bassoon blog

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Contrabassoon for sale

 My recent post about the contrabassoon inspired an email exchange with contrabassoonist William Safford.  He has an excellent Fox Fast System contrabassoon for sale.  For anyone who is already playing professionally or who is thinking about a possible career as a contrabassoonist, this instrument could be life-changing (and career-changing). 

The Fast system contrabassoon was developed by Arlen Fast, contrabassoonist of the New York Philharmonic.  Arlen explains in this comprehensive article why it was necessary to rethink the contrabassoon.  I know from a recent phone conversation about the Herzberg profiler with Arlen Fast  that he is an absolutely brilliant man whose mind knows no limits.
Image result for fast system contrabassoon
Arlen Fast, NY Phil contrabassoonist and developer of the Fast system contrabassoon
William Safford explained to me that the Fast system is an enormous improvement over the standard contrabassoon in the upper range starting with half-hole G.  Notes such as written middle C, C#, D and Eb are all in tune, sounding clear and resonant with matching tone colors and no cracking.  Also no cross fingerings are required (except an optional one on Eb).  The middle C to high Bb slur in the Mother Goose solo speaks with more clarity and ease than on a bassoon.  The instrument plays all the way through the treble clef with beauty, security, and resonance.

Based upon what I've heard about the Fast system contra, I'm wishing that Arlen would get to work on a Fast system bassoon!!

Here is the Musical Chairs ad for William's contrabassoon for sale:

Fox Fast System Contrabassoon #5xx

Fox Fast System Contrabassoon #5xx, pic 1
Fox Fast System Contrabassoon #5xx, pic 2
Fox Fast System Contrabassoon #5xx, pic 3
Click images to enlarge

Price: $39,000 USD

One owner. The patented five-vent register system, with two semi-automatic mechanisms and three keys, greatly improves intonation, tone, and clarity of attack of the mid- and high ranges, with more than a four octave range and simplified fingerings. It is equipped with the standard Fast system keywork, plus F# trill and right thumb Ab keys.

In excellent condition, it has an incredibly even, resonant, and clear scale.

It is the right instrument for a professional or aspiring professional contrabassoonist. Fast-system instruments are being played by members of the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, and others.

Available immediately. Includes the instrument freshly serviced at the Fox factory, one Fox #2 bocal, and the original hard case. Located in upstate New York.

Link to the issue of the Double Reed, with information on Fast system:
William Safford
Tel: 518-281-8153  Email:

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Contrabassoon for Dummies

This post is intended for the type of contra player who still needs a fingering chart.
 If you are a bassoonist who is suddenly called upon to play the contra for the first time, maybe as a student receiving a seating assignment in band or orchestra, or as a professional serving as an emergency replacement for the real contra player, then this post is for you.  This is a presentation of a few basic facts about the contra which will most likely enable a clueless bassoonist to conquer the contra.

There are a few basic differences between bassoon and contra.  The one which stands out the most to me is the contra's lack of whisper key.
It's true....there is NO whisper key on the contra!

Once we get over the fact that there's no whisper key, the second major challenge is hand and finger placement.

I had a lot of trouble figuring out where to place my right hand and fingers.  I kept trying to place my first finger on the alternate Eb key.
Another difference between bassoon and contra is the manner in which Eb2 (the second octave Eb on the instrument) is played.  This is the contra fingering for the note:

Here are the keys for the left hand fingers.  As you can see, the Eb key is situated above the C key and below the D key:

Here are the keys for the left hand fingers (not labeled are the low Eb and low C# keys which are the same as on the bassoon).  Notice that there are no open holes for the fingers on the contra.
The contrabassoon does not require the use of half-holes.  Instead, the second octave F#, G and G# require no first finger of the left hand at all.

There is a movable hand rest or hand support on the contra:

The player's left hand goes underneath the support.  The support is adjustable, and it can really help stabilize the hand position if it's correctly adjusted.

Unlike the bassoon, the contra has a tuning slide which is moved by pushing or pulling the ring at the bottom:

And the contra has a spit valve, which in my opinion should be used liberally:
It seems to be helpful to blow into the contra while opening the spit valve.  If you don't remove the reed first, you might find yourself creating an embarrassing noise.

What about the reed?  I had no idea where to buy a contra reed so I did some quick research online and saw a recommendation for GoBassoon contra reeds.  I ordered one and it looked perfect.  I know from my experience with bassoon reeds that looks can be deceiving, but when I played on this reed I was thrilled with its sound and response.  I highly recommend GoBassoon contra reeds.

