Learning to play the Bassoon – 20 Questions for Anselma Veit

(25.11.2022)

Anselma Veit |

Homepage: https://anselmamusic.com/en/


Anselma Veit first studied concert violin, and later trained as a piano teacher. However, her heart has belonged to the bassoon since she was just eight years old. She only began playing the bassoon at the age of 20 and scored her first major audition four years later. A lot has happened since then: she often performs in important concert halls, she teaches bassoon at the Vienna Music School, and founded her own music publishing house Anselma Music. ...

The bassoon is the clown among instruments. And what would life be without humour? When looking at the tonal spectrum, the bassoon is the most similar to the human voice. I like the warmth in the sound, there's so much soul in it.


REQUIREMENTS


What is the perfect starting age?

That depends on what kind of person the teacher is. Some love to work with little ones, but it takes a bit of patience, which not everyone has. Personally, I think EVERY age is ideal, because the bassoon is such a great and versatile instrument!

Today, there are different sizes of bassoon for different starting ages, which instrument makers have developed with love and skill from their existing Renaissance predecessors.

I myself have always liked starting with children from the age of four on the octave bassoon. This bassoon is tiny and has the reach of an alto flute. From the age of five, children can begin with a quint bassoon, from around the age of nine children can play the standard large bassoon.

But even starting at 80 is a great idea! When the bassoon gods tickle you, that's the perfect starting age.

Do I have to learn to read sheet music?

I guess so. But this is not a must, it’s something damn cool! You learn a real secret code that not everyone can read! In good instrumental methods for children, the music is printed in a larger size so that it is easier to read.

If you have trouble learning to read music, I recommend my rhythmic method for all instruments in addition to my regular bassoon method. In this way, we have also conquered difficult cases of learning to read music – so to speak! (laughs)

Are there any instruments that are played in the same way?

The oboe is most similar to the bassoon. Both are blown with a double reed blade, simply called 'reed' for short. A reed blade is made from a special type of reed, also known as 'cane'. The botanical name for it is arundo donax. This is planed thin like a leaf.

The oboe is the high-pitched instrument, the bassoon the low-pitched instrument. Accordingly, the oboe is small and also has a small, narrow reed, the bassoon is elegantly sized and the reed is longer and wider.

Personally, I’ve had a few dreams where I was playing the oboe. Since the body seemed so scarily narrow and small to me, I was afraid of my next entry. I was wondering how to get a sound out!? After waking up, I smiled at what a bassoonist's nightmares look like (laughs)

Which physical traits are advantageous for learning the bassoon?

When it comes to the bassoon, you should like to eat spinach and be strong like Popeye! (laughs) – Ok, that was a joke! You don't need any special physical qualities.

A charming smile would be an advantage though. Even if all the baby teeth have just fallen out at the front! Since we roll in the lips, it also works well without front teeth.

How do you know if you are ready for the instrument?

If you love it! The size of the chosen bassoon fits if you can play a 'low E' with your thumb and forefinger. If the fingers do not yet reach around the bassoon, a smaller bassoon would be more suitable, e.g. a quint bassoon.

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FINANCES


How much does an instrument cost?

A lot! I tell my students and their parents: the bassoon is the most expensive woodwind instrument there is, so there are no surprises later.

And not only does the instrument cost a lot, but the reeds and sheet music also need to be paid for, since using copies is 'stealing'.

The new price for an octave bassoon is around €3,000, and for a full-size bassoon around €5,000. Second-hand instruments are cheaper… and there is always room towards the top of the scale, it’s always possible to find more expensive models.

The best thing to do at the beginning is to find a good loan option from a private teacher, school, music society or music store. Once you're certain you want to stick with the bassoon, I recommend getting your own instrument if possible. The bond and motivation is much greater when you have your own instrument.

Are there any additional costs?

Mouthpieces and reeds wear. I don't want to say that a hard-working player needs new ones faster than a lazy one, because that sounds as if playing the bassoon diligently empties the piggy bank.

