Thursday, June 7, 2018

For middle school bassoonists

Many bassoonists learn to play the bassoon during middle school; that's the ideal time to establish good playing habits.  The first important habit presented here is playing position, which includes embouchure and position of the reed in the mouth.  Next a few basic fingering issues are addressed, followed by the use of air and embouchure.


In order to produce the best possible sound on the bassoon, there are certain basic recommendations for playing position. First, establish your sitting position without the bassoon.  Sit comfortably (but sit up straight) in the chair with your head straight (not tilted up).  Add the bassoon, adjusting the seat strap backward, forward, up or down to fit the bassoon comfortably into your original position.   

Bassoon playing position
 Make sure that the bocal is positioned correctly.  Usually the bocal aligns best between the pad of the A key and the C key.  The left thumb keys should be  pointing at you, not off to your left.  The instrument should be balanced, with its weight shared by your right thigh and your left hand.

The next important aspect of playing position is the embouchure.  Cover your teeth completely with your upper and lower lips and then drop your jaw, producing what is referred to as an overbite embouchure.  Bassoon embouchure is not symmetrical - there should be little or no pressure on the reed applied by the lower lip or jaw.  The lower lip simply encases the reed, otherwise staying out of the way.  There are other types of bassoon embouchures but this is the type that has worked best for my students and myself.

Bassoon overbite embouchure - drop your jaw and don't push up on the reed!
The next critical aspect of playing position is the position of the reed in the mouth.  I tell my students to place about half of the blade of the reed in the mouth.  If this issue is unaddressed, the tendency of most students is to insert too much of the reed into the mouth, resulting in difficulty in controlling sound, intonation and dynamics.

Reed position - only half of the blade should be inserted into the player's mouth.


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.


The pitch and dynamics are controlled by air and embouchure as follows: 

If you use more air, the pitch rises and the sound gets louder.  
If you use less air, the pitch drops and the sound gets softer.  
If you tighten your embouchure, the pitch rises and the sound gets softer.  
If you loosen your embouchure, the pitch drops and the sound gets louder.  

Awareness of these rules helps bassoonists gain control of what comes out of the bassoon!

For more in-depth information, here's a blog post for high school bassoonists.


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