In The Money
by Christopher Millard
The tenor range of the bassoon is often called our “money register”. From the big solos in Tchaikovsky 4, Scheherazade, and Stravinsky’s Firebird, to countless ensemble passages in the core symphonic repertoire, this octave is a critical test of our understanding of the bassoon. This article focuses on just a portion of this register, specifically C#4 thru F#4 – perhaps the most difficult cluster of notes in the entire range of the modern bassoon. Of course, Sacre or the Ravel G Major concerto are initially a steeper hill to climb, but these 6 notes represent a special challenge for true mastery of the instrument. Exploration of alternate fingerings can teach us to listen more carefully to the relationship between tuning and sonority. In the following pages we’ll make a deep dive into some of the more subtle approaches to this register. This is by no means comprehensive, nor am I advocating that any of these alternative fingerings should become your primary choice. Instead, I hope you will find the explanations of these alternatives a path to improving your own well-established and preferred practices. At the end, I’ll show you how to follow a specific practice regimen that will get you out of the habits induced by the specific behaviour of your own bassoon.
C#4 – 277.18 hz
We initially learn to play this note with the ‘short’ fingering. By opening a leak at the bocal vent, the bassoon will be discouraged from resonating in the fundamental 1st harmonic for this length of bore. Instead, the next strong ‘bore resonance frequency’ – C#4 – will dominate, along with all its overtones.
C#3 [138.6 hz] in the bass clef staff, has always presented some challenges to bassoon makers. Have you ever looked at the positioning of that C# tone hole? It sits on an elevated ‘nose’ of wood and is cut at a steep angle into the bore. This strategy allows a sufficiently long tone hole to give both stability and tonal consistency with C3 and D3. When opening the whisper key, the resulting octave is typically quite true in pitch but lacks energy in some of its harmonic components. The result is a slightly weaker sonority, so we look for alternatives with more power. Regrettably, this simple short fingering is often completely abandoned when we learn the primary ‘long’ C# fingering.
Sometimes humorously called the ‘CLAW’, this big fingering is always an ego boost to the young bassoonist!
Where does this complex fingering come from in the bore?
Well, it emerges from a ‘bore resonance’ related to low F [F2]. In a sense, it’s like the ‘twelfth’ [the 3rd harmonic] of that fundamental fingered low F [87 hz]. However, we can’t produce a low F: engaging both thumbs creates two significant bore disruptions, allowing the related note C# 4 [277 hz] to dominate.
When you look at the complex lattice of closed and open tone holes on a fingering chart, you’re pursuing a kind of genealogical investigation. There are ancestors and descendants, and the ‘bloodlines’ get mixed up quickly. In the case of the CLAW, its grandfather was low F, but it now has its own firm identity as a C#. All the notes on the bassoon from F#3 up are ‘progeny’ of ancestor notes in the bottom half of the instrument. Up to D4, the family DNA is clear – just a leak from the bocal and a bit of help from vent keys will allow these first-generation offspring to function independently from their parents. But once we get to the ‘grandchildren’ in the tenor range, and the ‘great grandchildren’ higher up, the ancestors are difficult to plot on the family tree.
You might wonder why C#4 is not based on a low F# fingering – after all, that would fit our general assumption of how the harmonic series unfolds. But the bassoon family tree doesn’t work this logically! The truncated conical bore and presence of the reed causes the 3rd generation harmonics in the bore to go quite sharp. By choosing the long C#4 fingering, we are harnessing a complex acoustical phenomenon based on the evolving characteristics of that family tree.
Are you familiar with other long C# fingerings? If not, you should be! They are incredibly important to know and to understand. Without them, you may not be getting your best outcomes in some of your orchestral excerpts. First, let’s look at two ‘almost long’ C#3 fingerings:
* If we leave the right hand first finger open we can then choose one or the other thumb from the CLAW fingering, but not both.
Our choice of which thumb to use makes a critical difference to sound, pitch and potential use.
Using the left thumb on C# gives a clear and bright sounding C#4. It tends to have a little less resistance, is very clean in the attack, has a bit more strength in its higher harmonics and gives us access to a good C#/D# trill, using the left ring finger. It’s also the sharpest fingering for most German bassoons.
