Large woodwind instruments have problems with water and condensation from regular playing. Not to mention the amount of playing that occurs in the lead in to a recital or audition. Contrabassoons are especially susceptible to water damage because they do not come apart to be swabbed, and most players cannot take their contras apart without damaging the seal when putting it back together.
Just last week I was talking to a woman who had bought a Mollenhauer contrabassoon in an estate sale. She bought half of it along with another bassoonist, and they shared it. But after a few months of playing and putting it back into the case one of them developed a cough, and through some sleuthing, found that the contrabassoon was full of mold! They brought it to a repairman who cleaned it out but it was never the same. We all heard about Trombone Lung a few years ago. This stuff can really cause respiratory ailments along the lines of Anthrax.
The best method for keeping a contrabassoon dry is to remove the tuning slide and leave it out on the stand for a few hours after playing. This won’t prevent all problems, on older contras water damage can even be seen on the outside of the instrument, through the lacquer. The contra’s “wing joint” is the common problem, this is the first piece of wood after the first bend. The danger is mold, and that the mold can damage the seal of the instrument and eat away at the wood of the bore, changing the dimensions.
Contraforte has a bad side and a good side. The bad side is that there is no tuning slide, and so nothing can be opened to help it air out; the good side is the modular design which allows players to take apart their own instruments. I can safely loosen the C-clamps and remove a bend to clean out sections. Recently I removed the second bend for the first time to find that it was lined with mold. The first bore can air dry but after a certain point the circulation doesn’t dry out the entire bore. This means that I need to do regular checks and cleanings at least once every two months.
The best tools for preventing life in an instrument are rubbing alcohol and a dehumidifier. Find a small spray bottle capable of an extremely fine mist, as fine as an aerosol spray. fill it with rubbing alcohol and spray it down the bore when you finish playing and right before you swab (non-contra) The alcohol mist will sterilize the bore and the hard to reach tone holes with the added benefit of evaporating quickly. I even do this to my bassoon before I swab it and put it away. Having a dehumidifier drying out the air makes it difficult for mold and fungi to take hold.
Today I did a large scale cleaning by removing all bends and using a fine sprayer of rubbing alcohol. By spraying sections at a time and swabbing them I killed any mold spores and other microbes living inside.
I have recently invested in a great dehumidifier from Lowes which has improved the air quality. I highly recommend a dehumidifier for woodwind players or doublers. If you can imagine all of the moisture that accumulates in the air from playing multiple instruments and reed making, it makes it hard for things to dry out fully. Especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area there is constant fog and moisture from the sea. I have been keeping my instruments at 45% humidity, this has already stopped my problem of sticky pads.
I have a few high school students that ask me about playing bassoon at the next level. They ask me about the conservatory experience and what playing in college is like. This is a big topic and every school is so varied, I can only talk about my time in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and what my friends have told me about other schools.
Each school has experienced faculty but there are usually a few star teachers in the bunch. At the SF Conservatory the star wind faculty are Steve Paulson for bassoon and Tim Day for Flute. So for bassoon I would highly recommend the conservatory for private lessons and pedagogy alone. Steve Braunstein -contrabassoon for SF Symphony- just started on faculty for contrabassoon and has been really amazing in this past year.
The academics for the Bachelors program is VERY easy. 4 semesters of theory and musicianship and a history class and a few music history classes. The masters program involves a theory and musician review and pro seminars. I had a lot of time on my hands for performance classes and reed making.
The conservatory offers resources to the students (sort of) There is a recording studio that students can rent time in with a technician. The campus has three performance spaces for recitals and there is rumored to be a student development office to help students. For the double reed players there is a reed room with gougers and a profiler and space to store instruments.
The real problem I have with conservatories is the market for orchestral players after school. I tell my students that in most other fields there are some jobs that they can fill, but as a musician we me never be able to make a living. On top of that the San Francisco Conservatory tuition in fall of 2014 is $40,000 per year. FAFSA will help low income families and private lenders offering student loans can sometimes cover the rest of tuition.
What I think is important to know is that most of the big time players teach a private studio on top of their school studios. So a good option may be to attend another school for a “practical degree” while still studying the instrument. That would create a better chance of having a career immediately after school.
If I haven’t scared people away from conservatories yet, then I’ll talk about the process. Applying to any college is one of the hardest parts of the degree; letters of recommendation, a resume, audition dates, audition material, transcripts, and application fees make the process very stressful. The audition itself is usually pretty painless though, since most of the good teachers are also good people. If you really want to have a good chance of being considered it’s important to meet with the teacher a few weeks before the audition and have a lesson (or two)
I just bought a Snark tuner to try out. Many of my colleagues have it and they have nothing but positive things to say about it. I have had clip on tuners before, or at least an extension to plug in to my regular tuner.
The Snark is very quick and responsive, there is no lag time waiting for the tuner to focus on the pitch. There are settings to either pick up vibrations directly from the instrument or to pick up sound through the microphone. The pitch level can be calibrated from 415-466.
This tuner is great for bassoonists because it can easily clip onto the bocal, or onto a oboe/clarinet bell. I actually purchased this tuner for my contraforte and like most tuners it cannot register the lowest octave. That would be my only drawback.
I have some basic care tools that I use to maintain my instruments. Key oil, cork grease, bore oil etc. But there are some things that I have found to be very useful especially in buying a used contraforte. The contra was in the use of Lewis Lipnick, a very accomplished and busy player. It had some tarnish on the keys, and I don’t trust myself to take it all apart to clean it. Contrabassoons and contrafortes also suffer from water problems. Contra is the only woodwind instrument that never EVER gets swabbed!
I found these silver polish strips to be amazing! You get a wet paper towel, wipe down the tarnished area and then just wipe it with the polish wipe and its done. I also have “acidic hand oil” like we all do, but mine can damage the plating of instruments over time. So this is a very easy way to keep my keys from damage. These I found at Bed Bath and Beyond
The other great find is Silica gel packets; this is a form of desiccant, or a chemical that removes moisture from the air. I bought a couple packs of these and I keep two in the contra case at a time. When the contra is put away in the case, the instrument is still filled with moisture and warm moist air. These packets help dry out the air inside of the case. I bought mine off of Amazon