Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 13 – Stairway to Heaven

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 13 – Stairway to Heaven

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making by Christopher Millard

Chapter 13 – Stairway to Heaven

In Chapter 12, I left you with an assignment: try playing the full range of the bassoon with no help from the embouchure.  The test reveals the critical role that the embouchure plays in controlling for register and tuning.

From an acoustician’s point of view, the embouchure ‘dampens’ many of the natural harmonics of the reed itself and allows the ‘standing waves’ within the bore to control the dialogue.  I’ll touch below on this subject. For this and the following chapter I’ll focus on the need for embouchure damping in controlling both the MCA value (Missing Conical Apex, Chapter 11) of a reed and helping the complex fingerings of the bassoon select for the correct register.  This chapter puts our little bassoonist to work with ascending scales and helps her understand why embouchure damping is a necessary component in tone production.  But we’ve got to dive into some tricky areas.

If you get stuck, take a break and do an online search for videos and animations of both transverse and longitudinal waves, with special emphasis on standing waves.  Videos using ropes will show you how simple it is to visualize harmonics of transverse waves; videos using Slinkys or animations are especially helpful to us as wind instrument players.

Our little bassoonist loves to play scales.  Even melodic minors…

‘Scale’ comes from the Italian word scala, meaning a ladder or staircase.

LB loves climbing up and down her bassoon ladders, especially when they take her all the way to high E and F.  But all this investigation of trampolines, caves and missing cones has got her wondering.  How does the bassoon manage to operate over three and half octaves and what role does the reed play in the process?

Let’s start by reminding LB of the conga line image in Chapter 3.  Compression waves move forward and then reflect backward from the open end of the bassoon.  Longer bores operate slower conga lines.   She understood that pretty easily.  We can also tell her that the term ‘fundamental’ is just a way of saying that a conga line has a lower limit to its frequency. The conga line for a low A can rock back and forth 110 times a second, but no slower.   To be clear about the terminology, we say ‘the fundamental resonating frequency is the 1st harmonic.’

For an explanation of ‘standing waves’ and an introduction to nodes/antinodes skip to the end of this chapter.

Consider the first 20 notes of the bassoon scale from low Bb [Bb1] to open F [F2].  This is where the bassoon bore operates in its ‘fundamental’ register using the lowest possible frequency for a given length of tube.

LB takes a big breath and begins playing a low G. Whether she plays loud or soft the pitch is predictable and constant.  The length and volume of that low G bore has a natural resonating frequency of @98hz, which we call a ‘bore resonance’.  Just like beer bottles, many enclosed spaces have natural resonances.  The amazing thing about wind instruments is that multiple bore resonances will occur simultaneously.  For that low G bore volume [designated G2] there will be a second resonance operating at twice the frequency – 196hz [G3].  It’s like a superimposed conga line on the same dance floor! A third resonance will occur around 294hz [D4], another at 392hz [G4] and there will be many more.  All these other resonances are related to the G2 in predictable ways; they are all harmonics – or overtones – of that 98hz conga line.

Nature blesses us with a really simple rule for calculating the frequency of these harmonics, based on a simple formula.  LB, a very clever bassoon avatar, notices the relationship between the harmonics:

  • 98hz X 2 = 196hz [the same as G3!!]
  • 98hz X 3 = 294hz [that’s a tenor D!!]
  • 98hz X 4 = 392hz [same as high G!!]

Even without her digital calculator, which she left in the bear’s house, she figures out the next harmonic ought to be around 490hz – which happens to be pretty close to a high B.

With her reed placed on the truncated end of her bocal, LB continues playing her low G, but begins to really listen!

She realizes that all this warm, complex, mysterious, colourful, engaging, resonant bassoon sound that she loves is uses a broad spectrum of overtones cooperating with that low G2 bore volume.  Harmonics are what gives the bassoon – and all acoustic instruments – their character

LB closes all her keys and plays a low Bb, then B & C, slowly climbing the 20 step ladder that takes her to open F.  Listening more deeply than she ever has before, LB starts to hear some of those higher components.  They are participants in the harmonic series, sounding octaves, twelfths, and compound tenths and many more.  Each note on her bassoon seems to have a slightly different balance of harmonics which just adds to her infatuation with the instrument.

