Bassoon embouchure

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  • This topic has 8 replies, 6 voices, and was last updated 14 years ago by Tori.
Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
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    Allen R. Hall

    Dear forum users,

    I’ve been thinking about my embouchure a lot, lately.

    When I first started playing, my teacher, a former bassoonist with the Memphis Symphony, taught me to put about two-thirds of the reed blade into my mouch and to form my lips into an “o” shape. He told me to pretend I was whistling.

    This contradicted everything I had seen at all-state and all-region band competitions, where the bassoonists used a broad embouchure in which the teeth were pulled over the lips, but Dr. Pugh was my teacher, so I did as I was told.

    Then I attended my first college. I was the only one with this round embouchure; everybody else used the tight-lipped embouchure I had seen before. But my teacher said nothing about this part of my embouchure. Plus, I had since seen Judith Leclair peform on “Live From Lincoln Center” with this round embouchure, and taken lessons from a local professional bassoonist, who also used it, so I assumed it was okay. With regard to the rest of my embouchure, however, I was taught that how much of the reed I kept in my mouth depended on the register; the higher I was in the instrument’s range, the more reed I needed in my mouth and the more lip pressure I needed to apply.

    That’s what I’ve been doing since.

    However, a dear friend of mine told me that his teacher at CCM, Bill Winstead, taught him to keep only the very tip of the reed in his mouth. This same friend also suspects that a Norwegian bassoonist he and I both greatly admire does this same thing, and that he uses a very thick, open reed. According to him, this requires powerful oral muscles, but it enables him to play very softly and very loudly, and he can “pop out” E5.

    Plus, our library has a copy of Maurice Allard’s bassoon method. When I perused it, I said that the best embouchure was basically the exact opposite of everything I’ve been told–with the lips pursed and pressed slightly outward, like in a kiss. Granted, the French bassoon may simply be different in that respect, but it still got me thinking.

    What do you think about this?

    Trent Jacobs

    There are many schools of thought for every wind instrument about what is the appropriate embouchure. Just like there are different schools of thought on proper hand position for stringed instruments. I don’t think there is one correct way to play the bassoon. Everyone has a different mouth and teeth structure. Everyone has different lips. People play on different instruments, bocals and reed styles. All of these things need to work together to create success in producing a good tone, dynamics, vibrato, projection, range, etc.

    A wider embouchure works better on some reeds than a rounder embouchure. If you have really strong facial muscles and good endurance you can make your reeds differently to get a different response in various registers and at various dynamics. Some people like to control the instrument with their mouth, others like the instrument to do all the work while they just provide an airstream. It’s just what your concept is, which is, by in large, formed by your first few teachers or the players that you listen to and aspire to.

    I personally think that the bassoon is a strange instrument hhat requires us to be very flexible in what we do. If I’m playing 2nd bassoon in Brahms I’ll use a different reed style than if I’m playing the Sarabande et Cortege. My embouchure will probably adjust slightly (maybe I’ll play more on the tip of the reed, for example). I have played with, studied with, and heard many different players. Some play on top of the wire, others hold just the last bit of the reed in their mouth. Some play on pieces of tree bark for reeds, others play on paper. My teacher has an Altoids tin with reeds from a bunch of top tier players (long time members of top symphonies and operas in the US and Canada) – the reeds vary so much it’s hard to fathom.

    I’m starting to run on.

    From every teacher, formal or informal, you can learn something. Try what they do and see if you can make it work for yourself. Then, if you want, incorporate parts (or all) of what they’re doing into what you do. Take what works for you and go with it.

    Allen R. Hall

    I understand all of that, and I appreciate your insight–but, unfortunately, it does not really answer my question.

    Maybe I could’ve worded it better. What I am asking for is some sort of insight into the mechanics of bassoon embouchure–the tendencies of the various playing “styles”, as it were.

    I feel that, like vibrato–perhaps even moreso–this is an issue that should be addressed in teaching. But, also like vibrato, it almost seems to be something that people just don’t want to talk about.

    Surely there is some sort of method to this madness?

    Neville Forsythe

    There are many factors in the formation of embouchure – starting with the individual physical characteristics of each player – e.g. thin lipped, full-lipped, overshot jaw, undershot, perfect bite etc.

    In analysing this issue for a group of students who had considerably different jaw structures and lip fullness, I concluded that what was important to each was the “best” feeling of balance between the two principal forces – jaw-bite and reed resistance, (coupled of course with breath pressure and intonation etc.)

    I use the analogy of a simple playground apparatus – a see-saw. Imagine you are taking a small child to the park for a seesaw.
    You sit on one end, the child is on the other – down you go, up they go – end of ride! Now place yourself up the bar toward the fulcrum until your apparent weights are equal – now both get a true see-saw ride with that sense of balance and floating etc.