Hopefully this post provides enough information for the novice to get through the first rehearsal.  If anyone tells you that you shook the stage, you'll know you're well on your way to conquering the contra.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Characteristics of a top-notch wind quintet

Today I was blown away by a recital by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet presented by Chamber Music Columbus in the Southern Theatre.

Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
The touring quintet performed the following works, with an intermission in the middle: 

Mozart: Three Fantasies for mechanical organ
Haas: Quintet, Op. 10
Ligeti: Six Bagatelles
Nielsen: Quintet for Winds, Op. 43

The Southern Theatre acoustics generally enable a very present sound, but the quality is dry (with no reverberation).  A lesser ensemble would have struggled to sound good in such a dry acoustic, but not this group.  These players knew how to skillfully finish each phrase in a way that made up for the dryness of the hall, almost as if they created their own resonance by the way they tapered the ends of notes and phrases.

It's safe to say that I've never heard a wind quintet of this quality before, not even on recordings.  What a tall order it is to successfully blend such an ill-matched group of instruments, yet this group pulled it off.  The instruments matched as well as they possibly could have; the level of homogeneity was astonishing.

How did they accomplish this?  To me it seemed that each player willingly and easily "took the back seat", only springing forth with extra volume when called upon by a solo line.  Much of the time, the entire ensemble took the back seat, with the blend...the perfect blend.....being the top priority.  No one tried to stand out as a virtuoso - there was no competition for the spotlight.  If one player did have a prominent line, the other four players totally accommodated that player as if their lives depended on it.  Consideration was the name of the game.

Never was the sound of any individual player forced.  Each player was a master of the pianissimo.  And when all five of them played pianissimo together, the sound was not five times louder than one instrument playing pianissimo - it was true pianissimo.  It may well have been the quietest wind playing I've ever heard.  Yet when it was time to shine, each individual rose to the occasion.  I thought the horn player had the smallest sound I'd ever heard UNTIL it was his turn to take a solo, and then I found out how wrong I was - he was also a brilliant and commanding soloist!

The audience expected a great performance.....they're from the Berlin Phil after all.  But I think everyone was amazed at just how impressive they were!  During the concert I found myself mentally listing the outstanding characteristics of the ensemble, and here's what I came up with:

Characteristics of a top-notch wind quintet

1. Blending of sound is prioritized, which often means that the louder instruments back off.
2. Ensemble (playing perfectly together) is prioritized at all times.
3. Pianissimo playing is highly refined, with perfect intonation.
4. Tremendous attention is paid to note endings and phrase endings.
5. Each player is constantly considerate of the other players' parts.
6. The individual sounds are never forced.

Today's concert program with a mistake on the cover!


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

reed making tip

A student recently asked me if my reeds ever crack during the reed-making process and unfortunately my answer was an emphatic YES.   I don't take it lightly, either......each time a reed cracks I manage to convince myself that the cracked reed would have been the reed of my lifetime if only I hadn't destroyed it.   Depression ensues once the anger's all part of the mourning process.

In my experience the cracking almost always happens during the tip profiling step.  The blade on the underside of the large metal plaque that the reed is inserted on for profiling is the one which cracks.  While the top blade is being profiled, the bottom blade is cracking.
the devastating sight of a cracked blade when the reed is turned over after tip profiling the other blade

This does not indicate a flaw in the tip profiling machine, though.  (I highly recommend using a tip profiler!)  I suspect that the cracking is most likely caused by not soaking the reed long enough before insertion onto the plaque.  Also it seems that when I'm impatient while making reeds, I'm much more likely to end up ruining the reed.  I've been known to become overzealous with the knife during the shaping step with dreadful results, for example.

Although my reeds rarely crack, today was one of those days.  Today's cracked reed could have been a victim of not enough soaking (it was soaked for maybe 5 minutes) before tip profiling, and I was definitely in a hurry (which is why I only soaked it for 5 minutes!).

It's time to slow down, take a deep breath and get back to the drawing board......and remember:

Don't make reeds when you're in a hurry!


