musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Adjustments to the instrument

My new Heckel bassoon #15421 has not yet been sealed or tuned.  It has been in its pristine state since I acquired it.  I have not wanted to make any changes to the instrument while it is so new, due to the necessary breaking in and settling period. 

There were a couple of issues which I finally decided to address.  My teacher, K. David Van Hoesen of the Eastman School of Music didn't talk a whole lot about the specifics of bassoon mechanics, but there was one point he insisted upon.  He said that the height of the G key pad (which is located above the A tone hole) was critical.  And I knew that mine was not right, as seen in this photo:

The G key pad is way too high.  Mr. Van Hoesen insisted that the metal on top of the G key pad should be flush with the top of the metal guard surrounding the bottom of the hole.  When the height is too high, like mine, the bassoon's low A is sharp.

Any change to the instrument, even adjusting the height of a key pad, has the potential of widespread effect since the bassoon is acoustically so complicated.  For one thing, I was afraid that lowering the key pad would lower the pitch of A2, an octave higher than low A.  That note was reliable and I didn't want to mess with it.

Fortunately, a dear friend set me straight.  He said that the change may not affect A2 at all!  I guess there's no point in attempting to apply logic to the bassoon.  I should know that by now!

So I finally did it- I lowered the height of the G key pad to make it flush with the guard:

Not only is the low A pitched lower as a result of this change, but miraculously, the A2 is unaffected!  As a further bonus, Bflat2 is now much more stable and reliably pitched.  I think there's a very good reason why Mr. Van Hoesen focused on this one critical aspect of bassoon adjustment. It seems as though the intonation of my entire instrument fell into place after making this adjustment.  I am sure that this was one of the trade secrets of the legendary woodwind repairman of the 1900s, Hans Moening of Philadelphia, whom Mr. Van Hoesen respected greatly.

I made the change by sticking a thin piece of cardboard on top of the black rod or pin which extends through the  interior of the boot to operate the G key:

The view below shows the 2 rods.  The rod used for this procedure is the top one, the one closer to the bocal. The cardboard is placed between the top of the rod and the bottom of the key mechanism:

You'll know you're doing the right thing when you see that the height of the G key pad has changed.  As I said, this very slight adjustment has changed the entire instrument for the better.  I highly recommend it!

Next, I decided to tackle the problem of the wing joint not being able to be fully inserted into its receiver in the boot:

This is as far as it would go.  I can only guess as to how this might affect intonation, and I can clearly see how it affects the placement of the left thumb keys.  (The thumb keys on the wing joint end up being higher than the thumb keys on the long joint.)

It should be a simple matter to remove some of the string wrapped around the wing tenon, right?  Well, it wasn't.  I hadn't attempted to do this since the 8th grade, so I'm out of practice.  But I also ran into a hurdle.

Mr. Van Hoesen had instructed his students to find the end of the string, unwind it a bit, and see if the joint fits into its receiver before cutting the string.  If it fits, you make a loop in the middle of the string and pull the end through to secure it in place.


  I used a piece of wire to find the end of the string, but the search was in vain.  Finally I had to give up on finding the end of the string.  I used scissors to cut into the string:

When I pulled on the string to unwind some of it, I was shocked to end up with this mess:

There were no fewer than 3 pieces of string hanging off the tenon!  By this time my stomach had turned inside out and I began to panic.  (I'd just destroyed a priceless and irreplaceable instrument!)

I immediately thought of the great bassoon teacher Norman Herzberg, who was my reed-making teacher.  Mr. Herzberg's advice for any bassoon-related emergency was "dinner and a movie," followed by a refreshed effort to address the emergency.

That's what I did.  And when I readdressed my emergency, a piece of string somehow extracted itself from the mix, and I ended up with what I wanted- one end of string to make a loop with and pull the end through.  A fairly substantial amount of string was removed before the joint fit completely into its receiver:

As you can see, all of this work was done over a towel.  Another legendary bassoon teacher and instrument mechanic, Hugh Cooper, taught me to do that.  He said it would be a big mistake to ever take any action without holding the bassoon and its parts over a towel, just in case the unspeakable occurs.

To complete the job, I applied to the tenon the cork-grease-like substance which came with the bassoon:

Here's the finished tenon::

And it fits like this:

Just right!

Another issue which is easy to overlook is that of inserting the wing joint so that it is correctly lined up with the boot:

Just eyeballing it every time you assemble the instrument is not likely to result in accuracy.  Many bassoon repairmen make marks on the boot and wing to line up during assembly.  I just applied 2 thin pieces of masking tape to line up on my bassoon:

The blue tape on the whisper key rod above is there to ensure that the whisper key closes when the pancake key is depressed.  Of course, this is an extremely common point of malfunction on bassoons.

That's enough bassoon alteration for one day, I think.  Just a word of caution, as originally delivered by Mr. Van Hoesen:  Don't ever perform any kind of maintenance or alteration - not even oiling of the keys - right before a performance!  You never know when something might go wrong.......



Julia said...

After reading this, I am SO glad I don't play the bassoon. Yikes! :)

B.S. said...

Julia, most of the time we don't give any thought to the mechanics! It's not as bad as it sounds....

Amy said...

This is awesomely informative as I am breaking in a brand new impact-resistant plastic bassoon. I HATE that it's plastic because the tone is not even close to the maple one I played in college and there are a whole host of "uglies" associated with even the word "plastic" with the word "bassoon." However ... It's what I've got to work with and I still have to break it in. I don't have to worry about string on the wing joint, but other issues such as the pancake/whisper key combo and other such mechanical blips have already become issues. Thanks so much for this post!

B.S. said...

Amy, good luck with the break-in process of your bassoon. I know that some of the plastic bassoons are surprisingly appealing! I hope yours turns out to be one of those.....

Let me know if you have any questions!


Tina said...

Oh, I could have a field day with my bassoon... I need to find a repair person out here!

B.S. said...

Tina- just do it yourself! Then look for a repairman if things go south......

Rich said...

Thanks for the information on the g key. On my Fox model II it didn't do much for the either A but it certainly tuned up the Bb on top of the BC staff.

Tina said...

LOL!! As I walk into the repair person's shop with a jingling bag of nickel plating...

lgcintra said...


Your blog is excell. Thanks for all the information and tips. Great work!
I am an amateur fagotist coming back to the instrument and stumped at your blog. I love it!

All the Best,

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tip on the height of the G key. It really improved a student's 220 Renard...especially making A and Bb (top of the staff) more secure.

Frank Watson
Greenville (SC) Symphony
Spartanburg Philharmonic
Converse College
Presbyterian College

Cathryn Gaylord said...

Just found your blog and I absolutely love it! I've been having problems with the low A on my Fox II and, lo and behold, the G key is about a centimeter too high. Going to take care of that right now. Thanks for writing about this adjustment!

B.S. said...

I'm so glad that this post helped! Good luck, Cathryn.


Qi Dang said...

Just learned that you never put cork grease on string wrapped tenons. paraffin wax only.

Lubican said...

Hi Betsy, I'm a Spanish amateur bassoonist and your blog is very helpful for me. I had the sharp "A" issue in my 27 years old Moennig bassoon and the cardboard solution was really effective. Thank you very much!

B.S. said...

Hi Lubican! I'm really glad to hear this! Thank you for your comment~