I want to play the bassoon! - All about Bassoons

The Bassoon - a rare musical instrument

The bassoon is a relatively rare musical instrument. It is part of the woodwind family of instruments, but is much less widely played than the flute or clarinet which are also members of the same family. Bassoons are double reeded instruments, like the oboe, but it has a much lower sound and a fantastic warm tone, much less reedy than its oboe cousin. A double reed instrument means in simple terms that two blades of cane are tied together and vibrate against one another when you blow. Contrast this to a single reed instrument like the clarinet, where a single blade of cane is attached to a mouthpiece and vibrates against that instead.

The bassoon came into the orchestra back in the 18th century as the bass to the oboes and the standard classical orchestra has two bassoons in it. This may not seem much when compared to the acres of violins and violas sawing away on the other side of the rehearsal room, but given how few people play it you probably have a better chance at an audition on the bassoon than on many other instruments!

The bassoon has a reputation as 'the clown of the orchestra' probably because (in a similar fashion to the tuba) it has the capacity for comic sound effects. Some bassoonists get a bit sniffy about this reputation, but I think anything that gets people listening to and enjoying this fabulous and endagered instrument is fine by me.

Bassooning is fun - a Bassoon Quartet playing Super Mario

The bassoon

I want to play the bassoon - how do I start?

First of all you need to have a think about the practicalities of life as a bassoonist. Bassoons are not small. They are not so huge that you can't fit them in the boot of a car, or on the bus, but they are a magnificent nine feet long tube of wood doubled up with lots of keys in awkward positions on there. This means you need to be both big enough and strong enough to play it. You also need a not inconsiderable amount of money to buy one, as bassoons are not cheap. Finally you need someone to teach you, and since the bassoon is a rare instrument, there may not be too many people around able to give lessons.

So, finds a teacher, see if your school or college or band has a bassoon it can lend you. If not, see if your teacher has any recommendations for instruments, and if not check out some hints on this hub for what to look for and what to avoid when buying a bassoon.

Some people make playing the bassoon look easy!

This lady seems serene playing the bassoon in her halterneck evening gown. So how come I make it feel like such hard work?
This lady seems serene playing the bassoon in her halterneck evening gown. So how come I make it feel like such hard work?

How hard is it to play the bassoon?

Well, not easy, but then no instrument is easy if you want to play it well... However, it is worth knowing that the bassoon is the only instrument besides the piano that uses all 10 fingers. In fact a great deal of the work on the bassoon is done with your thumbs, so you need good motor skills and coordination. I found that piano training was a great help on the bassoon. A friend who was learning bassoon at the same time and who is an excellent clarinetist and flautist found it much harder because her brain was wired for finger coordination only and her thumbs didn't initially want to do what they were told!

The full size bassoon is a bit large for youngsters, mainly because of the stretch for the fingers. The finger holes are much more widely spaced than on a clarinet or flute. Most children in High School, so say 11/12+ should be able to manage. Before then there are mini bassoons available if a youngster is very eager. They are not cheap and quality is variable but they do look cute at the back of school band. Transfer from other woodwind instruments is common and successful, and some say that a transfer from brass works well too. In fact any previous musical training will help. Not least because the bassoon is notoriously difficult to keep in tune, so any practice listening to pitch and discriminating between notes will help.

Buying a bassoon

 Because bassoons cost so much, most beginners start off on the school bassoon. This has pros and cons. On the up side, it is free! On the downside, it is probably horrible and poorly maintained, badly treated and has never been serviced or looked at by anyone who knows what they are doing. If at all possible get a professional bassoonist to check out an instrument before you start learning on it. It is horribly demoralising to spend weeks failing to get a note out of it, when the problem may well lie in the instrument rather than the student.

Bassoons can be very temperamental, and a good player will be able to diagnose bent keys, leaking pads, or cracks, even if they cannot perform repairs themselves.

When buying a bassoon it is tempting to go for the cheapest option - particularly since with a bassoon even the cheapest option is not that cheap. However as with all instrument purchases quality will out and you get what you pay for. Cheap Chinese imports will not serve you well. The quality of the workmanship can be so poor as to make the instrument unplayable. Think about buying secondhand from a reputable dealer, and look for a well known make that will retain its value if you come to sell it on.

Some people believe that plastic bassoons are the work of the devil and you should always go for wood. My view is that as with clarinets, good quality plastic instruments beat lousy wood any day. The same is true with the bassoon. True - the most glorious sound will come from a top of the range wooden instrument, but unless you have £25000 spare, you may not be in that ballpark. Get the best you can afford, and don't be dead set on binning off all plastic ones, especially if they are by a good maker.

Good makes come at a price, but in return you get a greater degree of certainty. Schrieber, Fox, Puchner and Howarth make excellent models and Heckel make fabulous wooden instruments often well out of the price range of many. Yamaha are worth a look for a good value option without sacrificing quality. Below that level it is much more of a lottery so if at all possible try before you buy...

