Topic: Flat bassoon student

I have been a band director for 35 years, and just when I thought I had seen everything, this situation comes along.

I have a girl who was in the 6th grade last year. She was a pretty decent clarinet player and a good bright kid. The only problem, was that she played very flat. She appeared to have a solid embrochure and used plenty of air. She got a very nice tone and had good facility, it was just VERY flat. We went so far as to have her clarinet barrel cut down, which helped a bit. She expressed an interest in bassoon and I thought that in addition to being a good candidate to switch, this would be a solution to the flat clarinet as we could start over. We got her lessons from a local bassoonist - a Julliard grad and a good teacher. She quickly fell in love with the bassoon and developed well. She gets a good, centered tone, appears to have a good embrochure and uses good air, BUT, once again, she is very flat. This is totally baffling to me as it is to my colleagues with whom I have shared this situation.

I am thinking, that for whatever reason (e.g. odd formation of the inside of her mouth, ???) that she just plays flat and we should look for the shortest bocal possible and go with it, but I'm totally open to other thoughts or suggestions.

Any suggestions????????


Re: Flat bassoon student

Could be an instrument issue, a bocal issue, or a reed issue.  I had a student who played as much as a quarter tone flat throughout her range until I realized that her reed was too long.  As soon as I clipped the tip 1.5 mm - in tune!

Bryan Cavitt
Bassoonist, Elkhart County (IN) Symphony Orchestra; Bassoon Dad


Re: Flat bassoon student

Welcome to the Forum!

Here's another thought.

Check out the equipment (bassoon, reeds, etc.), of course, to make sure that lightning hasn't struck twice, but my guess is that the problem isn't with the equipment, but with her.

I am struck by your observation that she played flat on the clarinet, and now *again* plays flat, this time on the bassoon.

My guess: the problem is not with her equipment or her mouth, but with how she perceives pitch.

When she is flat, does she recognize this fact? Or does she think she is in tune? Can she discern the difference?

My recommendation, if she is enthusiastic about playing music: solfège, sight-singing, and ear training, in addition to rigorous practice with a metronome and/or drone.

There are at least two problems with going with an unusually short bocal:

- it will disturb the evenness of pitch of the instrument's scale;

- assuming that her ear is the problem, she'll just figure out a way (probably unconsciously) to bend the pitch again to that flat level.

Do some diagnostics of how she perceives pitch. Depending on the results, you'll be able to tailor a program for her.

I wish her success in resolving this pitch problem and progressing on the bassoon. Kudos to you for seeking advice and helping her.


Re: Flat bassoon student

Hello Graffama, To raise the pitch have your student experiment with her tongue position as she plays. The simplest test is to play G3 (4th space G in the bass staff) while imagining to pronounce the vowel 'awh' and then 'ee'. She should not change the air speed while changing the vowel. The 'ee' may produce a sharper pitch. If it does, the tongue position might not have to be an extreme 'ee' shape, but something closer to it than what she is using now. (Usually we have to work away from the 'ee' to get pitch lower!) Very best of luck with your keen student and sincere congratulations for your 35 years as a band director! Christopher Weait

Christopher Weait,
Principal bassoon, Toronto Symphony (1968 - 1985)
IDRS Honorary Member; Emeritus professor Ohio State University

Re: Flat bassoon student

I usually try to have students produce a C (slightly flat is OK, but not a B) with just the bocal and reed.  If they cannot get it up to pitch, even with lots of air, they are likely to have pitch problems. I agree that solfege, tuning CDs, drone pitches and all can help, but the student must get that basic pitch pretty close to a C.  Sometimes it's a really flat reed..Jones "Soft" reeds are often quite flat for my students...I always recommend a Jones "Medium" strength reed for those bent on playing reeds they camn find at local music stores.


Re: Flat bassoon student

Is it over the whole range - just the notes from C downwards (lowest octave) or al notes above open F, or just upper BC-G?
Definitely worthwhile to investigate aural awareness (basic singing /humming helps here.)

If clipping the reed, as in one suggestion, there may need to be a re-finishing of the scrape unless it is just a too soft reed in which case the clipping may cure the problem. Experimenting with the vowel shape is a good starting point - if she is under-supporting the tone / pitch, blowing with lips on the binding will show graphically how hard you need to blow all notes from open F down to the lowest notes (expect a robust sound ff). This is the range over which we yawn the most as well, so "bite" and "compression" are less important in this range than just blowing very firmly. Moving back to the normal lip location should be accompanied by still blowing as hard as was required for binding location. Definitely check out the instrument - schools can buy bad quality winds (and brass) of any type due to budget constraints. Use the shortest available bocal - definitely not a no. 2. normally o no.1 or even no.0  (standard equipment should be 2 bocals nos. 1&2 with no.1 being shorter / sharper than no.2

Temperature may be a factor esp in older plastic Selmers and Foxes. Bore damage or leaking u-tube gasket or badly adjusted keys can all contribute.

Get a pro or senior player to blow the instrument and give it the once over. A very dry wooden instrument might have bore distortions or even porous areas that let air leak out - oiling the bore may help here.

if you really suspect it's the player - try her on another bassoon which is known to be playing at pitch - using an anti-bacterial solution you may be able to have players swap reeds, again going from the known to the unknown.

A few ideas to start with.

Good luck


Neville Forsythe
Christchurch New Zealand
Bassoonist / Teacher / Conductor

Re: Flat bassoon student

Thanks for the wise and thoughtful suggestions. I don't believe it's an instrument issue. She's playing on a nice Fox in good condition, but I will get it checked out just in case. I also will try the ear training and tongue position and see if I can avoid having to go to a short bocal.


Re: Flat bassoon student

hi Neville,..really nice post and useful suggestion placed,...