Oboe and Bassoon: Back to School Tips

Oboe and Bassoon: Back to School Tips

First Year Oboe

Beginning oboe students need to to be encouraged; they are embarking on a noble quest. Make sure they know they’re playing one of the most beautiful instruments; if they’re not already familiar with Peter and the Wolf or Swan Lake you might share recordings with them. This is important because the sound of the beginning oboe is often less pleasant. It takes a few years to properly develop the correct sound, which involves a combination of lip position (embouchure), air support, and a strong reed.

Remember these two tips and your students will be ahead of the game.

  1. Play on the TIP of the reed! The correct oboe embouchure involves very LITTLE reed. If students feel like they have a comfortable amount of reed in their mouth, it is probably too much. Have your students play for you. If you can see at least half of the cane of the reed, they probably have the right amount of reed. If all you can see is the thread of the reed, they are playing too far down on the reed. It will sound worse and most likely be sharp.
  2. Emphasize good posture and DEEP BREATHS! Oboe needs the highest amount of air pressure of any wind instrument, especially once you are playing on a strong reed. Have students breathe by expanding their tummy, pushing from there, and keeping a steady stream of air. They will be VERY LOUD at first; this is just fine. In time, they will learn how to control their dynamics. For now, though, it is time to develop a proper embouchure and strong air support. Good luck!

I offer a more detailed explanation of beginning oboe sounds in this previous post.

Returning Oboe Students

I would encourage students who haven’t practiced over the summer to begin by playing long tones with a tuner, with an emphasis on NOT BITING the reed. Always emphasize correct embouchure: chin down, corners in, corner muscles flexed. Students will tire quickly – that is good! If cheek muscles are sore, it means they are using the proper embouchure. I’d suggest playing for a period of 5 minutes or so, then take a break of the same amount of time. Play for another 5 minutes. Once their embouchure gives out, take a much longer break (hours), then try again. Students will regain endurance within a week or so.

Another tip: encourage students to make sure their instrument is in good working order and that they have a supply of new reeds before going back to school. Oboes should be inspected by a repair person at least once a year. They need to be cleaned, the mechanisms oiled and adjusted. Reeds can last through a summer if left dry, but it is always good to start the school year with a fresh supply. 

First Year Bassoon

The bassoon has a reputation for being a difficult instrument to play. This may be true to some degree, but with good advice and instruction (and good consistent practice) young bassoonists can sound great and be well on their way to an enjoyable and rewarding musical experience.

If you’re teaching first year bassoonists and do not play the instrument yourself, this SmartMusic blog post has some specific tips you can share with your students.

Here are some additional tips for your beginning bassoonists:

  • Encourage them to find the best private teacher they can. The bassoon is a unique instrument with some features (the reed) and techniques (half-hole, flicking, etc.) that really require specialized instruction.
  • They need to make sure their instrument is in good working order. If need be, have them take it to a qualified repair person to have it serviced. Check to make sure the whisper key pad is in good condition. If it’s not, replace it. (Students can prevent damage by making sure the whisper key is away from the bocal when they’re putting in and taking out the bocal.)  Also check the connection between the ‘pancake key’ (Low E key) and the whisper key. To do this, depress the pancake key. Is the whisper key closing? Is the pancake key itself closing all the way? If not, you may be able to solve the problem by rotating the tenor joint a millimeter or two one direction or the other. If the problem can’t be solved that way, check with a repair person for help.
  • I’d also encourage students to get several quality bassoon reeds to start and to plan on renewing the supply often. Students need to learn to take good care of their reeds. Have them store reeds in a proper reed case with good ventilation (not the plastic containers they come in).  Reeds should be kept wet when being used, but make sure they dry thoroughly when not in use. Always soak the entire reed in clean water before playing, and get fresh water each time; never store water in a bassoon case.

Returning Bassoon Students

Before practicing on the bassoon, have students practice on the ‘bocalphone’ (the reed and bocal only.) Make sure they inhale as much air as possible, then play a beautiful note with lots of air and a relaxed embouchure. Have them imagine that they’re playing a middle register note on bassoon at a good singing forte dynamic. The pitch of the bocalphone should be right around Middle C (C4).

Now, keeping their  embouchure relaxed have them slowly raise the pitch as high as they can by increasing the air speed. They should be able to go up about a whole step (to D4 or nearly so). Next have them drop the pitch by slowing the air. They should be able to ‘bend’ the pitch down about a half-step (to B3). If their pitches are far away from these, there’s likely a problem with the reed and/or bocal.

Now here’s the fun part: have them put their lips on the thread of the reed; don’t let the lips touch the blades at all. (Watch out for sharp wires!) Have them play the bocalphone again with good air support. The tone will be very raucous, but the pitch should still be very close to C4. If it isn’t, have them adjust the airstream until it is and then sustain a steady in-tune C4.

Next have them keep that same air support and go back to a ‘regular’ embouchure. The pitch should still be about C4! If they can sustain a steady C4 both with and without their lips on the blades, you should feel confident that they’re playing with good air support and a nice relaxed embouchure.  This is a great way for students to teach themselves to use both their air and their embouchure well.

Pamela AjangoPamela Ajango (French) teaches at Butler University and the University of Indianapolis, and is a freelance oboist in Indianapolis. She performs as a member of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s quintet, with visiting Broadway shows, and as a recording artist for FJH, Alfred Publishing, and others. From 1996-2002, Ms. Ajango was a freelancer in NYC, playing with top orchestras, in recording studios, and on Broadway. She studied with Malcolm Smith, Ralph Gomberg, Joseph Robinson, and Stephen Taylor. She received degrees from Boston University and the Manhattan School of Music. Active at the International Double Reed Society’s conferences, Ajango has lectured on creating/sustaining a music career, presented a recital of new quintet arrangements, and recently commissioned a work for oboe, bassoon, and piano, Variations, by Matthew Bridgham. In 2011 Pamela premiered the solo oboe piece The Empty Sky, which was written for her by Frank Felice.

spaniol_dougDoug Spaniol teaches bassoon at Butler University and Interlochen Arts Camp. As a Fulbright Scholar, he taught at the University of York (UK) and researched the music of Julius Weissenborn. His book, The New Weissenborn Method for Bassoon (Hal Leonard), has been called “an invaluable addition to bassoon literature…a landmark in pedagogy” (Double Reed News). His edition of Weissenborn’s Advanced Studies (Accolade Musikverlag) makes available for the first time all 60 of these studies and was noted as “a must buy for every bassoonist” (The Double Reed). His students have placed in the Yamaha Young Performing Artist Competition, the IDRS Young Artist Competition, and the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition. He can be heard on Albany, Centaur, and Zephyr Records.

As a Marshall Scholar, he earned a Diploma from the Royal Northern College of Music. He has studied with William Waterhouse, Christopher Weait and Sanford Berry. A Yamaha Artist/Clinician, Spaniol plays a Yamaha YFG-811 bassoon.


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