Playing in tune is no small feat on the bassoon, but understanding the tendencies of the different registers of the bassoon is a crucial step in the right direction.
*note: numbers listed after note names refer to their octave. ex: C2 refers to the C on the staff, while C3 refers to middle C one ledger line above the staff.
The notes I like to tune are A2 and F2. This gives a fairly general idea of how the rest of my notes will be on a given day. Since our reeds change with the weather it is important to check these notes every day. Once we tune these notes, it’s time to understand the tendencies of the other notes.
The Low Range:
In general, the low range of the bassoon is extremely sharp in relation to the middle and tenor registers. The worst note is low D. Playing a low D (D1) in tune at a soft dynamic can feel almost impossible, but there are a few tricks to help keep this pesky note and the other low notes in tune.
- The first step to getting any note in tune is to check in with a tuner and see how close you actually are to the note. Do not look at the tuner when you first start playing, as this will make you change the pitch and you will not get an honest reading. Play the note for a few seconds and then look at the tuner to get a true indication of how these notes are for you. If you are sharp in this register (like 99% of bassoonists are) there are a few things you can do.
- Drop your jaw. This is likely going to solve most of your problems in the lower register. Keep a nice and open throat and think of the vowel toh (as in toll or total) when you play these notes. Slowing down the air just a little bit can also aid to lower the pitch. When you slow down the air, be careful that you are not decreasing the amount of air. Pretend you are fogging a mirror, or breathing onto your hands to warm them up.
- Put less reed in your mouth. In normal playing, your lips should come into contact with the reed about 3/4 of the way down the blade. When I play notes below F1, I change this to about 1/2 way down the reed to help keep the pitch down, and if I need to play in this register at pianissimo I will reduce this even further to a bit more than 1/4 of the reed in my mouth. Be careful when you do this because it can make you sound very thin and timid. I find that dropping the jaw while reducing the cane in my mouth yields the most in tune and sonorous results.
- When playing low D, there is a special technique bassoonists use to be in tune. If you are playing a low D very softly, you can depress the low Bb key in addition to the normal fingering to dampen the sound and lower the pitch significantly. You will need to do some left thumb gymnastics to reach both the low D and Bb keys, which means that this technique can really only be employed in slow music, or if you have to hold a low D for a while.
- If these notes are extremely sharp or do not speak, this indicates that there are leaks in the instrument. Take it to a local bassoon teacher or a bassoon repair technician to get more info about your specific instrument, and what repairs may need to be made. If you are a student borrowing a school instrument do not take it to a repair tech without talking to your band director.
The middle range of the bassoon (F1-F2) is fairly in tune on most bassoons that are in good repair with no leaks. However, there are a few trouble notes that you need to be aware of.
- C2 is a very stable note and should be used as a point of reference for the other notes in this register
- Eb2 is a very problematic note on the bassoon. Almost every fingering chart I have seen lists the fingering as being the first and third fingers in the left hand. This is an incorrect way to play this note. Adding the second finger in the right hand as well as the Bb thumb key in the right hand to this fingering will significantly improve the pitch and resonance of this note.
- E2 is a note that I use to diagnose other problems on the bassoon. when playing an E2, if you notice that it is very flat in relation to the notes surrounding it, this is a good indication that you are having significant reed problems and it is time to make some drastic changes to your reed. If this E is around 20 cents flat you need to clip the tip of your reed. To do this, I use a pair of sewing scissors I bought at Michael’s for $10. I make sure to only cut the most minuscule amount off at a time and to check in with a tuner after each time. DO NOT ONLY CHECK THE E2! check A2 and F2 to see if those are in tune. If these notes are in tune or a bit sharp, it is time to stop clipping. If you only check E2, you could be throwing off the intonation of all the other notes. When I was younger I destroyed many reeds this way. Clipping the tip will cause the reed to feel more resistant. Closing the tip from the first wire will help the reed to feel more free blowing and less resistant.
The range from F2 to F3 is a mixed bag of tuning issues, but in general this range is sharp with a few exceptions.
- F#2/G2 are both pretty sharp on most modern bassoons. To correct this, we use the top pinky on the left hand and manipulate the jaw. This pinky key is considered optional in most fingering charts, but if you ask any reputable bassoon player they will say that this key is in no way optional.
- Bb3-D3 is what I like to call the “dead zone”. These notes usually have some of the poorest response and resonance out of all the ranges of the bassoon. They are very resistant by nature and one must use copious amounts of air at high speed to counteract the effects of this register. The D3 is surprisingly flat and should be approached by slightly raising the lower jaw and speeding up the air.
- E3 will be slightly sharp and approached with a carefully
The High Range
The range from F3 to D4 is generally flat, but I have found that this varies greatly from person to person. Adding the top left pinky for all of these notes will bring the pitch down if you happen to be sharp. If you are flat, moving your embouchure closer to the wires, speeding up your air, and slightly raising the lower jaw will help. This range requires a lot of self discovery on an individual basis. The pitch tendencies I face in this range are likely not the same as those you will encounter. Quality time with a tuner is a must for this range of the bassoon.
Anything above D4 I consider as part of the ozone register. You will probably not encounter these notes in the wild unless you are playing some extremely advanced solo literature. Bernstein wrote an F4 into West Side Story because he is Leonard Bernstein and he can do whatever he wants. This range of the bassoon is so unreliable, even for professionals, that most music directors give this note to the alto sax player.
A $15 Korg tuner from your local music shop will last you a lifetime if you take care of it. Be wary of free tuner apps for your phone. Many are very poor quality and will not give a clear reading. The only tuner app I endorse is the Tonal Energy tuner. It costs about $4 and has a very accurate tuner as well as a metronome.