Monday, March 5, 2012

The Importance of Hand Made Reeds.

Reeds can have a huge impact on how a oboist feels about their choice of instrument. Honestly, it can have a huge impact on how they feel about life in general. My family knows that when I'm having a difficult time with reeds (it happens to the best of us!) I can be in the darkest pits of despair, but as soon as I get back in the swing of things with good reeds that I'm as happy as a little bird. You can see this in students too; I love watching their faces light up at the beginning of the month when they get a new reed. For just a little while, their problems have disappeared.

So, why are hand made reeds so much better than a machine made reed? Reed manufacturers use basically the same process to make an oboe reed as they do to make a saxaphone or clarinet reed. The cane is planed down at an angle to create a thinner tip that gradually thickens towards the back of the reed. This works for single reed instruments because the cane is so much thicker, so the vibrations have room to warm up the sound. On the oboe, what you end up with are two really thin blades vibrating against each other.

I think this is a Meason reed. Notice
the wire.

The problem with making reeds this way is that they have no structural support and can't even hold themselves open. This is why you will frequently see machine made reeds with a wire forcing them open. The planing process also frequently results in a very flat reed, so the manufacturer is often forced to clip the reed very short in order to bring the pitch up. The lack of structural support also results in thin, nasal sound. In general, hand made reeds don't have either of these problems.

One of my reeds. Notice the varying
degrees of thickness.

With a hand made reed, there are generally three important areas: the tip, the heart, and the back. The spine runs from tip to back in the center of the reed and helps to keep the reed open. The tip begins paper thin and ramps up into the heart. It's job is to let the vibrations into the reed quickly and without much resistance. When the vibrations reach the heart, which is the thickest place on the reed, they are circulated and warmed up before reaching the oboe. The back is just a little thinner than the heart to allow for some flexibility and control of pitch. This structure results in a round, warm tone instead of the nasal sound we find in machine made reeds.

Some oboists don't think it's that important for young players to play on hand made reeds, but I've found that they can develop an excellent sound very early if they are given access to materials that will allow them to from the start. Hand made reeds enable the player to create a beautiful, warm sound that can be produced at pitch without the reed collapsing.

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