how to play the Bassoon

Have you learned yet the best way to have fun with the Bassoon?

Learning the Bassoon can seem similar to a huge mountain to go up. As part of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning the Bassoon’ collection, this particular section can help you start your journey by supplying the concepts to get you moving…

How To Play The Bassoon

Reed

This is where the sound comes from! The bassoon plays on a double reed, which is essentially two bits of cane that are strapped together in order to vibrate when blown. You should place your reed in a small pot of water to soak the cane, which allows the wood to vibrate more freely. Do this before you start putting the bassoon together, so that when it is assembled, your reed is ready to go!

How to play the bassoon

Assembly

The wing joint has a hollowed out curve in the wood, which is where the long joint nestles into. They lock together, and are then pushed into the butt (or boot) joint, which is right at the bottom of the instrument. Alternatively, the wing joint can be put in first, and the long joint eased into position before being locked into place.

The bell joint fits on to the end of the long joint and a connecting key bridges the join between the two joints.

How to play the bassoon

You should take a lot of care putting the bassoon together, as there are quite a few keys that can be knocked out of alignment if there is any force.

When these joints are all in place, you should screw the hand rest into position on the butt joint.

How to play the bassoon

Next add the crook or bocal. You gently insert this into the top of the wing joint in a screwing motion. Be careful to hold it by the thicker, curved end as crooks are delicate, expensive and also absolutely vital!

How to play the bassoon

Finally, remove the reed from the water pot and put it on to the end of the crook.

How to play the bassoon
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Support

As the bassoon is quite heavy, it is important to use something extra to help hold it. This is to avoid physical injury and make it as easy as possible to play. There are various methods of supporting the bassoon, the most popular of these being a harness, and a seat strap.

Before you play you will need to put the harness on and hook it onto the Bassoon, or hook the seat strap to the Bassoon and sit on the strap.

Positioning

There’s no getting away from it, the bassoon is a big instrument to hold up! Its shape makes it potentially cumbersome, so getting the position you hold it in right is absolutely vital. This is to avoid posture problems that can lead to pain, and also to making it generally harder to play the bassoon!

The bassoon should be held in a way that it is diagonal across your body and the crook and reed come towards you. You should sit or stand up straight – your mantra should be the instrument comes to you, you don’t come to the instrument! This means no moving of the head to reach the reed, if it doesn’t go directly to your mouth, you need to adjust the support to make sure it does.

Hands And Fingers

The bassoon has between 22 and 28 keys on it, and a few holes to cover too, which means you can have many different finger combinations. The left hand index, middle and ring fingers cover the holes on the front at the top of the instrument, with the thumb has the responsibility of up to 10 keys on the back!! The right hand sits on the hand rest, the index, middle and ring fingers cover the holes on the front of the butt joint, and the thumb covers 4 or 5 keys on the back! The bassoon uses the thumbs more independently than any other wind instrument.

The strength and weakness about the amount of keys on a bassoon is that there are often multiple choices of fingerings for each note. This can be a case of trial and error, finding which fingering suits your personal set up of instrument/crook/reed, but on the plus side you can always find one to work, and the different fingerings give you an opportunity to create different timbres to suit the music, and the different instruments you may be playing with.

This is a basic fingering chart,  but it should be worth noting that your teacher would be best placed to advise you which fingerings are the best for you.

Breathing

It should always be remembered that the bassoon is a wind instrument and without properly controlled “wind” to power it, all sorts of problems arise. Sounds silly, but if you keep that at the forefront of your mind, breathing properly is never too far away…

You probably consider yourself an expert at breathing, as you’ve used it successfully since you were born to keep you alive. However breathing in relation to playing the bassoon is a different skill. How so?

Firstly, put your top and bottom teeth together and take a sharp intake of breath. It should feel cold against your teeth. When you breathe in properly to play the bassoon you need to get this exact cold feeling – but on the back of your throat. The only successful way to do this is to open your mouth properly (almost like you’re yawning), breath in slowly and make a low sound – like Darth Vader. Only this isn’t the dark side of the force. It is the force!

Breathing in properly enables you to engage your diaphragm, which is important for controlling pitch, dynamics and for making the best sound that you possibly can – which is what we all really want!

Embouchure

This is the position your mouth should be in, in order to make a sound. The bassoon needs quite a relaxed embouchure compared to other wind instruments. Firstly, cover your teeth with your lips, not too tightly, so you look like you’re pretending that you have no teeth!

Place the reed on your bottom lip, about halfway down the blade of the reed. Take one of those big Darth Vader breaths (keep your reed on your bottom lip!) and imagine that your lungs are a balloon that is being filled. When it is filled right to the top, imagine you have grasped the neck of the balloon so that no air can escape.

Close your top lip on top of the reed, forming a seal round it. Try and think about making your mouth into the kind of shape it would be saying the “ore” part of “Eeyore”. Place the  very tip of your tongue on the reed, and as you take it back away from the reed imagine the hand that grasped your balloon lungs slightly releasing its hold and letting some –  but not all – of the air out and down the instrument. Congratulations, you have played your first note!

How to play the bassoon

We would recommend starting with an E – first finger in your left hand covering the hole, and your left thumb pressing the crook key. Broadly speaking, the more fingers you add, the lower you go, so adding your second finger in the left hand would give you a D, third finger a C etc.

How To Play the Bassoon - Summary

By now, you should be able to:

  • hold the bassoon
  • form an embouchure
  • breathe in properly
  • make a sound
  • change notes

Now, the next step is to improve your technique….

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