Saturday, November 19

Reed Life Cycle (part 1) : long-term cycle

O.K. a little over a month of intense computer work is now over!
Back to the oboe, if fatigue and a sore back doesn’t get in the way!

The bad season for reeds and reed making is coming quickly, so I have to try to finish as many reeds as I can as soon as possible before weather just confuses the difference between good and mediocre reeds.

It’s a reed’s life…

goldReed_smallI’ve “irked” more than one professional and/or amateur oboist by saying that making oboe reeds is easy! I stand firm on that, but I must explain that a lot of the complaints I read are mostly due to misunderstanding how reeds behave over time. Reeds have 2 definite life-cycles and you can’t expect them to behave “perfectly” when they are not in the performance phase! The short-term cycle describes with the reed’s behaviour during one day and the long-term cycle describes it’s entire lifetime from first scrape to final rest. The short-term cycle MIGHT be more apparent in Euro (short) scrape reeds because the windows in American scrape theoretically eliminate the reed’s springy bounce-back. But the long-term applies to all scraping styles.

In my student days, I had a reputation of being able to scrape a blank in 15 minutes and be able to play a good performance on it. Nonetheless, the best reeds take weeks to scrape (having been tied months before). In a nutshell, my best results commonly follow this pattern:

  • On the first scraping, the reed should play all the notes relatively easily, nothing more. Trying to improve the sound or responsiveness at this point can very well ruin the reed.
  • A few days later, the reed will open much more to the point where it is almost unusable. At this point,
    • first: close the reed with proper soaking and squeezing;
    • second: the reed can be softened over a few days for sound quality and responsiveness (remove more bark in the back and/or reduce the tip, sides and heart), but not too much as this can make the reed very unstable.
    • Note 1: squeezing the reed is more important than scraping for a few days. Playing the reed a little bit each day helps determine how much can be scraped.
    • Note 2: at this point, the reed can tune the oboe very flat. I don’t fix that yet because I have found that the reed will naturally rise in pitch within a week.
  • Less than one week after the first scraping, the cane’s character should begin to show itself. The difference between concert grade, practice grade, strength builder or just plain no good!
  • About a week after first scraping, I will sometimes make dramatic changes to the reed: change the back, back-up the heart, chop the tip by as much as 2.5mm – sometimes, no change at all. The dramatic changes often take reeds I thought were awful and turn them into concert-grade reeds. Sometimes, even small adjustments take near-concert grade reeds and ruin them irreparably!
  • More than one week after the first scraping (a week and a half or 2 weeks), the reed will be at its best. This is where the final touch scraping can be done. A reed that needs scraping or any adjustment after 2 weeks (in MY experience – other people will have different opinions) usually means it is just no good.
  • The reed is actually best for performance after about one month after the first scrape. Reeds should be used at least every 2-3 days for 15 minutes to an hour to keep them ”alive”.

This kind of use typically keeps my reeds in concert grade for another couple of months…. but then again, I don’t play anywhere nearly as much as students or professionals!

I know the reed is at the end of its life when it becomes “too” easy to play, the sound brightens and becomes buzzy: dynamics will become more difficult, the pitch will rise (or drop) and articulation will become sluggish. No scraping will help anymore. Sometimes, cleaning with hydrogen peroxide and pipe-cleaners will extend the life for a few days to a week, but it is not a full restoration.

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