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.

Favorite blog posts, June 2018

Favorite blog posts, May 2018

  • Flutist Jolene Madewell improves her articulation with understanding of how the tongue moves.
  • Patty Mitchell discusses the oboe and getting into college.
  • David Pierce gives brief summaries of some books on bassoon reedmaking.
  • Saxophonist James Barger explains a method of vibrato development using a mobile app.
  • Clarinetist Jenny Maclay is organizing a Kroepsch studies boot camp for June.
  • Nicole Riner gives piccolo advice.

Q&A: The big picture

photo, Princeton Symphony

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.

Why does music move humanity so profoundly?

My personal belief is that music is divine in origin, and that there is something inherent to humankind that responds to music. Since I believe that everyone is a child of God, I suppose the love of music is a divinely-inherited trait. Leaders in my faith have said, for example, that “Music is given of God to further his purposes,” and observed “Music is truly the universal language, and when it is excellently expressed how deeply it moves our souls.”

If that’s not your style, you may prefer Darwin’s speculation that the earliest attempts at human language were more like musical gestures than like words. An ability to relate to these sounds is at the foundation of language in the more modern sense, and thus underlies virtually all human experience and culture.

In any case, even as a faith-plus-science kind of guy, I’m definitely out of my depth here, so feel free to share your theories in the comments.

Are applied music studios in higher education sustainable considering the supply of music graduates exceeds available employment?

There are issues here for sure. I can only vouch for my own approach:

Most of my university students are music education majors, and where I live this does seem to be sustainable. My graduates for the most part are able to land and keep jobs doing what they are trained for: directing middle school and high school bands.

Many of my students at some point inquire about the degree in performance. If they are interested in that route and have the skill to pursue it, we have a long talk about the career path of a performance major. Essentially, a bachelors degree in performance qualifies you for one thing, entry into an masters program. The masters qualifies you for a doctoral program, and that qualifies you to teach in higher education and perpetuate the cycle. We talk seriously about the prospects for employment in higher ed (slim).

On the other hand, a college or university education isn’t a trade school certificate—it is meant to produce a well-rounded citizen of the world, with literacy in key fields of human thought and skills in areas like communication and critical thinking. If a prospective student wishes to study the art of musical performance for reasons that are not necessarily 100% practical, then I would like to see that opportunity available to them. Schools and students should be clear with each other about their goals, so there isn’t any confusion about, for example, guarantees of employment.

Some of my students have leveraged some of the more general skills developed in their musical education to pursue careers in other fields, which I find to be a perfectly good outcome. There is also at least some anecdotal evidence that college music majors are welcomed by challenging, high-status programs like law and medical schools.

When will woodwind makers deplete resources of grenadilla/mpingo wood?

I don’t know the answer. My understanding is that these woods are not in danger of extinction, exactly. But the culling of the tallest, straightest specimens for products like oboes and clarinets has potential to cause an evolutionary bottleneck, since only trees that are unsuitable for instruments (because they are curvy, for example) are left alone to reproduce.

I think that the inevitable conclusion to this is alternative materials for instruments. This will be a tough sell for some musicians, but will ultimately be for the better. If modern science can develop amazing new materials for everything from mobile phone technology to medicine to space travel, why not for music? I’m confident that the “wood”-wind instruments will continue to exist in materials that are more sustainable, stable, affordable, crack-free, ergonomic, and beautiful-sounding.

Why does the principal oboist tune the orchestra?

Tradition. We have methods of providing a reference pitch that are far more accurate and reliable than even the best oboist. But the ritual is a comfortable one.

There are lots of additional theories. I’ve written previously about why a bunch of these don’t make sense, and that post continues to draw comments largely based on questionable understanding of “overtones.”


Thanks for your questions! These are some tough ones.

More 10-year anniversary Q&A

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

ReedCast™ scientific reed forecasts on Alexa

I was hoping to announce this a week ago, on the anniversary of the ReedCast™’s debut, April 1, 2015,but things got a little delayed. Anyway, you can now get your guaranteed-accurate, highly scientific ReedCast™ on your Alexa device. Check it out!

You can, of course, still get your classic ReedCast™ on the web.

Favorite blog posts, February 2018

Stale air

The “stale air” phenomenon afflicts oboists (sometimes clarinetists and others). It can be hard to relate to if you haven’t experienced it.

Here’s how it happens. (The “math” and “science” here are very simplified for clarity.)

The oboist breathes in a lungful of air. The air is about 20% oxygen and 80% other gases. The oboist’s body starts absorbing the oxygen and replacing it with carbon dioxide.

The oboist starts to play. The oboe reed has a small opening in it, so the air leaves the oboist’s lungs slowly.

A few moments later, the oboist’s body has replaced the oxygen with carbon dioxide. But the player’s lungs are still, say, 50% full. The oboist’s brain needs oxygen and starts urgently demanding a breath.

The oboist tries, but his or her lungs are still 50% full of “stale” (un-oxygenated) air. He or she can only get a half-breath of “fresh” oxygen-rich air. Now the player’s lungs contain 10% oxygen, which isn’t going to last long.

This cycle repeats a few times while the oboist gets more and more uncomfortable.

The oboist finally panics and quits playing to “reset” his or her breathing and get some oxygen.

A well-meaning educator sees the oboist struggling with breathing. He or she unhelpfully pencils in a few more breath marks. This is going to make the problem worse as the oboist takes even more unneeded breaths.

The solution to this is to figure out an outlet for the stale air. (Taking smaller breaths isn’t a great solution because it encourages weaker breath support.) In some cases it may be necessary to use a “breath” to actually exhale stale air. Then, after playing a little more, get a satisfying breath into emptier lungsIn other cases, it might be a better solution to do a quick out-in breath.

Stale air isn’t something that people encounter day-to-day. So it’s not well understood, sometimes even by oboists and other wind players who deal with it. Being aware of the problem makes it relatively simple to solve.

Favorite blog posts, January 2018

Just a few to share this month: