Instrumental: Starting Your Bassoon Program: Taming the “Bundle of Twigs”

Mike Lawson • Commentary • August 15, 2016

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The German (and Dutch) name for the bassoon is faggott, which literally means bundle of twigs. And for many band directors, teaching beginning bassoonists – taming that bundle of twigs – is one of the most challenging, if not intimidating, parts of their jobs. Add to that the fact that good pedagogical information about bassoon is hard to find, and much of what little exists is vague and/or contradictory.

I began playing bassoon in 1970, after six years of playing clarinet and piano, 4 years of playing saxophone, and a year or so of playing the flute. While I don’t consider myself an expert performer – far from it! – I have compiled some suggestions for teaching bassoon that may help you tame that bundle of twigs.

First, how to choose your future bassoonists. This is probably a controversial statement, but when I was a band director, I did not start new beginners on double reeds. The instruments are difficult to play, require a large hand span; and reeds are expensive. Some of my director friends who do start first-time band students on double reeds require private lessons or require them to start the summer before band begins. But these rules are both hard to enforce, and may seem unfair to families who cannot afford the extra expense. Perhaps because of my own experience, I require future double reed players to play another woodwind for at least a year first, usually clarinet (I didn’t start new beginners on saxophone either, until they had played clarinet for at least a year). Parents who are concerned about purchasing more than one instrument can be comforted by knowing most music stores will give credit from one instrument to another when the change is recommended by the director and is for reasons such as this. And then, when the students get to high school, they have an instrument they can play in marching band, so they are not relegated to the cymbal line or the flag corps. Many of the bassoon’s fingerings are very similar to the chalumeau register of the clarinet, so a switchover can be as easy as learning to read bass clef.

Starting out on bassoon can be exceptionally difficult. It’s a large instrument requiring a larger hand, and it’s heavy. The notes students learn first in most method books are not notes that should be a bassoonist’s first notes. While I have many colleagues who have been successful starting new band students on double reeds, I also have many more who have lost potentially top band students because of the frustrations of something that may have been far easier a year later. So if you do choose to start beginners on double reeds, be aware that they will need additional motivation, a strong commitment, and plenty of individual attention to succeed.

One of the biggest challenges with double reed playing is dealing with the double reeds. Ideally, a student will soak three reeds, for at least ten minutes, in water (not in his mouth), and choose the reed that “crows” the best to play that day. But because of the cost of reeds, parents are often hesitant to purchase three at a time. Because of the rush to get instruments together and start playing at the beginning of each band class, students rarely soak reeds properly. The result is that students break reeds often, parents are loath to keep buying more, and the student’s tone suffers. I always explain that reeds are made of wood, and wood reacts to weather, humidity, and so on. Making a reed play on a day it does not “want” to play will shorten its life, so that one reed may last only two weeks while alternating among three may make all three last months, if not a year. I required my double reed players to purchase a reed soaker, a Tupperware container with a metal clip that clips onto a stand. That way, students could bring the soaker to school already filled (saving the time it takes to go to the water fountain and back), clip the soaker onto the stand, and start soaking immediately, even before starting to assemble their instrument. That way, they were ready to play on time. True, some students use medicine vials or film canisters (if one can still find such a thing!), but those may have chemical residue, and are certainly not airtight enough to be brought to school already filled.

College and professional double reed players most often make their own reeds. But for a young player, the cost of this and time involved can be prohibitive. In addition, many storebought, machine- made reeds are barely playable unless “taken down” (adjusted) by someone who knows how to hand-finish reeds. One way to find better reeds for your students is to contact the nearest university’s music department. Grad students are usually happy to make reeds to sell – order a reed from several different sources, and then re-order from the one whose reeds you like best. Even still, the majority of the reeds your students use will need some adjustment, especially as they get older. By ninth grade, students can learn to adjust reeds to their liking.

When choosing a bassoon for a beginning student, I prefer a larger bore, so that the student can make a fuller sound from the start. Hard rubber is a material that’s durable and works well for lower- pitched instruments; in some respects, it makes a better sound than plastic. Maple, of course, is preferred, though not always practical or affordable. A whisper key lock is essential, and a left-hand one works better than a right-hand one. A low C platform key is a very valuable addition, as it improves facility on low D and below. A high C key is important, as are C# and D# trill keys, but a high D key is optional for beginners.

Holding position of the bassoon is another major consideration for young players. Be sure the seat strap is set so the bassoon comes right to the mouth without the student “slouching” under it or craning the neck upwards. The bocal should come towards the mouth parallel to the ground or slightly downward. I do not allow my students to use a neck strap, as it tips the instrument further forward and makes proper, stable holding position much more difficult. A hand crutch is a must, so that the right hand does not have to rest on the boot and cramp the fingers. The crutch allows the right hand to remain in a relaxed “C” shape, and gives the hand the freedom to move properly.

