The bassoon solo in Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso is an opportunity to really sing.  But it’s worth a deeper look – some inconsistencies between the score, the orchestral parts and the original piano version can suggest a fresh approach to interpretation. Nicolas Richard digs deep into one of our key orchestral excerpts.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned during my orchestral excerpt studies was that every musical decision should be informed by a deep study of the score. Passages of music that we play on the bassoon are never written in a vacuum – knowledge of the full orchestral context will always point us closer to a composer’s intentions. Countless were the times when I arrived at a lesson having practiced an orchestral excerpt until the cows come home, only to be stumped when my teacher asked, “do you know what the cellos and basses are playing under you?” Back to the drawing board I went…

One particularly interesting case in score study is the expressive solo for the bassoon in Maurice Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso. This short and exciting piece is an orchestration Ravel made of a movement from his masterful piano work, Miroirs. Roughly translated to ‘Morning Song of the Jester’, this movement frames a slow and evocative solo – the jesters’s lament – around a lively and rhythmic ‘party’, all steeped in Spanish flavour. The most interesting feature is that there is no accompaniment at all while the bassoon is playing its solo. The strings, harps, and percussion only make short punctuations between each phrase of the passage, as if the jester is strumming softly on a guitar.

Given the bare quality of the jester’s lament, and the fact that it was originally conceived as a solo piano work, it makes sense for the bassoonist to study the original Miroirs score. Ravel was himself a virtuoso pianist so some of his music has deep roots in the character of the piano itself.  A careful comparison of the notation differences between the solo piano and orchestral versions can help the bassoonist build a deeper interpretation.

The solo part looks like this….

Ravel’s original conception of Alborada as a piano solo…

The point of this comparison is to experience how different your interpretation of the solo will feel and sound at the keyboard. If you can play Alborada on the bassoon you will certainly be able to play the very simple lament on the piano.  Just do it!!

A particularly effective strategy to open up our ears to interpretive possibilities in Alborada is to practice the solo on the piano. Personally, I am possibly the worst piano player to have been awarded a music degree, but even I am able to plunk out the notes on a piano!  Experiencing this passage at the piano should at the very least ‘flavour’ your interpretation of the solo.  Thinking about a composer’s own performing perspective can lead us to hear familiar phrases in a new light. I adore listening to a great pianist play this piece and dream about bringing that kind of artistry to my own playing.

For many wind players the percussive nature of the piano sometimes seems a weakness in a lyrical passage. Even on a concert grand piano, once a note is struck it must die away. Isn’t the bassoon closer to the human voice?  Perhaps, but part of the magic in great pianism is to capitalize on this lack of sustaining tone, creating the illusion of linearity despite the constant waning flexibility of each note.  A particular strength of the piano that is most instructive to the bassoonist studying Alborada lies in its ability to emulate the decay of syncopation without any effort.  It’s unavoidable, but an attribute, and here we make the decay coincide with the rhythmic energy in the tail end of a syncopation. Look at the bassoon entries in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th iterations begin with a syncopation.  Perhaps we could try to emulate that?

Ultimately, it’s my personal view that we bassoonists should approach the solo in a manner that leans into the idiosyncratic strengths of our instrument. We like to think that the ‘Master of Orchestration’ knew what he was doing by giving this beautiful piano passage to the bassoon! Still, there is much to learn by sitting at a keyboard and trying to emulate a great pianist.

Here is a fine example – a performance by the legendary Dinu Lipatti. (Yes, it’s surprisingly quick!)

Below you will find a summary of the differences, bar-by-bar, between the passage in the piano score “PS” and the orchestral score “OS”. Here, “M. N” denotes the Nth bar starting from the first bar of the solo at the plus lent marking (i.e. M. 1 is the first bar of the solo, and so forth). You will find the bassoon excerpt with differences from the piano score marked in highlighter. The passage from the bassoon part does not deviate from what is found in the orchestral score.

My hope is that pointing out the differences between source materials and executing them yourself – at the piano!! – will engender some soul searching questions!


