Tuesday, June 5, 2018

For high school bassoonists

There are many aspects of bassoon playing which are important for high school-aged bassoonists such as equipment, playing position, air and embouchure, finger technique, effective practicing, musicianship, tonguing and tone production.  Here are a few basic pointers from each of those categories which may be helpful.

Reeds

Once the student has identified a reliable reed source, the lifespan of each reed may be maximized by following one important rule:  Always allow reeds to dry out after playing.  

How long does a reed last?  It varies according to whether or not the reed has dried out after playing, the level of acidity in the player's saliva and the amount of playing on the reed.  For most high school students, a reed lasts a few weeks or even months.  (However, it's common for a student to insist on newer reeds as his/her standards rise.)   Serious high school students often learn to make reeds.

What should reeds be stored in?  A small tin container such the type used for Sucrets or Altoids works well and costs little.  A nail and a hammer may be used to puncture a few air holes in the container so that air reaches the reeds.
tin reed cases with air holes made with hammer and nail

Here's an easy and effective way to improve a bassoon reed.  If the tip seems too open, just take a pair of pliers and squeeze the top wire from top to bottom:
Closing the tip by squeezing the top wire from top to bottom





If the tip seems too closed, squeeze from side to side:
Opening the tip by squeezing the top wire from side to side
The best part of this reed fix is that if it doesn't work (or if it makes the reed worse) it's reversible!  Don't be afraid to experiment with this.  Many a bad reed has been rectified using this method.

Instruments

If a student has a choice of instruments, it's best to test each one to identify the one which is most cooperative.  A private bassoon teacher will be able to ensure that the instrument is working properly.  One common problem is that the connector between the boot and the tenor joint is often out of adjustment so that the pancake key does not completely close the whisper key pad on the bocal.  That problem will cause the low notes to balk, and it's an easy problem to resolve using a piece of tape around the connector to make it thicker.

If the student's family is fortunate enough to be able to afford to purchase a bassoon, several of my students have recently purchased Fox Renard model 240 bassoons from Midwest Musical Imports for less than $10,000.  The Fox 240 is an excellent instrument especially considering its relatively low price.  I always remind parents that the bassoon can be sold later if for any reason it's no longer needed.  Bassoons retain their value more than most other instruments.

Bassoons are delicate and must be properly cared for.  Bassoons should never be laid down flat on any surface due to the probability of moisture reaching the pads.  If it's not possible to keep the bassoon upright, then it should be disassembled and placed in its case.  

Each time the bassoon is disassembled, the tenor joint and the boot must be swabbed with pull-through cloth (such as silk) swabs.  The best swabs have a string (tail) on each end in case the swab gets stuck inside the bassoon. 

Bocals

It's important for students to use the best bocal available and to understand that each bocal has a number between 0 and 3.  The higher the number, the longer the bocal, and the lower the pitch.   Since bocals vary greatly, t's a good idea for a student to try all available bocals and choose the one which plays best in tune and has the best sound.  Bocals are extremely fragile and should be handled with great care.

The bocal must be kept clean it order for it to function properly.   A silk bocal swab (with a string on each end in case it becomes stuck) is the best tool for cleaning, and should be used approximately once a month.  Wash the swab after each cleaning.  
  
bocal swab, with a tail on each end
If no bocal swab is available, twist the ends of three pipe cleaners together and push the pipe cleaners through the bocal, rinsing with water afterwards.

Seat strap and neck strap support

Bassoons require a seat strap for playing in the seated position. The best type of seat strap is the cup style.  The cup strap allows easy adjusting of the position of the bassoon.
Cup style bassoon seat strap
A neck strap, sling strap or harness is required for playing in the standing position.  For either sitting or standing, the support strap should be adjusted so that the bassoon is in the best possible and most comfortable position for playing.  Saxophone neck straps work well for bassoon. I recommend the Wittman Spinstrap Model 700 for sax or bassoon - it's the most comfortable support for standing with a bassoon that I've found.  Unlike typical neckstraps which can be very uncomfortable, the Spinstrap is more like a sling which goes over the left shoulder and under the right arm.

spinsaxstrap
Wittman Spinstrap for Saxes and Bassoons

Placement of bocal

The bocal should be aligned between the high A key pad and the high C key pad in order to achieve the best balance (with the weight of the bassoon evenly distributed between the right outer thigh and the inside of the left hand near the base of the forefinger).  When the position of the bocal is correct, the left thumb keys point toward the player, not off to the player's left.
the bocal is positioned here between the pad of the high A key and the pad of the high C key

Posture of the player

The bassoonist should sit up straight and comfortably in the chair, leaning slightly forward rather than sitting back in the chair.  The player's head should always remain looking straight ahead, not tilted up or down to accommodate the bassoon.  The seat strap should be adjusted so that the bocal heads straight into the player's mouth without the player having to adjust.  Adjust the BASSOON, not the posture.
Bassoon playing position

Formation of embouchure

Bassoon embouchure is formed by wrapping the upper and lower lips over the teeth and dropping the jaw.  No lips should be showing, and most of the pressure should be applied to the reed from above, with the jaw just dropped down and not pushing up.
With an overbite embouchure, pressure is applied to the reed from above, and the player is careful to avoid pushing up on the reed!

