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Woodwind Clinic: Bassoon Accessories

Elizabeth Rusch Fetters | November 2016

    There is nothing worse than opening an instrument case and discovering that things are missing – or were never there in the first place. For directors who may struggle to find time to get a bassoonist started, here is the list of required accessories for the bassoon.


    Reeds are by far the most frustrating part of any double reed player’s life. Reeds are especially frustrating for young players, who find one working reed and then play it exclusively until it dies. Professional players emphasize the importance of a hand-made reed, and ideally, a bassoon student’s private teacher will provide or adjust reeds for students. If no private teacher is available, there are many options for reed purchase on the internet.
    Have students rotate between two or three reeds. This makes the reeds last longer, and the student has a better chance of having a good reed in the case. It is best to have a few backup reeds, as they are fragile and susceptible to changes in the weather. Directors might want to invest in a small stock of bassoon reeds for emergencies.

Reed Case
    A bassoon player needs a safe place to store those expensive reeds. A bassoon reed case must not be airtight; if it is, the reeds will mold. The reed case must also offer some way to stabilize the reeds; if reeds are free to move around in the case, they will crack or chip. There are many cases on the market, some of which are quite expensive for student use. I recommend a wood case with additional holes drilled in it for maximum ventilation. If that is impossible, an inexpensive plastic case with plastic mandrels for the reeds is fine, provided someone punches holes in it with a hammer and a nail. An old mint tin with holes punched in it is another good option, but be careful of sharp metal edges. A cardboard jewelry box is also an excellent inexpensive option. I line them with a few paper towels to prevent the reeds from moving around. The worst option is to keep storing the reed in the small plastic tube that it arrived in. At the very least punch some holes in the tube before giving the reed to a student.

Water Cup
    A bassoon reed should be completely soaked through before it is played; saliva is not enough. That said, a water cup is not an accessory I recommend because few students are diligent enough to refresh the water daily; many students fill the cup with water and then leave it full in the case. This makes a great breeding ground for bacteria, and students also run the risk of the cup opening by accident and damaging the bassoon. If a cup does not have a lid, a bassoonist will have to fill it each time before playing. This is better than a vial of stale water in the case, although there is a danger the cup will be kicked over, spilling water all over the band room floor.
    As an alternative, have your bassoonist take a reed to the nearest sink and run it under water with the knot end up. Doing this with the tip end up could damage the tip if the water pressure is high. Then, have the student set the wet reed on the music stand or in another safe place. By the time the student has assembled the bassoon and collected their music the reed will be sufficiently soaked to play. The only problem with this method is if the student sits for 20 minutes or more without playing, the reed may dry out, and another trip to the sink will be needed. 


    The most expensive part of the bassoon, the bocal is responsible for much of the tone quality. Professional bassoon players spend a long time and considerable money looking for the perfect bocal, much as clarinet players compare barrels, mouthpieces, and ligatures. If you are fortunate enough to have a new instrument for your student to use, the instrument probably came with great bocals. If you are dealing with old instruments, a new bocal could completely change the sound of the instrument for the better and is the best upgrade possible for an old bassoon. The bocal should not be put in place until the student is seated and ready to play. When a student is carrying a bassoon, the bocal should be out of the wing joint and placed gently in the bell, and when a student is not playing, the bassoon should be held in such a way as to protect the bocal. If the instrument is held so the bocal and reed extend over the shoulder, there is risk that another student walking behind them will accidentally hit them.
    Bocals will have a number stamped on them, and a higher number indicates a longer the bocal. For example, if you find your bassoon player consistently plays sharp with a 2 bocal, change the bocal from a 2 to a 3.
    Bocals with a dent or ding will not play properly. In addition, the dent could be causing debris to collect in the bocal creating a poor sound, a haven for bacteria, or both. Bocals should be cleaned regularly. A long craft pipe cleaner with dish soap does the job. There is also a small bocal brush on the market specifically for this task. Cork can be repeatedly replaced on a bocal, but cracks are often not worth the expense of repairing, especially on student-model bocals.

Seat Strap

    A leather seat strap with a nice S-hook is preferred. The leather cup that fits over the bottom of the instrument is often too large and interferes with the keys at the bottom of the boot joint. If this leather cup is your only option, take a sharp pair of scissors and cut a gentle curve into the cup to accommodate the keys. In a pinch, try an old shoulder strap from a duffle bag or a keyring in the hole on the bottom of the boot joint if the hook doesn’t fit. The seat strap need not be adjustable with a buckle and holes like a belt. Students can raise and lower the strap under the legs as needed.

Hand Rest
    The hand rest has a curved shape and a post that should insert into a bracket on the side of the boot joint. Students with small hands will not need the hand rest, and in some cases I completely remove the bracket as well, so students do not rest their hands on the bracket, which is held on with a few small screws. A student with larger hands might find the hand rest helpful. The post can always be cut down to make the hand rest shorter, thus putting the hand closer to the tone holes and keys.

    Ideally the bassoon should have two swabs: a wing joint swab with a weight on one end and a boot joint swab with a small chain at one end. Usually these styles of swabs are cotton, but a silk swab can also be used. Typically a silk swab has a chain at one end and can be used for both the wing joint and the boot joint. As with all conical instruments, the swab is placed into the larger end first. The wing joint is just like swabbing a clarinet or oboe, but the boot joint requires slightly more skill. The chain end should be placed in the larger of the two bores. Then, turn the joint around, causing the chain to make a U-turn in the bottom of the boot joint. With a little shake, the swab should exit the smaller of the two joints. Pull the swab through to clean the boot joint completely. The wing joint and the boot joint are the only two joints that regularly come in contact with water. The wing joint is the smallest bore and the most likely to develop a build-up of debris if not regularly cleaned. The boot joint won’t develop a build-up, but excess moisture will cause pads to stick. Cotton swabs should be washed occasionally. They can go in the washing machine and they will need to be untangled after the cycle. Usually silk swabs come with instructions for hand washing. Long cleaning swabs are not recommended. Like any other woodwind instrument, the bassoon should be swabbed every time it is played.

     Although the bassoon has an extraordinary number of accessories, having every instrument case stocked with these supplies will make your life and the life of your bassoon players easier.