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Clean your bassoon: 5 pro methods you can do at home (with photos).

Bassoons accumulate dirt and finger oils. It’s a given, considering how much we play them, and where we go with them. The wood of your bassoon  is protected with one of a variety of products. Common finishes include (but are not limited to) shellac, varnish, lacquer, polyurethane, and mineral oil. For those who want to know more about these finishes, here’s a pretty good overview. Most of these can be cleaned easily, and we show you how in this post. 

An example of a glossy finish on the left and a matte finish on the right

Cleaning your own bassoon yields great benefits: saves you money, prolongs the life of your bassoon, keeps your bassoon functioning at its best, plus it’s easier than you think. Here are a few methods we recommend that you can do yourself.

If the finish on the bassoon is fully intact, and the finish is glossy or shiny (not light hand rubbed French polish) we do what Fox Products recommends – we use Lemon Pledge! Any variation of this product will do, of course.

A small spritz on a paper towel, and light rubbing/application will remove dirt and leave a beautiful shine (and reasonably nice odor). For the hard to get to parts, use a standard q-tip and take your time. It’s a slow process to get it right without leaving too much cleaner behind. Remove all traces of Pledge, as droplets left behind can become a dust attractant. You might consider doing this once every year or two or even sooner if you notice a significant buildup of dirt.

An example of a bassoon with a French Polish finish

If the finish is not shiny, it might have a “French polish” which uses an oil-based material and leaves a subtle matte finish. We recommend rubbing this kind of surface with a soft, clean cloth. That is usually ample. You can polish it now and then with a specialty wax or even with a tiny bit of furniture cream. Sticky marks can be removed with a small cloth soaked in warm, slightly soapy water and then fully wrung out.

A finish which shows crackling.

If the finish is crackled, there are unprotected wood areas, or it just seems delicate, we use a soft dry, cloth with little or no lint shedding. A paper towel can sometimes work well. If you get excessive amounts of wax, water or other substances on the raw wood, it won’t kill the bassoon, but it makes it harder for the repair tech to fix that area, and might raise the grain of the wood slightly, which could cause further damage around the edge of the exposed area. If there is exposed wood, we recommend bringing your bassoon to a repair technician before you apply any cleaning agent other than a dry cloth.

The area around the ring key shows finish loss.

Dirt from your fingers can leave built up yuckiness near the finger holes, especially on the wing joint. To clean this, first try a dry cloth and rub the buildup, trying not to spread the dirt around. If that doesn’t do the job, a slightly dampened q-tip can sometimes work. If none of these work, an old world solution is to touch a clean q-tip to your tongue (brush your teeth first) and use that slightly dampened q-tip to do the work. The pH value of saliva is slightly acidic, which varies between pH 5.75 and 7.05. It works very well in some situations.

Sometimes you’ll see key oil build up around the posts. Wherever metal rubs on metal, it may appear as dark colored oil in very minute amounts. The dark colored oil is an indication that the oil is doing its job floating away dirt and debris that builds up. Use a dry q-tip to wipe away the excess oil from the metalwork. You don’t have to leave the bassoon immaculate. Just remove enough so that you can’t easily reach more of it and relax. Take care not to rub the key oil into the wood as much as possible. It won’t hurt anything in the short term, but it does become an attractant for dust and dirt and can make cleaning the wood more time consuming. When you next get your bassoon worked on, ask the repair tech to clean the rods and posts and apply new oil. If you have sufficient experience, you can also clean and apply key oil yourself.

Use a Q-tip to get under and around areas you can’t reach with your fingers or a cloth.

If you care to share your experiences with us, we’re very interested in how this works out for you.

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When humidity is low, wood instruments shrink.

Oboes and bassoons are sensitive to the weather – especially changing humidity levels. We keep the average humidity at about 45% here in the shop year around. Two big humidifiers run 24/7 to achieve this. In New England in the winter, building interiors get dry. Even more so if you run a fireplace or use wood to heat your home. Without the humidifiers, we run at about 15%-20% humidity in the winter.

The metal ring on the bell of most oboes and some bassoons is a good way to test if your instrument is dry. If the ring moves (and it didn’t at some point in the past) then the wood has contracted and is dry. It’s telling you please humidiy me!

You can never humidify and be fine. You can over humidify and be fine. Players who live in a coastal community, or on a high desert are used to the effects of high and low humidity. For them though, the issue is not change, but consistent humidity issues. This article is focused on us players who experience changing levels of humidity and want to lessen the effect on our wooden instrument.

