Soaking Oboe Reeds
I have been playing the oboe for 20 years, and teaching for over 15 years now, I tend to take soaking reeds for granted and I do not tend to give it a lot of thought. The topic has been coming up in different ways lately and I feel it is worth putting some perspective into type. I recently had an adult student come into a lesson with me and they had concerns about low notes not speaking on the instrument. I asked the student to play the oboe and the low notes would not make a peep on the reed or the oboe. I played the oboe and it was fine, I then asked about reed. It had 5-6 hours of playing on it, it seemed to work fine in the more comfortable registers of the instrument, but the low notes would not speak. I asked how long the reed had been soaked before the lessons. The reed in question had only been soaked for 30 seconds before trying for that low “C”. The oboe reed was not able to get the low notes out because it was too closed, and the reed was too closed because it has not been soaked long enough.
Spitting in the wind.
We carried on by talking about reed soaking and the general need to keep the reed moist at all time. I expressed that a reed must always be moistened with either water or saliva, and it was as though this was completely new information to the student. I shared that whenever I have a chance I will wet the reed with saliva and even put a little “spit” into the reed during long rests, being sure to suck it out before playing. This description was met with utter disgust as if this was the first realization that sometimes reeds and spit come together.
We both laughed a bit on account of the reaction, but the exchange made me feel a need to address the “Soaking Ritual” with this student as well as others. I gave the student a very brief description of how I understand plant cell functions to work in relation to moisture. I described how that relates to the shape of the cane and directly correlates with the opening of the reed. I am not sure my understanding is exactly correct, but it provides me with a logical framework for how one might conceptualize the “mysterious” workings of the reeds I make and play. I will find time to write down this description I shared in a later post. For now, I feel it is important to give a basic strategy for soaking oboe reeds. I going to attempt to refer to the process of soaking reeds as “the reed soaking ritual” from this point forward so my own students get a sense of the importance of this process.
To Soak or not to soak ?…. Please soak
Oboe reeds are physically delicate and temperamental to many external factors. They are fragile even when great care is taken to give them a long and healthy life. Add to that the dangers of an early death from music stands, teeth, or other musicians it’s no wonder we oboist tend to be stereotyped as neurotic. Accidents happen within our lives as people and oboists, and often the life of reed can end too soon due to those unforeseen villainous variables mentioned earlier. Some variables within oboe playing and reed making can be easily controlled to add pleasure to the process of oboe-ing , and some cannot.
One process, soaking oboe reeds, is easily controlled and must always be considered before playing. There is not a good excuse to play on a dry reed. I feel this is one thing that oboists around the world will agree on. We should never play a dry reed. Not only because it is more likely to crack, but because it will not work in the way that it is designed to function. Soaking oboe reeds is also super easy, just do it!
More than one way to soak a reed
I would like to offer my own perspective in caring for oboe reeds, based on what works for me, and what I have learned from other oboists over the years. I hope this may take some of the guesswork out of getting the most life from oboe reeds and enlighten readers on what to do and not do for beginners and professionals alike. My goal is not to try to convince anyone that my ideas are the rule of the land, but they are what I suggest to my own students and customers do.
I have these things in mind when I make reeds, so it will be helpful for customers know how my “soaking rituals” may be different than what they may be accustomed to. These are also the things that I feel every student should look at and understand when they begin playing the oboe. The oboe presents enough challenges without being in the dark about oboe reed care and maintenance.
Let the “Soaking ritual” Begin! But First…
I have met many oboists, and always interested to hear ideas about how to soak a reed. There are many different ways to soak a reed. It is dependent on many variables from what time of year it is, to how thick the gouge of the cane is. My point here is not to say “you are wrong if you approach this differently” but to give my own perspective of what works for me and my own explanation of why it works. This is not an exact science and every piece of cane is a little different, so please accept that as my disclaimer.
How long should I soak my oboe reeds?
I feel it is always important to remember that oboe reeds are made from a living material that still shares many of the characteristics of a living plant. When water is added the cells expand. When it is dried the cells shrink. The cell structure within the cane changes as moisture is introduced into the system and continues to change throughout the life of a reed. The cells expand and contract more drastically in a new reed, but will settle over time, at which point the reed will be “stable” or “broken in”. Meaning the dimensions of the cane will not shift so drastically from one stage of soaking and drying to the next.
This also means that a reed needs to soak for longer periods of time as it gets older for the cell structure to change at all. I like to think of the tip opening as being directly related to the amount of water that is present within the cell structure, the more water in the cells the more open the tip. The cells stop absorbing as much water as the
I like to think of the tip opening as being directly related to the amount of water that is present within the cell structure. The more water in the cells the more open the tip. The cells stop absorbing as much water as the reed gets older. To maintain the healthy tip opening the reed must be submerged in water for longer periods of time towards the end of its life than at the start of its life. Below is a rough guideline for how long an oboe reed should be soaked based on its life cycle.
New oboe reed-2 hours of playing.
- Place in warm water for 1 minute, remove from the water and let sit for another minute. blow out excess moisture and Play.
- too open squeeze shut for 30 seconds.
- too closed return to water for another minute.
2-5hours of playing.
- Place the reed in warm water for 2-4 minutes, remove from water, blow out excess moisture and play.
- Too open= squeeze shut for 10 -30 seconds
- Too Closed= Return to water for another minute
5-10 hours of playing
- Place the reed in warm water for 5-7 minutes, remove from water, blow out excess moisture and play
- Too open= not likely but you can squeeze the reed shut if needed.
- Too closed= either soak longer or move to the next step.
for a “dead oboe reed” that has lived a full life, there is one last soaking ritual that I suggest. This trick may allow you to get another hour or two of playing from it.
- Heat a shot glass with water in the microwave for 15 seconds, WARNING IT WILL BE HOT !
- Place the old reed into the water for 20-30 seconds remove the reeds and blow out excess moisture.
- The reed may be too open, I suggest letting the reed dry fully and then soak as you normally would.