Sunday, December 29, 2013

Bassoon reed-making for beginners

Every once in a while I find myself teaching a high school bassoonist to make reeds.   I usually have my students use cane which is already shaped and profiled, so some of the work is already done.  However, the finishing touches (which the students are learning) are often most challenging of all

I learned to make reeds when I was 14.  The method I learned originally differs from my current reed making method, but I'm glad I started early.  There's no doubt that it takes a ton of time and experience to learn to create a good bassoon reed. 

Here are the steps I teach to young students:

Sand the inside of the dry cane until it's as smooth as glass.  Use 320 grit wet and dry sandpaper.  Then soak the cane in water for around 2 hours.

Next, score the bark using a knife or special scoring tool:


Next, fold the cane over a knife (at the fold line in the center) and place the end of a ruler at the fold. At 2 5/16" mark the cane with a pencil.  That's the line at which you'll cut off the ends of the cane:

Next cut off each end (cutting on the line marked with pencil) with pruners:

Then fold the reed, line up the edges, and apply the top wire at exactly 1″ from the bottom of the reed. Wrap string around the reed from the top wire down:

  Next, squeeze the sides of the wrapped tube with pliers or parallel pliers (very difficult to find):

Next insert the forming mandrel, being careful not to twist the reed:

Then unwrap the string at the very bottom of the reed to make room to add a wire at the bottom of the tube to ensure roundness. Wrap this wire around the tube 3 times rather than the usual 2 times.

Ideally, allow the blank to dry for at least 2 weeks. Brass mandrel tips from Christlieb are ideal for ensuring the proper shape of the tube, and they may be purchased in large quantities.

After at least 2 weeks, remove both wires from the dry blank:

Then bevel using a sanding block (made by gluing 320 grit sandpaper onto a wooden block).  Each end of the cane is sanded around 25 strokes or so - whatever it takes to make the ends of the reed halves meet perfectly.  The sanding takes place at the ends of the bark, from the bottom to 3/8" up:

This is the end of the reed before beveling:  

And after beveling:

  Then fold the reed and tie dry string around the bottom half of the tube (bark):

Apply the middle wire at 5/16' below the top wire (you will be able to see the marks where the top wire was placed):

Then apply the bottom wire at 3/16" from the bottom of the reed, and the top wire at 1" from the bottom:

Next apply Duco Cement along the edges of both sides from the middle wire down to the bottom to prevent any future leakage or loosening of the binding:

Then wrap the reed with 100% cotton #3 size crochet thread, available at places like JoAnn Fabrics and Michael's Crafts or online from crochet suppliers:

 After wrapping, cover the binding with Duco Cement and allow it to dry overnight: 

Next mark the 2 1/8" line at the top of the reed:

But don't cut the tip off yet!  Reaming is next, assuming that the reed needs it, followed by smoothing the inside of the tube with a rat tale file if needed.

Then, after soaking the reed in water,  cut the tip with a knife or a guillotine, at the pencil line drawn at 2 1/8":

Using a knife, cut the corners at a 45 degree angle:

Now it's time to finish and refine the reed, with a file, knife or sandpaper, removing cane in the area shaded below:

It is important to strive for symmetry.  Each point on the blade has 3 corresponding points, and all 4 should be equal in thickness. 

My finished reeds measure 2 1/8″ from top to bottom. The blade is 1 1/16″ long from the top of the collar to the tip, and the collar measures 1/16″. The bottom wire is 3/16″ from the bottom of the tube.  The top wire is 1″ from the bottom, and the middle wire is 5/16″ below the top wire.  Occasionally I experiment with different dimensions if a student has cane which is clearly intended to produce a larger reed.   (My reeds are on the small side.)

Good luck, and don't give up no matter what transpires!  Remember that a bassoon reed is really a much-fussed-over vegetable.

Arundo donax (future bassoon cane) growing in southern France

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas Giveaway from The Bassoon Bureau

The Bassoon Bureau is a new online shop selling bassoon quartet arrangements as digital downloads.  In order to kickstart the business, owner Michael Grant of the U.K. is offering free downloads of 12 Christmas carols.  These arrangements are sight-readable and useful for bassoonists of all levels.  If you lack a library of bassoon quartets, this is a great way to start building one. 
I particularly like the fact that Michael Grant's bassoon quartets are designed to be played by 3 or 4 bassoons.  I'm always in favor of flexibility.  If one of your bassoon quartet members forgets about the gig or gets lost on the way, you're fine to proceed with three players.

Michael has arranged some well-known classics for bassoon quartet, including one of my all-time favorites, Henry Purcell's Rondeau from Abdelazar Suite.  Also featured is a tune commonly associated with bassoon, sCharles Gounod's Funeral March of the Marionette

Incidentally, Michael, who is also a clarinetist, has a blog with a great name: "Adventures in Woodwindland".  Be sure to check it out.

You can "like" The Bassoon Bureau" on Facebook:


Thank you, Michael, for your Christmas gift to the bassoon world, and good luck with your new online shop!

picture from The Bassoon Bureau website


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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

BasSOON It Will Be Christmas

Each year the Columbus Symphony performs three very popular Holiday Pops concerts with the Columbus Symphony Chorus and the Columbus Children's Chorus.  Conductor Ronald J. Jenkins also invites special guest artists each year such as dancers from BalletMet Academy and Wright State University, and there's always an appearance by Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Columbus Symphony Holiday Pops performance
The production is always a crowd-pleaser, but Holiday Pops 2013 took the cake.  Why?  Well, this year Maestro Jenkins discovered a delightful piece to add to the program called BasSOON It Will Be Christmas by James Stephenson.  Columbus Symphony bassoonist Douglas Fisher and I performed the solo bassoon parts in front of the orchestra.
Photo: Bassoon It Will Be Christmas!
Columbus Symphony rehearsal of BasSOON It Will Be Christmas

James Stephenson
Chicago-based composer James Stephenson was a trumpeter in the Naples Philharmonic for 17 years before becoming a full-time composer.  He is currently Composer-in-Residence for the Lake Forest Symphony, and his works have been performed by the nation's leading orchestras.  BasSOON It Will Be Christmas is written for either two or three solo bassoons and orchestra.  Well-known Christmas carols are cleverly interwoven with major bassoon excerpts and the first movement of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto.  There's even a cadenza in which the opening of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 6 makes an appearance.  Here is a recording of the entire work (3 bassoon version) from James Stephenson's website.  And here is a recording of the Columbus Symphony performing the 2 bassoon version.   The bassoons were not miked or amplified in the Columbus Symphony recording.

Not all excerpts are presented in original form.  Do you recognize the excerpt in the last line?

Ending of BasSOON It Will Be Christmas

 A few years ago the Jacksonville Symphony found a very imaginative way to offer holiday wishes to its fans featuring an excerpt from BasSOON It Will Be Christmas:

It's highly uncommon for bassoonists to be featured as soloists on pops concerts, much less on holiday pops concerts, but judging by the enthusiastic audience response, I'd say it's a worthwhile endeavor.  Thank you, James Stephenson, for composing this holiday gem, a welcome addition to our solo orchestral repertoire and thank you, Ron Jenkins, for featuring bassoons on this year's Holiday Pops!

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