For many years now, I’ve had a plaque on the wall of my bassoon studio which reads, “Control, Concentration, Consistency”—the three “C-s.” After so many years of teaching, I would now add three “B-s”: “Breath, Beauty, Boldness.” These are the qualities of a fine performance—to take the risks necessary for expressivity and musicality, but to maintain poise and predictability. So much of the bassoonist’s lyrical playing is truly “singing without words.” The great singers thrill audiences by risking all and going for the high note—right to the edge of the technique—but manage to execute technical feats with sure-footed grace and seeming effortlessness. And, consummate musicianship.
Accurate bassoon intonation depends on:
- instrument in adequate if not good mechanical condition
- bocal of appropriate length and focused tone quality
- reed in proper adjustment
- player with excellent pitch sense and understanding of the tendencies of the bassoon
The mechanical adjustments must be made by a qualified repairman, the instrument “voiced” to a relatively even scale. Leaky pads, or pads which open to the wrong height can be detrimental to your ability to play in tune.
The bassoonist would do best to combine a bocal and reed that feature a very centered (focused), perhaps dark, tone. A centered tone makes it easier for the other instrumentalists in the ensemble to hear, even feel, the pitch so that they may more easily find and match that pitch. Pitch ambiguity is often the result of a bright tone quality that features unusual strength in overtones and weakness in the fundamental, hence a quality that may imply to some listeners pitch other than the one desired. I use a Heckel “CC” bocal. I think most Fox CVX vocals may be too bright for modern bassoons (Fox CVC bocals are better). The newer Fox “Double Star” bocals are excellent and can make any bassoon sound better. As always, though, try as many bocals as you can to find one that matches your instrument. What about length? Most bassoonists use a Heckel #1 or #2 (comparable with Fox #2 or #3). Your particular reed style and instrument will determine the length you need.
A reed that is adjusted to play especially well in the lowest octave is recommended since the bassoon is scored predominantly as the bass voice in the ensemble. (There are other ways to improve response in the upper register.) The bassoon player is cautioned, however, against allowing the free-blowing reed to be too low in pitch, since constant “lipping-up” of pitch eliminates any resonance benefit to the lowest octave. The reed that is strong in the lowest octave, in combination with the bocal that produces a compact sound–strong in the fundamental partial, will produce a resonant darkness in tone quality that is desirable in ensemble performance. I tell my students to aim for a reed which is 56-57 mm long. Then, if the “one finger E” drops too easily, there is still room to clip the reed without making it too short to play the octaves in tune.
The bassoon player must be aware of the pitch tendencies of each of the notes and registers of the bassoon. The reed must be flexible enough to allow embouchure adjustment of the pitch for the full range of the instrument, especially so that the player may accommodate certain sharping or flatting tendencies of the other instruments in the ensemble.
So many factors come between you and a good bassoon tone:
YOU . . .
. . . BEAUTIFUL TONE
So, to improve the tone, one must seek to improve every link in the tone production chain.
The serious bassoonist makes many reeds. The idea here is to improve the chances of finding a good one. Since commercial reeds are so expensive, and, usually, not particularly well-suited to the individual needs of every player, the best way to improve reeds is to learn to make them. Work with your private teacher, go to clinics and seminars, attend summer camp, and read a book (e.g. The Art of Bassoon Playing by William Spencer). One way or another, you can learn to make and adjust the reeds you play.
Most generic bocals used with school bassoons are just plain awful. Bocals, too, are quite expensive. But, a professional bocal will help you sound better and, incidentally, will improve your intonation. There are some new bocals on the market now which have been getting good reviews, but prices vary widely. If at all possible, you should try before you buy or, at least, order bocals from a dealer who will offer a trial period (10 days or so). Here are some bocals to try:
Heckel (prices ca. $600) try CC-2
Fox (ca. $400) try *CVC-2* or *CVX-3*
Yamaha (standard bocals ca. $200; Super bocals ca. $300)
Many school bassoons are in poor repair; many weren’t good instruments to begin with. A good instrument costs a lot of money. Occasionally a decent used instrument can be had, but buyer beware! Always get a second opinion!
Probably the best deal in a popular mid-priced bassoon these days is either the Fox Renard Model 220 or 240. For a little less, a perfectly serviceable instrument is the Fox Professional Model III (a polypropylene instrument).
Your embouchure may be as unique as you are. Often, though, tone is negatively affected by pinching. Be sure to OPEN UP AND BLOW. Keep your lips tucked in, keep your lower jaw down, and pull the corners of your mouth in toward the reed.