Abe Weiss, principal bassoonist of the Rochester Philharmonic, describes bassoon playing as a “series of oxymorons.” A large air stream must be propelled through the tiny opening of the bocal – and despite the backpressure this produces, the embouchure must remain totally relaxed. The hands must hold a heavy instrument absolutely still (on a double reed instrument, without the added stability of the mouthpiece, even a slight move of the instrument can affect the pitch), yet be relaxed enough to move rapidly – the left hand thumb alone must navigate as many as ten keys. The chin should remain flat (as with the clarinet) but the “corners” are not pulled back and both lips are rolled very slightly in. The upper jaw should be further forward than the lower but the reed should be held loosely, with equal pressure on the top and bottom reeds. Because of the muscle development required to play a double reed instrument, daily practice is a must; two shorter intervals may work better than one long one at first.

The “core” of a bassoonist’s range is from e (3rd space of the bass clef ) down to low E (below the staff ). If a good, solid low register is developed first, with plenty of air support and a relaxed embouchure, the rest of the range can build off that easily. But trying to play too high too soon (as is the case in many heterogeneous band methods) can encourage bad habits and be counterproductive. As with any reed instrument, each note (unless slurred) must be started with the tip of the tongue hitting the tip of the reed. Work first on whole notes, from e down to E, with the throat open and taking a breath between each; then work on dividing each whole note into four quarter notes – one breath, and only the tongue moves to divide that whole note into four quarter notes. Each note is “played through” – “ta-ta-ta-ta,” not “tut-tut-tut-tut,” which closes the throat. In fact, our first pass-off is usually simply playing a whole note at a good solid forte, starting with the tongue, and not wavering in pitch (my bassoon students always practice with a tuner starting from Day One). Then, on the same note, dividing that whole note into four quarter notes, with only the tongue moving, and the pitch still not wavering. Having the student pretend to yawn before playing will help open the back of the throat and round out the tone.

The next challenge for young players is learning the “halfhole notes,” f#, g and g# (right below middle c’). Ideally, at first, the instructor can remain on the lower octave and have the student rock the first finger of the left hand down to open the half-hole, just until the upper octave comes out and the pitch matches that of the lower note. Again, practicing with a tuner is essential. Remember that one cannot drop down an octave on these notes without the tongue lightly tapping the tip of the reed, much like slurring down from the clarion to the chalumeau register of the clarinet. Also, as with the clarinet, one cannot “slide pinkies” from one note to another, so be sure that both f# and g# fingerings are taught. [One of my favorite sayings is, “A note fingered incorrectly is a wrong note!”]

When extending the range upward from a (top line of the bass clef) to middle c’, students should learn to “flick” the A key with their left thumb, to help the instrument slot in the correct octave. Otherwise, the student may try to tighten his embouchure to achieve the octave leaps. Proceed with notes above middle c’ only when the student is able to do so without squeezing the reed and has developed a strong air column. Especially in the higher registers, be flexible with fingerings. Printed fingering charts in method books (especially heterogeneous ones) are only to be viewed as a starting point – I use different fingerings for e-flat depending on the reed, the humidity, and whether I’m blending/matching pitches with low brass or with reed instruments. Sometimes, adding a right or left pinky key will help adjust the pitch or stabilize a note. If you are not a bassoonist yourself, ask bassoonists you know for their favorite fingerings. And always have your students notate any alternate fingerings or other changes on their music, so they don’t have to re-experiment each time they play that piece. I use an asterisk (*) for alternate fingerings, e.g. a right-pinky (instead of thumb) f#, an “x” over a note that needs to be “flicked,” and a “P” over a note if I have to add a pinky key (just like I have my clarinet students write in L-R or R-L where applicable, so they know which pinky to use first in a passage, and don’t have to slide).

As your student advances, you can begin vibrato. This requires a relaxed embouchure and a strong air column, as bassoon vibrato is entirely diaphragmatic. Set your metronome first for a quarter note about 72. Start on c (the c below middle c’) and have the student pulse with his diaphragm once every beat. Play from c down to low Bb, pulsing each note two or three times. Then, pulse eighth notes, then triplets and finally sixteenth notes. Keep the throat open, and the embouchure unaffected. Bassoon vibrato should never be “automatic,” but should always be a deliberately chosen technique, as it’s not always appropriate in all types of music or at all volumes.

Above all, be patient and progress slowly. The bassoon is a fun instrument to play, but it can also be frustrating. Stay positive and encouraging, and anticipate the challenges your student will face. Resist the temptation to require a large range at first, but concentrate on an open throat, on tone, intonation and breath support. It will be worth it in the long run!

Tracy Leenman is the owner of Musical Innovations in Greenville, SC, the NAMM Top 100 Dealer of the Year. She holds her B.M. in Music Ed (magna cum laude) and her M.M. in Music Ed from Syracuse University. She has done additional coursework at the Eastman School of Music. She taught for over 40 years, including at Greenville County’s Fine Arts Center, at Syracuse University (NY), and at Newberry College (SC), where she developed their new music business department. She is also the editor of the Carolina Bandmaster. She is a regular presenter at the NAMM Idea Center. She has done presentations around the country, including at NASMD, RPMDA; and MENC National, State and Regional Conventions. In 2015, Tracy was named winner of RPMDA’s Sandy Feldstein Service Award. She performs regularly on bassoon with the Palmetto Concert Band, Foothills Philharmonic, and the Poinsett Wind Symphony.

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