News and Guides

Playing the bassoon and the cost of living: Part 2

July 22nd, 2022

Playing the bassoon and the cost of living: Part 2

Playing the bassoon and the cost of living: Part 2

Playing the bassoon and the cost of living: Part 2

This is the second in a series of three articles on how bassoonists can combat the “cost of living crisis”.

The first covered immediate and short-term steps bassoonists can take to reduce expenditure without impacting on progress. This article looks at the largest medium-term expenditure which bassoonists have – the cost of servicing and maintenance.

As we all know, bassoons need to be looked after in order to keep them at peak playing performance and so they won’t let you down at a critical moment. A bassoon which is not playing well will also hamper your ability to make progress and can end up putting you off playing.

What is not so commonly recognised is that a bassoon does not usually begin to play poorly overnight: it happens gradually over months and years, often with the owner barely noticing. Owners frequently become used to a bassoon’s slowly worsening deficiencies, and adapt as best they can rather than addressing it.

Because of this, we find that a large percentage of people who bring their bassoons to us for a service remark afterwards that the service has transformed their bassoons and they are now a joy to play. The flipside to this is that they were previously struggling unnecessarily with a bassoon which was holding them back – not because there was anything wrong with the bassoon as such, just that it hadn’t been maintained or serviced.

It really is worth addressing because, after all, the point of playing a bassoon is to bring joy and fulfilment to the owner and to others who hear their playing, so struggling with a poorly-playing instrument is counter-productive and can be demotivating. 

So, how can you maintain the playing capability of your bassoon without spending too much?

There are lots of things you can do to look after your bassoon and save money. From our experience of servicing many hundreds of bassoons, here is a distillation of the main dos and don’ts required to keep your bassoon in optimum condition, to reduce the amount of work which will be required when it is serviced, and to help preserve its re-sale value when the time comes to sell it.

The Don’ts

First the don’ts (we have seen all of these; some frequently, others less so): 

  1. Be careful when assembling and disassembling the bassoon. If the joints are too stiff, apply cork grease to cork tenons. If you have cotton tenons, you could try taking some cotton off yourself, or take it to your local or trusted repair person to adjust the amount of thread for an easier fit. Tenons which are too tight can cause keys to bend when twisting the joints, and tenon damage or breakage
  1. Don’t twist the joints too far when assembling and disassembling the bassoon. Small twists only are required, to stop the crook/whisper key mechanism getting bent, and keys and posts on the long joint hitting the wing joint
  1. Don’t put the bassoon joints back in the case so that joints can knock or scrape against metalwork on adjacent joints (we see this on probably 80% of bassoons with traditional cases) 
  1. Don’t pick up a bassoon by the bell joint - sooner or later you will be left holding the bell joint with the rest of the bassoon on the floor. If the bell joint is too loose, ask your repairer to put a new cork or new cotton on to fix it
  1. Don’t panic if the bell joint becomes stuck on the long joint. Using the “clock hands” method you should be able to free the joints.

The clock hands method:

Ensuring you don’t use too much force, place the long and bell joints over your knee with the join in the middle (call this 12 o’clock), and gently push down (don’t twist, just push) with a hand on each joint, then turn the bassoon to 1 o’clock and gently push down again. Keep going until you’ve turned the bassoon to every hour on the clock. This will break the seal and the joints should now easily twist free. If it doesn’t happen with the first go, continue around the hours of the clock and keep trying.

This method almost always works. If it doesn’t, bring your bassoon to us to help. We can heat the join gently to melt the caked on cork grease or wax and free the joint safely

  1. Don’t lie the bassoon flat on your lap during a bars’ rest at orchestra. It will allow water to run into the G# tone hole and wooden side of the bore, and over time it will start to rot
  1. Don’t forget to swab your bassoon after playing, again to avoid wood rot
  1. Don’t use a push-through mop to clean your bassoon bore after playing. Mops leave fluff in the bore, which can get into pad seats and cause problems. The pointed end of mops can also damage the soft metal of the U-bend, and sometimes even makes a hole in it. Pull-through swabs are much better, and the Hodge swabs we sell are easy to get around the U-bend because the chain is much more effective than a traditional weight
  1. Don’t use the locking pin when the bassoon is in its case; the chances are one day you will forget to undo it and rip the mechanism from the bassoon’s body.
  1. Don’t forget to clip and/or zip the two halves of the case securely together and then pick up the case.
  1. Don’t oil the bore with the keys on, as oil can get into the pads and ruin them. It is best to ask us to do it when you have your bassoon serviced
  1. Don’t forget to insure your bassoon. Accidents do happen occasionally and insurance doesn’t generally cost that much

The final two don’t affect servicing costs (if you no longer have the bassoon, servicing costs are moot), but are worth mentioning because they do happen:

  1. Don’t put your bassoon down next to your car in a public car park and then drive off without it
  1. Don’t leave your bassoon behind when you get off public transport 

The Dos

Second, the dos:

