As a bassoonist, I deal with varying levels of awareness of my craft. Most people I talk to wonder “what’s a bassoon?” if they even come across the notion.
The next level of sophistication has the uncanny ability to confuse the bassoon with the oboe.
That pairing actually recognizes the similarity of oboe and bassoon in both being complex, difficult to play instruments that use double reeds.
But those who are truly bassoon-savvy knowingly console us – as if we had an affliction equivalent to a terminal illness – for the bassoon’s nasty fingerings (I have to work 9 different keys with my left thumb alone!) and for the reedsInflatable Jumping Castle.
Ah, the reeds.
The bassoon reed is a hyper-critical part of the player’s experience. Its vibration is the very heart of the bassoon’s wonderful sound, and if it’s flexible, it makes the instrument much easier to play.
But there’s the rub: as a rule of thumb, good sound comes from less flexible reeds, and more flexible reeds tend to produce sound that isn’t as good. Good reeds have a solid core to the sound, while bad reeds can be buzzy or not focused. And Colorado’s thin air and low moisture make this even worse.
Most performing bassoonists don’t buy their reeds – they make them. While good pre-made reeds are available on-line, bassoonists tend to make their reeds in order to maintain control over the product, and save some money. The first thing my private teacher taught me was how to make reeds, and I haven’t bought a bassoon reed since 1975.
A bassoon reed evolves in the following steps:
– Tubes of raw arundo donax cane, which grows in swamps
– Blanks, which are popsicle-stick like pieces ready to be made into reeds
– Unfinished reeds, which are fully assembled but not playable
– Finished reeds, carefully prepared to make the most beautiful sounds effortlessly
Where each player takes over the process is a matter of choice. Many players buy the raw cane and spend time converting it into blanks to save money and customize them. I buy the blanks from people who get a kick out of all that.
My process for getting from the blank to the finished reed can be seen in this video.
How I got the process of making the perfect reed down to 5 minutes is video trickery – the process you see actually took about 54 minutes of work over a period of 35 days.
Making reeds is a crucial part of the bassoonist’s behind-the-scenes work. I hope this quick dip into the world of bassoon reeds helps you enjoy the music just a bit more.