Evaluating intonation in oboe reeds.
The ability for a musician to play in tune with other instrumentalists is an important ability no matter what level they are at. While many instruments can be adjusted to play better in tune by changing either the length of the instrument, or string tension, the oboe must be tuned initially with the reed, and then with slight adjustments of the player’s embouchure and reed placement. Learning to adjust oboe reed intonation is important, and not overly complicated as long as a conceptual framework is provided to understand the workings of oboe reeds and basic acoustics.
The oboe reed must be made to play in tune with the oboist’s embouchure, air usage, and specific instrument. Every oboe reed must be suited for the oboist, which is one reason why many professional oboists tend to make their own reeds. Other oboists of all levels adjust purchased reeds to suit their specific needs.
Intonation is one of the qualities in an oboe reed that I have come to call “The Big Three“. “The Big Three” are intonation, response, and resistance. I see these three qualities as the most important qualities to evaluate in any oboe reed. Understanding how to evaluate and adjust these qualities in the oboe reed will give the oboist far more control over their reed making and performance.
What is intonation?
in·to·na·tion (according to a quick google search)
- The accuracy of pitch in playing or singing, or the ability to play or sing notes in tune
Let me define oboe reed intonation as;
- “the ease at which the oboe reed plays accurately at the desired pitch level for a specific oboist and instrument”.
I do not subscribe to the idea that there is one way to make an oboe reed, or that one school of thought in oboe playing is correct. The intonation of a reed is, therefore dependent on factors outside of the reed itself. A reed may play well in tune for one oboist, but out of tune for the next. I see the variables below affecting the oboist’s preference in an oboe reed’s pitch level. These can include but are not limited to;
- Embouchure tightness
- how much reed is exposed in the mouth
- The amount of air (volume) that is supplied to the reed from the player
- The pressure of air that is created in the body
- The pitch of the instrument
- physical features of the oboist (body size, thickness of lips)
- The angle which the oboe is held
- desired pitch level (A=438 vs A=444)
An oboist with a very tight embouchure may play sharp on reeds that another oboist would prefer. Their intonation would also depend on the air they use and other variables on the list. Oboe playing and reed making is a dynamic system, every variable has the potential to affect other qualities. This is why I feel developing some understanding of the holistic system of oboe, oboist, oboe is important. Hopefully, my view of this system will begin to emerge in my writing. I am not a writer by trade, so explaining these concepts may take some time to unfold.
Variables affecting oboe reed intonation.
The oboe reed is dependent on the oboist, therefore the oboist makes or chooses reeds to suit their needs and desires. We can look at oboe reeds away from the oboist to better understand what variables affect the intonation of the reed itself. I see there being two main categories that most affect the intonation of an oboe reed. They are; Internal dimensions of the reed, Thickness of the cane, and external dimensions of the oboe reed.
Internal dimensions of the oboe reed affecting intonation
The internal dimension of the reed can be thought of as the space between the two blades of oboe cane. The smaller this space is, the higher the pitch of the reed will be, assuming all other variables remain the same. The larger the internal space the lower the pitch of the reed. Here are the variables I see as most affecting the internal dimensions of the oboe reed. Imagine we are making reeds on the same staples with the same piece of cane, and all variables stay the same aside from that being discussed.
- The shape of the oboe reed. A wide shaped oboe reed will have more space within it, therefore have a lower pitch
- The overlap of the blades. Some oboe reed makers will overlap the two blades slightly, this will change the internal dimensions of the reed. A larger overlap makes the inside smaller (higher pitch).
- The size of the reed opening. A wider opening will have a lower pitch.
- The length of the oboe reed.
- The smoothness of the gouge. I find a smoother gouge makes reeds that are slightly sharper, This could be related to the hardness of the cane and not the smoothness of gouge though. I have not studied these variables in depth apart from one another yet.
External dimensions of the oboe reed affecting intonation
The external dimension of the oboe reed can be thought of as the thickness of the cane at different points. Imagine no other variable is being affected. The usual rule is that any time cane is scraped off the reed the pitch will drop slightly. This is not always the case, but it is a good general rule until you become very familiar with the workings of the oboe reed. When thinking about the variables below think that you have a finished oboe reed and you adjust the given variable listed and nothing else.
- The length of the tip. I find a longer tip tends to be flatter, a shorter tip sharper. This will also depend on the integration of the tip to heart.
- Integration between heart to tip. I feel that a more drastic integration will drop pitch more, but this may be related to tip length. A reed that has a more integrated tip to heart can usually have a slightly thicker heart, and the tip length may act shorter than it is in terms of vibrations moving through the reed.
