Bassoon jaw movement: survey of published opinions

photo, Indiana Public Media

I mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to examine a “controversial” aspect of bassoon playing: the movement of the jaw during articulation.

I was already aware of Terry Ewell’s well-reasoned article from The Double Reed journal, which concludes that jaw movement is unnecessary and inefficient. But I was also under the impression that there were advocates of jaw movement. A skimming of some pedagogical materials at hand seems to debunk this—I couldn’t find a single author strongly and clearly in favor of jaw movement.

The Ewell article should be the go-to for anyone interested in the topic. In a different article, Ewell summarizes:

Chewing motions with the jaw should not be used during the tonguing because the tongue should function independently of the jaw.

Terry Ewell: “Basic Bassoon Articulations,” in Woodwind Anthology, Volume II, 1999 edition. Northfield, Illinois: The Instrumentalist, 1999, p. 951. Article originally printed in The Instrumentalist

Here are the other anti-jaw-movement examples I could find:

One of the worst possible habits is to tongue in a “chewing” fashion. The movement of the jaw and lips not only distorts the tone each time they move, but actually slows down the action of the tongue.

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

In staccato passages, the collapse of pressure can produce a ‘gobbling’ reaction in the jaw. As a result the quality of tone and attack may suffer. … As we tongue more rapidly, we must try to involve only the tongue and not allow the jaw and throat to become involved… The momentary opening and closing of our lower jaw may be in response to the change of pressure inside the mouth once the support is switched off; however it is more likely to betray and involuntary ‘gobbling’ with the jaw in sympathy with the activity of the tongue.

William Waterhouse, BassoonYehudi Menuhin Music Guides. London: Kahn & Averill, 2003, p. 116-123.

Needless to say, there should be minimum outward movement of the lip or jaw, as this will hinder the tongue’s freedom of motion.

Homer Pence, Teacher’s Guide to the Bassoon. Elkhart, Indiana: H. & A. Selmer, Inc., 1963, p. 2-3.

The following refers to the woodwinds in general:

Jaw should not move during articulation

H. Gene Griswold: Teaching Woodwinds. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2008, p. 31.

Movement of the jaw in tonguing. This is the result of too large or too violent movement of the tongue, frequently accompanied by changes in pitch of the tone. … Jaw movements can occur with all methods of correct tongue placement, as well as with incorrect tongue placement, and these prevent the development of speed in articulation.

Frederick W. Westphal, Guide to Teaching Woodwinds, Fifth Edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1990, p. 227.

This may include the jaw:

The goal on all wind instruments, and particularly the bassoon, is to maintain an open mouth and throat position while playing. The bassoon tone is very sensitive to this positioning.

William Dietz: Teaching Woodwinds: A method and resource handbook for music educators. Belmont, California: Schirmer, 1998, p. 14.

Here is the closest I could find to advocacy for jaw movement, though it’s not 100% clear that that is what the author intends:

On both double reeds, embouchure pressure on the reed will vary to control the ends of notes. Increasing pressure on the reed will keep the pitch from dropping. For this reason, you will see embouchure movement while articulating, which will be more pronounced with bassoonists…

Charles West: Woodwind Methods: An essential resource for educators, conductors, and students. Delray Beach, Florida: Meredith Music, 2015, p. 68.

I also turned to Christopher Weait’s Bassoon Strategies for the Next Level and Arthur Weisberg’s The Art of Wind Playingboth of which seemed like likely sources on information, but could not locate passages in either that directly addressed the issue.

In summary, there seems to be little support for the idea of jaw movement in bassoon articulation. If you are aware of sources that encourage this technique, I would be curious to hear about them.

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!

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!

Avoiding clarinet undertones: published techniques

Clarinet “undertones” or “grunts” are the unpleasant low sounds that happen usually at the beginning of tongued upper-clarion-register notes (about written G to C, above the staff). They are the lower register speaking out of turn—a clarion G’s undertone, for example, is the chalumeau C.

