“The bassoon family” is a bassoon lesson that I teach when a student is in a slump. Too many weeks on etudes or a concerto often makes high schoolers lose interest. So I give them a contra lesson, or for the students that have lessons in my home, an introduction to the bassoon family. I have two high school seniors this year, and contrabassoon will definitely be a part of college orchestra playing.
The start of each lesson is playing through the circle of fifths, 12 major scales. This is a nice way to get into contrabassoon and introduce the vent keys and the Eb keys. The student can get a small taste of standard orchestra excerpts like the Contrabassoon solos written by Ravel in his Piano Concerto in G, and Ma Mère l’Oye. Contrabassoon comes quickly to many bassoonists, and Contraforte come quickly to bassoonists who also play sax. The simple octave keys on the Contraforte make it a closer match to high woodwinds.
It’s also interesting to introduce students to the Baroque bassoon. I make a point to have students learn a baroque piece every year, since honor orchestras and college auditions ask for pieces from contrasting eras. The basic scale of the baroque bassoon is the same as modern bassoon, so a few Vivaldi concertos translate well to the baroque bassoon. This also provides a useful insight into the instrument that the piece was written for, and how lucky we are to have a modernized bassoon.
The french bassoon is mostly for informational use. To learn the lowest octave chromatically and play a few scales. I don’t teach much French repertoire to high schoolers so it’s an instrument with no direct connection to their experiences. But I Play a few recordings of french bassoon players, explain the Paris Conservatory, and the school of French players that still exist throughout the world.
Two weeks ago I acquired a French Bassoon. It was found in a middle school’s band room cabinet and had been neglected for many years. There is no manufacturer’s mark, the usual branding spot is the low D guard and this one has been removed. My best guess is either Selmer or Buffet. Also, my time with this instrument hasn’t been true to the period since it lacks a french bocal. Initially I could hardly get any sound to come out of it, I realized that some of the pads near the top of the tenor joint were leaking. So I did a temporary fix by wrapping the pads in plumber’s tape.
The fingering schematic of the lowest tritone is completely different from the German system bassoon. Luckily the Weissenborn method book comes with a full french bassoon fingering chart. After a bit of work, the layout of the low keys makes sense and it is just as fast as the German system. The one consistent problem is the transition from D flat to E flat. The rest of the instrument is very similar to the German system with slight modifications, especially in the highest notes.
I did some research into french bassoon reeds to try and create something that would work well for this system. Most of what I saw was a narrower shape with a longer blade and tube. What I decided to do was to use my regular Fox 2 shaper which is a bit narrow and leave a long blade. I found some great french bassoon reed images on the International Double Reed Society’s website under the “Reed Project” tab. There are reeds gathered from top double reed players from all around the world. I’m not sure if this link inly works from member but here it is.
The tone of the French bassoon is more muffled and nasal. It really reminds me of baroque bassoon tone but with less stability. The instrument doesn’t project as well, it seems stuffy without any “sparkle” to the sound. Also the half step isn’t clearly defined for most of the notes. The pitch center of the basson is very flexible and is stabilized with modified fingerings to bring the pitch up or bring the pitch down. My goal for this instrument is to eventually play the Saint Saens sonata on it and Daphnis and Chloe suite 2.