THE CHINESE BASSOON CONNECTION (or, my tongue and cheek experiment)
Thank you Neville, for initiating a topic dear to my heart. (if only because the experience is so distant now) I agree with you Scott. "This is a very interesting topic, which could affect the future of bassoon manufacturing." If you'll indulge me, I'd like to share, in summary, my adventures with just such a bassoon.
About a year and a half ago, I won an auction, on a very well known Web site, for a Chinese manufactured bassoon. Very intrigued, as to what's available for a starting bassoon player, for the sum of $800.00-$900.00,
I dispackaged my new, or like new, or pseudo/quasi new, Laval bassoon. Apparently, it was previously owned, as evidenced by one bent and removed Ab key, and the torn out body lock. No problem, as I paid only $305 complete with shipping. I was very far ahead, even if used only for parts. Opening the case, was a complete bassoon, silver plated, and yes Neville, with all the necessary keywork to qualify as an acceptable contemporary bassoon. The case? Barely adequate for the trip from China. However, in one corner of the case was installed a device, very effectively catching my eye. Was it a clock? No, it's a hygrometer. In all the world's history, of bassoon manufacture, who'd have thought to supplant valuable storage space, for the likes of this beautiful, brass plated, humidity gauge? What an ingenious marketing scheme. I can't imagine how I've ever survived without it. To whomever, I thank you dearly. Oh, by the way, it indicated better relative time than humidity.
About 10 minutes to straighten and install the Ab key, align and restore an adequate seal,and replace the body lock. Greased it up, assembled the instrument, installed the bocal, (1 of 3, mind you) which was in fact curved in the right direction, so things were looking up. If I could only describe in words, the pure transparent sound emitted after carefully selecting a reed. That first satisfied moment of anticipation, whilst not knowing the potential of this instrument to make music. Neville? My first impression was similar to your own evaluation. Whether the quality of sound was good vs bad, I won't argue, however, it wasn't at all muffled, quite brilliant, consistent in timbre throughout the entire range. Out of the box, it sealed well enough to play and evaluate. While the overall intonation hovered closely to 440, there were a few local pitch irregularities. Since my own early experience of learning the bassoon,was on a Linton, which by my peer's testament, I was the only one who could play that thing, this Chinese specimen was a close candidate for a budding new player,(or learner).
And so about 10 or 20 minutes into sonoric hopefulness, commenced the binding key syndrome. No problem! Expected. This would be typical for a cheap bassoon, or for that matter, typical for a cheap doorknob. A little time at the bench, and I'll be able to blow this thing, even if just in between rainy days. Shorten some hinge rods, ream a couple of pivots, adjust a few springs, refine, just a little, some key heights. No problem. Oops, hmm, a few loose posts. That's not a good sign folks. Alright, I can see where this is going. And so it goes, when one builds a bassoon from a piece of maple barely adequate for a table leg. Scott couldn't have said it better.
No Problem!! Strip the entire bassoon down to the body,(bands came right off), posts, and all. Just reinstall all the posts with the appropriate adhesives,align them with the previously adjusted keys, and soonly, I'll be rewarded with beautiful sound again.
Duh? How come some of the pivot screws are stripped? That's not supposed to happen. So the manufacturer is a little lax, in their tolerances. No Problem!!! I'll just drill out all the offending posts, retap the threads, and ream the hinge tubes for nice new stainless pivot screws, acquired from, you know where, (that'd be Fox). OK, there's not much else left to possibly go wrong, so I'm getting really excited to audition, this now hybrid Chinese/American bassoon. While on the last lap of this surprise rebuild, I'll do some of my favorite stuff and really fine tune the action. So I'll add the Teflon to all the sliding bearing surfaces, and do a first class regulation of the mechanism. I enjoy this mechanical work so much, it's actually a reward for all the previous "no problem" type torture. Incidentally Neville, you're accurate in your observation of the keywork being "robust". As these bassoons are made with a soft brass stock for the keys, the dimension is necessarily more robust. The keys bend so easily, that I can't imagine an innocent student not rendering this bassoon helpless, just from ordinary assembly. Any other manufacturer uses nickel silver, around twice the tensile of brass. Added to this ongoing adventure was all the typical and commensurate procedure of smoothing the tone holes and on and on. Interestingly, I had to replace only 3 or 4 pads. Go figure.
So after all the work I put into this instrument. I don't have much hope for it's survival. Sad!
I didn't keep an accurate account of time. I'd say I spent between 40 and 50 hours trying to make a reliable instrument from the available raw material. I sold the bassoon to a young player, insisting on owning one of these lovely instruments for a reasonable cost of $750, still well under the market price. I explained over the tele and in writing, how to care for this Laval, so it can be serviceable. I further installed a spare low D guard over the bottom of the tenor joint, so to have a place to securely grab the joint while putting the bassoon together. I screwed all the blocking together so the case may last for awhile. Oh, last and least, I got the hygrometer working. Yes, to the detriment of storage space. But then, who needs reed tools for these instruments. That makes my time worth about $10 an hour. A foolish wage by our standards, but an extraordinary wage for the Chinese workers that generate these instruments.
The Laval is one of many manufacturer's named brands of bassoons. First there was the Lark, then Haydn, Laval, Maestro, each supplanting the other as the bassoon tooting public becomes privy, then the more westernized namesakes, the Winsten and Elite, and others I don't remember right now. The one that more than irritates me, is the reintroduction of the Kohlert. Somewhere, somehow, a Chinese manufacturing agent purchased the name of Kohlert. So now the unwitting buyer has to have the responsibility to discern what could be a familiar name from the prey. If there's value in this tongue and cheek expedition here, The bassoon teacher can become more aware of this proliferation of imports, for the sake and sanity, of all potential players.
If there are those of you that think I'm harsh. You're right. However, to show my unyielding open mindedness, I've come to one very apparent realization of value for this species of bassoon. Hands down, without a heartbeat of equivocation, there is no better candidate on this planet, for the training of future virtuoso bassoon technicians, than to have at there disposal an endless supply of these instruments, so to facilitate the learning of every conceivable procedure and operation in the restoration of bassoons.(you can take a breath now) All bassoons can have problems, but only some are lucky enough to have all the problems.
I think that's about it for now. All the best.
Nicholas Evans-Bassoonist, Bassoon Repair and Restoration Mechanic.