  1. Do swab the boot and wing joints out after playing the bassoon every time. And preferably leave it out to dry out more thoroughly rather than putting it back in the case and closing the case up. Moisture is the big enemy of wood, and bassoons are susceptible to damaged bores and tone holes if they are left unswabbed and damp regularly.
  1. Do apply cork grease to the tenon corks regularly (but not to stringed tenons) to make the joints easier to take apart.
  1. Do clean the keywork regularly to stop it from tarnishing (but don’t use liquid metal cleaner as you don’t want to get it on the pads). Once a week should be adequate. If left for a long time it becomes increasingly expensive to bring a bassoon’s metalwork back to a shiny finish.
  1. Do clean the body of the bassoon with a soft cloth to remove dirt and fingerprints. This is especially important if the bassoon has any areas of cracked or worn-through varnish, as dirt becomes ingrained in the wood and is close to impossible to remove later. Once a month is enough for a bassoon with intact varnish, and once a week or more for a bassoon with missing areas of varnish.
  1. Do check the bassoon over once a month by closely examining the moving parts to check that there are no loose screws, bent or damaged keywork or anything else amiss. If you do this regularly you will be better able to spot anything awry in and when you have a problem.
  1. At the same time it is a good idea to check that the plating on the touch pieces remains intact. Plating is there to protect the softer metal underneath and so worn-through plating can, in time, result in wear to the key underneath. Although not urgent if you do spot signs of wear, it is worth getting attended to at the bassoon’s annual service.
  1. Do carry out a quick pressure test once a month to ensure that the bassoon isn’t leaking air. Do this by taking one joint at a time, covering all the toneholes, putting your hand over one end of the bore and blowing into the other end. Very minor leaks aren’t anything to worry about, but bigger leaks will increasingly affect how the bassoon plays – the low notes particularly will become difficult to get out and more generally you will have to work harder to play.
  1. Do learn how to carry out simple emergency maintenance tasks yourself such as putting a dislodged spring back in place, removing the odd key in order to clean a dirty pad, and so on. Your teacher should be able to show you how to tackle common, simple things. 
  1. For those of you who play the bassoon a lot it would be useful to learn how to remove and replace the keys, so that you can grease the mechanisms and also oil the bore. For intensive players, greasing the mechanisms every six months and taking the opportunity to oil the bore while the keys are off is a good idea. Grease reduces wear and so reduces the work required when the bassoon is serviced. For less intensive players both these tasks can be left for the annual service if you would prefer not to do this.
  1. Do have your bassoon serviced regularly. Once a year is adequate for the average player, every six months for professionals and every two years for infrequent players. If you carry out all of the previous nine dos (and avoid all the don’ts) the service will cost a lot less than it would otherwise.

When it is time for a service then make a note of things you have spotted and/or noticed about how the bassoon plays because this is often a starting point for deciding what, if anything, needs doing over and above a standard interim service.

Of course, if you notice that your bassoon is no longer playing as it was then please get in touch with us straightaway. We will do our best to diagnose the problem remotely and give guidance on fixing it. If this is not possible you can bring or send it to us for solving.

Typical problems which will arise from time to time on any bassoon include the odd cork, felt, pad or spring being damaged or becoming detached; a screw loosening; and toneholes become blocked or partially blocked. A reasonable proportion of these can be solved remotely with some guidance.

The benefits of simple maintenance on a daily, weekly and monthly basis, combined with annual servicing are: first, it keeps your bassoon in optimum condition so you can make the most of your playing and continue to make good progress; second, it saves you money in the medium and longer term; and third, it helps preserve the value of your bassoon.

Servicing: how much to pay, how does it work?

Bassoons are by far the most complicated of woodwind instruments and, owing to their rarity, few woodwind repairers have much, if any, real experience in servicing them. We decided many years ago to focus just on bassoons and we don’t repair anything else.

Because of this focus we have built up an immense amount of experience in repairing and servicing bassoons, and also have several members of our team who play to a high standard as well. We understand what is needed to make a bassoon reach its optimum and how to achieve it.

Depending on how much you play and how diligent you are in looking after your bassoon you should expect to pay between £150 (for conscientious, infrequent players) and £500 (for professionals) per year keeping your bassoon in top condition. This is less than many of us spend on reeds or lessons.

A neglected bassoon, though, if played regularly and not serviced (or even if just kept under the bed for years) could cost £1,000, £5,000 or even more to bring back to perfect condition.

When it is time for an annual service we always examine your bassoon thoroughly and provide a written, itemised estimate for you to approve before starting work. We will pay special attention to anything you raise with us and, if you have a tight budget, we are happy to prioritise the important parts of the service and leave other aspects until a later date.

While it is here we are also happy to carry out any work you would like beyond servicing. Additional keywork, adjusted keywork to fit your hands better, finger-hole liners, or touching up the varnish are typical of the services we carry out during an annual service.

We can normally carry out servicing pretty much straightaway, and will also do our best to fit the work into a gap in your playing schedule, especially if you give us a bit of notice.

If you are unable to bring your bassoon to us and have one of our boxes, we can arrange collection for a fee; if not, we can always send you a box and collect your bassoon in it.

In Summary

Very briefly, the takeaways from this article are:

  • carry out regular checks, cleaning and simple maintenance yourself;
  • get in touch with us as soon as you spot a problem rather than waiting for it to get worse; and
  • have your bassoon serviced regularly by a specialist 

The final article in our series will look at how to save money when the time comes to buy a(nother) bassoon.