Saturday, April 20, 2019

Contrabassoon for Dummies

This post is intended for the type of contra player who still needs a fingering chart.
 If you are a bassoonist who is suddenly called upon to play the contra for the first time, maybe as a student receiving a seating assignment in band or orchestra, or as a professional serving as an emergency replacement for the real contra player, then this post is for you.  This is a presentation of a few basic facts about the contra which will most likely enable a clueless bassoonist to conquer the contra.

There are a few basic differences between bassoon and contra.  The one which stands out the most to me is the contra's lack of whisper key.
It's true....there is NO whisper key on the contra!

Once we get over the fact that there's no whisper key, the second major challenge is hand and finger placement.

I had a lot of trouble figuring out where to place my right hand and fingers.  I kept trying to place my first finger on the alternate Eb key.
Another difference between bassoon and contra is the manner in which Eb2 (the second octave Eb on the instrument) is played.  This is the contra fingering for the note:

Here are the keys for the left hand fingers.  As you can see, the Eb key is situated above the C key and below the D key:

Here are the keys for the left hand fingers (not labeled are the low Eb and low C# keys which are the same as on the bassoon).  Notice that there are no open holes for the fingers on the contra.
The contrabassoon does not require the use of half-holes.  Instead, the second octave F#, G and G# require no first finger of the left hand at all.

There is a movable hand rest or hand support on the contra:

The player's left hand goes underneath the support.  The support is adjustable, and it can really help stabilize the hand position if it's correctly adjusted.

Unlike the bassoon, the contra has a tuning slide which is moved by pushing or pulling the ring at the bottom:

And the contra has a spit valve, which in my opinion should be used liberally:
It seems to be helpful to blow into the contra while opening the spit valve.  If you don't remove the reed first, you might find yourself creating an embarrassing noise.

What about the reed?  I had no idea where to buy a contra reed so I did some quick research online and saw a recommendation for GoBassoon contra reeds.  I ordered one and it looked perfect.  I know from my experience with bassoon reeds that looks can be deceiving, but when I played on this reed I was thrilled with its sound and response.  I highly recommend GoBassoon contra reeds.

Hopefully this post provides enough information for the novice to get through the first rehearsal.  If anyone tells you that you shook the stage, you'll know you're well on your way to conquering the contra.


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