General Bassoon Information

for beginners, intermediates, and band directors

Equipment| Care and Maintenance | Playing Technique

Equipment

Purchasing instruments:
Wood us Plastic: Wood has potential for better tone. Plastic is cheaper, more durable, and unaffected by moisture. Anyone wishing to purchase a bassoon should consult a professional player for advice!

Parts of the bassoon:
Boot - joint with 2 bores
Tenor or Wing - smallest joint
Bell - top joint
Bass or Long - longest joint
Bocal or Crook - metal tube to which reed attaches

Reeds - The best solution is to have reeds supplied by a professional player, preferably the student's teacher. Serious students should receive reed making instruction. If you must buy commercial reeds, look for symmetry when looking at the tip opening, and buy medium strength. A good reed should "pop" when the air is sucked out of it. When blown into, most good reeds produce an upper "crow" pitch between Eb to F# and can make a multiphonic with a second pitch about a major third below. Reeds should be completely soaked before use. For this purpose, I carry in my case a 35MM film canister filled with water.

Useful reed tools - These tools require little skill. Learning significant reed making and adjusting techniques requires other specialized tools and a good teacher.

Needle nose pliers with wire cutter are used to tighten or cut wire (#22 soft brass) and to open or close the reed opening. To adjust the tip opening: Press sides of 1st wire or top and bottom of 2nd wire to open. Do the opposite to close the tip.

Reamer - widens the back of the tube so that the reed will fit more securely on a bocal.

Plaques - arrowhead shaped, they slide between the blades of the reed for support while scraping.

Sandpaper - use "wet or dry" (#200 to #400 grit) to thin portions of the blades. Cut off small strips which you can fold over your index finger. Thinning the tip usually increases response.

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Care and maintenance

Reed storage - Reeds must be allowed to dry between use so that they will not grow mold. Most containers in which commercial reeds are sold do not have sufficient air flow to allow this. Commercial reed cases work well, but may be expensive. You may also use an appropriate sized box (like a "Sucrets" box), filled with some cushioning material, and with added holes for air.

Bassoon Assembly and disassembly - This is critical: The bassoon is quite massive compared to its keywork. Damage can be done simply in picking it up. Always avoid contacting keys unless you are directly over a pivot post. Do not pick up an assembled bassoon without some support of the boot joint.
Begin with Boot joint. If sitting, support the Boot on chair. Pick up Tenor joint carefully. Line up concave side with larger bore in boot, and insert slowly into smaller bore. Pay attention to whisper key extension, which protrudes over the tenon. You may only rotate this joint a small amount due to that key. Line up the concave cut-out with the bore for the Long joint. Carefully pick up the Long joint and line up its keyless side with the concave part of the Tenor joint as you insert it into the Boot. Most bassoons have a small metal plate near the left thumb keys, which should butt up against a protrusion on the Tenor joint. Press the pad on the Bell joint when putting it on the long joint to avoid damaging the low Bb key linkage. Finally, the bocal must be held as close to the cork as possible to avoid bending it during insertion into the Tenor joint. Use cork grease whenever cork is dry.

Always swab out after playing. It is best to invest in a silk drop swab designed for the Boot. Drop the chain portion into the larger bore of the Boot, turn the Boot over and shake the chain out of the smaller bore. Then pull it through. This same swab can then be pulled through the Tenor joint. Alternately, cotton swabs may be used, but a different one is used for the Tenor joint than for the Boot. The bocal should be periodically cleaned with a bocal brush and a dilute solution of vinegar and warm water. This brush does not go all the way through the bocal. Insert it about half way from each end and move it back and forth as you pull it out.

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Playing technique

Embouchure - Most bassoonists play with an embouchure which cushions the reed in a relatively circular manner. The lips are not pulled tightly over the teeth, and there is muscular action at the corners of the mouth. Most players do not intentionally produce an "overbite" with the bottom jaw behind the top. Rather, this will occur naturally in most people. There are variations in successful players, but generally it should be remembered that tone production is more a product of breath support than embouchure support.

