The bassoon is a “double reed” instrument commonly played in orchestra. Alongside the oboe, the bassoon is one of two significant instruments representing the orchestra's double reed section. The clarinet is the only other reed instrument in orchestra, however, unlike the oboe or bassoon, the clarinet is a “single reed” instrument. As a bassoonist, I hope to demystify these terms and provide a brief background of how bassoon reeds are made and how exactly they work.
Bassoon reeds start life in nature as part of a plant! This plant is best grown in sunny, warm areas of the world including Australia, California, or countries in the Mediterranean. The plant is called Arundo donax or giant cane. It takes up to a year to fully grow, though the plant can grow up to four inches in a single day. Bassoonists can start the reed-making process as early as this stage by purchasing harvested plant tubes from suppliers across the world.
From tube cane, a bassoonist can create a reed. There are many complicated steps that make up this process, such as splitting, gouging, shaping, profiling, forming, scraping, and finishing. All of these steps are very important to create a well-made reed and any inaccuracies or mistakes can jeopardize the ability of a reed to work in an ideal manner. Even a very experienced reed maker and bassoonist can hope for a small number of finished reeds to be used in performances, even though countless hours can be spent trying to make and perfect a single reed.
Bassoon and oboe reeds are relatively similar as they are both “double reeds.” This means that two pieces of cane are made to work together as compared to clarinet reeds, where only one piece of cane is necessary – thus the title “single reed.” In general, double reeds are much more problematic and hard to perfect than single reeds. This is true to the point that practicing and playing the instrument is just as important as making reeds. One can truly only play as well as their best reed allows them to.
Although reed-making is difficult, one should not be discouraged to play bassoon just because of the aspect of making reeds. Finding a great reed is a very liberating experience, and allows for the instrument to essentially become an extension of a person’s voice and imagination.
“Arundo Donax.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Mar. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arundo_donax.