Dealing with Reeds

by Robert Wiener, Oboist

In reed making we follow certain steps, use trial and error, continually evaluate every action, and refer to an imagined or remembered ideal. While reed making can have more twists and turns than a mystery novel, I like the idea of keeping the process simple rather than complex. If the process is very detailed, the reed maker is likely to mechanically focus on the steps and lose sight of the objective in the shuffle. While that kind of mechanical focus might be useful at the beginning stage, it should be outgrown rather quickly.

We must have an idea of what the reed should play like before we can make it. This involves aural, visual, and tactile awareness. In the aural arena we have to distinguish pitches and evaluate timbre. Visually, we are artists sculpting fineness from massiveness. Tactile skills involve embouchure and hands. Remember that reed making doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The reed must relate to your concepts and techniques of how to play the instrument and the environment in which you perform.

The quick answer to “how to make a reed” is to scrape it. Okay. “Where do I scrape?” “How much should I scrape?” “What are the steps I follow?” Most oboists have an insatiable curiosity about reeds. An oboist will get information from teachers, colleagues, books, observation, as well as trial and error.

As a student I fell into a common trap while watching my teachers make reeds. I dutifully drew pictures of their scraping processes so I would have a good record of where to scrape to recreate the patterns they used, but I did not pay attention to the sound of the reed nor to the evaluation process used to decide what happens next. In truth, the usual instruction was “watch me make a reed.” I thought that if I followed the scraping patterns, a good reed will result. Not true. The picture of the reed is not the most important factor. What matters is how it plays. I would rather, when my students try my reeds, that they play first before looking. The important information is obtained from playing it and crowing it to experience the way it functions. Then, you can decide how to improve it.

Functional criteria

I adhere to three functional criteria in reed making:

  1. The reed is pitched at a C and the crow is two C’s an octave apart – Even though there is a range of pitch that will constitute a note  area I encourage you to be on the honest side of C, that is, high enough to not be considered flat.
  2. There is a comfortable balance between response and resistance – The reed should respond easily, yet not be devoid of resistance. The proper balance enables you to maintain a focused tone.
  3. That the sides of the reed close before the center – big football, little football.

Following the criteria enables me to think more broadly about the overall effect of what I do instead of using a “paint by numbers” routine. Let’s say you need to raise the pitch. You can clip the tip, exaggerate the overlap or make the opening smaller. Even though those procedures will raise pitch, each will also have a potential negative effect. The best option, at any point in the reed’s life, will have the most benefit, with the least downside. My choices are made with consideration of how they will affect the criteria of pitch, response/resistance balance, and opening. The reed must be stable. A stable reed keeps accurate pitch while you are changing dynamics and registers. Using the functional criteria promotes stability.

It is important to me that the reed starts to play with little air and that the pitch of C is maintained when crowing from soft to loud. This is a big indicator of response and stability when putting the reed in the oboe. Blowing with brutality through the reed can often produce a bassoon-like crow and is not always a helpful indicator, however, if that type of crow is produced during the normal testing of the reed it indicates that the reed needs to be controlled significantly.
There are factors that enter into what is acceptable for a particular oboist. The first item is your instrument. With different bores, undercutting, and wall thickness, you will find a different balance between reed and instrument. The second item is your embouchure. Dampening by the lips would normally require a more freely vibrating reed. No dampening by the lips would normally require a more stable or self-controlled reed. Obviously, there is a full range of possibilities between the extremes of each of these issues. It is important to find the balance that works for you. A person who blows less aggressively and one who blows more aggressively will not be able to perform to potential on each others’ reeds.

Response refers to the notes speaking when you blow into the instrument. The reed needs to be easily responsive, but retain the resistance necessary to focus the tone with stability. One could say that you want the most resistance that responds well or the most response that maintains stability.

The opening of the reed is football shaped and not too small. A very small opening will limit your dynamic range and response. Too large an opening will be uncomfortable and fatiguing to manage. When the opening is squeezed shut it should close from the sides first making a smaller football. This is very important in the manipulating of dynamics. It also makes the reed feel more “face-friendly.”
These objective functional criteria help you stay on track as they are measurable and consistent. All sorts of variations in scraping patterns exist in the reeds of professional oboists. Everyone scrapes using a method that works best for them. You can make the reed in order of sections – tip, heart, back – or scrape areas alternatively and gradual reduced each. You can start the reed by scraping it to vibrate freely and then separating the areas for control or you can scrape to maintain strength at a higher pitch and then reduce it to the proper comfort level and pitch. For me, the best solution is to get the reed to vibrate quickly, get the pitch to a C and not have to fight to raise the pitch of a flat reed. Once the reed plays, always clip to C after scraping.

