We talked to four members of the biggest orchestra in Munich about their instruments. In this interview, you can learn more about the Munich Philharmonic Raffaele Giannotti, his way to the bassoon and what the bassoon does to your lips.
“I come from a musical family. My father is an oboist and my sister a violinist, so I came into contact with all kinds of instruments from an early age. When I was small, we had a book at home that had pictures of all the instruments in the orchestra. I was just about three years old and I thought the bassoon was the nicest of all the instruments. It was such a lovely brown colour. Still, I started on the piano first, because a bassoon is simply too unmanageable for a child – too big and too heavy. But eventually the big day came. It was in Lecce; I was around ten years old and was finally allowed to start learning the bassoon. My parents didn’t hold me back – some people often put children off if they don’t think them capable of learning an instrument, or if they don’t want to listen to them practising every day. I was fully supported, and all these years later I am still just as full of enthusiasm for the instrument.
I love practising and I never find it burdensome – thank God that’s the case, because it is an instrument that requires a lot of practice. You might not believe that when you hear it in the orchestra, at the back with the woodwind instruments, because it’s only musically prominent from time to time. It requires perfect lip tension to play the bassoon, and that is very difficult for a child. You need to train your cheek muscles every day to achieve it. It also involves coordinating your lips and fingers as well as sound generation and grip technique. The sound is initially created using a double reed – that is, two reeds bound together that vibrate when you blow on them. You can already do that with just one reed, and the principle is basically the same as when you clamp a blade of grass between your thumbs and blow. The reed is a science in itself.
You can spend a long time looking for just the right piece of wood, around six centimetres long, and spend days filing it until the sound is perfect.
The original form, which is still used in folk instruments today, can be pictured like a drinking straw that has been flattened at one end, with slits cut in both sides. The reed for a modern orchestra instrument is a little larger and more complex, and is usually made from arundo donax, or giant cane. It’s possible to buy ready-made reeds, but you soon learn to make them yourself, especially in terms of shaping the tips precisely to suit your specific needs. The double reed is the most sensitive part of the instrument. In the oboe, it is concealed in a capsule with an opening for blowing, but in the bassoon, it is open – meaning you must place it completely in your mouth and create the necessary blowing pressure there. You can spend a long time looking for just the right piece of wood, around six centimetres long, and spend days filing it until the sound is perfect. Once you’ve done that it needs to rest, because it continues to change depending on the moisture level. So you cannot make a new reed in the morning and use it to play in a concert that evening.
I get through at least one reed for a project that involves five days of practising and two performances – often two. Being able to make your own customised reed is essential for a professional player – there are various requirements that need to be met, and variables which I need to take into account even as I am choosing the material. For the orchestra piece “The Rite of Spring”, by Igor Stravinsky, I need a very robust, or secure, as we say, pipe. The wood must not be too rigid or too flexible, it must vibrate well but not be too soft, and it should not wear too quickly. If it is too soft, it will seal up instead of vibrating, but if it is too rigid, it will not vibrate properly and you will also have to produce too much pressure in the oral cavity. And it takes time to master making your own reeds. I was 14 years old the first time I built a reed that was fit for use – under the watchful eye of my teacher, of course. At fifteen I completed my education, obtaining my diploma in Turin. After school I studied in Vienna, but I already had a place with the orchestra in Florence. Next I auditioned in Munich, and was offered the position of solo bassoonist with the Philharmonic Orchestra. My probationary year in Munich was tough; almost all the pieces on the agenda were pieces I had never played before. But I took it as a challenge, and my greatest motivation was the desire to make my colleagues proud of me. It doesn’t need to be made explicit – it’s just the same as in a family: you know what the other person is capable of and you are pleased about that and with them.”