Blame Your Tools

My low register was sharp.

This, in and of itself, was not terribly surprising. The bassoon is full of awkward acoustic compromises, and the low register on my instrument had never been particularly in tune, even under ideal conditions. I'd made some changes to my setup (including swapping out part of the instrument) senior year of college that had helped considerably, but still, it was hardly surprising that the first time I pulled out a tuner in LA, low B-flat was aspiring ever upwards.

So I did what I've been trained to do. I set about drilling myself with intonation exercises, training myself not only to be able to hear when notes are or aren't in their proper place, but also to be able to get them there from the moment they start to sound. For those of you unused to the joys of woodwind playing, this involves a lot of fiddly manipulations of parts of your body you don't normally think about: How high up in my throat is my larynx right now? Can I get it lower? What's the shape of the back of my tongue? Is there equal pressure coming from every direction around my mouth? All this while watching the needle on the pitch indicator stubbornly refusing to budge.

I hadn't seriously practiced intonation exercises in almost a year at that point (it turns out that writing and putting up a full-length musical is actually kind of a time suck? Who knew!), so it was also unsurprising that I was out of shape in this regard, and my progress was slow.

Super slow, in fact. At times it was pretty frustrating — I was studiously working away at problems I'd been able to fix in the past using the same tools I was using now, but I wasn't really showing any improvement. Still, I've been playing bassoon long enough to know that progress is seldom as simple as a short-term tweak; it's something that accumulates over time from many small changes.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I finally took my instrument in to the shop to get some regular maintenance done. As the repair technician was looking over my instrument, he turned and asked "How's your low register?". 

It turns out I had a leak. Not a big, gaping, make-the-instrument-unplayable leak, but enough of one that it was wreaking havoc with most of my lower range. Now that it's fixed, along with a host of smaller issues, my lowest notes are beautifully in tune. (Well, at the moment they're coming out flat because I've gotten used to overcompensating, but that'll clear up in short order.)

There's a lot of rhetoric out there about the importance of separating your self-worth from your musical ability: Just because you flubbed an audition or a solo doesn't mean you're a failure of a human being. We are only human, and mistakes happen. If there's a long-standing pattern of similar mistakes, that's an issue you should address thru slow, careful practice, but it's not productive to beat yourself up over it. Still, when a large chunk of your personal identity is occupied by "I am a musician", it's hard not to get caught up in the question "How good at music am I?". Sometimes we assess this with flashy études and show-off works, but often it's the simple things that are more revealing: How consistent is your intonation? How smoothly can you slur? How much beauty can you instill in a simple phrase?

I am a firm believer that disaster preparedness is an important part of "being a good musician". If I'm playing in an ensemble, it's my responsibility to cover that part to the best of my ability, not to throw up my hands and quit the minute something starts going wrong. I regularly practice on my worst reeds so that I have experience making acceptable noises from unacceptable sources — If accidents and absentmindedness (or, more realistically, a moderate change in the weather) knock out my few actually good reeds, I still know that I'll be able to play a concert. If I'm stuck at the very bottom of the barrel, it's true that I'll only be able to deliver 80% of what I'd've been able to do on my best reed, but that's quite a bit better than the 60% or less I'd be able to do if I never practiced on that worst reed at all. You play the show with the equipment you have, and even if that equipment is shit, you've still got to make the best of it.

Still, sometimes it really isn't your fault. The source of the problem with my low register wasn't my ear or my embouchure, it was my instrument. I can prepare myself for disaster all I want, but I'll never train myself to break the laws of physics. Some issues cannot be addressed thru long hours of careful practice, any more than jumping in the air enough times will give me the ability to fly.

This isn't carte blanche for sloppiness, much as it feels that way to write it. Conceding that there are some things you literally cannot fix in the practice room doesn't exempt you from working on the things you can. No instrument is perfect, nor is any reed, and a hefty chunk of musicianship is working around these imperfections and figuring out how to make beautiful music in the face of recalcitrant odds. Many issues do in fact lie with the player, not the thing being played.

But not all of them. Some of them you can't fix thru self-improvement. Sometimes you have to blame your tools.