Bassoon as a double

January 26, 2009

I’d like to say up front that I really love the bassoon. I do.

The bassoon was the last of the major woodwinds that I added to my arsenal. Looking at it from a strictly pragmatic standpoint, I think that was the right choice for me, and would be for most doublers. Let’s face it: when it comes down to time and money, for woodwind doublers, the bassoon demands a lot of both and doesn’t always return a lot of either.

Bassoons are tremendously expensive. A really playable intermediate-level instrument, used, might cost $5000. Compare this to maybe $500 for a clarinet of similar quality. And the bassoons played by top professionals might run more than $30,000. Sure, a serious violin can cost several times that amount, but then again you can double on a high-quality flute, oboe, clarinet, and a saxophone or two all for less than the cost of a true professional bassoon.

The bassoon presents some unique challenges to the woodwind player. Its keywork is labyrinthine, its tone and pitch are highly flexible, it uses bass and tenor clefs (all the other woodwinds use treble only), and it uses fussy and delicate double reeds (though not so fussy and delicate as oboe reeds). None of these challenges is insurmountable, but they are significant.

And the gig situation for bassoon doublers is relatively bleak. Single reeds and flute are the bread and butter of most doublers, and a good oboe/EH specialist with decent single reeds can be in high demand, too. For the bassoonist, the best bet is to become a low reeds specialist, with excellent bassoon, bass clarinet, and baritone saxophone skills. Note that these again are all seriously expensive instruments. And if you do a lot of your playing at smaller venues, like I do, then the low reed book is usually the first thing to get cut when the budget or orchestra pit are too small to accommodate a full woodwind section.

Are there reasons to play the bassoon as a woodwind doubler? Absolutely. It’s a deeply rewarding instrument to play (if not so much in the monetary sense); it has a rich repertoire, a huge sonic range, and a noble history. And if you are committed enough to learn to play it really well, you may find that you are in demand after all, perhaps not so much for doubling gigs but simply as a serious bassoonist. There are a lot of really fine flutists and saxophonists out there, and bassoonists of equivalent skill are a relatively rare breed.

I’d like to offer a few words of advice to (1) woodwind doublers who are considering picking up the bassoon, and to (2) fine bassoonists who are thinking about getting into woodwind doubling.

  1. For woodwind doublers
    • Don’t scrimp too much, but don’t take out a second mortgage either (yet). You don’t need a pre-war Heckel like the players in a top orchestra. At least not at this point. But you do need an instrument that plays in tune and with consistent tone without undue effort. The 200-series instruments by Fox are excellent, and may be all the bassoon you will ever need. They cost maybe twice as much new as a pro-level clarinet or saxophone.
    • Get some lessons. Even if it’s just a few. The bassoon is a different animal than the other woodwinds. There are some secrets you will need to learn before you will sound like the real thing. Fingering the bassoon is more art than science.
    • Get a good reed source. If you took the previous tip seriously, then you’re already set. The best way to get reeds (other than learning, painstakingly, to make your own) is to buy them face-to-face from a real live bassoonist. By “best,” I mean you will get reeds that are adjusted for your climate, embouchure, and instrument, and probably cheaper than ordering from a reedmaker on the Internet. Mass-produced reeds from your neighborhood music store are a waste of money for someone who already has an ear for pitch and tone.
    • Don’t skip the basics. The big Weissenborn book is a good place to start. Really practice all the “easy” stuff at the beginning. Then maybe jump over to Oubradous for some serious scale and arpeggio work, and then come back to the Weissenborn book to play the Milde studies. The bassoon’s technique is just too complicated and nuanced to jump into gigs with a fingering chart and a hopeful expression.
  2. For bassoonists
    • Your quickest and easiest way to improve your employability through doubling is as a bassoon specialist with strong bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. I would suggest buying a high-quality student model clarinet and alto saxophone and taking a serious approach to learning them (lessons, practice time, etc.) while you save your pennies for a nice baritone saxophone and bass clarinet. A good intermediate-level baritone saxophone like the Yamaha 50-series will serve you well. If you’re going to be serious about low reeds, spring for a low A instrument. There are also decent intermediate bass clarinets to be had, but no good tried-and-true intermediate models with range to low C, so you may need to bite the bullet and get a really professional-level bass clarinet.
    • If you are independently wealthy and enjoy heavy lifting, consider ultimately expanding to bass saxophone and the contrabass clarinets, and tie up every low reeds gig for miles around. Or if your budget and trunk space are a little tighter, you can keep working on clarinet and higher saxophones, and eventually add flute and piccolo.
    • Become a jazz lover. In woodwind doubling situations, you will need to be prepared to play at least a semi-convincing Broadway-jazz style on single reeds. Most bassoonists don’t have real background in that stuff; do some serious listening or maybe take a few lessons with a local saxophonist to pick up some of the nuances of articulation and inflection.

Good luck!

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