up north to Edmonton.

Use your imagination to fill in the blanks of the classic moving debacle, from an electric gate that slammed shut on the moving truck, to having to dig through all my perfectly packed and sealed boxes when I was advised that no liquids would be accepted (what about my shampoo and mouthwash?  Help).  You get the picture.

international move

My mom flew to Edmonton from Toronto mere days ahead of me and, by the time I arrived, had already secured a cozy apartment with the help of a family friend.  What a wild ride.  Mom was gone in less than three weeks and I was finally settled in.

Another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place.

With the festival and the move behind me, I began practicing the Rossini concerto in earnest and worked on reeds.

At the end of August, I attended an outdoor concert as part of the ESO’s Symphony Under the Sky (SUTS) series and met some colleagues after the concert.

I was finally here, but the big hurdle was now travelling back to Houston for a week of rehearsals leading up to the performance of the Rossini concerto.

The ESO had graciously allowed me to begin in early October even though the season officially started at the end of August with the SUTS programs.

I prepared to fly back to Rice for the final time for a week in September to perform the Rossini concerto.

I didn’t feel ready.

I had options for reeds that were responsive and resonant, but they still felt unstable.  I knew Mr. Kamins would be able to help me with them.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra 2019/2020 season

Once there, I was able to sit in on the Monday and Wednesday studio classes, and as usual, learned so much.  Catching up with my former studio mates and meeting the newcomers was also fun too (and I even played recorder in Collegium, Rice’s introductory class to period instruments, after one rehearsal).

It was a challenging week for me.  I learned some difficult lessons about practicing and my performance was not as strong as the two rounds of the competition back in March.

I talked with Mr. Kamins about it, saying that I wished I could have swapped the dress rehearsal for the performance on September 29, 2019.

“I’ve been where you are,” he said.  “But in terms of character, did you accomplish what you wanted to get across?”

“I’d say about eight out of ten.”

So maybe there was some hope there, some small solace.

Rossini Concerto ESO

 

My parents, friends, and teachers celebrated with me.  It was a beautiful way to reconnect and say goodbye for the time being.

My swansong.

Benjamin Kamins
With my teacher and reed guru, Benjamin Kamins.
Hirsch Orchestra Rehearsal Hall
With Mom and Dad in Hirsch Orchestra Rehearsal Hall.

Shaking hands with trumpet professor Barbara Butler and greeting friends.

No one saw a pandemic coming half a year later.  If Rice hadn’t made these alternate arrangements to accommodate the LSO opportunity, this performance might not have happened until well into the future, if at all.

I had taken advantage of another sliver of time without realizing it.

 

THE FIRST DAY

The morning of October 2, 2019 was my very first rehearsal with the ESO at 10:00 a.m.

I was on cloud nine again.

What a beautiful space. I could finally enjoy a concert hall like this for more than just ten minutes at an audition.  What a treat to open with Symphonie Fantastique.

Everyone was so friendly.  I shook many hands that day (back when that was a thing).

At the conclusion of the rehearsal, a woodwind colleague said, “You fit right in.”

My week was made.

 

the first day image

ON THE JOB

Rice University prepared me well for life after school, but nothing could have fully prepared me for the rigours of an orchestral position other than physically being in the seat, expected to play principal on everything.  Suddenly all of my reeds seemed so inadequate; you can compensate for them as a student (or rather, you can trick yourself into believing you can), but when a conductor places ever-growing demands to play softer and softer and you’re exhausted at the end of a long rehearsal or performance, you need to know you can play what’s on the page and do the job.  It took nothing less than actually sitting in the chair to understand why playing in tune and in time were two of the most critical aspects to being a professional orchestral musician, and why Mr. Kamins constantly stressed response and intonation in our reeds.  I like to play on reeds that take the air very freely, but they were quite unstable and I felt that I had to work too much to play in tune with those around me.  Anything you can do to take that out of the equation is paramount.

One of the biggest adjustments when I was at Rice was having to make a minimum of six reeds a week and being expected to play on a new reed for every lesson.  I had never made that many reeds at that point, but it paled in comparison to the amount I had to make in Edmonton.

ESO on the job
Getting ready for Peter and the Wolf (the fuzzy boa is supposed to be a beard). November 23, 2019.

I am guessing that the low humidity in the hall has something to do with why my reeds tend to close down and not last very long.  It was a pretty shocking realization that I couldn’t play on the same reed for the entire week, and that an “old faithful” would suddenly become useless a lot sooner than I expected.

William Short, principal bassoonist of the Metropolitan Opera, talks about how he aims to scrape two-day ones per day, which would amount to fourteen reeds a week.  Even then, he says he still feels like he is barely on top of things (and he sounds incredible).

A psychological approach to Reed Making
Click image to watch video.
Evaluating a Second-Day Reed
Click image to watch video.

I’ve tried this method, and so far it has been the way I’ve managed to only just stay afloat.  It does help having the Herzberg profile, which I’ve put on my gouger made by Greg James. (Just make sure it’s not too thin, or you’ll run into the same trouble I did at the Music Academy of the West when an alarming number of my freshly-clipped blanks felt simultaneously weak but strong and therefore unusable.)

reed making desk
My reed desk and workspace behind my bassoon.  Mom and I found this handy unit at HomeSense as I was settling in.

