Playing high notes on the bassoon can be a challenge. The fingerings are often more complicated than in the lower registers and it takes some practice to make the tone sound good. Students often struggle with high notes sounding wobbly, scratchy, or generally unfocused and out of tune. Watch the video below or keep reading to learn my best advice for improving your high notes!
Air Support (01:59)
Air support is the most important element to playing wind instruments well. Without solid air support, you won’t be able to make a good sound on the bassoon at all. For high notes in particular, you need to use higher air support than you would in the middle and low registers of the bassoon. To understand what using high air support feels like, hold your hand up to your face so that you can blow air at it. To start, blow really slow, warm air on your hand and take note of how your abs feel doing this. This is what lower air support feels like. Now, try blowing really fast, cold air on your hand and feel the difference in your abs. You have to tighten up more to be able to force more air out. This is what higher air support feels like. This is similar to how it should feel to play high notes. While you will generally feel a little bit more pressure and tension to play high notes, you should never feel pain or feel like you’re going to pass out. If you feel uncomfortable, there’s something wrong. You might be trying to blow too hard or there might be something in your equipment (such as a poor quality reed) that is forcing you to work too hard. Figuring out the right amount of air support for your high notes is crucial to playing them well, but it’s not the only factor. You also need to consider the voicing of your oral cavity.
On the bassoon, voicing refers to the shape and space of your oral cavity. If you’ve ever sung before, you might be familiar with what voicing means. When vocalists sing in their lowest register, they typically call that their “chest voice.” When they sing in a high register, they may refer to it as their “head voice.” These terms are just referring to where the vocalist should be feeling the vibration of their voice in their body in certain registers so that they can sing the notes accordingly. This is a similar idea on the bassoon, except we aren’t necessarily thinking about “chest voice” or “head voice.” It’s helpful to think about voicing as vowel shapes. Say the vowels out loud, “A, E, I, O, U.” Notice how the shape of your inner mouth/oral cavity is changing with each vowel? These are different voicings on the bassoon. Pick a note and play it continuously, gradually changing your inner vowel shapes and notice how they change the sound. For example, an “E” voicing sounds quite different from an “I” voicing. An “E” shape makes the sound brighter or more intense and often simultaneously pushes the pitch a bit sharp, while an “I” does the opposite and sort of swallows or dampens the sound a bit, possibly making it a bit flat as well.
For high notes, we typically want to use an “O” voicing. The “O” vowel puts our oral cavity in the best position to play the notes in tune and with a good sound. This shape forces us to have a taller mouth and throat opening, which helps to accommodate the higher air support needed to play high notes. It also helps us keep the pitch in tune, as the tendency for high notes is to be sharp, and more space in the oral cavity will help lower the pitch.
With good air support and voicing in place, you are about 90% of the way to making your high notes sound good. The last 10% of change you need to make is in your embouchure.
In case you’re not familiar with what the word “embouchure” means, it simply refers to the way in which your lips fit around the reed in order to help control the sound. In general, your embouchure only acts as a seal to close around the reed and puts very little pressure on it. For high notes, you may need to tighten this pressure a bit in order for the higher notes to be more stable, but only after you’ve adjusted your air support and voicing. One of the most common mistakes that students make when trying to play high notes is that they will use too much embouchure pressure and use that as their go-to to make the notes work. This is not only incorrect, it is inefficient. If you’re constantly squeezing your lips to make your high notes speak, you will become fatigued very quickly and soon lose all control over your embouchure. Practice using higher air support and the “O” voicing first and then tighten the embouchure slightly when those other two factors are in place.
More Tips (06:47)
The three areas I mentioned above, air support, voicing, and embouchure, are where you should focus your attention, but there are some other things you can do to speed up your learning process. The first tip I have for you is to record yourself often. Use your phone or any other device and record yourself playing high notes, then listen back and see what things you can improve. The second tip I have for you is to listen to professional bassoonists play in the high range so that you know what good high notes should sound like. When your recordings of yourself start to sound a little bit closer to those professionals, then you’ll know that you’re doing something right. When something sounds good, memorize how it felt to play it physically. What did you do with your air support, voicing, and embouchure to make the note sound that way? Becoming aware of how it feels to play high notes physically will help build muscle memory so that you’ll begin to feel comfortable in that register!
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