On April 1, 2013, at 7:30 PM EST, I will be live streaming my final graduate recital at UNCSA. Shawna Pennock and Robert Rocco will be joining me to present music by Braun, Hummel, Hindemith, and Gubaidulina. I hope you'll join me for an evening of fine music! Click the image below for the link.
    This concert features plenty of contemporary, accessible, fun music for wind band. Come hear something different, as we celebrate Winston-Salem, "The City of the Arts." General admission tickets are $15, $12 for seniors, and available at the door.
     I like attention. I like an audience. I like entertaining people. I like telling a story the way my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents told me stories. I like setting the pace of an evening, being in control, and going on a journey: a quick trip over the river, through the woods, and around that oak tree with that creepy knot at the fork in the trunk. You know, I never could make up my mind whether it looked more like an ancient woman who through some bizarre act of fate ended up with two noses, or a bear mauling a marshmallow.  Come to think of it, that tree really meant a lot to me growing up. It was a fort, a rocket ship, and a monster to be brutally crushed under my magic boots. Sometimes it was just a tree though, you never knew.  That tree taught me something important; I need to be a musician.  There’s a lot of fanciful, sometimes disturbing things rattling around in my head, and when I put them to words the more linear of you sit there wondering, “What on Earth did that have to do with what he was just talking about?”

     People don’t ask music to make sense; they ask it to entertain, inspire, or touch them, probably in reverse order come to think of it. I’ve spent years practicing my craft, developing a musical vocabulary, and learning stories, songs, and masterpieces. If there’s a living to be made doing that, entertaining with a medium I’m more comfortable with than orations, sign me up. (I hope you’ve been entertained, but if not go play in a tree.) That tree’s maple cousin found its way to my hands, crafted, bored, and treated to produce sonorous melodies and rhythms, connecting my hands, spirit and mind to the emotional world of sound.  I may not be Bach or the Bard, but through my bassoon, both come to life in a way most everybody can appreciate. (And if not, again with the tree thing.)

     In my studies I’ve found a wealth of information on reed making; I’ve found a wealth of opinions on instrument makers; I’ve found a dearth of anything helpful regarding bocals. We hopefully all know how much better, and easier, life is with a well-matched horn, bocal, and reed style, so I’m setting out on an educational voyage to discover as much as I can about this thin metal tube, and what effect it really has on our playing.

     With such a dizzying prospect of becoming master of the crook, I took the same methodical approach I would bring to tackling a major concerto: baby steps. So, my first step is to gather information; what kind of bocals are there? Who makes them? What’s the difference? Turns out, there’s a fair amount of superficial information on the internet from the makers and the dealers. Sounds like a great place to start to me! I’ve compiled the information on all the brands I’ve had experience with: (in no particular order) Heckel, Puchner, Bell, Fox, Moosmann, Yamaha, Wolf, and Lietzinger.

     Most of us have at some point looked at a bocal and asked, “What on Earth do these funny letters on my bocal mean?” or, “Great, I can get that in gold, silver, or brass? What’s the difference again?” My first instruction on choosing a bocal was nothing more complicated that asking how it felt, and whether it was basically in tune. There are so many more questions much more relevant to crook selection, but that’s for another day. Right now, I just want to know what all the options are, and what they mean. Bocal design (and features) seems to boil down to the following: base metal, plating material, thickness of the wall, bore, “style,” method of production, and length.  Some of these things are marked on the bocals with a combination of letters and numbers, and some are entirely unmarked. I hope to have more information on unmarked bocal identification at a later date. Below is a description of all available options, as well as charts of each brands availability with any corresponding markings.

     I have two hopes for the usefulness of this document. One is that it can make bocal selection easier. If there is a particular feature you are interested in, it will tell you every option available with that feature. Interested in gold bocals? Heckel, Moosmann, and Leitzinger have you covered, and are marked with a “G,” “T,” and “D” respectively. Find what other options are available from these brands that you like, and now you have a good starting place for finding your new bocal. My second hope is that by collating and identifying the options and variables of bocal selection, we as bassoonists can begin to approach bocals the same way we approach our reeds. I know what to change in my reeds if my tenor register is flat and flabby, but what about a change in my bocal? What will make it easier to play The Firebird solo in tune? Here is my fist step.