Placement of reed in the mouth

About half of the blade of the reed should be placed in the player's mouth.  Many students insert the reed too far.  As the player ascends up the range, gradually more of the reed is inserted.  As the player descends, gradually less reed is taken into the mouth.
Only half of the blade is placed in the player's mouth.

Also, it's important for the player to beware of pushing up on the reed with the jaw, which is a common problem.  It's best to think of applying pressure on the reed from above, while relaxing and dropping the jaw.  Bassoon students often play sharp, and the best way to avoid that is to be sure that the pressure on the reed is coming from above, not pushing up from below (the jaw should be relaxed and dropped down).  Generally, a sharp, constricted sound indicates a too-tight embouchure.

Fingerings

Bassoon students are often unsure of fingerings, which is understandable considering the complexity of certain bassoon fingerings and the fact that many notes have multiple fingerings (some better than others!).  There aren't many patterns or rules, unfortunately, but there are a few.....for example, I was surprised to find out during a recent master class that none of the students could fully answer the question "Which notes require the whisper key?".  They knew that the whisper key was needed for Bb1 through F2 (the numbers indicate the bassoon octave, so our lowest note is Bb1, and the octave higher is Bb2, etc.) but beyond that, they were uncertain.

Here are a few rules which should be memorized:

The "pancake" key takes the place of the whisper key for the very lowest notes (Bb1-Db1).  That's because the player's left thumb is unable to reach the regular whisper key while also activating the low C, low B and low Bb keys.
The pancake key, which substitutes for the whisper key.



The reason why the left thumb whisper key can't be activated at the same time as the low C, low B or low Bb key (it would be physically impossible).
The purpose of both the pancake key and the whisper key is to close the whisper key pad which covers the hole in the nub of the bocal:
The whisper key pad covers the hole in the nub of the bocal.  The whisper key pad is activated by either the left thumb whisper key or the right thumb pancake key.

It's important to regularly test your pancake key to be sure that it's totally closing the whisper key pad over its hole on the bocal.  If it's not, just add some tape (masking tape, duct tape, etc.) to the connector extending from the tenor joint to the "foot" extending from the rod of the pancake.  This is what it looks like:
Orange duct tape added to the connector.  This enables the pancake to fully close the whisper key over the hole on the bocal
These are the notes which require the pancake key (in place of the whisper key):
Bb1 through Db1

These are the notes which require the whisper key:
              D1 through Ab2,                             G3,        G#3


There is another variation of the whisper key issue.......there are 5 notes on the bassoon which require both the whisper key AND a half hole in the first finger left hand.  These are the notes which require whisper key PLUS half hole:
             F#2        G2,        G#2,       G3,      G#3

First finger left hand half hole

 There is also confusion about when to use the little finger left hand Eb key (also known as the upper auxiliary key).  These are the notes requiring the Eb (upper auxiliary) key:
             Eb1,    (Eb2),         G2,     E3 and all notes above E3

The Eb or upper auxiliary key
Eb2 has many different fingerings, some of which require the Eb (auxiliary) key.  My preferred fingering for Eb2 does not require the Eb key, but sometimes I use one of the fingerings which does require it.  It's very important for students to remember that as a rule, the Eb (upper auxiliary) key is required for all of the high notes beginning with E3.

These are the few fingering rules which apply to the bassoon, and hopefully memorizing these rules will help students begin to master the vast fingering chart for our instrument.

Air and embouchure

The two factors which bassoonists use to change pitch and dynamics are air and embouchure, as follows:

Using more air results in higher pitch and louder dynamics.  
Using less air results in lower pitch and lower dynamics.  
Tightening the embouchure results in higher pitch and lower dynamics.  
Loosening the embouchure results in lower pitch and louder dynamics.

Breathing

A good way to practice abdominal breathing is to lie on the floor belly up with a book placed on the lower abdomen.  The goal is to make the book rise upon inhaling and sink down upon exhaling. Then the abdominal breathing may be used to practice steady, controlled long tones on the bassoon, producing straight tones at first and later adding crescendos and diminuendos.

Developing a concept of sound and musicianship

It's a good idea for bassoon students to have a goal of playing with a desirable tone.  There are many YouTube videos of superstar bassoonists such as Sophie Dartigalongue, Nadina Mackie Jackson, Arthur Weisberg, Klaus Thunemann, Min-Ho Lee, Judith LeClair and Gilbert Audin.  Musicianship may be learned from performances and recording of any great musician, and a student's exposure to great musicians should certainly not be limited to bassoonists!  It's advisable to spend considerable time listening to recordings of world class string players, singers and pianists in order to develop a sense of musicianship.


