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 will be January 30, 2023.  If you and your students want to join future workshops, please write to us! And in the spring, we will host a public concert with the students.
Today is 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.


The Correlogram Museum

Want to understand more about how we hear?  Take a look at this fascinating page.

We are always looking for odd but important sources of information about sound and hearing. Dr. Malcolm Slaney at Stanford has offered this particular wonderful website full of illuminating sound samples. If you want some very clear examples of bassoon harmonics, tonal expectations and aural habits dig in. Pay particular attention to ASA example 30.

One Step at a Time

One Step at a Time

One Step at a Time

Nicolas Richard offers some thoughts on practicing scales

The first thing I ever played on the bassoon was a scale from open F to low F. I didn’t know how to play a B flat yet, so a C major scale emerged – starting on the 4th degree… It’s only in retrospect that I realized that this moment in the dining room of my first teacher, Yvonne Kershaw, would form the foundation of how I think about scales in my daily practice! I’d like to share with you two different approaches to practicing scales that were gifted to me by my teachers and mentors, with the hope that they might give you something new or interesting to try out in your own fundamental routines.


The first core tenet of my love of scales was formed by my undergraduate studies at the University of Ottawa with Christopher Millard, the Principal Bassoon of the NAC Orchestra. Prof. Millard’s pedagogical approach with scales involved putting his students in an intellectual ‘scales bootcamp’ that involved a lot of sweat and tears. The primary exercises given were scales in a modal pattern, playing each scalar mode of your chosen key, both ascending and descending. Here is an example of this pattern written out for C Major:

Any time spent diligently working on our technique in a thoughtful manner will yield positive outcomes in our playing, regardless of the particular exercise practiced. If you haven’t bought it already, I highly recommend Nadina Mackie’s book Solitary Refinement to get a sense of how vast (and fun!) the world of scales practice can be.



While playing scales fluently and quickly is an important goal of regimented scale practice, Prof. Millard emphasized that scales were primarily a vehicle for developing an evenness and consistency in sonority. He also insisted that we be able to play any scale from any note; this approach helps to develop intellectual quickness and a capacity to assimilate musical patterns with more immediacy. The traditional approach of stopping scales on the tonic can be a helpful anchor point, but approaching scales from any degree opens your ears and your brain to far greater facility in assimilating new pieces. Bringing this idea into practice, students of Prof. Millard were always asked at the beginning of a lesson to play a scale, but in a manner that might make our brains work a bit harder than usual. An example of this would be a request for a “B melodic minor scale in three octaves, but starting on the lowest third scale degree.”  This flexibility in thinking was brought to all my solo repertoire and orchestral excerpts. It was a way to grasp how scales – both complete and fragmented – were foundational to organizing and refining my practice routines.

As an example, one memorable moment in my first year of study was when I was completely unable to identify the scale in measure 9 after rehearsal 2 in the famous Bolero solo. We sat in silence for about fifteen minutes while gears turned in my untrained head to figure out the scale I was playing at that moment (hint: it’s part of a harmonic minor scale). When the lightbulb finally went on, I really recognized how much work I had to do to bridge the gap between my brute technical practice and the reality of how these technical patterns actually appear in music. 

This kind of approach to scales went into overdrive when we had studio classes, the affectionately named “torture sessions”. An example of the kind of test we’d go through might be the following prompt: “Start on A at the top of the staff. Go up a minor third. Down a tritone. Down a major sixth. Up a minor seventh. Down a major second. Up a perfect 4th. Up a minor third. This note is the fourth scale degree of a harmonic minor scale. Play that harmonic minor scale over three octaves, but starting from the lowest raised 7th scale degree.” Oy vey…At any rate, I eventually started to respond to these challenges by my third year of study!  


These days, whenever I see an A flat harmonic minor scale starting on a G natural (yes, that was the solution to this particular challenge…)  I think of Prof. Millard. 

Running parallel to this journey of enlightenment through torture sessions was my growing awareness of the teachings of Norman Herzberg, the legendary pedagogue in California during the second half of the twentieth century. The relevant part of his teaching curriculum were his particular exercises for scales practice, aptly now known as “Herzberg scales”.  I knew about them, I suppose, because I heard a lot of people with fantastic technique say that they practice them. To figure out what these scales were all about, I took the train from Ottawa to Toronto to take a lesson with Michael Sweeney, the Principal Bassoon of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and a former graduate student of Norman Herzberg’s at the University of Southern California.


