Blues in the Key of B (for the Bassoon)


Versatile instruments,
Bassoons may sound like a cello played by an angel
One minute and an eight-hundred-pound cat
Looking for canaries the next.
(They have been compared to potato guns, bongs,
And farting bedposts. No lie.
I heard a work for four bassoons
And the only thing I could think
Was, I wonder what they had for lunch.
Must have been good.
I know I should have been concentrating on the music,
But I couldn’t help it. It was just so funny
And all I could do not to laugh.)
They’re devilishly hard to play
Four feet five inches tall,
But don’t be deceived:
Under that finish as black as
An undertaker’s suit
Lies double trouble.
Bassoon hold within their depths
A sound tube extending from the bell
Down to the boot (or butt) which
Folds over on itself to reach toward
The bocal, the wing joint, and finally, the reed.
Shiny chrome keys cling to the dusky barrel
The whole length of the diabolical assembly,
Tempting young musicians to come and play,
Promising easy play, popularity and fame
All of which are unlikely for most players.
They must be quick, especially with their thumbs
If they are to play well. And to play superbly they must
Cover some tone holes partially, some fully,
And they may find their fingers simply can’t move that fast
And they have to play the saxophone.
There’s no shame in that: it’s just a matter of physiology, neurology,
Persistence, and possession of the instrument by some evil force.
Not everyone can fight that.
Some can, of course, and practice long hours and endure all sorts of deprivations,
Headaches and stiff fingers and making reeds.
Reeds are the bane of every woodwind player’s existence.
Players may buy reeds, but most prefer to make their own from cane.
One extraordinary bassoonist I know
Uses Glotin cane that she orders from Maryland.
She says, “Double reeds are a PAIN!”
She puts them in her mouth so that they don’t dry out,
These temperamental babies who are like babies.
If the water is too hot, the reeds open up and won’t play.
If it’s too cold, they close up and won’t play.
They don’t like (in no particular order)
Humidity, dryness, changes in location
And they sometimes won’t play
For no reason at all.
That’s why she carries several reeds in various stages.
As if playing the instrument wasn’t hard enough
Bassoonists have to maintain their reeds
On the fly.
It’s remarkable that any of them can
Play at all.
But they do
And, in the right hands
It’s beautiful.
Just beautiful.

Dan Verner
March 11, 2016


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2 responses to “Blues in the Key of B (for the Bassoon)

  1. Diana Van Broekhoven

    This does my heart good…so many memories! As I read this, though, it struck me that maybe my arthritic thumbs today are a result of all that bassoon playing. If so, I have to recheck my memory to think whether it was worth the present pain and stiffness. Diana

    • Thank you so much, Diana. I wondered how the poem would go over with bassoon players. I’m so pleased you liked it. And your arthritic thumbs are a good example of suffering for one’s art. I’m sorry you have to deal with that and wish you relief from pain as you remember those days you played.

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