By Joseph Shalita
Making oboe reeds can be a traumatic experience, even for the most seasoned professional. Some players love making reeds, while others rank it up there with root canal.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional, or a beginning student. Eventually you will have to learn to make oboe reeds.
But which style?
Style? Aren’t all oboe reeds the same?
Yes and no. Oboe reeds are different in practically every country. Their measurements are different, as well as the sound that each particular oboist is trying to achieve. If you live in Europe, in general (with some exceptions, this is the oboe of course) reeds tend to be made with a “short scrape”.
This short scrape tends to give a different sound color than what we generally use in the United States were the “long scrape” is preferred. Why the difference?
To answer that question, we need to go back to the beginning of the 20th century. Around 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The orchestra was the Philadelphia Orchestra, the conductor was Leopold Stokowski, and the oboist was a young French player named Marcel Tabuteau.
According to Laila Storch, who was the first woman oboist graduate of the Curtis institute of music and a student of Tabuteau’s, foreign musicians, particularly French ones, started immigrating to the United States at the turn of the century. Among the group of these talented young musicians was Tabuteau.
Marcel Tabuteau was a student of Georges Gillet at the Conservatoire de Paris and was one of his most gifted students. After being awarded the Premier Prix at the Conservatoire and after graduating, Tabuteau came to the United States in 1905 after being recruited by Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra.
After playing three seasons as english horn with the orchestra, he joined the Metropolitan Opera as first oboe, playing under Arturo Toscanini. In 1915, he joined the Philadelphia Orchestra as first oboe.
During this time, Tabuteau began to develop a much fuller and “richer” tone. This development was caused by the combination of the hall where the orchestra played in, and the fact that there were various distinct styles of playing happening at the same time. For example, the flute, oboe, and clarinet players were generally imported from France, while the horn, bassoon, and brass players were imported from Germany. The styles didn’t blend.
Other reasons which probably influenced Tabuteau were the fact that it was the beginning of the recording age, and having to perform in the larger concert halls of the United States.
This brings us to the point of what Tabuteau had to change in a typical French short scraped reed. I believe that this is the type of reed he probably played on. This leads into the theory that he had to find a way to make a reed that would produce the desired results by scraping it longer, which would give more vibration and more sound.
The problem is as soon as you take the scrape back toward the thread and deeper into the wood of the reed, it will drop in pitch. To compensate, you must have a shorter reed. Narrowing the shape will also help with this problem.
Ok, now that the reed is narrower and shorter, it still doesn’t have enough “stuff” in the sound. Why? Because the gouge of the cane must be altered, generally made thicker.
All of these things, Tabuteau had to figure out for himself. To make matters worse, not only did he have to make the gouge thicker, but he also had to change the actual proportions of the gouge. How the measurements go from the center of the cane, which is thicker, to the sides of the cane, which are thinner, turns out to be one of the most critical factors of how a reed vibrates.
Today, we take for granted what Tabuteau had to figure out on his own. When our gouging machines don’t work, there are plenty of people around who can adjust it. When we have reed problems, there are web sites, reed manuals, and teachers to consult.
What would it be like if we were forced to be in Tabuteau’s shoes. I wonder..