Prof. Sweeney began the lesson by explaining to me that the point of the Herzberg scale routine is accuracy, and not speed. The parameters for measuring accuracy in this exercise are intonation throughout the duration of each note, the evenness of sonority between each note, the quality and seamlessness of legato under slurs, and the evenness of dynamic throughout the scale. It is only once we have each of these parameters under control at a slow tempo that we increase the tempo of the scale. He then presented the ranges of notes for each articulation of the Herzberg scales, since just knowing how high to go for each articulation can be a bit confusing at first. While the idea is to play the given articulation pattern through the entire range of the bassoon, in can be quite beneficial to think of the scale as a loop from top to bottom and one can make the loop small to really zone in on a challenging part of the scale (I’m looking at you, top octave…).

Prof. Sweeney emphasized that Herzberg’s fundamental exercises in scales and articulation patterns were a means to open up our ears to the kind of playing we ultimately want to achieve. Every time we play these scales, we are given the responsibility to listen very closely to our playing, always trying to bring a bit more control. I had never really taken the time to pay such close attention to the quality of the release of short notes or the exactness of intonation from the beginning to the end of every note, no matter how short it might be. This kind attention to what I was doing on the bassoon only came to be a part of my psyche once I was introduced to these fundamental exercises. I was lucky to have had very patient teachers considering how long it took me to figure that out.

Another student of Norman Herzberg, and an important figure for the propulsion of Mr. Herzberg’s teachings into the 21st century, is Benjamin Kamins, Professor of Bassoon at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and former Principal Bassoon of the Houston Symphony.

I was very fortunate to work with Mr. Kamins in the summer of 2019 at the Music Academy of the West and eventually attend Rice University for my graduate studies. As the Herzberg scale was a core tenet of Mr. Kamins’ pedagogy, every lesson began with him asking me “Did you play a scale today?”. After the inevitable affirmative answer, I was expected to play the first articulation of my chosen Herzberg scale of the day.  This invariably led to some kind of conversation about how to make it just a little bit better (more on this below!).

This weekly ritual as a student of Mr. Kamins was complemented by a weekly “Fundamentals Class” on Mondays at noon. Each student went to the front of the class to play their scale of the day in front of everyone in the studio. Just as in lessons, there was always an opportunity to improve upon something in the scale.  Mr. Kamins knew there was no better way to get someone to practice their scales than to make them play a scale in front of their peers! I am forever grateful that both of my major teachers shared this philosophy.

The overarching idea reinforced by the Herzberg scales is that we must strive for complete uniformity and control over the entire range of the bassoon. This means that from the bottom to the top of the range of the bassoon we must play with the same articulation length, dynamic level, and pitch level along with complete uniformity of sound. Of course, the goal is to play music and express ourselves by not playing uniformly, but we must first have the technique and the control over our instrument to do so. To achieve uniformity in these scale exercises, we have to actively wrestle with and overcome the inherent irregularities of the bassoon, eventually playing in a way where musical considerations as opposed to technical limitations dictate our expression. “Not all notes you play in your life will have the same length, but you must first have control over them, so within the context of these scales they must all be of the same length,” Mr. Kamins once wisely told me.

Taking just the first articulation of the Herzberg scales, the goal is to play from the lowest note on the instrument in the given key to the highest note and then back down with fluid and even technique, the same note length, the same dynamic, the same evenness of sound, without any cracks in the attacks, and with each note centered in pitch. That’s a lot to think about!!! I’ve been told, it takes way more than a lifetime to master… Having one exercise to tackle all of these elements in your playing is really helpful to consolidate your thoughts and to make real strides in your playing.

There are a myriad of reasons why the bassoon has certain acoustic tendencies that we have to fight against (you can read all about the “why” behind these in Christopher Millard’s posts on the physics of the bassoon and reeds), the severity of these shortcomings being dependent on the different components of your setup. Here are a few examples of shortcomings on my setup that would occur if I just play the bassoon how it wants to be played:

-The low register is sharp

-The tenor register is flat

-It is easier to articulate short notes in the lower register than it is in the upper register

-The low register is difficult to articulate in soft dynamics

-When you go higher in the range of the bassoon, the volume tends to get softer

-Cracking/transients can occur on almost every note, though this is most prominent in the register from A3 (just below middle C) to D4.