What to look for when you buy a bassoon

 When trying an instrument, look down the bore of the "wing-joint" (the first joint made of wood). If the bore is straight and shows no scratches, this is a plus.

Another important thing is the condition of the pads, corks and felts. The pads must seal so that the instrument will play notes properly. When you hold the instrument, put your fingers onto the keys and check to see if the keys make a lot of noise. If they do, chances are good that extensive repair work may be needed. If the long rods have play from side to side, excessive wear has occurred and the pads may not seat down properly on the tone holes. Periodic lubrication of the pivot screws will help prevent this typical problem. If the large pads seem to be unusually open above the tone holes, this may indicate that one or more corks or felts are worn down and this will cause the instrument to be strangely out of tune, usually on the sharp side. Also a very important part of the bassoon, the crook or bocal(s) should have no dents or other damage, since intonation and tone quality will suffer.

The other thing to be on the lookout for is boot rot. This is what happens when moisture from playing is not cleaned out and accumulates at the bottom of the basson in the 'U Bend'. This causes the wood to stay damp and ultimately to rot. This can be pretty terminal for the bassoon so you need to check it out before you buy. The best way to check is to have a look at the little finger G# key, at the bottom of the keywork. Found it? Now take a look at the pad for that hole. The leather rots more quickly than the wood if there is the beginnings of boot rot down there, so if that leather pad looks discoloured or in worse shape than the others above it that is an indication that something is amiss in the bowels of your bassoon. If so, steer clear!

 

What to expect in a new instrument

The body of a new instrument can be made of wood or polypropylene and it should be sturdily constructed. The bassoon should have two crooks or bocals (different words for the silver metal hooky tube that you stick in the top of the bassoon and put a reed onto the other end of!). You normally have both a #1 and a #2 for tuning options, because a bassoon is horrendously difficult to tune otherwise - you can't just put it out a bit as you would with a clarinet barrel.

The key system should have a full 22-key format with a range from B-flat below the bass staff up to at least high C. this is the C above middle C. In addition to normal key-work, the instrument can be greatly enhanced by adding some keys and other fixtures: Whisper-lock key is pretty standard and you should look for an instrument with one of these, hand rest mount is very useful - otherwise holding the beast can be a bit of a pain. Some instruments have a seat-strap mount, but I've never used one. Key work options include high D key, high E key, left-hand E-flat trill key, body lock, high A bridge plate, A-flat trill key, right-hand E-flat trill key, low C extension plate, extra rollers on right-hand thumb keys. Other options are available, but these, in preferential order, are the most common. In my view the more the merrier and get what you can afford, but high D is important, high E pretty useful and after that it depends what level you are going to play at.

There are all sorts of accessories and extras which people will try to sell you, but what do you actually need? I recommend a swab cloth to clean the instrument after use. As mentioned before boot rot is a plague amongst bassoons so you need to get into the habit of looking after yours. The very best are the silk swabs that can be pulled all the way through the wing joint and also through the boot joint (around the u-bend). I would recommend a neck strap to help support the weight of the instrument when sitting or standing. Others swear by seat straps - it's a matter of preference.

The other thing you need is a case to store your reeds in. Reeds are a whole law unto themselves and you will need to try a few to find what you like. Once you have a good one you need to look after it as they don't come cheap, and a nice case is the way to do that.

 

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Comments 6 comments

paul_gibsons profile image

paul_gibsons 6 years ago from Gibsons, BC, Canada

interesting and well written. A minor point though: the bassoon as we know and call it now is traditionally an English (and now US) orchestra instrument, continental European orchestras using the slightly different sounding "fagot". Listen carefully to the same piece played by one of the "great" German orchestras and one of the "great" UK or American orchestras and you will immediately hear the difference.. not to mention the French of course :)


ThePeeDeeWildcat 6 years ago from Just Across The State Line

This is the first time that I have read a Hub of yours and I am impressed with your expertise. Although I am not a musician, I have long admired those who have a mastery of an instrument. This is true for all musical genres, but particularly true when it is orchestral or ensemble related. Your reference to how the bassoon has been described as "the clown of the orchestra" perhaps has belittled its aura. Maybe it's just coincidence, but I have long thought that Mozart's Bassoon Concerto (K. 191) was and is a very underrated composition.


Tyler 5 years ago

I have been thinking about switching from b-flat clarinet to Bassoon for a while. My school luckily has a bassoon that no one has used before :) This article really helped me learn a lot more about the bassoon before I switched.


some guy 4 years ago

are you actually mariedwithkidz?


SamTheGuy 4 years ago

You are very good at helping me decide what instrument for my son to play thank you


Guest 3 years ago

I'm in fifth grade and I play bassoon... I started at age nine and it is VERY easy to me

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