Bassoon? I’ll Just Let the Next Director Handle That!
Rebekah Mueller, Manitowoc Lincoln High School
Unless you are a bassoon player, the instrument can be a bit overwhelming! How does it work? How can you get it from sounding like a dying duck? How can you encourage students to play this instrument if you don’t understand it yourself? This article contains a few easy tips that any director can use to help encourage bassoon playing in your ensemble.
When should I start a bassoonist?
I have seen many directors do it different ways over the years, but I think the most effective way to start a bassoonist is at the beginning when they start playing an instrument. The most difficult part is physically manipulating the instrument. The biggest thing you’ll want to make sure of is that the player can put the pressure of the instrument on the side of their left index finger (by the joint where the finger meets the hand), while still maintaining the ability to reach the whisper key and cover all three holes on the wing joint. Fox even makes a “short reach” bassoon where the third hole on the wing joint is an extended key. This helps ease that reach tremendously.
When putting the bassoon together, have the player hold the bottom boot joint in between their feet and knees. Put the larger hole (for the long joint) closer to the player’s body. Next, hold the pad of the key on the bell and put that on the long joint. Now the player will have leverage when manipulating the wing joint into the smaller hole and fitting it into the long joint. Always make sure the lock is secure. If the lock mechanism is broken, this is a repair worth making to help any player find stability when playing the instrument. Lastly, insert the bocal and connect the strap or cup. The strap should always be towards the front third of the seat to help with playing posture. I even like to put the strap diagonally across the seat from the back left corner to the front right corner.
Lastly, I ask students that want to play bassoon if they like to be independent. Are they persistent? Do they give up easily? What does their bedroom look like? (messy?) These questions can tell you a lot about the commitment of the student. If they are an organized person that can remain confident, they are much more likely to stick with the bassoon and feel comfortable being the only one (or two if they are lucky) in the band that plays the instrument.
How can my student improve sound quality?
The number one issue I see with bassoonists is their embouchure. Students will make an “M” with their mouth and pinch down. This creates a nasally and flat sound. It is difficult to support. A student should create an “O” with their lips around the reed. The jaw should be pushed toward the body and dropped down. The pressure or force on the reed should be on the top blade. In back of the mouth, create an open space, much like the feel of a yawn. Have your student look in the mirror just using the reed and bocal to see that the mouth is in the “O” shape, jaw in, and the chin with a smooth texture. If the chin has a “peach pit” look to it, the student it putting too much pressure or pinch in their bottom lip/jaw.
Tuning seems to be a difficult issue with bassoon. When the band is taking its concert Bb or A, a bassoonist can tune, but much like any instrument tuning should be done on a note-by-note basis. Most of the manipulation of pitch should be done with the mouth. Often times when bassoons have a thin and flat sound it is because of the “M” lip placement, but it is also often because the student is not putting enough reed in their mouth. The lips should be about ⅔ of the way toward the first wire. This allows for the student to use the thickest and most supported part of the reed. Additionally, if the opening of the reed does not have the shape of an “eye” it is probably too closed. The reed can be opened slightly on the first wire by using a needle nose pliers and applying a small amount of pressure on the sides.
Lastly, take a look at the kind of reed a student is using. There are some reeds sold by stores that have a very wide tip. The blades are so wide, they spread the sound and do not focus it to the center of the reed. A beginning student should play on a medium soft, but by the middle of the first year, they probably can move to a medium (once they play the Bb just above the staff). When soaking a bassoon reed, make sure that the water is as high as the second wire. Soak the reed with the back (side with string) in the water for 30 seconds, and then turn over the reed and soak with the blades in the water. This helps the water travel through the reed and soak into all of the wood. This will also help if you have had issues of wires or string slipping during the winter months. (reeds can be soaked with the back in for 5 or even 10 minutes to help with slipping issues).
Are there any short tips about the instrument for non-double reed players?
- Multiphonics/squawk??? Make sure all holes/keys are covered. If it is a note that uses half hole, make sure that you don’t have too much or too little covered.
- Can’t get any mid-range notes out??? One of your “flick” keypads is probably missing. Replace it with a sticky pad until you can get it replaced.
- A pad fell off??? Use a lighter in the backside of the key until the glue bubbles, place the pad back on, wipe off the tarnish (careful! it is hot!)
- “Spitty or bubbly” sound??? Empty the bocal of spit by blowing in the back end.
*When starting a bassoonist, get them to practice the mid-staff F and G back and forth. This is one of the most difficult fingering switches to master.
- Can’t get a sound??? Check the opening of the reed. If it is too closed, gently press the sides to open. If it is too open, gently close the tip with your fingers.
- Still can’t??? If the reed does not respond to your fingers, use a pliers on the wires. The wires move in opposite motions. The front wire changes logically, the back wire is opposite. Avoid a “flat” looking reed. Go for a reed that looks like the shape of an eye.
- “Spitty” sound from reed??? The back of the reed is probably not circular anymore. Spit in the back end of the reed to create a false seal. Repeat as necessary.
- Reed is hard to blow into??? Try #1 or #2. If you are still having problems, look at the rails of the reed. If the rails are thick or have a “square” edge, you can shave them down. (the rails are the sides where the two pieces meet each other)
- Reed is still too hard to blow into??? Thin out the tip using the plaque. (arrowhead thing) Always move in an outward motion taking off as little as possible (you can’t put it back) You can also use finer grain sandpaper to be on the safe side
- Reed is flat to the pitch??? Clip the tip and sand it down if needed.
- Reed has a crack in the wood??? Clip the tip or clip the sides. You may be able to save it without losing it!
- Trouble with high or low notes??? For higher notes, put more reed in your mouth. For lower notes, put less reed in your mouth
In an ideal world, bassoon would be an instrument that is embraced, and not an instrument that is a mystery! These tips are a short list of many that can aid students in playing bassoon. If you have any other questions about the instrument, reeds or repertoire, please feel free to contact me! firstname.lastname@example.org