With the bassoon being one of the lesser known and practiced instruments amongst young band members, most probably aren't aware of what Dougherty Valley High School student Donovan Tong has come to learn is a worldwide issue -- a lack of young bassoonists rising to the forefront to replace longtime experts on the instrument.
During the end of fifth grade, a chance interaction first sparked his father's attention to the lack of widespread awareness of the instrument, as well as the young musician's.
"My dad was on a business trip and on his flight back he was seated next to a music teacher. And the music teacher was teaching about these really rare instruments that students these days aren't really exposed to," Tong said.
In particular, these included the bassoon and oboe, two instruments that differ drastically from more common band instruments, producing unique sounds and requiring their own technique.
"These two instruments, they're unique in the way that they fall under the family of instrument that have two reeds," Tong said. "These are two pieces of cane that are put together and the vibration is what makes the sound, versus a clarinet or saxophone, which have one piece of cane in the mouthpiece."
Given the skill and physical strength needed for the bassoon, students in school bands usually aren't introduced to it until the sixth grade. However, Tong said that such introductions don't always happen in the way it did for more popular instruments.
"From my experience, not all students are openly introduced to it," Tong said.
In addition to lack of exposure, Tong noted that the bassoon's size can make it intimidating -- and has garnered it the nickname of "the bazooka." Stories abound, he said, about confusion as a result of this.
"A bassoon teacher drove to church, decided to take out his bassoon and practice scales, and a couple minutes later the police were called," Tong said.
In addition to collecting anecdotes, Tong has immersed himself in a self-directed project since 2019, aimed at collecting tips, techniques and insight from masters on the instrument, as well as widening its appeal to young musicians in middle school. It has culminated in the website bossbassoon.com -- the BOSS short for Bassoon Outreach to Support Students.
"With my project I'm hoping to raise awareness and create a well-resourced website for students who may not know about the bassoon or are just starting to get interested," Tong said.
His initial plan in 2019 had been to facilitate a speaker series, in which guest speakers went to schools in person to introduce students to the instrument. Shortly later though, when he found himself in Zoom band practices amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tong realized he would have to recalibrate.
"One of the things I also had during that time was Instagram and YouTube," Tong said. "I've always really enjoyed making YouTube videos, so during that time I created kind of a comedy spinoff called 'Boss Class,' and it was intended to introduce kids to the bassoon."
While internet comments sections can sometimes be brutal for creators of all ages, Tong said it was a comment on one of his YouTube videos that inspired him to take the project further.
"A young girl in Hong Kong said it was because of the video that she wanted to tell her parents about the bassoon and give the bassoon a try, and it was at that point that I realized oh my gosh, I might be able to make a difference," Tong said.
Tong began slowly reaching out to expert bassoonists for help building a central resource to introduce and educate young musicians about the instrument. He was met with a wave of support -- as well as widespread recognition from experts across the globe that more young musicians should be exposed to the instrument.
"I think the issue that I've noticed regarding new bassoonists and kids being introduced seems to be an in issue that's pretty common around the world, and I think a lot of famous bassoonists, even though they're constantly playing and doing their careers, they also want to encourage students to learn the bassoon," Tong said.
One example of this support that stands out to Tong is a response he received from renowned bassoonist Gustavo Núñez several months after Tong had first sent him an email.
"He didn't reply for a couple months so one day when I saw the email he mentioned that he was in the countryside building a kitchen," Tong said. "And I thought that was really cool because with someone like celebrities or famous musicians sometimes you kind of forget they're real people."
Although Tong's work has been for a very specific interest and audience, he said that it has also given way to broader interpersonal communication skills and lessons.
"One of the things I've learned is just because you don't hear back immediately doesn't mean they don't want to communicate with you," Tong said. "I've also learned to just sort of put myself in other people's shoes because they have lives too."
For his part, Tong said he'd only grown more encouraged and invested in his project as he watched his website garner hundreds of audience members, then a thousand, with a growing subscriber base. A rising senior at Dougherty Valley High currently, he plans to continue seeking to introduce young musicians to the bassoon as he heads to college.
"I'm just thinking of ways to raise greater awareness for the bassoon, as well as making content that's more appealing to middle schoolers," Tong said, adding that he also sought to appeal to fellow high school students.
More information about the bassoon is available on Tong's website at www.bossbassoon.com.