The process of working on the Herzberg scales in a different key daily allows one to explore each of these shortcomings somewhat in a vacuum, while endeavoring to make subtle changes. “Perhaps I need to simply blow just a bit more in the tenor register to keep it at the same dynamic as the rest of the scale?” Or perhaps “I need to use a bit less tongue in the low register to match the articulation in the upper register.”

Mr. Kamins kindly suggested (insisted!) that I pay closer attention to my tendency for the pitch of a given note to change over the course of its sounding, no matter how short it is. It’s a  problem not unique to me! The note might start slightly flat and then “scoop” up to the correct pitch, usually without my noticing. This is most prevalent in the tenor register, where the notes tend to be flatter to begin with. Paying close attention to how much my embouchure and tonguing might move on each note helps me focus the pitch. (hint: you don’t have to move the embouchure or the tongue very much to play a short note). I distinctly remember a studio Zoom class in August 2020, where Mr. Kamins demonstrated a slow articulated scale: I sat in awe because not one of those notes changed pitch from its beginning to its end. This might seem like such source of inspiration, but I certainly couldn’t do this! I was gobsmacked to learn that it became possible only if I practiced my scales in a more observant manner. 

When it comes to the ongoing protocols for practicing these Herzberg scales, much depends on your individual temperament. But one essential ideal that is critical to pursue: they are not a warm up!  Rather, they are meant to be fundamental exercises that require tremendous focus to reap maximum benefit. It’s best to get your fingers, air, and tongue moving with simpler exercises before you dive into these. That having been said, it’s an occasionally useful challenge to play the first articulation of the Herzberg scale completely cold.  This will reveal the parameters of your playing that change as you gradually warm up. We have all experienced playing something scary and exposed in the orchestra after counting rests for twenty minutes… My own regimen has evolved to leave the Herzberg scales as the last thing that I do in the fundamentals part of my daily practice session, after having spent some time working through exercises that address legato, vibrato, tonguing, long tones, intervals, and various simple scale patterns. I do this mostly because it often feels like the Herzberg scales are the culmination of all the fundamental skills needed to play the bassoon well. 

A focused and analytical self-dialogue can occur in any scale pattern that we practice. Anything that we practice should come under this microscope. I find that bringing together the holistic knowledge of scales presented to me by Chris Millard and the journey of self-discovery that Ben Kamins introduced by way of the Herzberg scales present a measurable way of staying interested. I encourage you to dive deeply into the scale exercises passed down to you by the wisdom of your teachers and staying curious when it comes to finding more refinement in your playing.

Nicolas Richard is in his first season with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra.  He is a board member of the Council of Canadian Bassoonists.

A Cruise Down The Bore River Part 3

A Cruise Down The Bore River Part 3

A Cruise Down the Bore River Part 3

We come now to the final segment of our journey downstream.  As in both wing and boot, there is sometimes confusion about both the nomenclature and the function of the tone holes.



  • E hole – The first open hole on the long joint.  Though the pad cup over this hole is activated by the left thumb on the ‘D’ lever, this first opening is the hole from which E2 emerges. It’s an extension of the bore from the closed pancake key…which is really over the F hole… a bit confusing, eh?  Remember how the wing joint C extends through the tenon to the first open hole on the boot?  The same principle here for E2; it straddles the larger tenon connection.



  • Eb hole – Another 115mm downstream brings us to Eb2 tone hole. It’s worth taking some time to talk about this tone hole and its importance to the third register of the bassoon. Up to this point, we have largely assumed that the nomenclature applies to the principle bore opening for each note.  This is as true for Eb2 as F3, or any other hole.  As long as we’re using the metaphor of a river, it makes sense to remind you that bassoon pitches emerge from the tendency of any length of bore to establish a standing wave. You’ll find explanations of this here and here.