Monday, July 2, 2018

Extending the boundaries

Dutch bassoonist Bram van Sambeek is known for his willingness (and his ability) to extend the boundaries of bassoon playing.  He's outdone himself in this intriguing video featuring the band ORBI (Oscillating Revenge of the Background Instruments) of which he is a founding member:

Bram van Sambeek was principal bassoonist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from 2002 until 2011 when he left to pursue a solo career.  Although few bassoonists possess the musical wherewithal to embark on a solo career, he is enough of a virtuoso superstar to pull it off.  In addition to his considerable classical chops, he is admirably at ease in the genres of jazz, rock, heavy metal and world music.

Bram's intrepid explorations have uncovered hitherto unheard of options for bassoonists beyond the orchestral world.  But that doesn't mean we can stop practicing; his jaw-dropping command of the instrument is what fuels his freedom to conquer the outer realms.


Thursday, June 14, 2018

AFM Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) and the Butch Lewis Act

Thousands of union members showed up from all over the U.S. on July 12 and 13, 2018 for a national rally in Columbus, Ohio to save multi-employer pensions.  There was a hearing in the Ohio Statehouse on July 13th on the Butch Lewis Act.

It's a safe assumption that every union musician in the U.S. is aware that the American Federation of Musicians Employers' Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) has been in "critical" status since 2010 (following the recession of 2007-9). There has been a deluge of information and opinions on this matter flooding the internet, and it's rather daunting to attempt to separate fact from fiction.  Basically, the Fund has developed a a huge gap between its liabilities and its assets.  While its assets are growing due to increases in wages and due to earnings from investments, the benefits being paid to retirees far exceed the growth of the Fund's assets.  This problem is not unique to the AFM; 114 multi-employer  pension funds in the U.S. are expected to become insolvent over the next 20 years.  

Peter de Boor, editor of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians' (ICSOM's) official publication Senza Sordino, recently published this article to help shed light on the situation.

Shortly thereafter, the Musicians for Pension Security (a pension awareness group made up of AFM union members who are currently vested in the AFM-EPF Pension Fund) issued this response
to Peter de Boor's article.

Who's right?  Who's wrong?  Is there a solution to the problem?

In November 2017 Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced the Butch Lewis Act of 2017 
(S. 2147/H.R. 4444).  This legislation is not a government bail-out; instead, it restores solvency to multi-employer pension plans by allowing the plans to borrow the money they need to remain solvent.  The actuaries of the AFM-EPF have confirmed that the Butch Lewis Act would address the financial issues of the AFM-EPF by providing the financial support to prevent insolvency in the event that the fund enters "critical and declining" status.  The Musicians for Pension Security also supports this legislation.

The Butch Lewis legislation was not included in the February 2018 Congressional budget deal, but a Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multi-employer Pension Plans was authorized to closely examine the multi-employer pension crisis and to develop legislation by November 30, 2018.  Now is the time to convince lawmakers to take this matter seriously, prior to that November 30th deadline.

We musicians have the ability to make our voices heard in Congress by using the contact information and suggestions provided by the American Federation of Musicians.

The Musicians for Pension Security offers these suggestions for taking action.

Here's a user-friendly online petition in support of the Butch Lewis Act.

If you haven't yet taken action in support of the Butch Lewis Act, please do so now for the sake of your retirement income and the retirement income of musicians nationwide.   

The Musicians for Pension Security (MPS) also proposes a solution based upon increased contributions.  Specifically, the MPS suggests 6% annual increases in contributions to the Fund over the next 5 years and 2.9% annual increases thereafter in order to prevent future cuts in benefits.  As a musician who is currently involved in Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, I can state with surety that it would be impossible to talk my orchestra and/or its administration into increasing our contributions to the AFM-EPF.  Instead, everyone is lamenting the fact that we're "trapped" in the Fund.  While it does seem plausible that increasing contributions (above the increases which occur as a result of wage increases) might solve the problem, it doesn't seem possible because of the Fund's unfortunate reputation.  That's why I believe that the Butch Lewis Act, endorsed by both AFM and MPS, is our best available solution at this time.  Let's do what we can to support it!


Thursday, June 7, 2018

For middle school bassoonists

Many bassoonists learn to play the bassoon during middle school; that's the ideal time to establish good playing habits.  The first important habit presented here is playing position, which includes embouchure and position of the reed in the mouth.  Next a few basic fingering issues are addressed, followed by the use of air and embouchure.


In order to produce the best possible sound on the bassoon, there are certain basic recommendations for playing position. First, establish your sitting position without the bassoon.  Sit comfortably (but sit up straight) in the chair with your head straight (not tilted up).  Add the bassoon, adjusting the seat strap backward, forward, up or down to fit the bassoon comfortably into your original position.   

