Introduction Q & A
Q: What does it take to create balance of resonance and good resistance note-to-note at the right pitch?
A: This is a function of a bassoon’s tuning and voicing and reed tuning and voicing. Some of the bassoon’s funkiest notes require special adjustments. The subject of tuning and voicing will be broached in greater detail in future publications. In general, this involves pad height adjustments combined with tone hole reshaping and undercutting. If the reed tuning methods described in the Quick Guide to Bassoon Reed Tuning do not take care of the three “R’s” (response, resistance, and resonance), it is likely that the bocal and/or bassoon are at fault and we cannot rule out tone production issues. Picking a bocal with inherent good tuning can be a challenge. They are not all created equal.
Q: I recently switched bassoons from a thick wall, big bore to a smaller bore bassoon. I would prefer a little (good) resistance to offset the already very free-blowing nature of the bassoon. How do I add resistance?
A: There are a number of things listed in Quick Guide you can try:
- Make the bocal out of round: 9/3 as instructed in the Quick Guide. This also adds resistance and lifts the pitch of C3-Eb3.
- Lower the pancake pad height and possibly the open long joint pads, which are often too high on Fox/Renard and most bassoons.
- Add layers of tape to reduce the diameter of the bore in the long joint small tenon. You can test this with a partial 1/2″ to 1″ wide toilet paper tube.
- Try 1/4 or full length of toilet paper tube cut lengthwise to reduce diameter so that it will slide easily within the bell just above the B tone hole. This helps lift and focus the upper tenor range and adds blowing resistance.
- Reduce the diameter of the tip of the bocal bore to 3.9 mm. Typical is 4.0. See Q & A on Bocals, below.
- Try a longer bocal length or a thicker-wall bocal. If you are playing on a 2, switch to a 3.
- Try reversing the U-tube, put it on backwards. Reversing the U-tube will change the choke. Another thing I do with “blown out” older horns that are lacking good resistance, is to increase the gasket thickness and/or choke in the bore at the U-tube. You can use up to 1/4″ gaskets on 6 and 7k Heckels that blow too freely or are sharp in pitch. Trying different U-tubes is an option that is great to do if you have them to try.
The Golden Reed
Q: Can a golden reed play comfortably with no adjustments?
A: Every reed needs some adjustments and every reed needs some adjustment over time. New reeds may very well play with no adjustments needed initially from a sophisticated blade profile and well-formed reed, but all reeds change as they are played over the period of a week or two, or change with the weather. Some bassoonists will play on a new reed exclusively for a week or two and then move on to a new reed. This approach is similar to what oboists do. There is some magic in the sound and feel of a new golden reed.
Q: Can one reed do it all?
A: Bassoonists often change reeds for solos in high or low registers. However, if you are playing the Pulcinella Suite, for example, the first bassoon must have a reed that is responsive in the low, middle, and high registers. Extreme high note solos are much better with a high note bocal and special reed. The same can be true for the soft, low opening of Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6, or the response needed for the “Grandpapa” in Prokofiev’s, Peter and the Wolf.
Q: What’s the best way to warm up?
A: The best warm is to start at the bottom (low Bb) to get air through the entire bore of the instrument using a warm up exercise. Here’s what I’ve always used:
Click here for the complete warm up exercise.
For some bassoonists in an audition will use a hair dryer to blow warm air into the bell to help speed up warm up of a cold bassoon.
Q: I have to sit for a long time before coming in on a solo and my bassoon is getting cold. Sometimes my reed dries out, too. What should I do?
A: With the bocal on your instrument, cup your hand and wrap your fingers around the top of the bocal bend and quietly blow air into the instrument. Prior to making your entrance, finger low Bb and continue to blow air until just prior to your entrance. Don’t forget to clear your bocal before playing. In an exceedingly cold environment, your breath can form a cloud and condense moisture into the bocal and instrument.
Q: What is different in this method compared with your previous publication, Advanced Reed Design and Testing Procedure for Bassoon? Did you change any of the tests or techniques in Quick Guide?
A: There is much more detail in tuning in the Quick Guide to Bassoon Reed Tuning (QGBRT) in a more logical step-wise method. Every note has a test or tests which begins on open F and works its way down the scale note by note and then moves above F and works its way up the scale. In the 1991 revision, specific harmonic tunings were added note by note and refined the (1986) general tunings in the middle register shown in Tests 5 and 6 (ARDTP). In its Test 1, the adjustment scrape is the same as Quick Guide’s Test 1, but the harmonic B fingering test is an additional cross check.
