This evening I gave a lesson to a new student that is just now starting bassoon. The student has played saxophone since 6th grade, and is now in high school. I have found that most young bassoon players start out on a different instrument and usually start learning bassoon a few years later. So, this got me thinking.... What do I try to emphasize on the very first lesson? Here is what I focused on tonight...
1. How to put the instrument together - This starts with the names of each piece of the bassoon (boot, wing joint, long joint, bell, bocal) and then putting it all together. I demonstrate on my bassoon how each piece should line up, and then let the student do the same with their bassoon.
2. The Reed - I talk about soaking the reed for a few minutes in clean water before use. We then talk about embouchure and how the reed should sound. There are a lot of different ways to describe the bassoon embouchure, so I usually begin with how the lips are shaped while whistling. I also emphasize the sound of the crow, which means both blades are vibrating and creating sound. If the embouchure is incorrect, the reed will not crow. Last I talk about articulation, or what part of the tongue should contact the reed. Generally, I encourage just above the tip of the tongue coming in contact with the tip of the bottom blade of the reed.
3. How to hold the bassoon - I start students with using a seat strap. I like the strap to be towards the front edge of the chair. This forward pivot point ensures as little weight of the bassoon as possible is felt in the left hand. The height of the bassoon is adjusted by pulling the seat strap either to the left or right. Bassoonists should sit up comfortably (not rigid) and the bassoon reed should naturally be at the height of the mouth. I tell students NOT to adjust their body to the bassoon, rather adjust the bassoon to the body. Finger placement is also discussed at this point in a very general sense.
4. Reading bass clef - The majority of new students aren't very familiar with bass clef. So, I give them a cheat sheet that has the lines and spaces labeled. I explain that the two dots in the bass clef sign enclose "F". This is always a good point of reference to remember. Now I show them the fingering chart. We look up "F" and I explain how the fingering chart works, and which symbol corresponds with each finger. This is of course on a basic level... tone holes, whisper key, pancake key type stuff.
5. Play some notes - I start on the easiest note, which is the "F" that involves the whisper key. Once they get a decent sound I play my "F" and have them match the pitch. Again, I reinforce the embouchure and how much it can effect the pitch. We slowly add one finger at a time to go down the scale, so "F", then "E", "D", etc down to low "F", referring to the fingering chart for each new note. Once the student can comfortably go up and down this scale, I introduce "Bb", instead of "B natural" so that the scale is now "F Major".
6. Swab the instrument - Last is taking the bassoon apart, swabbing it out, and fitting all the joints back into the case correctly. Also ask student to blow excess moisture out of the reed, and store it in a reed case or a reed tube with vent holes.
7. What to practice - After this first lesson, I encourage students to ask their band director for an intermediate level bass clef band method book such as "essential elements" (or whatever band book the school uses). This will let the student practice very easy melodies while trying to learn bass clef and learn new fingerings. I remind the student to use the fingering chart that I provide.
You'd be surprised how quickly the lesson is over after trying to get through these topics. It really is a lot to take in for a student taking on such a challenging instrument. I do feel that if you get these basic concepts down though, the student has just enough knowledge to start experimenting with the instrument and learning new fingerings on their own. After a few lessons of working out of a band method book, it will be time to push the student more and start working out of a real bassoon method book and learning scales. Of course these topics are for a later post. I'm curious for the teachers reading my blog are these the same concepts you try to emphasize initially as well? Any other bassoonists experience similar initial lessons or was it completely different? Please feel free to comment with your experiences. Thanks for reading! ...Jesse