Bassoon and Bassoon Bocal Selection Procedures

If you've been here before, you might have seen this post discussing the various bassoon options that Midwest Musical Imports has available. You might have been looking to upgrade your bocal and found this information on Heckel bocals. But if you're buying for the first time, or upgrading to something new, you might not know for sure how to best make a selection from the choices you are given. Even if you have decided to try a Heckel CC1n bocal, or a Fox professional model bassoon, each bocal and instrument is a bit different and unique. So how do you choose? What process can you use to organize your thoughts and make a satisfactory choice that you know you'll be happy with for years go come? Here are my personal suggestions on methods for testing and selecting an instrument or a bocal to go with an instrument.

General pointers when testing a bassoon or bocal

  • Use an average or slightly better reed. Don’t test using your best reed. It is a good idea to have several reeds available, but use the same reed as much as possible to ensure consistency with your testing.
  • Play on your current bassoon/bocal setup first, so you know the reed works how you expect it to, and form a frame of reference for the sound of the room you are in. Room acoustics make a big difference!
  • Play musical material you are 100% comfortable with. You want to be able to focus on the feel and sound of the instrument you are playing, not fight with technique.
    • i.e. Don’t play the excerpt from Beethoven 4; play a reduced pattern that hits on the same point (very fast articulation in the tenor register) but that doesn’t require the finger technique.
    • i.e. Don’t play the Ravel Piano Concerto in G fast passage or the Marriage of Figaro excerpt (they’re not even good testing passages). Play chromatic scales in the standard range, or play sections of high register arpeggios listening for evenness and responsiveness.
    • Play the same material on each instrument or bocal. Be consistent with your testing procedure so you are evaluating the same features on each instrument.

For testing bassoons:

  • Make sure you are testing an instrument that is in good adjustment and repair. This should be the seller’s responsibility. Be very careful with “As-Is” instrument sales.
  • Check with a tuner frequently as you are playing.
  • Test for stability on typically problem notes: F, E, and C# in the staff.
  • Test for evenness of notes in the tenor register (top line A up through E)

For testing bocals:

  • First of all, determine what you wish to get out of a new bocal. What deficiencies does your current bocal have that you are trying to correct? What problems does your instrument have that the bocal can help solve?
  • Evaluate bocals in pairs as much as possible. If you find one bocal superior to another bocal, put the lesser bocal aside and don’t come back to it.
  • You can use many of the same tests for bocals as you do for bassoons. Use a Tuner!
  • Again, play simple music (or abstractions) you are 100% comfortable with.
  • Make sure the bocal responds and is in tune in the highest register at least well enough to play standard repertoire.
  • I often look for a bocal that has a nice and easy open sound in the tenor register.
  • Test extremes of dynamics, both slurred and articulated. Especially low register pianissimo.
  • Don’t get stuck on a single bocal “type” or even one feature you think you like. Even the length can be variable.

If you've narrowed it down but aren't totally sure yet:

  • It is a good idea for colleagues who play on different instruments than you currently do to play the things you are testing; we have a tendency to like what is similar to what we are currently using, so getting third-party input on how the instrument plays can be helpful in making a decision.
  • Be honest with yourself, and test the instruments in different situations if possible.
  • I find it especially good to play duets with a clarinet player rather than another bassoonist, as the clarinet has different tendencies for intonation and tone color, so you'll be forced to blend and adjust in a realistic way (and that's who you sit next to in the orchestra most of the time).

Ultimately, you are selecting for you, so you should be picking an instrument or bocal on the criteria that is important for you. You also should be selecting an instrument that is comfortable for you to play.

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