This past week I consulted my Cooper-Toplansky Essentials of Bassoon Technique once again to see about my high F options, as I prepared for a subscription concert featuring the Bernstein Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. I was hoping that I would discover a fantastic high F fingering which had somehow eluded me until this point.
That hope was delusional! The only fingering which even remotely works for me is the standard one:
Furthermore, it was rather unreliable, even with high reeds. I had to resort to something I never do - switching bocals. I am a minimalist when it comes to bocals. I play on the same bocal all the time (a new Heckel C1), even for screech bassoon solos like the Ravel Piano Concerto. But I do own a high bocal which was made by William Allgood.
With the combination of a high reed, an embouchure adjusted for the extreme high range, the Allgood bocal, and the above fingering, high F became as reliable as it could be. Once set up with that combination, the only remaining factor influencing successful executions of the high Fs in the Bernstein was plenty of practice, in order to firmly incorporate the unfamiliar fingering and embouchure. Biting the reed does not help (although biting does help for high G) but the reed must be shoved as far as possible into the mouth, and the lower jaw should be shoved out, making the embouchure more symmetrical than the typical overbite embouchure.
Some bassoons (not mine) have a high F key. I didn't even know what a high F key would look like or where it would be placed, so I was glad to find this photo of a bassoon tenor joint on Robert Ronnes' website:
The keys near the left hand finger holes are (from left to right) high F#, high E, high F and high Eb.
I think it's accurate to state that keys for high E, Eb, F, F# and G (yes, they all exist!) may be located in different places above and below the left hand finger holes on the tenor joint. As many bassoonists know, the location of high E and Eb keys, both of which are common on professional bassoons, varies from bassoon to bassoon. Bassoonists who order an instrument from a factory or maker must decide where they want the high note keys placed.
Ease of playing in the extreme high range varies greatly from bassoon to bassoon. I'm willing to bet that on some bassoons, especially older Heckels, it is possible to play the high F without switching to a high bocal (although a high reed is surely necessary). This may be true of other brands of bassoons as well.
My bassoon is a new 15,000 series Heckel. It's the ideal instrument for playing principal in the large, acoustically challenged hall where I perform, because it projects really well. And its high range is exceptional too (although not easy), until we reach high F. Once I sorted out the reed/bocal situation, even the high F was acceptable. In fact, I was told by a clarinetist listening to my obsessive practicing that it sounded like a soprano sax. (He didn't mean that as an insult - he didn't know that we spend our lifetimes trying not to sound like a saxophone!)
But I must admit - I'm not accustomed to working this hard to play the bassoon! The high F became the focus of the week (and the preceding week as well). Here is the passage containing the high Fs in the Bernstein:
The person playing this part before me must have had a really hard time, because as you can see, he or she had to write in the names of the notes! There are 3 high Fs in the passage, and each is preceded by a high Bb and followed by a high E. Therefore, practicing the 3 note pattern of high Bb, F and E is very helpful. I practiced that pattern many times.
I also practiced the entire passage with a metronome, once the F fingering was well incorporated. Of course, at first the metronome was set at a very slow tempo. I didn't increase the metronome speed until the passage was flawless at the current tempo. The reason I spent so much time working with the metronome is because in a passage like this, it would be all too easy to become overwhelmed by the difficulty of the fingerings, and to lose track of the tempo and rhythm. (Besides, I practice with a metronome all the time anyway.) I also practiced with an electronic tuning drone to be sure the intonation was accurate.
The first time I encountered this piece, I was in shock. I wasn't at all sure whether or not the 1st bassoonist was really expected to play the high Fs! Well, I now know that the answer is yes, the 1st bassoonist must find a way to pull it off. If not, there are plenty of talented unemployed bassoonists waiting in the wings who would be more than happy to do it! As orchestral jobs become more and more scarce, the standards for performing in those jobs must inevitably rise to a level near perfection.