These 20 notes are rich in the 1st order of harmonics for each length of bore.  So, LB asks, if the first 20 notes are in the fundamental range, what happens with the 21st note and higher????  She reaches the open F and steps onto the first balcony of the bassoon house.  There is a new ladder leading up from here, a bit shorter and a bit less sturdy.  The first rung is marked “F#3” [half-hole F#].   Cleverly perceiving the pedagogical scale metaphor, LB sees she can no longer rely on the big 1st harmonic ladder anymore because her first finger half-hole “collapses” the standing wave for the 1st harmonic.  From here on up those lower 20 notes are silenced.  Stepping on the first rung she sounds the F#3 frequency of 185hz.  She senses there is a 1st harmonic wanting to burst through that open first finger, but she understands she’s left most of it on the 9th rung of the first ladder.  She climbs step by step.  G3 and G#3 are all based on the same length of tube as G2 and G#2, but the half hole leak muffles their 1st harmonics as well.  A2 briefly tries to reassert itself when she attacks A3 [220hz], but LB quickly opens the whisper key vent and uses a flick key to discourage the brief 1st harmonic croak.  She uses similar tricks on Bb, B and C.  C#4 and D4 complete the climb through the 2nd harmonics and she steps out onto the second balcony.  Someone is practicing the Berceuse above her.


“Crap.  I should have stuck to the flute.  All those 12ths were in tune.  Don’t tell me this tenor F4 is another sharpened 3rd harmonic resonance!!”

From her second balcony perch, LB can see that the first ladder is a kind of first generation, the next ladder a very cooperative second generation and now she has to climb a third generation ladder based on removing two lower harmonics.

With Eb4 [311hz] she begins the climb to the third balcony. This ladder is shorter still and looks a bit rickety; the rungs are flimsy are not evenly spaced. This third ladder traverses the tenor register of the bassoon and things get a bit kooky. Although she’s never really taken the time to look at her fingers, she sees that tenor Eb uses almost the same fingering as G2 and G3. She simply adds a couple of big leaks in the air column by lifting two fingers, which immediately silence the resonances of the G2 and G3 harmonics. The 3rd harmonic in a series is a simple calculation: 3 times the frequency of the fundamental. So why does this fingering not deliver 294hz [D4], a nicely predictable 12th like on a string instrument. What’s going on?

 It would seem logical to LB that the 3rd resonance for the low G fingering would create perfect 12th, but the bassoon won’t behave. Opening tone holes will coax that 3rd resonance frequency. However, the truncated cone of the bassoon bore, the contributions of tone hole volumes and variations in conicity conspire to make this next harmonic sit sharper than predicted. LB’s tenor Eb fingering is setting up a standing wave at about 311hz which is a half step higher than the expected 3rd harmonic.

A term often used here is the concept of the ‘ancestor’ note.  Tenor Eb is based on bore resonances derived from its ancestor fingering for low G.

Only slightly confused, LBS takes the next step on the ladder – E4 – tenor E. Looking carefully at her well-practiced fingerings, LB sees that this bore volume E is really similar to G2 as well!!! But she has spread out the air column leaks by lifting her LH second finger [and perhaps one or more of her RH fingers as well]. Like most of her bassoon pals she opens the low Eb key on the long joint to darken the tone and bring the pitch down a bit. Nevertheless, it immediately occurs to her that the ‘ancestor’ for E4 must also be G2!! In other words, the basic air column for low G is serving as the ancestor for both half-step sharp AND a whole-step sharp 3rd harmonic resonances. The precise pitch depends on some minor fingering tweaks.

LB is starting to really freak out, but she takes another step up to the dreaded tenor F.  She hates this note.  Then she looks at her hands and sees that she’s playing A2 and making a big air column disruption by opening her LH middle finger.


