musings of a professional bassoonist

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Bassoon playing position (sitting)

The optimal bassoon playing position is established without the bassoon.  Many musicians are familiar with the Alexander Technique which basically teaches people to release unwanted muscle tension while sitting, standing or moving.  Problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injuries, all too common among musicians, are often alleviated using the Alexander Technique.

This is an example of what it looks like to apply the Alexander Technique to the act of sitting:


This is the ideal bassoon playing position.....now all that remains is adding the bassoon and then placing the arms in playing position.


The above sitting posture should be absolutely unaffected by the introduction of the bassoon and the insertion of the reed into the mouth.  Obviously the arms must be moved in order to accommodate the instrument, and the positioning of the arms should be as natural and relaxed as possible.

the posture should NOT be affected by the bassoon

I'm no expert on Alexander Technique, but I've had a few lessons and found them to be immensely beneficial.  I've spent a lot of time working with students on playing position since I'm convinced that it makes a difference.   I begin by asking the student to sit comfortably in the chair with good posture as indicated by the photo at the top of this post.  Then the bassoon is brought into that playing position.  It's challenging to talk students into not moving the body to accommodate the bassoon!  The goal is to adjust the bassoon, not the player.  The seat strap may be manipulated up and down as well as backward and forward in the chair to place the bassoon in the right position. 



Additionally, I advise my students to position the bassoon high enough so that when the reed is inserted into the mouth, all of the pressure on the reed is applied from above.  The jaw should be dropped and prevented from pushing up on the reed.  If the bassoon is positioned too low, the jaw will automatically push up on the reed, constricting the sound and raising the pitch.  The lower lip supports and surrounds the reed, but the pressure on the reed is felt in the top lip and the top front teeth.

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To me the playing position includes the position of the reed as it enters the mouth.  If I see a student's reed entering at the lower lip, I can be sure that the student will be inadvertently pushing up on the reed.  (It's better, I think, if the reed hits the top lip as it enters the mouth.)   I often demonstrate (or ask the student to demonstrate) how the sound improves when the pressure is applied only from above.  This is accomplished by raising the bassoon, dropping the jaw, and applying pressure only on top of the reed.  This is the intersection of embouchure and playing position.....it's impossible for me to talk about embouchure without also discussing the point of entry of the reed into the mouth, which is also part of the playing position.  (When teaching bassoon embouchure specifically, I instruct students to wrap their lips over their teeth and drop the jaw back as far as it will go, creating an overbite.  Pressure is applied to the top of the reed, and pushing up with the jaw is best avoided.)

This is the playing position and embouchure which I think enables a desirable bassoon sound.  The abdomen is free to expand for breathing and vibrato and the reed is allowed to vibrate while being dampened on top for a robust yet round sound.  The lack of tension in the playing position will most likely prevent any performance-related injuries.



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6 comments:

Rantmaster Rich said...

Thanks for your mention of teaching the embouchure with an overbite. This is the way I was taught and have been somewhat daunted by seeing an abundance of information advising to the contrary.

B.S. said...

Rantmaster Rich, this is the embouchure I've found to be most advantageous, and many bassoonists use this approach. I don't doubt that some bassoonists use other approaches which also work well for them.

Anonymous said...

Happy to see you posting again. Lots of wisdom in these articles.
Chris Millard

B.S. said...

Thank you, Chris. This means a lot, especially coming from you!

Paul W. said...

Thanks so much for this. As a mediocre amateur it made a big difference in how I am playing, and I can use all the help I can get.

B.S. said...

Paul, I'm really glad that you found this to be helpful. Thanks for letting me know!