We changed the approach for tuning Fork Eb in Quick Guide. It is now a more conservative adjustment sequence. It was too easy to make a mistake following the old method that would negatively effect the upper middle register and Eb’s neighbor D which we now refer to as the Nexus note. The tuning of D is a critical and pivotal note that must be balanced against the tuning of Fork Eb. In other words, a really good Fork Eb without extra keys can torpedo the tuning of D and its octave above.
Q: Why did you leave out the Twelve Rules for Testing that appeared in Advanced Reed Design?
A: We replaced it with “What to check on your bassoon” and “Rules and Techniques” (in the Getting Started section). The 12 Rules are still viable but we needed to save space in the publication given the amount of material presented. Click the link below to see missing elements from Advanced Reed Design including rules for testing. (Coming soon!)
Q: Why does the pitch change when you plug your ear?
A: Bone conduction is a better measure of pitch inside your head and resonance is often mistaken for proper pitch. Singers often plug their ear to check their pitch. Many performers have had experienced where they think they are playing perfectly in tune until they listen to a recording where they sound out of tune. Even the top soloists occasionally are fooled by their reed’s true pitch. This is not unique to bassoons/bassoonists. Tone production also has an issue where a player may overblow or underblow a note due to the reeds tuning. The vibrating length may be wrong for the player or the cane may be too strong or too weak to produce a true pitch and its overtones.
The Break-In Process
Q: My new reeds don’t “yawn” as you suggest will happen. Do I still need to do the break-in process?
A: Yes, do the processing with every soak. Sometimes a new reed will not yawn the first few times it is soaked and dried, and some reeds may not yawn at all. If the reed continues to stay closed when it is wetted, gently open the tip with wire adjustments (1S/2T) at any point during the soak and dry cycles.
Q: What is shape memory?
A: If you roll up a piece of paper and let go, it will go back to a flat sheet. But if you roll it up, rubber band it and leave it for a few days, it will stay rolled up when the rubber band is removed. Reed cane is similar. When the reed is warped and formed into the tube of the reed, the strong fibers of the cane want to revert back to their original curvature. To speed up the process of getting the cane to settle into its new curvature a period of time must be allowed for the cane to relax its shape memory. There are several ways to help speed up the process including heat, steam combined with rubber banding the tube to a forming mandrel. Once the reed is wired and the tip is opened a second round of shape memory takes place. At this point soak and dry cycles combined with the break in procedures described in Quick Guide will help speed up round two. If large amounts of cane are removed in getting the reed to play, this can trigger round three where the cane is unstable.
During the soak and dry cycles it is recommended to do the following: ream for proper bocal depth, tip profile and/or do preliminary sanding of the blade profile, clip the blade to within 0.5 to 1.0mm of your finished vibrating length.
Additionally, it is highly recommended to cut the cradle notches (see Fig. 5A in Quick Guide) in advance if you find that these are helpful in tuning. During soak and dry adjust the wires as the cane shrinks to keep them snug. After several soak and dry cycles the wires should remain in position and will be snug after the reed is wetted but not so tight as to be immovable.
Some shrinkage and wire loosening is normal. However, if you have reamed the reed and checked it on your bocal or mandrel for depth and the reed has changed substantially in its fit then the cane may be unsuitable due to the amount of shrinkage especially if it won’t fit on the bocal at all. It is common for the wires to also be looser every time the cane dries out with unsuitable cane.
Q: How do I know when the new reed is settled and ready for testing?
A: It is common to hear a crackling sound as the new reed dries out during the soak and dry cycles. Do not move into testing until the reed is silent with no crackling sounds as it dries out. If the tip opening is still too large after soak and dry cycles, adjusting the first wire to close the tip is recommended (1.0 to 1.5 mm or 1/16 inch or less).
During each soak and dry cycle, check the following: is the reed producing a crow? Is the tip opening symmetrical? Does the reed pass the “pop” test? Place a finger over the butt end of the wetted reed and suck the air out from between the blades. If the reed is properly constructed and carefully scraped the blades will stay shut for a second or two (due to suction) and then the tip will open with a resounding “pop”. This is an indication of a very well balanced blade and blade arch. Not all reeds and especially those that are not close to finished blade dimensions will pass this test.