Overview thoughts

Considering all the equipment options and reed making methodologies that exist, I am not surprised to be asked “what is normal?” Like anything else in the world, normal is an individual concept. I do believe that understanding the evolution to our current reed style does help in developing functional consistency. Since Marcel Tabuteau is the historical “father of the American style” I’ll refer to him, again. Tabuteau arrived in this country playing French style reeds. At some point he decided to work towards a more covered tone. The oldest Tabuteau reeds I’ve seen come from the years when he played in New York, prior to Philadelphia. These reeds were basically scraped as a long French reed. They were roughly 72 or 73mm long. The tip was short, straight across the reed, and very blended to the rest of the reed. The rest of the reed was an elongation of the traditional short French scrape extending to near the thread. There was an evolution to a thinner, more clearly defined tip that is scraped towards the corners and also the leaving of a spine in the middle of the reed. As the reed parts became more separated and scraping deeper in the back became an element in reed construction, it was helpful to shorten the length of the reed, thicken the gouge, leave more rails on the sides, narrow the shapes, etc., until we arrived at the present day parameters. When the reed contains more features that are exaggerated and further away from the smoother scraped reed styles, one finds it is necessary to alter equipment and techniques in order to achieve the requisite reed function. An example of this, and there are others, is that with scraping deeper into the windows you sacrifice high register unless you narrow the reed and/or leave more structure such as rails and spine for skeletal strength. While we do whatever is needed to make a reed play, it is my observation that most of the better reeds seem to not be caricatures. If you find the need to exaggerate aspects of reed scraping and structure away from your normal, something is amiss.

Beginning students need to have reeds that are responsive and up to pitch. The opening should be small enough to make biting unnecessary. The problem is that a beginner has not developed embouchure and air skills. The progression to a more normal reed needs to be closely monitored by the teacher. A mature reed should have sufficient structural strength so that the tone has enough power to project well.
As we are scraping cane and reducing the size of the reed I would suggest thinking of the entire process as going from big to small, hazy to focused, massive to refined. At the beginning we need to get rid of excess cane, we make the reed vibrate, make the reed stable, and finally, we zero in on making the reed play in a comfortable manner that meets our criteria. Staying on track is facilitated by having a clear idea of the result you are striving to achieve and scraping the reed in order to successfully meet the functional criteria.

I think of the reed making process as being in stages, even though I’m also thinking “scrape the tip, scrape the back, clip the tip” with each stage getting the reed closer to its’ finished state:
Stage One – scraping the tip and heart to get the reed vibrating and up to pitch.

Stage Two – making the reed functional, stable and responsive, though not finished.

Stage Three – refinement for quality and comfort.
Stage Four – next day touching up.

The stage process defines levels of progress in making the reed and I couple it with my three functional criteria. This helps me to be consistent, even if I vary the specifics of scraping.

I sometimes see oboists who pull out a reed case with lots of reeds in it and then point out that only two are any good. Be proactive. Stay ahead of your reed needs. This will help you to not go crazy. Break up bad, worn-out reeds. In addition to your good reeds, have on hand blanks and partially finished reeds that can quickly be touched up. The number of reeds you need at any time is dependent on what you have to do, but keep ahead of the game.

Don’t get emotional

Reed making will drive you insane if you don’t approach it in a manageable fashion. When I began my full-time orchestra professional life I found myself overwhelmed by “the reed problem.” The caricature of the neurotic oboe player stems from reed induced stress. I know great oboists who like to make a reed just prior to the concert. With experience comes the skill to do that, but for most oboists that would be an overwhelming stress.

Learn to deal with reeds as unemotionally as possible. Everything about evaluating a reed should be objective. If it’s not working out, change it or get rid of it. It’s only a piece of cane and at some point in your life, you will learn that time is a gift worth giving yourself. Strategies and methods can be tweaked to your advantage whenever you feel the desire. Never take the attitude of sticking to a methodology because you believe it to be the “correct” way. Correct means it works for you. If it doesn’t work, it’s not correct. A good rule to live by!

You can be systematic

I often make reeds in one sitting, even though I think of the process as being in stages. When I need lots of reeds or am busy, I stretch the process out over a few days. Since it is pretty normal for a reed to need some rescraping when playing it the first couple of times, you can turn that into part of a systematic approach.

Here’s an example of how this could be organized:
Day 1 – Make several blanks – tie reeds and scrape the corners of the tip only.
Day 2 – Make more blanks. Scrape the day 1 blanks to be functional.
Day 3 – Make more blanks. Scrape the day 2 blanks to be functional. Scrape the day 1 reeds to be comfortable.
And so on…………..

Certainly, you can devise your own system. This routine does not require a lot of time for each reed. In fact, I believe that you can run through each day’s systematic work rather quickly. If you choose a system of this nature, I predict you will find reed making peace of mind, which is another gift worth giving yourself.

– Avoid a frantic approach to reed making –