Saturday, 4 October 2014

How to Play Lower than Bb on the Bassoon

     What is the bassoon's lowest note?
     To someone with a little bassoon knowledge the answer to this question appears blindingly obvious. "Low B flat", they reply. After all, this is the note that is produced when all of the tone holes on the instrument are sealed and its entire eight-foot length is engaged in tone production. A basic knowledge of acoustics will tell you that it is not possible to descend lower than this note.

     What is the bassoon's lowest note?
     Someone with a little more bassoon knowledge will know that there is a little more to this than it may appear. They will confidently respond with "Low A". Take a quick look on Wikipedia and you will find that its diagram of the instrument's range descends down to this A, and indeed this note is used in a number of prominent pieces of music. The most famous is probably Nielsen's Wind Quintet Op. 43, which concludes with this deep tone. It is also commonly to be found in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, as well as a number of other 20th century compositions.
     There are a number of ways to achieve this low A. The most common nowadays is through the use of an extension, i.e. an extra piece of tubing inserted into the end of the bassoon. This has the effect of flattening the low Bb by a semitone, thereby producing an A. These extensions can be bought professionally made, or put together quite easily from plastic or even cardboard tubing. It is even possible to improvise an extension by rolling up a piece of sheet music and pushing it into the instrument's bell, leaving around 10 cm protruding from the end. The main advantage of this is that it gives a note that is consistent in timbre and response with the rest of the instrument. In other words, it is more or less as easy to play as the unmodified B flat would be, and its tone also matches that of the B flat. However, with such an extension it becomes impossible to play the B flat itself, and the low B also becomes somewhat muffled. The extension can also cause problems with other notes over the whole range of the bassoon, and therefore it is common to only insert it for passages where it is required.
     Instrument manufacturers have in the past attempted to bring the bassoon closer in line with modern composers' requirements by manufacturing low A bells. Using such bells it becomes possible to play any chromatic note in the bassoon's range, as well as the low A which is accessed by an extra key for the left hand little finger. Essentially it is like the flute's low B footjoint, which gives the instrument an extra semitone. This seems the most definitive way to solve the problem, but it failed to catch on in a big way, probably due to the extra weight, complexity and expense which it introduced to an already weighty, complex and expensive instrument.
     There are a few pictures available online of these low A bells, which give a better idea of their form and functionality. Here is a Heckel bassoon that came fitted with both a standard low B flat and an extended low A bell:
     And here is a low A bell that was custom-made for a Moosmann bassoon:
     There is one more way in which it is possible to reach a low A, although it is one that I personally have never managed. It involves fingering a low B flat and loosening the embouchure sufficiently so that the pitch of the note is 'bent' down by an entire semitone. This also involves moving the lips to the very tip of the reed, and of course the reed itself must be a good one for such a technique to work. Despite my best attempts (and my best reeds) I have never been able to replicate this effect, which leads me to conclude that either my reeds are not as excellent as I think they are, or the technique works better on some bassoons than others and mine just so happens to be one of the less enthusiastic ones. In his book 'Bassoon', William Waterhouse states that a really good reed will be capable of playing all the way up to a high F and, by note-bending, down to a low A. If this is true then he must have possessed some pretty remarkable reeds, as far as I can see.
     To be frank, it doesn't surprise me that I am unable to bend such a low note by an entire semitone. My experience on clarinet, flute, saxophone and bassoon tells me that in general the higher a note is, the easier it is to bend its pitch using the embouchure. On clarinet, I can bend a C (two ledger lines above the treble stave) down to around an A a minor third below, but I cannot bend a low E (below the stave) at all. The same on bassoon: I can bend a middle C quite significantly, but the low B flat maintains its pitch remarkably well no matter what I do with my embouchure. Whilst I congratulate anyone who is able to bend a low B flat down to an A, I am not hugely disheartened by my ability to do so.
     So there you have it. The bassoon's lowest note. An A, which can be achieved by any of the three methods described above. Short of adding increasingly cumbersome extensions to an already unwieldy instrument, it is impossible to play any lower.
     At least, that's what I used to think.
     I was wrong...

     What is the bassoon's lowest note?
     A few days ago I was browsing the internet, feeling secure because I had enough bassoon knowledge to be aware that its lowest note is an A below the bass stave, when I opened up YouTube and found my eye caught by an intriguing title in my suggested videos. It was called 'Bassoon Techniques - Impossible Notes!' (, so, feeling understandably intrigued, I clicked on it. I suggest you do the same now.
     What this video shows you is that it is possible to play lower than a B flat using special fingerings. Particularly surprising is that fact that these fingerings do not appear to use the entire bore length, yet they are capable of producing tones that sound lower than the note we usually play with all tone holes covered.
     I say 'sound' lower, because judging by the comments below the video the actual effect is an illusion. Apparently the sounds produced are actually multiphonics which somehow confuse the ear (and my electronic tuner, for that matter) into interpreting them as notes lower than B flat. I would be interested to know exactly how and why this works, but for the time being I am satisfied that if a note sounds like it's lower than a B flat, then for all practical purposes it is.
     The video details fingerings for notes down to an E below the B flat, but I would suggest that the G flat is probably the lowest you can go before it starts to sound truly repulsive. With a little practice it is possible to get a reasonable tone on the A and A flat, and I have managed to produce a reasonable-sounding G, but the lower you try and go it seems the more distorted the sound gets. Still, as a party trick those low E's and F's are hard to beat!
     Having had a go at the notes, I have found that my instrument sometimes responds better to slightly different fingerings to those detailed in the video. These are the fingerings that work best for me, which may be useful to anyone trying this technique themselves:
     I feel that the main value of these extra notes is as a novelty - they are fun to play, and it is always satisfying to be able to push the boundaries of your instrument. Their main disadvantages are that they are difficult to play (although diligent practice may be able to overcome this) and that their tone is very harsh and inflexible (although this may be desirable in certain circumstances). However, I believe there may well be occasional uses for these magical low notes.
     Firstly, they provide yet another method of playing low A, which is one note that we do come across from time to time. Using this method, it is possible to play the low B flat as well and the rest of the instrument is not affected at all, which may be advantageous in some cases.
     Secondly, they may come in handy for those times when we are called upon to play a contrabassoon part on bassoon, due to the unavailability of a contra. In such situations it is advisable to transpose as much as possible down the octave so as to bring the part to its intended pitch, and therefore these extra notes may come in handy. In addition, the rattly tone that they produce is reminiscent of a contrabassoon, so it may be possible to give a fairly convincing impersonation of one.
     Thirdly, there are those times when we are called upon to play a carelessly-edited new piece or arrangement in which overzealous copy-and-paste-ing has given the bassoon some notes beyond its standard range. Usually we would have to miss them out or play them up the octave, but with these fingerings we may be able to play them as written anyway. To me, that is more than a little satisfying.

     What is the bassoon's lowest note?
     Lower than you'd think.