Q: Should I buy a tip profiler? If not, why?
A: It is not absolutely necessary to have a tip profiler if you are using the tuning method, but it can speed up getting a reed to vibrate if you are using a heavy blade profile to begin with. If I had to choose between a tip profiler and a cane hardness meter, I’d choose a hardness meter (to eliminate cane that is too soft and identify cane that is the correct hardness for your purposes).
Q: Do I need to do all these tests if I’m using a tip profiler?
A: Yes. While a reed may be instantly playable after tip profiling, this is no guarantee that the reed has the three R’s and will not play differently the next time you pick it up. After tip profiling you may find a horizontal “shelf” across the blade that may need to be sanded out. Eliminating the shelf may also change the reed’s tuning.
Q: What type of reed do you recommend for beginning bassoonists?
A: Many bassoonists only source of reeds are music store reeds. In many cases the reed shapes are quite wide and the reed may not fit snugly on the bocal or deep enough on the bocal. The result is a reed that plays flat or unstable on 1-finger E. Many school bassoons are full of leaks. Wider reeds can be quite vibrant which helps in getting past leaks. However, if they are overly vibrant the stability problem on E mentioned above will be worse.
Generally, narrower reeds are easier to blow for beginners unless the bassoon is full of leaks. Experimenting with reeds from different sources is recommended as there are several music store type reeds available. A better approach is to check with a double reed specialty shop or bassoon reed makers who advertise in the International Double Reed Society or online.
Q: Is there a type of reed shape that works well on all bassoons?
A: Each bassoon and bassoonist has different needs. As mentioned above, wider reed shapes work best for a bassoon that leaks. If you are beginning a quest to find reed shapes, avoid the extremes of concave and convex blade shapes. Try middle-of-the-road shapes such as straight-sided blade shapes.
Q: Is there an easy and inexpensive way to check and measure the internal throat diameter?
A: Use a scratch awl. If you like a particular reed’s blowing resistance, insert the awl into the butt end of the reed and up to the point where it stops and mark the awl with tape or filing a notch. The reed’s internal dimensions can also be checked using the blunt end of drill bits that will fit within the tube. The Arundo throat mandrels are made from drill rod of specific sizes with a modified tip.
Q: Why do you say that a blade profile can be related to a particular embouchure style?
A: There is a relationship between these three elements: embouchure, reed tuning, and blade profile. If a purchased reed has been tuned and tested by a player who uses an extreme overbite and sold to a player with a different approach in embouchure and/or tone production, the tuning will be off and the reed will not play in tune. There is also an element of comfort and pitch flexibility related to the blade profile design. For example, a reed style with a parallel edge to the blade profile (example 4 in Quick Guide) will have less flexibility in tone and pitch.
Gouge and Cane
Q: Why is some of the gouged cane that I buy thicker or thinner than the average thickness of 1.30 mm or 0.052 inches?
A: There are several possible answers. Cane that is gouged thinner will be regarded as being stronger/harder cane. With the gouged surface closer to the bark, there is a greater frequency of vascular bundles (of finer grain) and less inter-cellular space (less water holding capability). There will be fewer pieces of cane that are too soft.
Thickness of the gouge is a choice made by the cane supplier that effects reed design.
Thicker cane gouged with a concentric gouge will hold more moisture and support a more open tip in dry climates. American made reeds often use a 1-inch diameter electric cutter for gouging cane, while European sources may use gougers of different designs with larger diameter cutters. One manufacturer of commercially made reeds is at an altitude of nearly 2,000 feet above sea level and a dry climate. The reeds sold can be too weak and hold too much water at a more humid, lower elevation.
Q: Why don’t all cane suppliers rate their cane for hardness and resilience?
A: A select few cane suppliers do rate cane for hardness and charge a premium. We are not aware of any cane supplier that rates cane for both hardness, resilience (twist testing), density, flex and recovery, and hygroscopicity (water soak testing).
Q: What are the main differences between cane from different sources?
A: The qualities of the cane are related to the soil and the climate where it is grown. Additionally, the type and length of aging/curing and sun curing are also factors. For instance, one supplier grows cane in one location but cures it in another warmer, drier location. Reed cane is a crop and varies from year to year just as wine vintages vary in quality. When cane is grown in a very specific location, the cane will have a clear, tonal signature from year to year and a general range of hardness that varies slightly depending on that year’s crop. For instance, brand X cane tends to be of a medium to medium hard consistency year to year with a medium-dark tone. Cane from some of the largest suppliers is collected from diverse locations, over large regions, and will have greater variations in tone quality and hardness.
