Woodwind doubling and oboe problems

"Reeds, ready" by vincentfuh is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

There’s an increasing expectation that woodwind doublers be competent and confident oboists. It can be a challenging double, but a worthwhile one. Many of my doubling gigs have come to me because of my ability and/or willingness to play the oboe. And even though it’s not my strongest instrument, there are considerable spans of my career during which I’ve made more money playing the oboe than any other instrument.

Here are some of the common problems woodwind doublers, often coming from background in the single reed instruments, have with the oboe:

Fingering awkwardness. Dedicated, conscientious practice of scales/arpeggios and technical material goes a long way here, but there are some additional considerations specific to the oboe.

First, the oboe’s toneholes are rather widely spaced, maybe surprisingly so for clarinet and saxophone players. (This has to do with the oboe’s very narrow bore—the toneholes have to be quite small so as not to catastrophically weaken the instrument’s body, which means they have to be spaced widely to produce a scale.) This can be a cause of tension. Work diligently at keeping your hands relaxed. If it helps, use a neckstrap to further reduce hand strain.

Second, the oboe, more than the other woodwinds, tends to have more keys the more you pay for it. It’s very worthwhile to save up for an oboe with a left F key, and to learn to use it fluently. The left F key should be seen as part of the instrument’s core fingering technique. Many of the other keys available on professional or semi-professional instruments are less-used, but valuable in specific situations.

Uneven tone and intonation. The oboe requires a very low voicing, lower than a saxophonist is used to and much lower than a clarinetist is used to. It also offers little forgiveness for weak or inconsistent breath support. Learn to balance low voicing against steady support to even out the instrument’s sound and stabilize its pitch. (Like fellow conical-bore instruments the saxophone and the bassoon, the oboe’s response suffers particularly in the lowest register when your voicing is too high.)

Similarly, embouchure should remain open, not pinched, regardless of register. Remember that the embouchure’s function is to be a mostly-passive gasket between your air system and the instrument. Resist the urge to bite when moving into the highest register—rely on good breath support instead.

Overall response sluggishness/unreliability. My experience is that many, many intermediate (and especially self-taught) oboists are playing on reeds that are far too stiff. If your notes won’t respond reliably and delicately at a soft dynamic, and you’re sure your breath support, voicing, and embouchure are working well, you should consider a more responsive reed.

Because oboe reeds are so susceptible to change, the best way to sound like a pro reed-wise is to spend a few years’ worth of lessons learning to make (or at least adjust) them yourself. Failing that, it’s worth it to buy reeds face-to-face from a good reedmaker, rather than from a music store or a distant internet reedmaker, so that they can adjust them for you on the spot. Reeds from a local reedmaker are also adapted to your altitude and climate.

Another important and ongoing concern is adjustment of the instrument itself. The oboe has many adjustment screws that need occasional tweaking. It’s best of course to learn this art under the supervision of a good teacher. But if you’re mechanically-inclined and have a good oboe technician standing by to bail you out, there are a number of books and resources that explain the method in a clear and methodical way. A small tweak here and there can transform a stuffy, stubborn oboe into a responsive, cooperative instrument that is a joy to play.

Approach the oboe on its own terms, equipped with good reeds and a good grasp of tone-production fundamentals, and enjoy!

Reedmaking and choosing your college oboe or bassoon professor

photo, quack.a.duck

US college/university music departments and conservatories are filled with talented, qualified faculty. If you are an oboist or bassoonist bound for a large school then there will almost certainly be both oboe and bassoon professors there with outstanding credentials and years of high-level teaching and performing experience.

Smaller schools are also well-stocked with excellent music faculty, and can provide a very, very good education. But one thing to bear in mind is that in smaller music departments, the faculty members often have to wear multiple hats, sometimes teaching instruments that they don’t perform on.

Those professors still have much to teach you, and while it’s not an ideal situation it’s also not unheard of. However, for double reed students, there’s an additional wrinkle: the need to learn reedmaking.

Reedmaking is a crucial skill for oboists and bassoonists. At larger schools it’s not unusual for the oboe and bassoon professors to offer classes in reedmaking, or at least to spend a significant chunk of lesson time on it. And while still learning this art, you will probably need someone to provide you with reeds or adjust ones you purchase elsewhere. (The ones from your local music store or online retailer aren’t likely to play at the level you will need for college study.)

