It’s no surprise to any band director that when asked to express preference for a beginning instrument, young band students are not typically drawn to the bassoon. Bassoon is a rare, challenging instrument, and students may not know anybody who plays it. At the same time, double reed instruments can be intimidating to band directors.
While I have a music performance degree with bassoon as my principal instrument, I did not start my musical journey on the bassoon. Like so many other starry-eyed band students, I chose to play flute in fourth grade because my mom played flute, and we already owned the instrument. Halfway through my freshman year of high school, with the urging of my director and a new-found desire for uniqueness, I switched to bassoon. While I’m happy now to have had experience on both instruments, I know that I would have felt success and satisfaction earlier on had I started as a bassoonist. Beginner musicians crave success, and those that switch to bassoon after their first year will likely progress far slower than their peers, leading to disenchantment, disengagement, and, ultimately, withdrawal from the instrument.
The goal of this article is to provide band directors with some foundational knowledge needed to guide beginning bassoonists and encourage you to start students on the instrument as early as possible. When it comes to starting a bassoonist, I like to say: “bassooner” the better.
If you are not a bassoonist, you may be intimidated by the instrument itself. The bassoon consists of five main joints: the bell, long joint, wing joint, boot joint, and bocal. Additionally, there are several pieces of accompanying equipment that are essential for success. Here are some tips for what to use and why.
- Make sure your students use a “hand crutch.” The crutch pushes the musician’s right hand into the correct position to best close tone holes and reach all of the thumb keys.
- It is crucial for your bassoonists’ comfort and tone quality to use a seat strap instead of a neck strap. Neck straps bring all of the weight of the instrument to the musician’s neck and left hand, creating poor posture and discomfort.
- Perhaps the most important component of a bassoon is the reed, and handmade reeds go a long way. Store-bought reeds may be convenient, but they are often too thick and difficult to play on. When it comes to reeds, I highly recommend sourcing a local professional bassoonist who can make and ship handmade reeds to your school.
Once you’ve acquired your reeds, it’s important to soak them before use. Soak them in water that is deep enough to submerge the entire reed for approximately 1 minute. Soaking in one’s mouth is not enough, and you also should not over soak them! If there is difficulty with articulation or getting a response in the lower register, you, as an instructor, can make minor adjustments by squeezing the closest wire to the opening of the reed. Squeeze from top to bottom to get an easier response, and squeeze from side to side to get a more resonant sound.
- Like other instruments, bassoons should be swabbed after every use. A long silk swab with a weighted chain will work for cleaning all joints, except for the bocal. A bocal brush can be purchased to clean out the bocal weekly.
- Use unflavored dental floss and a block of wax applied to the floss to tighten any loose joints. In many cases, the joints are not made with cork, so avoid using cork grease.
When it’s time to start a bassoonist, use a similar teaching process that would be used for other woodwinds. Students should start with the reed on the bocal and practice making a supported and consistent sound. I use the term “kissy face” to describe the proper embouchure. Lips should be slightly pursed out and should not touch the first wire on the reed.
There are a few fingering challenges that come along with bassoon, including the half-hole and flicking/venting. Both are easily explained but take a bit of time to perfect. A half-hole is when the bassoonist rolls their first finger down towards the next tone hole, resulting in only half of the first tone hole being covered. Flicking requires the bassoonist to touch one of two upper thumb keys on their left hand to allow the bassoon to speak an octave higher. Half-holes are required for playing fourth line F-sharp, fourth space G, and G-sharp, while flicking is required for fifth line A up to C above the staff.
While the bassoon might feel intimidating for both band directors and students at first, some basic knowledge and experience will lead you in the right direction. Armed with the right techniques, accessories, and some patience, you can feel confident starting students on this unique instrument. Just remember: “bassooner” the better!
Kyle Bickwit is the Director of Bands at East Hall Middle School in Gainesville, Georgia. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in Music Education and Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance (Bassoon) from the University of Georgia’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music. In his free time, he enjoys teaching private bassoon lessons, playing tennis, running, rock climbing, and spending time with his wife, Cecile. Special thanks to Wes York, fellow bassoonist and Band Director at Malcom Bridge Middle School in Bogart, GA, for his help in putting this information together and co-presenting at the Georgia Music Educators Association In-Service Conference and Midwest Clinic.
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