Two of the most important pedagogical resources available to all bassoonists are the orchestral excerpt CDs by David McGill and Christopher Millard.1 The main benefit these recordings offer is that they allow listeners to actually hear the author’s interpretations; because of this, many of the unspoken details and phrasing considerations can still be deduced from their performances. Of course, the added benefit for this project is that these CDs deal specifically with well-known orchestral excerpts, and each track essentially functions as a mini-lesson on each excerpt.
There were four written resources that I kept returning to over the course of this project: The Art of Wind Playing by Arthur Weisberg, Sound in Motion by David McGill, The Bassoon by William Waterhouse, and The Technique of Bassoon Playing by S.J. Jooste. David McGill’s book serves as an excellent compliment to his excerpt CD, even though it is not specifically intended for bassoonists. McGill discusses many of the fundamentals of wind playing, such as breathing, articulation, and vibrato, but his primary focus is on how to use these fundamentals in service of musical expression. The range of topics is very broad, including ornamentation, the auditioning process, the underlying skeletal and harmonic structure of music, and the famous Tabuteau numbering system. There are also a large number of musical examples in the book, many of which are taken directly from the bassoon’s orchestral repertoire. However, since the book is not specific to the bassoon—or even wind playing, for that matter—it does not cover issues like reed making, the embouchure, or alternate fingerings. McGill’s focus on phrasing and musicality allows him to make interesting references and suggestions that would likely not be found in a book focused on the bassoon, such as recommending that readers listen to and study the phrasing of theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore.
For the most part, the theories and explanations McGill presents are very well constructed and easily understandable. However, speaking as someone who studied Early Music as a doctoral student, I would be remiss if I did not mention that I strongly—but respectfully—disagree with his chapter that examines the “myth” of Baroque style and performance practice (the reasons for which would require far too lengthy of a digression to include here). That said, overall Sound in Motion is an excellent guide for wind players and is a must-own for any bassoonist.
Like Sound in Motion, Arthur Weisberg’s The Art of Wind Playing is intended for performers of all wind instruments, not only the bassoon. As its title suggests, The Art of Wind Playing focuses on the fundamentals of playing wind instruments, so once again, bassoon-specific issues like reeds, embouchure, and specific fingerings are not addressed. Unlike Sound in Motion, The Art of Wind Playing contains very little discussion on how to apply these fundamentals to specific musical examples; however, this allows Weisberg more room to examine the actual physiological and mechanical processes involved in breathing, vibrato, and articulation.2 There are also a large number of charts and diagrams throughout the book that aid the reader in visualizing the often-complex theories that Weisberg discusses.
William Waterhouse’s The Bassoon focuses directly on the bassoon itself, and in very detailed fashion; in fact, as far as bassoon-centric literature goes, this book is by far the most comprehensive. Waterhouse starts at the very beginning, with advice on what to look for when buying a bassoon as well as the basics of cleaning and maintaining the instrument. He goes on to discuss all of the fundamentals in great detail, and provides a huge amount of practice techniques and exercises for each.
Waterhouse also has a uniquely colorful style of writing that is well suited to the numerous comparisons and metaphors he includes.3 My only major complaint is with the layout of the book, specifically that all of the fundamentals are discussed within one incredibly long chapter titled “In Performance.” When I want to find something quickly in a reference book of this length, I usually just give a quick flip through the pages until I see the chapter I am looking for at the top of the page. But here, over half of the entire book is actually under the “In Performance” chapter title; instead of my usual method for quickly finding a topic, I was always relegated to carefully thumbing through the first couple of pages to get to the Table of Contents, and then going from there to the appropriate section. This was compounded by the fact that many of Waterhouse’s thoughts and comments are presented in lengthy bullet lists instead of prose, which I personally found to be somewhat disorienting. This may seem like a minor issue, but compared to McGill and Weisberg’s books, Waterhouse’s The Bassoon is not nearly as user-friendly.
The fourth of these written resources was S.J. Jooste’s The Technique of Bassoon Playing. This book is, in large part, a compilation of various other authors’ views on the fundamentals of breathing, embouchure, vibrato, and finger technique. Jooste explains his own opinions as well—often more eloquently than any of the previous authors I have discussed above—but in general I did not find the comments and suggestions from the other authors included in the book to be any more insightful than those from Weisberg, McGill, or Waterhouse. Because of this, my references to The Technique of Bassoon Playing are specifically of Jooste’s own pedagogical remarks. Again, the actual format of the book could be an issue, and finding Jooste’s own opinions amidst the opinions of all the other authors could be somewhat tedious. I found myself agreeing with Jooste so often that I would have preferred it if he had focused on including other authors’ views as a way to reiterate his own opinions, rather than simply presenting the reader with the pedagogical approach of every bassoonist who has ever written about that particular subject.
