musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bassoon basics for teachers and young students

1. Breathing: Use abdominal breathing. Practice breathing by lying on your back on the floor with a heavy book on your abdomen. The book should rise when you inhale and sink when you exhale.

2. Sitting position: Sit up straight in the chair, leaning slightly forward with your hips acting as a fulcrum. Your head should be in a natural position, looking straight forward, not looking up or down. Adjust the height of the bassoon so that the reed easily aims straight into your mouth.  Your sitting posture should be the same with or without the bassoon; if you are contorting to accommodate the bassoon, then it's time to readjust.

3. Embouchure: Wrap your lips completely around your teeth. (The teeth never touch the reed.) All pressure on the reed is applied from above. (Never push up on the reed!) If your embouchure is too tight you will constrict the reed, preventing it from vibrating. Your embouchure needs flexibility so that it can loosen for lower notes and tighten for higher notes.

4. Reed placement: Be sure not to place the reed too far into your mouth- generally, aim to insert about half of the blade. More of the reed should be inserted into your mouth for high notes and less for low notes.

5. Sound concept: It’s advisable to listen to recordings of bassoonists to develop a tonal goal. The solo recordings or YouTube videos of Klaus Thunemann, Gustavo Nunez, Judith leClair, Nadina Mackie Jackson, Bernard Garfield and Milan Turkovic are highly recommended.

6. Intonation: One of the most challenging aspects of bassoon playing is intonation. Most notes on the instrument have a lot of pitch flexibility, and bassoonists need help finding the correct pitches.  Electronic tuners and phone apps can be used, and using a keyboard to play the pitches is very helpful as well.

7. Rhythm: Rhythm is a critical aspect of performance, and metronome practice is essential. When sight reading, remember that rhythm is top priority. If the rhythm is right, other flaws can be overlooked, but if the rhythm is flawed, nothing else matters.

8. Musicianship: Musical sense is best learned from listening to lots of performances and recordings of great singers, string players and pianists.

9. Vibrato: When learning vibrato, it’s helpful to practice pulsating (loud-soft-loud-soft, etc.) in a set rhythm on long tones. (Try it on the reed alone first!) For example, with the metronome at 60, pulsate 2 times per beat, and when that becomes reliable, try 3 times per beat, then 4, then 5.  But first make sure that your straight tones are steady!   (Practice long tones with and without crescendos and diminuendos to stabilize your straight tones.)

10. Practicing: Never practice a mistake! If your playing isn’t accurate during a practice session, don’t continue - stop, fix the problem, then proceed.  Fix problems by slowing down!  Find a tempo at which you can play the passage, and become rock solid at that tempo before increasing it. It often helps to make up little customized exercises. For example, you may wish to focus on just one interval at first, and then gradually add more notes one at a time. Applying dotted rhythms or other rhythms is often helpful, and removing all articulation so that you are slurring everything is a great way to ensure accurate finger motion. If the problem persists despite your careful efforts, take a break.

11. Care of instrument: The bassoon should never be laid down. Disassemble it and put it in its case (being sure to swab the boot!) if you don’t have access to a bassoon stand. The bocal should be cleaned once a month, preferably with a bocal swab. Key oil should be applied every few months to each moving part.

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