Reed making is an art, not a science. While there are some aspects of reed making that seem fairly consistent (most oboists strive to tie blanks that do not leak, and that have tight sides, for example), many other parameters can change to suit the different needs of each player’s physiology and artistic vision.
For instance, some players are more comfortable using their embouchure to stabilize the pitch, and some are more comfortable blowing strongly against a more stable reed. Some players desire a warm, rich tone first and foremost, and others focus more on brilliance and flexibility. Also, solo, chamber, and orchestral performance each may require differences in reed flexibility and projection. Reed making styles do tend to be similar, however, within a country and with students from a particular teacher or teaching style.
The two most important elements of a reed are stability and flexibility, or vibrancy. Reed making involves learning how to create the balance between those elements that work best for each player. And while teachers are essential to aid in developing the skill of reed making, the only way to learn how to make reeds is to make lots of reeds!
2. Reed styles
Two different long scrape reeds from two perspectives (light in front, light behind).
Two different “U” short scrape or European style reeds from two perspectives (light in front, light behind).
The scraping style most commonly used in North America is the American style, or long scrape. Much of the rest of the world plays a short scrape reed. The most obvious difference between these two styles is that there is cane scraped off farther down the blade of the long scrape reed. Short scrape reeds tend to be more vibrant and flexible than the long scrape, and usually require a tighter embouchure. Long scrape reeds are typically more stable, and need more air support. There may also be quite a difference in tone and articulation with the two styles, (though significantly less so than in the past), and players from different countries and playing styles don’t always match tone with each other well, or fit easily into the other’s orchestras.
3. The right reed – what is a good reed?
Different reed styles create different sounds, and some are more appropriate for certain players than others. According to Julia Gjebic ‘s article A Study Of Oboe Reeds preliminary research shows that the tone of an oboe player comes more from the player than the reed. If this is true, it is more important to be comfortable with the reed, than for the reed to have a particular sound.
For each player, the reed should feel (and sound) easy. It should also be stable, in tune, and have the flexibility to express musical ideas and meet the technical demands of the piece. This includes an adequate dynamic range, and a tone that falls within the artistic vision of the performer. The reed also needs to be the right strength to allow the player to easily meet the endurance requirements of the performance.
The difficulty for the younger oboe player is figuring out which part of the playing equation is the responsibility of the reed, the instrument, or the player. This interaction is, of course, a balance that will continually change as the player progresses and matures.
4. What to look for in a North American oboe reed without playing it
Some aspects of reeds are universally considered good, but many attributes are a function of personal preference and physical differences. Many players have trouble with response on reeds with leaks, for instance. However, some players with larger lips cover the leaks more easily than those with smaller lips, and so find leaking reeds not to be a problem.
Shape of the opening
The opening of a reed should be somewhat football shaped with each corner of the tip touching. Both tip blades should be symmetrical in shape and thickness, thinner toward the sides and thicker in the center.
Avoid a broken or uneven opening either from damaged reeds, or an uneven gouge. If possible, avoid a reed that has a wavy tip when dry, though it can sometimes straighten once the reed is soaked.
Size of the opening
There is range of opening sizes that work successfully. In general, larger openings allow for a greater dynamic range and a fuller, darker sound, but may take more air support and embouchure pressure. A small opening reed is easier to play, but may not be as loud, or have as dark a sound.
An opening is too closed if it is virtually flat even after soaking, and too open if it is nearly round rather than oval. Soaking reeds for longer in hotter water generally causes the opening to be larger.
The following openings are likely acceptable.
Sides of the reed
The sides should press tightly together along the entire length of the reed. If they do not, the reed may be unstable and inconsistent. This problem can sometimes be cured by soaking the reed in hot water or by squishing closed the back of a soaked reed.
The blades should be overlapped slightly, preferably the top blade to the right (for reeds that were tied right-handed). This means that the two blades of the reed are not lined up directly on top of one another. Instead, when looking at the top blade, it will be shifted, making a tiny bit of the bottom blade exposed. Look for too much or too little overlap. If there is too much, the area of reed that can vibrate is lessened and the reed likely stiff; if the overlap is too little, there will likely be leaks or loose sides, which can cause instability in pitch and response.
Overlapping the blades in this way is not as common on short scrape reeds.
