Clean Your Tone Holes
This is a MUST DO on a regular basis. Using wet Q-Tips, scrub the inside of the F, E, D, C and B tone holes until no gunk or discolorations appear on the Q-Tip.
- The F tone hole is small making it difficult to get the Q-Tip through. Pull out on the end of the cotton tip to make it smaller.
- Push each Q-Tip all the way through the tone hole into the bore and back out. Repeat with the other (wetted) end of the Q-Tip.
- Use at least one Q-Tip for each tone hole.
- When finished, it is important to swab (from the big to small end of the wing and boot) to clear the bore of the debris. If possible, finish with a blast of compressed air as well.
The Closed tone holes that need regular cleaning are the following: 1) Register key vents. High D key, B/C and A/B vent holes. These must be cleaned with a soft pipe cleaner. (Note some have metal in them and should be avoided). 2) C# tone hole on the wing joint. This is easy to unscrew with a tine screwdriver. Use Q-Tips here too and scrub thoroughly. 3) Remove the high E key and Eb/F# trill pads. These are more difficult to remove and tricky to replace, but are often so clogged that getting a high E to speak is hindered. These pads are often the first to leak as the pads deteriorate from long term contact with moisture trapped int he bore. 4) C# trill small pad on the boot. This one is easy to remove and is often clogged and wet for years on end. Although this key is rarely used, it can cause problems with a big sneaky leak and wetness can lead to dry rot.
Clean Your Bocal
First, make sure the inside of the bocal is wet. Immerse the bocal under water and let it sit. If you have a bocal brush, run it though several times from the large end out through the small end. Flush out with water each time. If you don’t have a bocal brush you can use pipe cleaners:
- Fold over the end of one of the pipe cleaners about 1 inch.
- On the opposite end, twist several pipe cleaners together.
- Be sure they are firmly attached to each other, twisted together several times and overlapped about 1 inch.
- Insert the folded over end into the small end of the bocal and carefully scrub back and forth as you insert the pipe cleaner further into the bocal.
- Flush the bocal with water.
- Repeat by inserting from the large end.
- Take great care that the pipe cleaners are twisted together and strong enough that they won’t come apart inside the bocal.
Cleaning the Bocal Vent
Insert brass reed wire into the hole in the bocal vent. You can also use bristles of a small cleaning brush or broom.
Does the Bocal Fit too Loosely in the Bassoon?
Solution 1: wrap dental floss around the cork on the bocal. Waxed dental floss is best; it will stick to itself and stay attached to the cork.
Solution 2: wrap thread around the cork on the bocal. Rub the edge of a candle onto the thread to help it stick together and lubricate the thread.
Solution 3: insert the cork end of the bocal into a glass of water. Remove from water and wave the cork over a lit candle or a hot burner on the stove. The heat will cause the cork to swell up. Repeat several times. Caution: cork is extremely flammable therefore only hold it in the flame for a short amount of time and rotate the cork in the flame and quickly back into the water. Don’t try this method on the bassoon’s wing or bass joint.
Is the Tip of your Bocal Flat on One Side or out of Round?
To make it round, insert the tip of a small screw driver or small nail into the tip. Carefully push the side of the screw driver or nail against the flattened side of the bocal tip. You can also use a reed forming mandrel or the dull end of a drill bit that is close to the right size. These operations should be done very slowly and carefully so that you don’t break open the soldered seam on the bocal.
Clean the Dust off Your Bassoon
Many problems with pad leaks are attributed to reed scraping debris, animal hair (don’t let them sleep in your case!), and dust. Use the soft cosmetic brush to keep the body of the instrument clean to prevent migration of debris onto pads. If that doesn’t remove the dust or gunk use dry or wetted Q-Tips to scrub around the area that is thick with gunk.
Vacuum your Bassoon Case
Have you ever found you cat sleeping in your open bassoon case? Or laid it down on the carpet to find it covered with dog hair? Pet hair can and will end up in your case and on your bassoon. A German Shepard hair laying across a pad can cause a big enough leak to ruin your day. Vacuuming a case is the LAST thing bassoonists think about, but as one who repairs other’s bassoons I find most cases are filthy with all kinds of floating objects. If you lay the bassoon in your lap while scraping reeds, the bassoon collects all the debris and can deposit it inside the case when you put the bassoon away. Vacuum the case!
