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.

Reedmaking and choosing your college oboe or bassoon professor

photo, quack.a.duck

US college/university music departments and conservatories are filled with talented, qualified faculty. If you are an oboist or bassoonist bound for a large school then there will almost certainly be both oboe and bassoon professors there with outstanding credentials and years of high-level teaching and performing experience.

Smaller schools are also well-stocked with excellent music faculty, and can provide a very, very good education. But one thing to bear in mind is that in smaller music departments, the faculty members often have to wear multiple hats, sometimes teaching instruments that they don’t perform on.

Those professors still have much to teach you, and while it’s not an ideal situation it’s also not unheard of. However, for double reed students, there’s an additional wrinkle: the need to learn reedmaking.

Reedmaking is a crucial skill for oboists and bassoonists. At larger schools it’s not unusual for the oboe and bassoon professors to offer classes in reedmaking, or at least to spend a significant chunk of lesson time on it. And while still learning this art, you will probably need someone to provide you with reeds or adjust ones you purchase elsewhere. (The ones from your local music store or online retailer aren’t likely to play at the level you will need for college study.)

So, if you’re considering a school where you might study with someone who isn’t a performer on your double reed instrument, it would be worthwhile to find out their plan for teaching you reedmaking. If they don’t have a detailed and convincing one, you might think about some other schools, especially if you are planning to pursue a performance degree, or ask your teacher about ways to fill that gap in your education.

Problem-specific vs. general solutions

photo, Elisabeth D'Orcy

I hinted at this idea in my recent post about clarinet undertones:

Many of the ideas shared by the distinguished authors seemed like just descriptions of good basic clarinet technique (“ensure correct, stable embouchure formation,” “establish breath support/air pressure before releasing tongue”). … If you can play with a beautiful, characteristic tone, mostly in tune, with good response, then your undertones are probably mostly gone already.

For teachers it’s useful to be aware of this distinction: to solve my student’s specific problem, do I need a solution that is uniquely geared to that problem? Or is the problem just a symptom of a larger failure to use good basic playing technique?

In terms of the clarinet undertone example, just ensuring good basic technique does a great deal to solve the problem, but due to a quirk of the instrument’s acoustics, extraordinary measures are required to finish the job. Woodwind playing is full of similar phenomena.

I find solidification of my fundamental technique to be an ongoing and critical part of sounding my best, and most of the solution to most of my issues. It’s worthwhile to think carefully about when to introduce tricks or special techniques.

Voicing and clarinet undertones

photo, Aprilyn Podd

A few months ago I shared a list of published opinions on how to avoid undertones on the clarinet.

Many of the ideas shared by the distinguished authors seemed like just descriptions of good basic clarinet technique (“ensure correct, stable embouchure formation,” “establish breath support/air pressure before releasing tongue”). I agree that the most important way to improve undertones is to have a solid baseline tone production technique. If you can play with a beautiful, characteristic tone, mostly in tune, with good response, then your undertones are probably mostly gone already.

I do have one small tip that I find helps a great deal with clearing up any remaining undertones, that wasn’t mentioned by any of the sources I consulted. My readers know I frequently discuss the importance of keeping voicing very stable, but as I have indicated previously that’s only one side of a multifaceted issue.

I have good success with lowering my voicing just a little bit in the upper clarion register. (I tell my students to think of warming the air by just a degree or two.) This seems to stabilize and clarify those notes.

As always, expect any change in voicing to have multiple consequences, for tone, pitch, and response. In the case of clarinet upper-clarion notes, I find a very slight lowering of my voicing to have only minimal and acceptable effects.

If anyone is aware of others teaching this technique, I would be curious to hear about it.

Q&A: Woodwind doubling

photo, Neil Moralee

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

What are the highlights of your career related to doubling thus far?

Hello, I was wondering about how feel about what you play as a woodwind doubler vs as a single instrumentalist. Do you feel like you’re still able to connect musically with things like pit orchestra as opposed to solo repertoire? Or what other options are there for woodwind doublers to express themselves?

I’m not a Broadway pit orchestra doubler, or a Los Angeles studio doubler, or even working in a medium-sized market. When the opportunities have arisen I’ve done the usual journeyman doubling work: playing local musical theater, regional orchestras and chamber groups and big bands, church gigs, and rock and blues bands. I enjoy all of these, and in particular I enjoy the variety in my performing career.

For me the biggest highlights have been connected to my academic career. This includes my attempts at bringing doubling to the recital hall, doing recitals (on my own college campus and others) of concert repertoire on multiple instruments. It also includes my teaching of multiple instruments in a studio setting, as well as woodwind methods courses, plus the textbook I wrote. This blog has been a highlight, too, that has put me in touch with woodwind doublers around the world, including some of my heroes.