So, if you’re considering a school where you might study with someone who isn’t a performer on your double reed instrument, it would be worthwhile to find out their plan for teaching you reedmaking. If they don’t have a detailed and convincing one, you might think about some other schools, especially if you are planning to pursue a performance degree, or ask your teacher about ways to fill that gap in your education.

Q&A: Reeds

photo, quack.a.duck

Here are some of the questions readers sent me in celebration of this blog’s 10-year anniversary. I have edited, combined, and otherwise adapted some of them but hopefully there are answers here for those of you who were kind enough to inquire.

How do you (or how do you help a student) select the appropriate hardness of reed?

This is a careful balancing act and involves tradeoffs. In general a too-soft reed causes pitch instability (tending toward flatness), good piano response but limited forte range, improved low-register response but weak upper register, and a thin and/or bright tone. A too-hard reed usually has poor piano response, a more resistant low register, and a stuffy or labored tone.

I find that many reed players use reeds that are too stiff, perhaps due to the strange but pervasive idea of “moving up” in reed strength as a rite of passage or indicator of skill.

Also: with clarinet and saxophone, reed strength is (a) inconsistent between brands and (b) tied very closely to the characteristics of the mouthpiece, so it’s not especially useful to make broad recommendations (“beginners should start on a 2½…”). It’s entirely likely that two clarinetists playing different mouthpieces might need dramatically different reed strengths.

How can I obtain better than mass produced double reeds for my beginning oboe and bassoon students? Do you have any tips on how to learn to improve already made reeds, store bought or otherwise?

Absolutely double reed players should, if at all possible, work with private teachers for this very reason. The ideal scenario is for a private teacher to make and continually adjust reeds for beginning double reed players. An alternative might be to connect with nearby symphony players, professors or graduate students, military musicians, or other nearby double reeders who might be willing to sell reeds (face-to-face, so adjustments can be made) or do occasional reed classes or adjustment sessions.

Improving/adjusting reeds involves some specialized skills, one of which is playing the instrument at a high level. Reed adjustment is an iterative process of making a small change and then testing, small change and test, small change and test. If you can’t play the instrument well, then reed adjustment is shooting in the dark.

One possible exception is that minor changes to bassoon reed wires are basically reversible, so there may be some room to experiment with that. I won’t get specific here as wire adjustments have been dealt with in detail by many previous authors, but careful, small adjustments can potentially improve response in various registers, pitch, and tone.


Thanks for your questions, and good luck with your reeds!

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

Beginners, parents, and making double reeds

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.

Review: ReedGeek “Universal” reed tool

reedgeek-1_mini

I’m a little late to the party on this, as the ReedGeek has been around for a number of years now and has been widely reviewed, but I finally picked one up (at ClarinetFest) after a long conversation/demonstration with inventor Mauro Di Gioia.  I have been using mine for a few months now and wanted to add a few points to the conversation. Here is my take.

The ReedGeek isn’t completely replacing my traditional reed tools, but, I am using it for some of the tasks that I used to do with those tools:

  • Flattening the backs of single reeds. This seems to be what the ReedGeek does best, and it is now my go-to tool for this procedure (by far the most frequent adjustment I make to my clarinet and saxophone reeds). I used to do this with wet-dry sandpaper on a piece of glass, and with flat files prior to that. Using the ReedGeek is faster and neater, doesn’t remove as much cane unnecessarily, and leaves a nice smooth non-shredded finish even on wet cane. I had also experimented in previous years with using knives for flattening, which is fast and leaves a nice finish but is risky because it’s so easy to gouge out chunks of cane by accident. The ReedGeek is much safer.reedgeek-2_mini
  • Smoothing out oboe reed windows. I still like my double-hollow-ground knives for carving out oboe reed windows, but I do have a tendency to leave the windows a bit rough and craggy (like from knife chatter). That’s fussy and time-consuming to fix with a knife, and if not handled delicately a knife can actually exacerbate the problem. But the ReedGeek cleans up my windows pretty quickly and easily, with much less risk of making the gouges worse. I mostly use the squared-off end for this.reedgeek-5_mini
  • Scraping bassoon reed channels. The concave parts of a bassoon reed blade are all but impossible to get at with a straight knife, and I find round files or sandpaper to be only a little less clumsy. The ReedGeek’s slightly curved tip works very well for this. Mr. Di Gioia describes this as being similar to using a pencil eraser—you just “erase” the cane you don’t want.reedgeek-4_mini