Q: How do we know if we are wasting our time on cane that is too soft?
A: Buy a hardness meter or buy from suppliers that sell measured cane. It is difficult to twist test for resilience with gouged cane, unless it’s tested with a Flexter Tool. Without that tool, the cane must be shaped and profiled, at which point the resilience can be tested by hand (the Twist Test).
The largest market for reed cane is for clarinet reeds, which uses the same diameter cane as bassoon cane. The best cane for clarinet reeds comes from the bottom part of the stalk of cane which yields the thickest wall. The less desirable, leftover cane at the top of the stalk (thinner wall and less stable) is often sold as bassoon cane.
If you gouge your own cane, look for thick wall tube cane or ask for clarinet tube cane. But note that sometimes clarinet cane is cut in shorter lengths, which will be too short for bassoon reeds.
Q: When I make my reeds, some of them have tip openings that look very puckered like the oxbow tip opening while others look elliptical. Why am I getting different types of tip openings from the same type of cane and profile?
A: The primary problem is the difference in cane hardness and pliability. These variations in cane properties affect how the reed forms. Cane that is more consistent in hardness, flex and twist will produce more consistent tip opening apertures, especially if the internal diameter at the throat is maintained from reed to reed.
Q: How much should I worry about temperature conditions in my playing climate on stage?
A: In some occasions, risers in the woodwind section put you closer to hot lights and your playing climate can be over 80 degrees. In this situation, the bassoon will play sharper in pitch due to the temperature. The opposite is true for cold temperature. The effects of temperature are different for string instruments and woodwinds. For strings, hotter temperatures cause the strings to go flat and colder temperatures they go sharp. the opposite of the woodwinds. Many professional orchestras have temperature clauses and penalties if the temperatures fluctuate beyond normal stage temperature of 72-75 degrees. Woodwind instruments are typically tuned at 23 degrees Celsius or 73.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Be sure if you are tuning your reed at home that you anticipate the correct playing climate on stage, or do final tuning on stage. If your reed is in tune at home, but you are sharp playing on stage, the temperature of your room at home is too cold. Jack up the heat to 72 degrees, even if your spouse says no!
Q: If I make an elevation change of 2,000 ft., will my reed performance and tuning change?
A: Elevation changes of as little of 500-1,000 feet can be noticeable as do changes in barometric pressure.
Q: Besides tuning the large end of the bocal as suggested in the Quick Guide, what other methods are there to tune a bocal?
A: The tip of the bocal can be increased or decreased in size. Increasing the opening size will lower the pitch of the middle and upper registers. Decreasing the size will lift the pitch of the middle register with a more focused tone. The bocal vent hole can be increased in size which will also help lift the pitch of the middle register and eliminate croaking on some bocals, but if too large it can unfocus the tone. The minimum size of bocal vent hole should be 0.033″. Drills of this size are available at most hobby shops. These tiny drills require a miniature pin vice to use the drill.
Q: How do I safely increase the diameter of the tip opening of the bocal?
A: This should be done very carefully using a tapered reamer that will fit inside the bocal tip. One recommended reamer would be a #1 taper pin reamer with straight flutes. This work should be done very slowly and carefully so that the soldered seam does not crack open. The reamer should be held in a small drill chuck. Use a micrometer (in mm) to measure the opening size. A standard opening is 4mm. Once the tip opening is tapered, additional (parallel) chucking reamers or drills can be inserted to enlarge it further.
Q: How do I reduce the tip opening of a bocal?
A: The simplest method to swedge/reduce a tip opening is to rotate the tip into a tapered hole. Ideally, the taper of the hole matches the taper of your reed reamer which can be used to establish the tapered hole. One method is to purchase a high pressure hose end sprayer/nozzle. The tip of the bocal can be twisted into the hose nozzle to reduce diameter.
An alternate solution is to drill a hole in 1/2 inch thick or thicker plastic or aluminum bar stock. Then use your reed reamer to make the taper into the material. Turn the tip of the bocal into the hole to (swedge) reduce the tip diameter of the bocal.
Q: What is plating slump?
