Oboe Reed Help for Beginners
How to pick a good reed and basic reed fixes that are easy to do.
What Makes an Oboe Reed Good?
FINDING A GOOD REED
For oboe players in particular, and even for beginners, the quality of the reed makes a big difference to the ease of playing, pitch (particularly in the high register), dynamic variation and tone. The reed must be at least good enough that the student does not develop bad habits right from the very beginning!
The best way to have good reeds is to buy reeds from a local professional oboe player or a double reed store. Handmade reeds are generally the best, but also the most expensive. Hand-finished reeds from an oboe store may be the best route for young players (for a list of oboe stores see: Oboe Reeds, Repair, and Supplies). Sometimes machine-made reeds, the cheapest option, can work.Your students may need to try several different types of reeds to find the style that suits them best. Having your student take at least a few lessons with an oboe teacher can also help them get started with good and appropriate reeds, and to know how to get them.
Detailed information follows on reed characteristics, identifying reed problems, and relatively easy ways to fix reeds.
GENERAL PRINCIPLES (TENDENCIES) OF REEDS
Balance is best!
More Opening Less Opening
more air needed------------------------------------- less air needed
better in low register-------------------------------- better in high register
More Vibration Less Vibration
better low register----------------------------------- better high register
better response -------------------------------------- tends to have better focus, stability
More detail on the above chart: If the reed is too open, response, stability ( it will likely be flat) and endurance will be difficult in the high register. If the reed is too closed, the response, stability (it will likely be sharp) and dynamic range (will likely be limited) will be problematic, particularly in the low register.
These priorities are ranked in terms of what are the most important things a reed needs to be able to do, and what characteristics are crucial so that good embouchure development is possible.
A reed must respond in all registers easily, and must be easy enough that it can be played for some time without your student getting dizzy, or their embouchure getting too tired.
A reed must be stable enough that the embouchure is not used too much to hold it in tune. Having to do this is tiring, and usually creates a pinched sound. Ideally, the reed should play in tune with very little lip pressure, and only minor lip and air support adjustments.
The reed needs to be able to play the musical directions, and so have a wide dynamic range in all registers. It needs to be played in all registers easily loud enough to be heard, and soft enough to blend in the section.
Lastly, and definitely least, the reed needs good tone. It is much more important to the audience that the reed can be played musically than it sound good. "Good" tone is subjective anyway.
How to Know if an Oboe Reed is Good
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A REED WITHOUT PLAYING IT
Larger good oboe reed openings, above. Smaller good oboe reed openings, below.
The opening of a reed should be football shaped, or slightly smaller with each corner touching. Each blade of the tip should be symmetrical in shape and thickness. A reed that is too open can be hard to play, particularly in the high register, and a reed that is too closed will have bad response in the low register, and will often be too sharp. If a reed is too closed, it can sometimes be opened, at least temporarily, by soaking it in hot water for a few minutes.
Sides of the reed:
The sides of the reed should press tightly together the entire length of the reed. If they do not, if the sides are separated, the reed may be unstable in pitch and articulation. This problem can sometimes be cured by soaking the reed in hotter water, or by squishing the back of the reed.
The blades should be overlapped slightly, usually to the right. Look for too much or too little. Too much, and the amount of reed that can vibrate is small; too little, and there is a good possibility for leaks or loose sides which can cause poor articulation and instability in pitch.
The scraping style most favoured in North America is the North American style, or long scrape where there is scraping in the “back” of the reed, but short-scrape or European, reeds (used by much of the rest of the world) can also be found at local music stores. The tone of the short-scrape reed is usually different enough that players in the US and Canada should avoid using them.
Extras on the reed:
If at all possible, avoid long-scrape reeds that come with wires and fish skin. While they may be used to insure that there is no leakage, they can get in the way of the embouchure and the vibration of the reed. Wires, however, are normal on short-scrape reeds.
Avoid reeds with chips or cracks in the tip. Also avoid reeds with "feathers" of cane hanging off the sides.
METHODS FOR TESTING REEDS
Following are several tests that will tell about the quality of the reed to help choose a good one. These tests will also help determine how to fix a reed to make it better. Try lots of reeds to get a better understanding for what is possible.
Suction and Crow
1) Test for suction: cover the hole in the tube end with a finger, and suck on the reed as if it were a straw. Then let go, and the reed should "pop". If the reed leaks, the suction will be bad, and it may be possible to feel and hear the air coming in the sides of the reed. If the leak is very near the tube, it may be possible to apply fish skin/plumbers tape to seal it.