- The thickness of heart. A thicker heart will have a higher pitch, thinning the heart will lower the pitch
- The thickness of tip related to heart
- The thickness of the cane in the windows in American style reeds. This can be a bit counter-intuitive because taking more cane from the windows just behind the heart can raise the pitch of the oboe reed. Taking cane off the reed usually results in the pitch dropping, but thinning the windows does not always do that. I see this as changing the internal dimensions of reed to be slightly more closed. Other ideas out there?
- the presence of a spine. If you take too much from the spine area the reed can either go flat or sharp. I feel it can go sharp because the reed closes in on itself resulting in an internal change. The reed can also go flat because the reed has too much cane taken away from the structure.
- The thickness of rails. Thicker rails will give the reed more structure and provide slightly higher pitch.
- Gouge of the cane. This is going to determine the initial thickness of the whole reed. Every scape we take from a reed is going to be dependent on the initial gouge of the cane.
- The length of the oboe reed. I include this in both sections because I feel it applies to both the internal and external structure.
I feel it is important to remember that oboe reed making includes a lot of variables, so it is best not to assign too many value judgments on these variables. The key to making good oboe reeds is finding the balance between the variables that works for you as an oboist. You may make oboe reeds with very long tips, and a very thick hearts to compensated for the pitch drop from the long tip. There is nothing wrong with that, just as there is nothing wrong with making oboe reeds with very short tips and a thicker heart. What is important is to ask;
- “is there a better way to make oboe reeds?”
- “Is this characteristic helping the oboe reed to vibrate as I want it to or hindering it?”
- ” are my oboe reeds helping me to play easily?”
A wide reed may be shorter than a reed made with a more narrow piece of cane to compensate for the pitch. One is not better or worse, the reeds simply have a different point of balance in terms of structure related to intonation. My point is to say that oboe reeds must be made to work first, with the preference of the oboist in mind.
To say all oboe reeds must have very thick hearts, rails and spine may work for one system of playing but not another. A specific gouge and shape may work well with a reed that has these qualities, but others may be overly tight and stuffy. depending on all the other factors at work. Oboe reed making is not done in a vacuum, so there is often a need to compensate one variable with another. Finding the balance between all variables is the goal as I see it, not making oboe reeds exactly like someone else, unless those reeds work well for you. Even then the reed making process is going to be slightly different due to knife technique. That is also assuming all variables can be controlled for between oboist, instrument, tools and material and philosophy. I digress …
Assessing oboe reed intonation.
I make oboe reeds initially by the crow. I find it gives me a good idea of how the reed will play, and then I can adjust the reed by feel as I play it. Some oboists do not assess the crow while making reeds, and that is fine too. I build my reeds to crow a “C” natural. Getting to that point can be confusing and challenging in itself, I know, but it will provide rewards when learned. I can evaluate my reeds slightly more objectively by getting the reed to crow a certain way. The “C” tells me about the oboe reed intonation away from embouchure’s manipulation.
The information provided within the crow does not mean anything away from the oboist and style which they make their oboe reeds. The oboe reed crow tells me a lot about how the reed will play before I ever put it into an oboe, but that is because I am accustomed to what information is in the crow, and know what it means to me, related to my embouchure and air. I will break down the oboe reed crow related to “The Big three” at a later date.
I feel building a conceptual framework is very important, so students are not “scraping in the dark” if you like. I feel there are already a lot of great resources out there about how to scrape oboe reeds and not many which provide a conceptual way to approach oboe reed making. I also hope to provide information relevant to not just the “Aaron Lakota” style of oboe reed making but concepts that hold true no matter the style of reed making you practice.
How to test oboe reed intonation.
I will be sure to write in depth about the oboe reed crow in the future, for now, I will supply a way to assess oboe reed intonation for any oboist, no matter what school of playing you belong to, or style of oboe reed you use or make. What we are trying to do is establish a standard of where the reed will play with your usual air and embouchure.
- Get a tuner
- Play a long tone without looking at the tuner, set your embouchure and air as you would normally do. Try not to use your ears, air or embouchure to change the reed, just play as you normally would.
- Turn the tuner on and without looking at it play the same note. Now while holding the note Look at the tuner. Is the reed sharp, flat, or in tune?
- Play a scale without trying to compensate for the pitch with your normal embouchure and air.
- Again note where the pitch sits.
Always assess the oboe reeds you make by this standard or some other objective standard. Reeds do tend to become sharper as they break in, so you may like to break the reed in slowly and adjust it as you break it in. Be sure that all reeds you consider “finished” play in tune for your specific set-up. A reed that is nearly complete but plays slightly flat will likely play in tune when it is broken in. This is because the internal dimension decreases as the reed closes. My oboe reeds tend to close as they are played, which raises the pitch.
