Updated: Aug 4, 2022
Frustrated when the notes you're playing don't sound right? Here's a note by note guide by Robert Williams, retired Principal Bassoonist for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra!
This blog post is provided courtesy of Robert S. Williams and Womble/Williams Double Reeds (WWDR).
Interlochen, Summer 2020
Today's modern bassoon is really not modern at all. The basic keywork on the instrument has not changed much for the past hundred years except for the addition of the whisper key and G resonance key as "standard keys". We have simply continued to add extra keywork to the mechanisms that were in use by Heckel in the latter part of the 19ff century when he added rubber liners to the bore of the wing joint and small side of the boot to create the modem German system bassoon.
The extended range of the bassoon further adds to the complications in the fingering system. No other wind instrument involves as much significant use of thumb keys as the bassoon. My bassoon has ten keys that must be played with my left thumb, five for my right.
On a poorly serviced instrument or with a bad reed all notes are bad notes on the bassoon. I am going to discuss notes that can be difficult to attack or play in tune and make suggestions on how to improve them on an instrument in good working order with a decent reed.
I have played the bassoon professionally for over Fifty years and have come to rely on the techniques that I will discuss in this lecture. My teachers discussed many of the ideas that I will speak about. Sometimes I listened and sometimes it took me many years to come to the simple conclusion that I should have paid attention many years before. I strongly recommend that you try some of these ideas to see if they work for you.
I will start with the lower problem notes and work my way up. A fingering chart with my recommendations can be found here.
Low D: This note tends to be very sharp on most bassoons. There is really no trick fingering to lower the pitch (if you add the low Bb key it will help but also adversely affect the resonance of the note). My best advice is to scrape the back of the reed if you have a sharp D until you can manage the note by using a very open and loose embouchure.
Low E: I usually add the low Db key to this note to drop the pitch and add resonance.
Low F#: The best fingering for this note is to use the thumb key. If it is very sharp you can use the pp fingering: add both F# keys plus the low E key.
Eb in staff: The addition of the second finger right hand and thumb Bb key stabilizes this often unstable note. I try to scrape my reed in the channels so that the normal forked fingering will play in tune. If you need a softer or flatter fingering use the first finger right hand with the Bb key.
F# in staff: Most bassoon makers tune F# so that the little finger right hand fingering F# is slightly flatter than the thumb F#. I teach my students to use the little finger F# in the half hole register if possible. In technical passages or scales involving G#/Ab to F#/Gb I use the thumb F# key. F# in the staff requires a very large half-hole to speak clearly with either fingering. Always use the whisper key with this and any other half-hole note. A very good mute fingering for this note is to use the thumb F# key fingering and add the low D key and little finger Eb key.
G in staff: This-note tends to be very sharp. I highly recommend the use of the left little finger Eb or preferably Db key to lower the pitch. I use the Db key because it is slightly lower in pitch than the Eb key. Once again use the whisper key on this and all half-hole notes.
Ab top of staff: If I had to pick the most troublesome note on the bassoon it would without a doubt be this note. I have cracked this note more than any other in my professional career. It requires the use of a very small half-hole, too much and a crack is almost guaranteed. The use of the whisper key is also essential on this note to keep the pitch down. If you want to be sure this note does not crack, flick the A key at the beginning of the attack. This is especially useful for slurring to Ab from open F as in the duet with the English horn in the slow movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony If possible try to keep the whisper key down when flicking by using your whisper key lock or little finger whisper key if you have it on your bassoon.
A on top of the staff: This note is the first of a series that requires the use of “speaker” or “flick” keys to ensure a clean attack. The bassoon does not have octave keys as such, but you could consider the A key as a first octave key for use on this A. I vent or hold open the A key for short or repeated notes and flick, or momentarily hold it open at the beginning, for long notes. When slurring to this note I also use the A key to ensure a clean slur. Without the use of this key the attacks will tend to crack or go into split octaves and slurs may not work. Usually when slurring to this note from a half-hole note just below you do not need to use the flick key.
Bb on top of staff: This note tends to crack as badly as the A. It is also a very unstable note on many bassoons. The use of the C key or A key will help get clean attacks and slurs by venting or flicking as discussed above, Scraping the reed in the channels toward the tip may also help balky attacks. If all else fails then either of the two vent keys can be held down for the duration of the note.
B on top of staff: I flick/vent the C key for attacks and slurs to keep this note from cracking.
Middle C: I flick/vent the C key or D key for clean attacks and slurs on this note.
C# above middle C: This note has two basic fingerings; the first or simple C# is basically the same fingering as the octave lower minus the whisper key. I don't like this fingering except on special occasions when I need to play very soft or flat. The left thumb cannot use any of the flick keys on this note because it is in use depressing the C# key. This gives the fingering the same problems as the previous notes. The attacks are not clean. The fingering I recommend, the "long C#", uses the left hand first, second and third fingers plus the C# key, right hand second and third fingers plus the low F key. This fingering speaks immediately and cleanly. It is a bit higher in pitch than the simple fingering, so when switching to this fingering from the simple C# you need to learn to voice it a bit lower. A variation to the "long" fingering is the "full C#" that adds the first finger right hand and thumb Bb key to the long fingering This is slightly lower in pitch but may be easier to slur to and from the A and Bb below. There are some bassoons, especially Schreiber's, where this note is so sharp that another fingering may be used, right hand first, second and third finger with the F key.