 Of course, she’s right. That critical second finger leak disrupts the bore resonances for the 1st harmonic A2 and the 2nd harmonic A3. Because of deviations in the bassoon design the next available bore resonance is once again a half-step than predicted. Well – not quite a half-step. Instead of sitting comfortably around an ideal F4 of 349hz, the typical bassoon F4 wants to sit in the 345hz range. So, LB has to use more embouchure damping, reducing the MCA value and stiffening the reed membranes to get tenor F to sit high enough.

She takes another step and moves to F#4. There are two basic fingering options on the German system bassoon; one uses right thumb Bb and the other uses RH 4th finger. LB starts with the thumb Bb fingering. It’s actually comfortably in tune with a resonance close to an ideal 370hz. A careful examination of her fingers shows that she’s really just playing Bb2 and disrupting the two lower harmonics of Bb2 and Bb3 by lifting the first and third fingers of her left hand. [She often substitutes the RH 4th finger F key for the RH thumb Bb, a fingering more in vogue among modern players. Regrettably, it’s a bit of an acoustical anomaly and it’s difficult to calculate its ancestor fingering in the fundamental register.]

 Adjusting to the altitude, LB now steps up to G4. She always likes this note because the bore resonance sits at @394hz and she doesn’t need to hold up the pitch like she did on that funky F4. Now she’s curious about high G’s ancestor note. She realizes that by closing her half-hole she can get the 1st harmonic for this odd fingering to sound. It’s a resonance similar to B2 but then made a quarter-tone sharp by the addition of the low F key. Yep, another compromised 3rd harmonic, but one with less resistance and sitting high enough to feel comfortable. She’s grateful for these creative cross fingerings.

Looking at the first five rungs of the third ladder, LB comprehends they are all 3rd harmonic bore resonances and all acoustically compromised. Yet a HUGE amount of her life as an aspiring bassoonist will be focused on this tenor range. More than any previous notes on the first two ladders, LB realizes that controlling intonation and sonority for these tenor range 3rd harmonic notes requires constant attention to both embouchure and air.

The acoustical anomalies that creep into the upper half of the bassoon require gradual shifts in the dialogue between bassoon and reed.  Altering the compliance of a reed is a necessary precursor for the selection of the higher bore resonances, let alone playing them in tune.  Without some change in the behaviour of the reed – in size and stiffness – the addition of half-holes, open whisper keys, various extra tone hole openings and complicated fingerings are still not enough to allow for controlled sonority and workable intonation.

While increased air supply is a fundamental requirement for climbing the bassoon ladder, some amount embouchure damping – either a little or a lot depending on your approach to reed making – is a necessary support for all those hard-learned fingerings.

Next week, in  Chapter 14 – Reed My Lips – LB finishes her climb up to the Sacré and Ravel Concerto balcony.  We’ll get back to the Bears, MCA theory and begin to look at the behaviour of cane in reed membranes.

Standing Waves – ye olde quick discourse

Standing waves are a bit difficult to visualize without an animation; they are what happens when a wave moving forward bounces back from an open end as a reflective wave, which then interacts with the energy of the following forward moving wave.  This creates constructive and destructive interactions which lead to the reinforcement of positions where high pressure or low pressure dominate.


This image shows the standing wave positions for the harmonics on a string.  It’s essential to make the leap from these transverse waves to longitudinal waves.  Our recurring conga line image is a simple way to think of this.

The conga line will carry a pressure wave forward [incident wave] and backward [reflective wave] to and from the open tone hole.  When those back and forth waves start messing with each other you get areas in the line where the dancers’ motions are constructively amplified and other areas where their motions are restricted.  The ‘big motion’ areas are ‘antinodes’ and the ‘minimal motion’ areas are ‘nodes’.  Any given bore length will tend to set up a conga line where the nodes and antinodes are in predictable places due to the interaction of the back and forth waves.  Because those nodal [not much motion] and anti-nodal [lots of motion] dancers each tend to congregate in their respective stationary positions, we use the term ‘standing wave’ to describe their choreography.

A bassoon bore conga line with the minimum number [1] of ‘antinodes’ and ‘nodes’ will create the 1st harmonic for that length tube. Remember, in the conga line metaphor the dancers represent zillions of air molecules pushing and pulling at each other.

