I am now offering custom contrabassoon reeds on my reed website for people who have a preference of shapes. The standard shape for all of the contrabassoon reeds is the Rieger K1, this is a versatile shape that is free blowing on most instruments.

I personally use a Heckel Contrabassoon shape, which was found and reproduced in a small batch by Arlen Fast through Fox Products. I play a mid 1980’s Heckel contra and I have been finding that this shape suits the instrument.

The shapes available for contrabassoon reeds are:

Rieger K1, K2, K3, Heckel, Skinner-Braunstein, Greg Henegar,  Rhodes R1

It’s hard to describe each shape and dissect the playing qualities since so much of what makes a good reed has to do with cane and the scrape. But if I can ramble a bit, I’ve spent time with these shapes and made each of them my primary shape at one point in time so there are patterns I have noticed.

K1 is all around great. I have used this on Fox contras, Mollenhauers and Heckels and I think it makes a balanced middle of the road reed. I’d say that it sounds a little plain and can be buzzy in the first few days.

K2 is a shape that I basically never use or recommend. If it’s your thing I can make that shape for you, but this has. always been a buzzy mess for my on my instrument. I’ve tried to change wire placement, gouge, and reed lengths and I continue to not like this. It is a wide goblet/tulip shape.

K3 has some interesting qualities because it is pretty narrow and has a shallow curve from the tip to the throat. This had the effect on me like trying a Herzberg reed for the first time, with a narrow shape the scrape can be thinner and more free blowing without sagging or loss of the high register response. It has a sweeter tone than the K1 and be easier to blend with a section.

I traced the following shapers onto a piece of paper so that you can get a sense of what a reed with these shapes might look like.

The Heckel shape is a goblet/tulip shape like the K2 but much narrower. I’ve been putting a very thin tip on this and leaving a moderate amount of spine. It gives me a fast response and dark tone. I have used this on about 10 of my reeds so far this year and all of them have a wobbly middle F. It hasn’t been a bad note on this instrument before, and its a drawback that I can manage.

Rhodes R1 is basically the Fox Products straight shaper version of the K1. It is great for all instruments and needs some break in time.

Greg Henegar’s shape is a Knochenhauer shape. I haven’t studied with Greg (yet!)?) so I’m sure that he has a specific way of making reeds. Like all Knochenhauer style reeds, there is a big flare at the end of the tube, so the amount you bevel has a big impact on the tip opening. These reeds have a rich tone and really responsive high register, I notice that these will want to go a little sharp unless the reed is scraped pretty thin. This shaper was made in a small batch by Bell Bassoons in Canada, but they might still be available as a custom order.

Skinner-Braunstein shaped reeds are a wide heavier style reed. This shape is great for softer pieces of cane and gets a big round sound. Reeds made from this shape seem to last a long time as well. There is some confusion for reed makers about SKB1 and SKB2. In Skinner’s reed making method excess cane is trimmed off of the end of the tube, in most reed making now we like to trim the excess from the tip with a tip cutter. If you follow his method, you would need the SKB1, which appears narrower but is the same shape. And if you don’t trim the butt of the reed, you would buy the SKB2. Steve Braunstein makes both SKB reeds and the RR1 reeds, so I would contact him to buy them.

I wanted to attempt to make my own high note bocal by drilling an additional vent hole. I have seen some articles mentioning bore size and placement so I decided to go for it. I bought a Fox CVX 3 specifically to destroy and some heat shrink tubing. The drill  bit that I used is an Irwin #60, it is 1.02mm.

I drilled through the top of the bocal at both 20mm and  25mm from the tip. Then I set 2 pieces of heat shrink tubing to cover the holes.

This allows me to choose which vent to use and also how much of the vent to have uncovered. So far I have noticed that the vent closest to the reed helps with the notes above high F but the tenor register has an airy rasp to it. The vent farther from the reed helps with notes to high F with less distortion of tone.

 

With the shrink wrap tubing put in place, the bocal works like normal. So it can be used normally for a piece of music and a vent can be opened for the specific passage that requires it.

The standard range of the bassoon extends down to the Bb below bass clef, some pieces ask players to play an A below that. This is an on going subject that I don’t think I can fully cover here, but I can talk about my experiences so far!

The range of the bassoon listed on wikipedia indicates that Low A is an extended technique and possible with an extension. There are a few ways that the bassoon can play that Low A.

