Have you noticed lately that when you try to play with a tuner that you’re often sharp? Do you struggle with playing notes in tune on the bassoon? A common misconception is that you can adjust the position of the bocal to affect the pitch (similar to how other woodwind instruments adjust pitch), but this actually isn’t possible! The whisper key pad has to line up with the tiny hole on the bocal so that you get proper response. Watch the video below or keep reading to find out why you might be sharp and some strategies for fixing your intonation!
The most common reason for playing sharp on the bassoon is that you are biting or pinching the reed. It is really important to maintain as relaxed an embouchure as possible to play in tune. If you’d like to learn my 3-step process for creating a better bassoon embouchure, click here.
If you think it might be your embouchure that is making you sharp, try using a mirror while you play and look for common bad habits or mistakes. The most important thing you need to check for is that the corners of your lips are pulled inwards (rather than being flat across/horizontal). You can think about creating a “whistling face” to help get your lips in the correct position. The majority of the pressure should come from the corners of your lips, not from the top or bottom. Your lower lip should act as a cushion for the reed and your upper lip will simply act as a cover for the top, not adding any additional pressure from above.
Tongue Position (02:12)
Tongue position is another factor that can affect pitch on the bassoon. If your embouchure is in the correct position, then try adjusting your tongue position to see if it helps with the intonation. Generally speaking, raising the tongue will raise the pitch and lowering the tongue will lower the pitch. To practice this, try the following exercise:
Pick a comfortable note in the middle register of the bassoon and play it. Make sure you’re watching a tuner, and while you’re holding the note, raise your tongue slowly in your mouth. The pitch should go sharp. Then try slowly lowering your tongue and watch the pitch go flatter. You should be able to adjust the pitch significantly with this technique, possibly even 20-30 cents in either direction depending on the note.
So, next time you’re playing sharp, try lowering the tongue slightly to bring the note in tune and see if that helps. Your tongue should never be in an extreme or uncomfortable position, but you can use it as a tool to adjust pitch quickly.
Adjusting Reeds (03:20)
A common, and often frustrating, reason why you might play sharp on the bassoon is because of the reed, especially if you aren’t making your own reeds. Reeds will play sharp for a number of reasons, but there are a few things you can do to combat the pitch level without too much effort. All you need is 400 or 600 grit sandpaper (fairly inexpensive at most hardware stores). When you are adjusting reeds, you want to make sure they have been soaked in water so that you avoid cracking the cane. Here are a couple ways you can easily adjust your reeds with sandpaper to help lower the pitch:
Sanding the tip:
Place the sandpaper on a flat, level surface with the coarse side facing up. Take your reed in your hand, brace one end of the tip with your index finger, and place the tip of the opposite blade at a 45 degree angle on the sandpaper. Pull the reed back a few inches along the sandpaper, maintaining that 45 degree angle the entire time. Lift the reed up and do the same thing a couple more times. Then, flip the reed over and do the exact thing to the other blade so that the tip is sanded the same amount. This adjustment removes a slight amount of cane from the very tip, or the leading edge, of the reed so that it becomes more responsive and ideally a touch flatter.
Sanding the back 1/3 of the reed:
A common place where there is too much cane left on the reed is in the back of the blades, closest to the collar and the tube of the reed. You can remove some of this cane with sandpaper as well, as long as you’re careful and gentle. You don’t want to touch the middle of either of the blades because that is the spine and you generally don’t need to remove cane from this area. However, you can remove cane on either side of the spine, also known as the channels of the reed, in the back 1/3 of the blade. Hold the reed with one hand and the sandpaper with the other hand. Support the reed from the opposite side that you are sanding while you gently remove sandpaper from the back of the blade on either side of the spine.
I highly recommend watching the video above to see how these adjustments are done before you attempt them yourself. Remember that whatever you adjust on one side/blade of the reed, you must do the same thing on the other side so that it remains balanced.
Additional Tips (05:30)
If you’ve tried all the above tips and are still playing sharp generally, you may not be playing on reeds that are right for you. Whenever possible, try to purchase reeds that are handmade by a real bassoonist. If you’re already buying high quality, handmade reeds, you might need to experiment with playing on reeds that have a slightly longer blade, which will help you play flatter. You’ll want to check what the length of your blade is (you can measure from the collar to the tip with a ruler), and try to find out the length of any new reeds you are purchasing. You might even be able to customize the length! You can purchase my handmade reeds on this website and request custom blade lengths if you’d like.
Always play with a tuner! Whenever you’re practicing, have a tuner or a tuner app open on your phone to check your pitch. You shouldn’t be adjusting pitch based on what you see only, but memorizing what it feels and sounds like to play in tune.
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