Posture - It is important for breathing and technique that posture be correct. Hands and wrists should be in as neutral a position as possible. Be particularly careful to avoid too much wrist bend, as this can lead to tendonitis. Your head and spine need to be properly aligned. Make sure that the pelvis is parallel to the floor or chair, and that the head is aligned with the spine. Be aware that the skull attaches to the spine at a point approximately between the ears - not in the back of the skull. When starting to play, bring the instrument to you. Do not lean your head towards the bassoon. The seat or neck strap need to be adjusted so that this is possible.

Air support - Good breath control is identical for all wind instruments and singing. In addition to proper posture, you should feel you are breathing and supporting as low in your abdomen as possible. Good posture should allow your ribcage and intercostal muscles to allow maximum inflation and control of your lungs. Rather than simply blowing, you should feel a balance between muscles of inhalation and exhalation while you allow efficient resonance of the reed. Usually this entails relaxing muscles in the neck and allowing the larynx to drop, which creates a larger resonating cavity. Constricting the vocal cavity results in a thin tone with little resonance.

Hand position - The left hand will take most of the weight of the bassoon near the base of the index finger. The seat strap may sometimes be moved forward on the chair to remove some of that weight. Some players who use neck straps purchase a "balance hanger" which does the same thing. Ideally the little finger will rest on the "resonance key", which helps maintain a relaxed hand position with the fingers close to the instrument. The right hand can be aided by using a hand rest. If none is available, then light contact of the index finger will help in orientation. Again, the little finger should rest on a key, this time the low F key.

Tone/Tuning/Dynamics - This is a complex subject, and is greatly influenced by the reed. A reed that is too weak (usually producing a "crow" below e), will produce certain pitches very flat, and will be unable to produce some pitches in the high range. Such a reed may also sound unfocused or "flabby". A reed which is too stiff will have little resonance, play sharp, and have response difficulties in the low range.

The player can make the best tone by appropriately controlling embouchure and vocal cavity while maintaining proper breath support. Easier said than done! Here are some basic guidelines:

  1. More embouchure pressure will raise the pitch and dampen some harmonics from the tone. Less embouchure will do the opposite.
  2. More air flow usually results in higher pitch, so that louder playing requires a looser embouchure. This has the benefit of richer harmonics to enhance projection.
  3. Both pitch and tone changes can be manipulated by changing the oral cavity.
  4. The amount of reed in the mouth has an effect. Generally, the less reed in the mouth, the easier it is to control the reed opening, which may help soft or low playing. Too little reed in the mouth will degrade the tone. If most of the reed is in the mouth, there is less control, and often a "glassier" sound. However, the extreme high range may be facilitated by this kind of position.

Here is a good drill to experience the relationship between breath and embouchure support: Play a "c" in the bass staff at a moderate dynamic. Slowly increase and decrease embouchure pressure while maintaining the same breath support. Go to the extremes at which you can make a sound. As the pressure increases, the tone should get sharper, less resonant, and softer. If you squeeze hard enough, no sound will come out. As you get looser and approach the other end of the spectrum, the tone will become flatter, less focused, more resonant, and louder. Now try this: Lip the note down by opening your jaws until you produce the pitch "b". Then, while maintaining that loose embouchure and relaxed throat, quickly increase your air stream to as hard as you can blow. The pitch should rise back to "c", and the tone should be loud and resonant, if somewhat unfocused.

High notes - Many students encounter problems with tone and intonation in the high range. Because there is more resistance from the air column in the higher registers, students may react to it by tightening their embouchure and/or throat. This is the easy way out because it decreases the amount of breath pressure needed to make a sound. However, that tone is bad (sharp and pinched)! In order to make a beautiful sound in the high range, you must keep a relaxed, free oral cavity and throat while supporting your air with the lower abdominal muscles and embouchure. One way to practice this is do the drill described in the previous paragraph, and then play a loud high note with the same air flow and relaxed mouth and throat. I also ask students to alternate between low and high notes, trying to maintain a relaxed oral cavity and throat.

