Making a Noise! Celia Craig’s perspective on the problem for double reeds

Wanting to build your double reed department? Read this first.

“Making A Noise..about the instruments that deserve to be heard…”

Geoff Coates, Music Teacher magazine UK Aug 2010

Celia new square

There are not enough people playing oboe and bassoon worldwide. Not enough people start at school and nearly all schools struggle to find double reed players for their orchestras. This causes a knock-on effect in the community, where amateur orchestras face the same problem, and into the profession, recently discussed at Conferences of Music Education Councils, Double Reed Societies in UK, US and China and more.

Many concerned Australian professionals replied to a series of questions I sent out, trying to formulate suggestions for a national strategy that the Australasian Double Reed Society, of which I was President until last year, could implement to help. The response I received was immediate, even heartfelt:

“I’m really pleased to see your suggestions. I agree very much you about the importance of this area…”

“In the public schools, there wouldn’t be a quarter of the number of these instruments being taught compared with when I left the public system in 1995… find a successful way of getting into the ears and minds of the media, institutions and families. We’re behind you all the way!”
“I was at the Oboe/BassoonBuzz workshop in ISME Beijing and was amazed at the quality of music making that this group is doing. I also have found that my oboe students have dropped off dramatically in the past 8 years or so…”

“This is an excellent and much needed initiative. We have a small number of double reed teachers ‘holding up the fort’ so to speak and doing a really fantastic job. However I agree that we need to have a big drive to encourage young musicians to take up these endangered species..”

So, what’s the problem really?

Most expensive to buy and maintain, oboes and bassoons are seen as difficult to play and teach. Schools instruments are often in bad condition, being delicate, often not the best possible choice of brand in the first place, and subject to the rigours of school life and multiple ownership. This quotation is printed in one of the standard reference books on double reeds available in most libraries, The Oboe and the Bassoon, Gunther Joppig :

“ …school instruments are frequently in a state of disrepair, often because authorities have thought it fit to buy the cheapest instruments on the market. Pupils and teachers then have to struggle..”[1]

More so than any other woodwind, double reed instruments are complicated pieces of machinery and can easily go wrong or be damaged, needing a properly trained professional technician (of which there are few) to maintain them.

“Access to the instruments really is the biggest issue; most bassoons I have found in the country are broken or have not been service for over 50 years, then finding someone local to restore it is even harder… but the cost normally is also prohibitive. So a $10,000 bassoon sits idle because the school does not have the $300 to pay for the repair!!” Justin Screen, Macquarie Regional Conservatorium, Dubbo, NSW

I and many other music teachers have personal experience of bassoons literally rotting in cupboards in schools, which no one really wants to play. This comes from a UK Artservice report 2005- the issues are exactly the same here in Australia:

“Pupils often felt that the instruments were cumbersome to carry, there was a stigma attached to them and, due to the small number of players, they could be quite isolating”


On top of that, lots of teachers agree that, more so than any other instruments, they really need parental supervision to practice (even just to assemble properly) and parents just don’t have the time any more! Many school music teachers are also unfamiliar with the instruments and they often don’t fit in with the activities schools might be trying. Many of the visiting specialist teachers do believe that bassoon and oboe can’t be taught before high school, although strings and other wind instruments can and are. Oboe and bassoon therefore are neglected as the gifted musicians are directed towards violin, flute, piano, trumpet, cello….People just don’t see our instruments or hear them, or know someone that plays them, so the filed of potential players is diminished. There used to be more opportunity for demonstrations, for in-school tuition, for loan instruments, now all gone in devastating budget cuts and the many of the experts who taught and promoted in this field are now working privately, or retired.


“Schools often have active string programs starting very young with wind programs starting later. The result is low numbers available to consider double reeds and low numbers of physically and musically suitable students. It would be good to be able to do something about this”. Anne Gilby


A number of schools and youth orchestras do try on their own to combat this situation in the teenage cohort, swapping players over from other instruments like flute and clarinet, where finger and lip habits have already been formed. But being a beginner amongst peers who have started earlier can be a problem.


“The problem as I see it is that young oboists tend to start much older than many other instruments which means that we have already lost the music kids to violin, cello etc.” Dr. Elle McPhee


However, here is another factor too, that as children get older their enthusiasm can diminish and so it is harder to get people to start something new at this age.


