The solo in the first movement primarily tests the player’s ability to produce a smooth, in-tune high E. This melodic figure first appears in the piano, so we should try to emulate the style of the pianist as much as possible by playing broadly on the accented quarter notes. The tempo Ravel takes at this section in his recording with Marguerite Long is around ♩= 90, therefore we can safely assume that this is an appropriate tempo for us to take as well.1
Challenges of the High E
David McGill recommends omitting the E♭ key for the E4 in order to help bring the pitch up, and actually says that he generally prefers to leave this key off for all notes above high B♭. I also find that omitting the E♭ key tends to bring the pitch of the E up slightly,2 and some players may notice that leaving this key off will help the note speak easier as well. In addition to fingering adjustments (see Fingering 14.1, Fingering 14.2, and Fingering 14.3 for possible fingerings to use in this excerpt), there are a number of fundamental changes we can make with our embouchure, jaw, and internal voicing to help the E speak:
- Apply more pressure with the top and bottom lip—think “brittle”
- Move the reed slightly farther into the mouth
- Move the lower jaw slightly forward
- Tilt the head slightly upwards
- Voice “EEE” syllable (tongue will be slightly raised)
A resistant reed is also helpful for playing in the extreme high register, since the more resistant a reed is, the shorter the acoustical length of the bore will be.3 This resistance (or, if you prefer, lack of compliance) can be achieved by incorporating some or all of the following characteristics into the reed:
- Harder/stiffer cane
- Shorter blades
- Thinner rails
- Clipped corners at the tip
- Smaller ratio of tip width to throat width
- Greater ratio of tip thickness to back thickness
- Narrower/rounder tube (less flat tube)4
Going too far with these adjustments will leave you with a very sharp reed that is incapable of playing softly, so any experimentation should be carried out in small, measured increments. Nuanced scraping at the very tip and in the mini-channels near the tip can also improve response in the high register.
1 In many of the recordings—including Ravel’s—you will notice that the pianist pushes through the arpeggios during the bassoon’s high E, so in an actual performance the tempo will likely not be steady throughout this section.
2 I also leave the E♭ key off for the C♯4, but find the timbre difference is too great on my instrument to leave it off for the B4.
3 See Reeds for an explanation of this concept.
4 Compressing the sides of the tube at the second wire will also cause the tip to open more, increasing resistance.