I’ve said previously that the Contrabassoon is the most misunderstood and misused of all the woodwind instrument. Strike that – the most misunderstood of all orchestral or band instruments. As a Contrabassoonist, I’d like to offer my advice on how best to score for the instrument, the technique, and an all-around guide to everything Contra.
I will only be addressing the standard Contrabassoon, not the redesigned Contraforte or the Fast-System Contrabassoon.
Unlike all other auxiliary woodwinds, the Contra’s fingering system differs significantly from the primary instrument.
The lowest 7 notes of the instrument are identical to the Bassoon. Anything that applies to the Bassoon’s lowest range will equally apply to the Contra. This is the only range where the notes are identical.
In the first octave, the technique is surprisingly easier than on the Bassoon. But only a little. The Contrabassoon does not possess a whisper key (the Bassoon’s quirky reverse octave key), so the main octave is played without this key. The D-sharp/E-flat is significantly different however. This note can only be played via an auxiliary key between II and III in the left hand (and often by a secondary key for either I in the right hand or the right thumb) and cannot be played as the forked fingering as is required on the Bassoon.
The notes F-sharp to G-sharp are what are referred to as the half-hole notes. On the Bassoon, these notes are produced by playing the fundamental note in the lower octave and rolling the first finger in the left hand down to uncover part of the hole. Since the Contra does not have any open holes, it cannot do this. Instead, the first finger is completely lifted off. This is not ideal. On the Bassoon, there are micro-adjustments that the player subconsciously makes that the Contra cannot do. The G-sharp in particular does not sound well and usually is aided by one of the octave vents.
These four notes are played exactly as in the lower octave, but with the lower octave key. The Bassoon itself does not have a proper octave key, but rather uses a complex system of venting called flicking. The Contra bypasses this.
These two notes present several problems. They can be played as a 1st harmonic, but function better as a complex 2nd harmonic (of F-sharp and G respectively). This is a decision left up to the player and the circumstance. A competent player will switch between the two fingerings as a standard part of their technique.
These three notes are played as 1st harmonics using the 2nd octave key. This is departure from the Bassoon, where these notes are played as complex 2nd harmonics.
These three notes are played as 2nd harmonics (of B, C, and C-sharp respectively). Their harmonic is actually easier than on the Bassoon whose overtone series is massively out of tune.
These notes (the highest that I include) are all complex fingerings based on 3rd and 4th harmonics. Some fingerings may resemble Bassoon fingerings, others may not. These notes will more than likely vary from instrument to instrument.
With all this said, it should go to show that the Contrabassoon only vaguely resembles the Bassoon in its key system. This is of huge note to composers/orchestrators, because if the player is not competent on the instrument, the part will not be played effectively.