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The Weisberg System: Bassoon History Up Close and Personal
My family has had the privilege of observing the Weisberg System at close range. We have been able to see how it can eliminate the necessity of flicking, and we have heard the beautiful tones that can result. Here is our story.
In summer 2005, my middle son entered his freshman year as a music major at the world-class Jacobs School of Music of Indiana University in Bloomington, and he began as a student of Arthur Weisberg, one of the giants of the bassoon world of the late 20th Century. It was an honor to be accepted into the School of Music and a source of excitement to study with someone of international fame. Weisberg commuted from Florida, spending several days out of each week in each location, and I never could keep up with where he was at a given time – not that I needed to know, anyway.
All during high school (even middle school), Allen had used bassoons provided by the schools. We had a number of different instruments at home: piano, guitar (several, actually, for Allen’s older brother), two violins, a mountain dulcimer, several recorders, several ethnic instruments in a collection that continues to grow, a clarinet purchased for Allen when he first began to play in school bands, at one time even an organ, and now a portable keyboard.
But no bassoon. Bassoon was his major instrument, and he had to start his college career still using an instrument provided by the University. We knew that at some point he would have to have one of his own, but the problem is that a bassoon is much more expensive than I had ever guessed. The least expensive ones of decent quality would start around $8,000. We heard about some (not extremely special – very good, but still not the best or most expensive ones) that were around $20,000.
Oh. My. Word. We didn’t know quite how it would be possible to make the purchase, but we scrounged around, looked at the bank account and the budget, scratched our heads, and figured where we could cut back and trim or do this and that. We would bite the bullet.
More Information on The System
For a spirited and technical discussion about the Weisberg System, check out this IDRS Forum thread.
Robert Jordan, one of the trio who invented and financed the development of the System, provides insight into its mechanical and practical aspects.
If you are a Bassoon-o-phile, you may be interested in following this blog (including this mention of a visit to Jimmy Keyes' workshop) which explains many of the most important issues in learning to play and playing the bassoon professionally.
Allen’s previous teacher continued to take an interest in him, and I felt I could talk with her about the matter of making a purchase. She assured me that, unlike most other instruments, a bassoon usually increases in value over time. As a result, the investment that we would make now ought eventually to pay for itself.
So Allen’s Dad and I gave the okay for him to talk with Prof. Weisberg about the kind of instrument that might be good for him to purchase. Often, we learned, teachers hear through the grapevine of instruments that have become available somewhere in the world, and it is an accepted and honored practice for a teacher to help the student in the selection process. As we got updates on their conversations, we heard that Weisberg was trying to talk Allen into having a new sort of contraption or gadget installed on the bassoon, some special deal that he called The Weisberg System. Some people had heard of it, but not many. I was given the name of a website where I could find out more about it.
Music to Soothe the Bassoon-Lover's Soul
Why Was the Weisberg System Developed?
In order to understand why the Weisberg System was invented, and why it could be helpful, it helps to know something of the bassoon’s development through the years. Allen told us, “The bassoon is a sort of archaic instrument – or perhaps it would be better described as ‘anachronistic.’” Through its long history, the bassoon has gone through a number of changes (as have other instruments), and some of them have to do with something called “flicking.”
A long time ago, before bassoons were crafted with special buttons or keys, they simply had holes that were covered to create different-pitched notes – sort of like the recorder, the instrument taught in many schools as a child’s first musical instrument. The only way to distinguish certain notes from the same pitch one octave higher was through the use of air (amount and pressure) and changes in embouchure. The recorder can do the same with some of its notes.
In technically demanding passages of music, where both octaves of notes are used, the upper octave note would experience an effect called “cracking.” When that happened, the tone would be sort of caught between the two registers, not speaking clearly in either register. The problem was evident in octave slurs (slurring from low C to high C or vice versa, for example) and in response with articulation on the upper notes. That problem means that when the performer tongues the upper notes, the attack (the beginning of the note) does not sound as clearly as the rest of the note. At least, that is the tendency of the upper notes.
As the bassoon developed and as keys were added, the problem continued – even with the addition of the whisper key, the key that most closely resembles one of octave control. More keys were added, specifically keys for the left thumb to control. Three of these keys helped to alleviate the problem of the cracking notes through the practice of flicking.
What Is "Flicking"?
Flicking is a process whereby a key is lightly depressed at the same time as the attack (the onset of the note), then released as the note is articulated. In slurring from low to high, the key is lightly depressed right before the upper note sounds. Sometimes, not always, this is done in a slurred passage; but these passages do not present as many problems as the octave slurs.
The notes that have problems with ‘cracking’ are the A below middle C, the following Bb and B, middle C, and the D above middle C. The thumb keys that have been introduced through the years of development are: the whisper key, the C# key, the A key, the B-C key, and the high D key. Most of these keys deal with the problem of cracking notes, with an appropriately named key helping the corresponding note. [What about the C#, I asked. Is it not a problem in the same way, or does it have its own set of problems? - Allen said, A little of both.]
The Weisberg System was designed to eliminate the need for flicking. It involves the addition of two holes on the wing joint near the opening for the bocal (crook); these new holes open and close through depression of the whisper key, the right hand index finger “ring key” (the only key added with the system), the pancake key, and the Eb resonance key. (Bassoon keys and parts have such cool names, just the most romantic-sounding names!) The default position of the keys – that is, if no fingers are depressing any of the keys used as part of the system – is for the upper hole to be open and the lower one to be closed. The fingering for the five “problem notes” is exactly the same as without the System – minus the flick keys, of course.
On the aforementioned website, the description of the Weisberg System spoke very vehemently about the need for the changes: “[T]he bassoon has greatly lagged behind the other woodwinds in its development.… [W]e are left with a key system from the 19th Century. Since that time, a great many keys have been added, giving the bassoon an easier high register, and providing a number of trill keys..., but some of the bassoon’s most basic acoustical problems were never addressed. Is there any other woodwind that has such glaring flaws that it cannot play a number of the most often used notes without cracking?”
A Decision Is Made
The system looked good. We figured that if Allen found it was not doing what was needed, he could always go back to the traditional design whenever he upgraded to an even better instrument. And so he placed the order through Prof. Weisberg. The bassoon was being built from scratch – a Fox 240 – and after it was ready, the System would be installed. We later learned that Allen’s was something of a prototype; his was one of the first ones to have the Weisberg System installed. In later installations of the System, there has been a slight, visible change in its design, and a slight change in the way the mechanism works. But the holes are in the same place and controlled by the same keys.
Installation was done by a bassoon technician in Alexandria, Tennessee: James Keyes, whom Weisberg credited with significantly assisting in designing the System and who is the only technician who installs it. Keyes has an apprentice working with him now, likely learning what she needs to know to be able to install the System in the future, either on new instruments or retrofitting existing ones.
In nearly every performance in a new venue, Allen has been asked about the System – how well he likes it, what it is like to use, whether it presents any new problems of its own. In his own words: “I’m quite pleased with it. I remember that when I was learning the flicking technique it was quite a challenge for me, and the Weisberg System definitely facilitates matters. It does have the slight drawback of having to be aligned very exactly and locked, in order to work right. One note that is indirectly affected by the resonance key will not sound correctly if the instrument is not put together just right.
“People ask me what it’s like, how easy it was to transition from the standard instrument, and some other bassoonists have expressed interest in getting the system. Mostly I have received good remarks from people who hear it. Usually they will comment on how easy it sounds to perform octave slurs.
“And it sounds easy, because it is easy.”