Starting Beginning Bassoonists

Quick Reeds

  • Downloads: Fingering Chart, Getting Started Worksheet, Reed Care Handout
  • The right supplies are easy to find, but might not be at your local music shop.
  • Always buy handmade reeds. There are plenty of great places online to buy quality reeds. I offer discounts for teachers and directors.
  • Teach your students good reed hygiene and instrument care and they won't be able to blame their reeds or instrument for everything! 
  • The bocal is the most fragile part of the bassoon. Stop storing it incorrectly!
  • Posture isn't as complicated as we make it. If you can sit comfortably in a chair, you can sit comfortably with a bassoon.
  • Give your students time to set up and clean up or they won't do it.

We all know that it's easier to create a good habit than break a bad one. That is why it is so important to teach your students correctly right from the start. Problems with little things like posture, instrument assembly, reed care, supplies and fingerings can cause major headaches later on in their development.

    Recommended Supplies & Materials

    Every beginner should have the following supplies.

    • 3 Handmade Reeds: Avoid Jones or Singing Dog if possible, they're both too long and too open and don't play in tune or with the correct embouchure for a beginner
    • Silk Swab: doesn't get stuck as often as cotton and not a "stick style" swab
    • Cork Grease: any brand is fine, helpful on cork, not very useful on string
    • Plastic Reed Case: must have holes for ventilation, pegs not recommended
    • Water Container: must fit the entire reed, preferably with a lid
    • Seat Strap: this Protec strap has non-slip coating on the bottom, perfect for beginners
    • Bocal Brush: bocals get really gross and can make playing a lot harder, students should be in the habit of cleaning them every few weeks
    • Optional: Hand Rests can make the right hand more stable, but are often too tall for small hands. If you can cut a 1/4 inch or so off the peg, most students would benefit from using one. If they can't use a hand rest, I recommend removing the bracket since students often let their hand lean on it, causing discomfort and poor hand position.

    Reeds

    If you can't get reeds from your students' private lesson teacher, then buy them handmade online. Store bought reeds need a lot of adjustment to play in tune with a decent embouchure, and your student will contort themselves to try to make it work. Handmade reeds are more in tune, more responsive, and more suited to student players. I make and sell reeds online, which students and teachers are able to purchase. Bocal Majority also makes great intermediate reeds.

    Rules of Reed Care

    1. Always soak the reed. In clean water. Every time you play. Instead of wasting class time every day with a trip to the fountain, keep a cheap dispenser like this in the classroom with clean water and a bucket for tossing out old water every day.
    2. Store the reeds in a case with ventilation like this one. Never in the plastic vial it was shipped in, never loose in the case. Reeds get moldy and chip very easily.
    3. Understand the lifecycle of a reed, which is fairly predictable. Reeds start out buzzy, loud and flat, then develop a warm, stable tone after being broken in. After awhile reeds become, sharp, closed, stuffy and resistant. If the reed still looks good, it can be adjusted. If it looks old at that point, it's time to throw it out.
    4. Have three working reeds at all times. Look at your students reeds. If they look gross, throw them away and make them get new ones. They will use the same reed every day until it crumbles in to dust. Students should have 3 good, working reeds at all times so if their favorite reed breaks, they still have 2 other choices. 
    5. The reed goes in your mouth or in the reed case. Never put it on the floor, on the stand or anywhere else it might get smashed, dirty or lost. Keep the space behind students clear and place chairs away from walls where they might accidentally smash their reed while resting the bassoon.

    Here's a handout with all of the information about caring for reeds.

    Instrument Assembly

    My #1 rule is the bassoon always sits on the ground during assembly. If it slips, there is less distance to the floor. I don't recommend having students assemble the bassoon seated while it is hanging on the seat strap. The strap isn't very stable and I've seen many bassoons tip over and be smashed on the ground this way. They should set the strap down first, assemble the bassoon, sit down and set the bassoon on their lap while they hook the strap in. 

    Here's a great video by Kristen Wolfe Jensen on proper assembly. The only additions I would make are: put the seat strap on the chair first, then assemble the bassoon on the ground. NOTE: it is ok if the joints don't go all the way in. As long as they seal, it's fine to have a small gap. 

