Oboe Reed Care
Oboe reeds are expensive, delicate, and temperamental. I would like to offer my own perspective about 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 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 share with my own students and interested customers. These are also the things that I feel every student should look at and understand when they begin playing the oboe. The oboe is enough of a challenge without being in the dark about oboe reed care and maintenance.
oboe reeds are fragile
Oboe reeds are made from a plant called Arundo Donax. The plant grows wild all around the world, but is farmed specifically for instrument reeds. The plant in its harvested form is usually referred to as “cane”. The plant grows to be around 12 feet tall and resembles bamboo.
Different sections of the plant are used for different types of reeds. Large flat reeds like baritone saxophone come from sections closer to the ground. The reeds get smaller as the cane diameter becomes smaller. Oboe reeds come from cane that has a diameter of around 10-11mm.
The cane is a fragile organic material in itself, but when made into an instrument reed it is shaved to be paper thin. The tip of an oboe reed can be thinner than a hair!The primary function of reed is to vibrate and the thinner the tip the easier the vibrations are able to move through the reed.The reed vibrates when air is moved past the surface. Those vibrations are then amplified by the instrument body and vibrate the air. The vibrations travel through the air and are interpreted by the ear as sound.
Since the reed is so thin it can easily chip or crack from even slight trauma. Rubbing the oboe reed on clothing, getting it tangled in hair, hitting it on a tooth, or storing it improperly in a case can all lead to damage. The oboist must be conscious of the reeds position at all times, and guard the reed from the dangers around it.
You must soak your oboe reeds
Oboe reed care starts with soaking the reed. Reeds must be soaked before they are played on or they will crack. A dry reed does not have the same flixibility as a soaked reed so any pressure placed on a dry reed will make it split. The cells of the cane must become hydrated for the reed to vibrate correctly also. I wrote a detailed post about soaking oboe reeds previously which can be found here. “a guide to soaking oboe reeds”
The reed should be submerged up to the thread in water to become soaked. It should stay in the water for a period of 30 seconds up to several minutes depending on the age of the reed. Newer reeds can be soaked for a shorter period of time, older reeds may need to be soaked longer.
Sometimes a student will not have access to water or a cup for soaking reeds. Saliva may be used in this sitution. The oboist will need to place the oboe reed in their mouth up to the thread. They then must put saliva around the reed and in the reed for several minutes. Saliva will break down the reed quicker than water, so I advise you favor soaking reeds in water. Reeds soaked in water will last longer than reeds soaked with saliva.
Be sure to suck out excess water or saliva before attempting to play the reed or that moisture will be pushed into the oboe or make a gargling sound.
Oboe reed storage
Excess moisture should be shaken or blown out of the oboe reed before it is stored.
- Shake= shake the wrist while holding the oboe reed. Care should be taken not to hit the reed on anything
- Blow= Put your lips on the cork end of the reed and blow the excess moisture from the cane. Be careful not to put more spit in the reed
Oboe reeds should be stored in a reed case and not the vials or small containers that the reeds are packaged in. The small vials are air tight and will cause the reed to mold. A moldy reed will look dark or speckles on it. I would suggest a case that holds 3-12 reeds to start. Most three reed cases will fit right into an oboe case and not be lost. The student may benefit from having two reed cases. A smaller 3 reed case and a larger 12 reed case, the larger case being left at home while the small case stays with the oboe.
I suggest students have AT LEAST 3 reeds at a time in their case, So a 3 reed case should be the minimum. The larger cases will allow a student to hold onto reeds and see if they may regain some life later. Yes dead, worn out reeds can gain a second life. I attribute this to changing seasons. The pressure and humidity change in the enviroment can cause oboe reeds to vibrate differently.
For anyone not knowing what sort of reed case to buy I have included a few links. Feel free to use these links as guides in what you are looking for. I personally like ribbon style cases vs mandrel styled cases
- Mandrel style holds the reed by inserting a small tube into the bottom of the reed.
- Ribbon style holds the reed in place at the thread. It essentially hugs the reed in place
- There are now some reed cases with ribbon and mandrels. These are great.
A few reed cases I like
Oboe Reed Case 10-Reed Black Leather. Made by Oboe CH. They are a german company that makes great quality oboe reed cases. This is an example of a ribbon style case. Check out the website here Oboe CH website
Oboe Reed Case 6-Reed Black Leather Same as above but holds 6 reeds.
Oboe Reed Case 4-Reed Black Leather with clips. This is similar to the other two but has the mandrel clips and the ribbons.
Rico Reed Storage Case with Humidity Control Pack for Oboe and Bassoon this is a mandrel style case. I prefer the ribbons because the reeds can become loose in these cases and break.
You can see the differences in the styles of reed cases from these links. There are a lot of other reed cases on the market, I hope the links above take some of the guesswork out of teminology.
oboe reeds can be sterilized with Hydrogen perozide, Alchohol or mouthwash. I usually use Hydrogen peroxide. I dont sanitize reed too often (except when I initially sell them) but if for some reason there is a need feel free to use one of the products listed.
How long does an oboe reed last?
Reeds are made from an organic material that is very fragile and tempermental… I know broken record. That being said….. if a reed is well cared for, watered regularly and not met with an unfortunate accident it should last for 6-12 hours of playing. The machine made, mass produced reeds tend to not last as long as hand made reeds. Hand made reeds can be a bit harder to use in the begginning without being adjusted for the individual student and are harder to come by.
Students new to the oboe will likely break more reeds than are worn out. They may try to keep playing on a reed that is broken or worn out. You will know a reed is broken if it has any chips out of the center of the tip or cracks. Sometimes a bit of the sides of the tip of the reed can be missing and the reed can still work, but that is case by case.
I hope this takes some of the guess work out of oboe reed care for people just coming to the oboe. The oboe is a very rewarding and beautiful instrument to play. I hope the instrument will bring you or the oboist in your life a lot of joy. good luck with your oboe reed care and Happy oboe-ing