Quick, Sure Tips On Starting Young Bassoonists
Geneva Fitzsimonds SouthwestMiddle School 1601 W. Front St. Albert Lea, MN 56007
I. Equipment & Accessories
Most young bassoonists will begin on a school-owned instrument. Always check to make sure the bassoon is in good playing condition before starting the student. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to play on a broken instrument! If you’re not comfortable with your own assessment of the instrument, have a repairperson check it over. Lots of school bassoons, especially the wood ones, have cracks in them or chunks of the body missing. Some of these problems may be repairable, but if the instrument hasn’t been used for a long time they may not be.
Since most of the instruments you’ll be using are school owned, you’ll probably have one of the following brands: Fox, Renard, Conn, Yamaha, Selmer, Linton, Olds or probably an Conn or Olds. The most desirable brands would include: Schreiber, Fox, Renard, Puchner or Yamaha. If you’re lucky enough to come across a Heckel, then for your younger player. Wood bassoons will give you a warmer tone (in theory), however, some of the newer plastic models are very impressive.
All students must begin with the following equipment:
- A working bassoon. Make sure all pads seal, especially the ones near the bell of the bassoon. Right hand crutch is optional equipment, depending on hand size of student and comfort.
- A good bocal without dents or cracks in it. Bocals come numbered 1, 2, or 3. I recommend starting on a #2.
- A seatstrap or neckstrap (I like to use both with beginners).
- At least 2 working reeds, a reed case, and a reed soaker. This can be an empty film canister or a small tupperware container. Students can be started on a Fibercane (Medium Soft) reed, but they are not recommended past the first or second reed. LaVoz or Jones (MS) reeds are ok for beginners as well. Emerald reeds are not recommended. Make sure the reed has all wires in tact and doesn’t have any cracks at the tip or at the throat. Once a student is comfortable with the instrument, Arundo reeds work very well for all makes of bassoon.
- A good swab. Silk swab are best. Long “pipe cleaner” type swabs should be thrown out. They cratch the interior of the bassoon and trap mold in the case.
- Cork grease.
- An appropriate lesson book. I like to use the Student Instrumental Course method book (Belwin Pub).
- A true desire to play the bassoon!
II. First Lesson
Make sure you methodically use the first pages of the method book to help reinforce what you show the student about assembly, tone production, poture/instrument angle, maintenance as this will be their guide at home.
Most students don’t start out on bassoon as their first instrument. I recommend playing another woodwind instrument for at least a year and then switching over to bassoon. Many young students don’t have the finger length yet to be successful on bassoon until they’re a bit older. Each instrument has advantages/disadvantages for this purpose. Flute players may have a harder time than sax or clarinet players getting their fingers around the instrument to cover holdes/half hole properly. Sax and clarinet players may want to bite down on the reed and have difficulty adjusting to the new embouchure. However, I have had success switching students on each of these instruments over to bassoon.
- Grease all tenons generously (even the bocal). Some bassoons may have string on the tenons. You can still grease that if needed.
- Start with boot of bassoon and always rest it on the floor when assembling bassoon. Tenor and long joints can be attached together or separately. Most bassoons will have a pin holding these two pieces together. Be sure to un-do pin if needed to ease joints into the holes. BE VERY CAREFUL of whisper key mechanism/bridge key. This has to be aligned properly for low register to work.
- Be sure to press down on pad of low Bb key when attaching the bell.
- Seat strap and or neck strap should be adjusted so bocal comes to the player’s mouth. Students should not have to bend or crane to get to the bocal.
- Always grasp the bocal around the curve. Grabbing on to the reed end of the crook can result in a crack or dent. Line up vent hole on bocal with the whisper key.
Students should cushion upper and lower teeth with lips. Think of saying “dough”. A slight overbite is helpful here. Careful not to let students bite down on the reed. Watch out for oboe-like tendencies to flatten out lips and get more of an “M” shape. Lips should be relaxed and from a cushion for the reed. Think of having a drawstring going through your lips. When you pull on the string, you have your bassoon embouchure.
Hand Position/Instrument Angle:
- Always use whisper key as a home base for your left thumb. You may need to “back up” with your left thumb to get fingers all the way around the bassoon. Some come with “e” and/of “c” hole covers. These are nice for small hands.
- Right hand crutch is optional, as is the side you have facing up or down. Many bassoonists don’t use them. Just be careful not to have right thumb rest on the bassoon.
- Bassoon should be at about a 45 degree angle across the body or the player. If bassoon is straight up, it can cause some fingering problems as well as embouchure problems (can’t drop jaw for lower register).
Bassoonists should be touching the reed near the tip of their tongue when articulating. Too far back on the tongue will impede the player’s ability to tongue staccato, accent, or in the future double tongue.
In the lower register, students will need to drop jaw to get pitches out. Tonguing in this range may result in some lower jaw movement.
#1 Problem with young bassoon players is an instrument or reed that doesn’t work. Making sure your equipment is in working order will save you and your student a lot of headaches. Students need to be very careful when assembling the bassoon to avoid bending keys.
More Common Problems With Young Bassoon Players:
Biting down on the reed. Be sure to stress a relaxed embouchure and the round shape to the lips (“dough”). Drop the bottom jaw down to open up the embouchure. I sometimes tell the kids to pretend there’s something tell the kids to pretend there’s something very hot in their mouth and they’re trying to cool it off.
Fingers not covering holes. Some students with small hands will struggle with this, especially in the lower register with the pinky and thumb keys. Back left hand up off the whisper key as much as possible and forgo the right hand crutch to help here.
Intonation. Again, a working bassoon is a big help here. Reeds can help a role here also. You’ll know if a student’s reed is dying if a student’s reed is dying if they can’t hold a “D” to a steady pitch. Overall, bassoon players need to practice long tones and deeping pitches “level”. This will help them learn to control any wavering of pitch and can be done with a tuner (visual best). You can do slight adjustments on the instrument by moving the bocal in and out, as well as the wing joint.
Be instrument angle. Be sure to hold bassoon at 45 degree angle across the body and adjust the bocal to reach the student’s mouth.