Why I am a better bassoon professor today than I was when I started 35 years ago

I think it seems logical to say that 35 years of experience counts for something. And, it’s true that one of the big reasons that I’m a better bassoon teacher today than I was when I began teaching over three decades ago is that I am older, but hopefully wiser. Still, I think there are a number of specific ways that I’ve become more effective as a teacher.


I always valued patience, despite my innate tendency to be impatient. When I started, I was much more likely to express exasperation or to treat students with too much INTENSITY. I’ve learned that students grow gradually and individually. They need different things at different times. And, when they become the best bassoonists they can be, it is well worth the wait. To be encouraging and enthusiastic is a far better approach.


I now understand that there are numerous ways to meet the goals we set out to accomplish. I love the Weissenborn method and the Milde op. 24 studies because they are SO GOOD, but some students need the same technical work presented in a different way in order to actually commit to the non-negotiable hours in the practice room performing the repetitions needed to improve. Also, I’ve found that while we value the “canon” of great (or even popular) works for bassoon, e.g. the Mozart concerto, teaching the bassoon should be about cultivating musicianship. I know much more music now than when I started, and I feel comfortable adjusting repertoire requirements to lead students to the next plateau.


As a 25-year-old rookie bassoon prof., it seems to me that I was barely able to turn a phrase. If there is a bassoonist equivalent of a “valve jockey” . . . 🙂

I had a great major teacher (Sanford Berry) and he prodded and pestered me to play musically for more than six years. When I set out on my own, though, I wasn’t there yet. It took time, and considerable attention. I always played with heartfelt expression, but instinctive musicality must lead to a mature, even sophisticated understanding of the line, the phrase, and the nuance.

This musicianship extends beyond merely playing the bassoon. We have so much to learn from singers, string players, conductors, pianists, etc. A year hasn’t gone by that I haven’t felt energized by another performer, piece, ensemble, etc. Exposure to so much music has made me a teacher eager to inspire students to play musically, and beautifully.

Life-long Learning

One musicologist professor of mine suggested that we couldn’t possibly study hard enough in one semester to really get everything out of the subject we would ultimately absorb over the next ten years. I think that was very true. I did keep all my notes, textbooks, scores, and reading lists. Little by little, I acquired my own copies of the great books, scores, recordings, etc., and revisited the subject matter year after year. I found myself appreciating so much the lectures and discussions I had with my professors at the university, even more so after ten, twenty, thirty years.

The same is true with bassooning. After hundreds and hundreds of reeds, I’m so much better at knowing which reed(s) are worth the time, which ones need to be cast aside, which reed making steps must be followed in detail, and how to tell the difference. For this, I’ve relied on the wisdom of a great many bassoonists and reed makers, past and present. It’s hard to mess up a truly great piece of cane, and it’s almost impossible to get a mediocre piece of cane to spring to life. But, most of us need to know how to coax a bit more from an average piece of cane, at least until we stumble on that truly great piece of cane! I think it’s true that “we are only as good as our best reed,” and that “there is safety in numbers.”

Bassoonists are fortunate in that their performance life expectancy can go on almost indefinitely. This is in contrast to those who play instruments that are high stress and/or physically demanding. Sure we do experience the effects of aging, but the nature of the instrument allows us to remain effective as performers for a very long time. What a blessing! If you love playing the bassoon as much as I do, wouldn’t you want to keep doing it for as long as possible?!?

There is something reassuring about having a surgeon who has done that operation thousands of times, or a medical doctor who has seen hundreds of patients over a long career. While we certainly value that brilliant medical student, we do want to consult with the seasoned MD. There really is no replacement for the years of experience that lead closer to “I’ve seen everything.” Maybe I haven’t seen everything, but because I’ve seen/heard a lot, I’m better equipped to make an educated guess about what every unique student really needs.


Though I was always interested in and sensitive to what makes people tick, I was much more self-absorbed as a twenty-something than now, so many years later. The student matters to me now so much more—I really want to celebrate student success no matter what it means about me as a teacher.

I probably could have been even more narcissistic when I was young, because there is pressure on young faculty to produce at such a high level in order to gain tenure and advancement. But, my father—the experienced teacher—told me that I should focus on doing my best and the rest would take care of itself. He said, “if they want to keep you, they’ll figure out a way.” That really did help me get over myself and focus on doing my best. As I’ve told students, “you do your best and I’ll do my best.” This is a fairly healthy equation, don’t you think?

So What?

What would a new student of mine gain from all of this? More to the point, why study with me at this stage of my career? Well, I think you get the best me ever! I think I was a nice guy in the 1980s and 1990s, but I have so much more to offer now. In fact, my best students are those who are always pressing me for more. More music, more ideas, more reed making techniques, more bassoon lore, more time in the practice room, and more strategies for success. Come to think of it, I was that student in the 1970s!?! I don’t think I ever had a class or a lesson that didn’t help me along the way through an ongoing teaching career that I expect will continue on for some time to come.


