STRATEGIES FOR DEVELOPING
SUCCESSFUL DOUBLE REEDS

by Frank Watson

Band Directors, who are not double reed players, often find it difficult to develop good Oboe and Bassoon players. These instruments are usually thought of as difficult to teach while, in reality, they aren’t as difficult as it might appear. Here are some ideas that have proven successful.

1. Choose the right students. Rehearsal time is most often used working on problems faced by more than one or two students, so it is common for Directors to spend time fixing Trumpets, Clarinets, Saxophones, Percussion, Trombones, Tubas, Baritones, and even Low Clarinets before attending to problems in the Oboes and Bassoons. For this reason, it is important to choose students carefully for the Double Reed instruments. Ideally, beginning Oboe and Bassoon students should have some piano experience and perhaps even some choral experience. Transfers from other woodwinds (choose strong players) often work well. At the very least, successful Oboe and Bassoon players need to be among the more intelligent students in a Band. If you choose students of average intelligence to play these instruments, then you must spend as much time in individual teaching as you do with your Trumpets and Clarinets and Saxophones and Drums, whose ranks are often filled with average students. Try to choose self-directed students who enjoy solving problems on their own, and try to give them the opportunity to solve playing problems on their own. Sixth Grade is good for beginning Oboes; Bassoons most often are successful transfers from other woodwinds, usually in grade 7 or 8.

2. Make sure they have good equipment.A decent instrument will make their progress much faster. A quick check is to cover finger holes and plug up one end of the left hand joint with the left hand. By then sucking the air out of that joint, it can be easily observed if there is a strong vacuum, weak vacuum, or no vacuum at all. Check each joint carefully before issuing instruments. If there is no vacuum evident, repair work is needed. Bassoons can function OK with weak vacuum; oboes need strong vacuum (30 seconds or more) to play properly. When buying new instruments, do not buy a cheap, poorly made instrument hoping to save money. While a $1500 Bassoon may very well look like a $3500 Bassoon, it will not share the same playing characteristics. Good quality instruments will play better in tune, will produce a better tone quality, and will last much longer than most of the junk available today. I strongly recommend the FOX instruments. Their Oboes, Bassoons, and English Horns consistently play in tune, with a good sound, have the necessary keywork, are durable, and will allow students to progress quickly to high levels of achievement. FOX manufactures a fine line of plastic instruments that are superior to almost anything else available for school ownership. The FOX Renard Model 330 Oboe has all the necessary keys (Left Hand F, F Resonance, Low Bb), has a sturdy mechanism, and will not crack. The FOX Model IV Bassoon also has all the necessary keywork (Full German System, High D Key, Whisper Key Lock, necessary Rollers, and Water Tubes into the bore), comes with excellent bocals (CVX #2 and #3), and features the same durable keywork. Both instruments come with an intonation guarantee from the FOX factory. While cheaper instruments are certainly available, they will likely inhibit the development of young students because they will not stay in adjustment, they will not have full keywork, and their basic design does not promote good intonation and tone quality. Wooden instruments will not last as long as plastic ones in a school use situation. I recommend wooden instruments when students are ready to buy their own bassoons, and when oboists are nearing college level playing skills.

3. Locate a good source for reeds.For store bought reeds, I recommend JONES reeds for both Oboe and Bassoon. Medium or Medium Hard strength seems to work for Oboe, Medium or Medium Soft seems to fit Bassoon. Teach Oboe players to CROW the reed…place lips on the string and blow gently gradually increasing speed of air until a high C (hopefully) sounds. By increasing the air stream, a middle C one octave lower should sound, and a low C may also sound with even more air. The CROW sound should be very “rattley” and is a pretty amusing sound for younger students to produce. If a reed won’t crow it probably won’t play well. If it doesn’t crow C’s, it will be difficult to play in tune. If it crows Bs, it will play slightly flat, Bb crows will be even flatter and so on. Bassoon reeds also need to CROW and should produce a raucous, free, rattle sound that may best be produced with the lips placed half way between the tip and the first wire. Bassoon reed crows are not usually tuned, as are Oboe reed crows. A reed case is highly recommended for protecting reeds and allowing them to dry properly. Local professional Oboists and Bassoonists may be a good source for reeds. The following is a list of sources for advanced reeds. Recommended Oboe reed sources include David Schast Reeds (215-856-9463); Roger Miller (800-491-0211); Ginny Zeblisky (available from Paul Covey Oboes in Atlanta 888-440-OBOE). Bassoon reed sources include Scott Vigder (310-286-2620); Tracy McGinnis (800-304-REED); and Ann Hodge Double Reed Supplies (888-685-0548).

4. A good fingering chart is necessary. The pamphlets included with new FOX instruments (“Now Let’s Play Oboe” and “Now Let’s Play Bassoon”) are very good. Most band method books have wrong fingerings in both their Oboe and Bassoon books. Specific Oboe fingerings that often give students trouble start with the proper “F” fingering. The “regular” F fingering is LH123/12x. The forked “F” fingering (123/13) is usually taught first in Band Methods, but should only be used before or after a Db, D or Eb. If a Left Hand F key is available (mechanically operates same key with LH little finger), the forked “F” can, and should, almost be avoided fully. Also, half hole must be used on Db, D and Eb in the treble clef. First (thumb) octave key is used from E to G# at the top of the staff, and second octave key (LH 1st finger) is used from A to C above the staff. Bassoon fingerings that need attention are half hole on Gb, G and Ab at the top of the Bass Staff. Use the Whisper Key (LH thumb) on all notes from Low F through Ab at the top of the staff. Adding the low EB key (LH pinky) to G (4th space) and high E (above the staff) helps intonation greatly. Eb in the staff is often a problem note and can usually be helped by adding RH Thumb Bb and 2nd finger to the normal forked Eb fingering. There are many alternate fingerings for Bassoon, but they are usually deficient in tone quality, intonation, articulation or slur characteristics. Learning to use the correct basic fingering for all passages leads to the best technical development.

5. Technical Development for double reeds is not inherently more difficult than other woodwinds. Learn scales and arpeggios just like other woodwinds. Tongue the bottom blade of the reed with slightly above the tip of the tongue. Tongue gently. It doesn’t take much pressure of the tongue to stop the vibrations of the tip of the reed. Practice with a metronome building technique slowly and accurately. Practice long tones each day, preferably with a tuning machine. Practice tonguing each day with a metronome striving for smooth legato and clean marcato articulations.

6. Private instruction for double reed players is quite important, even if on a limited schedule. In South Carolina, no one is more than a ninety-minute drive from a qualified oboe or bassoon teacher. Lessons given early in a student’s development should concentrate on basic tone production, tonguing, finger technique and musicality.

Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. Double reed players are universally interested in fostering student success and will gladly help with problems to the best of the ability. University instructors, Symphony players, experienced Band Directors and advanced students are all good sources for double reed wisdom.

Good luck…GO FOR IT!!!