Bassoons Part 3 – Bassoon Technique

Bassoon Technique


            Here is the drawback to the bassoons.  The technique of the bassoons is the least refined of any of the woodwinds.  The modern advances in keywork that grace the flutes, oboes, clarinets, and saxophones were never applied to the bassoon.  In some ways, the bassoon hasn’t changed much since the early Romantic era (or even earlier!).  Players have to go to amazing lengths to produce what is relatively easy on the other instruments (and they do it without complaining).

The lowest half-octave is almost entirely controlled by the left thumb.  This one finger plays four notes by itself (and two more notes are controlled by the left little linger for a total of six notes for two fingers).  Technique will necessarily be slower down here.  This said, the only impossible trill on the bassoon is one between the lowest D-flat and E-flat (and some clever bassoonists/manufacturers have devised a way around this).

The highest range also presents some technical problems.  Diatonic and chromatic passages are fairly easy, but fast arpeggiated figures become much harder (again these notes are controlled by the same left thumb that controls the lowest half-octave).  All this said I do find the upper register of the Bassoon one of the most beautiful sounds of all the winds.  Sustained melodies and harmonies up here are best.  Notes above the high C become progressively harder.  Most bassoonists will dread a high E (and won’t attempt the high F!).

Flicking – A relic of an older time, the Bassoon’s octave key system is archaic, awkward, and doesn’t work in some cases.  The current octave system utilizes multiple keys for the left thumb.  Because of this, the upper register can be tricky.  This said, some innovative bassoonists and instrument manufacturers and repairmen have developed a modern octave key system that works remarkably well.  I hope to see it standard in the future.

Arthur Weisburg explaining the new octave key system for the Bassoon.

Large jumps on the bassoon are quite common, and thought of as normal occurrences.  Tremolos are almost unheard of (though not impossible).  The bassoon can produce the most crisp and dry staccato of any instrument save the Xylophone.  This effect has been utilized since the bassoon came into being.

Contrabassoon technique is even less refined than that of the Bassoon.  As a Contrabassoon player, I can vouch that technical passages can be very awkward on the instrument.  Notes above written middle C all require substantially different and more complex fingerings than that of the Bassoon.  Thankfully, as the lowest instrument in the orchestra or band, the Contrabassoon is rarely called upon to play complex parts.

The bassoon is the first instrument we have that uses multiple clefs.  For a bassoonist, both bass and tenor clef are a matter of life.  Tenor should be used for any passages that use too many ledger lines above the bass clef.  In rare cases, the use of treble clef is perfectly acceptable.  When the bassoon ranges into its very highest register, I would much prefer to read these notes in treble.

Bassoons Part 2 – Bassoons in the Band

Bassoon in the Band

What has happened to our lofty position in the wind ensemble?  The earliest bands were teaming with bassoons and Oboes.  Look at Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks written for twenty Oboes, twelve Bassoons, and a Contrabassoon (plus some Horns, Trumpets, and drums).  There were no other woodwinds in use at all.  No flutes, recorders, or any single reeds (granted clarinets had just been invented by 1749 but were rarely seen, and saxophones were still ninety years off).  Move this forward about one hundred years to France, and the double reeds had been entirely kicked out of the band in favor of instruments that could be heard from a great distance outdoors.

Music for the Royal Fireworks on the original instrumentation.

Today, the double reeds are what are known as a “color instrument,” an instrument outside of the band’s normal palate, a dash of red in a sea of blue.  Now, let’s compare this to the orchestra where half of the woodwinds are double reeds.  Do we see a disparity yet?

I should hope so!

The standard band has only two Bassoons (and possibly a third player on the Contrabassoon).  These scant few players cannot hope to make much of an effect in the sea of B-flat Clarinets and the fields of C Flutes.  Being a Bassoonist and a Bassoon teacher, too often have I heard the phrase (from myself, colleagues, and students) “why am I even here?”

Give the bassoons something meaningful to play!

Bassoons, unlike oboes, do well in large groups.  The bassoon ensemble is a great medium.  Why do we only stop at two Bassoons in our bands?  Yes, I know the answer is that we are scared that we won’t get enough players.  Why not four parts, or six, or even eight!  Berlioz wanted sixteen in his perfect orchestra (and that was without any Contrabassoons)!

Let’s think of an ensemble first of four bassoons.  Simplest arrangement here is three Bassoons and one Contrabassoon.  This is a very standard set up in orchestras (it’s called the 3+1 arrangement).  We could have the first bassoonist switch over to the Tenor Bassoon for a timbral change, or more adventurous still, have a section of five players (1 Tenor Bassoon, 3 Bassoons, and 1 Contrabassoon).  Now, let’s get really adventurous, a section with eight players (think back to my eight-player sections for flutes and saxophones).

Player 1. Alto Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 2. Tenor Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 3. Tenor Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 4. Bassoon

Player 5. Bassoon

Player 6. Bassoon, Semi-Contrabassoon

Player 7. Bassoon, Contrabassoon

Player 8. Contrabassoon

Player 6 is of course hypothetical.  Why so many regular bassoons?  Simple, the range of the Bassoon is huge and can cover bass, tenor, and alto ranges.  In this scenario, every player except player 8 can play the Bassoon.  At the top we can have a trio of small bassoon.  At the bottom we can have a trio of low bassoons.  (Note: both of these trios are dependent on new instruments being made: 1. a professional Alto Bassoon, 2. a modern Semi-Contrabassoon.)

I will give an alternate version of this arrangement with only six players (slightly more practical).

Player 1. Alto Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 2. Tenor Bassoon, Bassoon

Player 3. Bassoon

Player 4. Bassoon

Player 5. Bassoon (Semi-Contrabassoon)

Player 6. Contrabassoon.

In these arrangements, the bassoons are now placed on par with all of the other woodwinds.  It harkens back to the days of the dulcian (the bassoon’s direct ancestor) when there was a whole family of instruments which played together in a grand consort soprano to contrabass.  [Can you tell by this point that I really want there to be a Semi-Contra?]

Before I leave this section, I will give one other plea for the double reeds in the band.  Percy Grainger, considered by many the greatest composer for band, claimed to have written two masterpieces.  One was his massive orchestral piece The Warriors.  The other is a far lesser known work, the Hill Song No. 1.  The Hill Song is written for an unusual ensemble of 2 Piccolos, 6 Oboes, 6 English Horns, 6 Bassoons, and 1 Contrabassoon.  An ensemble with 19 double reeds!  What a glorious sound!