Not making your own double reeds

November 19, 2009

I’ve posted a few times over the past year about making double reeds (cf. here, here, and here), and I maintain that this is the truest way to abiding oboe/bassoon satisfaction. If you consider those instruments to be serious parts of what you do as a musician, you need to learn to make—or at least skillfully adjust—reeds.

But, frankly, not everyone is up to the challenge.

The basic reedmaking process can be learned within a few lessons, but developing the skills well enough to make good reeds consistently can take years, and most reedmakers will continue to develop and modify their approach over a lifetime.

Reedmaking is expensive, too. A set of the most basic tools for making reeds from preprocessed (gouged, shaped, and, for bassoon, profiled) cane costs as much as several boxes of clarinet or saxophone reeds, and the cane doesn’t come cheap, either. If you want the control of doing your own gouging, shaping, and so forth, the additional equipment may cost you nearly as much as a pro-line clarinet.

And, of course, reedmaking takes time. I’ve heard the “rule of thumb” that an oboist, for example, should spend an hour making reeds for every hour he or she spends practicing. I don’t know that I agree entirely, but you get the idea of what kind of commitment is involved.

So, if I’ve now talked you out of making your own reeds, what are your options?

  1. Your best option, short of making your own, is to buy handmade reeds face-to-face from a real-live oboist or bassoonist. (More ideas on this below.)
  2. The distant second-place option is to buy handmade reeds from a faraway source, such as reeds ordered over the internet.
  3. The worst option is the mass-produced, machine-made reeds that you are likely to find in a local music store or order from a big-box online music retailer.

Here’s why:

handmade, bought face-to-face handmade, bought long-distance mass-produced, machine-made
price Varies; usually quite reasonable. Generally most expensive to begin with, and then shipping charges are added. May be cheaper than long-distance, but likely cost as much as or more than face-to-face.
customization Yes. Nothing (short of making your own) beats playing a purchased reed in front of the reedmaker, and having them adjust it to your instrument, embouchure, and playing style. Some reedmakers will make reeds “to order,” but you’ll have to wait for them to arrive to see if you get what you wanted. No.
quality Generally good if bought from a player whose sound you like. Sophisticated and well-balanced architecture for good response and pleasing tone. A gamble. Hopefully good in general, but possibly unsuited to your setup and approach. Generally poor. Designed to vibrate at all costs, even if tone and pitch are unsatisfactory.
sanitation Likely has been in someone else’s mouth. Reedmakers and purchasers should be conscientious about health and hygeine when buying/selling reeds. Likely has been in someone else’s mouth. May be “sanitized,” but there seems to be little consensus on whether any chemical disinfectants are both effective and harmless to the reed. Presumably meets minimum health-code-type standards.
overall Best value. High cost, high risk. Unsuitable for serious musical applications.

Sources for handmade reeds, bought face-to-face

The easiest and best way to buy reeds from a real live oboist or bassoonist is to take lessons from a good teacher. A teacher who is intimately acquainted with your abilities and is influential in shaping your approach is in an ideal position to equip you with reeds. Some teachers even include reed costs in their lesson fees (and charge accordingly).

If you don’t take lessons, another good bet is a nearby professional. If you’re lucky enough to be near one, attend a concert by a local professional symphony orchestra, and make a point of introducing yourself to the oboists or bassoonists afterward. Or, if you’re near a university with at least a medium-sized music program, check the music department’s website for contact info and call or email the oboe or bassoon professor. Symphony players or professors may be willing to sell you reeds themselves, or may be be able to refer you to their more advanced students.

Buying reeds from graduate student oboe or bassoon majors can be an especially good solution for everyone involved. They are likely to be enthusiastic reedmakers, flattered to be asked, eager to please, and always in need of a little extra money.

Thanks for reeding…

Comments

  1. Musical Instruments Woodwind

    I knew many professional oboists and bassoonists made their own reeds however, I did not know how expensive it can be to make them… or what an art form reedmaking really is.

    Reply

  2. Joseph

    very interesting take! I personally can’t fathom playing on someone else’s reeds anymore. During my MM in multiple winds I was frustrated to the point of quitting oboe all together because reed making was destroying my love of the instrument. Now after being out of school for two years my reeds are superb for me and I have a much greater appreciation for adjusting my clarinet/saxophone reeds too. I am still learning bassoon but I do feel that learning to make a quality oboe reed taught me to adjust a single reed. Just my two cents, but anyone doubling (or getting a degree in multiple instruments at least) should jump the hurdles no matter how high. I did a lot of handmade reeds over the internet my first year out of school and yes it was a gamble. I think I learned to fix up reeds well because of it, however. I think your opinions on this matter are spot on though I’d encourage a little more towards the “suck it up and make your own” category. And for what it is worth, I spend 1-2 hours making oboe reeds a day, though I consider saxophone to be my primary, and clarinet to be my secondary instrument. it is a little insane!

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