-Should we attempt to match the natural decay of the piano when we play long notes in this passage?

-To what extent does the original conception of the solo on the piano influence the new version that Ravel created by orchestrating the piece?

-Why would Ravel choose to alter the grace notes of the piano version to strict rhythms in the orchestration? How does that influence our interpretation?

-Why might it be relevant that Ravel marked certain grace notes to start with the left hand rather than keeping all notes in the right hand?

-Why are some crescendos/diminuendos placed on different or missing altogether between the two versions?


Measure 1 –
Piano Score: « expressif » « en récit »
Orchestral Score: « expressif » « quasi recitativo »

Measure 2 –
PS: No crescendo printed, no accent on grace note
OS: crescendo starting on 2nd eighth note of b.2, accent on grace note

Measure 3 –
No differences

Measure 4 –
No differences, but interesting marking of playing first note of grace notes with the LH in PS

Measure 5 –
PS: Nothing in this bar, but previous bar’s last beat has sustain slur under it. This is made more explicit in OS and the bassoon part.
OS: B ties

Measure 9 –
PS: No crescendo, marking of “enlever la sourdine”
OS: crescendo starting on B to next bar

Measure 10 –
No difference, again indication of first note of grace notes with LH in PS

Measure 11 –
PS: Very different from OS! Second half of second beat: Eighth note and grace note (without accent)
OS: Second half of second beat: two sixteenths notes, the second having an accent

Measure 12 –
PS: See M. 5
OS: See M. 5

Measure 15 –
PS: No crescendo
OS: Crescendo starting on the G

Measure 16 –
PS: No diminuendo, accent+LH marking on grace note
OS: Diminuendo starting on A

Measure 17 – PS: No diminuendo
OS: Diminuendo through the entire bar

Measure 18 – 
PS: LH grace note marking (no accent). Diminuendo starts on this bar
OS: Continuation of long diminuendo. Note the lack of accent on the grace notes

Measure 19 –
PS: See M. 5
OS: See

Measure 21 –
PS: Crescendo begins on F#
OS: Crescendo begins on E

Measure 22 –
PS: Very different from OS. First half of b.1 is one eighth note followed by a grace note without an accent. The 2nd eighth note of b.1 has an accent. No accent on the E in b.2
OS: First half of first beat is two 16ths, the second having an accent. The E in b.2 has an accent.

Measure 23 –
PS: No tenuto marks, diminuendo starts on 2nd triplet of b.2
OS: Two eighth notes of b.1 have tenuto marks. No diminuendo

Measure 24 –
PS: Diminuendo marking throughout, no “pressez” marking
OS: “poco dim” and “pressez” marked

Measure 25 –
PS: No “rall” marking. No crescendo.
OS: “rall” marked. Crescendo on last three eighth notes.

Measure 26 –
PS: Diminuendo starts after grace notes. Slur begins on the bar, not slurred from previous bar. No slur indicating sustain of C# like in analogous passages.
OS: No diminuendo. Slur covers M. 25-27.

Measure 27 –
PS: Not a part of the passage
OS: Eighth note tied over. See M. 5

Happy head scratching!

Nicolas Richard is a member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra and a graduate of the University of Ottawa and Rice University.  He is a member of the board of the Council of Canadian Bassoonists

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Zachary Senick Rediscovering Ukrainian Bassoon Music

Zachary Senick Rediscovering Ukrainian Bassoon Music

A bassoonist’s DNA

Zachary Senick rediscovers his Ukrainian roots in a very personal way.



During my Master’s Degree I wanted to find a piece by a Ukrainian composer to include in my recital because I have Ukrainian heritage with my family originally from Stari-Kuty, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, and Sydoriv, Ternopil oblast in Western Ukraine. Unfortunately, I initially found very few results when researching possible options, all of which were not easily accessible. The music was either unpublished or out of print due to the tumultuous political climate of the Soviet Union.