D above middle C: I am a true believer that high D keys should be standard on all bassoons. This is because it is the only key that can be used as a speaker key for this D as well as greatly improving your chances of playing high D and C# an octave higher. On bassoons without a high D key you can flick the C key to get a clean attack on the D as long as there is play between the C key and the Eb trill mechanism underneath the C key. If you open the Eb trill mechanism you will get an E flat, not the D you want. There is a variation fingering similar to the long C# above that is fingered left hand first and second fingers and right hand second, third and F key that does not require flicking, but the resonance of this fingering is much different than the normal fingering.
Eb and E above middle C: These notes are in the very resistant register of the bassoon and require a great deal of wind support to be in tune. I usually pick up my first finger right hand if clean attacks are needed or if slurring to these notes. This is not always true, so experiment to see what fingering works best for you. An example of when I use the full fingering is for octave slurs from the E in the staff to an octave above. It balks on my bassoon when I use the slur fingering!
F above middle C: This note is probably the most resistant note on the bassoon as far as intonation. It requires a great deal of breath support as well as firming up of the embouchure to be in tune. You almost get the feeling of blowing up a balloon when playing this note correctly. My teacher, Norman Herzberg calls the range of middle C to F the "money register" of the bassoon. Many of our most famous solos are in this register and without proper support these solos will simply not be successful. Two that come to my mind at the moment are the Berceuse solo for the “Firebird Ballet” of Stravinsky and the slow movement solo in Tchaikovsky’s “Forth Symphony”
F# above middle C: There are three basic fingerings for this note with variations. The first two below that I use most often have the same tendency as the above F and require a great deal of support and the third is just the opposite and tends to be bright and sharp. They are all useful and should be familiar to any budding bassoonist.
The first fingering I teach is using the second and third fingers left hand plus the Bb key and a Bb fingering in the right hand. This is a very good technical fingering and is fairly easy to slur to and from and to attack. If I want to slur up to this note I will finger the left hand with only the second finger and E-flat key. For sure attacks I sometimes will slightly crack the second finger left hand.
The second fingering I teach is using the same left-hand fingering as above but using the right hand first, second fingers and low F key. I use this fingering for maximum resonance. It is the best sounding of the fingerings, but has some shortcomings in technical passages because it will not slur as easily as the Bb fingering and is more of a cross fingering than the Bb fingering above. You can use the same variations as on the Bb fingering for slurring and attacking notes.
The third fingering I teach is basically the high G fingering without the F key. This simple fingering tends to be very bright and sharp but is very useful in technical passages. This is the only F# fingering I use that requires a half-hole and thus should have the whisper key used as well.
High G: This note tends to be very sharp on many bassoons. A very open embouchure and the use of the whisper key are mandatory to control the pitch. One trick I use to lower the pitch of this note on problem instruments is to take a short piece of a plastic soda straw, slice it lengthwise and insert it into the G resonance tone hole. This needs to be shorter than the tone hole so that it doesn't go into the bore. This is the hole that is connected to the right hand second finger ring key. The spring action of the straw will keep the straw in place and additional straws can be inserted into the hole if needed.
High G#: This note requires the use of the whisper key and an open embouchure for proper intonation. The half-hole should be very small to keep the pitch down and sound centered. There are two fingerings that work very well for this note. In the right hand I usually use just the G key but for soft attacks and solo passages I sometimes use the second, third (G) and Bb keys in the right hand for slightly flatter and resistant result.
High A and Bb: I use an A-Whisper key connection on my bassoon so that the whisper key closes when I have my A key depressed. This centers the pitch on the high A and Bb and also is very useful when flicking the A an octave lower. The reasoning for this key is that we don't need both the A key and whisper key open at the same time to play these notes. The whisper key is superfluous and just makes the note sharper and brighter, so closing it helps not only intonation but also sound.
High B: I believe this is the sharpest note on the bassoon when using the correct fingering. Playing this note in tune requires you to have a very open throat, use only the embouchure support needed and practice long tones until you get it correct. I have heard of some students leaving off the Bb key to drop the pitch on this note. This works very well but also kills the wonderful resonance of the normal fingering,
High C: This note is similar to the high B above but is not nearly as sharp. If you have a high D key on your bassoon and you have trouble getting the C out using the normal high C key, try using the D key in its place. You can also use both C and D keys for a sure attack but I find this fingering a bit bright.
I believe the hardest part of learning to play the bassoon is to learn to attack and slur notes cleanly and in tune. Hopefully the above lecture will help you with this. These are my suggestions but are not your only options available. Keep an open mind and have fun playing the bassoon!
Robert S. Williams recently retired as Principal Bassoonist for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, where he has performed since 1974. He is generously sharing these materials in hopes of helping young aspiring bassoonists. For more information about Robert, please check out his profile page.