                            Bocal Chart
     Bassoonists have a single uncompromising axiom: live by the Reed, die by the Reed. The finest crafted instruments, the highest caliber musicianship, and the most probability-defying luck all fall under the dull blade of the Cane. I am my Reed; I am defined by my Reed; I overcome my Reed; I am overcome by my Reed. Strange and long is the path from the cane fields to Reeddom, but to know the path of the Reed is to know my art.

     Arundo donax, the plant as it lives before its Calling, blankets the subtropics with its tubular stalks. They grow straight and tall, reaching for the stars.  They know nothing of what they can become, but they are happy, swaying to the gentle song of the wind. Such a life is proud, respectable, and honest. Then, under a full moon, the ritualistic harvest of the Arundo donax changes the fate of a select few shoots. Cut down, cleaned, and stored away for a time, the journey begins.

     The tubes sit in a dark dry place, wondering why they no longer grow straight and tall, all the while aging, maturing, drying, waiting, changing. Upon reaching the perfect balance, they are bundled with their expatriates and sent of to the Artist to be molded, and to in turn teach the Artist the way of the Reed. Now, set on the path of Sound, they become a vehicle for music.

     A reed is then split, gouged, shaped, profiled, heated, bound, warped, and left to settle again. It often wonders why it was selected for this special brand of torture, but in its heart a great anticipation grows, seeing a new world of possibilities just beyond reach. Many pieces do not reach this stage; some are too soft, others too hard, some too warped. Many crack under the pressure, although under a more careful, considerate hand this can be avoided more often than not. By this stage the Reed is in its Blank form, not yet able to produce a sound, but knows now of pain, of care, of precision, of Art.

      This is the end of many, as sadly not all of the Blank form are fit for more. After being clipped and opened to the world of making music, some tips will never polish well. Some are whittled down to a picture perfect blade, but still cannot vibrate in key with the path of Sound; some have a moral to teach the Artist, but lack some important quality to spread its message to others.

      Finally though, after years of waiting, a true Reed is born! It is blown into movement by the air of the Artist, and rings out its great spirit to its cane brethren, who sway happily in the music of the wind. They need never know the journey of the Reed to appreciate its song, and while the Reed may wish it still grew tall and reached for the stars, its new gift fills the world with a music that will never die.

     Much as the Reed travels from field to concert halls, I follow a parallel path. Indeed, so similar is the journey of Reed and Artist, I wonder at the power of the Music that chose me, bound me to my art, and breathed life into my song, as I do the Reed. As the reed is the tool for my craft, I am the instrument of Music. I call out to my fellow Man as the Music commands with all the precision, care, love, anguish, hope and despair that life has shown me. I have learned from the path of the Reed, and set myself as the Reed for life’s Music. I go where the music takes me, vibrating to tunes new and old, living and long since gone, until my sound is gone, my edges frazzled, and I join my fellow reeds in fitful rest.

     If that were all I am though, just a tool of something greater than myself, if I believed that, I would be but a Blank. I am more than a Blank. I see the lessons of the path of the Reed; I see the care needed to form a tool fit for Music. The careful pressure needed to form the perfect tube teaches the Artist, who then turns and uses that careful pressure to form students, phrases, and fellow Artists in euphony. The willingness to retire a Blank unworthy of the path and the willingness to shelve a work not right, not ready, or worse not quality complements the skills garnered from the same cane that taught me how to take a Reed without a message, and coax one out. From the Reed I learn more, taking my growth and funneling myself into the Reed; the path of the Reed blends in with other skills, synergizes, and self harmonizes. I take pride in knowing the Reed and being taught by the Reed. I live as the Reed and the Artist. As the Reed enriches the Artist, I the Artist, hope to uplift music Music. Onwards, ever upwards!