I am not an Oboe

Most people are able to tell the difference between a saxophone and a clarinet (save for those rare individuals who call a Soprano Saxophone a metal clarinet or a Bass Clarinet a wooden saxophone), but the number of people who confuse bassoons and oboes is strikingly high.  Perhaps this is because the oboe family doesn’t descend into the bass register or the bassoon family ascend into the soprano.  Yet, the two instruments are fundamentally different. Continue reading “I am not an Oboe”

Taming the Beast -Advanced Orchestration for Contrabassoon – Part 5 – The Solo Contrabassoon

The solo Contrabassoon is the rarest sound in the orchestra.  You can point to great solos for every single instrument that are lyrical and beautiful, but it’s nearly impossible to find for the Contra.  Even the rare visitors to the orchestra, like Alto Flute, Oboe d’Amore, Bass Oboe and even Flügelhorn have more extensive orchestral solos than the regular Contrabassoon.  So, when the solo Contra does appear, it’s a rare treat. Continue reading “Taming the Beast -Advanced Orchestration for Contrabassoon – Part 5 – The Solo Contrabassoon”

Taming the Beast -Advanced Orchestration for Contrabassoon – Part 4 – Orchestral Combinations

Today, I will look at some common and not so common orchestral combinations involving the Contrabassoon.

Contra and Basses

This is by far the most common orchestration device for the Contrabassoonist.  Assuming a large section of Basses (6 or more), the Contra’s sound, in unison, will blend in and not make much of an impact.  The real reason for this is to add solidity to the bottom of the orchestra.

To best illustrate how this works, I will use a personal experience.   Continue reading “Taming the Beast -Advanced Orchestration for Contrabassoon – Part 4 – Orchestral Combinations”

Taming the Beast – Advanced Orchestrating for Contrabassoon – Part 3 – Dynamics

One of the biggest complains I’ve heard from fellow Contrabassoonists is about the extremes of dynamics.  While the Contra is an instrument of extreme depth, it is not an instrument of extreme dynamics.

Imagine if we will a simple volume continuum from 1 to 10.  One being the softest and 10 being the loudest. At the soft end, we have the near nothingness of a clarinet’s niente.  I will call this a 1 dynamic.  At the loud end, we have any of the heavy brass playing at their absolute fortissimo. We will call this a 10.  There is no Spinal Tap 11.  The Contrabassoon cannot play at either of these extremes. Continue reading “Taming the Beast – Advanced Orchestrating for Contrabassoon – Part 3 – Dynamics”

Taming the Beast – Advanced Orchestrating for Contrabassoon – Part 2 – Technique

Technique on the Contrabassoon, because of its different fingering scheme, is different than that of the Bassoon, but not radically so.  In fact, some things are easier on the Contra than on the Bassoon.

All that said, the technique of the Contrabassoon is the least refined of all the instruments in the orchestra.  The good news is, the Contra does not need to be as agile as any of the other instruments.  As the lowest instrument in whatever ensemble its presence graces, the notes must necessarily be slower. Continue reading “Taming the Beast – Advanced Orchestrating for Contrabassoon – Part 2 – Technique”

Taming the Beast – Advanced Orchestrating for Contrabassoon – Part 1 – Fingerings

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.

Key System

Unlike all other auxiliary woodwinds, the Contra’s fingering system differs significantly from the primary instrument.

Continue reading “Taming the Beast – Advanced Orchestrating for Contrabassoon – Part 1 – Fingerings”



bassoon range

Repeat this mantra after me: I am not a bass instrument, I am not a bass instrument, I am not a bass instrument.  The Bassoon is a tenor instrument that happens to have a range extension that takes it into the bass range.  If you keep the Bassoon in the doldrums, then you aren’t using the instrument to its fullest capacity.  Bassoonists have what we call the money range.  This is the range in which nearly all of our major solos occur, roughly from the F in the bass clef to the G or A in the treble clef.  I like to say “keep the Bassoon singing.”  If you think of the instrument as you would think of an operatic tenor or baritone, then you know how to write for the Bassoon.

The low register is best for filling out harmonies.  Very few solos have ever been written in the low register (Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony is one of the lone examples, and that solo makes Bassoonists cry).  The lower the Bassoon goes, the louder it can become.  Try and avoid writing the lowest B-natural at a soft dynamic; it is impossible to play softly.  In fact, this one note is something odd among all the woodwinds.  It possesses a different characteristic than does the entire rest of the instrument, harsh and blaring.

Some interesting possibilities are of course as a member of the double reed choir.  I find that the Bassoon mixes quite beautifully with the saxophone family (all members).  Their sound is more akin than is given credit for (when the saxophones play with a controlled sound that is!).  Bassoon in it high register with flute is quite good (and a common combination for composers of the Classical era).  Many Romantic composers used the Bass Clarinet as the bass voice to the Bassoon ensemble.  I’ve found that when playing along with the low clarinets, that the Bassoon must alter their sound slightly to match the sound of the vibrato-less clarinets.

A study was once done to see which instruments were most alike in sound.  This study took sound samples in a computer, eliminated the attack of each note, and only listened to the sustained pitch.  The Bassoon, it turns out, is most closely allied with the Horn in this regard.  It may be odd to think of a woodwind and a brass being the closest sound match to one another, but composers have realized this for a long time.  Two Bassoons have often been used as members of the Horn section in an orchestra (often serving as “Horns” 5 and 6).

Because of range similarities, the Bassoon will often share duties with the trombones.  An odd combination, but if we think all the way back to the Renaissance we will find ensembles of sackbuts and dulcians (the predecessors of trombones and bassoons respectively).  Why not treat these two families like their ancient cousins?  The other low brass (namely the tuba family) can mix with interesting combinations with the Bassoon.  Think here the oddly effective “duet” between four Bassoon and two Tubas in the Dies Irae section of Symphonie Fantastique where the Bassoons are playing one octave below the Tubas.

Bassoon and trumpet…well it was interesting enough for Hindemith to write a double concerto for these two instruments.  Muted trumpets will work far better in the mix, as will Piccolo Trumpets.

Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto played on period instruments (tuning is probably at A=430)

John Williams’ Five Sacred Trees a concerto for Bassoon and orchestra.  Perhaps one of the crowning achievements of modern Bassoon compositions.

Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony.  Note: this opening solo is considered extremely difficult due to its low range.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring opening solo.  Again, a very difficult solo due to range.

Tchaikovsky Symphony 4 2nd Movement.  To me, some of the most beautiful Bassoon solos in existence.  Notice the range is in the upper middle register.