The bassoon’s special(?) staccato

photo, Paolo Benegiamo

I have a vague memory from childhood, well before my bassoon-playing days, of learning that the bassoon had some special quality to its staccato notes. (From an educational tv show? a children’s book on musical instruments? I can’t recall.) My impression was that this sound was different in some way than staccato produced on other instruments.

That idea stuck in my mind, but it occurred to me recently that in my subsequent years of bassoon study I had never heard a bassoonist actually address this. I turned to some published sources to see if I could locate any information.

Several books on orchestration (geared toward composers, not bassoonists) refer to the bassoon’s supposedly unique or unusual staccato. A masters thesis by Melissa Pipe brings several of these together. (I should confess I pulled these quotes directly from Ms. Pipe’s paper, and haven’t verified them with the original sources.)

The real state of the matter is that the Bassoon has a preternatural power of playing staccato, and, if it is forced to play passages of a humorous, grotesque, or macabre sort, it easily endows them with a dry spiccato quality that is almost toneless.

—Cecil Forsyth, Orchestration. London: Macmillan and Co., 1948, 2nd edition, p. 235-236.

Its reedy staccato is often invoked for prankish diversions…

—Bernard Rogers, The Art of Orchestration: Principles of Tone Color in Modern Scoring. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970, p. 36-39.

For while certain passages (especially staccato passages) have a way of sounding comical on the instrument…

—Kent W. Keenan, The Technique of Orchestration. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970, p. 89.

Staccato passages are second nature to the bassoon.

—Henry Mancini, Sounds and Scores: A Practical Guide to Professional Orchestration. New York: Northridge Music, 1986, p. 86.

This passage from Adler is a little ambiguous, and may actually be saying that rather than being unique, the bassoon’s staccato is akin to the oboe’s:

Like the oboe, the bassoon performs lyric melodies beautifully and produces attacks and staccato passages as incisively… Other composers have treated the bassoon as the “clown of the orchestra” and have written staccato passages for it that truly sound humorous.

—Samuel Adler, The Study of Orchestration. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 3rd edition, 2002, p. 221-222.

When playing staccato passages, on the other hand, it is an excellent instrument to portray humour…

—Sammy Nestico, The Complete Arranger. Delevan, N.Y.: Fenwood Music Co., Inc., 1993, p. 57.

But while orchestrators seem to find the bassoon’s staccato noteworthy, few bassoonists seem interested in addressing that aspect of it. (Many explain staccato technique, but do not point it out as remarkable or unusual.) I found only two counterexamples, but both are well-respected sources.

Although each tone is started with the tongue, a tone may be stopped with either the the tongue (as in saying “tut”) or with the breath (as in saying “tuh”). Not all notes which are marked staccato should be played with the “tut” style of tonguing. It should only be used in passages in which the composer seeks to use the rather humorous, dry effect of the bassoon’s sharp staccato. Two quite typical examples are the bassoon solos in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, First movement, measure 64, and in Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

All other notes which are marked staccato … should be stopped with the breath…

—William Spencer, rev. Frederick A. Mueller, The Art of Bassoon Playing. Princeton: Summy-Birchard Music, 1958, p. 54.

Among all the woodwinds our instrument possesses a special capacity for the rendering of staccato. This important effect features in many of the solo passages written for the Classical Bassoon by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; the 19th century French instrument possessed a quality of dry, crisp staccato which was also capitalized upon by many composers. My teacher Archie Camden declared: “a good reliable staccato is one of the brightest jewels in the bassoon player’s crown!” (Camden, 1961). However these days the German system bassoon has somewhat changed in character, being designed more for sonority and strength rather than the delivery of these effects. All too often today’s playing styles are better suited to powerful expressiveness rather than light staccato. Nonetheless we must strive to achieve these articulation effects by the judicious choice of equipment and deployment of technique…

When stopping a note, there are occasions when we wish to terminate it precisely — chopping it off cleanly as if it were a slice of salami. At other times a more artistic effect will be called for — allowing the sound to die away like the tail of a comet. For the former we may use the tongue, for the latter the breath.

—William Waterhouse, Bassoon. Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides. London: Kahn & Averill, 2003, p. 112.

So, one possibility is that the bassoon’s supposedly special staccato is the effect of ending notes with the tongue. This technique is not unique to the bassoon, but is controversial. (Personally I use the technique on all woodwinds when I believe it to be musically appropriate. And I think most woodwind players do, too, even those who claim they don’t.) Perhaps the relatively open discussion of this technique by high-profile bassoonist-authors correlates to its being viewed as uniquely a bassoon effect.

One other possibility I would like to explore is the possible relationship of bassoon staccato to another controversial technique: the bassoonist’s jaw moving during articulation.

If you have thoughts or resources regarding the mystique of bassoon staccato, please join the discussion in the comments section!

Frequently-asked questions about woodwind doubling, and their unpopular answers

photo, Jon Delorey

Q. Should I be a woodwind doubler?

A. In most cases, no. If you already feel driven to do it, and have the time and resources to devote to it, then maybe.

Q. What’s the trick to getting in enough practice time on all these instruments?

A. Figure out what to de-prioritize in your life to devote more hours to practicing.

Q. What’s the trick to affording all these instruments?

A. Figure out what to de-prioritize in your life to devote more money to instrument purchases.

Q. What instrument/mouthpiece/etc. should I buy?

A. The one that you have carefully, methodically selected from among dozens or more high-quality specimens, without blindly following internet recommendations.

Q. What’s a good mouthpiece, instrument, etc. for a doubler?

A. Only buy things “for doublers” if you want to sound like a doubler. If you want to sound like, say, a good clarinetist, use what good clarinetists use.

Q. Which instrument should I learn next?

A. Whichever motivates you enough to devote the necessary time and money.

Q. Playing one instrument already means it will be easy to learn another, right?

A. If your goal is to develop only a superficial command of the instrument, then yes. 

Q. How do I know when I am “good enough” at an instrument to count it as one of my doubles?

A. You stop getting fired for how you sound.

Q. How do I get gigs?

A. Sound great, behave professionally, and be liked by the right people.

Buying more instruments, or making do with what you have

I get asked every so often whether it’s a good idea for a woodwind doubler to try to have a fairly “complete” set of instruments, or whether it’s better to make do with a few and make substitutions as needed. For example, do you need a B-flat clarinet and an A clarinet, or can you just transpose? Is it worth it to buy an English horn for sporadic use, or can you cover the part on saxophone?

The answers, of course, depend on your goals. It’s hard to predict for sure which instruments will end up being useful or financially worthwhile. And a new instrument isn’t always something you can just hurry and buy when a gig offer demands it. 

If your aim is to maximize your income, and some substitutions are acceptable at your gigs, then you should buy as few instruments as you can get away with. Prioritize the ones that are most likely to pay for themselves in terms of new gigs within the shortest time frame.

If it makes you happy to have a larger collection of instruments, and you can afford to make it happen, then there’s nothing wrong with that, either. For many of us music straddles the line between profession and hobby, and being a woodwind doubler isn’t necessarily any more expensive a hobby than boating or fine woodworking or international travel. If you can count the purchase as a business expense as well, then all the better.

Follow the instrument acquisition strategy that best suits your financial situation and personal goals.