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!



Bassoons – Introduction



Introduction – I have always loved the bassoons.  I have a special place for them being a bassoonist myself, so some of my observation in this chapter may be a little keener than the rest.  The bassoons have an old, almost antique sound to them.  My favorite quote about the Bassoon speaks to this very fact:

 “The bassoon is one of my favorite instruments. It has a medieval aroma, like the days when everything used to sound like that. Some people crave baseball…I find this unfathomable, but I can easily understand why a person could get excited about playing the bassoon.”

It of course was not said by a bassoonist, or a traditional classical composer, but the musician Frank Zappa.  I think Frank’s right.

Traditionally, the bassoon family has the smallest family of any woodwind instrument.  I have never understood this.  Going back to the Renaissance we had a family of bassoons (or more properly dulcians) that included six sizes.  Today, at best we see two.  Why did the other sizes die out?  Best answer I can give here is that composers never (and to this point, I literally mean never) wrote for the other sizes of bassoon.  With no literature, no one played them, and when no one played them manufacturers stopped producing them.  Then, about twenty years ago, a modern manufacturer in Germany started producing small bassoons initially for children to play, but gradually professional players are taking these instruments up.  Here for the first time, I will present the bassoon family as it should be.

Currently, five sizes of bassoon are being manufactured.  We all know the regular Bassoon and Contrabassoon, but above this are three smaller members, the Alto Bassoon, and two sizes of Tenor Bassoon.  Theoretically, a smaller size still, a Soprano Bassoon, could be manufactured (it would be the same as the old Soprano or Descant Dulcian).  I also propose here that one additional member of the family be resurrected, the Semi-Contrabassoon pitched between the Bassoon and the Contrabassoon.

Alto Bassoon

Tenor Bassoon




Saxophones Part 5 – Saxophone Technique

Saxophone Technique

As the saxophone is the most modern of all of our woodwind instruments, it naturally follows that it has the most perfect mechanism.  To that end, the technique on the saxophone is simple and easy.  There are only a handful of trills that cannot be done, namely all trills on the low B-flat, the whole-tone trill on the low B, and the whole-tone trill on the low C-sharp.  Aside from these small restrictions any and all technical passages should be playable on nearly any saxophone.

There are a few range variations among the different instruments.  All modern Baritones and most Contrabasses possess a low A extension (in both cases sounding a C).  Some older Sopraninos, Sopranos, and Basses are only keyed up to high E-flat, though players are able to produce higher notes through the use of harmonics.

All saxophones, with the possible exception of the Piccolo, are able to produce to so-called altissimo range.  This range consists of notes above the top keyed note on the instrument (usually high F or F-sharp).  A general rule of thumb goes: the larger the instrument, the easier it is to produce the altissimo register.  Also, the larger instruments will have a larger range of altissimo.  For instance, the Soprano may only be able to play a few notes into the altissimo range, while a Bass may be able to play well over an octave above its normal range.

In general, the altissimo range is somewhat inflexible.  Technique up here is difficult, so sustained lines are best.  Only the most advanced players will be able to produce the altissimo range, which is why it is often left as an option only for soloists.

“Holy Roller” for Saxophone and band by Libby Larsen.  Check out the technique, and especially the use of altissimo.


Saxophones Part 4 – Saxophones in the Band

Saxophone in the Band

The saxophone is really the odd man out in the woodwind section.  There is no orchestral equivalent for which to draw from for inspiration.  Yet, the saxophone family is the most well-balanced, most harmonious, and has the largest usable range of all of the reed families.  In bad bandestrations, I have seen some really atrocious scoring for saxophones.  The Altos are continuously scored for with the Horns, while the Tenors and Baritones are made to blend with the low brass.  In this kind of scoring, we break up the unified family, and thus lose the one sound than can make the band’s woodwind section a cohesive unit.

For illustration purposes, let’s assume that both the oboes and the bassoons from a single double reed section (remember though that the oboe and the bassoon families have little to do with each other than their means of sound production).  In the sound of the double reeds, we have a nasal, reedy sound with a beautiful vibrato.  Their opposite is the clarinets who have a warm, cool sound without any hint of a vibrato.  They are mirror images of each other, and when we try and blend then, it is like oil and water.  But, add the saxophones, whose characteristics are exactly midway between the double reeds and the clarinets, and we instantly get a harmonious mixture.