    A reed has its “weight” – resistance. Your bite has “weight” or force which if applied at different parts of the reed will either overpower, equal or be over-powered by the reed – as witness the behaviour of the tip. Use your ears and sense of “feel” to ascertain the response of the reed.

    At different registers the effect will be varied – low requires a vaguely neutral – even negative bite with lips floating – merely sealing the mouth around the reed (and in my book not allowing distracting noisy leakage). Higher registers require placing the lip nearer the wires making the bite stronger and I believe applying force at a geographically significant location on the length of the reed equivalent to the critical placement (and pressure) of a string-player’s finger when playing an harmonic.

    The “exterior” view of different players will differ because the crucial placement of bite is inside the mouth while we see the result outside vary, according to the different thickness/bite of players’ lips/jaws.

    I do not subscribe to an uneven overbite (as seen in some tutor books and cover photos and promoted by some US wind band “Methods”). I see the reed as a symmetrical device requiring essentially symmetrical forces above and below requiring an adjustment of the bite so that in playing, all players should have an essentially matched jaw/lip position.

    The “roundness” of some recommended embouchures I feel emanates from the use of vowel shapes to match the various tonal regions of the bassoon “aw” through “oo”, “eu” to “ee” concomitant with the travel down the reed toward the wire and the corresponding adjustment of the forces (as in my see-saw analogy) to achieve the breath focus (squirt, pressure increase) and geographical application of the bite at harmonic positions on the reed.

    Not everyone agrees with all the above (esp the author of a major US Band Method with whom I had quite an intense debate) but it helps me accept many of the differences I see in other players and have to cope with in my own teaching – not to mention my understanding and analysis of my own playing.

    Reeds as we all know are a significant part of the equation and sometimes require us to adjust one or more of the parts of the equation – but in my experience that is when I am in trouble before long with muscle fatigue, intonation problems etc.

    Regards Neville

    Vincent Ellin

    You will sound the way you want to sound regardless of the type of embouchure. It all depends on your teeth, the type of reed etc. The lips do control some of the tone and the embouchure does work its way up the reed as I go up the instrument. The only rule is that there are relatively few rules. It depends alot on who you talk to. I like to encourage a flexible embouchure for my student in as “natural” a position as is possible. Vince Ellin

    Mark Ortwein

    I agree with Vincent – the embouchure needs to flexible and natural (which is different for everybody, since everbody doesn’t have the same mouth).

    I studied with Winstead and he only said to back off the reed when playing soft, not all the time. My normal embouchure is right where my teeth and jaw are naturally and I tighten up a bit for real high stuff and loosen up and back off the reed a bit for low stuff. The issue of where your lips touch on the reed depends on the blade length as well as your own physical characteristics.
    Any teacher who says you have to play like them, or use reeds like them, or play a certain type of bassoon like them, is very narrow-minded and doesn’t understand peoples physical (and artistic) differences. On the other hand, if they are trying to help you find the best embouchure, reed style, bassoon, etc. that works for you, you should try them and take what works and go from there.

    Mark Ortwein
    Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

    Neville Forsythe

    Waiting it out to eventually discover what makes a good sound (as an individual) is a lengthy and sometimes frustrating process.

    The analysis that teachers and players bring to the features of embouchre, tone etc are all valuable. If well presented they offer a range of analytical fatcors and adjustments which a player can try out and observe the results – adopting or refining or rejecting as the case may be.

    An early posting mentioned advice from a teacher to “form an ‘o’ shape” (like whistling) and from another source later, “an outward pursing (like a kiss)” – actually in my experience of both, they are surprisingly similar!

    I have come to the conclusion that the “o” shape protects the cheek muscles (which are the villains of the peace when it comes to exhausted embouchre muscles). The more neutral your cheek muscles can be, the better (even to the point of allowing the occasional release entirely of the cheeks into a gently ballooning effect – works better in the mid to lower range of notes).



    I had the exact same thing happen to me. But now I take from Nancy Goeres who plays like mr winstead so I do too. It has really helped my ability to slur, improved my dynamic range, and intonation. I don’t know if that helps.

    Vincent Ellin

    Skinner did tell me when I studied with him that with his reeds, you did need to go more towards the tip that I was doing before. This was only to a small degree. The necessary reed resistance will vary from bassoon to bassoon. My instument is very free blowing so I need a bit more than some other instruments need. There is no RIGHT or WRONG way, only what will work for YOU, of course within reason. I’ve heard some great players on all kinds of instruments that had embouchures that look like they had been run over by a truck and some horrible players that had picture perfect embouchures. Let your ears be the judge and how efficient you can be. I have been playing quite a while and I do rexamine what I’m doing from time to time. Don’t loose any sleep over it…There is no right or wrong here, as you can see from your colleagues

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