Vibrato

Once the student has good control of long tones, it's time to begin developing vibrato, which may be thought of as a regular pulsation in the sound caused by bursts of air.   These pulsations are best practiced in strict rhythm in order to build the abdominal muscles involved in vibrato production.   There are many ways to think of producing beginning vibrato, such as imitating the sound of a dying car battery, or using a "Ha!Ha!Ha!Ha!" or panting or laughing.  Bassoon students often benefit from watching string players produce vibrato with the left hand; vibrato obviously cannot be seen when produced by a wind player.

In general, the speed of vibrato in general varies from 4 beats per second to 7 beats per second, with 5 or 6 per second falling into the normal range.  Lower pitched voices and instruments often tend to use a somewhat slower vibrato than higher pitched instruments.  Advanced musicians are able to vary the speed and intensity of the vibrato.

To learn vibrato on the bassoon, set the metronome at 60 and begin pulsating 2 times per beat.  Gradually, over the course of weeks or months, increase the pulsations up to 7 per beat (which is quite fast).

Rhythm

Accurate rhythm and a steady pulse are essential for a strong musical performance on any instrument.  Rhythm should never be neglected during practicing, and regular use of a metronome is recommended.

For more advanced musicians, rubato is used to create musically interesting phrases.  Within the context of a steady pulse, some notes are stretched while others are compressed in order to fit into the steady pulse framework, allowing emphasis of certain parts of the phrase - that's what the term rubato refers to.

For sight-reading, rhythm should always be top priority; other flaws may be overlooked, but rhythmic accuracy is essential.

Practicing effectively

It's important to avoid practicing mistakes!   That means stopping and addressing any problems as they arise during practice sessions.  The most basic rule of practicing is to slow it down.  Sometimes a technical problem is resolved simply by slowing down the tempo and playing the passage a few times slowly.

If a note is out of tune, the embouchure, air or fingering may be manipulated to resolve the problem.  Tuning apps make it easy to identify issues.  If the rhythm is inaccurate, a metronome app might come in handy. Subdividing is a very helpful technique for improving rhythmic accuracy.

If the fingerings are sloppy, which is so often the case for bassoonists, it's very helpful to listen closely so that the exact notes causing the problem may be identified.  The problem intervals may benefit from being played slowly (and accurately) many times before adding the surrounding notes.

Unless the passage in question is written all slurred, I recommend eliminating all articulations so that the passage is all slurred.  Once the passage can be played evenly all slurred, then add the articulations as printed.  It's very common for students to blame the tongue for problems which are actually caused by uneven fingerings.

Another approach is to play the entire passage until reaching the first problem note.  Then that note is held with a fermata. Next, with great conviction, the fingers are clicked into the correct fingering for the next note, with a fermata also on that one, and so on throughout the problematic part of the passage.  After the problem notes are finished, the passage is completed as written (so that only the problematic notes have fermatas).  This approach should be repeated several times.

Afterwards, the passage is played as written.  It's possible that there will be a new problem created by the corrections which just took place, and the same technique using fermatas and clicking fingerings may be applied again to the new problem notes.

How do you know when a passage is mastered?  If you can play it perfectly 10 times in a row, then you're in good shape!

What to practice

Scales and arpeggios are the building blocks of all of the music we're called upon to perform, and that's why it's so important to familiarize ourselves with all of the major and minor scales and arpeggios.  Long tones are essential for developing control of the air and embouchure (which control the pitch and dynamics as well as sound).  Bassoon students usually work on etudes also such as those by Weissenborn and Milde.
Bassoon etude books

Tonguing

In order to begin a note on the bassoon with a graceful and clean "attack", it's necessary to have the embouchure and air set up in advance.  Think of the tongue as a valve which starts and stops the flow of air.  The player sets up the air and embouchure with the tongue against the reed so that it doesn't yet vibrate.  When, with the correct embouchure and air in place for the note being played, the tongue is pulled back, allowing the air to vibrate the reed.  That technique results in a very desirable attack. Then when the tongue is again placed against the reed, the note ends.

Many bassoonists also employ the technique known as double tonguing, and some begin learning it as early as high school.  Basically, double tonguing requires the player to begin the first note with the tongue in front as usual, but the second note is articulated with the tongue in the back of the mouth.  The spoken syllables would be "TaKaTaKa......etc." or "DuGuDuGu....etc.".   Here's a blog post I wrote about learning to double tongue on the bassoon.

Flicking

Flicking is a technique, unique to bassoon playing, which improves or enables the response of certain notes (A2, Bb3, B3, C3 and D3.....see below), especially when the note is being slurred to from a note in the lower range.  The left thumb briefly swipes open one of the left thumb keys (the high A, high C or high D key) at the beginning of the flicked note.  These are the flick notes and the thumb key used to flick each note (Bb3 can use either the A key or the C key):

Recommended reading

The Art of Wind Playing by Arthur Weisberg (currently out of print but available from Amazon and various other sources).
                                                
The Art of Wind Playing

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