Cork grease

I’ve tested a number of different cork grease formulations in the past few years. Only recently I decided to try lanolin cork grease and the results have been amazing. I thoroughly cleaned the cork tenons and sparingly applied some Pro Lanolin cork grease. It’s been three weeks and the joints feel like they’ve just been treated! This stuff lasts! When I remarked about the “miracle” of lanolin cork grease, my wife (intrepid professional hornist) casually mentioned, “oh yeah, that’s what we use on our slides”!?! So, it’s all in the family 🙂

My Journey Back to College as an Adult Bassoonist – by Rebecca Koffman (guest blogger)


(I asked Rebecca to write a memoir of sorts–to tell her story about the music in her life. I think her perspective is genuinely inspiring!–ed.)

Two years ago, I was asked a very profound question: “What do you most regret in your life?”  As a person who believes that everything that happens is beneficial in some way, this question was not easy to answer.  Yet, after reflecting upon the past 36 years of my life, I realized that the thing I most regret is giving up playing music.

My interest in music began in the 5th grade when I started playing the flute.  In the 7th grade, I was introduced to the bassoon.  By the time I graduated high school, I could play the flute, piccolo, bassoon, tenor and baritone saxophones, and the clarinet.  I taught music lessons on flute, bassoon, and saxophone and I apprenticed at a local music store as a clarinet repair technician.  I went on to college as a music education major on bassoon but dropped out after the end of my first year.  Soon after, I left my job at the music store and sold all my instruments.

Over the course of the next 18 years, I held numerous jobs.  I primarily worked in the restaurant and hotel industry but also spent some time washing windows professionally, working at a cash advance store, and selling water softeners door-to-door.  In 2007 I obtained a certificate in massage therapy and opened a massage business in 2012.

When I started playing again in 2016, I hadn’t touched a bassoon in 18 years.  Surprisingly, I remembered many of the notes, rhythms, and fingerings.  In fact, I could play the better part of a 3 octave chromatic scale from memory.  But I was pretty rusty.  I’d purchased a few easy solo books to get me started but my mouth was shot after only 5 minutes of playing.

I continued to play a little each day, gradually re-building my embochure.  The solo books were fun but my technique wasn’t improving much and I felt like I needed to practice differently.  I opened the bassoonist’s “old faithful” – the Weissenborn Method for Bassoon – and started from the beginning.  In many ways, the Weissenborn Method felt like a beginning band book for non-beginners, which is exactly what I needed.

I joined a community band and, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only one with a story similar to this.  Like me, another bassoonist had also left a college music program after her first year.  For her, it was 25 years later that she came back to the bassoon.  Now, here we are, sitting side-by-side in the same community band sharing similar stories, and making music together.

It didn’t take long before I decided I wanted to go back and finish my music degree, this time in bassoon performance.  I started taking bassoon lessons right away.  I had 3 lessons at the Community Music School, then found out my teacher wouldn’t be returning to the area.  I reached out to my former bassoon teacher from 8th-12th grade (also my bassoon professor my freshman year of college) and we started lessons the following month.

Over the next 8 months, I practiced almost daily in preparation for my college auditions.  In addition to taking lessons, I also met with the bassoon professors at a few different Universities to see which programs I wanted to audition for.  I purchased a different bassoon, a professional bocal, tried out different reed styles, and attended a bassoon day event.

When January came, I was ready.  Not just for one audition but for three.  I auditioned for two schools in January and one in February – and was accepted into the music programs at EMU, WMU, and MSU.

After much deliberation, I made the choice to downsize my massage practice, move from the Lansing area to Kalamazoo, and attend Western Michigan University.  A few months later, I performed my first recital as a Farewell Recital for my friends and massage clients.  Then, the next day, I moved to Kalamazoo.  I’m now a live-in nanny for a family with two young girls.  In just a few more weeks, I’ll be a 37 year old freshman at WMU majoring in bassoon performance.

While being an adult student will have its challenges, I also realize that I wasn’t meant to finish a music degree 20 years ago.  When I was younger, I didn’t understand that there were levels of musical ability beyond technical ability and coordination.  I needed 18 additional years of life experience to help me see that music isn’t about playing black notes on a white page.  Like everything in life that you love, music will become alive if you put your heart into it.

“May all that has been reduced to noise in you become music again.” ~ David Teems


How to practice effectively

News about effective practicing based on research by Annie Bosler & Don Greene.

