Rhapsody on a Crap Reed

I hate flautists. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing personal. Some of my best friends in the world are flute players and as a musical species they’re invariably gorgeous, modest and utterly adorable. The fact is that I’m jealous. It’s because flutes don’t have reeds.

Yes I know, I promised never to write about reeds. After all, in the world of classical music there is simply nothing more guaranteed to bring on boredom-induced catatonia. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop woodwind players going on about them. We spend hours faffing about with the bloody things, badgering our musical colleagues for their opinion on individual reeds.

“Do you think this reed sounds better than that reed? What about this one? How about I spend the next hour playing the same tune over and over, on every reed in my possession, so you can give me a direct comparison. So go on… Which one’s the best?”

“Dunno, they all sound the same.”

If you’ve never had to deal with the fickle, fragile, unpredictable madness of a reed you’ll probably be wondering what the fuss is about. Or you’ll have clicked away to read about something more interesting – bowing, probably.

But here’s the thing: all clarinettists, oboists and bassoonists are only as good as their reed. Seriously, you can take the best player in the world, Give them a crap reed and they’ll sound like a farting duck after 8 pints of beer and a vindaloo. So how can a simple piece of cane make such a difference?

I’ve no idea. Because here are 2 basic rules about reeds:

  • Nobody understands how they work
  • Nobody cares

There we’ll be, expected to make a splendidly gorgeous sound on every register of our instrument – grumblingly low, beautifully middle and somewhere up in the stratosphere where only the angels dwell. We breathe in, place the mouth and tongue at exactly the right place for musical perfection and go `t’. What happens? Nothing at all. Zilch. Or, at worst, a sound that only your mother could love – if she’s a bit deaf and has had a couple of sherries.

Everyone makes a face. You apologise. “Sorry, it’s my reed”. The conductor, along with all other members of the orchestra, tut quietly and raise their eyes to the heavens. You take out your reed-fiddling kit and caboodle – knife, plaque, pliers, tip cutter, chainsaw, industrial sander – and then stamp on the thing in a fit of pique. The flute player, meanwhile, looks smug.

As I said, I have absolutely no idea how a truly great reed comes into existence. I reckon it’s a combination of cane, a skilled reed-maker and a perfect alignment of the planets or something. Magic, in other words.

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Say Tchaikovskeeeee Variation II

Partly because it’s a new year, but mostly because no one has beaten me up yet, here are some more toe-curling photographs of classical musicians trying to look cool.

First up are the cellists. For reasons which escape me, cellists appear to favour the great outdoors. Look, here’s one frolicking with his cello in the Alps…

cellist in the tundra

What was that? You want me to move my chair back 6 inches? To get the right light. Uh,OK…

This next cellist has obviously checked out his rival’s publicity photo, and decided that extreme temperatures are a good way to get gigs.

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Please help me. I’m lost in the desert and cellos are growing out of the sand.

Meanwhile, the chap below has left me momentarily lost for words. Yes I know. It’s unlike me. But really… What can I say?

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Go on, fall off.

And now, on to the wealth of embarrassment presented to us by the classical flautist. What is it about flautists? Why can’t they just get themselves photographed fluting somewhere normal?

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Quick, take the photo! I’m about to go under for the 3rd time…

Here’s another one. I honestly have no idea why this bloke is playing his flute to a koala bear.

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Please get rid of this guy and bring me some eucalyptus leaves.

Mind you, flute players aren’t nearly as embarrassing as horn players.

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It’s not my fault! The photographer made me do it.

I reckon something happens to horn players when they’re presented with a camera. Some strange, irresistible force compels them to do something silly with their instrument.

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What? You want me to hold my horn in the normal position? Are you mad?

I think it’s about time we had some unnecessary nudity, don’t you?

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Look, you’ve persuaded me to pose naked with my gamba. Just don’t expect me to look happy about it, OK?

You may have noticed the leafy garland. String players, when nude, seem to rather like them. This lot have taken the garland to a whole new level.

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My garland’s bigger than yours.

And finally, here’s a picture of a man with a viol.

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Pavane for an infantile sense of humour

Now listen carefully. I’m about to give away a secret about orchestral musicians – something you probably haven’t noticed when you’re in the audience at a concert.

There we are on stage, dressed up in tails and tiaras, looking for all the world as though we’re taking things very seriously indeed. This is an illusion, a musical trompe l’oeil. Because actually, at any given time, most of us are a hemidemisemiquaver away from a helpless, hysterical fit of the giggles. Snorts of laughter. Uncontrollable guffaws.

Now you could, if you were being nice about it, put this down to the pressure of performance. The nerve-racking precision required to play classical music well. The constant looking-over-your-shoulder worry that there’s someone out there who’s better than you – and they want your job. Yeah yeah, yada yada. It’s got nothing to do with this.