“Market research by Cooke and Morris (1996)… found that English children aged 5 and 6 were the most enthusiastic for expressing a desire to learn (an instrument). Almost half of their sample of 5 and 6 year olds (48%) said that they were likely to start learning in the near future… By the age of 14 only 4% of the children that they were likely to start learning an instrument.” Playing an Instrument, Gary E McPherson and Jane W Davidson, The Child as Musician


The inevitable effect is that double reed players are at a disadvantage with this situation, especially those who might continue to professional standard. Research has now proven that in order to get to a suitable professional standard one needs at least ten thousand hours, or roughly ten years. If you don’t start till you’re 12, (13 in S.A.), there’s a lot of catching up to reach the violinists who have been playing since they were 6… a big disadvantage for the would be professional players…


“…there is growing empirical support for the so-called ‘ten year rule’, which states that a minimum of ten years of dedicated practice are required to become an expert in any field.” Gary McPherson, and Aaron Williamon, Giftedness and Talent, from ‘The Child as Musician’, Ed. McPherson, OUP 2006


Echoing this, acclaimed oboist John de Lancie, (former Principal of Cleveland Orchestra and Director of the Curtis Institute), commented in 1979 that the earlier a musician gets going the better…


“..But if the kid can bull his way on little by little he manages to cope with the instrument, with breath and lip control, at quite an early age. It’s my experience, at least in teaching, that the later one gets into it, the harder it is to develop really outstanding dexterity, on any instrument…”


These problems have been occupying music teachers, trying to fill their bands, double reed teachers and those of us in the profession for years for many reasons, for their impact upon our society as well as the practical problem of sourcing oboes and bassoons for the local youth orchestra. We also wonder how many potential talents are missing the opportunity to express themselves.


“It’s a familiar story in youth orchestras across the country: ‘We’ve got eleven brilliant flute players but no one to play the bassoon. And we want to do ‘The Rite of Spring’…” Geoff Coates, Oboe/BassoonBuzz, UK


“…symphony orchestras do not sound like the ‘real deal’ if you substitute oboes and bassoons for other instruments…” Jacinta Payne, Pimlico High School, Townsville QLD


“I am very passionate about my instrument and regret the fact that students who may have enjoyed playing it have never had the opportunity to be acquainted.” Rosemary Stimson, SA


BUT now, because several manufacturers were concerned about all of these problems, there are Junior instruments. Not many people in Australia know this!


Half the size and weight, half the price, less prone to damage, easier for small fingers to cover, easier for general woodwind teaching, looking more fashionable in their cases, supplied by expert retailers who can back you up with reeds and advice, these instruments are designed to combat this situation. The expert manufacturers and retailers are passionate about what they’ve created and have shared enthusiasm. Innovative German bassoon maker Guntram Wolf pioneered the invention of mini bassoons (also known as tenoroons or fagottinos), inspired by the Renaissance family of bassoon instruments. He also created simplified oboes (from maple as bassoons are made) although these have been less popular than his bassoons. In 2004 Howarth of London successfully created blackwood and silver Junior oboes, so that now we have bassoons and oboes designed to look and feel like their larger parents but smaller, simpler and easier to hold. Simplification also means less to go wrong and well as lower cost so that reliability and assembly issues are solved. Quotations from these pioneers reflect the passion with which they have addressed the issue. By looking at the problem from a new angle, they have also come up with innovative solutions for the teaching of our instruments:

“Our concern has always been to familiarise young children as early as possible with reed instruments, the oboe, clarinet and bassoon. Because there were no other examples to follow, we started to develop instruments ourselves that are appropriate in all respects to the needs of small children. As well as being easy to play, it is important that they reflect the latest developments in medical knowledge and research…. because we need a rising generation of woodwind players – especially to help sustain amateur orchestras and ensembles” Guntram Wolf, Wolf company website

“I think what makes the biggest lump in my throat is that the lightbulb moment I had about how to do the Junior back in 2004 has opened that gateway …one would hope for many others in the future too. A privilege to be doing what we are!” William Ring, Education Manager, Howarth of London

“…devised by leading educator Thomas Pinschof, (the Kinder Harmony Program) combats the notorious shortage of Bassoon and Oboe players and is supported by Magic Flutes International and Guntram Wolf, who developed and manufactures these instruments. The program gets young children started on Bassoon, Oboe as well as Clarinet at a very early age. …a requirement of the National Review into School Music
Education (Seares Report) to give all children equal access to all instruments..” Thomas Pinschof,
Magic Flutes International

The idea is to make double reeds cool again: supplied in backpack style cases to be easier to carry, attract children and dissolve the lonely ‘bassoon rotting in corner’ or old-fashioned ‘coffin’ case image.


