Improve Your Bassoon Technique
How to strengthen your bassoon technique
Do you want to play the bassoon better? Technique is the building blocks for any instrumentalist, and to be able to boost effectiveness and protect yourself from injury, a solid technique isn’t optional; it’s vital. As part of our ‘Beginner’s Guide To Learning The Bassoon’ collection, this short article will supply you with the beginning, fundamental advice you’ll need to start improving right away.
Many exercises are essential to gain a proper technique. Once you master these exercises, you’ll be able to play almost anything. That sounds like a grand statement – but don’t underestimate the word ‘master’!
If you work enough, you’ll be able to look at a section of music and be confident enough to learn it quickly. For each exercise, there is a specific way to practice it. Your practice is only as good as your form while you practice. So be disciplined about it, as practising exercises wrong is a complete waste of time! We have key exercise categories that will help you…
1. Long Notes
Getting a sound out of a bassoon, compared to other wind instruments, is reasonably straightforward. However, having gotten a sound, we can actually bend the pitch to pretty much anywhere within the space of a third if we choose! Therefore it’s incredibly important to make sure that even with the right fingers down, the right pitch is coming out, and that it stays steady and straight.
Practising long notes is essential for understanding how responsive your reed is, and if you don’t know that, you can’t do anything predictably. You definitely need a tuning machine or app for this.
The aim of the game, so to speak, is to set yourself a specific length of time, e.g. 8 bars of 4/4 at crotchet = 60, pick a note, and be able to hold it steadily at a pitch for the duration. Pick different notes, all over the instrument, as different notes respond differently in terms of support, airspeed, embouchure shape etc.
Whilst you’re playing you can also listen out for the quality of sound, and make adjustments to mouth shape to create the most resonant, round sound you can. The beauty of not having lots of finger patterns in this exercise is it gives you the chance to really listen. Yes, that word again!
Mix this exercise up by introducing changes of dynamic, gradual and sudden, to the notes you are playing. Your embouchure will gain in strength and flexibility, and this will all help with overall stamina. If you increase the duration too, you’ll be working on breath control. Keep an eye on the tuner though – it’s easy to wander out of tune, which defeats one of the main points of the exercise!
2. Scales and arpeggios
Scales are the building blocks of everything we do. If we think about learning to read, and how it compares to learning to read music, then we see just how important they are. Imagine your alphabet is actually the letter names of notes. Learning your alphabet is where we start when learning to read, learning your notes is the same for music-making.
Reading gets easier when we organise those letters into patterns and make simple words, and that is all we are doing with scales. Organising notes into patterns. These patterns then get littered all over the music. Just as at a glance we learn to recognise words, without sounding them out, this is what we learn to do with scalic patterns in music. They are the building blocks of a language and should be practised regularly to ensure fluency.
Have you ever seen someone sight-read a complicated piece and wondered ‘how did they do that?’ The answer is patterns. When reading music, we end up reading a series of patterns, not each individual note. It’s exactly the same reading this paragraph. Did you realise I swapped the G and A around in the middle of the word ‘paragraph’? Thought not!
Every piece is set in a ‘key’. Every key has a different number of sharps or flats, and to start with it can be tricky to remember all the configurations. Scales help with this; every scale is different BECAUSE of the sharps and flats, so once you know the scales, you should know the keys. This then gives you a sixth sense where you can feel your way around the bassoon, and know which notes are likely to be right, and which are likely to be wrong.
A good way to start practising scales is to think of them in a kind of triangle shape…. Using C major as an example, you play the first two notes and go back to the first one:
Breathe in – CDC – breath out
Repeat three times without a mistake – if you make a mistake, you need to start again! Too much restarting gets frustrating, but we can turn that frustration into a way to focus your mind. Practising CDC means you are practising going up the scale and coming down at the same time. Always practise breathing in the right places at the same time. Then add the next note in the series in the middle:
Breathe in – CDEDC – breath out
Repeat three times without a mistake…. Carry the pattern on…
Breathe in – CDEFEDC – breathe out. Etc. Fast forward to completing the (one octave) scale practice, and it looks/sounds like this:
CDEFGABC breathe BAGFEDC
Here is your triangle shape! You can mix it up and do this in different rhythms to keep it interesting and to practise combining notes and rhythms. Do it at different speeds and different dynamics to build further and you can use this practice pattern for arpeggios too.
Make sure you extend this to encompass whichever range of your scales you need until finally, you cover the complete range. When you have the complete range under your fingers, move towards extending your scales. For example, in C major, make sure you go up to the highest D, and back down to the lowest B, before ending on the C.
