Working on the high register

It is a challenge to develop fluency and security in the high register. And, high register solos are a staple of the repertoire! Some bassoonists even use special “high note” bocals for the most extreme upper register playing. The fact of the matter is that we probably spend more time playing in the middle and low registers, and unintentionally neglect the high register. While one may devise technical exercises designed to gain fluency, it may be more attractive to actually practice upper register music! Certainly, bassoonists think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but I would suggest starting with the solo from Ravel’s Bolero. If you can negotiate the high notes in the Bolero solo, you’ll be well on your way to better confidence and comfort in the upper register.

Ravel - BoleroThere are four factors to consider for high note playing: embouchure, breath, fingering, and reed. Most students begin by pinching or biting to try to “squeeze” high notes out. Actually, it’s important to keep the embouchure open so that the reed doesn’t close. For success, try taking more reed in the mouth so that you are placing your embouchure near the first wire of the reed.

Breath control is very important to consistency of pitch, tone, and reliable articulation. You may be helped by raising the tongue slightly (imagine the “ee” vowel)—this has the effect of speeding up the air. Another approach is to imagine using “cold” air. In any case, be sure to maintain adequate air speed for high notes.

Fingering glitches can really foul up consistency in the high register. Since the harmonic fingerings we use for high notes do not all make much sense, it takes patience to learn the fingerings and to use them accurately. Repetition will help—start slowly and work to develop accurate fingering reflexes. It is especially important to practice the fingering changes needed for high note intervals. It’s not so much about one fingering after another, it is more about which fingers change to move from one note to another. As with any fingering challenge, we focus on patterns to gain speed and accuracy.

Reeds can be adjusted to work better in the high range. Make sure the tube is very round. You will need a fairly high arch in the back of the blade. You may like to remove a little cane along the sides of the blades, especially at the tip. This changes the balance of the blades to strengthen higher partials. Most “high note reeds” are made from harder cane and have greater than average strength in the back of the blades.

So, keep the embouchure open but not soft (keep lips drawn in over teeth for a “hard cushion”) and avoid biting; maintain the velocity of the air; work for accurate fingerings and smooth interval changes; and select a reed that favors the high register. Remember, when it comes to reeds, there is safety in numbers!

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