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Having its big fat say

June 5, 2010

I would like to take this opportunity to put in a good word for the bassoon.

Bassoons get a bad rap in the music world. First, they are comically sized.

But in contrast to their amusingly phallic appearance, they tend to sound mournful. Here are some very sad monkeys accompanied by a bassoon solo (orig. from Sesame Street).

Bassoons are awkward to play, because of their size, and hard to keep in tune. The instrument’s name appears to be derived from a mythical ancestor. Who’s ever heard of an oon? If there’s a bass oon, shouldn’t there be a tenoroon? A sopranoon? An altoon? No, Altoona, PA doesn’t count.

And need I even mention the problems young bassoonists face from the instrument’s common listing in orchestral scores?

Bassoons are challenging double reed instruments without the glamour of an oboe, who in exchange for the requisite double reed jokes (Q: Why is a bassoon better than an oboe? A: It burns longer.) gets at least one solo every concert in order to tune the whole orchestra. Bassoonists sit in the back of the ensemble where even their doting parents can’t see them. Jobs are comparatively hard to come by because orchestras only need a couple and there’s not generally a lot of call for bassoons at weddings and bar mitzvahs. In fact, the bassoon is considered such a solitary instrument that when people would walk into the office of my former boss, a bassoonist turned conductor, they would laugh out loud at the picture on her wall of 100+ bassoonists at a bassoon camp. “I didn’t know that many people played bassoon in the world,” they would say as if on cue. Poor bassoons.

Most of the bassoonists of my acquaintance are smart, earnest and more than a bit nerdy (which I happen to think is an excellent quality), but they also have a sense of humor. I think you have to. Especially if you compound your troubles by combining forces into a bassoon quartet. I’ve come across several hilarious bassoon quartet performances recently, so it’s time to celebrate the humble bassoon.

Here the Oberlin bassoon quartet plays an arrangement of music from Super Mario Brothers.

Here a bassoon quartet from the University of Wisconsin plays Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody:

And did you know Lady Gaga has been cloned and plays the bassoon? Here is the stellar bassoon quartet known as “The Breaking Winds” performing Lady Gaga Saga. In costume. With choreography.

Now, doesn’t this make you want to go and take up bassoon lessons? But before you do, I suggest you weigh your decision carefully. You can do so with the help of bassoon evangelists, The Bassoon Brothers, who, among other things, point out that the bassoon’s resemblance to this object:

can come in handy.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth permalink
    June 5, 2010 11:51 am

    You totally caught my attention with the line about oboist who “gets at least one solo every concert in order to tune the whole orchestra.” You are right, I always had at least one solo every concert 🙂

    But I never ever wanted to play bassoon–too big, the reeds were an even bigger pain to make than oboe reeds and The Breaking Winds notwithstanding, playing that thing standing up has got to be a real chore.

    Great post 🙂

  2. June 5, 2010 1:45 pm

    It’s all true. I think a bassoon played well is the most haunting of instruments. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring comes to mind immediately.

  3. June 5, 2010 3:20 pm

    but they are the “clown of the orchestra.” I love it that the bassoonist is almost always on the ball to sound a low note or two when someone trips or the conductor drops his music.

  4. June 7, 2010 12:42 pm

    A good friend of the family, a professional musician who plays every single woodwind there is, calls his bassoon “the farting bedpost”.

    I actually took bassoon lessons in high school – just for the experience of playing something low with a reed. (I was really a flute player).

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