    Remember, the bocal is the most fragile part of the bassoon. Never teach your students to store it anywhere other than the case, inside the bell, or in normal playing position.

    The bocal should not be stored by sticking in in the wing joint, it can scratch the bore and be dented readily by storing it there. They should only ever grab it by the top curve near the cork, the long part is very weak and can be easily bent. Bocals expensive and not easily repaired and have a huge impact on the play-ability of the bassoon.

    Transport mode is what I call it when a student has to walk with their bassoon. Students should hold the seat strap in one hand (still attached to the boot joint) and let the bassoon lean against their should. Reed always goes in the mouth, bocal in the bell. That leaves one arm free to carry their case or binder. As long as the boot joint is supported, the instrument won't fall apart. (Side note: if your bassoons are falling apart anyway, they need to be adjusted and the joints aren't fitting correctly)

    Disassembly

    Taking a bassoon apart is pretty easy. Do everything in reverse and if anything is stuck, try twisting side to side (like holding a jam jar lid) instead of pulling. It will gradually work it's way out. 

    Instrument Care

    Bad bassoons make bad bassoonists. Students with poorly functioning instruments will struggle to get consistent results and fall behind. Play test the instruments every year. If you can't do it yourself, have a private lesson teacher check them. Most repair shops don't even test the instruments anymore. 

    Students should swab the wing and boot joints daily to keep moisture from collecting on the pads and rotting them. Wooden bassoons are even more susceptible to moisture damage. 

    The bocal should be rinsed in warm water and cleaned with a bocal brush once every few months to remove buildup. You can clean the nib on the bocal with a small piece of reed wire as needed.

    Posture

    Sitting with a bassoon really isn't difficult, but we tend to over complicate things. Holding a bassoon is really just about sitting, then bringing the bassoon to you.

    Have the student set their seat strap at the front edge of the seat, parallel to the front edge of the chair and about 3 inches back. It's not exact, but just make sure it's not at the back of the chair. Slightly diagonal toward the back left arm is ok.

    • The student should sit using the entire chair seat, not on the front edge but not lounging against the back either (touching is ok). We really need the entire surface of the seat to get the right distance between our body and the bassoon.
    • Have them relax their left arm while holding the bassoon off to the side with the right arm, sit up comfortably tall and stare straight ahead with their head level and feet on the ground. The body should face forward. This should just feel like a comfortable sitting position.
    • Then let them bring the bassoon to their face without contorting their body. They don't go to the bassoon, it comes to them. If it's too low, raise the strap. Too high, lower it. If their head is tilted, twist the reed until it's level. You may also turn the bocal slightly to make the hand position more comfortable.
    • If they feel like the bassoon is too heavy, scoot the strap closer to the front edge of the seat, or have them scoot slightly to the right side of the chair so some of the weight can rest on their right thigh.
    • If they feel like the strap is always slipping, try angling the strap backward toward the back left of the chair (left arm side) or try a seat strip with non-slip padding attached or underneath.

    First Fundamentals and Notes

    The bassoon embouchure is relaxed, round and open. Roll your lips over your teeth, round your lips and take about half of the reed blade in your mouth. The corners should be pulled in and cheeks flat. The tongue should be flat in the mouth as though saying "oo". If you can't put a finger between your top lip and the reed wire, you're too close to the wire. The middle of the reed is most responsive for the range beginner and the correct position for that range. When you breathe, keep one lip on the reed so you don't have to "reset" every time.

    I always start by teaching students to play an F on the reed. Then play a C/C# on the bocal and reed. We can practice both long tones and tonguing patterns this way. If you can, review this every single day for the first several weeks. It's an easy way to check the embouchure, air support and a variety of other issues. It allows them to focus on just making a great, clear, stable sound without all the mechanics of the bassoon getting in the way.

    Here is a worksheet I use for beginning students before we progress to reading music and other fundamentals.

    The first note I recommend learning is D or C. It's easier to hold the bassoon with a few fingers down.

    When you're ready to start teaching more notes, check out my post on bassoon fingerings.

    To hear some beautiful bassoon playing and learn even more check out this video and feel free to share with your new bassoonists! This a great overview of the instrument.