The standing wave behaviour in the first 20 notes brings a lot of energy to the 1st harmonic, but there are other standing waves – harmonics -that want to occupy the dance floor at the same time. The bassoon bore has ‘resonances’ – frequencies that it really likes – all vying for the participation of the molecular conga line dancers. These resonances are closely related as they represent standing waves with progressively increasing numbers of nodes and antinodes. Any of the 20 fundamental bassoon pitches will contain overlapping and coinciding resonance frequencies. They are organized in fairly logical and discrete ways.

By the way, I will address in future chapters a very interesting quirk of the bassoon in its fundamental range. Towards the bottom end, we often measure a fairly weak 1st harmonic, despite the fact that we hear it very clearly. This a psychoacoustic effect where our auditory processing combines the input of 2nd and 3rd harmonics to create the perception of a strong fundamental resonance. This becomes an important conversation when discussing control of sonority, nuance and pitch perception in several critical musical applications.


Read more about Christopher Millard. Chapter 1 – The Craftsman Chapter 2 – Can you explain how a bassoon reed works? Chapter 3 – Surf’s up! Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint Chapter 5 – The Big :Picture Chapter 6 – We’ll huff and we’ll puff… Chapter 7 – Look Both Ways Chapter 8 – Dialogue Chapter 9 – The Big Bounce Chapter 10 – The Incredible Shrinking Bassoonist Chapter 11 – A Useful Equation  Chapter 12 – Goldilocks’ Dilemma Doodles etc by Nadina

conga line, standing wave


Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 2 Can you explain how a bassoon reed works?

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 2 Can you explain how a bassoon reed works?

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making

Chapter 2 – Can you explain how a bassoon reed works?

by Christopher Millard

explain bassoon reed

Chapter 2 

Can you explain how a bassoon reed works?” 

 This is the first question I ask of a student reed maker. It’s an incredibly difficult question, as it implies some knowledge of acoustical physics.  Have you noticed how few music schools offer acoustical physics as required courses? The answer to this question reveals a whole lot about the student’s ability to visualize and verbalize.

The first response is always a look of consternation. After a few moments of helpless uncertainty  the tentative answer might include:

  • “It produces the sound, right?”
  • “It vibrates, but I’m not completely sure what that means.”
  • “Well, it makes a crow, so I guess the bassoon transforms that crow to produce the different frequencies and the quality of sound.”

From the very first day we hold a bassoon in our hands, we experience the reed as the primary connection between body and bassoon. We feel its vibration with our lips – it’s a very personal and interactive relationship.  We can even taste it!

As we try to master the basics of the instrument, we are painfully aware that reeds seem to determine response, intonation, articulation and sound quality – as well as our emotional state! We develop a largely subjective vocabulary about reeds:  resistant, unresponsive, hard, bright, dark, buzzy, muffled, tubby, flat, harsh, sharp or simply bad. Considering how much time we devote to reed making, it’s alarming how little we understand. Most remarkably, we can become quite expert at producing good reeds and still not understand them.

It’s logical to conclude that because the reed sits at the tip of the bocal [and is the source of so much grief] it must be the actual source of the sound itself. Bassoonists tend to think of their reeds as independent sound generators that are adjustable in all sorts of subtle ways to deliver either a beautiful or a horrible tone, good or bad intonation and flexible or inflexible response. We nurture a unidirectional view – where sound comes out of the reed into the bassoon – a one way flow of energy. The reed makes noise and the bassoon transforms this into tone and pitches.

Unfortunately, it’s not an accurate description. To find a better model, let’s consider sound production in other instruments.

The sound of a violin comes from the vibration of the string amplified and modified by the body.  Vibration occurs when the string is displaced from its resting position.  The energy of this motion is transferred to the violin body, which enriches the complex modes of the string’s vibration and excites the air molecules both inside and outside the violin.  This excitation occurs at specific frequencies, made sonorous by complex overtones.  The top and the bottom of the violin are actively vibrating, as is the air enclosed within the body.  These vibrations cause compression waves to move outward into the room and eventually engage our eardrums.