So pssst, don't tell anyone that's true! But making music makes you happy!

How involved is the up-keep?

After a few weeks or months - depending on how much you play (psssst!) - the bassoon reeds make their way towards the happy hunting grounds.

The bassoon itself is very easy to take care of, it is wiped clean and dry after each use and then the case is left open to the air.

My teacher from the Vienna Philharmonic plays a bassoon from the 1930s, and it still plays great today.

How is the instrument transported?

Preferably in a bassoon backpack or gig bag. If you buy a bassoon in a heavy case, you can acquire this as a reasonably priced extra.

The "bassoon carrying mom" is ideal for small players, or you can convert a shopping cart to pull the bassoon along. The first option is usually preferred by young musicians…


Sheet Music for Beginners:


PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT


Can you teach yourself the bassoon?

Probably yes. However, the outcome of this experiment is uncertain. It would be a bit like the chemistry lab at school. You never know when it will explode, or whether everything will be black afterwards!?

Personally, I don't know anyone who plays well and has attempted this adventure. But who knows, maybe there is someone out there?

How do you choose suitable exercise material?

What makes you happy helps move you forward the fastest.

The exercise material is suitable if the increase in difficulty suits your own learning pace. The greatest joy in learning comes when the learner is challenged, but the teacher does not ‘pull the proverbial blade of grass so that it grows faster’.

As I began teaching, I noticed that my students often progressed slower than the textbooks suggested – And also than I expected as a professional musician... (laughs)

Out of necessity, I wrote more pieces myself for the various appropriate levels. I quickly noticed that the students learn much better in the long term and play much better if they are not rushed.

I presented these books to the public and saw that many teachers had made the same observation as I had: learning slow and steady is better than brisk and with your tongue-out.

If a student is not motivated, then I would start right there. In most cases, the current exercise material is too demanding and the teacher is 'pulling on the blade of grass to make it grow', so to speak. A feeling of being overwhelmed quickly turns into listlessness.

But this listlessness is easy to remedy: you reach for lighter exercise material!

If I'm not sure what's right, I let the young bassoon star choose for themself. We play similar pieces in class and I ask which of them I should assign as homework. The children like to be cooperative. It is important however that the teacher proposes a limited choice. In this way, the children get good guidance, but also have an active say in the decision-making process.

How to practise without disturbing others?

By trying to be the nicest neighbour ever. This has a surprisingly good effect on the acoustic conditions in the house.

Every year on New Year’s Day, we give new 'earmuffs' in the form of large champagne bottles plus confectionery (without strychnine!!) to our neighbours. They seem to be working fine, because if, for once, we’re not practising, the neighbours will ask us on the stairs if we're sick and if everything's okay!?

Which different playing techniques are there?

I wrote a piece for back-to-front bassoon. For a teenage duo who rarely practise. (laughs)

Furthermore, we can create sounds like aliens, I like to call them 'scratch sounds' because they sound a bit like noise in the Milky Way. There are mentions of 'multiphonics' in serious bassoon literature, taking regular fingerings and screwing them up - I mean... redesigning them on purpose. (laughs)

Kids love it when we experiment with these unorthodox playing techniques and build them into pieces. In the right measure and well introduced, creative redesigns of the regular playing style are a colourful complement. There is so much you can do with the bassoon, e.g. 'look through the tube' by removing the upper bell in the middle of the piece (in Austria we call this hood because it resembles a chef's hat) and using it as a telescope.

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When can you expect your first success?

Even after the very first lesson, we finish each session with a little "recital". In order for performance to become normal and natural, I agree with the students that we will play a 'concert' at the end of EVERY lesson for the parents when they come to pick them up.

For four-year-olds, for example, we would play a very long elephant note - or a line with just Cs. It is important that I announce: "Now we will play a little concert." We present our 'song', then there is applause and the child bows together with me.