As one of the main roles of the bassoon in ensembles is to provide the bass line, the ability to play the secure scale and arpeggio figures is absolutely crucial!
3. Tonguing exercises
The ability to use your tongue to produce varieties of attack, to be precise, and to be able to change motion at whichever speed is required is one of the most integral parts of playing the bassoon.
If you think about how important your tongue is in articulating your words, you can appreciate how important your tongue is in articulating the language of music, and as your tongue is a muscle, it needs to be exercised regularly. There are two main forms of tonguing that should be practised:
This is your go-to, default tonguing. How you start a note, whether you want it to sound gentle or hard, and up to a certain point, how fast you want it to go.
It should be mentioned here that this is facilitated by a reed that is complementary to your set up (crook and bassoon combination). Too hard, and you’ll struggle to get it to vibrate and tonguing will be difficult and sound stuffy. Too soft, and the pitch will be variable and unreliable, the quality of sound will be “razzy” and the attack too free and difficult to control.
Put the reed in your mouth with a good embouchure, take a deep breath, engage your diaphragm, close your mouth and place the very tip of your tongue gently on the end of the reed. Blow, and take your tongue away from the end of the reed – keep blowing after you have removed it. You will hear a clear ‘too’ sound at the beginning of the note, this is tonguing!
If you imagine you are playing one long note, that lasts for four beats, remove your tongue and put it back on each of the four beats – it will sound like this: tootootootoo. It is important to make sure you are always blowing, and your tongue merely gets in the way, kind of like it is being a dam. The water/air is always pushing forwards and the dam/tongue stops it – but the water/air is always trying to get through!
If you don’t always blow, and you stop the air before each tongue it means you create spaces between the tongued notes. This means that the music doesn’t flow or have a forward direction. It isn’t just the air you are stopping, it is the energy. This can lead to really lumpy playing, which is aurally unsatisfying.
It is important to be able to single tongue as fast as possible in a clear, controlled way. However, you must be sensitive with your tongue and realise that not all music requires the same attack at the front of the note. You can experiment with softer attacks like using your tongue in the same way as saying “doodoodoodoo” or “looloolooloo”.
With all of these attacks, the ability to be able to do it fast and consistently is paramount. A great exercise is to pick a slowish metronome speed, eg 60bpm. Pick a note. Play four bars of 4/4 with these rhythms for each set:
Work your way all over the bassoon on different notes – remembering that certain notes speak easier than others and that the resistance is different from note to note. You can include this exercise in your scale practice too. Remember to practise this at different dynamics as that impacts on the ease of articulation too! Gradually crank up the metronome to get your tongue going at faster and faster speeds!
Inevitably there will come a time when you need to be able to tongue faster than your single tongue will let you, and this is why you also need to practise…
This is an advanced method of tonguing, where for each pair of notes, a different part of your tongue articulates the start of it. Again, you always need to be imagining you are playing one long note only this time the first articulation is made by the very tip of your tongue using a “too” sound, but the second articulation is made using the back of your tongue using a “coo” sound.
Because the reed is held in your mouth, it can be difficult to get the “coo” to sound as clearly as the “too” as at this point, no part of your tongue is touching the reed to form the attack. You should practise playing single notes, starting them with a “coo” sound to build this skill up. When this starts to feel easier, you should experiment with softer attacks such as “doogoo” as well.
You can continue building up your double tonguing speed in much the same way as you do for your single tonguing exercises – with the long term aim that your listener wouldn’t be able to tell which form of tonguing you are doing!
Articulation and rhythmic variation
Practising tonguing feeds nicely into improving your articulation generally. An excellent way of developing a sensitive, instinctive ability to communicate is to practise some of your exercises with a variety of articulations – at different dynamics. The dynamic can make it easier or harder to produce the articulation you require.
Whatever you happen to be in need of practising, practise small sections of it with lots of different articulations – mixtures of slurs, tongues, staccato, tenuto, accents. Make sure you decide before you start what articulation you are going to do, so you can keep yourself accountable. In over complicating the articulation, it keeps your mind alert and it means that when you revert to what is printed, it is inevitably going to be easier!
This technique is also true of mixing up the rhythm. If you needed to practise a quaver passage that had some really tricky fingering transitions, over complicating the rhythm by using combinations of rhythms such as dotted or semi quavers can make the original much easier when you go back to it.
Improve Your Bassoon Technique - Summary
Most things in life work well when you take the time to plan them. Playing the bassoon, and improving your technique, is no different. Challenge yourself on a daily basis – and remember that building a strong technique is the foundation of your playing. Practising and improving your technique should not be considered a chore – use the time to be inventive, which will make it interesting. The time taken here will make your life easier down the road…
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