Ensure your reeds live a vibrant life with proper 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 the oboe reed care suggestions 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.
There is also a bit of a personal intention in writing this article that I would like to share. As an artisan, I take great pride in my craft and it hurts me a little to see my reeds being mistreated in any way. I think anyone who makes their own oboe reeds will naturally take better care of their reeds than people without the understanding of what goes into making oboe reeds. I feel that a reed maker will have more respect for oboe reeds than someone not knowing what goes into the process and follow a more serious oboe reed care regiment (Just in case you are curious here is the process “how to make oboe reeds step by step”). I have spent thousands of hours lurched over a reed desk on a search to understand how to make oboe reeds. It takes THOUSANDS of hours to understand how to make relatively consistent and good oboe reeds, I mean that sincerely.
I have spent tens of thousands of dollars studying with great oboists and reed makers and I have a great desire to share my knowledge and skills with people who love the oboe as much as me. I have spent years of my life at University learning the skills I now share with my customers and oboists reading my articles and purchasing my reeds. I am not saying this to feed my ego, but to provide you insight into how I view my craft and art form. I am so happy to provide reeds to so many oboists. I feel that my services allow people to play the oboe, something that brings me great joy, I hope they feel a similar joy.
oboe reeds are fragile. Treat oboe reeds with care.
Oboe reeds are made from a plant called Arundo Donax. The plant grows wild all around the world, and 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 through the opening, causing the two blades vibrate from the changes in air pressure. The vibrating blades of the reed create the sound. The vibrations travel through the air and are interpreted by the ear as sound. The sound is then amplified by the instrument body when it is placed in the oboe.
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 oboe reed’s position at all times and guard the reeds from the dangers around them.
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 flexibility 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”
How do I soak an oboe reed?
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 and the humidity of the environment. Newer reeds can usually be soaked for a shorter period of time, older reeds may need to be soaked longer. I wrote a longer guide “How To Soak Oboe Reeds” Here. I would suggest soaking the reed for 2-3 minutes in warm water to start if you are not sure of the reed maker’s suggested soaking method. Yes, different reed makers may have different soaking preferences depending on their reed making process.
Sometimes a student will not have access to water or a cup for soaking reeds. Saliva may be used in this situation but it is not ideal. 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 oboe reed quicker than water, so I advise you favor soaking oboe reeds in water. Oboe 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.
Removing the oboe reed from the oboe.
I am always amazed at how many of my own students struggle with removing the oboe reed from the oboe. I watch students grab the reeds in ways I am not aware were possible. I get a bit nervous seeing the reeds being grabbed by the thread and wiggled back and forth as if extracting a loose tooth.
The reed should not ever be removed by grabbing the thread. The thread will loosen over time and become unraveled if the oboist consistently pulls and rotates the thread. When the thread comes unraveled it is not a defect in make, it comes from operator error. The oboist should only grab the reed by the cork. A reed will never unravel if the thread is always avoided. I find many of my students cannot figure out how to get a good hold on the cork. here is my method;
- Make a fist with your thumb on the exterior of the hand (as if thumb wrestling). I use my strong hand to grab the reed and my weak hand to hold the oboe (right hand on reed, left hand on oboe upper joint).
- Place the cork between your thumb and fist and squeeze firmly. The fingers should be right up against the oboe, pushing against it even.
- Hold the reed still and turn the oboe. There is more leverage turning the oboe than the reed. Pull the reed out of the oboe as it is turned. The reed will come out if it is turning.
The cork can be made smaller if it is very tight in the oboe. I suggest using disposable nail files to take a little cork off the reed. Cork grease can also be used to lubricate the cork which may allow easier removal, just be aware that it may also decrease the ability to get a firm grip on the cork.
AN OBOE REED THAT DOES NOT GO IN EASILY WILL NOT COME OUT EASILY. File the cork a little before you put it in.
I suggest students keep a small piece of foam contact paper/shelf liner in their case for very stubborn reeds.
What to do if the oboe reed starts to unravel?
Part of being human is being imperfect, and with imperfect people comes imperfect processes.
Student: “Aaron, I know you said not to , but I grabbed the reed by the thread to remove it and now it is starting to unravel”.
Me: “Okay no big deal, we caught it early, we can fix it”
When an oboe reed shows signs that the thread is loosening there are a few things that can be done.
- Put a small amount of super glue on the thread where the reed is loosening. I suppose a glue gun or any other high strength adhesive will work just fine too.
- wrap the oboe reed with Teflon plumbers tape or parafilm wax. Many oboists will use one or both of these products to patch leaky reeds, so they may already be in the oboe case. Another reason your student should have one of these products in their oboe case.
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 airtight 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 oboe 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 OBOE 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. Changes in the pressure and humidity of an environment may cause oboe reeds to vibrate differently.
The majority of oboe reed cases will fall into one of these categories;
- 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.
I sell a couple Ribbon Style oboe reed cases on my website, you can see those by clicking on the links below. Even if you are not interested in the reed cases I sell they will give you an idea of what the Ribbon style Oboe reeds cases function.
Rotation of oboe reeds.
Many oboists, including this one, will rotate oboe reeds so they do not get tired out too soon. To “rotate oboe reeds” means one reed is not played until it is dead, but several reeds will be played in a rotation of some sort. Most professional oboists rotate reeds not only to make them last longer, but also because they know different reeds may act differently from day to day. The favorite reed of one day may not work the same way the next day. A less than perfect oboe reed today may feel great tomorrow.
I know some parents will buy a few reeds and only allow their student to have access to one reed at a time. The thinking is that the student will only destroy one reed and not three. I understand that way of thinking, it makes logical sense to me, though the student may go through more reeds in the long run, since the reeds will be over-played in a short time period. I advise the student be given access to at least three reeds at a time. The student needs to learn to be very responsible for the care of their oboe reeds.
oboe reeds can be sterilized with Hydrogen peroxide, Alchohol or mouthwash. I usually use Hydrogen peroxide. I don’t sanitize reeds 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. It is a good idea to sterilize oboe reeds after the player has been sick. This will ensure the oboist does not recover from their illness only to become sick again after playing contaminated reeds. I am not truly sure how long germs stay alive in such instances, but I think it is better to be safe than take the chance.
There are some products out there that claim to prolong the life of oboe reeds. I have tried “the Reed Life” product and like it especially for reviving old English Horn Reeds. I think Forrests music sells this product. No product can replace proper oboe reed care, no matter how well it works.
How Often Should I Be Purchasing New Oboe Reeds?
The answer to this will ultimately depend on the oboist but perhaps my professional experience and opinion will be of some value.
I usually tell people to expect a reed to provide around 10 hours of playing. Your jaw may have just dropped if you are new to this. 10 hours is the actual time spend playing, not sitting and listening to the band director talk, not time spent looking out the window while it should be played, but actual playing time. A band class may be an hour-long, but the oboist may play for a half-hour of that time. They may then play another half hour total at home. A reed can be expected to last a 2-3 weeks in a situation like this with proper oboe reed care.
An oboist practicing for 2 hours every day, playing in several college ensembles, and taking lessons may get less than a week’s use out of an oboe reed.
with this information here is what you should expect. As with most things I write, these are not rules but perspective gained from my own students, professional dialogue, and customer feedback. This is assuming my oboe reed care suggestions are followed.
- beginner-3 years = one student oboe reed every 2-3 weeks
- 3-6 years= one professional oboe reed every 2-3 weeks
- serious high school student= one professional oboe reed every 10-14 days
- college oboe major= one professional oboe reed every 5-10 days
I would advise having a conversation with your student oboist about reed care if they are going through more than 3-4 oboe reeds per month. A high-level high school student or college student may be going through 3-5 oboe reeds per month, which is okay if it is due to usage with proper oboe reed care and not neglect. A private teacher will be able to share more information than is provided herewith your young oboist about oboe reed care and other oboe related topics.
I highly suggest all students have a private oboe teacher to help with their studies. I understand if that is not possible due to financial constraints or limits on access to a private teacher. There are many oboe teachers offering online lessons, the student will gain valuable insights by studying with a qualified oboe teacher. I offer live online video lessons on oboe performance, reed making, and performance strategies (these lessons deal with mindfulness for performers, where we look at the mind-body-emotional connection during a performance and how to establish a friendly relationship with our thoughts and emotions). Please feel free to contact me if you would like a few lessons on oboe reed care or any oboe related topics.
I hope this takes some of the guesswork 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
Interested in purchasing oboe reeds? Find handmade oboe reeds at A.Lakota Reeds