The inspiration…

This led to the first problem I encountered in tracking down music by Ukrainian composers: basically, all of the information regarding Ukrainian composers is written in Ukrainian using the Cyrillic alphabet, and there is practically no resources published on Ukrainian wind music. At first, this research was a daunting task as I did not know the language. However, having taken two years of Ukrainian classes, I can now read well and write at a basic level helping me find information. First I started with Google searches in Ukrainian. Then, I started reading on Ukrainian composers in different encyclopedias and handbooks, such as the National Union of Ukrainian Composers membership books. From there, I began compiling a list of works for bassoon by Ukrainian composers which grew into a catalogue of works for solo bassoon, with piano, with harpsichord, concertos, and various chamber works ranging from duos, trios, quartets, wind quintets, and more. I have tracked down the scores for about half of the music, but I am still searching for the rest!

Finding the music…

The second problem I encountered is that the majority of this music is unpublished and only exists in a manuscript meaning every piece is physically located in a different location. Therefore, tracking down the music has involved sending lots of emails to find a lead on each piece, such as finding contact information if the composer is living or if a library or organization they were associated with might have the music. I started contacting composers whose contact information I could find online. This was when my research began to snowball as most people I spoke with were able to provide me with contact information for another composer, librarian, or family member of a deceased composer who could help me track down these scores. I slowly found one piece at a time through this process. Eventually, a couple of composers heard about my project and reached out to me. Over the last two years, I have been in contact with around 30 composers, family members of deceased composers, and librarians. Next, I began contacting various organizations in Ukraine, such as Ukrainian Classical Live, and libraries in Ukraine, such as the National Music Academy of Ukraine Library. Finally, I contacted Ukrainian bassoonists Taras Osadchiy and Yuri Konrad, who premiered many of these works and have helped provide scores and information on the pieces.

It has been a fascinating experience learning more about these composers and their works directly from the composers themselves or through their family members. I have also had the opportunity to meet a few composers in person. For example in November 2022, I met and had coffee with composer Alexander Jacobchuk, who had recently moved to the Toronto area from Ukraine. He played many recordings of his works for me, showed me medals he won for his compositions, and told me interesting stories about his career and life.


Dmytro Kyryliv and Zachary…


As my project and research evolved, I have had the opportunity to collaborate on new music with some of the composers I have been in contact with. It has been an exciting and rewarding process to experience new works coming to life, from nothing but an idea in the beginning stages to a fully finished piece. One thing that I find interesting about the process is getting to know every detail behind the music and composer’s inspirations by being able to ask any questions I have regarding their intentions. For example, what the meaning and thought process behind a particular marking in the score is. I will premiere two works for bassoon and piano at the end of May 2023 by Sergey Pilyutikov and Dmytro Kyryliv. Additionally, another two pieces are currently being written by Andriy Lehki (woodwind quartet) and Oleksii Shvyrkunov (bassoon and piano).


Turns for Bassoon and Piano – Sergey Pilyutikov (b. 1965)

Sergey Pilyutikov is a composer active in Kyiv, Ukraine. I first contacted him via email at the beginning of October 2022 to ask about a solo bassoon piece he wrote, which I read about in my research. Unfortunately, he informed me that the work was unpublished, and the manuscript got lost in his move from Kharkiv to Kyiv a long time ago. However, he offered to write a new piece for me to premiere at my recital in May and to include in my project. A couple of months later, he sent me the finished score and information behind the piece.

Description of the piece written by the composer:

“Conventionally, the composition consists of three parts. The first is the sphere of rapid movement in which all the virtuoso possibilities of the modern bassoon are revealed. The second is the sphere of meditation and quiet singing. The third is a stormy, concert finale that unites the main ideas of the first and second parts.”