Extras on the reed
If at all possible, avoid oboe reeds with wires and fish skin. They are used to insure that there is no leakage, especially with fully machine-made reeds, and generally signify a lower quality reed in North America.
English horn reeds, however, do traditionally have wire on them. As do short scrape reeds.
Avoid reeds with chips or cracks in the tip or loose strands of cane hanging off the sides. To test a reed for cracks, run a fingernail along the top of each side of the tip, looking for the reed to “split” slightly.
5. Methods to test for a good American scrape oboe reed by playing
Testing the reed alone
Listed below are several tests to evaluate the quality of a reed. These tests are also helpful in determining what to do to fix a reed.
- Test for suction
Cover the hole in the tube end of the reed with a finger and suck on the reed as if it were a straw. After taking the finger off, the reed should pop. If the reed leaks, the pop will be very small or non-existent. Alternatively, cover the end of the tube and blow into the reed. If it leaks, it will be possible to hear or feel air escaping. If the leak is very near the thread, try applying fish skin or plumber’s tape to seal it. Some leaks higher up the reed may be covered by the embouchure. Many reed makers don’t bother to finish leaking reeds.
- Crow the reed
Put the entire reed up to the thread in the mouth and puff into reed. If the reed is a good strength, the crow will come out with normal exhalation. Ideally, the sound should be close to two C’s an octave apart (slightly flatter is better than sharper), though not all successful reed makers strive for this kind of crow. Generally, the more coherent and stable a crow (sounding only one, two, or even three clear pitches), the more stable the reed is, but many players find reeds that are more “noisy” to be stable and in tune for them.
Crowing the reed becomes a comparative diagnostic tool rather than an absolute that must be met, but can show the vibrancy and stability of the reed with some accuracy. The crow may sound different for different people, and therefore have unique meaning for each person.
Crowing a reed saves the time needed to put the reed in the instrument to test it. Sometimes just squishing the back of a soaked reed will improve the stability and coherence of a crow.
Testing the reed in the oboe
The following tests check for response, pitch, and balance. Even a good reed may not be able to do everything equally well, but all reeds should be able to pass these tests before they leave the reed-making desk.
- Tongue 5 low C4s or C-sharp4s rapidly without cracking. This may involve some embouchure adjustment as well, opening the embouchure and rolling the reed out. This is very hard to do if the reed is too stiff and/or closed.
- Breath attack (without tongue) B5, C6, C-sharp6, and D6. The notes should speak effortlessly, though likely flat, with no embouchure pressure. If the lower octave comes out instead, the reed is likely too vibrant and unstable to play easily and consistently in the upper register.
- Softly attack (with tongue) the low notes D4, C-sharp4, C4, B3, and B-flat3. The notes should speak easily and gently when using good air support with the reed rolled out, the oral cavity round and the embouchure not too tight. If the response is poor, the reed is likely too stiff and/or too closed.
- Slur up an octave from A4, B-flat4, B4, and C5 without changing the embouchure or air speed. The upper note will be flat, but not so much that it could not easily be raised up to pitch by using faster air speed, more of an “ee” vowel, and/or rolling in. If the upper octave is extremely flat, the reed is likely not stable enough and will be too hard to play consistently in tune.
- Check F-sharp5 and E5. Be able to play these notes forte with an open oral cavity without sounding flat. These two notes are the first to become unstable with an unstable reed.
- Play a diminuendo from forte to niente (nothing) on low G4. In the lower register, biting the reed with the lips while keeping the oral cavity open creates the focused softer dynamic. Use a tuner to check that the pitch is steady. It may be necessary to rollout/open up slightly to keep the pitch consistent. If the reed stops vibrating before reaching niente, or becomes too airy, it is likely too stiff, or the air support has been dropped too much.
- Check that the reed provides a dynamic range from piano to forte in all registers while keeping a stable, focused, in tune tone. Compare the dynamic capabilities of different reeds to get a sense of what is possible. Sometimes very dark reeds don’t project as well as reeds that include the brilliance of the upper partials in the tone.
- Be able to play a long tone mezzo forte for 20-30 seconds with no diminuendo. If this is too difficult, too much effort is needed to play the reed, and endurance, as well as dynamic variation, may be a problem.