A: Plating can pool up at the bottom of the bocal button vent in manufacturing, reducing the diameter of the vent. This can be a cause of a croaking notes in the middle register directly related to the bocal. To check for this, run a piece of 21 or 22 gauge reed wire through the vent to see if it catches at the bottom. Open the vent with a #66 or #65 size drill bit (available in hobby shops). Reamers of this size are also available from jewelry tool suppliers. Bocal vents are rarely cleaned or checked.
Q: What did Arthur Weisberg do for the development of the bassoon?
A: Weisberg created the first “flickless” bassoon with acoustically correct octave key vent holes on the wing joint. The troublesome notes in the middle register will not croak even with incomplete reed tuning. Notes that are prone to flat pitch (such as D3) are in tune. The bad news is that the system comes with restrictions regarding the use of the resonance keys. These must be held down beginning with E3 for proper functioning of the octave key vents. The Weisberg system functions as a “reverse” whisper key: it automatically jumps up to the second octave when the whisper key is released.
Curses of Bassoon Manufacturing
Q: Why are some bassoons unstable (prone to split tones and croaking) in the middle register despite harmonic reed tuning?
A: First check the bocal and bocal vent for obstructions and proper size. (See Bocals above.)
Some bassoons are designed specifically to be played with the register/speaker key held down. The author has experienced some Chinese-made bassoons that fit this description.
Prominent bassoonist Frederick Moritz had his and his student’s bassoons made by Heckel were built with modified wing joint vent hole diameters and locations to facilitate tuning of the middle register notes with the keys held down at all times. This was the pedagogy of Moritz and others as a way to avoid croaking and split tones in the middle register. Many bassoons of this design are still in service.
Some bassoonists around the world lock the whisper key and use the register keys at all times in the middle register. This makes the bassoon more similar to the other woodwinds where octave/register keys are used for the higher notes. Certain pieces require this approach, such as the Bach, Toccata and Fugue in D minor (Stokowski).
Bassoons and Bells
Q: How do I test my bassoon for leaks?
A: Bassoon manufacturers such as Fox Products, top woodwind instrument repair shops, and double reed specialty shops use a Mag Machine which tests the ability of the bore to hold air under pressure. If you don’t have a Mag Machine, taking one section at a time cover all holes, close all keys, and plug the opening to the bore with your finger, hand, or rubber cork. Blow into the open end of the bore. As you increase the air, you may notice pads lifting and air escaping.
Q: What are the most common “mystery” leaks?
A: The most common mystery leak is at the U-tube. All bassoons develop a leak here at some point in their life. Leaks can occur in two basic areas: at or around the gasket on the bottom of the U-tube or around the bracket over the wood on the bottom of the boot joint. Signs of leakage are indicated if the brass has turned green, which indicates moisture has leaked outside of the bassoon bore.
A simple test of the U-tube: with the cap removed, insert the bottom of the boot joint into a glass of water until the water is just above the edge of the brass, onto the wood. With all the keys closed, cover one of the bore openings with your hand or plug with a cork and blow forcefully into the other bore opening. Notice if there are bubbles coming out around the gasket or elsewhere. This is the same test that bassoon repair shops use to assess this type of “mystery” leak. Be sure to wipe off the moisture after you perform this test.
Note: most band instrument repair shops do not know how to assess this leak or fix it. It is best to send your bassoon to a double reed specialty repairman or back to the manufacturer if you play a Fox or Renard.
Other common mystery leaks are through the holes for the “action rods.” These are for the G key, Ab single tone type bassoon, F# thumb key, and Bb alternate/trill key. Additional leaks may occur around posts, through the wood, cracks in the wood, or at any point where the finish is penetrated (such as screw holes, etc.). Assessing these leaks requires the expertise of a repairman who can pressure check the instrument with all keys removed and sealed.
Finally, the worst mystery leak on wooden bassoons is one that gets between the wood and the hard rubber liner (inside the wing joint and small bore of the boot) and exits at a point further down the bore. For example, a leak might start at any pad-covered tone hole along the wing joint (C# is most common) and exits at the end of the tenon or into another tone hole. This is not an easy fix.
One of the worst things to find in a bassoon is dry rot. When moisture is trapped for long periods of time within the instrument, the wood can rot and disintegrate. This can also create leaks through the wood and out. Knowing that this is an insidious problem, have you swabbed your bassoon today AND sucked the moisture out of the small closed vent and tone holes, especially in the wing joint??