Standing waves are established when a downstream pressure wave meets a tone hole; some of its energy emerges from the hole to eventually excite our eardrums, but much of its energy is reflected back upstream.  When the downstream and upstream pressure waves meet, they start reinforcing or cancelling each other’s energy, creating nodes and antinodes where pressure or displacement are either at maxima or minima. In the Bore River metaphor, these might appear as stationary waves or calm spots.  You might assume that the standing wave extends only as far as the first open hole.  That’s true for some wave components, but remember that the tone of the bassoon consists of a complex mix of harmonics, so the standing wave is not a simple, tidy entity.  While the lower frequency harmonics tend to lose their energy to the first open hole, successively higher harmonics extend further downstream.  The long tone holes on the down bore of the bassoon act as frequency filters, separating lower and higher harmonics and allowing some energy to escape and some to continue as standing waves further down the bore.  This behaviour explains all the complex cross fingerings that you have come to love!  I’m sure you’re delighted…

Most bassoonists read paragraphs like that and simply shrug their shoulders…

But let’s get back to that Eb3 hole.  You’ve learned that it plays an important role in tuning and refining many notes: G3, E4, F4, F#4 etc…  How is it possible that opening a tone hole so far downstream from these tenor range notes has such an effect?  The explanation is this: while the length of bore for the fundamental harmonic is typically from the reed to the first open hole, the effective length of the standing wave becomes longer for the higher spectrum components of the sound.  When you play tenor F4 – based on a bore extending to the A tone hole on the boot – higher harmonics of that note are finding their way all the way to the long joint, and are therefore altered by any changes to open or closed holes.

Our Little Bassoonist, watching the motion of water on the river, might see slower and bigger waves reflecting off the shoreline, while the choppy little waves continue far downstream ahead of her.

  • D2 hole. Yes, the third opening on the long joint, right under your left thumb.  While the pad cup is attached to the C key, the tone hole underneath is where D2 [74hz] lives.  Bassoon makers and technicians often make significant alterations to this tone hole as they endeavour to make the D2 lower in pitch.  Here is why.  By extending the length of the ‘chimney’ we effectively make the bore a bit longer, so the standing wave will extend a bit further.  But once we are this far downstream the tone holes are very short, causing a reduction in the filtering of the higher harmonics.  Look at how long the tone holes are in the wing and the down bore of the boot.  These longer chimneys are essential both for tuning and controlling the higher harmonic components.  Low D is indeed a sharp note for certain kinds of reeds.  To address this tendency, we often see well executed extensions to make the hole longer.  While this approach may help sharper reeds there may also be trade-offs – affecting the tuning and resistance in the 3rd harmonic tenor region, especially F4.

(Note that this tone hole originally had an extended chimney – you can see the inlaid wood. It made a great low D but compromised the tenor resistance.)


  • C# hole. This is the fourth opening on the long joint [the last hole on a divided bass joint/bell model]. In addition to its primary role in the establishing the 69hz low C#, it has similarly versatile effects on several higher register notes including G3, D4 and above.

(This photo shows the hole on a divided bass joint.)


  • C hole. This is the last hole on a typical long joint, or the first of the two holes on a divided bass joint. [We used to call this a Gentleman’s Cut…] Don’t mistake the name of the mechanism – the left thumb low B pad cup action.  The open hole produces low C.

          (This photo shows the hole on a divided bass joint, hence the metal band covering the tenon.)

  • B hole. It’s been a long journey downstream from the tip of the bocal to this final, and largest, hole.  It’s worth noting that while the chimney height of all the bass joint holes are fairly consistent from 19th century Heckel to 2023 manufacturers everywhere, the geometry of these holes has changed a lot.  Up until the late 1940s it was common to see a lot of undercutting of these 6 holes. Instead of being simple [but short!] cylindrical holes, they were often enlarged to join the bore with a soft curve.  This allowed a bit more higher component energy to emerge, giving a bit more colour to the sound.  It also permitted the player to select both higher and lower pitch centers for notes in the bottom range.  Straight chimneys tend to help center the pitch with more definition, which is certainly a trade-off for the player. This undercutting occurs most often in the bottom half of the bassoon.  The smaller, longer tone holes in the wing and the down bore of the boot rarely exhibit this modification.  However, they are often slightly conical in shape, with expanded diameters at the exit of the hole.

We’ve come to the end of this journey down the bassoon bore.  Unlike a fingering chart, this has been a visualization of the bore and its tone hole openings.  The goal has been to introduce younger players to the proper nomenclature for the all the mysterious holes cut into their bassoons.  If you wish to develop a deeper understanding of your instrument, the next step is to learn how to disassemble the keywork to see the bare bones of the bassoon.  Stay tuned to this COCB website for a future series about undressing the keys of your bassoon!

Series written by Christopher Millard
Sketch by Nadina