Nature gives a stretched violin string a natural tendency to move back and forth at frequencies dependent on tensile strength, elasticity and length.  The most basic motion of a string is a simple displacement from end to end.  Strings also exhibit more complicated modes of displacement; while the string moves back and forth in its whole length, it also experiences motions in smaller segments.  These modes always act in a very predictable way, with the string dividing into halves, thirds, quarters, etc.  Each of these vibrations happens at different frequencies, all of which are related in a simple mathematical ratio.  We call the extra vibrational modes that reach our ears – harmonics.   It’s an extraordinary fact of nature that the string vibrates in multiple modes of displacement simultaneously.  We’ll come back to this subject in future chapters.  For now, just remember that musical instruments produce very complex vibrations.

 The simple way to get a violin string to vibrate is to pluck it.  Pizzicato is a great musical tool, but because it involves a single act of energy input (one finger plucking), it can’t produce a sustained tone.  Guitars, with their very large bodies, extend the duration of their plucking significantly, but violinists need a better way of sustaining the sound.  By dragging stretched horsehairs across the string, the movement of the bow continually excites the natural frequencies of the string and we achieve a sustained tone.  It’s like thousands of pizzicato per second.

Violinists will pay a great deal of money for a good bow – and are meticulous about the condition and tension of the bow hairs – but I don’t imagine they ever think of the wood of the bow or even the horsehair itself as containing sound.  Rather, they understand a violin achieves a singing sound through the interaction of bow hair and string.  Notwithstanding the fact that well designed bows offer significant performance improvements, when a violinist says that “this bow sounds better”, she means “this bow produces a better sound” meaning “this bow gives me a more responsive interaction with the violin.”  Violinists implicitly understand that the basic tonal character comes from the violin; the bow is the means of supplying energy to those very expensive boxes.

Here is the big picture: the food that the violinist eats for breakfast is converted to stored potential energy in the body; the movement of the bow arm transfers this energy into the mechanical interaction of bow to violin, producing the acoustical energy we call tone.

Head to Chapter 3 to see how this translates into bassoon!


Violin and bassoon

If you want to learn more about Christopher Millard


Chapter 1 – The Craftsman

Chapter 2 – Can you explain how a bassoon reed works?

Chapter 3 – Surf’s up!

Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint

Chapter 5 – The Big :Picture

Chapter 6 – We’ll huff and we’ll puff…

Chapter 7 – Look Both Ways

Art by Hermann Armin von Kern

Doodles etc by Nadina

Épiphanie Chromatique par Mathieu Lussier

Épiphanie Chromatique par Mathieu Lussier

Épiphanie Chromatique

par Mathieu Lussier

C’est arrivé encore aujourd’hui. Ce n’est vraiment pas la première fois que ça arrive. Certainement pas la dernière. Ça fonctionne à tous les coups.

Pourtant…je ne suis pas croyant, je fonde mes convictions personnelles sur les avancées de la science et ce phénomène, je le reconnais, se rapproche très certainement plus des croyances  Jedi que des travaux d’Einstein….

Je joue du basson depuis 35 ans. Depuis maintenant environ 15 ans (touchons du bois), j’ai l’impression d’avoir trouvé une façon de faire mes anches relativement simple, constante et fiable, me permettant de ne pas constamment vivre dans une paranoïa à l’approche d’un concert ou d’un enregistrement.

C’est donc arrivé aujourd’hui. Après avoir échoué dans le grattage consécutif de deux anches j’ai appliqué le traitement choc : changer la couleur du fil d’anche utilisé!

Après une longue et merveilleuse séquence, mon magnifique fil bleuté a dû céder (temporairement je l’espère) la place à ma bobine de fil blanc.

Ça se manifeste comme une voix intérieure, un fort appel, une conviction. C’était la chose à faire et, encore une fois, cela a fonctionné.

Est-ce que le fil blanc fonctionne toujours ? non, évidemment. Il m’est arrivé le contraire, de passer du blanc au bleu, du rouge au blanc, du rouge au bleu, en passant par le noir, le vert, le rose, le jaune…

Certaines couleurs, magnifiques, ne fonctionnent simplement jamais. Pourquoi? Difficile à dire…Certaines couleurs, comme le rouge, font généralement consensus. D’autres, comme le vert, polarisent…Pourquoi? Impossible à discuter ouvertement sans risquer l’internement.