Multiphonic Fingerings exist that create loud/active sounds and colors on bassoon. There is a fingering that creates a sound similar to the Low A. The fingering is xxo/xxx F and there are others which can sort of sound like lower notes as well. To me this is not really a solution since the color of this multiphonic is so loud and rough it isn’t something that would just blend with the orchestra’s sound. I mention these fingerings to composers when I commission new music, but thats about it.

Low A Extensions are usually the way to get to that note, and we have options from cheap to expensive. Cardboard paper towel roll fits in the bassoon bell so that can be cut to length to be an in tune low A. There are commercial versions of this made from plastic (looks better) which comes with a felt ring to adjust how far it extends, which gets that same effect. I have heard in some specific cases like the Nielsen woodwind quintet that a bassoonist uses the English Horn’s bell, which sounds like a complete invasion of personal space. There are nicer custom made maple extensions out there too, which look the best.

Adding a Low A extension to the bassoon creates issues. To use the extension to play an A mean that we finger the low Bb and the A comes out, which means that we can no longer play Bb. The extension also interferes with the taper of the bore. The bore of the bassoon is never stagnant, its always expanding or diminishing and so to put in a straight tube changes the final taper of the instrument’s length. That creates a whole series of acoustical issues that affects the projection and intonation across all of the bassoon’s range not just the low notes. Since it’s such an acoustic issue to have the extension in, we just put it in for the exact passage it’s needed and then take it out. So all of that being said using an extension for Low A is very tricky and used on a case by case basis. Sometimes players will bring the note or whole passage up an octave, some players are die hard purists that the low A must be played, some players don’t own an extension and never bother with it. It’s awkward to put in and out quickly and it makes the bassoon sound wonky when it’s in.

Magical Chromatic Low A Extension should be a massed produced item by now! This extension made by Benson Bell in the 1980’s, he made a set of 4 that were exactly matched to the bassoons owned by the players of the Toronto Symphony. When Steven Braunstein left and went to San Francisco the extension went with him because it was custom sized and fitted to just his bassoon. Now the placement of this extension is different, this doesn’t go onto the end of the bassoon bell but it goes between the long joint and bell.

This extension is unique in that it doesn’t require any addition keywork added to the bassoon. Also unique in that it is fully chromatic, and so we can play Low A and the Bb. The operation is easy, push the Bb key halfway down for Bb and all the way down for A. This exact style of extension would not work for a gentlemen cut bassoon but a mechanism could probably be designed for that.

It is a big step up from the inserted extension but it still creates intonation and projection issues throughout the range. It is still interrupting the bore and the way the instrument was voiced. However this makes many more Low A circumstances possible. Such as this passage from the Tomasi Trombone Concerto

This would be normally unplayable since having a basic tube extension in means the Bb would sound as an A, and I can’t put in and take out the extension for just one note while playing. This is an example where the player either plays it all up an octave or doesn’t play the A.

Low A Bells are the most expensive option and someone has to think about how often they play Low A, and is it worth the price.

Having a Low A bell built is typically done when initially ordering a new instrument.

The Low A on these bells is operated with keywork that is permanently attached to the bassoon. This is either a touch piece on the right side of the low Bb key or as a larger key below the low C# key. Having it below the C# key would interfere with the pinky whisper key. The Low A bells still suffer from the acoustic deficiencies of tweaking with the bore. To really have a low A instrument built it would require a re-designed long joint and bell.

I don’t know why bassoon bottoms out at Bb. It historically always has, but with most orchestral works being in sharp key signatures, it seems like A would be more useful. The need to play A’s began with Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler and now still comes up in new pieces. It would be great if a bassoon manufacturer would mass produce some chromatic extensions!

A few months ago I worked on a project that required a romantic era contrabassoon! The basis of the project was to track the development of the contra over time and play some of the music written for each instrument.

Here in the Bay Area we are very lucky to have David Granger who is a period bassoon expert. And he was generous enough to let me use one of his period contras for this project.

Romantic Contrabassoon

Although I ended up getting in a few practice sessions on it; I found that I’m not a great period player, and this instrument has much more potential than what I could perform. I was able to play some Beethoven and Brahms on it but I never was able to get a high Ab which is in Brahms’ 3rd Symphony.

Romantic Contrabassoon Bocal

Both of David’s period contrabassoons were made by Wolf in the style of the Viennese contras. This is a unique instrument because it can be tuned to A=415 or 440 with the use of two different lengths of bocals. The bocal looks similar to a bassoon bocal but has a drain and is upside down when assembled with the crook.

