Topic: Flat beginning bassoonist

I have a 1st year student who has me totally puzzled.  She switched to bassoon this summer from baritone on recommendation from her teacher.  Technically, she is better than average on the instrument, but for some reason I can't figure out, she plays anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 step flat through out the range of the instrument.  I have tried different reeds, bocals, working with her embrochure, air support, even cleaning out her instrument.  Nothing seems to help.  It doesn't help that she is playing on an Amati bassoon, which is known for its bad intonation, but it is all the school offers its beginners.  I had her play on my Fox also and she still is flat.

I have run out of ideas and I don't want to discourage her because she is probably the most enthusiastic student I've ever taught, but I am frustrated in listening to her do her lesson perfectly week after week except for that she play so flat.  HELP!!!

Bryan Cavitt
Bassoonist, Elkhart (IN) Municipal Band; Bassoon Dad and Uncle

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Re: Flat beginning bassoonist

Hi Bryan,

Go ahead and do the lesson and let her continue to develop technique and other aspects of her playing. But, spend part of the lesson on a single note...maybe C2 or D2...and work with her to get that one note in tune. In the process analyze what adjustments she must make to play that one note in tune, making sure, of course, that she doesn't bite the reed in half. My guess is that her problem is related to breath support and focusing the air stream but the challenge is to figure out what is wrong and get that one note in tune. From there you can enlarge her arsenal of "good" notes. I've never had one like this but this seems like a workable approach to solving the problem.

Gene Carter, Owner
Linden Reeds

Re: Flat beginning bassoonist

I had an adult student that was dealing with a very similar situation.  We did some breathing exercises away from the instrument to work on focusing the air stream, speed of air and volume at a time.  (I have some specific teaching tools passed on from an amazing woodwind pedagogue that would be very difficult to describe with text, but I could try if you want).

So after doing the exercises away from the instrument I made sure she could do the "old" way of breathing and the "new" way so she could see exactly what the differences were.  I then had her try the old way on the instrument and switch to the new way.  Her pitch (on notes from C-F in the staff for this particular lesson) immediately went up about 30 cents.  The first time it happened the pitch started flat, where she was used to, and went swooping up and she immediately stopped because it was such an odd sensation and we had a good laugh about it for a minute or so.

Anyway, there's my story, the short of which is that I think it's probably due to air support (again, I agree with Gene) and maybe you should try breathing/air exercises away from the instrument, making sure your student knows the difference between the proper support and the improper support.

M.M.A., D.M.A. University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign: B.Mus. Lawrence University
Bassoon professor at University of Wisconsin Eau-Claire
Maker of the Little-Jake electric bassoon pickup and Weasel bassoon reeds

Re: Flat beginning bassoonist

Hi Bryan

A quick first aid attempt may be worth trying.

Have your student (with extreme care in case she accidentally lacerates her lip on the wire) place her lips on the binding with the reed fully inside her mouth. Next get her to blow as hard as it takes to literally pump the pitch of an open F up to standard.  Once achieved have her slur on down the scale at least to low G still with the lips on the binding.  Never mind the awful start and end of the notes - that is dealt with as we know once the lips are on the blade in normal playing position.

The next step if this proves successful is to move the lips back on to the reed but with only minimal lip pressure while maintaining the same intense breath pressure as was used on the binding. THen begin to focus on note attcks and more particularly endings.

Give lots of encouragement for making such a robust, rich resonant tone - really enthuse about it - tell her, "No playing softly!", while she is working through this important aspect.  Also tell her conductor if she is in a band or orchestra.

In my experience the only student bassoonists too loud are actually out of tune (sharp because of biting on the reed in an attempt to play softly).

A second area of focus might need to be using the tongue and soft palate to shape the mouth "passage" into a tube rather than a cavern. "Aww- oooh-eu-ee" similar to whistling up a glissando.

And of course there's the issue of muscular support from the belly and related muscles - compare it to preparing yourself for a hit in the belly - as sometimes happens in sport with a fast incoming netball.

Good luck  Neville

Neville Forsythe
Christchurch New Zealand
Bassoonist / Teacher / Conductor