It’s because our collective sense of humour is that of a 3 year old.

For starters, let’s take the opening of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. The sombre, funereal introduction – the narrative paradigm of per aspera ad astra which manifests as an overall tonal trajectory of E minor to E major,  “a complete resignation before fate, which is the same as the inscrutable predestination of fate”.  Bollocks. This is what musicians hear at the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s 5th:

Who’s got the keys to the shithouse?

Name virtually any piece of classical music, anything at all. You can bet that we’ll have made up rude words to it.

I’m not going to reveal all our offensive lyrics here because there are just too many. Well OK, maybe a couple – but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Scheherezade (“Oh my god, I’ve had a wet dream again”); the famous solo at the beginning of Till Eulenspiegel (“This French horn player, this French horn player, this French horn player, will be lucky if she doesn’t fuck it up”).

Anyway, you get the picture. Childish.

Not that I’m making excuses or anything, but I think our perilous proximity to hysterics is down to a dichotomy. OK, that sounds pretentious. Let me explain. Basically, classical music is taken very seriously. Therefore it’s extremely funny when it goes wrong.

You know that bit in the Verdi Requiem? The beginning of the Dies Irae, when the percussion player bashes the life out of an enormously huge bass drum? It’s dramatic. One of those genuinely terrifying ‘Day of Wrath’ classical moments. In other words, it’s serious. Have you guessed where I’m going with this?

Yep.

Apparently, the drum wasn’t properly secured to its stand.

It didn’t make it past the second bash. Following the percussionist’s enthusiastic run-up, it rolled magnificently and unstoppably through the entire orchestra. Gradually picking up speed as it went, the bass drum left a trail of felled musicians who utterly failed to contain their glee.

Next time you go to a concert, pay close attention to the orchestra. At least one of us will be laughing.

Air on a down-bow

I joined a string section last week. Well, I say “joined”. I was tacked onto the bass clef end of the strings for a Haydn symphony. So for a brief but enlightening period I left the woodwind section and became…

A cello.

The first thing I noticed: you can see the conductor. Let me explain…

Bassoonists are nearly always in the back row of the woodwind section. We peer at the conductor through a small gap between the first and second oboes. This is especially difficult with oboists who like to sway around whilst playing. You have to sway along in the opposite direction in order to see the bloody downbeat and, believe me, it’s difficult to play the bassoon when you’re bobbing around like a meerkat.

The second thing that I noticed about string sections? Actually, at this point I’m going to apologise to all my string playing friends. I’m about to take the piss out of your single biggest obsession; your bête noire; your favourite topic of conversation. It’s the thing that causes more moaning, more arguments and more getting-a-cob-on than anything else in the world of string playing.

Bowing.

Honestly, I’ve never heard anything like it. I’m so glad I’m a wind player. We never have to worry about what to do with our bow. Having spent a couple of days in the string section, I’ve realised that there’s a war going on in there.

It goes like this: the leader of the section issues his or her battle tactic – down-up-up. Almost immediately there is quiet muttering from the back desks… up-up-down… mutter mutter… up-down-up… mutter… down-up-down. One of them bravely pipes up, “Do you think it may be better if we did an up-bow there?” which roughly translates as “Up yours with the down-bow ”.

Some of them rebel, go AWOL on the bowing front. The bows are going off in all directions. It looks like a storm at sea. At this point the section leader gets tetchy about the down-up-up and says something along the lines of “Shut your gob and do as you’re told”. The pencils come out and the official bowing is marked in the music. Deep frowns ensue.

Meanwhile, the bassoonist fiddles with her reed.

Sometimes, the bowing wars continue in the pub after the rehearsal. For a woodwind player masquerading as a string, it’s all rather entertaining. OK, we occasionally have discussions about where to breathe, but arguments are rare. We just play the notes.

And moan about reeds.

Say Tchaikovskeeee… Variation 1

Well, no one’s sued me yet for the last blog. So I’ve decided to take the risk and share more excruciating photographs of classical musicians.

I probably ought to say again, just in case… I don’t know any of these people, and I’m sure they’re all excellent at playing their instruments. What they can’t do, however, is tell the difference between a good photographer and a potato.

First up, the bottomless pit of embarrassing photographic awfulness that is the wind quintet.

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Ooh, it’s a stave! And hey, that’s clever, we’re sitting on it! (Er, does anyone know why?)

And here’s another one. They are posing in a manner known in the classical music world as…”zany”.

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I play the French horn. What the hell am I supposed to do with this bloody oboe?

For some reason, classical musicians often feel that posing for a photograph with their instrument in the normal position is somehow boring. Take this violinist, for example. (I think she may be rather famous – but bear in mind that I’m a bassoonist, so I wouldn’t know.)

