Monday, January 23, 2017

When it Comes to Bocals, Length Matters!

Since the middle of 2015 I've been working relatively frequently on a Grenser bassoon. This instrument, to the uninitiated, is likely the most common instrument in use today to perform music from about the 1770s to the 1830s. While there are copies out there of other instruments from the same time period, the original Saxon instruments stamped Grenser or Grenser/Wiesner which survive exist in large numbers and consistently display good craftsmanship. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that the bassoons from Grenser's workshop were used widely by the early 19th century leaving no doubt that the instrument's popularity today is warranted.

Unfortunately, while many originals exist in fine condition they suffer from the same symptoms which have marred the instrument copying process of older bassoons: only very few survive with an original bocal. In fact, I know of only one Grenser/Wiesner instrument which does: that of my former teacher, Donna Agrell. Donna's instrument came to her not only with two original bocals, but with six original reeds! Although I could write more about it here, she has recently completed her Ph.D thesis which contains a detailed description of the instrument as well as its first owner, so I highly encourage those who are interested in learning more to seek it out.

On numerous occasions I have heard the comment that the reeds 'in Basel' are very small - yet Donna's reeds (and mine!) are comparable in size to those originals which accompanied her instrument. Why so small? In a direct visual comparison between her bocal and a few common ones on the market, one element is very clear - it is longer. Sometimes much longer! It is quite an experience to try a number of bocals designed by makers today and compare them against the original.

While there are other elements to the construction of these original bocals which have an important effect on the instrument's playability, the length of the bocal has a crucial effect on its function. In order to maintain the pitch of A=430hz, the reed must adjust in size to compensate for the added length. With a shorter bocal, a larger the reed is necessary to keep the pitch down. Lengthening the reed, however, makes accessing the instrument's highest register (which we know could reach up to the top Eb on the modern Heckel instrument) becomes ever more difficult. With the original bocal and a reed within the parameters of those which accompanied Donna's instrument, a Grenser copy can easily play to its full potential.

Luckily, since 2014 Vincenzo Onida, an instrument-maker in Milano, has been producing bocals faithful to those in Donna's collection. I was lucky enough to get one from the first batch which he made that year and I've been very pleased with the results. Though it took some time to fashion a model reed which paired well with it, the results I'm getting are really impressive. Just the other day I was playing through a Milde concert study (much too late for a Grenser instrument) and was in awe at the capabilities of my classical bassoon with the right setup.

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