Molfar for Bassoon and Piano – Dmytro Kyryliv (b. 2002)

            Dmytro Kyryliv is a composer originally from Ternopil, Ukraine, and active in Vienna. I first contacted him via email at the end of March 2022, asking about a solo bassoon piece he wrote, Carpathian Sketches. He told me about the work and sent me the music for it. He also offered to write me a new piece to premiere. Then, at the end of last summer, Kyryliv was visiting Toronto, and I met up with him. We discussed various ideas and inspirations for the piece. We both agreed that it would be interesting to take inspiration from Ukrainian folklore and folk music and combine it with contemporary techniques. Kyryliv decided to utilize aspects from folk music, such as the Ukrainian minor scale, and elements from contemporary music, such as multiphonics. Over the next couple of months, we exchanged messages and spoke on Zoom to discuss the piece and its idiomatic techniques, including good multiphonics to use and if specific passages worked well on the bassoon. Kyryliv then finished the final draft of the piece at the beginning of January. Since then, I have been learning and rehearsing the piece while sending various questions to get clarification on different elements to fully understand the intentions behind everything he wrote in the piece.



The piece takes inspiration from Ukrainian folklore. The title Molfar comes from Hutsul culture and refers to men with supernatural abilities living in the forests of the Carpathian mountains. Their abilities combine different elements of magic, fortune-telling, and healing. Their powers often focus on herbalism, the practice of using herbs and plants to treat illnesses. However, in oral stories throughout history, Molfars have often been depicted as channeling their powers through black magic for evil purposes. Musically the piece takes inspiration from traditional Hutsul folk music through the utilization of scales such as the Ukrainian minor scale, which raises the 4th and 6th scale degrees on a natural minor scale. Kyryliv also incorporates contemporary rhythms, harmonies, and extended techniques such as multiphonics to depict a mysterious picture of a Molfar’s life in the mountains.


Recording Project…

Along with researching and tracking down music, I am also trying to record the works which have no existing recordings. Last summer, I put together a woodwind quartet to record two pieces. As part of this project, I had to create the parts myself because I could not find any that existed for the quartet written by Borys Lyatoshynsky. After I finished notating the parts, we rehearsed throughout the summer, and I soon realized how difficult it is to make a good edition. Throughout our rehearsals, we discovered many corrections I needed to make to the parts as well as mistakes in the score. Eventually, we recorded the quartets at the end of August in Saskatoon.


Amanda Gourlay (flute), Glenda Lindgren (oboe), Zachary Senick (bassoon), Allie Harrington (clarinet) in Saskatoon


1st page of Zhylinsky’s Fagotina

Two works for bassoon and piano you should check out…

 Fagotina for Bassoon and Piano – Oleksandr Zhylinsky (1955-2020)

This piece is equivalent to the popular concours pieces written for the Paris Conservatory bassoonists. It begins and ends with a slow, lyrical section contrasted with a virtuosic middle section featuring showy technique, fast articulation, and syncopated rhythms. This piece could be an excellent addition to a recital program for a bassoonist already familiar with the concours repertoire. I tracked down this work by contacting Zhylinsky’s wife, who got someone to scan the manuscript in the basement of an archive in Kyiv, Ukraine.

 Fagotina was written in 1983 and revised in 1986 as the mandatory piece for the All-Ukraine bassoon competition. Zhylinsky was born on December 1st, 1955 in Berdyansky, Zaporizhia oblast of Ukraine. He graduated from the Kyiv State Institute of Theatrical Art, where he studied acting and singing. Later he studied composition under Levko Kolodub at the Kyiv Conservatory, graduating in 1987.