C’est un phénomène qui me fascine. La seule conviction « paranormale » que j’assume complètement, si on laisse de côté ma fascination pour la famille royale britannique.

J’ai cependant la certitude que je ne suis pas seul à croire aux pouvoirs des différentes couleurs du fil de nos anches. Étant grand fan de la saga Star Wars, tel qu’évoqué plus haut,  je me console en me disant que ce phénomène me rapproche un peu des pouvoirs des disciplines de Yoda.

Si j’ai longuement hésité à formuler cette conviction ouvertement, craignant pour ma réputation, cette dernière aurait certainement souffert à plusieurs reprises tant sont nombreux les souvenirs d’impasses terriblement angoissantes à la veille de concerts importants ou d’enregistrements de disques lors desquelles un changement de couleur de fil a tout changé.

Oscar Wilde a dit : « Les folies sont les seules choses qu’on ne regrette jamais ». C’est donc sans regret et sans honte que j’assume ce brin de folie en espérant que cette conviction, mais surtout ce pouvoir magique, ne s’estompe jamais d’ici la fin de ma carrière.

fil blanc, white thread, anche de bassoon


En savoir plus de Mathieu Lussier

“Reed” more about Mathieu Lussier

Musings from the Reed Museum by Adam Romey

Musings from the Reed Museum by Adam Romey

Musings from the Reed Museum

By Adam Romey

Mathieu Lussier’s recent and insightful blog post about reeds, “IL EST GRAND LE MYSTÈRE,” describes three main categories of the relationship that bassoonists have with reed making. Roughly translated, the first group knew what they were getting into, the second did not but discovered a fascinating new world, and the third who did not know and were tempted to flee once they realized what they had gotten themselves into but remained committed to the study of the bassoon. I fall somewhere between the first two types in that I thought I knew what I was getting into but generally became more interested the more I learned.

Bassoon Reeds,. famous bassoonists' reeds

The Reed Museum, est. 2008

As a part of this process, I began intentionally collecting the reeds of teachers, friends, and many others not long after I started university which has grown into what I consider to be a sort of small museum. This collection now includes 62 reeds or blanks from 39 unique sources from the United States, Canada, and Europe (mostly Germany and the Netherlands). Most of the contributors are professional bassoonists I studied or interacted with, along with a smattering of students, friends, and commercial makers. There are reeds from orchestral musicians (sometimes from different members of the section of a single orchestra), chamber musicians, freelancers, professors, and soloists. Of the more commonly used American styles, there are representations from the pedagogical philosophies of Norman Herzberg/Benjamin Kamins, Bernard Garfield, and K. David van Hoesen, to name a few, as well as former students of those teachers who went in other directions. Well-known soloists and recording artists Nadina Mackie Jackson and Bram van Sambeek have multiple entries to their name. There are distinct reeds from inspiring past and present bassoonists belonging to groups including  the Baltimore Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the National Symphony (Washington D.C), the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Albany Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Las Vegas Philharmonic, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, in no particular order.


Through numerous moves and many affectionate handlings, some reeds are in better condition than others, but all provide opportunities for learning and observation. 

Reeds of five American principal bassoonists

 When I began to study reed-making as a teenager, I was initially very excited about what I viewed as an aspect of taking responsibility for a musician’s identity and individual needs that was unique to the double reed instruments. Upon reflection, it seems natural that an extension of this mindset was my deep curiosity about the reeds made by other people. I firmly believe that being exposed to all shapes and sizes (in this case quite literally) of ideas and approaches provides a wide range of useful information. Exploring the gamut of what different set-ups feel, sound, and look like can awaken the imagination to new possibilities of artistry, comfort, ease, and efficiency; one can also discover that the choices one makes are an appropriate fit for current demands and store the experience for future situations. I will be kind to my younger self and simply say that I was forward at times in my quest to learn, and that at this point in my life I follow different rules of etiquette when around new players.


To the less experienced reed-makers, I offer some ideas to consider during their studies from years of observing other people’s reeds and making my own. To the more experienced reed-makers, perhaps these could be of use or create opportunities for discussion and debate!