Check your Bassoon for Leaks
Wing Joint Test: Plug the small end with your finger and with the other hand cover the tone holes. Your hand will be backwards on the tone holes. Blow forcefully into the large end to see if any air escapes. You may want to clean off the cork grease or gunk on the large end before doing this. The alternative method is to use suction and see if it holds suction. If either of these methods don’t hold air for a significant amount of time, it may be necessary to remove the keys with pads to clean them.
Clean Sticky Pads
Use paper currency like old dollar bills on sticking pads. Place the bill between the pad and tone hole, press down firmly to close the pad, and pull out the bill. Older currency has oils in the paper from handling the bills over time. If possibly, try pulling the currency in different directions several times.
If you have pads that stick, sprinkle talcum powder on the currency or on a piece of paper and again pull the paper out from under the closed pad. If the pads are extremely dirty or sticky scrub with a wetted Q-Tip. Follow up with the dollar bill treatment.
You may need to remove the pad from the instrument for thorough cleaning especially if you have determined that there is a leak (see above). It is recommended that you acquire two Craftsman or Milwaukee screwdrivers of the appropriate size with rotating handles. Small screwdrivers sold by double reed shops are NOT the best choice, making the job of removing keys and pads difficult if not impossible. The precision screwdriver set should contain an 1/8″ tip for larger, pivot screws (in the post) and 3/32″ tip for removing the small rods that hold keys to the post. Small needle-nose pliers are needed to remove and replace small rods. The small screw driver tips can also be used to push the springs back in place. Be sure the key or rod are properly aligned with the post before screwing it back into place.
Refresh your Pads
Once you have removed a pad you may find debris or a dent in the pad that may be causing the pad to leak (see above). It is very common that debris from the case or reed scrapings end up on pads. If so, massage the skin of the pad with a wetted Q-Tip to clean and refresh the pad surface. If a significant dent remains in the pad surface, the dent can be removed through the use of a lighted candle. The following process will cause the pad to swell up and push out the dent. This process needs to be done very carefully, or you’ll burn the pad!
- With the pad off the bassoon, inspect and clean the edge of the tone hole so that the surface is smooth an even.
- Wet the surface of the pad thoroughly by dunking in water.
- Wave the wetted pad well above the flame but close enough to effect the pad. It should swell or puff up when heated sufficiently by the flame.
- Do this carefully, rewetting and re-passing over the flame until the pad visibly swells.
- Once swollen, replace the pad to the bassoon.
If you are not a reed maker, maybe now is the time to learn! We are sure that the double reed and cane shops would appreciate your business.
Adjust your Reeds and Check Their Tuning
Purchase the Quick Guide for Bassoon Reed Tuning available on Amazon.
Make Sanding Tools
Schedule a Re-pad Overhaul or Restoration Service for your Bassoon
If you play a Fox instrument you can make an appointment with the factory to have your bassoon serviced.
Practice Warm-up Exercises
When is the last time you practiced ALL of your scales including the chromatic scale? If you really want to stretch out, practice your two whole tone scales and three diminished scales (see below).
Practice the Dreaded Double Tongue
At some point all bassoonists will need to double tongue in the standard symphonic literature. For instance, the bassoon solo in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, last movement, the repeated notes in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, as well as many Haydn and Mozart symphonies.
We often take a cue from brass players’ techniques using the following syllables: t-k-t-k (ta-ka-ta-ka) or ki-ti-ki-ti (calling your cat!). This vowel placement is too high at the back of the tongue and also produces a very accented double tongue sound. It sounds like tha-ka-tha-ka. There is a better way for bassoonists: d-g-d-g (da-ga-da-ga). This produces a smoother articulation and can be performed at softer dynamics. It is essential to practice double tonging at a very slow speed seeking to match the same attack quality so that each articulation sounds identical whether double tonguing or single tonguing.
Begin your slow practice by stopping the tone at the back of the tongue and then stopping the tone at the tip of the tongue using short bursts of sound. It does not need to be the tip of the tongue into the tip of the reed. Example: dug-gud-dug-gud, where the tongue stops at the back of the throat then front. The tongue is sealing the back of the throat and no air can escape. It is recommended to practice starting the tone with repeated “ga-ga-ga-ga” articulations on the same note. See exercise below.