Length: 5.5 minutes / Range: Bb1 – D#5 / Unpublished – a copy of the manuscript is available / Standard Notation, no extended techniques / Key: features Ukrainian tonality and harmonies. (lyrical sections: 0 #/b’s; middle section: 1 #/b) / Meter: various metrical changes from from 2/4, 4/4, 3/4, 6/4, and 7/8


Three Pieces for Bassoon and Piano – Volodymyr Runchak  (b. 1960)

Three pieces come from a collection called The Bassoonists Notebook. This collection also includes two interesting pieces for solo bassoon. Runchak wrote this collection as a student at the Kyiv Conservatory from 1979-1984, and it was premiered at the end of his studies by bassoonist Taras Osadchiy. I tracked down this work through communication with the composer. The three pieces are in a typical slow-fast-slow fashion through Improvvisazione, Burlesca, and Dialogo. This work prominently represents the avant-garde movement popular in Ukraine during the 1970s and 1980s. This work is minimalist in style, developing an opening melodic and rhythmic motif that is transformed throughout the three pieces through hyperchromaticism, derivation of traditional phrase construction and interlocking form. The work is centered around the concept of contrasting characters that the bassoon can achieve, from beautiful legato lines to humorous staccato passages. This would be a great work for a bassoonist looking to branch into contemporary music who has not learned extended techniques yet.

Runchak was born in Lutsk, Ukraine on June 12th, 1960. He is an active composer and the Artistic Director of the New Music in Ukraine Concert Series since 1986.

Length: 12 minutes / Range: Improvvisazione (F#2 – Eb5) Burlesca (C#2 – Db5) Dialogo (C#2 – Bb4) / Unpublished – available from the composer / Standard Notation, no extended techniques / Key: atonal / Meter: mixed meter changes throughout

Zachary Senick is pursuing a DMA at the University of Toronto. Read more about him here.

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Phil’s Elixir of Bassoon Love

Phil’s Elixir of Bassoon Love

Philip Morehead talks about his transition from a professional opera career to an amateur presence in the bassoon world.

I spent almost 35 years as a member of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s musical staff and had the pleasure of working with some of the greatest singers of our time, including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, Fiorenza Cossotto, Alfredo Kraus, Tatiana Troyanos, Paolo Montarsolo, Sesto Bruscantini and many, many others. In my early years at the opera, many of the singers were Italian. Undoubtedly having that unique Italian sound in my ears has influenced my musical work on the bassoon, though my technique has not developed sufficiently yet to reproduce that velvety sound on my new instrument.

My work at the opera involved both piano (playing for rehearsals and assisting thje conductor) and conducting some operas, student performances and regular performances too. Some of the singers I conducted were rising young stars, some of whom are now major stars (such as Quinn Kelsey, J’Nai Bridges, Susanna Phillips, Matthew Polenzani, Will Liverman), and some well-established singers, such as Stephanie Blythe, Frank Lopardo, and Canada’s own Sondra Radvanovsky, who I conducted in a performance of Un ballo in Maschera. In my work I had the pleasure of working with the excellent Lyric Opera orchestra. For almost all of my time there the principal bassoon was Jim Berkenstock, and the contra player, who is still there, was Lewis Kirk. They were good colleagues and I enjoyed our collaborations.

The move from the podium to playing in the orchestra has certainly been challenging. Aside from the basic problem of producing the right fingerings at the right time and a decent sound under the baton of a conductor, there are the orchestral problems of tuning, counting, blending and trying to be a good support for one’s colleagues. One thing I discovered is that the minute you move from the podium to the orchestra your attitude changes, not always for the better. Fundamentally, though we’re all working towards the same goal, in many ways the relationship between conductor and conductees is an adversarial one, and it’s amazing how fast one moves from one camp to the other. Working in the North Bay Symphony I have needed all the skills I have developed over my opera years.

….a young Carlo Bergonzi



What have I learned from the great singers of my opera days that transfers to my new instrument? Certainly, the issue of legato is one of the most important. Legato involves all of the techniques of sound production: breath control, continuity of support, finding

I remember one of the operas I experienced several times (as a listener—I wasn’t assigned to the opera, but I did conduct it on the island Belle Île en mer off the coast of France) during my time at Lyric was Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), which has one of the most sublime bassoon solos in the repertoire, Una furtiva lagrima. Just listen to any one of the great tenors singing this aria, and you’ll learn all you need to know about legato. The first production during my time, my first year, was supposed to be sung by the great Pavarotti, but as he often did, he cancelled the first half of the run. Lyric Opera, at that time (early 1980’s) was very Italianate, and they would hire a replacement singer from the depths of Italy rather than use a North American. In this case, however, the replacement was Carlo Bergonzi, a singer who at that time was as important a tenor as Pavarotti, maybe more so. He was then in his 60s, but he sang performances that perfectly captured the young bumpkin that sings that iconic aria, as beautifully as I have ever heard. The audiences in Chicago didn’t know who he was, so many people turned in their tickets, not knowing they would get a performance far superior to the disinterested one Pavarotti would deliver when he finally got there.