2) Crow the reed: put the entire reed up to the thread in the mouth and "puff" into reed. The crow should come out without too much air pressure. Ideally the crow should be only two "c"s an octave apart (or slightly flatter than a "c"). This kind of "stable" crow is extremely rare in a machine-made reed, however, which will more likely be an unfocused "rattle". Machine-made reeds tend to be too vibrant to be stable in the high register.
If when crowing the reed only one tight pitch comes out (hopefully a c, but maybe a c#), then the reed is likely too sharp, and too stiff to have easy response, especially in the low register.
If a reed is too open, soak the reed well, and try squishing the back. If it feels like it can be squished without cracking, and the reed will stay squished, try the crow again. It may be now easier and more focused.
Pick the reed with the most "coherent" crow.
These following six 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 taken out of the practice room.
1. Tongue 5 low C4's (or C#4's) rapidly without cracking. This may require some embouchure adjustment.
2. Breath attack (without tongue), high B5, C6, C#6, D6, and E6. The notes should speak effortlessly, with no embouchure pressure.
3. Soft attack (with tongue) the low notes, D4, C#4, C4, B3, and Bb3. The notes should speak easily and gently.
4. A reed is too hard (for the embouchure and/or air support) if it cannot be played for @20-30 seconds in all registers with no breath or diminuendo.
5. Slur up an octave from A, Bb, B, and C (octave 4 to 5) without changing embouchure or air speed. The upper note will be flat, but not so much that it could not easily be raised up to pitch.
6. Check F#5 and E5. Be able to play these notes forte with a wide open mouth and closed lips without sounding flat. These two notes are two of the first to become unstable, and demonstrate a lot about the stability of a reed.
7. Diminuendo to niente (nothing) on G4. In this register, to get soft the embouchure needs to close the reed while the oral cavity remains open. As a simple rule, never bite a reed to raise the pitch, only bite a reed to play softly in the low register. Use a tuner to check that the pitch is steady. Rollout and/or open up to keep the pitch down. If the note stops before fading to nothing, or has too much extra noise, it may be too stiff and/or closed, or air pressure may have been dropped too much.
8. The reed must provide a dynamic range of p to f in all registers easily.
9. Never sacrifice the above characteristics for the tone. If the response and ease, stability and dynamics are good, likely the tone will be at least acceptable, if not beautiful.
Fixing and Taking care of Oboe Reeds
Common Problems with Machine-Made Oboe Reeds
There are three types of oboe reeds: handmade, hand-finished and fully machine-made. Handmade are usually the best, but often the most expensive. The best quality for the money is to purchase hand-finished reeds, generally from oboe stores (see Oboe Reeds, Repair, and Supplies). Sometimes machine-made reeds can be good, but generally have one of three problems:
1) Most commonly, the reeds rated "soft" to "medium" are very responsive, and will play every low note easily, but they are very often not focused, or pitched, and are too vibrant to allow the high register to come out easily. Consequently, students try to control them by biting and end up having a pinched, sharp, soft sound.
2) If the reed is too hard (generally reeds rated "medium-hard" to "hard"), students will often bite to close the reed enough to make a sound (as when air escapes from a balloon , the opening has to be squeezed together to vibrate). Exerting this kind of control is tiring, however, and most students cannot keep it up consistently, and tend to play out of tune with inconsistent attacks. Also, when they begin to play on reeds that do not need this kind of control, they are unable to stop biting, and have very small, sharp tones.
3) Some reeds sound great, but because the machine is unable to scrape in a precise manner, and cannot keep the "rails" of bark that come up the sides of the reeds and hold it open, the reed closes down too much almost instantly.
FIXING REEDS (without and with tools)
If your reed is too closed, or is too sharp:
1) Open the tip of a soaked reed with your fingers. Be careful not to pinch too hard, or you may crack it! This is very temporary, but can sometimes get you through a rehearsal or concert.
2) Clean the reed out with a pipe cleaner. Wet the pipe cleaner and push through tube first. Do not push through in the opposite direction, cane first. This is particularly effective with older reeds that have collected “foreign matter” inside.
3) Using 600 wet/dry sandpaper, lightly sand the whole reed. This should scrape off any residue, as well as loosen the reed a little. It may also lower the pitch of a sharp reed. It is always better to take too little off than too much.
