As oboists, reeds are either our best friends or our mortal (or not so mortal) enemies. They can make or break our practice sessions, performances, and auditions. They can be as fickle as the wind or the weather and can quickly become the bane of our existence. All this being said, reeds are the equivalent to any good puzzle - it just takes time, understanding, and patience to find the solution. Wherever you fall on the 'reed-making spectrum' (a beginner just learning the ropes or an advanced, self-sufficient reed-maker), our expert oboists, Steven and Jeff, would like to offer some basic adjustment ideas to help you along your way. Remember - these are just suggestions and may or may not apply to your reed-making. Consider this food for thought!
Before adjusting an oboe reed, determine what the reed needs. Check out our guidelines for diagnosing common oboe reed issues. Once you've got an idea of what you'd like to accomplish, you're ready to get started.
The golden rule of successful reed-making: sharp knife, sharp knife, sharp knife! Always work with a sharp knife - if the knife is not sharp you will be prone to pressing harder, flattening the reed blades, and inevitably end up making mistakes.
Other things to think about:
- Always adjust the reed for function, not tone
- There are four basic criteria for reed function: 1. response 2. resistance 3. tone quality 4. stability
- Adjusting for anyone of these criteria will directly affect other aspects - there is no simple solution
- The goal of reed-making is to find the solution that removes the most problems and creates the fewest new ones
- Keep notes. Knowledge is the result of experience, so keep track of what you're doing
- Bottom line: the best results come from intuitive actions. Skill lies in anticipating the unintended results!
Common Adjustments and Their Effects
Clipping the Tip:
- Removes vibrations and dulls sound
- Creates more resistance
- Harder response
- Improves stability and raises pitch
It is advisable when clipping the tip to remove as little cane as possible. Just like with scraping, you can't add cane once it's removed, so clip carefully! Ideally when clipping, the reed should be under pitch and a little 'loose' - that is to say that it should lack stability and be over-vibrant. Remember, clip the reed to improve stability, not tone. Clipping a reed in an attempt to improve tone will never work, especially if it is a reed that is already playing sharp and does not vibrate well.
Scraping the Tip Thinner:
- Easier response
- Creates more vibration - 'bright' sometimes shrill sound
- Lower resistance
- Flat in pitch, decreased stability
Keep in mind the tip is a separate entity from the rest of the reed. When scraping in the tip of the reed you're increasing or decreasing vibrations in the tip, not the entire reed. Avoid scraping the entire tip of a finished reed as this only increases the vibrations in the tip.
Scraping the Sides and 'Tip' of the Tip:
- Improves response
- Can lower resistance (if done in small amounts)
- Focuses sound -refines vibrations in the tip
- Can improve stability
This should be the final stages in finishing a reed. Refining the sides and the very tip of the tip can bring all the aspects of the finished reed together.
Scraping the Channels of the Heart - NEVER the Center:
- May improve the response
- Lowers resistance
- More vibrant throughout the entire reed
- Lowered pitch and decreased stability
This terminology may be new to some but the channels of the heart refer to the space between the spine and rails in the heart. It is generally recommended that the only time you scrape in the center of the heart is if the reed does not vibrate at all, even then, get as close to the spine as possible without going over it. The heart of a reed functions to disperse the vibrations from the tip into the back of the reed. The more cane you remove from the heart the more vibrations will travel through the reed. The thinner the heart, the less stable and the more vibrant the reed will be.
Scraping in the Back
- lowers resistance
- may affect response - could decrease
- adds 'lows' to the sound, 'warmer' sound
- lowered pitch and decreased stability
Scraping in the back after clearing bark, in general, will lower the pitch and stability of the reed. The more cane you remove from the back the weaker the reed will be. Always be sure to leave structure in the back of the reed, specifically the spine and rails. These act as the support system for top half of the reed.
Final Thoughts on Reed Adjustments:
Check your equipment. First and foremost, keep a knife sharp at all times. Whether you're de-barking the reed or you're finishing the reed, a sharp knife is absolutely critical. If you don't have a sharp knife, ESPECIALLY when finishing a reed, you're more likely to make mistakes. It is advisable that you sharpen your knife frequently throughout the reed-making process. This will make it less likely that you'll make a mistake and end up ruining a reed.
Try the reed frequently. As you work on the reed, play test after each step to make sure you're on track. The earlier you detect problems along the way the better, especially if there is a problem with the seal of the reed or the overlap. Don't spend hours working on a reed that has any kind of issues with the seal. Leaky reeds will always be leaky, no amount of scraping can fix that!
Be patient. Don't be in a rush to make reeds, take your time and make sure you're executing everything correctly and carefully. It takes time, practice, and patience to be a successful reed maker.
Don't stress. Never make reeds when you're stressed out and never start a reed-making session with the "I HAVE to make reeds" feeling. The more stress you put on yourself, the more the frustrations will mount, and the more likely you are to make a situation worse. Always try to have a clear head and relaxed atmosphere in which to scrape so as to eliminate as many external factors that may affect your reed-making. The more you stress about reeds, the worse reed-making can get!
Take your time! Make reeds over the course of several days and always have reed blanks going. While some would disagree with this approach, it's better to finish your reeds over time rather than rushing to finish a reed to play on for a rehearsal, performance, or what-have-you. Not only will you have a better finished product but you'll also significantly improve the longevity of your reeds! The more time they have to change and settle the better.
Ask for help. If you're a student learning the ropes or even a professional in a slump, find other oboists to help you. With so many variables going into reed-making (gouges, shapes, cane, staples, etc) it is very easy to lose your way. Sometimes it takes an 'outside eye' to catch mistakes you may not be aware you're making.
Consistency is key. If something is not working, don't be in a rush to start changing all kinds of variables at once. Diagnose each problem as it happens. For example, if you're struggling with reeds on 'cane A' then simply try a different cane type but leave everything else the same. If 'cane A' isn't working, changing staples and gouges won't diagnose a problem that may exist. One thing at a time!
Finally, remember there is not a single right way to make reeds. It is crucial as a student to work with your teacher to learn the ins and outs and the important 'need-to-know' knowledge of reed-making basics. We're all in the same boat and often dealing with the same problems so asking for help is your easiest outlet to solve problems.
To quote John Mack: "Never take 'no' from an inanimate object. If it's not working out, be prepared to give another piece of cane a chance at life as a reed."