Now, switch thumbs! Engaging the right thumb Bb gives a darker C#3. It tends to be a bit more resistant, can be a bit problematic in the attack, but has more strength in its lower harmonics. It also gives us access to a very good C#/D trill, using the same left ring finger. It is usually the flattest of the ‘full’ C# fingerings. This fingering is not generally in common use in North America, but I personally use this fingering more than any other.
There are other ways to play C#4 – including this simple trill fingering…
… as well as the C# trill on the top of the boot. [Have you ever wondered why so few bassoons have that trill key tone hole properly voiced? It’s rarely useful. The wing/boot connection forces that tone hole to sit too low, and it is not long enough to give pitch stability when opened enough.] These weaker fingerings are occasionally useful and should be given full attention in your exploration of the tenor range.
D4 – 293.66 hz
D4 is frequently played too flat. I’ve owned and played a lot of bassoons over the past five decades and have found I’m often guilty of this.
Why is this so? After all, D4 is the 2nd harmonic of the almost identically fingered D3 an octave below. As explained above, we just open the whisper key vent to allow an acoustical leak to silence the lower fundamental. [Many also use a left thumb vent [left thumb C or D], certainly for attacking the note cleanly and for many also to sustain or elevate the pitch.] Unfortunately, the shorter the bassoon bore becomes, the lower that 2nd generation note becomes. The term I use for describing the relationship of ancestor notes to their progeny higher harmonics is ‘modal ratio’; it’s a description of how the 2nd and 3rd generation fingerings like to behave in terms of pitch identity. Part of the art of great reed making is controlling the modal ratios on your bassoon.
Unfortunately, D4 has its best tone quality when played flat, so that’s what happens! Looking for a solution beyond increased embouchure effort, many bassoonists [myself included] use the low Eb or low C# key on the long joint to keep the pitch up. I also often use the right thumb Bb key, which is more subtle and less likely to make the tone harsh. Various combinations can be used:
Many players initially find that using these corrections produces an overly bright sound. For example, Fox bassoons, especially the Renard models, address the narrow D tuning by the design of their tone hole tubes, which are usually slightly flared towards the exit; this widens the modal ratio from fundamental to 2nd harmonic. Modern Heckels and similar larger bodied German bassoons tend to have cylindrical tone holes and narrower octaves. Strong embouchures and good air support are necessary. Sometimes players will compromise between the octaves; voicing their D3 slightly sharper in order that their tenor D will sit a bit sharper. [A second bassoon specialist would not likely make that choice!] Conversely, lowering D3 and always incorporating the D4 correction can be a good strategy.
The key takeaway here is this simple fact: many bassoonists accept a flat tenor D in order to get the most pleasing – i.e. “dark” – sound. We’ll return to the problem of sonority vs. intonation after reviewing the next 4 notes.
Eb 4 – 311.13 hz
We come to the first of the ‘false 12th’ notes, the real beginning of the 3rd harmonic area of the bassoon.
Eb 4 is based on a low G fingering. If you eliminate the fundamental G2 and the 2nd harmonic G3, this length of bore will tend to resonate around Eb 4. Remember – if your understanding of the harmonic series tells you that the 3rd harmonic of the ancestor low G should be a [grandchild] D natural, you’re forgetting that conical bore families like the bassoon don’t behave logically.
Look carefully at your bassoon; you can readily see that you’ve taken the low G fingering and opened up two massive lengths halfway down the bore!! The leaks shift the bore behaviour to the grandchild. In this 3rd harmonic, the bassoon and reed negotiate a strong resonating frequency in the bore that’s a semitone sharper than you would expect from the harmonic series. Yet, for such an odd acoustical anomaly this note is generally fairly in tune. The problem for some people [like me] is that it does not have a tonal spectrum consistent with the notes immediately above. It’s the runt of the litter.
So, if you’re a bit nuts [like me], you open that low Eb on the long joint and get a much warmer sound.
Problem is…it’s sharp, so it takes a more open oral cavity and downward adjusted embouchure to master. However, you can certainly bring the pitch down in several ways…
One thing more about Eb4 – it’s entirely possible to play it as a 2nd harmonic of Eb3, with various additions if you wish. These produce the second generation of the ancestor fingering, so they make some sense. The problem is tonal continuity.