Low notes - The acoustics of the bassoon also make extreme low notes difficult to respond. Assuming the reed and instrument are good, improper settings usually result in no tone at all (embouchure too loose for amount of breath support), or a cracked attack (due to too tight an embouchure and throat). Most bassoons are inherently sharp in the low range, which compounds the problem of soft, in tune attacks. Making progress in this area is like getting to Carnegie Hall: You must Practice!

Articulation - As on all the winds, articulation is produced by the tongue. Using the tip of the tongue on the reed tip opening produces distinct attacks. Softer attacks may be produced by hitting the bottom blade, or a corner of the reed. You may also use the contrasting syllables "Ta" and "Da". Multiple tonguing is used by many advanced players. If a student moves to bassoon from an instrument on which they already multiple tongue (such as flute), I would recommend that they continue using that technique. The biggest problem in multiple tonguing is that one syllable, "Da", contacts the reed, while the other, "Ga", does not. This has both pitch and timbre implications, and for most people requires long practice to solve.

Releases - I ask my beginning students to learn two types of note releases: with and without the tongue. One can practice independent tongue attacks and releases by playing a long tone and then stop and start the tone using your tongue as a valve while keeping breath and embouchure support constant. To learn tapered "breath" releases, I have students play decrescendos on a note, gradually decreasing the length of the note while listening for steadiness of pitch. In this kind of release, the breath and the embouchure changes cancel one another out to maintain intonation as the sound decays.

Vibrato - This is an essential part of bassoon playing. Three types of vibrato are possible: abdominal, throat, and lip(jaw). Few players use lip vibrato, but it can sound quite good. Most use a combination of abdominal and throat vibrato, depending on the speed involved. I find it is best to start students learning to pulse air with their abdomen. Many students trying to produce throat vibrato do so with tension which harms their tone and results in an unattractively fast, uncontrolled vibrato.

I introduce abdominal air pulses without the instrument. Put your teeth together and exhale softly, producing a small hiss. Try to introduce a few explosive puffs of air using an effort similar to coughing. The trick is to maintain the soft hiss between the puffs. Most folks find it harder to return smoothly and quickly to the hiss, because it is always harder to relax muscles than tense them. Once that activity is mastered, you can move to an easy note on the bassoon, such as open "F". Play a comfortably soft "F" and try the same puffs of air. Most people find an unpleasant variation of pitch. Learning to control this will come simply from practice and paying attention to the sounds produced. From there, I recommend pulsing on different pitches and gradually increasing speed. A good drill to monitor pitch control is to practice vibrato while fingering "c", and lipping it down to produce a "b". If you can produce a vibrato without allowing the pitch to return to "c", then that is a sign of proper technique.

Fingerings - Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the bassoon is finger technique. Unfortunately, method books seem to have misleading or inaccurate fingering charts. I have included fingerings for some of the more problematical pitches. Be aware that there are often multiple fingerings for a single pitch. I have included a few of these. The easiest available resource for bassoon fingerings may be found on the Website of the International Double Reed Society.

Special fingering issues - Bassoon fingerings are unique mostly because of the large number and variety of keys for the thumbs. One of these is the "whisper key", which has somewhat the opposite function of register keys on other woodwinds. Register key function is accomplished through various ventings. This may involve "half holing" tone holes or using register keys with the right thumb. Both thumbs are also used to descend to the extreme low range. The bassoon also uses many "fork fingerings" which are reminiscent of chromatic fingerings for early wind instruments. Fingerings in the top octave of the bassoon become very complicated and difficult.

Tutors - None is perfect, but I still like the traditional favorite of most bassoonists: Weissenborn's "Method for Bassoon". It goes a bit fast at times, but the music is very attractive (including the duos).

Summary - I recommend that students study with a professional bassoonist or a good college level player as soon as possible because there are so many teaching issues unique to the bassoon. Remember that it is much easier to learn good habits than break bad ones! Please feel free to contact me for help or referrals.

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