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I’m so talented that I can, in fact, play Paganini’s 24 Caprices with  my violin in this position. Ner.

And here’s another supremely awkward violin pose. Although this one does at least have the instrument wedged in a relatively normal place.

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I forgot to take my socks off.

Talking of uncomfortable poses, I’ve found a whole load of musicians falling into the sea. It seems to be some sort of trend. Look, here’s a cellist.

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I play a Strad you know. Oh bugger.

And here’s a viola player.

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What’s the difference between a viola player and a-…  

Right, that’s enough string players for the time being. Here’s a random photograph of a person holding far too many instruments.

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I can play all these things. And look! One of them is a banana.

Still, at least she’s not trying to look cool… with an oboe.

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Yeah, I’m in the desert gazing meaningfully into the distance. And I have an oboe slung casually over my shoulder. As you do.

  Lastly, and just for the sake of it really, here’s a teensy weensy oboist.

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When I grow up, I’m going to be a hedge fund manager.

 

Say Tchaikovskeeeee

It is a very awkward thing, posing for a photograph with a bassoon. What does one do with the bassoon? Sling it over the shoulder in a casual fashion? Dance around it? Cradle it lovingly? As you can see from the above, I decided to point it at Brighton Pier whilst trying to look mean. Whether it works or not is entirely a matter of opinion, but at least you can’t see my face.

Anyway, I’ve just had a quick scout around the internet for photographs of classical musicians. Now, please be aware that I’m not dissing anyone’s musical talent here. I am, however, having a bloody good laugh at a selection of quite unspeakable photographs.

Here is a lady trying to look sexy with a bassoon. She has obviously decided that her only option is to go topless…

I am, for no reason whatsoever, kicking my leg up in the air

And here’s a flautist. I don’t know about you, but I think this picture needs a snake.

The incongruous flute

I have an incongruous flute. Look closely, I have an incongruous piccolo too. I don’t know what the Eiffel Tower is doing in this picture.

Here’s another flautist. He’s decided to promote himself by walking delicately round his instrument.

I'm not sure what I'm doing. The photographer said it would look good.

I’m not sure what I’m doing. The photographer said it would look good.

Right, time for some gratuitous and supremely awkward nudity.

We're doing this for charity. Okay? And besides, they said it would be fine if we didn't smile.

We’re doing this for charity, okay? And besides, they said it would be fine if we didn’t smile.

That poor violinist. She looks a bit tragic, doesn’t she. Although she has at least been sensible about where to put her bow.

When in doubt, caress your instrument lovingly. Just don't get too excited about it.

When in doubt, caress your instrument lovingly. Don’t get too excited about it.

I have to say that of all the musical ensemble photographs, the wind quintet  has brought me the most joy. Look!

The bassoonist fails to launch.

The bassoonist fails to launch.

What is it about wind quintets? They always feel they have to do something… different.

I play the flute. I do not find this funny.

8 hours a day, every day. Practising my flute. And it comes to this?

Finally – but I could, to be honest, go on forever with this – here’s an unfortunate picture of a guitarist.

I'll do absolutely anything for publicity.

I’ll do absolutely anything for publicity.

The Pedantic Bassoonist’s Guide to Orchestral Dating

I’ve fallen in love with people because of the way they play. Quite unremarkable-looking people, in fact. Wouldn’t notice them in the street. But when they pick up an instrument the sound they make is so beautiful, so gorgeously sensual and nuanced, I’d marry them on the spot.

Funnily enough, really good musicians often turn out to be rather loveable people. Others though… Well I’d rather bite my own arm off. We’ve all met them. Some of us have been on dates with them. The advantage of being a musician is that you can avoid sticky situations in advance by listening to the way they play. Here they are…

The selfish lover crashes horribly early over bar lines with all the sensitivity of a charging bull elephant. Genuinely believes that he (or she… sorry) is the only musician in the orchestra.

The screamer draws attention to themselves with excessive movement whilst playing. It’s a practice commonly known amongst wind players as “soup stirring”. They occasionally finish off a phrase with an over-elaborate arm flourish.

The early finisher is sweat-soaked mess of extreme nerves during gigs. They have a habit of unwarranted fidgeting just before solos. Occasionally they will mutter things to themselves such as “don’t f**k it up”.  The ensuing solos are, inevitably, rushed.

The inattentive paramour is slightly behind the beat at all times. I can’t work out if this is down to a lack of confidence or because they’re short-sighted and can’t see the downbeat. Either way, they’re best avoided. You’ll end up killing them.

The over-confident disappointment plays absolutely everything too loudly.

It was a viola player, in case you were wondering.