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Living with bassoonists: a string player’s crash course in woodwinds

BY ALLEGRA MONTANARI

If you asked me, a cellist, in January what I knew about the bassoon, my knowledge would be pretty limited: my cousin plays it in his high school band, it’s one of those pesky double reed instruments, Mozart wrote a concerto for it, and Stravinsky chose it for the famous opening of Rite of Spring.

After living with the bassoon section of Sarasota Opera for a month, I’ve heard more than enough to make up for my prior ignorance. Not only are the bassoonists I’ve encountered delightful people, but they also have a fascinating instrument. I thought I would take the chance to share a few things I’ve learned.

I would be remiss to start off this little bit with anything else. You guessed it–reeds! Bassoons have a “double reed” because unlike the clarinet, a single reed instrument, there are two layers of cane (kind of like sugar cane). Talk with any double reed player (oboists and bassoonists) before rehearsal and you are likely to engage in a discussion about how their reed is working that day. If they are having a bad reed day, be warned: reeds have a magical power to sour or brighten the musician’s mood. Without a good reed, bassoonists literally cannot play.

Not only do reeds create all kinds of trouble – they can be flat, sharp, crack and split – but bassoonists spend their lives making them. And yes, this is all done by hand. One of my roommates made 40 this month alone! Only about one out of six ends up working well enough to play on.

When bassoonists find a reed that allows them to play consistently and confidently, it eventually wears out and the process begins again. They have special knives, profilers to shave and shape the cane, threads and twine and all kinds of other tools just to get the job done. As I witnessed with my two housemates, there are even different styles of reed making. Thankfully for me, these styles can be observed while watching Food Network and they haven’t put me to work…yet.

Enough about reeds! Did you know bassoon is the only reed instrument that players can have their whole lifetime? Unlike the clarinet and oboe, bassoons have rubber linings that prevent moisture of a player’s breath from changing the wood of the instrument. Other reed instruments lack this lining and typically after 2-10 years, professionals need to change instruments because the sound becomes so drastically altered. As a cellist who plays on an instrument from the 1800s, this was news to me.

Another key difference between string players and woodwind players is how we create vibrato. Playing the cello, I can simply move my hand on the string and watch it change speeds to create the sound I want. Because I’m used to the idea of tangibility with vibrato, I thought bassoonists would vibrate with their tongues. Turns out, that was way off. They use their breath! Trying to explain that is beyond me, though I found it fascinating.

Though I don’t see myself running off to join the International Double Read Society anytime soon, I certainly have learned a lot and gained an appreciation for the instrument and these musicians. Even with a very limited dynamic range, the color and character the bassoon can bring is marvelous. Next time you’re at the symphony, keep an ear out for the bassoon.

I’d love to hear what you think about the bassoon or the musical instruments you peers play on!

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