This exercise can take place away from the instrument to develop speed: da-ga-da-ga. However, when the embouchure is formed, it tends to restrict the space inside the mouth for the movement of the tongue. The “ah” vowel sound may need to move more in the direction of “oo” as in doo-goo-doo-goo.
Some players who have not been able to perfect double tonguing use two tongued and two slurred technique. However, this technique is not possible on repeated notes. An alternative technique can be used by wobbling/slapping the tip of the tongue up and down (dee-dle-dee-dle), above and below the tip opening of the reed or side to side. The wobble tongue is good for a couple of “flicks”. For instance, you can use it in Rossini’s William Tell overture (the Lone Ranger theme) for the first two notes only. In most cases, however, it cannot achieve what is possible using the double tongue technique and is harder to control. The method chosen must produce the most musically pleasing and accurate result. Triple tonguing as used by brass players is never used by bassoonists.
Create Your Artistic Vibrato
Here’s an exercise to help develop an even vibrato: Vibrato Practice Method
Practice Your Scales
Always warm up BEFORE doing the Scales Bottom to Top exercise (see topic on warming up, above). Bassoonists who don’t warm up before playing in the middle and upper registers of the bassoon will develop a bad habit of biting the reed to get the upper notes to respond or play up to pitch. This can cause a thin, pinched off tone that sounds sharp in pitch. Or the highest notes may not speak at all. This can lead to a bad embouchure habit that is hard to break and bassoon reeds that are not properly tuned. You should be able the entire standard range of the bassoon out of the corner of your mouth. (This is the final test in Quick Guide to Bassoon Reed Tuning.)
Note: In the Scales Bottom to Top exercise below, the lowest note of the scale is not necessarily the tonic or root of the scale. The first note can be any note in that scale’s key signature.
You do not need to practice the scales below in their entirety until you are comfortable playing each section of the scale. For example, you can cut out the middle measure(s) of any scale. You can also jump across from the ascending scale to any beat in the scale connecting to the corresponding descending portion of the scale. You can start on any beat and go “round and round” by connecting to the corresponding note of the descending scale (which may be one note higher or lower than the ascending scale). The Scales Bottom to Top exercise can also help you learn tenor clef.
Six-Note Scales and Eight-Note Scales
The whole tone scale contains six whole steps. The two scales cover the twelve tones in the chromatic scale. Unlike the diatonic, seven-note scale there are no half steps.
The three eight-note diminished scales combine consecutive half and whole steps or whole and half steps. They are more unusual, and commonly found in jazz compositions and improvisation off of the V7 chord. Diminished chords are found commonly in all forms of music. Every other note of the diminished scales forms a diminished seventh chord.
The following Debussy piece contains a very tricky passage in both the first and second bassoon parts using the two (six-note) whole tone scales in tenor clef. The second scale, starting on Eb, goes back and forth rapidly between the upper Db and Eb twice. It is recommended to use the Db-Eb trill fingering: While fingering short Db (no extra keys in right hand) simply lift the 3rd finger left hand for the Eb. The tempo for this passage is a snappy allegro between 144 and 160 beats per minute (bpm).
Practice Your Trills and Turns
Perhaps the most overlooked area in bassoon pedagogy are the half and whole step trills and turns. These ornaments are commonly seen in Baroque music. Most bassoonists do not practice trills on a regular basis. Begin your practice above the lowest notes as the lowest register notes are extremely difficult and not commonly used in trills. Some treatises on the bassoon have said to avoid trills. The use of one-finger trills are preferred where possible. Two or three finger trills sound funky, out of tune and clunky in execution. Some bassoons have extra trill keys that make difficult trills possible. Some of the low notes cannot be trilled without special added keys or tricks. In my teaching I would assign two or three lines in the exercise below per lesson to achieve some comfort in execution.
Practice Nasty Passages
- Mozart, Requiem, 2nd bassoon, Movement 8: Domine Jesu
- Mozart, Symphony No. 35 (Haffner), Finale (both bassoons)
- Mozart, Overture to the Marriage of Figaro (both bassoons)
- Mozart, Cosi Fan Tutte, Overture, 1st bassoon
- Beethoven, Symphony No. 4, 4th movement (both bassoons)
- Stravinsky, Pulcinella, 1st bassoon
- Rossini, Barber of Seville, 1st bassoon, Overture and “The Figaro’s Aria” (Largo al Factotem)
- Smetana, The Bartered Bride, 1st bassoon
- Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 4, last movement