musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, November 23, 2009


Intonation may very well be the most challenging aspect of bassoon playing.  The instrument wants to play out of tune, left to its own devices.  The player must use embouchure, throat opening, and pressure and focus of the airstream to adjust the pitch of nearly every note on the instrument.

My teacher, K. David Van Hoesen, had a 12-window Stroboconn tuner placed prominently in his studio at the Eastman School of Music.  The dreaded Stroboconn pointed out the slightest deviation from the pitch standard of A=440.  It was not discreet like today's pocket-sized electronic tuners; its often embarrassing readings could be viewed from half a mile away.

Mr. Van Hoesen rarely played the bassoon with his students because, as he stated, they always played out of tune!  I remember how true that was, even though Eastman attracted the best bassoon students in the U.S.

Intonation is a lifelong challenge for bassoonists.  It is never "mastered."  Intonation varies from reed to reed (therefore, from week to week) and according to the temperature of the room or hall in which the bassoon is played.  Intonation accuracy also declines in direct correlation to the deterioration of the embouchure- in other words, if you're out of shape you can't play as well in tune.

Of course, intonation may be practiced and improved, especially with the use of electronic tuners.  In my last post I mentioned my Boss tuner which I never leave home without.  I use a pickup clipped onto the bocal and plugged into the tuner to enable my pitch to be determined even while the full orchestra is playing:

Because some readers of this blog have asked about the placement of the pickup clip on the bocal, here's a shot of that:

The Boss tuner is invaluable to the bassoonist.  The bassoon has the ability to fool its player into thinking that a note belongs at a pitch which may actually be way off, since some notes resonate best at the wrong pitch.  Furthermore, the tone quality of a note can deceive the player.  For example, low A tends to have a harsh, growling quality on just about any bassoon.  That particular note almost always sounds sharp, even when it actually isn't.  We learn the tendencies of each note on the bassoon, and wanting desperately to do the right thing, we sometimes over-compensate. When I was at Eastman, like many young bassoonists I tended to play on the high side of the pitch.  I was actually pleased when, from time to time, I over-compensated to the point of being flat!  An electronic tuner can certainly help keep us on track so that we actually know when we're over-compensating.  Being overly nervous about the intonation of an uncooperative or unstable note can seriously interfere with our ability to hear accurately.

But tuners are just a tool to be used in practicing.  To prepare us for reliable intonation in a performance situation (when the tuner would be put away) Mr. Van Hoesen taught his students to imagine hearing the correct pitch in our heads before playing a note.  (He wanted us to really listen to that imagined pitch.)  This requires concentration and care, and to this day, when I play a note at a pitch which is less than desirable, it's because I didn't take the trouble to properly hear the note in my head before playing it.  The tuner is a marvelous tool to make sure we're on course, but it is no substitute for the ear. 

Using the Boss tuner to place each note at 440 can be helpful in preparing to perform with piano.  The reason for that is that pianos are tuned according to equal temperament, in which an octave scale is divided into 12 equal intervals.  Each note on a well-tuned piano would register at 440 on a tuner.

Although bassoonists test ourselves against a standard of A=440 in tempered scale (equal temperament), we realistically perform using some tempered tuning (especially when  performing with keyboard instruments) and some  pure or just tuning (generally used by orchestras and choruses).  Just intonation is the development of the scale based on the organic generation of tones as they occur in the natural harmonic series.  Only the tonic registers at 440, and the other notes of the scale slightly deviate from 440.  Musicians tune this way by ear.

Since the meter of the Boss tuner measures in cents, it is quite possible to use the tuner to deviate according to the above adjustments.  But it's a lot easier to do it by ear, because just intonation sounds "right." As an experiment, try playing the 1st 3 notes of a C major scale with your eyes closed.  Be sure that the E is placed where you think it sounds best, and then open your eyes and look at the tuner.  Chances are, the E will be lower than the standard of 440!  The opposite would be true if you played the 1st 3 notes of a c minor scale; in that case, the E flat would be above 440 by 16 cents.

 Pure or just intonation is based on the tonic, which acts as the anchor for the key.  When tuning by ear, each pitch is judged to be in tune if there is an absence of "beats" between itself and the tonic when the two notes are played together.  ("Beats" are the periodic swelling and then dying away of a sound  caused by 2 frequencies going out of phase.)  A sound-producing tuner works well for this test - simply set the tuner to produce a drone of the tonic and play a melody against it, striving to eliminate beats.  The leading tone (7th note of a scale) is controversial because performers may perceive that it needs to be raised, but in fact it is best lowered, according to just tuning.

As Nike says, just do it.


T.B. said...

I showed Andrew the pic and he said, "does she use that during performances?" LOL...

Is it a given that the whole orchestra tunes to A=440? Have you ever found yourself in a performance situation where the whole orchestra is climbing above 440? Or even just a section (not the bassoons, of course)? The tuner sure wouldn't help then!

And what does the harpist do an hour into the concert when someone opens the backstage door?

T.B. said...

Maybe this is for another post, but I was recently reading about the construction of short and long bore bassoons. Do professional players tend to play only on one kind? Will a short bore bassoon typically play higher/lower than a long bore bassoon?

B.S. said...

Hah! I wouldn't use a tuner during performances- that would seem too much like cheating!