I'm not afraid to let even very young students perform publicly after only two months of lessons. Of course, appropriate preparation and a suitable setting are required so that the child knows exactly what to do and how to behave correctly under the circumstances. Playing together is essential, if you go on stage with your teacher, everything is immediately a lot less scary.

With this in mind, I wrote super-easy prelude pieces that only require three or four notes. There are also appropriate duos in my Fagottino method (Mini bassoon method) and in the wonderful book Hand in Hand durch’s Fagott-Land (Hand in Hand through the Bassoon Land) by my colleague Gilbert Hirtz.


AND THEN...


What are popular pieces for the first performance?

“For Elise”. (laughs) – Ok, that was a joke!

There are few well-known hits for the bassoon, but there are many pretty little pieces if you look around. For very small players there is the Flohkonzert (Flea Concerto), for which you only need 3-4 notes, a number from the Tiger Tönen (Tiger Tones) is also suitable if you want to play with piano accompaniment.

There are beautiful, easy duets by Gilbert Hirtz, which are great fun for beginners and are ideal for performances. e.g. Hand in Hand durch’s Fagott-Land.

For older beginners who already are more mature or have some previous knowledge, or if the first performance date is only scheduled for after a few months or a year, e.g. Klabauterjazz.

The pretty pieces by Colombe Arnulf-Kempcke, Pour mon premier concert (For my First Concert), have a slightly romantic touch, or, for very quick learners, something from the Baroque and Classical for Bassoon Minis collection.

The first solo work with orchestra, i.e. the easiest bassoon concerto I know, is my Concertino, aka „Grummel-Konzert“ (The Grumpy Concerto). This was commissioned by the City of Vienna for string orchestra and a bassoon soloist whose age was in the single digits.

What are the classics and what is your favourite piece?

When I was studying there were many trombone pieces that were borrowed by the bassoon. I actually felt a bit haunted by them…

Because I found hardly any suitable literature for my own students, I began to write pieces myself and to collect beautiful original works. To my astonishment, some of these have actually become classics.

For example, I wrote some Tango-Etüdes as a tribute to Astor Piazzolla. This was an attempt to combine the bassoon with tango sounds. The demand for these pieces was surprisingly high! So some time later I wrote a second volume, so there are now 50 tango études, which are considered classics in some bassoon circles.

There are so many great pieces. I rate interesting solo pieces that I practise myslef, e.g. the works of Mathieu Lussier, Marin Marais or Georg Philipp Telemann.

I am currently practising Jean Françaix's Concerto. A work that has been played far too little, and is full of wit and virtuosity.



Mathieu Lussier – Cinq Caprices

Jean Françaix – Concerto

Classical works in the bassoon repertoire include the grandfather in Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, although it requires a large orchestra and fairly dexterous fingers to perform.

Through the film The Man with the Bassoon, our lesser-known instrument gained more public attention. At least visually. (laughs)

Remarkably, there are 37 bassoon concertos by Antonio Vivaldi in the repertoire. After the more than 700 violin concertos, these form the second largest group of solo concertos he penned. It is rumoured that the "prete rosso" had his eye on a pretty bassoonist from the Venetian Conservatory…

Which piece makes you really want to play the recorder?

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How can you make music together with others?

We are everywhere! Originally, the bassoon was firmly anchored in the orchestra and, together with tame chamber music, was a purely classical matter. Today we are also in bands, musical games and tango combos. It's a bit like concrete: "It depends what the person makes of it!" (laughs)

What is the function of the bassoon in ensembles?

I think the bassoon gives the music a nice depth - literally and figuratively. Precisely because the tone is so wonderfully warm and velvety. No matter what formation. But that's definitely a personal view...

Are there clichés about the instrument and its players?

Bassoon players are usually very nice and relaxed people. I remember how at the Vienna Music School, the orchestra leader of the children's and youth wind orchestra regularly complained that the bassoons were a bit too chatty…

I have the impression that there are a disproportionate number of humorous, funny and creative minds among bassoonists. The players are probably as colourful and magical as the timbres of our instrument.

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