(George Goslee 1916-2006)
There is no perfect instrument. All instruments have inherent strengths and weaknesses.
The mighty tone of the piano, the King of Instruments, is forever doomed to die away seconds after being struck. The noble violin is limited by the bow, the glorious voice by its breath.
The bassoon tone is one of great subtlety and character. Its tone is chameleon-like, adding lustre to just about any instrument with which it is paired. Many bassoonists were first attracted to the instrument by its sound.
However, when compared with the piano or violin, it is a seriously limited instrument. Aside from its technical challenges, there are sonic problems that must be addressed.
A quick perusal of works by great composers shows how the bassoon can be used effectively in the orchestra. The bassoon is the "utility" player of the wind section. It can play a great bass line, spin a counter-melody, accompany an oboe or flute solo and even carry the solo line itself.
However, there are reasons why composers feature the bassoon as soloist in the orchestra less often than most of the others.
One of the first problems with which a bassoonist must contend is projection. This is not normally a problem for instruments like the oboe or saxophone which naturally project. Indeed, players of these instruments spend a lot of time taming their tone to make it fit in!
When the bassoonist tries to project in the manner of a trombonist or clarinetist, the result not successful. The decibel range of the bassoon is simply not as large as that of the trombone.
Indeed, sometimes the bassoon section just becomes "flyover territory" for the brass section!
So if the bassoonist can't (or doesn't want to) compete with the trombone section, what is it that does make a bassoon sound project?
I believe that projection comes from the resonance and focus in the sound.
This is a great term. Think of the sound you make as being so compelling that it causes a sympathetic vibration in the listener's body -- a re-sounding if you will.
Resonance on the bassoon is not created by force.
Try this: take a C# in the bass cleff staff and make a crescendo by using more and more force. What happens! You reach a point at which using more air actually makes the tone smaller. The resistance of the C# combined with the increase of air speed inside the reed creates a vacuum, causing the reed to collapse, dampening its vibrations and giving a diminuendo!
Thus, at a certain point, using force backfires. While the C# is an extreme case, the same principle holds true for the rest of the notes on the bassoon.
Instead, the reed and instrument must be freed to vibrate. The player must let things vibrate and not try to make them vibrate. Creating resonance means using an energetic airstream, but also staying "out of the way" of the reed, cushioning or holding the sound instead of pushing or shoving it.
A lot of my work with myself and with students involves finding ways to support, yet stay out of the way of resonance and "letting it happen".
One of my favorite qualities of the bassoon tone is its great subtlety and versatility. However, these same qualities give a less straightforward impression to the listener than that of the trumpet or piccolo, for instance. I believe this is due to a lack of focus in the bassoon's acoustical makeup.
The bassoon tone is known to have rich harmonics and a relatively weak fundamental. Perhaps this is why it blends so well with other instruments. The partials fill in frequencies lacking in the other instruments, while the weak fundamental keeps the bassoon from sticking out.
Above is a spectrograph of my low B. I recorded my low B in a recording studio, along with several other pitches. (Thanks to Bruce Gigax for recording and Ross Duffin for graphing the frequencies.)
In the graph, the strength of a particular component of the sound (resonance peak) is measured in decibels on the vertical axis. These are shown as the peaks with very sharp slopes. Interspersed are other peaks in the shape of a line that are probably due to room resonance and not part of the sound. Notice also the large red area under the peaks. This is where the "noise" in the sound resides.
The horizontal axis measures the frequency of each peak for Low B.
1st peak = Fundamental = 62 Hz (approx.)
2nd peak = 1st harmonic = 124 Hz or equal to B in bass clef staff
3rd peak = 2nd harmonic = 186 Hz roughly F# in bass clef staff
Low B is one of the most unfocused notes on the bassoon. Play this note into a tuner and you may notice that you get a stronger reading for F# than you do B. This can be confirmed by checking the graph. The resonance peak for the 2nd harmonic (F# - third peak from the left on the graph) is stronger than the resonance peak for the fundamental (1st peak from the left). Indeed some tuners may confuse this note for an F#.
The shortness and relative similarity in height of each resonance peak provide physical evidence of why this note is so unfocused. The ear has trouble picking out the predominant resonance for this note.
Here is a more focused note (C3 or first ledger line C).
I'll deal more with acoustics in a future post.
A spectrograph of oboe sound or violin sound would show a much stronger fundamental and even better defined resonance peaks. A recent analysis of violin sound (a 2007 California State Science Fair project!) found that between 70-92% of an individual pitch resided in the fundamental alone. That left 8-30% for the harmonics of the pitch. These instruments have much more focused tones than the bassoon.
How To Focus
Putting aside instrument and bocal quality, a focused sound can be attained by a fastidious attention to the scrape of the reed. This is especially true in the tip area. I find that getting the slope of the tip just right and having the right amount of change of thickness from center(spine) to sides is essential.
When I get this scrape just right my sound has greater resonance, almost like viewing something in 2 dimensions and then suddenly putting on 3-D glasses. I've written about this in more detail in a previous post.
Another element essential for focusing the sound is embouchure placement. Try playing a note, but taking more or less reed in the mouth and see what positioning does for the focus of the sound.
Perhaps the most important part of producing a focused sound is in how the airstream is used. Some instruments practically focus themselves. You just have to blow into them. Those who have played the saxophone know what I'm talking about!
Not so with the bassoon. The player must use a very disciplined airstream to focus the sound. An open oral cavity, throat and chest are balanced with a firmness in the abdomen to support and direct the air towards the reed.
In my next post, I'll provide a link to a wonderful article on how to use the air when playing the bassoon, "Breathe, Don't Blow" and give my reactions to it. I think it's the best thing I've ever read on how the air should be used to play the bassoon.