Fine clarinetists can more or less eradicate the problem, but there isn’t a lot of consensus or clarity among clarinetists about how exactly this is done. I checked some published clarinet wisdom that I had at hand, to see what some of the experts say about what causes undertones, or how to eliminate them. Here are the results:

To prevent clarinet undertones in the upper clarion register…

This listing isn’t comprehensive, so I welcome submissions if you can point me toward published sources. And in many cases I have done some interpreting of the authors’ intents. (Julie DeRoche, for example, lists a number of embouchure specifics in her article, which I have reduced to “Ensure correct, stable embouchure formation.”) If you are one of the authors, or have particular insight into their thinking, I also welcome corrections.

I’m refraining from comment or conclusion at this point, but stay tuned for a future post.

Aspects of articulation

photo, Zachary Sumners

The concept of “articulation” in woodwind playing is really a bunch of concepts mashed together. Suppose one of my students comes in for a lesson and I tell them their “articulation” needs work. Do I mean they should: Continue reading “Aspects of articulation”

Accents and the tongue (or not)

As a follow-up to my previous post on the role of the tongue in articulation, I would like to address the problem of accents.

When I hear my students playing heavy, thumpy accents, I ask them how they are playing the accents. The answer is usually the same: “tongue harder?”

But when the tongue is properly understood to release the reed (or release the airstream on the flute), the idea of tonguing harder doesn’t make much sense. (How do you release harder?) Unfortunately, for many developing woodwind players, it translates to a larger area of contact between the tongue and the reed, causing unwanted percussive sounds.

accent

Accents are better understood as what they appear to be on the page: small decrescendos. An accent is a note shape: louder at the beginning, softer at the end. It is produced by the mechanisms of volume/dynamics, not the tongue. Often, but not always, the note starts louder than the baseline dynamic level and decrescendos back to it.

As with most aspects of musical interpretation, this leaves a great deal of room for variation; accents can have many characters and shades. But none of those should include thuds or thumps (unless, I suppose, called for by the composer). Practice beautiful and stylish accents by slowing down the music enough to give each accented note a graceful decrescendo.

“Starting” notes with the tongue

There’s a common misconception about woodwind articulation, that notes somehow “start” with the tongue. So, how do you start notes with your tongue? Does your tongue somehow strike the reed, making it vibrate? Try it, I’ll wait.

Hit that reed with your tongue as hard as you like, but I suspect nothing will happen until you add air. The truth of the matter is that air starts the vibration—the tongue actually stops it.

photo, Evan Long

So why use the tongue at the beginning of a note—why not just start the air? Try it as an experiment. Starting from zero air pressure, very gradually add air. You will probably hear air noise first, and then tone. Can you predict precisely when the tone will kick in? Using the tongue allows the note to be “released” after sufficient air pressure is in place, avoiding the airy and unpredictable note beginning.

Thinking in terms of the tongue releasing the note rather than kickstarting it leads to more efficient, controlled, and subtle articulation.

Tonguing and language sounds

Be wary of pedagogical approaches to woodwind articulation that depend on analogies to speech sounds.

The most common, at least in the English-speaking world, is the idea that tonguing is like saying “too” or “doo.” And certainly there are significant mechanical similarities, especially with “too.” “Doo” doesn’t work as well because it is a voiced consonant, produced essentially the same way as “too” but with vibration of the vocal cords, an undesirable effect for woodwind playing (except for some extended techniques).

Some teachers recommend something like “too” for crisper articulations and “doo” for gentler ones. If you compare carefully your whispered (unvoiced) “t” and “d” sounds, you may find that they are not, in fact, completely identical. My “t” gives a bit more explosive sound, because I release the entire tongue, and my “d” is softer because I tend to release only the tip of the tongue, keeping the back in contact with my molars. But this difference doesn’t apply to good woodwind playing technique, in which the back of the tongue must be kept independent from the tip in order to manipulate voicing.

“Loo” is another one that gets mentioned sometimes for gentler articulations. This one also doesn’t work well if taken literally because (1) the “l” sound is voiced and (2) it leaks air around the sides of the tongue. (You can approximate an unvoiced version by whispering “lll…,” but that sound isn’t typically used in English.) A woodwind book I read recently recommends some additional oddities like “droo” or “thoo.” “Droo” doesn’t work well because it has a sequence of two consonant tongue positions, one of which is voiced. “Thoo” (presumably the unvoiced version) leaks air near the tip of the tongue.