E4 – 329.63 hz
We come now to the second of the ‘false 12th’ 3rd harmonic notes and perhaps the least understood.
E4 is also based on the low G fingering, like the Eb4. By moving the first fingered bore leak up to the 2nd tenor joint tone hole, we produce a bore resonance that’s a whole step sharper than the theoretical perfect 12th. The family DNA is evolving but not necessarily in a good way; though it’s reasonably in tune it’s also thin and harsh in tone.
So, most bassoonists try to tame the uncouth behaviour by adding the low Eb on the long joint to make the sound more pleasing. Here is a standard fingering:
There is a trade-off for the warmer sound? It’s generally flat.
There are 4 useful variants to this fingering! Do you know them? You should become expert with all of these! I use them all depending on specific circumstances.
On many bassoons, these fingerings produce gradually sharper outcomes in addition to changes in sonority. That last one includes left thumb C# – it’s high but powerful. All of these fingerings can be used with left hand little finger on low C# as well.
Of course, E4 can also be played as a 2nd harmonic, with only one finger in the left hand. It’s a good trill fingering, but it’s not generally strong enough as a primary fingering.
Just remember, what defines all five ‘full fingerings’ for E4 acoustically is the left hand 2nd tone hole ‘leak’. I’ll come back to this very interesting note in the general discussion below.
F4 – 349 hz
The next in the false 12th series is tenor F, and it’s based on an ancestor low A. Finger low A and look at your hands; you’re selecting a bore length with the low A tone hole on the back of the boot the first open hole. Now finger tenor F. All you’ve done is create a big wing joint leak at the 2nd tone hole, which silences both the ancestor A2 and the 2nd harmonic A3. This F4 is only a semi-tone higher than the expected 12th E, but only barely….!!
I don’t love tenor F, to be honest. I’ve owned and played a lot of bassoons and never had one that played a tenor F on the high side. When you use the low Eb key for sound correction and are playing a reed that is full and resonant at A 440, tenor F usually becomes the note that takes the most effort in this range. It needs both embouchure and air support.
There are fingering options for F4. Here are two based on making larger leaks in the tenor bore:
And here is a very interesting fingering that changes the bore behaviour more significantly, creating a 3rd harmonic from low Ab!! It may seem very sharp to you at first, but it can teach us a lot about the potential for tenor F resonance, achieved when you relax your production on a sharper fingering.
F#4 – 370 hz
Most North American bassoonists utilize a fingering with the low F key. It’s sometimes referred to as the French F# fingering. It’s certainly my most frequent choice.
But we should begin any discussion of F#4 with the ‘German’ fingering, utilizing right thumb Bb.
Acoustically, this fingering is the easiest to explain. It’s based on an ancestor Bb3 fingering – another of these sharp 3rd harmonic bore resonances. This darker fingering has fallen out of favour to some extent, largely because modern bassoons seem to have evolved so that the ‘French’ fingering is stronger, less resistant, and more colourful. But the ‘German’ F#4 is very useful in certain circumstances, especially in down-slurs like in Sacre [2nd solo] or the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra [Intermezzo].
Inexperienced players often play the F#4 too sharp; it’s a fingering that’s overly sensitive to sharper reeds and it takes time to develop the embouchure/oral cavity position to make the fingering work. Teachers often prescribe the addition of the left-hand ring finger to correct this.
There are other tricks to help the ‘French’ fingering, all designed to control sharpness. This puts F#4 in a very different category from F4, which tends to be flat, or E4, which is also flat, but not necessarily Eb 4, which is all over the place, or D4 which is….. well, you get the idea. All families have issues.
This rather tedious review of fingerings all leads to the core motivation for this article. Young bassoonists often don’t pay enough attention to intonation and the potential for alternate fingerings to elevate their game.
I’ve spent almost 50 years as a principal bassoonist in several orchestras, surrounded by terrific woodwind colleagues. If you had asked me 50 years ago what I thought would be the biggest challenge of sustaining a high level of playing, I don’t think intonation would have popped out of my mouth. I’d undoubtedly have professed a commitment to phrasing, tone production and musical presence. How could I have guessed that my ongoing preoccupation, my constant companion, would be the pursuit of good intonation? The third octave of the bassoon is an absolute minefield of ups and downs. To quote Captain Kirk “It’s the Final Frontier!”.