Take a deep breath (as if you are about to swim underwater the length of the pool). Hold it. Keep your shoulders down! Hold your lips as if you were about to blow out a candle. Allow the air to escape, without blowing hard at first, then increase abdominal muscle tension to BLOW the air out under pressure. How long can you last?
Good bassoon tone depends on ample breath support. Don’t let the air out all at once, but you have to work to move the air through the instrument. In the words of one artist player, “THE BASSOON IS A WIND INSTRUMENT!”
The text of his lecture on solutions to problems with articulation and intonation of various problem notes on the bassoon is offered on his Womble/Williams website. In “Bassoon Helps,” Mr. Williams summarizes, “I believe the hardest part of learning to play the bassoon is going from note to note cleanly and in tune.” Well said.
(Robert Williams is principal bassoon of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
In a previous post, it was suggested that bassoonists would enjoy the canonic sonatas by Telemann as edited by Johan Tufvesson. Another classic is the thirteenth concert from The Tastes Reunited, or New Concerts for the use of all kinds of musical instruments. I remember hearing this duo on an LP featuring the Canadian bassoonist George Zukerman. [MP3s available from Amazon]
It probably was one of the first two LPs I had as a beginning bassoon student in the 60s! The other featured my predecessor at Eastern Michigan University, Robert Quayle!
To date, Benkócs has released a total of five CDs with nearly five hours of Vivaldi bassoon concertos, 94 tracks in all! The playing is expressive, virtuosic, and just plain beautiful! Very inspiring! Since these recordings were issued on the NAXOS label, they are a bargain, too. I found they are available to download (MP3s) on amazon.com, classicalarchives.com, emusic.com, iTunes, and play.google.com. The physical CDs can even be found on eBay.
From NAXOS: Tamás Benkócs completed his studies in 1995 at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, where he had worked with Laszlo Hara, Jozsef Vajda and Tibor Fulemile. Later he had lessons with Brian Pollard, Milan Turkovic and Dag Jensen. During his academy years, in 1992 at the age of twenty, he was appointed principal bassoonist with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. From 1998 to 2003 he served as principal bassoonist of the newly founded Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2004 he returned to Hungary, working once again with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. He has made many appearances as a soloist in Germany and in Hungary, as well as in Singapore.
The “Bullet Proof Musician” blog is a great collection of psychology-and-music information for the “practicing” musician! Of particular value is a post about practicing: Why the Progress You Make in the Practice Room Seems to Disappear Overnight. Dr. Christine Carter studied the “contextual interference effect” and concluded that we practice too many repetitions. Instead, we should break up our practice routines into shorter segments in order to allow our brains to pay attention! Too many repetitions results in boredom and we can’t help it that our minds wander. Carter writes, “Rather than spending long uninterrupted periods of time woodshedding each excerpt or section of a piece, pick a few passages you would like to work on and alternate between them.” In another study, “Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect: Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning,” [Matthew P. Walker, Tiffany Brakefield, Alexandra Morgan, J.Allan Hobson, Robert Stickgold, "Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect: Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning," Neuron, Volume 35, Issue 1, 3 July 2002, Pages 205-211] the authors determine that a good night’s sleep, presumably within 24 hours of the practice session, will result in up to a 20% increase in motor speed without loss of accuracy. And, in Bruce Hammel’s treatise, “A COMPENDIUM OF PRACTICE METHODS AND THEIR
APPLICATION TO THE BASSOON,” Dr. Hammel suggests breaking up the practice time into shorter segments throughout the day in order to make the practicing more effective and efficient. As bassoonists, we may be tempted to rationalize that, “it’s hardly worth putting the instrument together and soaking a reed, I only have 30 minutes.” But, an ideal session could be 20 minutes long with a few minutes on either side to set up, then pack up. So, plan ahead. Choose a few short excerpts/sections of your solo piece or ensemble music, alternate between them a few minutes each; be sure to get a good night’s sleep within 24 hours of your practicing; and avoid long practice sessions–divide up your time throughout the day. Above all, realize that anything you can do to move in the direction of the ideal approaches to practicing will be beneficial. It’s not all or nothing. Happy Bassooning!
Update: in discussions with students this week, we thought that the analogy between motor skill in sports and in playing the bassoon might need a finer point: motor skills in playing the bassoon are sheer technique, but more than motor skills are needed when preparing the performance of a piece. We wondered if bassoon motor skills are like batting practice, but performing music is more like the design of a play or a strategy.