Bassoon playing position
 Make sure that the bocal is positioned correctly.  Usually the bocal aligns best between the pad of the A key and the C key.  The left thumb keys should be  pointing at you, not off to your left.  The instrument should be balanced, with its weight shared by your right thigh and your left hand.

The next important aspect of playing position is the embouchure.  Cover your teeth completely with your upper and lower lips and then drop your jaw, producing what is referred to as an overbite embouchure.  Bassoon embouchure is not symmetrical - there should be little or no pressure on the reed applied by the lower lip or jaw.  The lower lip simply encases the reed, otherwise staying out of the way.  There are other types of bassoon embouchures but this is the type that has worked best for my students and myself.

Bassoon overbite embouchure - drop your jaw and don't push up on the reed!
The next critical aspect of playing position is the position of the reed in the mouth.  I tell my students to place about half of the blade of the reed in the mouth.  If this issue is unaddressed, the tendency of most students is to insert too much of the reed into the mouth, resulting in difficulty in controlling sound, intonation and dynamics.

Reed position - only half of the blade should be inserted into the player's mouth.


Bassoon students are often unsure of fingerings, which is understandable considering the complexity of certain bassoon fingerings and the fact that many notes have multiple fingerings (some better than others!).  There aren't many patterns or rules, unfortunately, but there are a few.....for example, I was surprised to find out during a recent master class that none of the students could fully answer the question "Which notes require the whisper key?".  They knew that the whisper key was needed for Bb1 through F2 (the numbers indicate the bassoon octave, so our lowest note is Bb1, and the octave higher is Bb2, etc.) but beyond that, they were uncertain.

Here are a few rules which should be memorized:

The "pancake" key takes the place of the whisper key for the very lowest notes (Bb1-Db1).  That's because the player's left thumb is unable to reach the regular whisper key while also activating the low C, low B and low Bb keys.
The pancake key, which substitutes for the whisper key.

The reason why the left thumb whisper key can't be activated at the same time as the low C, low B or low Bb key (it would be physically impossible).
The purpose of both the pancake key and the whisper key is to close the whisper key pad which covers the hole in the nub of the bocal:
The whisper key pad covers the hole in the nub of the bocal.  The whisper key pad is activated by either the left thumb whisper key or the right thumb pancake key.

It's important to regularly test your pancake key to be sure that it's totally closing the whisper key pad over its hole on the bocal.  If it's not, just add some tape (masking tape, duct tape, etc.) to the connector extending from the tenor joint to the "foot" extending from the rod of the pancake.  This is what it looks like:
Orange duct tape added to the connector.  This enables the pancake to fully close the whisper key over the hole on the bocal
These are the notes which require the pancake key (in place of the whisper key):
Bb1 through Db1

These are the notes which require the whisper key:
              D1 through Ab2,                             G3,        G#3

There is another variation of the whisper key issue.......there are 5 notes on the bassoon which require both the whisper key AND a half hole in the first finger left hand.  These are the notes which require whisper key PLUS half hole:
             F#2        G2,        G#2,       G3,      G#3

First finger left hand half hole

There is also confusion about when to use the little finger left hand Eb key (also known as the upper auxiliary key).  These are the notes requiring the Eb (upper auxiliary) key:
             Eb1,    (Eb2),         G2,     E3 and all notes above E3

The Eb or upper auxiliary key
Eb2 has many different fingerings, some of which require the Eb (auxiliary) key.  My preferred fingering for Eb2 does not require the Eb key, but sometimes I use one of the fingerings which does require it.  It's very important for students to remember that as a rule, the Eb (upper auxiliary) key is required for all of the high notes beginning with E3.

These are the few fingering rules which apply to the bassoon, and hopefully memorizing these rules will help students begin to master the vast fingering chart for our instrument.


The pitch and dynamics are controlled by air and embouchure as follows: 

If you use more air, the pitch rises and the sound gets louder.  
If you use less air, the pitch drops and the sound gets softer.  
If you tighten your embouchure, the pitch rises and the sound gets softer.  
If you loosen your embouchure, the pitch drops and the sound gets louder.  

Awareness of these rules helps bassoonists gain control of what comes out of the bassoon!

For more in-depth information, here's a blog post for high school bassoonists.