In conversation with Tahnee van Herk

After seeing an interesting picture (featured below) posted by Principal Bassoon, Tahnee van Herk, on social media, we were keen to catch up, chat and ask many questions about the very recognisable, but strangely mysterious, instrument and the musician behind it.

Let’s start at the beginning, Tahnee, with a question that I am sure you are asked frequently – why bassoon? And did you always know you wanted to follow a musical career?

Why bassoon? Well, it was something different! I had been playing clarinet for 4-5 years and hated it. Moved to baritone saxophone and found a love of the power of the bass line through that, so when the opportunity to play bassoon arose, I jumped at it.

I really didn’t think about following music professionally until later school years. I just really enjoyed it. I loved music, because it was something you did with other people – a true collaborative effort.

How did you end up following the path to a professional musician?

I suppose in around year 11 or 12, there were people saying “oh, you’re good at this” so I thought “ok… let’s see what happens!”. I went to VCA (Victorian College of the Arts), absolutely loved it, and then decided to continue my studies overseas in Europe and ended up in Amsterdam for post-grad. While there, I was working around Holland and doing all kinds of different gigs, but eventually had to decide – come back to Australia or stay and try to make a career there? So, I came home, and it all worked out! (And yes, van Herk is a Dutch name. Tahnee’s dad was born in Holland, so having family and friends living there – and being a huge fan of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – was a driving factor for studying in Amsterdam).

On to the instrument itself. The bassoon is one of those instruments that we always see in the orchestra, but rarely hear performed as a solo instrument. What is your favourite part of performing the bassoon?

I love the big, long lyrical lines. We get them often enough, but I really try to juice them for what they are worth each time!

Mozart writes beautifully for the bassoon and makes it sing so naturally. Shostakovich wrote amazing pieces and French composers also tend to write lovely sections… as mentioned, there are lots!

So, if you were putting together a program right now for a recital, what would you reach for?

I would go the full gamut! Start from early pieces and try to find examples which really show the way the bassoon has changed its role within the orchestra. It really was just an added continuo to bolster the bass when wind instruments were being played, but it’s now morphed into something much more soloistic.


Something that is quite interesting, and perhaps not widely known, is that woodwind players tend to make their own reeds. We saw a photo of a case filled with your reeds that you had made, rather than just buying them ready-made.

You can buy them – but good reeds are so expensive, and you can’t guarantee that they will work for you and your instrument! Some professional players do have a reed source who they buy from, but I started making my own reeds in university when I was in Holland and have continued. Especially back here in Australia, you can only really source them from overseas as there are no specific reed makers here. It is a long and fiddly process, but the outcome tends to be more successful.

(See the embedded video for a step by step construction of a bassoon reed put together by Tahnee, featuring her personal reed quality controller!)

How important is an individual reed? And why do you need so many on hand at one time?

Every single reed is different. There are no two reeds that are alike. You are dealing with an organic substance therefore each is unique and organic substances react to their environment. Humidity, lack thereof, temperature, etc can all affect the reed. So, the reed that I use in a concert hall is very different to the reed that I use in the studio to the reed that I use at home. Room to room it can be different!

Do you ever have to swap reeds during a concert to get the sound right, then?

Yes, absolutely. If we’re doing a baroque piece in the first half and a romantic symphony in the second, then I will have to use two reeds. A reed that blends beautifully with strings will not have the strength to project in a large symphony.

So, if we see you moving about between pieces in a concert, chances are you might be swapping reeds for a specific reason?

Yes, and not just program based! We were doing a live broadcast not long ago, and the humidity was so low in the concert hall and it just got to the point where the reed was drying up so quickly that there was nothing coming out so I had two on the go and had to keep changing them. You just have to bite the bullet and take control of the situation! So, I always sit with at least 10 reeds onstage with me, as I don’t decide which reed I will be using until before the concert and then I will always have a back-up in mind in case something goes wrong.

What else is there that you just would not know about the bassoon unless you were a bassoonist?

The amount of work your thumbs do! With left thumb there are 9 keys and the right thumb has 4 keys that are working continuously. Octave keys, low note keys, combinations of keys… they all have a specific role. Then the rest are working madly on the front too!

I feel that we have only just scratched the bassoon surface, and that we could talk for much longer! However, there is just one final question: what do you love to look out for when listening to/watching musical performances?

For me, it’s more about how an instrument is played rather than the sound of the instrument. It is about how the musician is communicating with the audience and how effectively… when the focus goes away from managing the instrument to only on the music. When that happens – magic.

Tahnee van Herk