Romantic Contrabassoon Bocal

When I practiced different instruments in the same practice session I was getting frustrated with the Romantic instrument. I liked it on its own, but if I played a modern instrument and switched back to romantic then it seemed so unstable and difficult to play. Period bassoons in general have a less focused sound, and so I’ve never gotten into performing on them.

Bassoon Contraforte Contrabassoon Romantic Contrabassoon

The reeds here are supplied by Wolf and were made by Stefan Pantzier I tried my hand at making a few and they turned out okay. The shape is similar in dimensions to the Contraforte C2 shape but with a shorter tube. The thing I didn’t try was adjusting the gouge to something more appropriate to the era. In the time before gouging machines people gouged by hand and purposefully gouged the center thinner. This meant less work had to be done in profiling and finishing a blank.

Romantic Contrabassoon Reeds

Contrabassoon Contraforte Romantic Contrabassoon

Ortwein Balance Hanger

Back when I played on my Fox 601 I relied on my Fox balance hanger to take some of the stress off of my left forearm. But the Fox balance hanger only fits Fox bassoons, and so now on my Heckel my old one doesn’t fit.

I just found a balance hanger made by Mark Ortwein which fits Heckel bassoons. I’ve been using it for two weeks now and it has made my bassoon lighter on my left hand. This bassoon is heavier than my last one so that’s really a big help.

These can be found at ortweinwoodwinds.com

I have had been on a trip to Vienna for the last few weeks. The Hofburg palace houses an antique instrument museum which to my surprise had many bassoons and contrabassoons! So here are a few but not all of the instruments on display

Entrance to Antique Instrument Museum

bassoon family

bassoon family back

bassoons

This Contrabassoon was built by Bradka in Vienna, this was his standard model in 1870.

Stehle Bassoon

This bassoon was built by Johann Stehle who at the time was considered to be one of the finest instrument makers in the German speaking regions. This instrument was an experiment as it has a tuning slide on the wing joint to lengthen the bore between the register vents and tones holes. This bassoon also has an split bell to add on a low A attachment.

Woodwind Family

 This Contrabassoon was built by Bradka for the Viennese Jubilee crafts exhibition in 1888. This design differs from his previous models because of the rounded U-tubes to create less air resistance. “Bradka seems to have oriented this to a model from 1976 by Alfred Morton” (the contrabassophone maker)

The bassoon is a Heckel from the 1880s.

I was recently talking to my neighbor about what I do, and it turns out that he used to be a clarinet player. He said that he didn’t continue on to a professional level because he needed to invest so much in equipment. To be a pro clarinet player, he said, he needed to buy a whole family of pro clarinets and he just wanted to play Bb soprano clarinet. So this got me into talking about the bassoon tangents that people get into, in a professional or sub-professional way. Every bassoon player plays bassoon for a while and then there are a few different directions to go experimenting.

Probably the most responsible secondary horn is contrabassoon. This is very practical since it’s also used in the orchestra and most bassoon teachers can help with it. The only obstacle with contra is getting access to one since they are expensive and unpopular. As a student in college it’s becoming standard to take out extra loan money to finance a new instrument, but usually graduate programs are more lenient on addition loans.

contrabassoon

French Basson is mostly dead at this point. People play them out of curiosity and on a hobbyist level. I had one for many years and I was never tempted to take it to a gig instead of a Heckel system bassoon. That being said, french bassoon can be a cool thing to pull out on a recital or for chamber music. My high point was being able to play the Saint-Saens Sonate on it, but it never made it out to a recital. This scratches the itch of wanting to play a historical instrument but its also pretty easy to learn.

French Bassoon

Baroque bassoon is another route that some players go. Baroque orchestras are becoming much more popular in California and New York, and so there are maybe a few more gigs for baroque players on top of regular orchestra gigs. Baroque is much more difficult to play well and isn’t as pleasing to listen to unaccompanied, so learning it can be tedious. When I have done “baroque” orchestra gigs, it usually ends up being some sort of mixed ensemble. The woodwinds and principal strings play baroque instruments, but the rest of the strings play on modern setups. I am not a baroque bassoon player but I do sometimes want to play historical literature on the authentic instruments. Baroque bassoon are also much much cheaper than modern bassoons.

Baroque Bassoon

The bassoon has recently been modernized even further with the addition of an electric pickup. With a modified bocal, players can plug into an amp and use the same filters and effects that an guitarist can use. There are so many great electric players but not so many gigs. This isn’t so much a career path as it is a way to bridge the gap and get into jazz or rock etc.

Electric Bassoon