Saturday, September 12, 2009

Manufacturing & Art

Two pursuits I thought were completely unrelated... 
         Until I visited South Whitley, Indiana
[I stand up slowly, surrounded by strangers, in a room 
normally used for some other purpose. I clear my throat, 
trying not to appear as nervous as I feel, and begin speaking.]
"Hello everyone. My name's Tim, and I'm a bassoonist."
"Hi, Tim!" [Everyone in the room responds in unison.]
Yes, it's true... I play the bassoon. Not well, mind you, 
but I do play. In amateur ensembles, for my church orchestra, 
in my own basement... Wherever and whenever I can... 
Because I love the instrument.
And if someone asked me "Why the bassoon?", I'm not sure I'd have a rational answer. All throughout grade school, junior high, and high school, I played the tenor saxophone because that was 'the family instrument'; An old, beat up Buescher made in the 1930's and passed down from brother to brother, and finally to me (a son). Though I toyed with other instruments (e.g. flute and clarinet) in my senior year, I didn't touch a bassoon until college. And the strange beast stole my heart.
The relationship has made no sense from the very beginning, for a number of reasons:
  • Bassoon reeds cost as much as ten times what sax reeds cost (or more), and require adjustment and a soaker cup for proper play
  • There are as many thumb keys on a bassoon as finger keys (and, if you're like me, you probably have more fingers than thumbs)
  • Bassoon music is written in three clefs (e.g. Bass, C, and Treble), one of which is movable
Still, something about the instrument has always enchanted me. Perhaps a part of the enchantment has to do with an affinity for the instrument's personality, potentially difficult and admittedly different. Or perhaps it's simply that I love the sound, and especially love the fact that it's me, partnered with my bassoon, helping to make that sound. My own mediocrity is momentarily forgotten amidst the realization that I'm somehow helping make such beautiful music.
Which brings me to the true reason for this blog. A year ago, on my birthday, I received a gift, something I've longed for more than twenty-odd years since college... A new bassoon. And not just any bassoon, but a Fox. The bassoon I was given by my wife was worlds apart from the nondescript, off-brand, plastic instrument I'd played in college, and I've tried to care for it as best as I could since receiving it... Which is why my wife and I traveled to Whitley, Indiana, this past weekend.
Whitely, Indiana, is home to the world headquarters of Fox Products, the premiere US manufacturer of bassoons, contra bassoons, oboes, and english horns. It was an amazing visit as, while my own bassoon was receiving its initial annual service, my wife and I were given a tour of the factory. From aged maple to gorgeously finished and fully tested instrument, we saw how Fox manufactures bassoons, via a meticulous and labor intensive process that takes approximately six months. Fox bassoons are manufactured by people who are skilled craftsmen and craftswomen, wood workers, machinists, wood finishers, and many other meticulous jobs requiring skills more typically associated with jewelry making than factory work. At Fox, the boundaries between manufacturing and art are blurred, with the occasional computer-controlled machine coexisting with legions of highly skilled people, combining to create products of unparalleled quality that are essentially handmade.
But enough words. Come... Take a tour with me, and see 'the Fox magic' for yourself.

The place and history

The factory nestled amidst corn fields, and the 'first Foxes' in the lobby (i.e. first bassoon, first plastic bassoon, first oboe, etc)

Closeup of the 'first Fox' bassoon, and a portrait of Hugo Fox, CSO bassoonist from 1922-1949 and founder of Fox Products.

The Materials

Aged wood (maple pictured here) and plastic, the basic materials used in the making of a Fox instrument.

The Machines

Definitely not the stars of the manufacturing process, as that would be the people. Pictured here are a manual and a computerized lathe.

Fabricating keys, and a polisher (the pink bits are ceramic, used to polish the keys prior to sending them out for plating)

The People

World class craftsmanship, being practiced every day in America's heartland. Pictured are tone holes being drilled into bassoon and oboe pieces.

Hand drilling post holes, and using a torch and silver solder to hand craft a key assembly

Other Parts and Pieces

Hard rubber liners for bassoon wing joints, and finished bassoon pieces sans posts, keys, etc.

Bassoon keys arrayed on a mold board, and finished contra bassoon pieces sans posts, keys, etc.

Well, that's about it for today's 'virtual tour'. I hope you enjoyed it! ;-)
PS: If you'd like to hear me playing my bassoon, errors and all (pained smile), here's a recording of Pachelbel's Canon in D, played on my Fox-Renard 220.

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