Few students begin their musical studies with a bassoon in hand, but almost invariably have had experience on another instrument first. The approach to bassoon articulation is different than the that used to play other woodwinds. This is especially important to emphasize with students switching to bassoon from another woodwind. Tongue and jaw positions are key to good articulation.
Every note (unless it is being slurred to) must be started with the tongue on the reed. You cannot begin with just air because, unlike the response of the saxophone, you will have no control over the initial sound or volume if you do this. Starting notes with consistency is one of the more difficult things to learn on bassoon.
Do not tongue the tip opening of the reed with the very tip of the tongue. Tongue contact with the reed is made 1/4 inch back from the tip of the muscle. The bassoonists should not aim for the opening of the reed, but for the lower blade, just behind the tip. This contact point is actually a basic concept typical to all the reeded woodwind instruments. Do not tongue into the opening of any mouthpiece or reed, but always approach tonguing from the bottom. The tongue comes in contact with the bottom blade of the double reed, or simply the reed, for single reeds, slightly back from the tip.
Think of articulation as bringing the tongue away from the reed, not as striking the reed or initiation of the sound by putting the tongue onto the reed. It should already be on the reed before you initiate the attack. This concept also carries over to most of the other woodwind instruments, though clarinet and saxophone can, and often encourage notes in the mid-register to be started not with the tongue, but with air alone.
The most difficult skill for new bassoonists (and many experienced ones, as well!) to learn to do, with consistency, is maintain a low tongue position. The natural position for any muscle is a curved one. Let your hands hang freely at your side. You will see that the natural shape they take on is slightly curved (which is the natural and correct hand position to maintain for all woodwinds, but that is another topic, for another day). Now, allow your tongue to rest freely in your mouth. This is more difficult to see/feel, but its natural resting position is also slightly arched, matching the contour of the roof of your mouth. This curved, “high tongue position” is normal for flute, clarinet, saxophone and oboe. Bassoonists must resist this natural tendency and consciously drop the tongue, keeping the oral cavity as open and round as possible. A naturally high tongue position on bassoon will decrease the consistency of responsiveness, especially in the low register, and will contribute to a more nasal, sharp tone (a warm, round tone being the desired result).
Along with low tongue position is the need for an unnaturally low jaw. Players of other wind instruments work to maintain a relaxed, naturally open jaw position. Bassoonists must go one step further and make a specific effort to drop the jaw, generally as much as possible, while still maintaining embouchure contact with the reed. To simulate the sensation of correct jaw and tongue position, I will begin to yawn. This is infectious, and soon they are yawning too. I ask them to remember those times they have been sitting in class and have had that urge to yawn but try to suppress it by keeping the mouth closed. Even with the mouth closed, the back of the tongue is forced down while the jaw drops open. Presto: perfect oral cavity position! Bassoon jaw position is not “natural” but is consciously as dropped and open as possible. Students of the instrument will have to be reminded of this often.
When articulating, the tendency is to bring the jaw and back of the tongue up, along with the tip of the tongue (which should be the only thing moving to articulate a note). By involving only the tip of the tongue—meaning the target area one-quarter of an inch back from the true tip—articulation is more efficient (allowing for much faster tonguing) and the oral cavity needed for in-tune, attractive playing is maintained. The tip of the tongue must be trained to function separately from the rest of the embouchure.
My doctoral studies on bassoon were with professor Michael Burns, who uses a visualization exercise that he calls “training the puppy.” When a new puppy is brought home, it will follow its new master everywhere. Devotion is good, but we want to end up with an obedient dog. During training of the puppy, the master will tell it to “stay” and then walk away. Puppies don’t understand, and get right up and follow. Only after much repetition does the puppy learn to sit and to stay. The bassoon student’s jaw and back of the tongue are much like the untrained puppy. When initiating an articulation, they will want to follow the tip of the tongue. It takes diligent practice to learn to maintain the open oral cavity while tonguing. This is not easy or natural, but is worth the time and effort for consistency of attack and beauty of tone and pitch. Allowing the jaw to rise will make the pitch sharp at the attack, and will make it more difficult for the low range to speak.
The next issue that presents itself in bassoon articulation is the coordination of air pressure with the release of the tongue from the reed. When preparing to articulate a note, air pressure should always be going; even when no note is sounding and the tongue is on the reed stopping the air. Having enough air pressure behind the tongue is necessary for any note to speak with consistency. Though the process will eventually become almost instantaneous, here are the steps to good bassoon articulation, given in the order they should occur:
1) breathe in.
2) place the tongue on the reed.
3) ”blow” with the lungs and create air pressure behind the closed-off reed
4) be sure your jaw is dropped, and mouth cavity open.
5) release the tongue (air pressure is already going).
Lastly, a responsive reed is a must. Insisting on comfortable, responsive reeds can save much frustration and wasted practice time. It is often difficult for younger students to afford and/or create decent reeds, yet this is the time they need them most. Try to provide your bassoon students with good quality reeds and, eventually, the instruction they need to alter their reeds to their preferences. When students play on poor quality reeds and instruments, it not only becomes frustrating to them, but frustrating to the teacher, it being difficult to determine whether some problems are equipment or student related. Students will learn to compensate for their poor equipment, which gives rise to poor habits that must be unlearned later.
Learning to play the bassoon well requires a considerable investment of time and energy, but is absolutely worth the effort. Armed with curiosity, a good work ethic, and the knowledge of how the bassoon should be approached, any music student has the potential to be a happy and successful bassoonist.