How does someone with a full time job, kids, etc. who does doubling as a hobby effectively split practice time among all of their instruments? I’m usually able to practice 1 hour per day. Should I split my session among instruments, or focus on one a day? What’s a good rotation? Any tips or tricks are appreciated!

There’s never enough time in a day for a woodwind doubler. The answers to your questions will probably depend on you: what are your goals? do you want to play all your instruments equally, or do you want to have a “primary” instrument? are you practicing for specific performances or with specific goals in mind, or are you just trying to maintain and develop your skills in a general way? I think the answers to these questions will help clarify for you how you should be allocating your time.

For me personally, an hour is just enough to feel like I’m making some amount of progress on a single instrument, so I suppose if I were in your situation I would mostly practice one instrument per day. Your results may vary. If you’re practicing for general skill development, I do think some kind of pre-planned rotation is valuable, though I don’t think the specifics are important. For me, just having some kind of purposeful rotation makes sure I don’t fall into a rut of, say, grabbing my flute every time because it’s easier than getting a reed wet.


Thanks for your questions! It’s extra special to me to hear from fellow woodwind doublers.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Q&A: Reeds

photo, quack.a.duck

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

How do you (or how do you help a student) select the appropriate hardness of reed?

This is a careful balancing act and involves tradeoffs. In general a too-soft reed causes pitch instability (tending toward flatness), good piano response but limited forte range, improved low-register response but weak upper register, and a thin and/or bright tone. A too-hard reed usually has poor piano response, a more resistant low register, and a stuffy or labored tone.

I find that many reed players use reeds that are too stiff, perhaps due to the strange but pervasive idea of “moving up” in reed strength as a rite of passage or indicator of skill.

Also: with clarinet and saxophone, reed strength is (a) inconsistent between brands and (b) tied very closely to the characteristics of the mouthpiece, so it’s not especially useful to make broad recommendations (“beginners should start on a 2½…”). It’s entirely likely that two clarinetists playing different mouthpieces might need dramatically different reed strengths.

How can I obtain better than mass produced double reeds for my beginning oboe and bassoon students? Do you have any tips on how to learn to improve already made reeds, store bought or otherwise?

Absolutely double reed players should, if at all possible, work with private teachers for this very reason. The ideal scenario is for a private teacher to make and continually adjust reeds for beginning double reed players. An alternative might be to connect with nearby symphony players, professors or graduate students, military musicians, or other nearby double reeders who might be willing to sell reeds (face-to-face, so adjustments can be made) or do occasional reed classes or adjustment sessions.

Improving/adjusting reeds involves some specialized skills, one of which is playing the instrument at a high level. Reed adjustment is an iterative process of making a small change and then testing, small change and test, small change and test. If you can’t play the instrument well, then reed adjustment is shooting in the dark.

One possible exception is that minor changes to bassoon reed wires are basically reversible, so there may be some room to experiment with that. I won’t get specific here as wire adjustments have been dealt with in detail by many previous authors, but careful, small adjustments can potentially improve response in various registers, pitch, and tone.


Thanks for your questions, and good luck with your reeds!

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Q&A: Voicing

photo, CJ Oliver

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

What are your thought on voicings on the various extensions of the big five? I find I get optimal results on flute with low voicing, but on piccolo I use something more similar to high register alto sax.

I tend to be generally consistent within instrument families: low voicing for flute, so also low voicing for piccolo, alto flute, etc. High voicing for clarinet, so also high voicing for bass clarinet. Saxophones are a little different because they require a “middle” voicing, and I do think it’s worthwhile to target each member of the saxophone family precisely. The easiest way to do that is with mouthpiece pitch: a baritone mouthpiece should sound a concert D (a ninth above middle C on the piano), a tenor mouthpiece sounds a G, alto an A, and soprano a C.

I recently purchased a pennywhistle and I’m really enjoying it so far. I was wondering if there’s any specific kind of voicing associated with that kind of instrument. It feels easy to play the lower octave, but going up higher than the fourth or fifth in the second octave is really difficult without absolutely blasting.

For fipple flutes like recorders and pennywhistles (also known as tinwhistles or “Irish” whistles), I recommend a very low voicing, the same as for concert flute or double reeds. Recorders have a thumb hole that serves (sometimes) as a register vent, which tames the upper registers somewhat. Pennywhistles don’t have that—the only way to get to the upper register is to overblow. With some practice and finesse the registers can be balanced somewhat, but with fipple flutes don’t expect nearly the level of dynamic control that you have on a concert flute or modern reed instrument. Bear in mind, too, that fipple flutes generally take much less air than a band/orchestra woodwind.

Some nice handmade pennywhistles are designed to improve the register imbalance issue. (Narrower-bore whistles in particular tend toward a sweeter, softer upper register, but a weaker lower register.) But many professional whistle players prefer the more “authentic” sound of inexpensive whistles, and might try out quite a few to find one that plays well enough.