What I love about the Edmonton Symphony is the same thing that I find challenging: I get to play principal on everything, which means I have to play principal on everything.

Enter the pandemic.

We had a particularly full week in March 2020 with a programme featuring Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, the Sibelius violin concerto, and a contemporary opening work.  Since beginning with the orchestra in October 2019, it felt like the days stood still while the weeks flew by.  Those strenuous several days felt unusually long and also included some important lunch meetings.  I remember feeling in over my head and struggling to keep up, thinking, I just need this to stop, even for a moment.

A couple of weeks later we weren’t at work, and things would grind to a halt for months.

I had a conversation with an Uber driver about this, and he said, “Oh, so the pandemic is all your fault.”

COLLEAGUES

What Edmonton lacks in temperate warmth, it makes up for in the warmth of its people.

This is a particularly nice group of musicians.  Not only am I inspired by my colleagues every week and wanting to grow and be better because of what I’m hearing around me, but I was also supported in a time of need.

At the beginning of my second season, I had a recording scheduled to perform Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words, typically played on cello, at the Winspear Centre with Alexander Prior, the Edmonton Symphony’s Chief Conductor.  The date of the recording was September 8, 2020.  Leading up to it, I had been nervous and very concerned about the condition of my reeds, especially since I would be collaborating with Alex in a chamber music setting.  I worked on a number of them to no avail, and thankfully an old faithful pulled through.

Winspear Stage
Recording Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words with Alexander Prior, ESO Chief Conductor, on the Winspear Stage.  September 8, 2020.

The next day, I had a wind quintet rehearsal since we were preparing to perform five short concerts at the Art Gallery of Alberta starting on September 10.  I had been concerned about that rehearsal since my main focus was preparing for the recording.  It ended up being a fun session, though it was three hours long.  It was a nice day so I walked home.

Moments after I closed the door to my apartment, I began experiencing an unexpected dizziness.  My vision of the world seemed to be perpetually tilting.  As I walked around, it seemed to worsen.  I figured I would lie down and sleep it off.

That didn’t work.

This became alarming when it continued to increase past midnight without showing any signs of subsiding.  Our first concerts were the next day and the prognosis wasn’t looking too good.

It got to the point where I would be lying still and the world felt like it was turning on its axis.  I was horribly nauseous and deeply concerned I would be physically sick.  I didn’t dare move.

When I had to slink off the bed to take what would normally be about seven strides to my bathroom, I wobbled uncontrollably and had to slowly crawl on all fours in order to reach it.

To top it off, my phone battery was at one percent and my charger was nowhere to be found within reach.  I needed to tell the quintet that in this state I wouldn’t be able to make it for the concerts.  (Thankfully my laptop had some life left and I was able to contact the group through email.)

The way the four of them rallied around me was very comforting.  A member of the orchestra who lives several blocks away graciously brought food and Gravol right to my apartment.  The concierge carried the bag up to me along with some cookies that were available.  I had to crawl on the floor to answer the door and accept the package.  He asked me quietly, “Do you need me to call the hospital?”  I thanked him and told him no, but that I’d keep him posted.

Another member of the quintet called me and offered to take me to the doctor.  I initially declined, but within half an hour called her back as this was my only option.

She does not live close to me, but drove to my apartment and came right up to the suite so that I could have a human crutch to lean on as we headed to her car.  After we drove to a walk-in clinic, the doctor told me it was vertigo and sent me off with a prescription.  My good Samaritan colleague picked up some food and then drove me home, again acting as a crutch until she was sure I was safely in my apartment before leaving.

mixed chamber music friends
Playing mixed chamber music with friends: Stephanie Morin (flute), Douglas Ohashi (bass), Ewald Cheung (violin), July 2020.

It spoke volumes to me.  The two other musicians checked in on me through text and email, assuring me that I could reach out if I needed anything.

I’m fortunate to have the support systems, both musically and socially, that Edmonton provides.  It’s a double win.

You think you’re invincible until you’re not.  Anything can happen to anyone at any time.  I don’t know specifically what caused the vertigo, but I think it’s safe to say that both my lack of sleep and the level of stress may have been the thing that pushed me over the edge.

Things don’t fall apart overnight.  Despite the treat of regularly performing chamber music with friends in the two months leading up to the incident, I was feeling pretty spent by the time our thirty-plus summer shows were over.

The lesson here?  Pace yourself.  I had heard this advice repeatedly from ESO musicians with decades of experience behind them. 

Did I listen?  Not until I learned it the hard way.

Edmonton Symphony Wind Quintet

The Edmonton Symphony Wind Quintet.  Left to right: Elizabeth Koch, Principal Flute; Bianca Chambul, Principal Bassoon; June Kim, Principal Oboe; Julianne Scott, Principal Clarinet; Allene Hackleman, Principal Horn.  An outdoor rehearsal in Sherwood Park near the end of summer 2020.  Our portable venue was the blue tent in the lower left corner.