But, there is a problem with this blending, and it lies in the modern saxophonist’s conception of sound.  The modern saxophonist wants a big, almost strident sound that can cut through an amplified jazz ensemble or a rock band.  This simply will not work in a band.  What most saxophone players do not realize is that their closest kin, at least timbral-wise, is not the clarinets, but the double reeds.  The double reeds are gentle beasts for the most part, and so should be the saxophone.  I can just imagine a beautiful Bach choral played on a saxophone choir in my head.  It is organ-like, sonorous, rich, but I cannot imagine a saxophone player having the sensitivity in today’s world to pull it off.  Modern saxophone players have almost entirely eschewed the one player who tried to rectify this situation, Sigurd Rascher, who emphasized a beautiful rich sound.  Instead, they have aligned themselves with the school of thought that technique is far superior to sound.

My own thoughts on saxophone sound aside, let us now take a look at the constitution of the saxophone section in the band, and the potential possibilities that lie within.  The traditional saxophone section is made up of either two Altos, one Tenor, and one Baritone; or one each of Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Baritone.  The later of these make-ups consists of the only section in a traditional band that is perfectly balanced from high to low.  The use of two Altos or one Alto and one Soprano is one of timbral choice.  Both ensembles have their merits.  The two Alto group is warmer in sound, while the group with the Soprano is brighter with a larger range.

Older scores, pre-1950 almost always include a part for a Bass Saxophone.  The scoring for Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is rather unusual in that it calls for six saxophones (Soprano, 2 Altos, Tenor, Baritone, and Bass).  In this work, each member is integral and plays an important part.  However, as so often happens, one or two members of the section are left out (usually 2nd Alto and Bass).  To leave out a part in an orchestra is sacrilege!  Why then are bands allowed to get away with it?  We should strive at all times to make sure to include every instrument a composer specifies.

From Grainger’s section of six saxophones, I’d like to build one step further to a larger section of eight.  As all saxophone players are able to play multiple instruments (or should!), we can think of doublings, and even triplings within the section.  Here is a hypothetical scenario for eight competent players.

Player 1 – Sopranino, Alto

Player 2 – Soprano, Alto

Player 3 – Alto, Piccolo

Player 4 – Alto, Tenor

Player 5 – Tenor, Baritone

Player 6 – Baritone

Player 7 – Bass

Player 8 – Contrabass

Note that the basic makeup is Sn,S,A,A,T,B,Bs,CB, which is a perfectly balanced section from high to low.  We can also have a section of P,Sn,S,A,T,B,Bs,CB when the 1st Alto player switches to the Piccolo.  On the top end, we can have all four higher players playing Alto at the same time, or even a high quartet of Piccolo, Sopranino, Soprano, and Alto.  There are opportunities for two Tenors, as well as a low quartet of the Baritones, Bass, and Contrabass.  Also note that I do not have the Bass and Contrabass players doubling.  The size of their instruments alone makes doubling much harder.  A creative bandestrator can take this scenario and tweak it to their own needs, but it does serve as the basis for a realm of possibility.

With this list of possibilities, what you must remember is that the saxophone is a full member of the woodwind section, and in no way should it support the brass (i.e. the use of them being further members of the Horn section).  Proper use of saxophones should fill out the sound of the entire band from soprano to bass, not just the middle octaves.  I find it best to think of the saxophone section as a cohesive unit rather than a mixture of individual parts.  Think choir, not soloist.

Bach’s Fugue in G minor

Rascher Saxophone Quartet playing Philip Glass’ Concerto for Saxophone Quartet.  Listen carefully to the timbre produced by these four players using vintage instruments with round chamber mouthpieces, and compare that to the sound produced by most modern players.

Finally, this may be one of the most impressive videos I’ve ever seen.  It is an entire orchestra made up of saxophones from Sopranino to Contrabass playing Respighi’s Roman Festivals.  There is never a single moment where the sound of the strings is missed.