If your reed is too open or flat:
1) Squish the back of a soaked reed. You will know if you have done too much, and if so: see #1 above. If the back does not feel like it can squish without cracking the reed, there is probably too much cane on it, and it will need to be scraped with a knife.
If your reed leaks:
1) If the reed leaks near the thread, you can apply fish skin by wetting it and wrapping just once around if possible. Plumber’s Teflon tape works even better, and does not need to be moistened. If the reed leaks farther up, and your mouth does not cover it -throw it out!
2) Try soaking the reed longer in hotter water. It's a long shot, but it can work.
More Advanced Fixing with Reedmaking Tools
If you feel comfortable with using a reed knife, below are the tools you will need. Remember to always use a sharp reed knife as it scrapes more accurately with out squishing the cane. For information on how to sharpen a knife, see here. While scraping, support the reed with a finger and the plaque, and use forward strokes with the knife--the knife should not be pushed into the cane, but instead scrape along the surface.
Basic Tools needed:
• Hollow-ground knife (Vitry or Landwell knives are good, and many other brands work well)
• Flat plaques (convex plaques force the sides of the reed apart which may cause instability in the reed)
• Block or billot (with a flat surface and non-skid material on the bottom)
• Sharpening stone (Your knife must be sharp at all times! A combination of a fine india oil stone (needs mineral or honing oil) or a hard arkansas stone works well for me . I also use a diamond stone to regain the edge of the knife when it gets too rounded to sharpen)
Relatively easy things to do to fix your reed using tools:
1) If the reed is too vibrant, too flat and too easy, clip about a 1/4 mm. off the tip using the knife (or a razor blade) and the block. The reed should get harder and sharper. If it does not, something else may be called for: see #3 below.
2) If the reed is not vibrant enough, and too sharp, scrape lightly off the "channels" in the heart, i.e.: avoid the spine in the center and the rails on the sides. Be sure to scrape over the “edge” of the heart where it meets the tip but avoid scraping the tip. Also look at the end of the tip in a light. Sometimes the cane is too thick there and thinning the end will increase vibration.
3) If the reed is unfocused, unstable and too vibrant, you may need to address one of the areas that machines cannot get thin enough - the sides of the tip. Gently thin the sides of the tip with the plaque in. The reed should be fully supported by a finger while being scraped. The reed should get easier, and more focused. It may be helpful to thin, or mark right at the heart on the sides of the tip, to create a line of separation there for even more focus (see #4 below). You may need to clip the tip after scraping as it may become too flat and easy. The reed should become sharper and more stable after each clip.
4) Another focusing technique is to separate the tip from the heart on the sides. Scrape gently with very short strokes, or score the knife, where the tip meets the heart on the sides. The tip may also need to be clipped after this to make the reed stable again.
5) If the back feels unsquishable, and is holding the reed too open, scrape carefully up the back, while keeping the rails on the sides, and the spine in the center. If your reed does not have rails or spine, scrape beside where you would like them to be, and you will create small ones this way. This should close the reed down, thicken the sound and sharpen the pitch, particularly in the high register.
For more detailed and advanced information about reedmaking, see here.
The following suggestions will help to prolong the working life of your reeds:
1) Soak your reeds in lukewarm to hot tap water. Hot water soaks the reed more quickly, and makes them stronger. Older reeds generally need to be soaked longer. So soak your reed the amount needed to get the strength desired. Also, saliva has a destructive influence on cane, and will degrade your reed more quickly if you only soak your reeds in your mouth. If warm water is not available, soak the reed in cool tap water, then warm it up in your mouth as needed.
2) Always wipe the saliva off the reed, and suck it out of the reed before putting it away. Actually, there should not be much saliva on the reed in the first place, because you should be playing on the dry part of the lip.
3) Keep the reed in a sturdy, well-ventilated case. If you must use a "tube", poke a hole in the end to allow air movement. A "French" or "ribbon" style reed case, or one that uses "mandrels" is the best.
Mandrel style reed case
French or ribbon style reed case
4) Rotate your reeds. Do not play your favourite all the time. Practice, or play the loud parts on your "B" reed. This should keep both of them going for longer. Ideally, you should have at least three at all times.
5) Keep lipstick and food off and out of your reed. These "foreign" elements will inhibit vibrations, and speed up the decay process.