I’m not currently using the ReedGeek for:

  • Balancing the corners of the tips of single reeds, though it certainly can be used for this. I’m still used to sandpaper and glass, which at this point feels more controlled to me. If I have both tools available I still grab the sandpaper but if I’m away from my reed desk and traveling light, the ReedGeek will do the job. The ReedGeek can, I think, be used effectively to target specific spots on a reed’s profile (using either the square or the curved end), but I personally do very little of that.
  • Double reed making. (It’s fair to point out that the ReedGeek isn’t exactly being marketed as a tool for this anyway, though the company does publish a document on its website that provides some instruction for double reed players.) For one thing, the ReedGeek is quite small, and for reedmaking I like big, chunky, comfortable knife handles. A handle would also get my hand out of the way, which was a problem for me when I tried to use the ReedGeek for some fine tip work on oboe reeds—it was hard to get everything angled so I had control and could see what I was doing. I spoke to Mr. Di Gioia on the phone while preparing this review, and he hinted at a soon-to-be-revealed, more double-reed-oriented version of the ReedGeek, with some kind of extension for increased leverage (though he shied away from calling it a “handle”), and with scraping surfaces tailored more for double-reed applications. Because of the ReedGeek’s extremely hard alloy, it may be tougher on reed plaques than a traditional knife, but if you’re planning to use the ReedGeek in that way, the price difference between the ReedGeek and a good knife will buy you dozens of plaques.

The ReedGeek is very portable, won’t be confiscated at an airport security checkpoint, and doesn’t need sharpening like a knife or replacing like sandpaper. (When I spoke with Mr. Di Gioia he joked that he has to hope that people lose them so they will have to buy more.)

The ReedGeek has a hole drilled though one end (visible in the oboe reed picture), which I thought might be a way to attach some kind of handle, or perhaps to put it on a lanyard or keyring. In my follow-up call with Mr. Di Gioia, he explained that the hole has to do with the ReedGeek manufacturing process, and that keeping the ReedGeek on your keyring would likely damage your keys as it is much harder than the metals keys are made from. Also, the ReedGeek’s edges feel sharp to me, but not really in such a way that I would cut myself on them; Mr. Di Gioia recommends handling it with care but isn’t aware of people injuring themselves with it. He has an idea for a sleeve or sheath that may become available at some future date, and that could make carrying the ReedGeek in your pocket more feasible.

The verdict: for me, it’s useful and I will easily get my money’s worth out of it as long as I don’t lose it. For a single-reed player, I think it can realistically replace most or all of your tools. For a double-reed player, it’s currently a supplementary tool at best, but stay tuned for a possible new product.

At the time of this writing the ReedGeek goes for right about $50 from the ReedGeek store; some retailers also carry it.

Review: Oboe Reed Maker PRO iPhone app

I saw a post a couple of months ago by Patty Mitchell (reigning champion of online oboe journalism) about the iPhone app Oboe Reed Maker PRO, and decided to bite the bullet, part with the $1.99, and take it for a spin. Here is my review. As is my custom lately, I have tried to keep the review balanced and accurate by involving the maker of the product. In this case that is Christopher Gaudi of the San Francisco Symphony and OboeClass.com.

(Note that this is a review of version 1.0 of the app, so if you’re reading this after my publication date, then the app may have changed by now. I’ll update this post if I use any future versions that have changes worth mentioning; you’re also welcome to add your own updates in the comments.)

