Improving Tone with the Bocalphone

Key Concepts

"The bassoon is a wind instrument, not a lip instrument"
Use air to correct intonation, response and tone problems first, then adjust embouchure.
"The reed is the instrument, the bassoon is just the amplifier"
If you sound good on the bocalphone, you have a great foundation for good tone on the bassoon. Anything that is bad on the bocalphone will be amplified by the bassoon.

The "Bocalphone" is just a fun name for the bassoon bocal and reed played together.

The reed by itself should play an F. The reed and bocal together (Bocalphone) should produce either a C or C#. Both are beneficial so it's worth having your students try to get both pitches. The Bocalphone on C is more like playing low notes: relaxed jaw, open mouth, round lips, warm air. The Bocalphone on C# is more like playing mid-high notes: firm corners, round lips, faster air.

The Bocalphone is incredibly useful as a warm up and diagnostic tool. Since you are hearing the pure tone of the reed, it is easier to tell if issues are caused by the student or a problem with their reeds. For the student, the Bocalphone is much simpler to handle than the bassoon so they can focus on the tone production process and really listening to themselves. These exercises can also be performed easily in front of a mirror and don't require reading music. I have my students perform exercises such as those listed below for the first several months on the bassoon. I also use them from time to time with more advanced students to diagnose and isolate problems in tone production.

The sound of the Bocalphone played by itself should be clear, steady, and full. Poor tone would sound squeezed, muffled, wobbly, fuzzy or unfocused. By practicing these exercises you can often help students uncover a more focused, full tone.

Exercises:

  1. Play C# with just the reed and the Bocal (the Bocalphone) and hold for 4-8 counts and repeat as many times as needed. Play with a full, stable sound. Use a drone or tuner to monitor pitch. Try holding the notes longer, or stringing multiple long notes together to practice breathing and setting the embouchure correctly.
  2. Play C# on the Bocalphone and try tonguing different patterns without changing the pitch. You can start as simple as four quarternotes or use this exercise to practice tough rhythms and working on faster tonguing. I like to do this call and response style with beginners and you'd be amazing what rhythms they can play just by listening and imitating you.
  3. Play C# on the Bocalphone with your lips covering the whole reed. Carefully take the entire reed your mouth (watch the wires). This is a great way to help students who rely too much on their lips to do the work. They have to use their air to get the note in tune.
  4. Play C# on your Bocalphone, drop your jaw to lower the pitch, increase your air to raise your pitch. Don't use your lips to change the pitch and don't tighten your jaw to raise the pitch. This teaches students to use air to adjust the sound and not rely on an overly tight embouchure which kills the sound and makes them play sharp.
  5. Play C or C# on the Bocalphone at different dynamics. Try crescendos and diminuendos or other long tone exercises and see if you can keep them in tune. Play as soft as you can, play as loud as you can with a good tone. This is great for expanding dynamic range and discussing the mechanics of playing in tune while changing dynamics.

Most of these exercises work really well as call and response games. You can do them with the entire class all at once, or have students try them one by one. By performing these exercises students will learn to focus their air, stabilize their embouchure and avoid using their lips or jaw to manipulate the sound.