As many of you know, I am currently teaching the Woodwind Techniques course at the University of Minnesota. I've been using three books as references for my students:
Woodwind Methods by Charles West
Teaching Woodwinds by William Dietz
Guide to Teaching Woodwinds by Frederick Westphal
They are each very similar in general, including a large portion of the book for each woodwind, but some of the chapters go more in detail than others. What caught my eye right away was the section entitled "Choosing a Student" at the end of each chapter.
Before we get started, let me tell you a story. When I taught private lessons at middle and high schools in Indiana, my strategy was simple: go to the schools in person, play some fun bassoon music for the kids, and explain a little bit about what makes it a great instrument! The first school I went to was a middle school with good instruments available, but no students able to play them. The kids were so excited to be there. They were all looking at my bassoon and talking to their friends showing off their knowledge. To my surprise, the class started not only with an introduction of myself by the band director, but he also added in a pretty important sounding speech about how he was going to determine who could actually try the instrument. His requirements included a great grade in band and their other classes, and a determined and disciplined student. Then he used the classic phrase we all dread: "because the bassoon is a hard instrument."
We all know what happens when we tell kids something is hard: they automatically have trouble with it. I wished immediately that he had just let me go first; now that he made the bassoon sound so daunting, some of the kids probably wouldn't even pay attention to me since they were out of the running for switching. (I got lucky-- 4 students ended up taking lessons!)
As I read through the "student aptitude" sections of the West, Dietz, and Westphal, I expected to be appalled and upset about the discouraging text, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. The sections entitled "choosing a student" or "student aptitudes and qualifications" sounded so painfully negative based on the student's mental capacity or physical capability. I was happy to find the information provided was more about practical limitations with the goal of the student contributing to the success of the band program instead of giving up after the first year or less.
Dietz and Westphal mention the drive and discipline of the student, because the fingerings are more complicated than any other woodwind, but they countered with how you should switch a student from another instrument because they would grasp the concept more quickly, already having knowledge of the basic woodwind fingering system. They also mention body and hand size, which from a practical viewpoint sounds correct -- the bassoon has mostly finger holes instead of keys, and small fingers might not cover the holes all the way -- but then the authors countered this setback with a suggestion to start the student on a smaller woodwind with the goal of eventually playing bassoon. (This particularly struck a chord with me, as my thumbs are proportionally 3/4 the length of most, and I also had a student with extremely small hands excel on the Bassoon) I realized quickly that the problem with my band director in Indiana wasn't what he was taught, it was how he interpreted it.
When I stepped up to start my presentation for the kids, I immediately tried to clear the air by letting them know the bassoon is a challenge, but that anyone who is even the least bit interested should at least try it. The fingering system is extremely similar to the other woodwinds, and the embouchure is much simpler. My main argument became: Why do we take away the right of a student to try an instrument they are interested in based on their grade or physical size? Maybe they hate their instrument, so they never practice. Maybe they have hit a wall with learning because they just aren't getting the embouchure right, so they are discouraged. If given a new opportunity, this might all change!
About a year ago, you may have seen a video of a Starbucks Barista with Autism who, with some encouragement and training, is capable of making drinks by dancing and making a rhythm out of the movements. This is an inspiring story of someone who overcame their limitations in everyday life to excel at something they enjoyed-- because someone took a chance on them and dedicated their time to helping them. For me, it's the same with music. Sometimes students need a change of pace and a great mentor to reach their full potential, and I believe learning the bassoon is definitely one of those types of changes.
Of course, I might be a bit biased on all these issues because I am a bassoonist. I started on flute in a very well-off school district where music came very naturally to me. Upon entering high school, I was first chair out of 30 flute players in a group of 90 band musicians. I can't remember if my band director ever set any standards for switching to bassoon, but his main selling point was: scholarships! Eager to get out of an overcrowded section, I asked to try the bassoon, and there was no looking back.
The whole concept of what band directors pass on to their students about any instrument inspired me to start doing some research to improve that important first impression students get. My goal now is to help band directors with limited knowledge of the bassoon and/or without access to a bassoon teacher understand how to effectively teach bassoon without creating this elusive bubble around it that no student wants to pop.
My hope is that every dusty unused bassoon in a school gets some fresh air, and that band directors will one day treat the instrument as an equal in the woodwind family, instead of being tentative or afraid of not knowing enough about it to teach it in band, if this is the case.
I continue to discuss the "student aptitudes" debate with my Woodwind Tech students as they learn each instrument, and I'm constantly surprised how they react positively and share their own experiences. This just gives me a great amount of hope for the future of the bassoon to grow and flourish -- with their help, of course!
Ariel Detwiler is an active freelancer and teacher in the Twin Cities. Ariel has a DMA in Bassoon Performance with an emphasis on music education, and actively works with band directors in Minnesota and Iowa to create a positive image surrounding the bassoon.