Beginners, parents, and making double reeds

February 11, 2016

I am in touch fairly often with parents (and school band directors) about their young oboists and bassoonists. Obtaining suitable reeds at an affordable price is of course an Ongoing Problem for beginning double reed players and their adjacent adults. Invariably my advice is that they connect with a private teacher who can supply and adjust reeds. But there aren’t many of those in the area, and, of course, they cost money, so sometimes the conversation turns toward reedmaking, which they may have read about on the internet and which seems to them like a promising solution.

If you are a parent or band director, here is what you need to know about reedmaking:

photo, Javier
photo, Javier
  • Making oboe or bassoon reeds is an art that takes many years to master.
  • While there are some fine books, videos, etc. that teach reedmaking concepts, there is no substitute for studying reedmaking with an oboe or bassoon teacher.
  • Reedmaking ability is very dependent on playing ability. Most of reedmaking is an iterative process of testing the reed, making a tiny adjustment, testing again, adjusting again, and so forth. A beginner’s playing level isn’t enough for reedmaking, even if they somehow manage to master the physical reedmaking techniques. (At youngest, I might start reedmaking with a very dedicated and talented high school junior.) This is also why it won’t work to learn to make reeds yourself for your child or student, unless you already happen to be a fine oboist or bassoonist.
  • Reedmaking is expensive! Someone studying the art of reedmaking will make many, many, many reeds before it starts to be a good deal financially. A minimal set of tools can be had for maybe the cost of a couple of car tires, but will require the purchase of cane that is already partially prepared. Each piece of prepared cane costs about as much as a large order of French fries, and a beginning reedmaker may ruin dozens or hundreds of them before making their first somewhat usable reed, and hundreds or thousands more before they can make reeds as good as ones from an excellent private teacher. (Cane purchased in its raw tube form is cheaper, but requires additional equipment costing as much as a transatlantic flight, plus extra hours of work.)
  • It may be worth pointing out, too, that reedmaking involves razor-sharp tools. These can of course be handled safely with proper training, but it’s still a concern where small hands are involved. Pieces of cane can be dangerous, too—I’ve cut myself more times with sharp or jagged pieces of cane than I have with knives or razor blades.

The best thing you can do for your beginning oboists or bassoonists is to pair him or her with excellent teachers who can help them improve their skills on their instruments, make and adjust reeds for them, and lay the groundwork for future instruction in reedmaking.