A guide for parents of bassoon students
by Chip Owen with Larry Festa
The purchase of a bassoon is a significant investment. Several questions need to be asked and answered before the optimum choice of instruments can be made. These questions include:
• Do you really need to buy a bassoon?
• What does a student need?
• Can the school provide a bassoon that will serve the needs of the student?
• What about renting a bassoon?
• What about used instruments?
• How much money are we talking about?
• What's the difference between plastic and wood instruments?
• What do you need to know about the different keys the instruments have?
• Which Fox/Renard models are best suited for the needs of the student?
Buying a bassoon for a student
Bassoons are not cheap. Before purchasing a bassoon you should carefully examine if it is really necessary to buy one. Bassoons are usually provided by schools. If your school can provide a satisfactory instrument you should take advantage of it and use it. The most common reason to consider buying a bassoon is because the school's instrument is unsatisfactory. Exceptionally talented students will often benefit by possessing their own instruments.
A Student's Needs
A young player is often not developed enough to know the difference between their own problems and the problems of the instrument. A proper student instrument must help the student rather than block the student's development. A bad instrument may discourage the student. Getting more of an instrument than the student can make use of can be like providing a race car for a driver's education vehicle.
Not all school instrumental music programs can afford to buy and maintain first class instruments and bassoons are rarely at the top of a school's priorities. It is not uncommon to encounter school instruments that are old, abused, neglected, badly maintained, in desparate need of repair, or otherwise unsatisfactory. Be glad if an instrument in good condition is provided. If the instrument is in bad condition get professional advice as to whether the instrument is worth the effort and expense of being repaired. Consider spending your own money to get it properly repaired. School budgets may not allow for getting all of its problems fixed or having it worked on by a repair technician who is actually qualified to work on bassoons.
While renting band instruments from music dealers is normal for most instruments, it is very rare to find a dealer that will rent a bassoon. The cost of a bassoon is usually too high for the economics of renting to work.
Bassoons typically have a long life. A carefully selected used bassoon can be a good option. Be sure to get professional assistance in evaluating the condition and performance of any used bassoon that you consider purchasing. (See “Buying a Used Bassoon.”)
Bassoon Price Tags
A new bassoon can have a list price ranging from under $5000 to over $20,000. Many popular models are discounted by dealers and a bit of shopping around can be worth the effort. Used instruments can cost from about $2000 to as much as a new instrument. Be wary about cheaper instruments.While bargains certainly exist it does take an expert to separate them from the lemons.
Wood vs. Plastic
Excellent instruments can be made of plastic. Its tolerance of abuse and neglect make it ideal for young players in a school environment. Wood instruments are generally preferred for private ownership. This is, to some extent, due to a perception that plastic is somehow inferior. Either material can be used to make a good bassoon. (For more information, see “Virtues & Vices of Plastic Bassoons.”)
Which Fox or Renard models are good choices?
Here are a few suggestions from the Fox catalog:
• The Fox model IV bassoon is an excellent value. This polypropylene body instrument comes with a full set of keywork, including a high D key, and a ring key, as well as professional bocals. In addition, a full range of optional keywork is available on this Fox model.
• The Renard model 222 is the lowest priced wood bassoon made by Fox. It is normally equipped with a plateau key. An optional high D key is recommended. Since the late 1990s all 222s have been silver plated, improving their appearance markedly.
• The Renard Artist models 220 and 240 are leaders among intermediate or "semiprofessional" models. Mechanically, both of these models are identical and include extra features such as high D & E keys, whisper key lock, and extra rollers. The difference between them is in their acoustic design. Either model will serve well but some private bassoon teachers may prefer one or the other. These models are the ideal privately owned student bassoon and can serve the players needs well past the high school years.
• Professional models, such as Fox models 601, 201 and II, should wait until the student has demonstrated development and maturity. In general, a professional model is not needed until the student is in a music degree program or is committed to attending one. It is important that the students private instructor participate in the selection of the model and what, if any, optional keywork should be considered.
It is always recommended that the advice of the student's private bassoon teacher be obtained in selecting a bassoon.
There are more keywork variations among bassoons than among any other woodwind instruments.
A description of "Heckel System" or "German System" doesn't really say much. The following are just a few details of keys and other hardware that affect student bassoons.
• Keep it simple. Avoid excess keywork. Too much keywork just gets confusing.
• Plateau keys vs. Ring keys: The third finger hole for the left hand normally has a ring key surrounding the hole. For players with small hands this may be replaced with a plateau key which reduces the stretch needed to cover the hole. Many student bassoons come equipped with a plateau key because beginning students typically have small hands. Some bassoon teachers dislike plateau keys because the don't feel like their familiar ring key and because they consider them a "student" key. Older students with large enough hands will prefer the ring key while players with small hands will benefit from the plateau key.
• High D Key: This key is strongly recommended. This "extra" key of a few decades ago has evolved into a basic part of a complete bassoon and should no longer be considered extra. Most bassoons today include the high D key. Some basic models marketed primarily for schools may not include it. Be sure that the high C and the high D keys are mounted on separate hinges.
• High E Key: This key has become a basic part of professional model bassoons but is not needed for student use.
• Rollers: All modern bassoons include two roller keys for each of the little fingers. Some models may include additional thumb rollers. Adding rollers are not always to the benefit of the player. In addition to being noisy, rollers often require the player's finger to move further than would be required without the roller, thus negating any benefit that the roller may provide.
• Whisper Key Lock: A basic student instrument does not need a whisper key lock. They are nice additions to an intermediate model and are always a part of a professional model. Whisper key locks come in several variations. Some types of locks are easily added to any existing instrument.
• Body Lock: A body lock holds parts of the instrument together that might otherwise move about. This are necessary for plastic bassoons. They are desirable for student models. They are optional for professional models.
• B(flat) Guard: This is a desirable and low cost option that is often left off student models. It protects certain vulnerable keys from inadvertent interference from the players clothing. A B(flat) guard can be easily added to any bassoon that does not already have one.