Cracks can occur due to low humidity. Double reed instruments vibrate better in moderate humidity. Keywork doesn’t change as the wood changes which sometimes causes problems.

 

 

 

 

 

1)I discovered this the hard way. In 1976 I was playing with an avant-garde ensemble in downtown Manhattan which used a basement space just off the Hudson river as rehearsal space. One night, after it had rained for a while, the place was so humid the walls were sweating and the floor was tacky with moisture. My 15 year old Loree (BI-37) was crack free until that night. I heard it crack. Sends shivers up your spine. The keywork was sticking like it was too tight. The wood had swelled, and the keywork was holding the expansion back. Crack.

2) I discovered this the hard way (again). I was performing with an orchestra on tour, and a few of the stops were in very dry locations. After a week on tour through desert, I heard that sound again. Crack. I had been blowing warm, humid air through a thoroughly dry instrument forcing the wood to change rapidly inside the bore, while the exterior stayed dry.

If you humidify the whole house (which is good for the people, too), then you’re ahead of the game. But if you travel to dry places like school, university, a pit orchestra, church, and other performance places, let my experience be a lesson.

Keeping your instrument evenly humidified is easier than ever. We offer a few items that will help out including humidity monitors which let you know the humidity level wherever you place them.  I keep one of these in my case at all times now.

A 3″ hygrometer like this will fit in your case.

With one of these in my case, I feel like I have the information that helps me know what’s going on. I started using these in my oboe and bassoon cases years ago, and have found they last and are very accurate. I checked the oboe one with a fancier home system, and found they had virtually the same readings whether I tested indoors, outdoors or in the case. 

Once you’re armed with information, you can take action. If you’re like most players, you’ll have low humidity in your case. I did some tests:

  • A piece of lemon peel in the case. That smelled nice for a day or two, but really didn’t seem to make a difference
  • A bit of sponge in a perforated plastic bag. That worked a bit too well the first day, and dried out in two days. I didn’t continue the test, but it seems logical that if I had left it in there, it would have started absorbing moisture, making the case even drier.
  • I put my instrument away fairly wet. I cleaned it lightly with a feather and there was plenty of moisture left. This did nothing for the humidity.
  • I did nothing and found that the case interior was even with the exterior humidity.

So, the old classics were a mixed lot at best. 

Now I use the Humistat case humidifier. I can adjust how much humidity it causes, and the thing doesn’t spill water inside the case. It lasts for about 2 weeks before I have to refill it. If I don’t refill it, it just sits there inert in the case and doesn’t hurt anything (or get moldy, or suck in moisture!) You can get one of these on our website.

If you have another method to recommend – I’m all ears! This is just the one that works for me.

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Should I Get A Different Bocal?

Each bocal has slightly different characteristics. Better? Worse? Unfortunately, there’s no specific way to know unless you actually try and see how the bocal fits with your particular bassoon, reed, and embouchure.  A dozen of the “same” Heckel CC2 bocals would all sound and behave slightly differently on your setup. 

If you’re having specific trouble in intonation or evenness of tone across the octaves, my first recommendation is to have the instrument adjusted, if you have not had that done that lately. Sometimes what seems like a bocal issue can be a slight leak or maladjustment.

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New Website?

Our website has been a very functional and popular site for double reed players. We built it almost 10 years ago and although it was updated frequently, it was time to create a full update.

Here it is! We hope you enjoy what we’ve created. Please let us know if you find any faults, and feel free to tell us how wonderful we are 😉

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A student asked: “why do my oboe reeds play flat?”

If the reeds are not super long, generally, this means more breath support is needed. An indelicate test for this is to play into a tuner, and squeeze the reed harder with your lips while you’re playing. If the pitch is uncertain or swoops upward, the reed is too easy for you, and your concentration of breath is not sufficient to make it work consistently.

A common misconception is that softer reeds means easier reeds. Actually, the softer (easier, less resistant) a reed, the more embouchure control and breath support are needed to produce a good, consistent and in-tune sound.

Always consider that the instrument may be having a problem, too. If all your reeds are flat, or weird, it’s probably not you, or the reeds. Get your instrument to a repair technician.

If you have an experienced teacher, they will be your best resource. If not, try asking around and see if you can find someone to work with you in person.

There’s a great book on this subject that can help out. The Breathing Book, by Stephen Caplan, is a guide we trust. 60 pages of detailed instructions, illustrations, explanations, and examples. It’s helped out many a flummoxed reed player.

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There’s a so much more to share on this topic – this little explanation barely scrapes the surface (hehe). I’ll write more sometime soon.

Have any questions? Let me know. I know a lot of stuff, and I’m eager to share.