However, few schools and specialist instrumental teachers in Australia currently know about these real options for double reed success. About half the price of full size instruments, stylish, protective cases keeping them safe and cool, less likely to go wrong, enabling non specialist teachers to teach the complete woodwind range, these superb instruments could, with a modest investment at a school level, either privately or by government, address so many of the double reed (and by extension, the music community’s) issues at one time. When I demonstrate to music teachers at conferences, I have found an incredible response. Despite simplification, these are all still serious instruments, designed by professionals for professional teachers and players and support good technique with their intelligent design and careful manufacture as an extra bonus : we’d be getting better players in the long run too! Children who demonstrate prowess at these instruments might by the time they get to High School, be sufficiently motivated to buy their own full size instruments. (Certainly they would have a better knowledge of how to handle them and school budgets could be invested in instruments that answer a pre-existing demand rather than try to create one.)


The Festival of children’s music that Guntram Wolf (recently sadly deceased) created at his home town of Kronach proved that children are excited about these woodwind instruments and can achieve good musical results at an early age, working together in groups being an important facet of the concept, rather like the accepted Suzuki violin method, as described by Barry Green in The Inner Game of Music:


“The Suzuki method for teaching young children to play.. develops trust and confidence in these young musicians through group lessons and recitals…classmates become a support system, and group lessons…are showcases in which the pupils can share what they have learned and show others where they are going”


Ideally, embracing the entire concept and allowing young children to play in groups providing their own bass lines -rather than simply being accompanied by an adult on the piano- is the ultimate goal here. All Junior instruments can be simply taught traditionally one to one, and in most cases in Australia are currently used that way, where they bring all the benefits of the early start along with their reliability to make a great start to playing, being taught in groups would widen the experience of the young players to include performance skills, musicianship, listening, to encourage more genuinely rounded natural musicians who have taken up their instruments in that window of opportunity when they are most keen, have time to learn, and enjoy the extra benefits of music making, the extra educational benefits and the skill set that it gives them for life.


The UK is ahead of Australia here, thanks to the initiative launched by Youth Music ten years ago, ‘Endangered and Protected Species’, which sought to promote a selection of instruments identified as at risk, including double reeds, and which supported Music Services in capital purchase schemes and addressing popularity issues through various events and initiatives. Geoff Coates in OboeBassoonBuzz project at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama has followed this initiative and its related events including development of Junior instruments. Many of the children who have been followed from an early age have exceeded the expectations sets for them, such as Berkshire Meastro’s “Acer Saccharum” Bassoon Quartet. who have been performing together since age 9, auditioned and were appointed the bassoons in National Children’s Orchestra and have all accelerated through ‘normal’ developmental goals. Starting before adolescent self awareness and fear of failure develop has got to be good. Reaching grade 8 distinction and thereby finishing all the grades by the age of 14 shows the difference clearly, as many of this quartet did, when most bassoonists have only just started as beginners; this is my real wake up call, bringing to mind Barry Green’s words in the Inner game of Music:


“There was a time when nobody told us that playing was difficult, and we played music without feeling self conscious about it…”


Playing a rarer instrument also gives children a chance to accelerate their potential. Being given access to express themselves on these instruments is worth it; the rewards are plain to see. Jacinta Payne at in Townsville is a teacher whose success with promoting double reeds at high school level is legendary. Her students volunteered:


I love playing my Oboe and Cor Anglais because they are so different from all of the other instruments. They create a unique and beautiful sound and I get to play many great solos in the orchestral repertoire.“ Anneka, year 12


At Pimlico I play the alto and bari saxophones. This year I took up the bassoon and I really love it. The bassoon makes a really cool sound and is an awesome instrument to play. Jessica, year 9


As Anneka infers, players are often given more chances on double reeds and relish the opportunity. However, starting younger can bring even more opportunities and stimulate development. Clare Payne, bassoon teacher at Sydney Grammar School (which has invested in mini bassoons with great success) is an enthusiast, spreading the word in the community via her ADRS double reed days, who has solved the bassoon shortage at her school by starting players from age 8:


“I have absolutely no qualms about using the mini bassoon. It’s just the best way to start…”


Words from two Junior oboe mothers, Selena Orwin in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Julie Cooney in the Blue Mountains, NSW:


Adelina.. has many performances under her belt …and has the confidence that she can play successfully in public, including 3 performances of Gabriel’s Oboe with orchestra at 10 in front of 15,000 people. All because of the background of performing she could have over several years before the teenage nerves might kick in. This is probably where the violinists have had it over wind players for years. I know some people around here think there is no point starting early and that the others eventually catch up but they never question children starting the violin on an eighth size instrument. So I’m never sure how the logic follows there?!! …Along with the user friendly design for small hands, the lightness of the instrument, and the lovely true tonal qualities, we were able to employ a psychology which was that nothing about playing the oboe was difficult and at 7 she had this attitude…”


‘before Miriam started oboe I didn’t think she was exceptionally musical.. had she not started when she was so young she wouldn’t have been given all these amazing opportunities and nobody would have developed her as a musician without the oboe’… (Starting at high school): ‘it’s too late by then.’