I wrote an article about adjusting flat oboe reeds in the past that may be helpful. How to adjust flat oboe reeds without any tools. These tricks all change the internal dimensions of the oboe reed.
As we become more proficient oboe reed makers we gain a more in-depth understanding of how “the Big Three” qualities balance for our specific needs as oboists. Making sure the oboe reed intonation is correct for you without too much resistance very important. A reed that plays in tune with the correct amount of resistance will allow the performer comfortably make music and not create too much tension in the body.
Make oboe reeds that work for you, not against you.
Sometimes a good ear can be detrimental to an oboe reed maker in beginning stages because the oboist will often compensate for pitch problems in the reed with their air or embouchure. A small amount of compensation is natural and a benefit in playing the oboe however I think we want to make our reeds play in tune for our specific embouchure, air, and instrument without the need for too much change in control. I encourage oboe reed making students set their air and embouchure then adjust the reed to that. Do not try to control the oboe reed any more than you usually would, let the reed work for you. Perhaps this is personal taste up to be debated.
The Two primary problems of playing flat oboe reeds.
- you will either play flat. OR
- Playing flat reeds can cause a lot of tension in the body in the process of trying to bring the oboe reed up to pitch
I have a lot of personal experience making oboe reeds that were flat and needed to be manipulated by embouchure and air to play in tune. I would blow very hard into the reed and bite it up to pitch. The overblowing would create a lot of tension within my body. I was never aware that oboe playing could be easier, with less tension in my body. To be honest I was not really even aware of the tension for a long time.
Tension and support should not be confused, support is a conscious act, a slight flexing of the core area of the body to bring the air pressure in the lungs to the correct level. Tension can be unconscious and is the flexing of other parts of the body that are not needed for oboe playing. It is trying to raise the pressure in the body in other areas apart from the diaphragm area. The shoulders, throat, and back are main areas for me personally. Meditation or Alexander technique, which I consider a form of mindfulness meditation, can help oboists to become more in tune with their bodies and minds. More in tune with the points of tension in the body. The only way to release this tension is to find what is causing it and then eliminate changing something. That may be learning to use the air differently, or changing the reed. A mindfulness practice can help relieve tension, also there are other benefits that I talk about in Meditation for oboists.
The problems of playing on sharp reeds.
Playing on sharper reeds than I am accustomed can feel very uncomfortable for me. I feel a reed needs to take a certain amount of air so too much back-pressure does not form in my body. Like flat reeds, reeds that play too sharp for a specific oboist will create two problems I can think of now. I have less experience with sharp reeds than flat, so please feel free to leave insights in the comments.
- the oboist will play sharp..
- The reeds can cause an oboist to not develop proper support in the long-term.
Once again, a flat or sharp reed to you may be an in-tune reed to someone else, that comes down to a lot of variables. The solution is to learn to assess your oboe reeds based on what you need personally. Learning to make and adjust oboe reeds is something that will benefit any oboist no matter the level. You may also find an oboe reed maker that makes reeds that work well for you. They may be very close to what you need and a simple internal or external adjustment will make them better for you.
Final thoughts on this introduction to oboe reed intonation.
This post concludes my introduction to “The Big Three”. I encourage you to read my previous posts on “The Big Three“, response, and resistance if you are just coming to this article without being familiar with AaronLakota.com. I see “The Big Three” as being at the top of a conceptual hierarchy of oboe reed philosophy.
My goal in anything I write is to open your mind to thinking of how the oboe reed, oboist, and oboe act as a dynamic system. We can understand the oboe reed as a system in itself, the human body as a system, and the oboe as a system. They all must be understood alone, and together to gain a full understanding of oboe playing. Oboe playing and oboe reed making are very subjective topics, and we must never forget that we are all different. We have different bodies, different instruments, and different concepts in terms of beauty of tone. Just like oboe playing, oboe reed intonation is not one size fits all.
I encourage you to find your own voice on the instrument. Create that sound with as much ease as possible. Finding the balance between intonation, response, and resistance in oboe reed making and adjusting will allow you much more freedom in artistry. Take this information as a starting point and make your own observations. Develop your oboe reed making skills to make oboe playing an enjoyable task. Be Happy Oboe-ing.
As always feel free to leave me your questions and comments in the comment section, I will try to answer them or clarify points of confusion. Feel free to disagree with any of my viewpoints, I am happy to hear all thoughts on oboe reed intonation. Subscribe to the blog to keep up to date on new posts, and subscribe to my mailing list to receive occasional information not provided on this blog.