Upper Register Tunings Q & A
Q: I have to bite down on my reed to make the highest notes work. They sound sharp and pinched. How can I improve my reed to make the high notes play easier with a big sound?
A: The best indicator that a reed will play well in the high register is testing whether the reed will slur up from the middle register C3 to high C (C4) using the “short” High C fingering. The reed should slur up without hesitation or flatness in pitch on the short High C. This is the absolute minimum requirement for a high register reed. Play C3 with the register key held down. Lift the 2nd and 3rd fingers while increasing air speed. The note should pop up an octave.
Failure of this test is due to weakness in the arch of the blade (blade strength) and/or excessive length of the reed’s vibrating length (tip to first wire). Finding the balance of length/strength is the solution. This often requires rounding and tightening of the wires and shortening the blade length by clipping the tip. It may also require narrowing the reed shape at the tip.
You must blow faster air speed for the high notes to speak. See Tone Production. Avoid using excessive lower lip pressure if you are playing sharp on the high notes. A slight shift to upper blade pressure should begin with High G3.
The very best high note reeds will also slur to short High D4 and Eb4. These fingerings are found in the Quick Guide, Test 18.
Q: I’m always sharp on High G3, especially when I try to play High G softly. What can I do?
A: Some bassoonists find it necessary to reduce the size of the High G vent by inserting a small straw or tube into the vent operated by the ring key (2nd finger R.H.). While some find this helpful, the downside is when High Ab3 and A3 are fingered using the F key instead of the standard G key, the pitch of these notes is too flat and stuffy to stand alone without a modifier key such as the Bb or F# key. Some bassoons have an additional ring key on the first finger R.H. that opens an additional vent which allows the F key fingering to stand alone without the addition of extra keys. With this additional ring key, the tuning of the G vent can be modified.
Since most bassoons don’t have the extra vent, the tuning of the reed for High G is critical. It is a fussy note and without adequate tuning it will negatively affect all the notes above it. If you’ve ever played Bolero the repeated soft High G’s can be problematic in keeping the pitch down. In the case of G tuning, it is typical to go back and forth between the rail and channel tuning zones until the harmonic G is stable and in tune.
For many bassoonists, the embouchure is the issue approaching the upper register by biting upward on the lower blade. This approach tends to produce sharpness on G and every note above it. An embouchure shift is recommended to place pressure on the upper blade keeping the lower lip in the same position as much as possible for the middle register.
Q: Sometimes I’m flat on the notes above High G3. What am I doing wrong?
A: The most important factors pertain to tone production changes. The three most important are increased air speed, change of vowel shape inside the mouth to a more closed “eek” and more upward/inward breath support. It is not necessary to bite to get the upper register to respond but the embouchure should be more firm and move in toward the wire. With a properly tuned reed, it is possible to play the whole range of the bassoon with the reed in the corner of the mouth.
A simple exercise is to sing the note you are about to play in a falsetto voice and immediately play the note on the bassoon maintaining the same vowel shape and muscle support (“eek”). See Tone Production.