Special Techniques: How and When to Teach Them

Quick Reeds

  • Half holing is taught as part of the fingering and there are different sizes depending on the note.
  • Vocalization is the best way to affect intonation, minimize cracking and produce good tone.
  • Flicking should be taught as part of the fingering, starting off by holding the keys down is easiest.
  • Vibrato should only be taught when students already produce a good tone.

Thanks to its unique design, the bassoon requires some specific techniques to improve the sound and tone quality. In the order they should be introduced, here are some tips for Half-Holing, Vocalization, Flicking, and Vibrato.

Half Holing

In order to produce a higher version of some notes, we must roll our left hand first finger slightly open to uncover half of the tone hole. This allows a small amount of air to escape around your first finger. When combined with faster air, the note will speak an octave higher.

We use this technique for F♯/G♭, G, and G♯/A♭. G uses a moderate half hole, A♭ uses a tiny half hole (cover more of the hole), and F♯ uses a very large half hole (barely cover the hole). If the note still cracks, try adjusting the size of your half hole or your air speed. Note that you should also use the resonance key (left pinky) on half hole G to bring the pitch down and improve the tone (not used on A♭ or F♯).

Half Holing happens at the moment the note is fingered, not afterward. It is created by rolling the left hand first finger open, not dragging or lifting. In this way the finger is able to stay positioned on the tone hole, but allow the correct amount of air to escape.

Half holing should be taught as part of the fingering as soon as students begin learning these notes. The easiest way to start is by having students play low G, then roll the first finger open and use faster air. Then reset and repeat until they can do that comfortably. Then you can move on to other fingering combinations. The hardest transition will be from F to G, where they have to put all the fingers down together with the half hole at the same time.


Voicing & Vowel

Each register of the bassoon requires a different voicing to produce the best tone quality and intonation. This can be combined with slight adjustments in the amount of reed in the mouth to create the best response, tuning and tone. If your students seem to be really struggling to produce certain notes, odds are it's an issue with either their support (air speed/pressure) or vowel (shape of the throat/inside of the mouth). Voicing should be discussed as new notes and ranges are reached.

Low Notes: Low F to Low B-flat

  • Lips: Round and Soft
  • Vowel: "OH", jaw is long and relaxed
  • Air Speed: slow, warm air
  • Air Volume: large, it takes a lot of air to make these notes speak
  • Reed Position: tip, take as a little of the reed in the mouth as possible

Middle Notes: Low F to around Half Hole G

  • Lips: Round, Corners In
  • Vowel: "OH" or "OO" as in COOL
  • Air Speed: moderate
  • Air Volume: moderate
  • Reed Position: middle, you should be able to fit one finger between your lip and the wire

Tenor Notes: Flick A to High G

  • Lips: Round, Corners Very Firm
  • Vowel: "OO" as in COOL
  • Air Speed: fast, these notes are resistant so it takes pressure to get them going
  • Air Volume: moderate
  • Reed Position: middle, you should be able to fit one finger between your lip and the wire

Cracking in this range is caused by weak corners, slow air, or the vowel being too open.

High Notes: High G and Up

  • Lips: Round, Corners Firm
  • Vowel: "OO" as in COOL, cracking is caused by too much space in the mouth
  • Air Speed: fast, focused, cold
  • Air Volume: small, a tiny stream of fast air
  • Reed Position: high up, very close to the wire

Never bite down on the reed, this causes squeaking and poor tone quality. The reed should feel supported equally from all sides with a very round lip shape


Flicking

The bassoon uses a special technique called flicking to help a few of our higher notes speak with a beautiful, clear sound.

To produce A, B♭, B, C and sometimes D above the staff without any cracks or squeaks, you should lightly tap and release the correct flick key at the beginning of the note. Adjust your air support and embouchure in combination with flicking to get the best possible sound. 

There are some situations which may require more or less flicking. For notes that are slurred by step you may not need to flick much. It is best to try to flick 100% of the time as you learn, and then later on you can decide if you don’t think it is necessary because you are confident the note will speak without cracking. For fast and repeated notes you may choose to hold down the flick key instead which is called "venting" and some people choose to do this all the time. Decide what is best for you in terms of practicality and tone quality.

I believe flicking or venting should be taught as part of the fingering in 6th grade and can be practiced much in the same way that half holes were. Many people choose to wait until later to teach flicking, but I think that holds students back in 7th and 8th grade and causes problems when challenging repertoire later demands they use this technique. 

Two of the hardest things about flicking are moving the thumb early enough and knowing where it needs to go. Placing a sticker, felt or rubber dot on the A flick key can help them have tactile feedback. They will also need to practice releasing the whisper key slightly early to give themselves enough time to travel to the flick key.

Here's a worksheet with flicking exercises to try.

Also below you'll find a great video about flicking technique and exactly which keys to use.


Vibrato

Vibrato on the bassoon is produced by pulsing the air to enhance your sound. Vibrato is used by many singers, string players and some woodwinds and brass musicians to create motion in the sound. Vibrato should be taught only when students can play generally in tune, with a stable sound on most notes. If they haven't learned proper tone production, adding vibrato is not going to help them. For most students, the beginning of 7th grade is a good time to begin.

The air should pulse without any movement in the jaw, a great way to check this it to have students play a C and the right hand under their chin. As they practice, the pulses will become stronger and more controlled. I like to compare the air to doing an accent without stopping the air.

Try having students play long notes or slow scales and pulsing evenly on each note. You can also have them hold a single note and gradually speed up or slow down the pulses.

The style and character of the music will determine the speed (how fast the pulses are) and intensity (how strong the pulses are) of the vibrato. This technique is most effective when used on longer notes and sometimes bassoonists won’t need to use any vibrato at all!

This video includes a great exercise for students. Pulsing quarters, eighths, triplets, sixteenths and quintuplets for one measure each at QTR=60.

As a general rule, low notes require slower vibrato and high notes require faster vibrato. Since the high notes are much more resistant, I recommend starting in the middle range of the bassoon and mastering vibrato there before moving on to higher notes.