Learning to Play 1

Having attended the London Aulos Group’s November meeting with Barnaby, I left having been lent the EMAP/ Workshop of Dionysios’ ‘Lilac Louvre’ with which to practise (a 3D print of the Louvre aulos). A condition of this loan was that I would document my learning process on this blog. As such, my first post delves into ancient history (last November) and recalls the first stages of my learning. Subsequent posts will look at what I got up to in the December meeting, explore how my playing has progressed since then and document the various hurdles on the way.

I wrote the following a week after the November meeting.

Circular Breathing

During the meeting Barnaby taught me some basic techniques and practices. I left being able to do ‘step 4’ of his guide to circular breathing. This involves breathing through a straw into a small glass of water and then ‘topping-up’ the air flow with big sniffs in through the nose while maintaining the bubbles (i.e. the airflow out of the mouth).

The morning after the meeting I practiced Step 4 some more (straws courtesy of a nearby McDonalds). When I was feeling confident enough, I tried doing the same while playing an instrument. Since bassoon reeds are more familiar to me than aulos reeds, I tried the exercise on my bassoon.

As Barnaby had warned this stage would not be easy. Try though I might, what I intended to be a sniff ended up being an almighty breath in from the mouth… less than ideal. This process is still on-going, and I am getting better at it, yet at the moment cannot circular breath while getting the instrument to sound.

Breaking the reeds (in).

This process, for me at least, took about a week or so of light playing every day. By the end of the week, the reeds were much easier to play, their tips had narrowed up nicely too, and they had taken a nice shape.

I spent more time playing the high pipe on its own (my right-hand bias), and some things became apparent. At this early stage of the reed’s life, it was quite lively, prone to overblowing-squeaks. It was also very difficult to tongue the reed without it either squeaking, not-tonguing, or stopping the flow of air. The fourth finger-hole took more time in particular to ‘mellow’ than the other holes, being a lot squeakier.

While spending more time on the high pipe, I would occasionally play with both. My initial observation was that if one pipe alone didn’t suck all the air from my lungs, then two pipes certainly did! These reeds needed an unholy amount of pressure in order to sound!

After this, I spent more time on the lower pipe. This reed seemed harder to break in than the other one. The first hurdle I had to overcome, however, was the rather large gap between holes 4 and 5, it must have been made for an ancient Greek Rachmaninoff! Reaching this gap was made easier by covering the holes with fingers, rather than my fingertips (this form of playing can perhaps be inferred from various ancient depictions of aulos-playing). After a similar amount of time playing-in the low pipe, the reed had improved a little, though not as much as the high pipe reed had.

Because the lower reed was proving difficult to play, I decided to try and scrape it. This is something I have done with bassoon reeds before, but I do not proclaim to be an expert. Taking the bridle off the reed I slowly scraped away. However, I must have been holding the reed too tightly and, unfortunately, broke it!

My next post will document the December meeting, and also the arrival of my own Louvre aulos (and reeds) from Thomas Rezanka, as well as some of the practice studies I have been preparing.

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One Response to Learning to Play 1

  1. robin howell says:

    Being a fellow bassoonist, I have a few insights that may assist you. When scraping an aulos reed, the approach is a little bit different than with a bassoon reed in that one removes material from the entire blade, aiming at a consistent, parallel scrape the entire length of the blades. I find that making a distinct ‘tip’ is far less effective. This type of reed can be very easy blowing if scraped and balanced in this way, which makes circular breathing much easier. It is difficult to properly citcular breathe on a bassoon, it is quite a different type of resistance. It is much easier on an oboe or other small reed instrument in that the demand for air volume is quite a bit less. The amount of throat constriction plays a large role as well. If the reed is cinched at the throat down to approx 3mm, for example (close to the smallest oboe staple dimension) the demand for air is much lessened, but at 5-7mm, like a bassoon reed, the air demand is considerably greater. Aulos reeds, in my experience, do not ‘crow’ as do bassoon and oboe reeds due to their tubular form, but rather produce a distinct pitch, the clarity and stability of which is a good indicator of how the reed will perform. Oversoaking the reed will tend to make the tip onening larger, so should be avoided. It is also important that the back of the reed blades is closed enough to make the blades as parallel as possible; too round a form in this area can cause unneccesary resistance, and indeed result in the ‘squeaking’ you mentioned.
    Good luck!

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