Thanks for your questions! Voicing is a little-understood, little-taught aspect of woodwind playing.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Q&A: Instrument purchases

photo, Write From Karen

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

What starting models do you recommend as an entry point for each woodwind?

Hi! What brand of clarinet would you recommend for an intermediate high school clarinetist who plans on majoring in music education?

I suspect that you’re both looking for specific brand recommendations, which I mostly avoid doing on the blog, for reasons I’ve highlighted previously (tl;dr: equipment recommendations tend to outlive their usefulness—people cling to them while the market changes around them). Sorry. What I’ll do instead is offer some general advice that applies to beginners, college music majors, woodwind doublers, everybody.

If you’re buying an instrument on a budget, because you’re a beginner, or because you’re a doubler picking up a secondary instrument: buy the highest-quality student-model instrument you can afford. Get good, current, targeted advice from your private teacher (contact/hire one before you buy your instrument!).

If you’re in, or about to be in, college: consult with your professor. Period. Head off to college with the instrument you already have, and let your professor guide you through the process of buying what you need.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s what most woodwind players need to get through their complete formal musical training: a good beginner instrument, and then an instrument suitable for college-level study. “Step-up” or intermediate instruments generally aren’t worth it—they cost most of what a college-suitable instrument costs, but don’t play much better than a good beginner instrument. If your budget is bigger than necessary for a student-level instrument but not big enough for a college-appropriate one, buy a good student model and save up the rest for the next purchase.

For clarinetists, saxophonists, and oboists, often the college-level instrument is a true professional model, and you won’t ever need anything fancier. Professional level flutists and bassoonists may have more of a need(?) for a nicer instrument beyond their undergraduate degrees, and these can sometimes be in the price range between a new car and a new house.

How do I deal with the cost of buying all of these woodwind instruments for college?

If you’re thinking of studying multiple woodwind instruments as a college undergraduate, firstly I recommend that you think that through carefully, and get in touch with the music faculty at the school(s) you are considering. I think for most undergraduate students (including my past self), it makes sense to major in just one instrument, for reasons I’ve addressed previously, and at many schools high-level undergraduate study of multiple woodwinds is impossible or impractical. I think that for most aspiring doublers, graduate school is a better place to dig deeply into it.

To address your question, though: college-suitable woodwind instruments are expensive, but almost certainly less expensive than tuition or room and board at an American university or maybe even a few semesters’ worth of textbooks. If you’re college-bound in the USA, a pro-level clarinet or oboe is probably the least of your financial woes.

If you’re planning to pay your way through school with scholarships, then that might not be money you’re able to access for things like instrument purchases. Depending on your personal financial values, it may be worthwhile to get student loans to cover the cost of a new instrument, and pay them off at relatively low interest after you graduate.

Depending on the instrument and the school, you may be able to borrow or rent a suitable school-owned instrument while you make arrangements to purchase your own.


Thanks for the questions! Good luck with your instrument purchases.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Saxophone low notes

The saxophone’s lowest notes can be notoriously unresponsive. This is partly due to the instrument’s acoustics, particularly its fairly extreme conical bore. (For technical details, see for example Acoustics of Musical Instruments by Chaigne and Kergomard, section 7.4.6.1.) The oboe and bassoon, whose bores are conical but not to such an extreme, have this problem to a lesser extent, and the tips that follow apply to those instruments as well.

For the best chance at successful low notes you need:

  • A well-adjusted, high-quality instrument. Even a small leak anywhere on the saxophone makes the lowest notes more difficult. And the best-designed and most meticulously-made instruments help to minimize the difficulties of the low range.
  • A good mouthpiece and reed combination. This may involve tradeoffs: a mouthpiece/reed combination that really improves the low register may, for example, make the highest notes more difficult. Since mouthpieces and reeds vary in so many ways it’s hard to make reliable generalizations, but often I find that a wider tip opening with a softer reed tend to favor the low register more (and the high register less).
  • Good, stable fundamentals of saxophone technique. Breath support, voicing, articulation, and embouchure (let’s include jaw position in embouchure here) should be properly set, and shouldn’t change for the low register. If you find that you need to increase breath support, lower your voicing, change your embouchure or tonguing, or open your jaw to make the low notes succeed, then you should probably already be doing those things, in every register. Don’t make the low notes even harder by creating a moving target.

To expand on that last point a little, if you find that your low notes need a little extra help, then a small alteration to your voicing is the right way to provide it. But know the tradeoffs: lowering your voicing as you approach the low register affects pitch and tone, besides creating instability in your tone production technique. Manage these concerns by aiming for the smallest possible change.

Practice smart. No shortcuts!