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.

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.


Oboes Part 4 – Oboe Technique



The technique of the oboe family is generally quite refined and flexible.  The only part of the instrument that offers up some resistance is the very bottom register.  Most of the notes in the bottom third are controlled by the little fingers (like most woodwinds), and quick transition (i.e. trills) are simply not possible.  The only truly impossible trill is from the low B-flat to the low B on the Oboe.  In fact, remember that the low B-flat is only available to the Oboe proper.  Extensions to B-flat have been developed for the other members, but are additions to already existing instruments and their use generally means that the low B-natural is no longer available.  As a general rule, just avoid the low B-flat for the lower oboes altogether.  While the lowest notes of the lower oboes are beautiful and sonorous, the low B and B-flat of the Oboe are raucous and loud.  Most Oboists I have spoken with feel that their use should be limited.

One addendum to the lower range discussion is that the Loreé company produces an Oboe with an extension to low A.  This note, as far as I can tell, has never been used by composers, though a few oboists will use this note in transcriptions.

Various texts I have read claim different upper limits for the oboe’s range, and very few are correct.  All members of the oboe family (with the possible exception of the Piccolo Oboe) ascend to the F above the treble clef.  This range can comfortably be extended to a G by most Oboists (but is best avoided on the lower instruments).  I once attended a concert for double reed players by double reed players, and the crowd was in utter astonishment when one of the best Oboists in the world played a piece that ascended to an A above this G.  Yet, we find this A in works of Stravinsky and Dvorák.  Most Oboists I have talked with simply omit the passage or take the offending part down an octave.  Don’t write above G.  Oboists carry sharp knives with them; I certainly don’t want to offend them with my writing.  This said, I personally once wrote an Oboe concerto that included a note (never mind you which one!) that was above this G, but I did it with the full cooperation of the player involved, and his production of this particular note (though not of the other notes in this register) was secure and sound.  Notes in the extreme high register lose their characteristic sound, and can be quite painful to listen to (and to produce).