Anyone here know how to fix one of these thangs?

I was recently at a rehearsal of an outstanding conservatory-level orchestra. Strange noises were coming from the contrabassoon. The conductor stopped to try to address the issue- the obvious problem was that it was shockingly out of tune- it sounded like a geriatric bass with emphysema or an accordian with a leak. After a few attempts the contra player informed him that the contra was “broken” but that they’d have it fixed before the next rehearsal.

After the rehearsal, the conductor checked with the bassoon professor. “Is the contra fixed?” he asked.

“It wasn’t broken- she just wasn’t blowing hard enough into it.”

Even as this little vignette played out, on the other side of the room, the clarinet instructor and one of the students were dismantling and re-assembling the bass clarinet, which was also “broken.” I missed the noises that led to that diagnosis, but I know it is a brand new, top of the line bass clarinet.

In fact, I would say that in my long experience as a conductor, any time a work calls for a doubling instrument- bass or e-flat clarinet, cor anglais, contra bassoon, etc, there is a high likelihood (especially with not-quite front rank orchestras) that moments into the rehearsal, the novel device will be declared “broken.” A few years back, I did the Walton Viola Concerto (with a university orchestra), which has a very, very, very important bass clarinet part- the player must must have gone through 8 bass clarinets in rehearsal. Every time we came to the bass clarinet solo, the player would honk out a few strange noises, then declare it “broken.” On the day of the concert, a final bass clarinet was couriered across the city, but I had decided that the chap simply didn’t play bass clarinet. I nearly passed out when he actually played most of the notes in is solo in the concert (and only in the concert- the only time the thing was not “broken.”)

I don’t think I’ve ever, ever, ever had to stop a rehearsal because an oboe, B-b clarinet or bassoon was “broken.”  It’s just the doubling instruments that are generally “broken.”

Any time I’m doing New World Symphony or Vaughn Williams 5 or anything like that with a big cor anglais solo, I’m always asked to pinpoint the minute in the rehearsal when we will be playing the famous solo. When the moment arrives, I’ve all too often heard a couple humorous sqwaulks before the thing was declared….. “broken.”

What is it about woodwind instruments? Can “broken”- ness only be determined in an orchestra rehearsal? Do these things actually make good sounds in the practice room, only to explode once taken to rehearsal? Or….. Is it a point of pride for some never to touch a bass clarinet outside of rehearsal? I’ve started to think that the reason the cor player wants to know when they’re rehearsing the solo is so that they know they can safely leave the thing in the case until 8:35, so there’s no chance whatsoever they’ll discover it’s “broken” until 8:36.

And how exactly does a musical instrument get “broken?” A key sticks, a note doesn’t close- this I can understand. But a whole instrument is “broken?” Why was it not broken 10 minutes before the rehearsal (because it was in the case??????) If I had a huge solo and discovered my axe was “broken” and would only make duck noises 10 minutes before rehearsal, I would not be asking the conductor what time he was rehearsing my piece- I’d run out of the building and call the personnel manager, tell them I’d been in a terrible accident and wouldn’t be at rehearsal, then I’d hide.

No, that’s not a suggestion…..

Don’t get me wrong, things break – I get this. I still don’t understand why a bass clarinet is 60% likely to be “broken” while a “normal” clarinet is only .000003% likely to be broken. I guess some mysteries are not meant to be solved. But if you only discover your axe is “broken” in rehearsal, I must conclude you only play your instrument in rehearsal, which is bound to make me a little nervous about that big solo you’ve got in the slow movement…..

Is it just that you ain’t blowin’ hard enough?

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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6 comments on “Anyone here know how to fix one of these thangs?”

  1. patty

    I had a key stick in the middle of a performance when it had never done it before. It was absolutely horrifying. There had been no indication of a malfunction at any of our four rehearsals or my practice time at home. Every time I played a particular note it came out 1/2 step flat. And I had a solo including that note. A choir director who was at the concert later told her conducting class I had “deliberately played the wrong note throughout a solo” and asked the class what they would have done, had they been conducting. Fortunately a colleague was in her class and answered, “I would know her instrument was malfunctioning!”

    That is the only time I’ve ever had that happen. (And yes, it was on English horn.) But just a few weeks ago a principal oboist had an instrument malfunction at a concert. This sort of thing really does happen. Cars break down. So do instruments.

    Ideally we’d all have second instruments sitting next to us so that we could quickly grab another one. Sadly I don’t have money for two English horns!

    Honestly, I have more issues with my oboe than I do with my English horn. Both are pesky; these double reed instruments tend to be. But I attempt to keep them in good repair.

    Because they are “doubling instruments” to some folks (EH was my primary instrument for 27 years) doesn’t mean a professional doesn’t pull it out and practice it if we have parts! I can’t tell you how much I worked on my solos of this year, and you can bet I’ll be practicing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G before the October concerts! If you are dealing with players who aren’t practicing and are coming in with instruments in such ill repair that you have to worry like this every single time you conduct, I wonder greatly about those players.

    Okay. Sorry to rant. I guess I’m a bit touchy tonight!

  2. Elaine Fine

    A woodwind instrument that is used only occasionally can acquire slight temporary changes in its bore as a result of practicing. Spit gets absorbed in the dry wood, and the instrument can become unreliable. Then there is the possibility of dry pads absorbing moisture, and then drying out (perhaps in air conditioning, which speeds the process) so that they do not seal properly.

    In larger instrument, like contrabassoons or bass clarinets, which are called for less frequently than standard instruments, there is more interior surface area (and there are often more pads) to act up.

  3. Paul H. Muller

    Well I’m just a brass player and we have our moments with sticky valves and whatnot. I have sat next to bassoon players and it is like sitting next to a champion fly fisherman – all sorts of wires, reeds, clamps, strings and gadgets are needed to keep the thing going. And that was the standard instrument – not one in a lower register.

    Brass players can sympathize with the lower reeds – we play maybe 30% of the time and often have to pick up a cold horn after 150 measures of counting and then come in fortissimo. So a reed player on an exotic sort of instrument waiting patiently for that solo maybe isn’t used to it and suddenly no sound comes out. (see also above comment by Elaine Fine).

    We have all been there…

  4. Jane Schaefermeyer

    Y’know, I used to think that instrumentalists had it easier than singers, since voices are affected by every little change in the wind. I’m not sure anymore! Very funny post and looks like you opened up a can of worms! 🙂

  5. Kenneth Woods

    Hi everyone!

    I hope it was clear that the main point of this post was humor! It’s a far cry from the sort of frustrations Patty describes, which I’m totally sympathetic to, and which most conductors and colleagues never even know about because she covers them so artfully, to the sort of thing I’m describing, which does seem to be indicative of an over-reliance on sight reading skills……

    In my non-expert opinion, the key is to NOT think of these instruments as “doubling” instruments, but as simply “other” instruments, with their own quirks and personalities. If you allow time in your preparation to really get inside the sound of the axe, you’re infinitely less likely to find said axe “broken” in rehearsal…. Real artists like Patty understand this, which is why I’m sure her conductors have no idea she’s been having problems 99% of the time something has gone wrong with the instrument.


  6. patty

    Yes, most of the time a conductor has no idea if my instrument isn’t “happy” … nor do they know if my reed isn’t behaving. (“Learn to play well on a bad reed,” is something my students are told over and over!)

    And yes, I would never think of EH as a doubling instrument. I also would never think of it as a “low oboe”. It’s its own instrument. (I can usually tell when a person is thinking “oboe” when playing it!)

    But maybe someday you’ll conduct here and find out if I really am a “real artist” or merely a sham! 😉


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