1. Wonderful artistry through the bassoon comes in many forms, and the basic styles of reeds used in the process are equally as varied. Big reeds, small reeds, and everything in between can be heard in inspiring performances by bassoonists. This could be taken as an invitation to experiment freely, as there are reeds large and small, short and long, and everything in between heard in inspiring performances by bassoonists. However, another takeaway is that reed styles of experienced players all have a truth to them which serves their artistic personality,professional demands, and playing style. To those studying reed-making, it can be an invaluable part of the learning process to understand what this means in the context of the teacher. As you build foundations of tone, phrasing, and fundamentals with your mentor, an approach to reed-making that is integrated with these elements will provide a ‘true North’ for future experimentation and development.

Reeds of Brian Pollard, former principal bassoonist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1954-1996

Reeds of Nadina Mackie Jackson, including an early freehand reed (#49)

2. No two pieces of cane are identical, so no two reeds ever look exactly alike. “This isn’t a great example of what I do” is far and away the most common remark from experienced reed-makers when they have agreed to share an old or dysfunctional reed with me. One lesson from this is that reeds rarely, if ever, look identical to one another, even from the same experienced individual. Although this reed is not part of the museum, one of my favorite memories where this became blindingly clear was at my first professional audition. The player in the warm-up room after me sounded absolutely fabulous. We spoke later and he graciously allowed me to look at his reed, which I expected to follow certain attributes from his current teacher: no cracks, no side-slipping, fairly narrow. Instead, I saw a reed a little wider than I presumed, with a huge crack down the back of one side and a substantial side slip. He told me it was a freak piece of cane that wanted to be a good reed. After he won the audition on this reed, and multiple subsequent auditions over the next few years on the same reed, I threw preconceptions of what a great reed had to look like out the window. It is worth noting that this player is an extremely diligent reed-maker, so this “ugly duckling” was really that extraordinary.

3. Everyone has distinct details in their reed-making that they are attached to that others may disagree with (or perhaps not even notice!). Some reed-makers clip off the corners of their reeds, while others feel strongly about leaving them. Some reed makers want their wires slightly loose so they do not choke the cane, while others prefer tight wires even if there is a little indentation. Some reed-makers side-slip to the right, or to the left, or not at all. Through hours of practice and countless performances involving many different reeds, experienced players have come to conclusions about how their reeds can best support their artistry. Other players may have come to entirely different conclusions! I separate this idea from the point about general styles because often these details are outside of the principles and philosophies that define an approach, which creates a gentler space for experimentation and variation that could possibly exist outside the integrated context. Put another way, details like tightness of the wires (or even the approach to installing and tightening wires, as I have found) that make a significant difference to some but not all players can have a noticeable effect without entirely abandoning a given reed style. Additionally, there are other opportunities for learning when aspects like these are monitored for consistency.

Second bassoon reeds

In summary, reed-making and adjusting is a journey in tandem with many bassoonists’ musical lives. Perhaps this is best illustrated by a fond memory when talking with a seasoned orchestral bassoonist I admired. It was early in my reed-making studies, and I told him that I was just beginning to learn. His response: “So am I.”

Adam Romey

Bassoonist Adam Romey is currently the Education and Community Engagement Coordinator for the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Il est grand le mystère

Il est grand le mystère

Philip Morehead - Council of Canadian Bassoonists

Il est grand le mystère

par Mathieu Lussier

Je pense qu’on peut facilement distinguer trois grandes catégories de bassonistes en observant la relation qu’ils et elles entretiennent avec la fabrication d’anches.

1-Ceux et celles qui savaient dans quoi ils et elles s’embarquaient.

2- Ceux et celles qui ne savaient pas mais qui ont découvert un monde fascinant.

3- Ceux et celles qui ne savaient pas, qui ont eu la tentation de fuir lorsqu’ils et elles ont appris, mais qui ont tout de même persévéré dans l’apprentissage du basson.