In our quest to pursue that dream job, we often underestimate how vital our working environment is and how that contributes to our emotional well-being.  You can’t put a price on surrounding yourself with quality people.  I have the best of both worlds here.

EDMONTONIANS AND THEIR SYMPHONY

In addition to wonderful colleagues, it has been encouraging to see how much Edmontonians value the orchestra.

The first major programme I played was Shostakovich 11, which was scheduled in early November 2019.  I was still buzzing from the final show and had gone across the street to my local grocery store at 10:30 p.m.  As I was shopping, a woman approached me and asked, “Were you playing in the orchestra tonight?”

Bassoon?  Celebrity status?  Is that a thing?

Pleased, I told her my instrument and confirmed that I had performed that evening. She shared how much she enjoyed the concert.  It felt like a real win that night, in addition to the adrenaline rush of performing such a challenging work.

I had a similar experience with a cashier at the drugstore who reacted enthusiastically when she found out I played with the ESO.  I thought of Sophie Dervaux with the Vienna Philharmonic: she mentions in a YouTube video how classical musicians in Vienna are treated almost like celebrities.

Even on such a small scale, it is validating.

A RIDDLE

I’m not sure where the time has flown – my audition was already two years ago now.

So here’s the riddle: how am I entering my third season and yet only have five months of experience on the job?

Answer: a pandemic.

There were opportunities to perform chamber music with people I otherwise would not likely have worked with.  In addition to a mixed quartet (pictured here) and the wind quintet, a few of those collaborations were trios with either bassoon, violin, and harp, or bassoon, horn, and harp, and we would break the groups up into smaller configurations, like duos.  It was encouraging to see how many people from Edmonton showed up to support these outdoor concerts.

Mixed Chamber Music Quartet
The mixed chamber music quartet, moments before being rained on. We had to run for cover and finish the show on our hostess’ balcony.  July 2020.

Despite having time off away from a regular season, things still somehow seemed busy.  With the shift to online learning and digital content, I found myself involved in something I didn’t expect to enjoy this much: creating YouTube videos.

The ESO does segments on each musician with personal anecdotes and charming Q and As, called ESO 101s.

As Mr. Kamins noted while I was in Houston, “Bianca … when [you’re asked] to do something, you tend to … do it all the way.”  (It was in Houston where I learned what the word “extra” meant.)

In typical fashion, I went a little crazy on my ESO 101 submission, pictured above, which my mom affectionately dubbed my “covideo”.  After having to re-film it, it took me eleven days to create the finished product, and at that point I was a little loopy since I had stayed indoors the entire time.

I know the word pivot essentially became profanity during Covid-19, but I really did have to stay on my toes in case unusual opportunities for recordings – whether chamber, orchestral, or even solo – showed up.  Besides filming and editing videos on iMovie, there were occasions to record performances at the hall, which were filmed by a professional videographer, Erik Visser.  These performances comprised the ESO’s Live at the Winspear series.  In addition to Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words, I was able to record two solo pieces by Jean Daniel Braun and Mathieu Lussier’s second caprice for unaccompanied bassoon as part of the ESO’s Virtual Stage subscription series.

So here we are, eighteen months later, with many people fully immunized.  I’m not sure what the future holds, but I am looking forward to getting back into the swing of things and staying creative.  There’s never a dull moment, and I am grateful to be here as I enter my third season with the orchestra.

EPILOGUE

As I reflect on what was going on this time two years ago, I’ll close with an anecdote from Edith Stacey, the ESO’s assistant principal bassoonist and contrabassoonist.

Back to June 24, 2019: audition day.

It was only after I met Edie that I realized she was the person behind the miracle voice who offered me the chance to redo the second iteration of The Rite of Spring.

I don’t remember greeting her when I met the rest of the audition committee behind the screen, but I do remember speaking with her after the audition in Barney’s Lounge, which was where the candidates had been waiting.  Edie told me a part of the story that I have no recollection of.

She had offered me a sandwich and I cheerfully took the entire platter.

“I figured you were a poor student who hadn’t eaten in days.”

At least I said thank you, so the story goes.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I wasn’t all there after the news.  And it really is no joke that candidates shouldn’t be operating any machinery, much less interacting with their future colleagues beyond pleasantries, on audition day.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

For the moments in our lives that we wish were different, we often forget that removing one seemingly insignificant detail in our path could dramatically alter the course of our trajectory.  If Max hadn’t reached out that day in May, I likely would not have heard about the ESO vacancy at all, or found out too late to prepare.  Despite performing poorly at the Dallas audition and wishing at the time that I hadn’t taken it, I might not have had the same level of resolve to advance past the first round in a subsequent audition and channel that energy into my preparations for the Edmonton Symphony.  I would have instead found myself moving back from Texas to my childhood home in Thornhill, Ontario to complete my Master’s degree online rather than being part of the ESO family as we navigated a pandemic that blindsided the world.

This piece of writing has been a year in the making, and I hope that it has been an enjoyable and useful read.  I wish you success as you move forward in your own journey.

– Bianca Chambul

Photo credit: Dale MacMillan

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