Familiarity dulls our perception. We get so enamoured by a particular tone colour that we lose perspective. For those of you not yet blessed with high-level musical partners, the next best thing is the digital tuner.
Tuners are a touchy subject for many people, largely when they are brought to a rehearsal or performing environment. Avoiding that is simply good manners! Tuners should stay in the practice room. No, the larger problem with tuners is the endless confusion between intonation and sonority. Choosing a fingering with the best tone does not make that note any better in tune. When you sit in a practice room for hours, working on reeds, long tones etc., a beautiful tone is persuasive. A flat D4 played with maximum resonance does not magically transform into an in tune D4. Non-bassoonists sitting near you will just hear you play flat.
We need to trust our tuners to remind us where we stand relative to an ideal chromatic scale. This way when we sit down in a wind section we at least know what our particular tuning tendencies are likely to be. Armed with a basic expectation, we can immediately begin the process of adjusting to our colleagues, to the orchestration and to the harmonic implications of every note. Even in the best of orchestras, each player will have tuning issues. There is never right or wrong; there is just self-awareness and the dedication to flexibility and adaptation.
So, I’m going to offer a specific exercise to develop a more critical sense of pitch. It involves using a tuner while carefully slurring from one alternate fingering to another. Not only will this reveal some previously unknown choices available with your own bassoon; it will quickly lead to a discovery about the subtle changes you will intuitively make with embouchure, oral cavity and air flow. These are the simplest of exercises, but they require patience and a commitment to really listening to yourself.
You might start with E4 and the numerous fingering options I’ve included above. Get familiar with all of them. With your eyes fixed on your digital tuner, sustain each fingering for a few seconds, then without restarting or articulating, switch to the next fingering. Keep the tuner needle STEADY. Observe how you intuitively adapt to the flatter or sharper outcomes. In the case of E4 especially, learn the order of ascending pitch for your own bassoon/reed setup.
For maximum benefit, repeat the exercise with your tuner at A440, A441 and A442. This range will cover a lot of the necessary flexibility you’ll need to play nicely with others!!
Next on my list might be C#4. I know how thrilled young bassoonists are when they learn to use the big, full C#4 CLAW fingering, but it’s not always the right choice. I’ve heard a lot of great young players perform for me in master classes playing this fingering awfully sharp and simply being unaware. For example, Tchaikovsky 4 slow movement often does better with a short C#.
C#4 and E4 have the most options, so you might start with them. Introduce D, Eb, F and F# to the practice regimen. As you move seamlessly from flatter to sharper fingerings you need to be very attentive to adapting your tone production in order to keep the tuner needle steady.
As you become increasingly familiar with legato transitions on individual pitches, you can then move to legato execution of minor and major 2nds, minor and major 3rds, and a perfect 4th – all within the C#4 to F#4 range. Play all these intervals with modified fingerings so that you start to understand how to play a well-tempered chromatic scale.
Straight tone or vibrato? Do both. When you choose to play with vibrato, listen carefully to how each of these fingerings tends to alter the size or speed of your vibrato. A flat fingering may force you to increase embouchure damping, which might add resistance and compromise vibrato continuity. A sharp fingering may force you to relax your embouchure and cause vibrato to go wild. Small adjustments for intonation have a big effect on the consistency of your sonority throughout.
The money register of the bassoon is like a messy acoustical family. There is a significant change in the harmonic spectrum and the resistance for each of these notes. These implicit tendencies exercise an unwanted effect on our phrasing. Those of you who have followed my recommendation to practice the important lyrical solos in adjacent keys will have experienced how very different the passage will sound and feel. Expanding your knowledge of subtle fingering choices will allow you to implement the lessons you learn in transposition.
Finally, let me say this. Investigation of alternate fingerings is not trickery; it’s not cheating. It’s about understanding some of the hidden truths about your bassoon. Even if your primary fingering choices remain unaltered, the process of practicing these alternatives will clear your ears and open your mind.