One fairly short bassoon-specific book I referenced was Archie Camden’s Bassoon Technique. At only 72 pages (22 of which are Appendices), it just briefly touches on the issues of vibrato, reeds, intonation, and staccato articulation. For the most part, Camden only discusses his preferences in regards to these fundamentals (for example, describing his preferred style of vibrato and staccato) rather than going in-depth with the physical processes necessary to create them. However, Camden does briefly touch upon a number of orchestral excerpts at the end of the book, like Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and The Rite of Spring, but again the comments are very brief and lack much insight. I must confess that I got a chuckle or two from Camden’s comments, especially for Rite. His advice for that particular excerpt is simply, “There is no magic formula. The notes are there and once again familiarity will breed, if not contempt, at least some degree of comfort, so it is a passage to be practised frequently, and carefully worked out.”4 Which is another way of saying, “It just needs to be practiced. A lot.” The fact that he included the excerpt—which takes up the entire previous page—only to say almost nothing about it is something I found to be pretty humorous.
There was only one method book that I consulted repeatedly during this project: Christopher Weait’s Bassoon Strategies for the Next Level. Weait mainly focuses on specific exercises that can aid the development of fundamental techniques like breathing, double-tonguing, flicking, and incorporating alternate fingerings, but, for the most part, these exercises would be too difficult to explain without replicating or copying the exact examples from the book. Instead, I would rather just recommend that bassoonists order a copy of Bassoon Strategies for the Next Level for themselves.
During the course of this project, I read through dozens of dissertations authored by other bassoonists. Only a small handful purported to deal with the pedagogical issues of orchestral excerpts, but unfortunately I did not find any relevant material to discuss or reference here. I also searched through the entire published catalogue of the International Double Reed Society’s The Double Reed journal. As I poured through these issues, I became increasingly troubled to discover just how few of the articles in our flagship journal actually discussed any of these excerpts. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize the The Double Reed for not being the pedagogical resource that I want it to be, but at the same time, I expected there to be a little more emphasis on these passages that play such an important role in the lives of every bassoonist. The most important and well-written article I found that directly relates to any of these excerpts was Jeff Lyman’s article “D or D flat?: Stravinsky’s Berceuse and the Long Story of a Short Note.” I have already briefly discussed some of Lyman’s findings in the pedagogy section for The Firebird, but I recommend that every bassoonist read the entire article if they can.
The Double Reed has, however, published a number of excellent articles that examine some of the fundamentals of the bassoon, some of which I reference in my discussions on fundamentals. Terry Ewell’s article “Articulation on Bassoon: Should the Jaw Move?” details how inadvertent jaw movement can aversely affect the clarity and pitch of notes, and also discusses the “articulation drive” practice technique that can be very helpful for developing the limits of short and long articulation. I was especially glad to see Ewell tie his articulation discussion back to the music of the Baroque period by pointing out that bassoonists need to be able to match the breadth of articulation lengths that harpsichordists rely on to compensate for their limited dynamic flexibility.5
The other excellent article was Michael Burns’s “Thoughts and Strategies for Bassoon Vibrato.” He echoes many other bassoonists’ opinions on vibrato, such as when and how to use it expressively, as well as general guidelines to follow for the width and speed of vibrato based on the length and range of the note. However, the most important part of his discussion to me was his admission that he feels his vibrato in both his abdomen and larynx. This led me to really examine my own process of vibrato production and become more aware of the roles each part of my body plays in creating this expressive tool.
1 However, since Millard’s CD does not cover any of the twenty-five main excerpts, it was not used in this project.
2 For a comparison, Weisberg writes forty pages on the topic of articulation, whereas McGill writes less than ten.
3 Though, as you may have also noticed, many of his sentences are written with a very odd—almost backwards—word order as well.
4 Camden, 52.
5 In contrast to modern instruments, the bassoons of the Baroque and Classical periods were inherently much more flexible in terms of articulations. As such, modern players must work much harder to convey an audible diversity to the audience.