Brian G. McKee, D.M.A.
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Bassoon - Frequently Asked Questions
Bassoon - Frequently Asked Questions
The bassoon? What is that?
The bassoon (German: Fagott, French: Basson, Italian: Fagotto) is a woodwind instrument belonging to the double reed family. A bassoon is typically made of aged mountain maple wood with silver plated keys and has a curved metal tube, called a bocal, protruding from it. It uses a certain kind of mouthpiece called a double reed made of two pieces of Arundo donax, or cane, a dried organic plant material that resonates and produces a pitch when the player blows into it. When the reed is attached to the bocal and the rest of the instrument, the pitches are amplified through eight feet of snaked tubing, resonating further. The contrabassoon, also a double reed instrument, is a bigger bassoon that employs more tubing, a bigger bocal and reed, and sounds much lower.
The bassoon's roots trace back to Italy and Germany in the early 18th century. The first bassoons, also called Dulcians or Baroque bassoons, featured just 2-4 keys, while the modern instrument typically uses 25 keys or more. Most players around the world today play the Heckel (German) system bassoon standardized in Germany by Wilhelm Heckel and Co. in the mid 19th century. The French system bassoon, or basson, is a different instrument primarily distributed by French bassoon maker Buffet, and has a unique timbral character and different key system. It was almost exclusively used in France and other French-influenced parts of the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is still used by some ensembles and French system specialists today.
The bassoon has a broad scale range stretching four octaves in some cases, depending on the kind of reed and key system the bassoonist is using. Despite many connotations as just another "oom-pah-pah" low instrument in concert band and the "clown" of the symphony orchestra, the bassoon's varying tone qualities and large note range also make it a beautiful instrument for solo playing and small ensemble chamber music.
What does it sound like? Where have I heard it?
This is a great question- one among many that I get asked every week! The bassoon has a very distinct sound quality capable of playing very low, very high, and very articulate. Chances are, you have probably heard it in a few familiar pieces. Many orchestral works and chamber music pieces feature beautiful solos written for the bassoon, and there is also a myriad of solo pieces written for bassoon and piano, and bassoon alone. Some are comical, while others are wonderfully lyrical. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonio Vivaldi, Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Dmitri Shostakovich, Edvard Grieg, and many others composed beautiful pieces featuring bassoon solos.
W.A. Mozart - Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major, KV 191
Tchaikovsky - Symphony no. 4 in F minor, op. 36, movement II (bassoon solo starts around 9:20)
Ravel - Bolero (listen for the bassoon solo around 2:00)
Rimsky-Korsakov - Scheherazade, II, The Story of the Kalendar Prince (after the opening violin solo)
Grieg - In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt
Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring (begins with a bassoon solo)
Who can play the bassoon?
While anybody is capable of learning to play the bassoon, its large size and seemingly complex key system takes some getting used to. Woodwind players such as saxophonists and clarinetists may have the easiest time switching from their instrument to the bassoon, as many of the key fingerings are somewhat similar, and they already play an instrument that uses a reed. Flutists also often switch to bassoon, though the introduction of a reed may be new to them. It is unusual for young students to start the bassoon as their first instrument, though it has been done, and many others also switch to the oboe, a much smaller double reed instrument.
The bassoon also plays in bass clef, which is new for many beginners switching from treble clef instruments. As a prior saxophonist and pianist, my experience with bass clef transition was easier than predicted. Like all people, instrumentalists come in a variety of heights, shapes, and sizes. The bassoon?s Heckel system uses keys and open tone holes (like the clarinet) that are often a considerable distance apart from each other compared to flute, saxophone, and clarinet. People with smaller hands may have more difficulty starting the instrument, but with consistent practice, they will grow into and get used to it over time. People with longer arms and fingers may have an easier time sitting with the bassoon and extending their arms out further than other wind instruments, but I find that most everyone who practices consistently with good guidance from a teacher finds great joy and success playing the bassoon.
Where can I get a bassoon, and how much do they cost?
Like with any hobby or profession, the cost and quality of one?s equipment can vary greatly. A brand-new student model bassoon can cost anywhere from $4,000-$8,000, depending on the maker, wood type, key options, and accessories offered. Many high school and college music programs may already own one or more bassoons for students? use, so it may be good to check with the institution about the instrument and its condition before making a big purchase. Some local music stores or double reed retailers (see below) may also have bassoons for monthly rental. Higher-end model bassoons used by professional musicians and symphony orchestra players can cost $25,000 or more. Used and previously owned instruments can retail for a fraction of these costs.
While it seems like quite a steep investment, in some cases as much as a new car, bassoons typically do not depreciate in value very much, and can hold their value for as long as someone owns their instrument. Depending on how well cared for the instrument is, many people find they can even sell their bassoon for more money than they paid for it. If you commit yourself to the bassoon and find yourself playing it often, it may very well last you a lifetime with proper care and maintenance.
The most common and well-known bassoon manufacturers are Fox, Moosmann, Püchner, and Heckel. Fox is an American maker of bassoons and oboes based in South Whitley, Indiana, while the other three are makers based in Germany. Many people are partial to their particular maker, as different instruments have slightly varying characteristics suited to the player's needs. Midwest Musical Imports, Bocal Majority, Miller Marketing Co., and Forrest's Music are all excellent American retailers of new and used bassoons, as well as accessories, sheet music, and reed supplies.
Do you offer bassoon lessons?
I offer private and group bassoon lessons for students of all ages. I do not have bassoons for students to use, so they must have their own instrument for lessons. For more information about studying with me, please contact me and visit my studio page.
What about reeds?
Bassoons, oboes, English horns, and contrabassoons are all double reed instruments, meaning, as previously explained, that they use a reed made from two pieces of cane bound together. Middle school and high school students typically purchase their reeds from a retailer or their private teacher, while college students and professional bassoonists usually make their own reeds that are tailored to their playing style. The art of reed making is a very personal and time-consuming process requiring the use of different knives, files, razor blades, and specialized machines used to shape the cane and process it to a specific thickness.
Please contact me for more information about the reed making process, as it is very systematic and highly individualized. I recommend that my students purchase reeds from a retailer, where they are typically sold anywhere from $10-$30 per reed, depending on the type of reed making process used. Depending on availability, I also sell student reeds for $20 each.
If you would like to know anything more about the bassoon, are interested in studying with me, or would like to hire me for a performance, please feel free to contact me. I would love to hear from you!