Stability, Projection, and the Opera Pit

March 7, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write  a post for a month now, and somehow it’s just stretched on and on and on, so I’m sorry I’ve procrastinated as long as I have (february reeds are going out tomorrow morning) and am glad to finally have a moment to jot down some thoughts.

I’ve been learning a lot about reeds recently from Martin, with the help of some English horn and oboe reed making lessons. He shoots for reeds that are so stable in tone and air that it’s really quite a new way of thinking and scraping for me. Despite a background that includes a lot of flexible thinking to the reedmaking, I’ve given myself over to him completely with the hope that I will be able to learn as much from him as possible and play the way he wants me to play, and sort out whether I want to do exactly as he says later. The main difference is I usually prefer a little bit more flexibility in the response and variance in wind speed, where as his reeds are a hair more resistant and have less sizzle, more cover.

I just finished up the fourth and final performance of Hansel and Gretel. Its a brutal piece, tough on the chops, and difficult with so many tempo transitions and chromatic modulations. As a student, I rarely get the opportunity to play complete operas, and therefore am just not used to the whole “opera scene”. Since singers rarely give any preparation as to their entrances or tempi to conductors, so too do conductors rarely provide prep beats, and so it means that you have to know your part quite well so that you don’t have to look at the music half the time, and so you can keep one eye glued to the conductor for that strange rubato section and abrupt entrance.

The scoring for Hansel and Gretel is quite large, usually too large for student voices who simply can’t project through such a Wagnerian piece, and therefore we used a reduced scoring, which included 1 oboe, 1 bassoon, 2 fls, 2 clars, reduced brass and string. It is actually the exact reduced orchestration that I performed back in 2000 at Michigan State, and I remember seriously injuring myself from the sheer length and wear upon the mouth, and being utterly lost half the time I played. Little things make it tricky, such as tempo changes which change a bar or two from in 2 to 4 and then back again, or strange barring which marks 1 measure of rest followed by 5 measures of rest, when really they should be broken in to 2 measures of rest (where the phrase ends,) followed by 4 more measures of rest (a new phrase). That, and obvious errors that I would gradually discover throughout the rehearsals performances (at least 2 missing bars in 2 separate places.)

I have issues with projection and pitch in this piece, and I tried just about everything. Being in a oddly shaped pit, it was inverted like a normal setup, where the string being closest to the audience were on a higher level, followed by a lower level for winds, and an even lower level for brass/percussion. Between the step for the string level and the wind levels was about an 8 inch gap which led to a 15 ft. drop underneath the pit, which you basically played into, and therefore it basically sucked up all of your sound. Someone obviously designed this pit with the intention of thinking that student wind players would play too loudly, and overpower the strings and singers. The conductor himself told me double reeds didn’t project well (that’s a first), and he was right. This led me to search for ways to project.

I tried my plastic loree, which is quite bright and projecting, but that instrument itself doesn’t like large opening reeds, and it just got nasty, so I went back to my XL. My normal reeds were too stable for the pit pitch (more on that in a minute) and a bit too “covered”, so I tried other options. I scraped bigger openings, but it didn’t work. I scraped a more compact reed, but that also didn’t work. Finally, I ended up scraping a slightly brighter reed which worked. I certainly didn’t have the desired tone I would have preferred, but at least I could be heard, and the lighter reed was easier on the embouchure. The pitch also kept going up and up and up, and the offending parties either couldn’t hear that they were sharp, or didn’t care, so this forced me to de-stabilize my reeds to allow for me to meet certain needs. An odd juxaposition. In the end my embouchure actually felt a lot more comfortable because I could bend the pitch easier, rather than bite a really stable reed very hard for an extended period of time.

It was a very long week, (rehearsals Sun, Tues, Wed, with concerts Thurs, Fri, Sat, Sun) but it was a good reminder that in certain situations, you just have to do whatever you can do to get the job done!


3 Responses to “Stability, Projection, and the Opera Pit”

  1. Maryn said

    “it was a good reminder that in certain situations, you just have to do whatever you can do to get the job done!”

    That’s the sign of a good oboist Cooper! Way to go hanging in there!

  2. Hey Cooper,
    Interesting site, liked your story about reeds and Hansel and Gretel. Found you through Bret’s link. Hope you’re doing well, will have to check back for more of what you’re writing.

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