There are several pockets of mini bassoon teaching in different cities in Australia, where some pioneering teachers have accepted the new development and have a proven track record of success, and in China too with bassoon professional Dr. Adam Schwalje in Macau, but generally the Junior instruments are currently nearly unknown.


“I used these instruments as part of a grant funded by the University of Colorado at Boulder, and found that the switch to full-sized bassoon is virtually painless! If these smaller instruments were introduced into the US educational system, as I hope, bassoon students would be better, sooner.”


“…schools seem to want to spend money on quality advanced instruments but not beginner ones. This is backwards thinking for me. Wouldn’t you want to buy a beautiful beginner oboe that plays in tune and is easy to blow and get a kid hooked?” Eleanor McPhee


As can be seen with the UK’s ‘Endangered Species’ strategy, making a difference to this situation nationally- not just confined to one or two pockets of private investment- requires a co ordinated and public campaign. As a key BBC employee, I was involved in some of the English launches and have been following the evaluation reports and further publicity and events. I have seen proof that starting children earlier and publicising our instruments solves many of the shortages and problems I have highlighted here. From Youth Music’s 2004 evaluation:

“The programme has delivered against Youth Music’s aims and the aims and objectives of the programme, particularly in promoting Endangered Species instruments to many more children and young people and encouraging more to try and take up the instruments. It has widened access, involving large numbers of young people from ethnic minority backgrounds and reaching children who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to play such an instrument.”

It is ironic that so many of my respondents in Australia who had themselves been involved in ‘spreading the word’ about double reeds to the wider community as part of now largely defunct Music Services (here in South Australia for example) are now the same people who are offering their services in the voluntary sector to combat the shortage. It is obvious that the stakeholders here, the musicians, do care. What worries me is that there is no official body taking on the problem: no one is taking responsibility even though many agree that the problem is there. Reflecting similar organisations in other countries, the ADRS is a small voluntary association, busily supporting existing oboe and bassoon players of all ages and stages. All over Australia, the ADRS creates Double Reed days, specialist master classes with visiting artists and chamber music days while being careful not to align itself with any commercial interests and remain independent. The larger problem articulated here remains hidden, unknown to many people and unaddressed. Geoff Coates at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, author of the article in Music Teacher magazine, said ‘passionate professionals’ were needed to ‘make a noise’.


“Many respondents commented that the oboe or bassoon are not seen as ‘cool’ instruments, and there is something of a PR job to be done in increasing awareness…Demonstrations of the instruments in schools and music centres raise awareness, and if they include current young learners they can counteract peer pressure against doing something ‘uncool’. Professional players can also fill the need identified for role models. One respondent wanted to see a ‘David Beckham of the oboe’. Give or take the tattoos and the sarong, this role is within the grasp of any passionate professional who is able to relate naturally to young people..”


A David Beckham of the Oboe…! Am I up to it? I’d love to try. I have spoken on this issue to conferences of music teachers, to heads of school music and on ABC national and local radio. I am currently offering Junior oboe teaching at my private studio, and would love to be able to move to group teaching on both oboe and bassoon, but further support, research and funding will have to be encouraged. I look forward to continuing to Make a Noise about these Instruments that Deserve to be Heard.


Celia Craig BA Hons LRAM dip ARAM is Principal Oboe of the Adelaide Symphony, Lecturer in Oboe at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, former President of the Australasian Double Reed Society and currently ADRS South Australian representative. Celia was awarded an Honorary Associateship by the Royal Academy of Music in 1996 for achievements in the music profession. Celia has presented on ‘Endangered Species’ at Conferences of the Music Teachers Association (SA) and Australian Society of Musical Educators. Celia convened the ADRS National Conference 2013 in Adelaide, acted as External Examiner for Oboe for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, 2013 and was the Oboe Tutor for the Australian Youth Orchestra 2014. Celia is also member of the Artistic Panel for the State Opera of South Australia and has served as woodwind jury member for ABC Young Performers Award 2013 and BBCTV Young Musician of the Year Competition 2006.


Celia Craig April 2014


Howarth Mini bassoons and Junior Oboes available exclusively through Richard Craig, Adelaide, SA


Further information

link to teneroon teaching method, International Double Reed Society

report on mini bassoons for British Double Reed Society

Howarth of London instrument manufacturers and retailers

Wolf, innovative German instrument manufacturers

For double reed activities and support in your area, Australasian Double Reed Society

Article featuring Acer Saccharum Bassoon quartet

Adam Schwalje Bassoonist, Macau Symphony and Pedagogue

Howarth Junior Oboe



Like this article? Subsrcibe to the e-newsletter for more content

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed