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A Strong Start for Bassoonists

Ryan D. Romine | February March 2024

photo by Kirby Fong

As a college bassoon teacher, I am passionate about people playing the instrument. It is the tool I use to teach others about music and also the one I use most often to express myself musically. It is also a fun instrument to play and a fantastic addition to an ensemble. Here are some tips to help you start students on the instrument.

Having bassoons in your ensemble provides a richer musical experience for students and audiences. The more instruments available, the greater the choices for the different colors to make music interesting. Bassoons also help fill out parts across the bass/tenor range of the ensemble. They add clarity to trombone, euphonium, and tuba bass lines and support horn, saxophone, and even clarinet melodies. Sometimes they even get the rare chance to shine in solos ranging from wistful to comical.

Selecting Bassoonists
When considering who should play the bassoon, the answer is simple and clear – any student who wants to play the bassoon should have the opportunity to give it a try. Even if they don’t end up playing for more than a few minutes, learning how to hold the instrument and make a sound gives a better understanding of what a bassoon does and how it is played. Be sure to look for multiple bassoonists. It is lonely and disincentivizing to be the only one in a section.

When choosing an instrument for the longer term, it truly is better for them to self-select (with some thoughtful nudging, of course). If you are switching a current ensemble member to the bassoon, a clarinetist will have to re-learn their embouchure; a trumpet player will have to learn how to play on a reed; and a flutist will have to learn to read bass clef. They will all need to learn something new, so the best qualities a student can have are curiosity and perseverance. With your support, the rest will fall into place.

One note here: students must be able to hold the instrument and cover the tone holes with their fingers. If a student’s left-hand ring finger cannot keep the third tone hole covered (either with the finger or with the key, if present) while the left thumb presses the keys for the low notes, then their hand is not yet big enough to play the bassoon. If you are starting bassoonists at younger ages, it is useful to have a couple short-reach bassoons. These instruments are specially designed for smaller hands.

Bassoon Basics
While the bassoon is physically a bit ungainly to work with at first, there are many online resources (and your notes from your instrumental methods class) to get you started. Plus, a little logic goes a long way. Bassoon-specific online groups can also be helpful, but be aware that many questions end up with multiple conflicting responses.

The bassoon embouchure is also not anything crazy. If you know how to make a saxophone embouchure (think “drawstring bag”) then you are most of the way there. The corners of the lips come in, the chin is flat, and the internal space is big and warm. If you make sure the lips cover both top and bottom teeth, you are more or less set.

Bassoonists need to use their air well just like any other wind player. Students should sit in a natural upright position with no awkward angles and take relaxed breaths followed by natural, supported exhalations. Articulation is also not much different from other instruments. Students should use the area just behind the tip of the tongue to contact the leading edge of the lower blade of the reed. Doo or Da syllables are just fine.

Fingerings are perhaps the trickiest part, but the basic (no sharps or flats) middle-range fingerings on the bassoon from low F to the F an octave higher are similar to the clarinet’s low F to the F an octave higher – Bb/Bn being the exception.

To brush up on how a bassoon should sound, check out a few professional players on YouTube. Notice that in an ensemble they blend but do not completely disappear. For a solo, they step it up like any other player. Once you have a few favorite pro players in your playlist, share them with students so they can begin to understand what the bassoon is capable of.

Instrument Set Up and Cleaning
Before starting students on the instrument, make sure the school’s bassoons are in good condition. First, make sure the bocals are clean and in good shape. For this, you will need a bocal brush. This is one of the only bassoon-specific items you need in a tool kit. There are many available online, and they all do the same thing, although many players have a slight preference for the Dutch variety. With water running through the bocal (if possible), and being careful to avoid bending the tiny vent tube that protrudes into the inside of the bocal, draw the brush through multiple times until nothing but clear water comes out. A dab of dish or hand soap for particularly gross bocals does not hurt. Before you finish up, take a few stiff bristles and make sure the bocal vent is also clean. Check that the corks are in good condition and give them a quick swipe of cork grease. This job could easily be given to an enterprising student. Be sure to ask that they do not accidentally swap bocals between cases. Certain bocals work better for particular instruments.

Once the bocals are in good order, you may want to review how to put the instrument together and how to attach it to the seat strap before showing students. Once you have practiced getting each of the bassoons in your school’s collection together and apart a couple of times (and back into the case – which can be tricky), you are ready to make sure the instruments work.

For this, you will need a reed. If you only use a bassoon reed for such purposes, a decent one can last for years. If it has been sitting around dry for a long time, soak the entire reed very well for about eight to ten minutes and make sure that the wires or wrapping have not fallen down to where they should not be. If they have, just use your fingers to move them back to where they once were and keep soaking until they stay put. Once you have the reed soaked, make sure the tip is open only about one millimeter in the center. If it is too open, use your fingers to flatten down the wire nearest to where the lips go. Now, holding the bassoon, place the reed on the bocal and using a good embouchure and air, make a continuous sound.

This task does not require you to have a great sound – only a continuous one. You are just checking to make sure the instrument works. Keep your left thumb on the whisper key (that’s the one that closes the pad against the bocal vent) and walk your fingers down while playing with a single stream of air. If you can get the instrument to play with a solid, free sound all the way down to low E (that’s low F plus the pancake key), you are almost there. Once you get to low E, grab another breath, play low E again, lift the left thumb from the whisper key and use it to press the left thumb low note keys, adding one at a time until you’re honking out a low Bb. Once you have done this successfully, take a moment to press each key on the instrument. You don’t need to be playing for this. Check whether each key operates smoothly and if the pad it is meant to open/close is still present. If the notes you played do not come out no matter what you try or something is amiss when you press a key, it is time to send the instrument to the repair shop with a note clearly pointing out what is not working. You or one of your bassoonists should do this for each school instrument every year. If a student owns or is renting an instrument, it is still a good idea to have them run through this simple diagnostic in your presence so you can make sure everything is in order.

In the Bassoon Case
• An instrument with pads that seal and joints that are properly strung/corked
• A bocal that isn’t split or overly bent and has its cork intact
• A seat strap that attaches securely to the instrument
• A hand rest (unless the student’s hands are small to the point that removing the hand rest – and possibly the hand rest bracket – are the only way they can reach the keys)
• A proper reed case so the reeds don’t get lost, broken, or moldy
• At least three playable reeds
• A proper and recently cleaned swab of the pull-through variety. (Stick-style swabs should be consigned to the trash.)
• A tube of cork grease for anything that is both squeaking and is actual cork. Do not use it on string wrappings. Using nothing on string is usually the best bet.
• Metronome
• Tuner

Not in the Case
• Multiple plastic reed tubes and boxes
• Dead reeds
• Too much space that allows the instrument to rattle around
• Random screws, pads, or keys – find out where they came from
• Pet hair
• Candy

First Lessons
Once the instruments are ready to go, it is time to introduce your students to them. While it is possible to outsource most of the bassoon teaching to a local professional, I believe that this first lesson is best done by the director. It is a chance to demonstrate that you care about what they are about to undertake and show that you have the expertise to have standards for their progress.

It is a good idea to have at least two new bassoon reeds and two copies of your favorite edition of the Weissenborn Method for Bassoon on hand at all times. This allows you to start students when you are ready instead of waiting for parents or guardians to obtain the necessary materials. If they are on hand, you can just give them to the students and then charge the parents. If a local bassoon teacher will be teaching your students, stock the reeds and Weissenborn editions that they prefer. There are plenty of great double reed supply companies and bassoon reed makers who sell their products online. (But please, do not order them on Amazon.)

In that first lesson, demonstrate the instrument for students and get them set up and making a sound before they leave. If you are not sure about something, both of the new editions of the Weissenborn Method (one by Frank Morelli and one by Douglas Spaniol) have good descriptions of instrument position, posture, embouchure, etc. Even if a student does not read bass clef, take them through the first lesson in whatever book you are using, even if it is a band method book.

Next Steps
You have an important choice to make about what happens after that first lesson with your new bassoonists. Do they then then shift over to a private teacher or continue meeting with you on a regular basis? Young students don’t necessarily need to study with an orchestral player or a college professor, but they will need good, regular teaching. Local college students are sometimes a good option, but they graduate and move on, and many are juggling a lot already.

Often the director may be the best bassoon teacher for a beginning student. In addition to playing in tune and with good rhythm, encourage them to make a big sound. Focus on using good air and correct fingerings and keeping their embouchure in order (a flat chin is always better than a scrunched chin). You don’t have to be an expert on the bassoon to get them off to a great start. With good reeds, an instrument in good shape, and a role model who keeps them motivated with regular bassoon-specific contact, they will progress quite well.

Useful Books
Morelli, Frank, The First Complete Weissenborn. This is a large book but one a student can use for years and years.
Spaniol, Douglas E., The New Weissenborn Method for Bassoon This is similar to the Morelli edition but comes in two volumes for easier carrying and has a slightly different pedagogical approach.

Other Options:
McDowells, D., Book of Practical Studies for Bassoon, Vol 1 & 2. This is a lesser known but very solid set of tunes that are great for individual study or sightreading
Pierce, Amanda J., Blue Moon Bassoon. This is a newcomer on the scene with a refreshing take on making early bassoon playing as musical as possible
Skornika, J.E., Rubank Elementary Method: Bassoon. This is very affordable and a classic that has held up for generations of players. It is then easily followed with the Rubank Intermediate and Advanced books