A Guide to the Bassoon

Benjamin Coelho, bassoonist and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Iowa, provides an overview of the bassoon.

Benjamin Coelho, bassoonist and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Iowa, provides an overview of the bassoon.

Instrument Categories

Buying any musical instrument can be challenging. Perhaps buying a bassoon might be a bit more so due to the high cost and the many different options to consider. To put your mind at ease one must buy the instrument from a reputable store or dealer. At West Music you can be assured that their highly trained sales representatives can help you find a suitable instrument for you. There are many things to consider when looking to buy a new bassoon. Are you looking for a student or a professional model instrument? Is it going to be used only by you or are you buying it for a school? Do you have access to a good repair shop? What is your budget? Bassoons today are made of either wood (maple) or hard rubber (plastic). Bassoons are expensive instruments, that can cost anywhere from $3,000-$30,000. Professional models are usually hand made and student models are industrially made. Wooden instruments have a warmer and more flexible tone. However, they need more care and maintenance. They also needs periodic adjustments, since the instruments are made of maple, a softer wood, thus more susceptible to weather changes. Wooden bassoons are generally more expensive. If you are buying the bassoon for a school, I suggest the hard rubber bassoons because they are more durable and are a lot easier to maintain. When choosing a hard rubber instrument it is best that the bore (the inside) be hand finished. Molded hard rubber bassoons usually have more unevenness of intonation and sound.

Instrument Materials

Bassoons are usually made of some kind of maple wood (Mountain, Black, and Sugar maples to name a few). Student model instruments are also made of hard rubber or other synthetic materials like polypropylene. The keys on the good quality student and professional models are made out of nickel silver. This material is more durable and holds its adjustments even in the hands of young students. The nickel silver can be either silver or nickel plated. The plating of the keys does not influence the quality of the instrument. Silver plating, however, lasts longer than nickel plated keys.

Parts of the Instrument

The bassoon is divided into five parts: the Bell, Long Joint (or bass joint), Boot, Wing Joint (or tenor joint), and the Bocal. Usually new instruments come with two bocals in different lengths, number 1 and 2. This is to help with the overall pitch of the instrument. The #1 bocal is shorter and therefore it plays sharper than #2.

Bell Long Joint Wing Joint Boot Joint Bocal
Bassoon Bell Bassoon Long Joint Bassoon Wing Joint Bassoon Boot Joint Bassoon Bocal

Other Important Features

There could be anywhere from 18 (student model) to 25 (professional) keys on the bassoon. Historically there were several different sized bassoons, as in the saxophone family. Today however, only two members of the bassoon family are commonly used; the tenor bassoon and the contrabassoon, which plays one octave lower than the bassoon. For the younger and smaller player, manufacturers developed the so-called "short reach" bassoons. These instruments have a plateau key (see photo) on the third finger in the left hand, instead of a finger hole with a ring. The plateau key makes the distance smaller between the second and third fingers on the left hand.

Short Reach Key Ring Key
Bassoon Short Reach Key Bassoon Ring Key

About the Author

Benjamin CoelhoBenjamin Coelho, Associate Professor of Bassoon, has been at The University of Iowa since 1998. He has appeared as soloist, chamber musician, orchestral musician, teacher and clinician in several countries including his native Brazil, the United States, Argentina, Bolivia, Portugal, France, Romania, Australia, Canada and Czech Republic. An enthusiastic proponent of new music, Mr. Coelho has commissioned, performed and recorded many works by European, American and Latin American composers. His recordings include: Explorations, New Transcriptions for Bassoon (2007), released by MSR Classics; Pas de Trois (2006) and Bravura Bassoon (2005) released by Crystal Records; and Bassoon Images from the Americas (2003), released by Albany Records. As a member of the group Wizards! A Double Reed Consort, Coelho has participated in the recording of two CDs released by Crystal and Boston records in 2000 and 2003 respectively. He has performed regularly at the International Double Reed Society and the Brazilian Oboe and Bassoon conferences. He has also worked extensively as a performer in his native country, Brazil, including principal positions in symphony orchestras in Rio de Janeiro, Campinas, and Belo Horizonte. Currently, he performs as principal bassoon with the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra and the Iowa Woodwind Quintet. Coelho has also served on faculty during the summers at Indiana University, International Music Festivals in Banff, Ameropa Chamber Music Festival in Prague, and most recently at the International Music Festival at Campos do Jordão in Brazil. Prior to his position at The University of Iowa, Mr. Coelho was the Vice-Dean and Bassoon Professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil. For more information, visit www.benjamincoelho.com