Over this past summer I had a bit of an ah-ha moment.
For a current student of mine, taking lessons with me was the first time she received instruction from a bassoon player. Her mother informed me that the wonderful band teacher had done a lot to help her daughter come this far, however, he ultimately suggested that she take lessons with someone more familiar with the instrument. Reflecting back on to my own middle school experience, I distinctly remember my band teacher's initial reaction of "Bassoon, well good for you!” The second thing, that facial expression of realizing he had no clue how to proceed. Now, I know why he had this reaction - the bassoon is not easy to pick up, and is even harder to teach.
So, for those band/orchestra teachers who chose the oboe over bassoon in methods class, or never really bonded with the instrument in the first place, here are a few tidbits to help you review your bassoon basics.
1.) Reeds - Ah, the dreaded reed.
The best initial option for obtaining student reeds is to send them to a local bassoonist to see if they can purchase reeds from an experienced player. Typically, bassoonists will have a few reeds sitting around for that exact purpose. These reeds will last a fairly long time and will play right from the start (no whittling/sanding).
Next option - there are plenty of companies that sell reeds with a huge number of reed types and prices ranging from $15-$20 a piece. However, the number of options and costs can overwhelm a beginning student. So, yes, students can initially purchase reeds from generic music stores - I recommend medium soft or medium hard. Generally, you won’t be doing much to "fix" or "alter" reeds yourself, however, there are some things that you can look for and address (should your student comes to you in tears).
Soaking - Your students should be soaking the entire reed in a container of water for 5 minutes before playing. Simply wetting reeds in their mouths won’t do the trick and will also shorten the life span of the reed. Mention to the student they should change the water daily and wash the container weekly. Students shouldn't keep an extra reed in water during an entire rehearsal as it will get waterlogged and not want to play at all. Note: This is different from oboes, who only soak the cane but not the cork or metal (staple).
Mold - Yes, mold happens on reeds, and it is gross. Honestly, there is not much that can be done once a reed is moldy, but there are a few things to prevent it. Make sure the students are NOT storing reeds in the little plastic tubes they come in. They should have a reed case (even if it’s a paper napkin-lined Altoids case) with holes for ventilation.
Thread/Wires - If the bulb of thread at the end of the reed (turban) is falling off or the wires have fallen out of place, that means it hasn’t been properly soaked in a while. You can easily shift these back into place (here’s a picture for reference). Then have the student soak it for 20 minutes.
2.) Putting it Together - So many parts!
Which joint goes where and in what order? This YouTube video from a University of Texas bassoon professor goes through the process step-by-step. It’s quite helpful.
A few things I want to emphasize:
Bocal - The metal bocal is truly fragile. Take note when putting this in to hold it at the curve (closest to the instrument) and wiggle back and forth. If the cork squeaks, put cork grease on it before going any further. Bocals are costly, ranging between $500-$1000 AND they can be bent super easily.
Keys - Try to put most of the pressure and grip on the wood side of the instrument when putting it together. There are a lot of keys, so it’s hard to miss them all, but at least avoid the long metal bars as much as possible.
3.) Carrying - This actually matters a lot with the bassoon.
Due to weather conditions and changes (humidity, temperature), the instrument's joints can go from being super swollen to loose fitting and back again. When students carry the instrument, make sure they use two hands ensuring one hand is on the boot (the lowest joint). They should NEVER lift the instrument by the bell, not even to move it a little bit. The bell will most likely lift right off and the bassoon will topple over - never good. Note: If the bassoon needs to be carried from back stage or longer distances, remove the bocal. It can placed into the bell upside. It’s noisy, but will save from a student getting their eye poked or the bocal being bent if it hits something (or someone).
4.) Seat Straps - supporting the instrument
In Europe, most bassoonists use neck straps, however, the American technique is to use a seat strap, unless standing for a recital. I recommend starting with a seat strap. The instrument is quite heavy (approximately 8 lbs) and the student will fair better both in posture and breathing with a seat strap. To hook the seat strap, look for a small hole at the bottom of the boot joint on the metal band. If the seat strap hook is too big to fit, use a key ring to loop through the hole on the bassoon and create a bigger opening for the seat strap hook.
5.) Hand Rests -
The thing on the side of the instrument that looks like the image at the left, is a hand rest. Hand rests come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but a basic type should come with any student model bassoon. When starting out, suggest that your student try the rest. It provides stability and keeps the fingers the appropriate distance from the instrument/keys. If the student's hand is too small, they can remove it. Bassoonists play with and without the rest, but for younger students I recommend they at least try it first.
6.) Positioning -
Due to the sideways/diagonal positioning of the bassoon when playing, positioning angles must be considered! First - the bassoon should "come to the student," the student should not go to the bassoon. Meaning what? Initially, have the student sit in a chair in an upright position and assist them in moving the instrument to them. The process for getting the correct set up should be:
Distance - The seat strap should be placed at the front of the chair, closer to the knee - about 3-4 inches from the edge is the best.
Angle - The playing position for the bassoon means diagonally across the body in what I call the “seatbelt” position. It shouldn’t be too upright.
Bocal - Once the bassoon is across the body, adjust the bocal by moving it from side-to-side so it is angled towards the mouth (the student should not have to strain their neck to reach out to the bocal). Notice: If the pad next to the bocal (whisper key) does not cover the little nib on the bocal, something is awry!
Height - If the student then has to stretch their neck upwards or shrink down to reach the reed on the bocal, then it is the wrong height. Use the seat strap to lift or lower the bassoon to the appropriate height.
7.) Swabbing - cleaning
There should be two sized swabs that come with the bassoon - one for the tenor (or wing joint) and one is for the boot joint. The smaller swab goes through the wing joint. Enter through the large end of the wing joint and pull it out of the bocal side. If this swab resists at all, stop immediately and pull it out the way it came in. This means it’s the wrong swab! The larger swab will get stuck in the smaller joint and will be incredibly difficult to remove. The larger swab is only used for the boot joint (bottom piece). Again, enter through the larger opening first, pushing as much as you can down into the joint, and then wiggle the boot while you slowly turn it upside down. With a little luck and a lot of wiggling, the weight attached to the end of the swab will come out the other side, having gone around the U-bend at the bottom. Pull through and you are done. This will take practice!
8.) Whisper Key Pad -
One day your student will come to you showing that the pad on the key right next to the bocal has ripped off. This is quite common and a pain. That pad can rip off if the student accidentally holds the key down when putting in the bocal or the whisper key lock is on. I’ve done it a few times myself when I wasn’t paying attention. Problem is, that pad is absolutely necessary for the student to play any note in the staff… which is probably most of their notes. If the pad itself is ripped, unfortunately there isn’t much to do outside of getting it replaced. If the pad has fallen out of the casing, you can temporarily put it back in using strong tape or glue (nothing drastic like super glue please). Realize, though, that’s a short fix and it will need to be taken in as soon as possible.
9.) Weissenborn Book -
The best book for your student (and you) to get is the Weissenborn book - dubbed “The Bassoon Bible.” It has great a fingering chart, multiple short pieces to learn each note, and an entire section on embouchure and positioning! By the end it even provides instructions on how to read tenor clef. Please note: the book is written assuming that most people using the book have some sort of background in reading music in general. It does not start with the absolute basics of rhythms and meters.
10.) When in Doubt, Ask! -
If you have a student taking up the bassoon and need a refresher course, ask away! Most bassoonists I know really love when other musicians are interested in our strangely unique instrument. Find a local bassoon teacher (or player) and ask them to just walk you through the steps!