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The Bassoon


Family: Woodwind
Cost: from £2,400 (the lowest price we could find, VAT included)
Best age to start: 12 years upwards
Easy to start? Fairly, if you can reach the keys!

The bassoon is the largest member of the woodwind family, except for its rare giant relative the contra-bassoon. The wooden tube is doubled back on itself (otherwise it would be about eight feet long!) which makes it hard to manufacture and therefore expensive. You hold it slanted in front of you, usually suspended from a sling round your neck, and blow directly through a reed (two carefully-shaped pieces of bamboo-like material joined together). It is the reed which vibrates to make the sound, rather like blowing a blade of grass between your thumbs.
To make the different notes you cover and uncover holes with a system of keys operated by rods and levers. The advantage of this complicated system is that there are alternative ways of fingering many notes, so whatever the order of the notes you need to play there is always an easy way of doing it. The rods and levers that operate the keys of a bassoon are necessarily very long, and the gentle clacking noise they make can sometimes be heard even on recordings of the highest quality.
To play the bassoon you need to have hands big enough to reach the keys which means that it is rare for children to start on the bassoon before the age of 12 or so. One thing to bear in mind is that you have to exert some pressure with your front teeth to control the vibration of the the reed, which isn't good if you still have your milk teeth (and is impossible if you have no front teeth at all!). Also, quite a lot of "puff" is required.
All bassoons are the same size, except that there is a special "short-reach" bassoon available for smaller beginners, and more advanced players will often "double" on the contra-bassoon which is a larger instrument used in some orchestral music. The contra-bassoon is so big and heavy that it is usually supported by a spike on the floor instead of a sling round the player's neck, and is absurdly expensive to buy.
The bassoon is not a particularly difficult instrument to start, and by the time you get to Grade 4 or 5 there is little difference between the bassoon and any other woodwind instrument.
The bassoon comes apart into several pieces, and packs into a case about three feet long - not unduly difficult to carry, and the case offers excellent protection.
There is a special small bassoon made especially for beginners which some teachers recommend. You need to consider that eventually you will outgrow it and need to replace it with a normal-sized instrument, and when that time comes - will you be able to sell the little one easily? We're not too sure!
The bassoon is principally an orchestral instrument, but can also be used in wind bands. However it offers excellent opportunities for group music-making because there are not many bassoonists around, and if you become a good player you will find that you are suddenly very popular!
Bassoons are less robust than other woodwind instruments, mainly because the extensive keywork is vulnerable to knocks. They do not like being dropped at all, and chipping or cracking the wood can mean very major expense indeed. Every couple of years you will have to have the pads renewed (the soft pads fixed to each key that close the holes off) which can cost as much as £50 or £60. The reeds cost from £6.50 each, and can last several months. On the other hand, if you catch the delicate tip of the reed on your clothing and chip it, it could last only five minutes! You need to have a couple of spares with you all the time. Some experienced bassoonists learn to make their own reeds. Apart from that, there is little maintenance to do.
A good "student" bassoon costs about £2,400. Alternatively they can be rented from some music shops. There are not many bad bassoons on the market, but for the beginner the good makes are Fox, Adler and Boosey & Hawkes.
Two of the best-known and most popular tutors for beginners are Learn as you play bassoon and Abracadabra Bassoon. Click the links to buy them online. A few people try to learn the bassoon by themselves without a teacher. We don't recommend this, but if you're determined, A Tune a Day for Bassoon may be fairly old and no longer the best bassoon tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly suitable for lone students.
It might help you to make your decision if you listened to the bassoon being played really well in a variety of styles - try this CD.
• Very expensive instrument
• Moderately easy to start
• Quite hard to find a teacher
• Excellent opportunities for group music-making
• Not particularly prone to damage, but repairs can be expensive
• Moderately easy to transport