Another point worth making is that consonant sounds in English aren’t necessarily the same as consonants in other languages, so even if we select some workable English consonant sounds, it’s not a given that those are the ideal choices. (Plenty of study has already been done on this topic.)

And that’s just the consonants. Assuming they are used as a shorthand for describing articulations, with an understanding that they do not precisely represent articulation technique, vowel sounds can still cause confusion. Consider the “oo” in “too.” Vowel sounds are loosely analogous to woodwind voicings, so it is best to match the vowels to the instrument. Is “oo” the right voicing to evoke?

For low-voiced instruments, an “oh”- or “ah”-like vowel sound is a better match. (“Oh” is still problematic because English speakers pronounce it as a diphthong, two vowel sounds in sequence—this will cause unstable pitch and tone when applied to a woodwind instrument. To avoid this, we must borrow an “o” sound from another language.) For the clarinet, “ee” is the closest match. For saxophones, the vowel sound needs to be somewhere in between, perhaps near the schwa (ə) sound like the “a” in “about.”

Language sounds can be used only as a very limited analogy for woodwind articulation technique—use them with care.

Maintaining direction in staccato passages

In my last post, I pointed out that staccato notes are not always exactly “detached,” even though they may give that impression. Now let’s consider how this sense of detachment, real or false, can disrupt a phrase.

To make a legato phrase sound like a unified idea, all I have to do as a minimum is make sure my air doesn’t stop: my fingers and tongue delineate individual notes, but the sound is continuous. But with a staccato phrase, the sound stops (at least sort of). We could perhaps visualize it this way, with each box representing a note:

staccato notes

There’s not a clear sense of continuity—each note is an island.

But I can make the notes sound like they belong together, without eliminating the space between them. For example, suppose I give the passage a subtle crescendo:

staccato notes, with crescendo

The space between the notes is the same, but now there is a clear relationship. It’s obvious that the individual notes, though detached, make up a single structure and not six separate ones.

A bit of crescendo is a reliable and tasteful way to do this in many cases, but really any variable aspect of musical expression could ostensibly be used: decrescendo, change in tone color, change in vibrato, accelerando or ritardando, or just about anything else that can be varied continuously across a group of notes. Make sure each note you play serves a larger phrase!

Sometimes staccato is neither “short” nor “separated”

It seems that many of us are taught first to treat notes with staccato markings as “short,” and then later refine that definition to mean something like “separated” or “detached.” The difference in these definitions is that a “detached” note might really be quite long, but has at least a sliver of silence separating it from the note afterwards.

But for wind players, even this definition may be too simplistic, and in some cases produces a sound that is too aggressively clipped or pecky.

To achieve an appropriate staccato effect, the notes might not actually be detached at all. Check out this demonstration of staccato technique on the violin:

It’s clear that the violinist is detaching the notes from each other. But listen carefully—does the instrument go completely silent in between notes? At a faster tempo, it doesn’t. Even though the violinist temporarily stops driving the strings’ vibrations with the bow, the instrument continues to resonate on its own, and this (softer) sound may bleed into the next note.

A wind instrument doesn’t resonate in the same way: when the wind player stops blowing, the sound stops immediately. But since our modern wind technique borrows so heavily from the bowed string tradition, in many cases it is necessary to imitate this resonance to achieve the desired effect. To oversimplify a bit, the wind player must end “staccato” notes with very brief decrescendos.

When this technique is applied to staccato passages, it may mean that rather than literally detaching the notes from each other, the wind player must give the impression of detachment while also giving the impression of a brief violin-style resonance following each note. In other words, the “space” between the notes is actually filled, at least partially but maybe completely, with a very quick decrescendo.

A reverberant performance space also helps to mask wind instruments’ lack of damped oscillation, but ultimately it is up to the wind player to create the faux resonance when the situation demands. Pay close attention to the ends of your staccato notes!