Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Over the Break

While many of us are enjoying a Christmas or winter break, I'd like to talk about a different break.

A reader who is an adult beginner requested advice on successfully navigating slurs that bridge the register break on the bassoon. That would be any note from open F (F2) or below to any note above open F. This break occurs due to a lack of a true octave key on the bassoon.

Coordinating the movement of many fingers on both hands can make this difficult. Another issue is the half hole used when slurring to F#, G or G# -- also made necessary by the lack of a proper octave key or vent.

A few things to check if slurring to these notes is problematic.

  1. Reed tip opening needs to be sufficient (1 mm at least at widest point between blades) to accommodate the change in air speed from the primary octave to the overblown (second) octave.
  2. Reed needs to be strong enough to handle the change in airspeed without closing up. Softer reeds make this difficult.
  3. Embouchure should remain relaxed while increasing air speed. No biting!
  4. When removing fingers from the body of the bassoon, keep them as close as possible. Lift them straight off the bassoon just a few millimeters, not at an angle. This way, you have a greater chance of covering the tone holes completely when you return them. Use the mirror to check for excess motion.
  5. Half hole technique needs to be secure.
Regarding the half hole technique, opening different amounts for each of the three notes (F#, G, G#) helps. F# = 3/4 open, G = 1/2 open, G# 1/4 open.

To refine the half hole technique:
  1. Use a mirror to see what your index finger is doing. 
  2. Pretend the tip of your index finger is glued to the tone hole. It can be rotated down towards the E tone hole, but not lifted off because of the "glue". 
  3. Practice half holing with your finger and thumb on a pencil. Rotate the index finger without lifting it.
  4. Or practice by making the "OK" sign with your thumb and index finger. Rotate the index finger left and right without losing contact with the thumb. Keep the thumb steady and don't let it move.
The Weissenborn Method introduces slurs over the register break in a pedagogically solid sequence.

Note that Weissenborn starts with a G-F slur in the top exercise. It's easier to form the half hole G fingering and then remove fingers slur to F, than it is to start with open F and slur to G. After this action is mastered the student can then move on to the second exercise in which an F-G slur is added to the G-F slur.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Inside of a Reed

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
 - Groucho Marx -

Instead of the inside of a dog, I'd like to discuss the inside of a reed in this post!

The taper of the space inside the reed from tip to butt end constitutes a continuation of the taper of the bassoon bore.

Therefore, it stands to reason that any change of the dimensions of this space changes the bore of the bassoon at that point and, thus, changes the way the reed responds and sounds.

Yet, after an initial reaming and adjustment of wire roundness, few bassoonists examine this aspect of the reed.

However, the photos below demonstrate how much change can occur on its own inside the reed during its lifetime.
Reed next to mandrel pin for comparison.

Note that the tip of  the mandrel pin, when inserted, would extend well under the blade. The pin has a collar stop for consistent reaming depth. Forming and drying blanks using a mandrel pin like this ensure a consistent interior taper from tip to butt end from reed to reed.

Reamer with reed.
Using a reamer like this gives a consistent taper to each reed from butt to throat. Many other reamers are shorter and do not size the throat of the reed.

A reed after proper reaming with butt end at collar stop of the mandrel pin.
Mature reed fitted on mandrel pin.    

Note that the reed no longer fits all the way on the pin. During soaking, the cane in the tube area expands inward, taking up some of the space inside.
Change of taper in throat after repeated soaking and drying due to continuous use.

In the two photos above, you can see that the reed's interior dimensions have greatly changed as the reed has been soaked, played on and dried over time. The above is an extreme example, but I have found that this happens to some degree to EVERY reed. 

Aside from the fact that the reed in the above photos doesn't fit on the bocal as far or as securely as when it was reamed new, is there a problem here?

Many have noticed that reeds, as they age and are played in tend to rise in pitch and loose vibrancy. Some of this is due to embouchure pressure and finishing scrapes and adjustments made to the exterior of the reed.

However, I have found that these deleterious effects can be lessened and the reed's performance can be improved and even extended by re-sizing the taper inside the reed.

The two easiest ways to do this are:

1. Re-ream the reed periodically. You must use a reamer that reaches into the throat of the reed, however. Most reamers are shorter and do not address this part of the reed.

2. Push the soaked reed on the mandrel pin to nudge the reed back to original dimensions.

Re-reaming the reed is most effective. However, if the original ream is pretty aggressive, due to bevel and shape (amount of backflair), you may not want to thin the reed at that point by repeated re-reamings. Also, reaming can be messy, with lots of reamed fibers accumulating inside the reed throat.

I usually re-ream a reed just once or twice during its lifespan.

Re-sizing the reed tube and throat with a mandrel pin is quicker and not messy at all. If you need to twist to get the reed tube up to the collar stop, twist as little as possible and twist in both directions.

However, re-sizing this way is temporary. It lasts a short while and then the cane relaxes back to its collapsed position again.

Re-sizing the reed a few times over use is helpful in maintaining the opening dimensions.  Initially, dry the reed out outside of the case by placing it on your drying rack with it fully inserted into the mandrel pin. You can even soak the reed with it on the mandrel pin before playing on it. Doing this a few times is sufficient. After a week or so, the reed will stabilize and no longer shrink in the tube and throat.

I've found that reeds maintained this way preserve resonance and steady pitch longer and are just generally usable longer.

Try these ideas and see what you find!