The whole orchestra does indeed tune to 440, assuming that the oboe's "A" is at 440. However, not all orchestras tune to 440! Most, if not all, European orchestras tune higher, as do many U.S.orchestras like NY, Boston, Houston, LA to name a few.

Good question about the harpist. A draft can cause problems , for sure.

There is a lot of confusion about long vs. short bore bassoons. I have to assume that short bores play higher, but bassoons are so illogical that I wouldn't bank on that always being the case!

I like your photo, BTW.

Franzen Shenanigans said...

Another post with great suggestions! I am anxious to practice "just tuning"...but alas, it's 11:30 pm so I don't think the neighbor's would appreciate it. I'll have to wait until the turkey coma has passed tomorrow. Enjoy your holiday!

Oh, and the tuner input I had worked perfectly. Thanks again!

B.S. said...

Franzen Shenanigans, I'm glad to hear that your tuner input works!

I hope you're deeply immersed in your turkey coma by now. Happy Thanksgiving!

T.B. said...

Glad you like the pic. I accessorized myself ;)

Happy Thanksgiving!

B.S. said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, T.B.

Amy said...

I was so happy to come across this blog as I just picked up the bassoon after not playing steady for ten years!

I played the bassoon in college (Bismarck,ND, actually) as an addition to the flute and absolutely loved the new and different challenges I faced as a bassoonist.

I quit school back in 1999, but didn't have my own bassoon, so practicing and keeping in shape proved to be difficult; I only played when I could acquire the long lost (and forgotten) bassoon, in the depths of the locker area of the high school where my ex-husband worked.

Now I'm back on the horse and am renting a bassoon (hoping to buy soon) with application to study at the Conservtoire here. It's been a joy (and a pain!) to rediscover what I loved so much about playing the bassoon. I had felt I was really going somewhere with it before quitting school and journeying up toward Canada.

Tuning is such an issue. My former bassoon instructor made me a dozen or so reeds of different strengths and I've played around with the two different-sized bocals as well as the reeds, but I find that I can't just get my high end in tune!

Of course, I am having to work through embouchure strength-building, to focus on the reed placement (and not biting it!), and recalling everything I ever learned to get me back on track.

I'm supremely grateful to have been associated with (even for a short time) the greatest teachers who gave me a chassis of support, from which I could grow and always, always use to improve myself.

Anyway, all this rambling to say thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for posting such useful, helpful information. I'll be checking back to keep up with the group.

Anonymous said...

I have a 1930's CONN bassoon in what looks like brand-New condition, I bought it from an army proffesional, and no matter what I do, the intonation ALWAYS finds a way to go anywhere but the center of the pitch.
However, its got a BEAUTIFUL tone in EVERY register and resonates spectacularly ANYWHERE on the tuner, which my teacher says makes it a one-of-a-kind, because no bassoon she's ever played does that. Recently she suggested that it could be a "Short" bore bassoon, and I was wandering...Does this sound like one?

Betsy said...

Well, it could be a short bore, but even if it is, that probably doesn't explain the good sound or the bad intonation, UNLESS your bocal is a really bad fit for the instrument. If I were you, I'd contact one of the companies which sells a lot of bocals, and ask them what their policy is for sending bocals for you to try. Neilsen, for example, gives advice on bocals based on your instrument, and Midwest Musical Imports would also, I'm sure. The number (length) of the bocal can affect the pitch. If you are often sharp, then you may wish to try a longer (higher numbered) bocal.

Good luck!

Justin Wang said...

Hello, I would like to first say that your blog has been wonderful help. I'm an 8th grader playing bassoon(I've been playing for 2 years) and I am playing a bunch of difficult orchestral(I'm Principal) pieces such as Scheherazade and intonation was a huge problem, my director had commented many times that it sucks. when I read this post I felt reassured that I am not the only Bassoon Player in the world with this problem.

B.S. said...

Thanks for your kind words, Justin. You are playing very difficult repertoire at a very young age, and I wish you the best of luck.


Justin Wang said...

Hi Its me again. I'm playing on a 4000 series heckel(got it dirt cheap) with modern keywork added on. A lot of people say that pitch is all over the place with bassoons from that time period. What are your Thoughts on this??

B.S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B.S. said...

Justin, any bassoon from any era can be out of tune. It's extremely rare to find a bassoon with no intonation problems. (I've never played on one with no intonation issues!) Your bassoon probably does have issues, but that doesn't mean it can't be tweaked by a good repairman so that it plays better in tune. If I were you, I'd either use an electronic tuner or a keyboard to check the pitch of each note, and to see if your of tune notes can be coaxed with your embouchure to the right pitch. Every bassoon, even the best ones, need some of that embouchure tweaking. Just remember that no bassoon plays in tune by itself! And if there is a professional bassoonist nearby, you might ask him/her to test your instrument to see what they think of it. When I was first learning the bassoon (when I was your age) I used to practice the bassoon while sitting at the piano so that I could check the pitches of my bassoon notes. I think that helped a lot.


Anonymous said...

Hey um does it have to be 440 for Bassoon
I do 442 am I WRONG??

B.S. said...

440 is the standard for my particular orchestra. 442 is also fairly common, even in the U.S. So don't worry - you're fine!