 J’appartiens sans aucun doute à la troisième catégorie. Ma «Reed Room » n’a jamais connu d’expansion territoriale au-delà de la boîte à biscuit en métal qui séjourne en permanence sur mon comptoir de cuisine. Les gens qui vivent avec moi doivent accepter ce fait sans discuter, mais sans devoir craindre l’agrandissement du territoire consacré à une des rares activités de motricité fine que je sache pratiquer. J’aime donc penser que je fais partie d’une sous-catégorie de la 3e catégorie: ceux et celles qui acceptent peut-être leur destin mais qui sont absolument déterminés à minimiser TOUTES les conséquences de ce choix dans leur vie quotidienne. Il faut que ce soit simple, rapide, efficace.

 Ma mère étant psychanalyste, je comprends sans peine qu’il me faut probablement remonter à mon « enfance » de bassoniste afin de comprendre la nature particulière de mon lien avec les anches. Si ma première professeure de basson, la merveilleuse et regrettée Andrée Lehoux, m’a inculqué avec rigueur et calme les rudiments de la fabrication et de la taille des anches, le passage entre mes trois années de conservatoire avec l’autonomiste Rodolfo Masella (nous étions très libres de nos choix) et ma dernière année avec son successeur, Gérald Corey, fut spectaculaire. Non pas spectaculaire  du point de vue des résultats personnels, mais plutôt par la découverte de mon abyssale ignorance du vaste monde de la fabrication des anches. Dans cet univers, Gérald Corey, homme d’une grande bonté, d’un grand savoir et d’une immense générosité dans le partage des ressources et des connaissances était, je le compris rapidement, l’apôtre d’un maître absolu des anches en Amérique du Nord, Louis Skinner.

Pour moi, dont le monde des anches se résumait à une petite trousse à outils (2 mandrins, un alésoir, une lime et un couteau), l’arrivée de Monsieur Corey à mon cours de basson avec ce qui semblait à mes yeux la plus grosse valise jamais conçue pour le voyage, entièrement remplie par des outils d’anches, a pris des allures d’épiphanie angoissante, me faisant instantanément mesurer ce qu’il me restait à apprendre. Knochenhauer, Mechler étaient des noms qui revenaient souvent, entremêlés d’histoires de Louis Skinner et d’une variété de modèles qui me semblait infinie. J’étais plein de bonne volonté mais nullement prêt à recevoir cette avalanche de savoir et donc plutôt enclin à m’inspirer de l’autruche, ce sympathique oiseau, et de m’enfouir la tête dans le sable.

 C’est une nouvelle rencontre, déterminante pour l’ensemble de ma pratique du basson, qui me fera sortir la tête du sable et finalement trouver un modèle d’anche qui me convient et qui n’a que très peu changé depuis 1995. Lors de mon deuxième été au Centre d’arts d’Orford, aujourd’hui Orford Musique, Christopher Millard a non seulement pris le temps de me reconstruire comme bassoniste, mais il m’a également expliqué avec un rare talent de vulgarisateur les principes de base des théories de Louis Skinner. Au fil des ans, il avait non seulement parfaitement assimilé l’ensemble de la chose,  mais il arrivait aussi à transformer en principes accessibles à un esprit peu curieux de cette étrange science comme le mien des concepts que j’associais davantage à la science quantique qu’à la fabrication d’anches. 

Anche plus courte, plus large, grattage probablement assez peu orthodoxe car peu symétrique, mes anches sont encore fortement inspirées de celles que Chris m’a montré à faire il y a 25 ans.

Un questionnement demeure cependant: bien que je sois heureux avec ce modèle, que j’aie l’impression que mes anches me permettent de faire ce que je souhaite au basson, que ce modèle s’adapte facilement à la taille des anches baroques ou classiques que je dois régulièrement faire, pourquoi personne d’autre que moi n’arrive à jouer mes anches?

 En réalité, une seule personne a réussi à jouer une de mes anches avec aisance. Elle avait 11 ans et était plus petite que son basson…Oserai-je dire que j’appartiens en fait à une sous-catégorie de la sous-catégorie précédemment mentionnée de la 3e catégorie: Ceux et celles qui, d’une certaine façon, renoncent à tout comprendre?

 Il est grand le mystère….



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