Kicking bass and making reeds

UNH music major brings art and color to the tedious task of reed making

By Hannah Liuzzo
On February 23, 2012

  • You may want to reread it. I may be wrong but I believe there is a little thing written in there about the ability to be suspended if found rioting in the downtown area. Keyword. rioting


What is a bassoon?

A. A primate

B. A musical instrument

C. A weapon

To find out, read next week's issue of TNH Arts! Just kidding, guys. If you answered C, that's weird, although not entirely incorrect.

The (most) correct response is B., A musical instrument. Awesome quiz, great job!

If you're still like, "Wait, what the heck is a bassoon? I've literally never heard of that," don't fret. Let's just take a journey together into the magical world of the symphony orchestra.

The bassoon is a member of the woodwind family, specifically the double reeds, and to make this simple, it looks like a hollowed out tree branch with silver keys and a metal drinking straw sticking out. And it sounds like ducks, sometimes. Low ducks. Or truck horns.

But what we're really here to talk about, people, is not our small, brown, web-footed, pond-dwelling friends or 18-wheelers. We're here to talk about bassoons, which are musical instruments, members of the woodwind family, double reeds.

Chris Foss is a junior, a music major, and a bassoon player. He's so good at it that it's kind of alarming. And on top of being a master of an instrument that doubles as a walking stick, he's now approaching his third undergraduate research project dedicated to experimenting with reed making techniques for the bassoon.

A reed is a piece of cane that you put your lips on and blow air through to produce sound on an instrument via vibrations. Because the bassoon is a double reed, there are two of them, and they vibrate against one another.

"All dedicated bassoon players make their own reeds," Foss said.

After years of toying with reed making, he decided to conduct a series of formal experiments on the different techniques involved in the construction of reeds. Foss has conducted research with a REAP grant, a SURF grant, and this summer, he'll be living in Italy and studying the Italian style of reed making and bassoon playing through IROP with Italian bassoonist and reed expert Giorgio Versiglia.

Foss's research took a great deal of preparation and required devoting entire days over the summer to experimenting with different techniques, isolating variables, and recording results. Through these experiences, as daunting as it is to spend eight straight hours working with cane, twine, and wire, Foss has become a huge advocate of undergraduate research.

"Within the bassoon world, which is fricken huge, people learn to play their instrument and go along without thinking twice about what their teachers tell them," Foss said.

"I think part of the value of undergraduate research is you break away from just going to classes and doing what your teacher tells you to do. [Undergraduate research] has been the most rewarding experience of my time at UNH. I've learned to uncover new information and be in charge of my own education because once I leave these walls, that's what matters."

In his lifetime, Foss estimates he's made over 500 reeds. And as you can imagine, doing anything 500 times can get boring. To keep things exciting, Foss incorporates aesthetic qualities into his reed making, employing colorful twine, bright nail polish (to seal loose ends of twine), glitter, and intricate patterns, sort of like friendship bracelets.

His newest spring line is made up of bright pinks, oranges, blues, yellows, and sparkles, and is "inspired by the twinkle in Dr. Boysen (UNH's Wind Symphony conductor)'s eyes."

Foss's reeds are so beautiful that you might want to dangle one from a chain around your neck. It's truly an art form in and of itself.

To see Foss and his reeds in action, come see the UNH Wind Symphony perform on Sunday, March 4 at 3 p.m. in the Johnson Theater. The performance is free and open to the public, and provides a great opportunity to support student musicians. Plus, you can get up close and personal with a real live blue-footed bassoon!

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