When you have heard the creamy soprano of Mirella Freni singing La Bohème (or any other of her many roles), you are permanently rendered unable to be satisfied with anything else, no matter how musical or expressive. I don’t know if it’s the pasta or the wine or the ambience of Italy that produces this sound, but it is unique. Playing an instrument, especially a wind instrument, is at its base a kind of singing and is strongly influenced by vocalism. Many wind instrument teachers encourage their students to listen to singers to find out how to phrase and, foremost, how to play legato. We try to get as close as we can to that miraculous natural instrument.


…Philip and Sir Andrew Davis testing love potions…

Another issue (which is even more of an issue on the piano, where everything can be instantaneous) is how to play intervals wider than a second. One learns that moving over the wider intervals requires (and should require) a subtle timing that reflects the distance travelled and the effort required to travel that distance. It shouldn’t be a trivial matter to play a fifth, a seventh, an octave.

There is also the question of text. A bassoonist doesn’t have a text (in words) but should certainly be trying to communicate something, in a manner not unsimilar to delivering a text. This involves ‘unnotatable’ factors of timing and sound. As we are frequently told, the score is only the beginning: there are so many elements that can’t be written down.

There are other lessons one learns from performing opera which serve one well in the orchestra:


Listening: The singer rules in opera, or should, in my opinion. Opera timing is very dependent on the singer, and the flexibility one develops in working in the idiom is very useful in other repertoire. A good opera orchestra is always listening to the singers (if they can hear them). I remember I was conducting Carmen once and had a Micaela who was a notorious schlepper. In our one dress rehearsal I tried to conduct all that was happening in her aria and found it very difficult, if not impossible; but if I trusted the orchestra to react to her rubati, it was easy. Trust of your players is another good lesson from opera.

The ability to adapt to the immediate situation: Opera is unpredictable. When you have singers singing from memory and acting on stage, you never really know what’s going to happen once you pass the initial downbeat. I have seen well-known orchestral conductors (who shall remain nameless) trying to conduct opera and not enjoying that unpredictability. I think one either relishes it or should stay away from the form. However, that kind of living in the moment should be an important part of orchestral music as well. One should be able to react to the inspiration of the moment, either in one’s own playing or in the playing of one’s comrades. It makes for a so much richer experience.

Jim Berkenstock’s wife, Jean, was the principal flute. At one Lyric Opera Center concert we were performing the soprano aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, which involves a complicated cadenza for the soprano and the flute. The morning of that rehearsal, when I was coming to the opera house by bus, I left my scores on the bus. Luckily, I was able to get replacement scores from the library before the rehearsal and I found out to my relief that I remembered all the special things the singers wanted me to do and what the cuts were. Jean was concerned about that aria, which is a bit tricky to conduct, but fortunately, it came off well.


Philip Morehead is a board member of The Council of Canadian Bassoonists

At age 81 my aspirations for my bassoon playing are limited. But I am greatly enjoying this remarkable instrument!



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D Flat Minor

D Flat Minor

It’s all in the notation…


By Christopher Millard



After 50 years of bassoon playing, I remain surprised by the subtle influences that key signatures have on our interpretation of orchestra passages.

Do you practice orchestral excerpts in different keys?  This is most beneficial in slower lyrical melodies where transpositions into adjacent keys reveal unexpected alterations in vibrato, colour and expressive intent.  Our expression is so influenced by the subtle differences in resistance and tuning that emerge with each new transposition.  Serious students should learn to navigate familiar solos in unfamiliar keys.  Excerpts like Tchaikovsky 4, Scheherazade or the Firebird Berceuse become very different musical challenges simply with a change of key signature.  But we may also react unconsciously to something as simple as an enharmonic change!

The acoustical complexity of the bassoon forces us to master complex fingerings, embouchure and air flow changes as we climb to the highest register. And while differences in resistance and harmonic spectra are most pronounced in the tenor range and above, they are equally challenging as we navigate the simplest of scales.  Learning to overcome unevenness in your bassoon and uncovering your true singing instincts is a primary focus for all advanced players. Playing the melodies you love in different keys reveals everything!  Elsewhere on this website you will find some thorough discussions of various tactics – an article on alternative fingering protocols and lengthy symposium on how to introduce transpositions into your practice.  In this post I want to focus on how sharps, flats and enharmonic equivalents can spell unexpected trouble.

Even though modern bassoons have evolved from the mid 19th century to live happily in the ever-increasing complexities of chromatic harmony, much of their DNA is rooted in their original designs.  The earlier generations of players and instruments found much of their musical landscapes in the ‘flat’ keys: C, F, Bb, Eb etc.  The ‘sharp’ keys of G, D, A etc came a bit later, coinciding with the gradual addition of more keys.

150 years after Almenraeder and Heckel, bassoonists remain a bit unbalanced about naming those black key accidentals [look at a piano keyboard…]  Our usual nomenclature of the keys starts at the bottom with Bb [not A#…]. Then comes C#, Eb, F#, Ab, Bb, C#, Eb, F#, Ab, Bb, C#, Eb, F#, G#, Bb, C#, Eb.  Of course, we could just as easily use enharmonic spellings like low A#, then Db, D#, Gb, G#, A#, Db, D#, Gb, G#, A#, Db, D#, Gb, Ab, Db, D# – but we usually don’t.

This has always struck me as a bit odd.  If you look at my three articles on this website about the layout of the bassoon bore, you will see that typically an accidental is achieved adding a key and raising a note by a half step.  This is true in the fundamental range for C#, D#, F#, G#, A# and C#.  For bottom Bb [not A#…] we add a thumb to lower B and forked Eb we add LH third finger to lower E.  But half-hole F#, G# and A# mimic their lower octaves – we add a finger to raise a semitone.

As we move into the crazy tenor register our normal nomenclature becomes more arbitrary.  Certainly, tenor C# in its simplest form raises a C [with the addition of the left thumb], tenor D# can be achieved by adding that same left thumb, but our normal fingering is acoustically much more related to E natural, so the term Eb makes sense.  Calling tenor F# an ‘F sharp’ makes sense if we use the German fingering with right thumb Bb key; but that same note played with right pinky on low F is really best understood as a Gb.  High Ab is a better description that G# because the latter has no relationship to a G but a clear connection to high A.  High Bb is also more logically tied to a high B, and high C# is certainly easier to navigate as a drop from high D.  Hmmm.  

Bassoon Boot Joint

Why on earth does any of this matter?  We all understand enharmonic equivalents and we also understand that the notes we usually call by their “sharp” or “flat” descriptions are not necessarily sharper or flatter in terms of intonation.

Or are they?

In case you’ve been wondering, that brief excerpt at the top of this article is the bassoon solo in the Adagio of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.  I always loved playing that solo, so dark and grounded and evocative.

The damn thing is in D flat minor.

Did you study basic harmony in college?  If so, you probably had no experience with Db minor, because it’s relegated to the small category of ‘theoretical keys’. It’s certainly a rare sighting in the wild.  Db minor has a relative major of Fb, which has 7 flats and one double flat in the key signature.  Mahler used Db minor a couple of times for brief moments in both the 4th and 5th symphony and even Verdi resorted to the key in a couple of arias.

However,.when composers wanted this sound  they wrote in C# minor, 99.99999% of the time.  You’ve learned C# minor scales – and hopefully you practice them.  I trust you also work on F# minor scales?  Thankfully nobody expects you to practice Gb minor – five flats and two double flats there.  [You’re also generally spared practicing A# major…]  By the way, don’t blame me for those occasionally highly chromatic passages in the Milde Etudes.  You just have to work your way through with enharmonic equivalents sometimes!

So, what is the point of all this nonsense?  I’m deeply grateful to Mahler, because I think Db minor is the most important scale any bassoonist can study if you are looking for perfecting intonation, tonal richness, and projection!!!

I’m totally serious.


The logical response to that declaration should be “That’s crazy, it’s the same as C# minor!!!”



But I find it’s a whole different experience!

I sometimes ask advanced students to play these scales back to back and I can promise you that they always sound different.  How on earth is that possible?  They are enharmonic equivalents!  They use the same fingerings on the same bassoon!!  They MUST sound they same, but they don’t.

Why? Because the psychology of raising a note to a sharp or dropping it to a flat almost always encourages a slight change in the physiology of embouchure and oral cavity.  Air support in a flat key frequently feels more connected to the ground.  Shoulders tend not to rise when we lower a note.  And when we ascend in a flat key we tend not to stretch tuning upward.

‘Flats’ intuitively lead to a darker sound for wind players than ‘sharps’.  This is a tendency that is far more pronounced for bassoonists for the reasons I explained in the opening paragraphs; so many of our key evolutions were based on adding a sharpening mechanism to an earlier design and something in our troglodyte fagott DNA lives on.

[To be clear, I’m not addressing the subtle adjustments in intonation that we might employ for major thirds or leading tones.  There are certainly some remnants of those requirements on some bassoons: if you have an extra tone hole on the boot for back G# you can certainly use that to raise the leading tone in A major much more successfully than the front Ab.  By the way, low Ab is acoustically one of these lease upwardly mobile notes on the bassoon; it’s usually hard to play it sharp. It’s one of the great features of Db minor, a well anchored dominant!]

…Once again, here is the excerpt as it originally appears.

 Try it now in its enharmonic equivalent – C# minor

Try the same theme in D minor!

And finally, in C minor.

Ask yourself how these four different versions affect your sound, intonation, legato and emotional response. The two enharmonic equivalents ought to sound the same, but do they?  For me, there is a subtle but very different outcome achieved in Mahler’s original tonality.  Explore the whole range of the bassoon with these alternative key signatures; the fingerings might be the same, but you will likely react to the music in two different ways!

Christopher Millard is the former principal bassoonist for Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra



The first meeting of new bassoonists, their teachers and award-winning Canadian composer Sonia Paço-Rocchia was held January 30, 2023.  If you and your students want to join future workshops, please write to us! In the future, we will host a public concert with the students.
This was the first step in real life with real students, following our careful planning sessions. The Council of Canadian Bassoonists’ creation collaboration with avant-garde composer and bassoonist, Sonia Paço-Rocchia is an amazing 2-year project that will result in new works introducing contemporary and extended techniques for BEGINNING and INTERMEDIATE players. Imagine the fun of learning about multiphonics, structured improvisation and live electronics at the beginning along with other basics and fundamentals!

Read more about Sonia Paço-Rocchia and listen to her beautiful work.

new music new bassoonists

Composer and bassoonist, Sonia Paço-Rocchia


The project will result in six new works for solo bassoon, one for ensemble (flexible instrumentation) and five works for any monodic instrument (including bassoon) with live electronics.
The composer will consult and test the works with teachers and their students, culminating in live and broadcast events hosted by the Council of Canadian Bassoonists sometime in 2023.
Sonia won a creation grant from the Canada Council, yet like many grants received in Canada, she did not quite get the full amount. We will work on fundraising for the live events in the coming year.
The music will be fun for all levels of performer and it will foster curiosity and exploration .
Enjoy this existing duo for two bassoons, La Boîte en Canelle.