The BIG Double Reed Day 2014

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Snapshot image of the website for The BIG Double Reed Day

The BIG Double Reed Day is an annual event held at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and this year it’s scheduled for 16th November 2014. I’ve been every year since 2010 and I’ve got the T-shirts to prove it:

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Registrations for this year are open and you can apply online here.

Participants are divided into those under 10 who have not yet passed their grade 3, those aged 11-18 who are grade 3+, and the last group is for adults. These three groups run on three different timetables, and in addition, the events are staggered for oboists and bassoonists so there are never too many people in one place at one time: this helps avoid a massive bunfight at lunchtime.

Workshops run throughout the day and the choice is substantial:

  • Baroque Instrument Try-outs
  • “Big Brother” Try-out (contrabassoon/cor anglais)
  • Contemporary Techniques Workshop
  • Improve Your Articulation Workshop
  • Improve Your Sound Workshop
  • Reed-adjusting
  • Technique Troubleshooter

Additional Classes offered to students grade 6 – 8:

  • Audition Preparation
  • Baroque Performance
  • Music College Q & A Session

In the past I’ve played a baroque oboe, picked up some tips on how to warm up and practise effectively, attended several extremely useful reedmaking sessions, and participated in the playing workshops. There’s even a photograph of me with Alison Teale on the BDRD website:

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…but I’m not sure if this was taken before or after I hyperventilated. I hadn’t had much sleep, I’d drunk far too much coffee and I got very nervous about performing – all of which meant I took in far too much oxygen while I was trying to play and had to stop. Everyone was very kind, although several people did point out that I’d gone ‘a really funny colour’. However, the very lovely and talented Alison Teale smoothed the situation over by talking about How To Avoid This Sort Of Thing and, in giving me a few minutes to calm down, she gave me time to get my breath back so I could have another go at playing.

There were others who made a far better job of things than I did: here’s Helen Martin, an absolutely lovely lady who goes to the BDRD every year and she always plays something in the workshops. In fact, Helen is often the brave soul who volunteers to go first.

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This post is just by way of getting the information out there, and I’ll post a complete review after this year’s BDRD. There’s still time to sign up – just go to the website and click on ‘Apply’. See you there!

Slings and stands for the cor anglais: a review

The cor anglais is a large, heavy instrument and unless you have strong arm muscles like those of Alison Teale (who plays a lot of tennis) you’re going to need a sling or stand of some kind to help you support the instrument for more than ten minutes at a time.

The muscles in my arms and back are positively weedy and I was experiencing some very unpleasant shooting pains across my right wrist when playing the cor. In this post, I review two slings and a stand from the point of view of someone who was going to develop serious tendonitis if I continued playing the cor without support. (My teacher told me simply to build up the muscles in my arms, and of course this isn’t bad advice, but a) it isn’t going to happen overnight and b) at my time of life, it probably isn’t going to happen at all. I’m stuck now with my bingo wings. I might as well learn to love them.)

The Sling That Goes Around Your Neck

The Howarth Cor Anglais Sling (click on the information symbol to the left of the product name for an image) will cost you £16.85, and while it’s better than nothing, it really didn’t work for me. The sling goes around your neck and hooks onto the thumb rest like so:

Neck sling hook through thumbrest

The problem with this sling is that it tends to pull your head forward, so I found that I still had the shooting pains in my wrist plus an ache across my back and shoulders as a result of my head and neck being forced into an unnatural position:

Neck sling pulling head forward

Another solution had to be found.

The Sling That Goes Over Your Shoulders

This sling was recommended to me while I was on a music course and I’m afraid I’ve thrown away all the packaging so I don’t know anymore who makes them. As far as I remember, these slings are designed for saxophonists and I’m pretty sure it cost me the best part of forty quid…anyway, this is what it looks like:

Posh sling

Designed for the sax as it is, this means there’s a little bit of fiddling to be done to set up the sling for a cor anglais because this…

Posh sling thumb rest attachment

…will not go through the little hook on the thumb rest. I got round this problem by slotting a keyring through the hole on my thumb rest like so:

Keyring through thumbrest

…and then you can put the sling and cor together like this:

Posh sling thumbrest attachment

The sling is adjustable, so what you have to do is fiddle with it until the flat piece of plastic at the bottom is sitting where your diaphragm is:

Posh sling diaphragm rest

…and here’s what it looks like from the front and the back:

Posh sling front viewPosh sling back view

It’s much more comfortable than it looks, I promise, and it’s much more effective at load-bearing than the sling that goes around your neck because the weight is placed squarely on your shoulders. It does help – but not enough. I was still getting those pains if I played for more than about 45 minutes. Then Howarth’s started selling these…

The Floor Stand

This little number saved the day. It is very simply a block of wood containing a metal peg that slides in and out, with a strip of elasticated material that fits around the bell and is fixed in place with velcro. It will set you back a cool £89.95. But it works. The player bears no load at all – the entire weight of the instrument is concentrated on the floor through the metal peg. I can play the cor now for about an hour and a half without experiencing any physical discomfort.

Floor stand peg and elastic

Here’s a view of the bell with floor stand attached:

Floor stand with labels

…and this is how the stand attaches to the thumb rest:

Floor stand thumbrest view 2

Here’s what the whole thing looks like once assembled:

Floor stand extended

It’s not without its problems, of course. First of all, if you want to rest your cor on a stand you have to retract the metal peg first, but compared to suffering from tendonitis, this is not such a hardship:

Floor stand on a stand

There are two other problems: you can’t use the floor stand if you have to play standing up. And secondly, the player does not have the freedom of movement that is possible with the two slings, so if you’re playing in a chamber group and you need to bring other players in, it’s not as easy to indicate when you’re going to start playing. A workaround has to be negotiated. But again, this is not such an insurmountable problem as not being able to play at all because your arms are full of inflammation.

The verdict is: use a floor stand if at all possible, and if you are obliged to play standing up, use the sling that goes over your shoulders. The neck sling (for me, at least) is no good.

One last thing about the floor stand: after every practice session/rehearsal, remove the metal peg entirely and make sure it is dry before reinserting into the wooden case. Moisture will form on the peg while you are playing and if you don’t wipe the condensation away, the peg will rust. I learnt this the hard way. It didn’t occur to me that spit would be dribbling over the stand, and the next time I pulled the peg out ready to play, it was covered in rust spots. I cleaned them off with a wire sponge and painted the peg with clear nail varnish to stop the rust coming back, but my lovely stand is not as perfect as it was and I certainly can’t afford to punt out for another one!