If you don't have a reamer that shapes the throat as well as the tube (most are shorter than mine), or don't have a mandrel pin that extends past under the first wire of your reeds, check out these products on my website.

If you are concerned about cracking your reeds using these tools, just be sure the first wire is round enough to accept the tips of these tools before inserting. A normal first wire opening works fine for me resulting in about 1mm between blades at tip's widest opening. No problem! 

As usual, most of these ideas are not my original, so I'd like to credit friend and bassoonist, James Roberson for his idea about using the mandrel to re-size the reed's interior.

Also, check out the fixed chamber reed of Mark Eubanks of Arundo Research Corporation.

There is also very interesting research done by British bassoonist, Thomas Palmer. A Study of the Air Gap Between Blades of a Reed.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Heinrich Density corrections and "Christmas Star"

I've updated my previous post about cane density, thanks to some helpful corrections from Jean-Marie Heinrich. Some of the terminology I used was incorrect or inaccurate and he also provided more information on his methods.

Since this post got (is getting) a lot of views, I thought I would update it to show these corrections. If you've already read it, go back and have a look again. I think it will make more sense now.

Heinrich also sent me this discovery from under his microscope.

Bassoon Cane Christmas Omen?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Cane microscopy

I recently received a wonderful email from researcher, Jean-Marie Heinrich. He is the one who wrote the article, "The Bassoon Reed", published in the Journal of the International Double Reed Society. Required reading for all serious reed makers!

Jean-Marie shared with me some photos of cane taken at the microscopic level. He has added a level of artistry through use of different dyes.

Most notable are his comparisons of cane of different densities. Here is scientific evidence of why reeds feel different from one to the next, although the construction may be nearly identical.

In the photos, the background material is cellulose, the triangular or teardrop shaped objects are lignified cellulose or vascular bundles.  A lignin is: "A complex organic compound that binds to cellulose fibers and hardens and strengthens the cell walls of plants."  - American Heritage Science Dictionary.

The vascular bundles surround two tubular structures called the  xylem. They function as a circulatory system for nutrients in Arundo donax.

More and/or thicker vascular bundles = dense cane.

A split piece of tube cane showing high density. Cellulose is the white background, vascular bundles,  brown/yellow "teardrops". The more important difference between this photo and the one below is the thicker bark in the photo above. (no dye or reagent used)

Another piece showing low density. Vascular bundles thinner and less numerous. Bark is thinner. (no dye or reagent used)

 High density with cellulose appearing blue, lignified cells appear green. High lignification, thick bark. These two samples were not stained, but the colors are the result of chemical reaction to the reagent Toluidine blue. Cellulose and lignified cells react differently to the reagent, thus resulting in different colors.

Low density with blue staining. Cell wall structure immature. Almost no lignification.

Oboe cane microscopy -- high density. The vascular bundles look like little aliens floating in cellulose!

Oboe cane (same magnification) - low density.

1000 sections of oboe cane tube sorted by density. Lowest density on the left, highest on right. Each reed maker must draw his/her own conclusions about what density is best for use in reed making. A sample of not less than 1000pcs is large enough for accurate and repeatable results.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Phyllis McGinley Song Cycle

It's been a year since the bassoon world lost one of its leading figures; K. David Van Hoesen. I thought it would be fitting to upload the wonderful recording he made with Jan DeGaetani

and his daughter, Gretchen Van Hoesen

of Alec Wilder's Phyllis McGinley Song Cycle. Listen here:

Here are the poems he set:

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Malambo, Nostalgica and Wilder videos

I've just uploaded some videos to YouTube.

Malambo, Op.115 by Miguel del Aguila. This is my live performance from May of this year with the MOSA quartet.

Nostalgica for Bassoon and String Quartet, also from May performance. Miguel revised this piece for our performance. 

And, continuing my homage to my former teacher, K. David Van Hoesen, here is his recording of Alec Wilder's Sonata #3 for Bassoon and Piano with Bill Dobbins.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Bozza Recit, Sicilienne et Rondo

Recit, Sicilienne et Rondo by Eugene Bozza is one of the best Paris Conservatory pieces out there. I have just posted my live performance at the University of Arkansas from this past April on YouTube .

Anyone performing this piece will notice that the edition contains several obvious errors. I'll list them below.


  • In the first line above, the second turn should end in an E eighth note, not a C.
  • At the Lent indication, the 32nds should be in BASS CLEF, not tenor. This is from K. David Van Hoesen who told me that in an earlier edition, the clef change happened only at the beginning of the next line. The Bb (instead of F) start to the Lent makes more sense harmonically, since it fits with the quasi diminished 7th arpeggios just before it. An F would not fit. Also, the F gives an implied V-I cadence in a place where there is no functional harmony.
  •   Anyone playing through this page with a pianist will quickly discover that the measures rest tally at #5 is long by a measure. Also the rests in the fourth bar of #5 give that bar too much value.
  • A slur and tie are missing from the second measure before #10. Compare to 5 before #10.

There are errors in the piano part as well.

This is not an omission or error, but simply a way of making the opening more dramatic. This is what Van Hoesen added to the piano part. Try it! It sounds really great!

In the above, the 3/4 bars with the septuplets in them need a quarter rest, not an eighth. Perhaps the original had the old-fashioned French quarter rests that look like reversed eighth rests?

In the above, the rolled chords in the first two measures should be half notes, not quarters.