Topic: Swab for use during performance, rehearsal

Bassoonists: What do you use when you need to get water out of the wing joint quickly during a rehearsal or performance?

You know how it is.  You start to hear bubbling during the first movement, and you know that it's going to make that exposed passage in the second movement sound like a documentary on scuba diving.  But there's no time to take the instrument apart and use a proper drop swab.  You look with envy at your clarinetist friend, who can just pull off her mouthpiece and swab out during a few bars' rest.  But no... you play the bassoon.

I've been using a feather, similar to what oboists use, sticking it partway down the wing joint and rotating it before pulling it up.  This often helps, but not always, and I'm afraid it will leave a bit of feather in the bore at the worst possible time.   I'm wondering if there's something better available. I've always been advised to never use those fuzzy swabs that come with our instruments.

My mid-1970s Puchner has tone holes that are rubber-lined, but they don't extend into the bore. I'm not inclined to change that, given the expense and the risk of changing the instrument's characteristics.

--Peter, submerged in Seattle


Re: Swab for use during performance, rehearsal

Hi Peter,

You are referring to water gurgling in the tone holes, right?  I am not sure a swab alone will get rid of that water.  If you don't have the tone hole tubes that extend into the bore then you have to blow the water back into instrument with a swift blow.  That can be distracting if the music is soft. 

I have a 1931 Heckel that did not come with tone hole inserts.  So I would be constantly blowing water back into the bore.  I had to do this before I played anything exposed and it got very tiring.  I finally got Frank Markus to put in the inserts for me.  I was very concerned that it would change the way the instrument played but I am not sure in what way it was changed or if there was any change.  Maybe I was too inexperienced to notice any small changes made.  But I don't think there were any major changes.

I know some people who "train" their wing joint so that water tracks away from the holes so they don't get water in the holes.  They may use oil or soap that they put in a track down the bore of the wing joint and then supposedly the water goes along this track and avoids the holes.  I have heard about this but have never tried it and don't know how well it works.

Good luck.  Water in the holes is really annoying.  I hope others have other suggestions for you.  I wonder if turning the bocal a certain way also helps or angling the bassoon, not that you would want to change the way you hold your instrument.  And to be sure the instrument isn't too cold which creates more water.


Dr. Kent Moore
Principal Lecturer In Bassoon and Theory
Northern Arizona University

Re: Swab for use during performance, rehearsal

If you're getting just a spit/pop sound, that's not water in the wing, that's water hanging out in the bocal. Suck it out if you have very little time, or remove the bocal from the instrument and blow it clear.

If it's water in the tone holes: what Kent said. Although I don't know that I believe that people really can train the bore of a bassoon to have water go on the up side of the tube. The liner on our instruments doesn't hold a line in the same way that you can do this on an unlined wood instrument like oboe or clarinet.

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: Swab for use during performance, rehearsal

Ensuring the tone holes are clean, especially at the junctions with the bore - fluff can gather here from swabs - can improve things.

Re: Swab for use during performance, rehearsal

Thanks for the responses so far.  I should have said initially that it is water reaching the tone holes, or the small holes for the flick/vent keys.  I do know how to clear my bocal, and how to blow water out of the tone holes.

If you look inside your wing joint after playing for a while, you will see that the inside of the bore is covered fairly evenly by condensation, except that there are one or more "tracks" where the water is running down. It's these tracks that are the problem. They establish themselves by some combination of how you hold the bassoon and random chance.  Once they get established during a playing session, they stay that way until you swab out.  You can blow water out of a tone hole, but if the "track" touches the tone hole, more water will get into it shortly.

This is why I want to be able to remove the bocal and quickly swab the wing from above.  This absorbs some/most of the water, and it also "erases" the tracks, so that they no longer provide a conduit to the tone holes.

So let me rephrase my initial question:  Is there a commercial swab-on-a-stick available that will accomplish this, but not be prone to leaving lint in the tone holes?


Re: Swab for use during performance, rehearsal

One of my flute colleagues has a swab-on-a-stick that is the whole length of her flute, so she can swab quickly without having to take anything apart. It's basically just a plastic rod with what looks like a little cotton mitten over the last four or five inches, nothing too big. Maybe something like that would suit you. I think it's quite likely that it would be rather disruptive during a concert, doing this chimney-sweep maneuver above everyone else's head... Although there is very little that is subtle about the bassoon anyway! I'd also worry about the taper of the wing, whatever you put in has to be able to swab the water out at the wider end and still be pulled out of the narrower end without getting stuck. I think I'd rather just suffer until the interval!


Re: Swab for use during performance, rehearsal

Hi Peter-

          I remember talking to you about your instrument for another matter quite a while back. I think it was regarding a bocal matter though.

          The problem your getting with gurgling in the fingerholes can be quite problematic with players. We have to remember that as bassoonists we play our instruments "upside down" What I mean by that is on clarinets, oboes and flutes, their toneholes are facing upwards so they dont get moisture in their toneholes. Clarinets do encounter this problem in certain toneholes as they are facing the back side of the instrument. Our fingerholes are obviously downward and they way gravity works the moisture is either going to go downward or out any hole in its path. Some players seem to generate more gurgling problems than others (I being one that does) and the only way i have been able to deal with it is by installing watertubes in every one of my personal horns. For 2 years I tried to live with non protruding tubes in a Puchner I had. I loved the sound, and how it took air, but there were a few cases and finally one concert in particular where the water accumulation caused a note to not speak right. That was the last straw, I finally put a set of tubes that protruded into the instrument and I was fine. It may have made a little difference but it wasnt dramatic, It definitely made the problem of gurgling go away.

     Yes its an expensive job, and yes it has to be done by someone that knows how to do tubes right. Ive been fortinate enough to install tubes on quite a few bassoons, and the feedback from my customers that ive done them for has been quite favorable, so I would hope and think I have been doing them right. I have seen several sets of tubes that other techs have done, and veryone of them has their own take on how to do them. Some I do think do them better than others but that is my own opinion.

      I hope that helps, and if you have any other questions, Please feel free to contact me.


Taylor Bassoon Services
723 Steamboat Ct
Ottawa, IL 61350


Re: Swab for use during performance, rehearsal

As Trent says, gurgling and popping comes from condensation in the bocal.

That said, I don't like the feeling of condensation dripping out of the wing joint tone holes on to my fingers. A few months back, I read somewhere that if you rotate your bassoon to the left (rotating so that the bocal points left across your body) as your rest position when you aren't playing, it causes the condensation to drip down the side of the wing joint away from the tone holes. It doesn't work perfectly, but I think it helps a lot.

Bassoonist, Contrabassoonist, Composer.

Ask not what your reed can do for you, but what you can do for your reed.