In the world of iPhone apps, I’ve grown accustomed to getting a lot of good stuff for free, and hesitate even to buy a 99-cent app unless I’m sure it’s going to be great. For $1.99, it had better be outstanding! However, in the past I’ve paid the better part of $100 for individual books on reed making, so, realistically, $1.99 isn’t much if you’re looking for a few tidbits of information. And that’s what this app offers. If you’re interested in this thing, think of it as a very cheap book (a pamphlet, really), rather than an expensive app. Here is the main screen, as shown in the iTunes store:

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If you’re reading this on my website you’ll see a border that I have added to the image, which reveals some white space at the bottom (the border might not show up in RSS feeds, etc.). Note that this space, in the actual app, contains an advertisement (at the moment, a 1-800 number for a criminal defense attorney). In my opinion, including ads is bad form for a paid application. There are additional monetization efforts built into the app. The “Oboe Gear” button leads to affiliate links to Amazon products, which are providing someone, presumably Mr. Gaudi, with additional income. The “More” button provides income-generating affiliate links to additional paid apps, some ostensibly music-related, some not. Mr. Gaudi responds:

I can understand the criticism of the ads in a paid app though I hope you can understand the need to monetize it. The app wasn’t created for free. There was a considerable cost to produce it and there are costs to revise and update it over time. I hope you can appreciate the need for monetary compensation for those who create a product for sale. My time and knowledge is worth something, just as my private students pay for weekly lessons as do countless other oboe students across the country pay for private lessons.

This is a fair response, I think, if the user knows they are paying for a product that will include advertisements; I was unaware of the ads before my purchase but you can consider yourself now warned. For every other app on my phone, paid versions are reliably ad-free. In my opinion, it would make more sense in the current app marketplace to raise the price on the app itself, if necessary, and scrap the ads, or maybe keep at least some of the ads/monetization and give the app away for free.

The actual useful content of the app is accessed with the green “Reed Maker” and “Reed Doctor” buttons. The “Reed Maker” button leads to a summary of the reed scraping process, starting with a reed blank (tying is not addressed). The summary is ten pages, most with one or two sentences of text, and each showing the same image of a reed with different areas highlighted. Knife technique is not addressed, just which areas to scrape in which order. There are some interesting bits of information here, but be forewarned that this app does not attempt to teach the full process of reedmaking. (It doesn’t specifically claim to, but you don’t know what ground the instruction covers until you buy.) Mr. Gaudi points out: Continue reading “Review: Oboe Reed Maker PRO iPhone app”

Not making your own double reeds

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?
Continue reading “Not making your own double reeds”

Duco cement and bassoon reeds

duco cementSince I moved to the lovely and historic Mississippi Delta about two and a half months ago, it has been on my to-do list to find a local source for Duco cement to use in bassoon reedmaking. I used to be able to buy it at a certain notorious chain store, but my local store here doesn’t stock it. One well-known double reed supplier sells it for $3.95 per one-ounce tube, which is four times the price I usually pay for it locally.

The Devcon website makes it hard to find information about retail locations, and in fact you have to head over to another web domain to find it. After an unsuccessful morning driving around looking for Duco, I went home and dug up this link:

http://www.itwconsumer.com/wheretobuy.aspx

Select DUCO® CEMENT, TUBE CARDED and your state. The website doesn’t give retailer addresses, but does provide names. I found a store within a half-mile of me that had it for just under a dollar per tube. Continue reading “Duco cement and bassoon reeds”

Oboe reedmaking resources

One of mine.
One of mine.

There’s no way around it—if you’re going to be a serious oboist, you have to learn to make your own reeds. Even fine handmade reeds purchased from an excellent reedmaker can’t compete with reeds made to your own personal specifications, suited to your highly individual combination of embouchure, instrument, playing style, and performance situation. A reed is in a constant state of change, from initial scraping until eventual retirement, and needs the daily ministrations of a skilled reedmaker to keep it playing at its best.

Woodwind doublers who take up the oboe as a secondary instrument will need to learn at least basic reed adjustment techniques in order to have reeds they can count on in professional situations. But if you’re going to learn the mysteries of fine-tuning “finished” reeds, you’re most of the way toward learning the whole process—consider at least learning to tie blanks from cane that you purchase already gouged and shaped. Starting from tube cane gives you even more control over the finished product, but requires the use of gouging and shaping equipment ($1200+, all told).

There’s no real substitute for learning reedmaking at the feet of a skilled oboe teacher, but here are some of my hand-picked favorite guides and tutorials online. These can serve as a good introduction for a beginner, and more experienced reedmakers may like to cull a few new ideas from the wide variety of opinions and approaches represented here. Continue reading “Oboe reedmaking resources”