The link is to a TED ED video that is very compelling. I think the explanation of the biology of how the brain and the nervous system work is well worth the five minutes it takes to watch the video. Since it goes by fast, I’ve taken some notes:

Quality effective practice is consistent, intensely focused, targets content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of our capability. To practice effectively we need to focus on the task at hand, eliminate distractions (Facebook is mentioned, but there are many distractions vying for attention). Then, start out slowly, or in slow motion. We all know that slow practice is the “go to” technique for elite performers. Interesting to learn that coordination is built with repetitions, whether correct or incorrect. If we gradually increase the speed of the quality repetitions, we have a better chance of doing them correctly. (I want to read more about this.)

Frequent repetitions with allotted breaks are common practice habits of elite performers. In fact, the most successful performers devote 50-60 hrs. per week on activities related to the craft. But, multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration are most effective. Research has shown that “practice in the brain” actually is as worthwhile as physical practice once we have established and know in vivid detail what we need to do. I would caution that “brain practice” really isn’t a substitute for physical practice, rather, it is worthwhile in addition to physical practice. Physical motion established can be reinforced just by imagining it.

Medir bassoon cane

Several years ago I bought six dulcian reeds direct from Medir in Catalonia (Spain). The reeds were so good that since then I’ve been meaning to try some of the modern bassoon cane.

Finally took the plunge!

I’m play testing the first three reeds from a batch of gouged/shaped/profiled cane (Rieger 1A shape) and I’m very pleased. I notice that the cane is a bit hard but the sound is even and full up and down the range. Maybe the profile is thicker than usual for me–with medium density cane–but, I could always try re-profiling.

With any new cane, shape, etc., there is a learning curve. I cut the reeds to 57 mm overall length, that’s 30 mm from the front of the first wire to the tip, and finished the tips with my Rieger tip profiler (factory taper). On one of the three reeds I’ve worked on the back of the blades and sanded a little overall to get the pitch and response where it should be. All three new reeds respond very nicely with breath attacks at the top of the staff (a, b-flat, b, c). The forked e-flat is in tune without the help of the right hand. I think I’m not in a hurry to coax rich and noisy vibration out of these reeds yet, but with more sanding I’m sure I could get there. For now, it’s probably best to let the reeds settle down before further adjustments. Expect updates on the Medir cane story in the coming weeks.

Update: I’ve noticed that the Medir G/S/P profile is a bit heavy in the back. I usually aim for .030 inches at the collar. The Medir cane I got was on average .037 inches at the collar. I previously mentioned re-profiling, but I think it will work to file/sand the back of the profiled blade to get it down closer to .030 inches. That way, if this cane works better with a slightly thicker profile (say, .032 inches), I won’t miss it!?!

Glickman-Popkin Bassoon Camp 2017

10 Days at Wildacres Retreat, Little Switzerland, North Carolina
Monday, May 29 to Thursday, June 8, 2017

Register here:


               fei-xie           michael-sweeney                  ludwig

This year’s daily masterclasses will be given by our Camp founding father Loren Glickman, assisted by the legendary Leonard Hindell. We are also very pleased to welcome magnificent guest artists Xie Fei, principal bassoonist with the Baltimore Symphony, Michael Sweeney, principal bassoonist with the Toronto Symphony, and William Ludwig, professor of bassoon at Indiana University. Our program also features bassoon repairs for all full-session Campers by Paul Nordby, of world-renowned Paul Nordby Bassoon Repair. Our daily classes in Reed Making will continue this year, given by reed guru Jim Poe. Fox Bassoons will return to present their latest bassoon designs and innovations.

The lineup looks just terrific! Highly recommended!

Looking sharp in the upper register

Playing scale patterns in sharp keys can be challenging, especially in the upper register. In A major, the following fingering pattern emerges:


Notice the right-hand cross fingering between e, f-sharp, and g, and the left-hand cross fingering between e and f-sharp. Cross fingering patterns can produce snags if not carefully and methodically developed. So, here is the first set of exercises designed to work on these problems:


Each measure can be repeated multiple times. Begin playing slowly and gradually increase tempo to establish your “outer limit.” It is best to avoid playing too fast since we don’t want to practice these patterns with wrong notes, etc. Another sequence that can be very helpful in isolating glitches is this one:


Here, we work through the cycle and play one of the notes longer, the rest shorter. In the first measure, the first note (e) is long, in the second measure the second note (f-sharp) is long, and so on. Since for practical purposes, all of the intervals between these notes will be important, the next step is to mix them up:


If you find a particularly gnarly interval, especially when slurred, be sure to isolate and work on that fingering pattern. Investing some effort into patterns like these will yield great dividends, enabling you to play with confidence and poise as you conquer the technical challenges. (Thanks to SS!)