Oboe Reeds For Beginners.
The oboe is often recognized as one of the most difficult instruments to play. Beginning oboe students are often intimidated by the reputation of the instrument. The oboe is a rather difficult instrument for several reasons, but the major difficulty is dealing with the oboe reed. The reed itself is constructed of a piece of bamboo-like cane called Arundo Donax which is cut, thinned, shaped and then folded and tied over a small tube of metal. The reed is then painstakingly whittled by a skilled craftsperson to vibrate a very specific way when blown into. A reed that does not vibrate properly will provide a lot of difficulties to anyone wishing to play the instrument. Assessing what is proper and not is especially difficult when finding oboe reeds for beginners whether you are the student or non-oboe playing teacher.
Understanding and finding oboe reeds for beginners can be a challenge because they may not have enough knowledge and experience to evaluate whether a reed is working for them or against them. A poorly made reed may cause students to bite, develop poor embouchure, play drastically out of tune or blow incorrectly into the instrument. A poorly working reed will also limit dynamic range, expressive contrast, and quality of tone. There are many mass produced oboe reeds on the market currently, some are okay, some are just bad. The mass produced reeds are often marketed and appealing to beginners because they are available at their local music stores and may be less expensive and more easily obtained than better quality oboe reeds. I have given workshops with students, and have had new students come into lessons with several different brands of mass produced oboe reeds. The reeds play wildly out of tune, usually very flat, do not respond/articulate properly and require the students to bite with their embouchure. The students usually have no idea how difficult the reed is to play on because they do not know anything else. They are simply playing the reed because it is what they have the most access to. I can usually adjust the reed a little to make it work better, but I wonder what students without teachers are doing to play on the reeds.
I feel these improperly working reeds add to the reputation that the oboe has of being unbearably difficult to play. Playing on these reeds is often unbearably difficult for me and I like to think I am in fairly good oboe playing shape with good experiential and intellectual understanding. I would not want to play a concert on these reeds because I would need to work way to hard to make music.
I would like to describe some basic concepts that will aid students, teachers, parents, and band directors in their understanding of what to look for in oboe reeds for beginners. I hope this will help to take some of the mystery out of what makes a good reed vs a bad reed which will promote bad habits.
Students should select oboe reeds from the store that do not have any chips in the tip, or cracks anywhere on the reed. The sides of the reed should meet on both sides without gaps, especially toward the bottom where the cane meets the thread.
After the reed is soaked the tip should be examined for opening size and shape. The opening should be about the height of a dime in the center.
The opening should look like an ellipse without any waves to the shape. The sides of the tip should meet and may look slightly overlapped, that is fine.
Evaluating The big Three Playing Characteristics
There are three playing characteristic I feel we must look at when talking about oboe reeds for beginners. I have written about “The Big Three” qualities in depth here; oboe reed Response, oboe reed resistance, oboe reed intonation.
(click each term for a basic description)
These three variables are different but related and they all tend to lead to similar problems if not in balance to what the student needs. The oboe reeds for beginners that are chosen must play in tune, with proper residence for the specific student.The reed should also be responsive so the student can articulate notes softly or loudly in all registers of the instrument. The reed must have enough resistance to not sound like a kazoo (I call these tissue paper reeds) but not so much that they cause undue tension within the body. A reed that is too resistant for a new student but plays in tune for a professional may make the student bite which will push the pitch high. A reed that does not respond may cause a student to bite to make notes speak softly, this can cause the student to bite always and favor reeds that play flat.
How do we evaluate these things even as a new oboist? I feel the best and most objective way is by listening to the crow of the reed.
We must crow before we sing; how to crow the oboe reed.
Learning to crow the reed is a necessary skill for any oboist. Crowing the reed tells the oboist how the reed is going to function without the interference of the embouchure. The process is fairly simple. Soak the reed for a minute or two. See my article on oboe reed soaking for more details on how to soak oboe reeds. Place the reed into the mouth up to the thread. This is a lot more reed that is generally place into the mouth, but this will limit the interference the embouchure plays on the reed. Slowly blow air through the reed with more and more pressure until the reed makes a sound. We can asses the reeds resistance, response and intonation from the crow of the reed.
When the reed made finally made a sound after pushing air through it was it soft, medium or loud? A crow that speaks at a soft dynamic will have good response. A reed that speaks initially at a loud dynamic will likely have poor response. It will not articulate softly, and low notes will not speak.
Keep blowing more air through the reed so the reed is creating a stable sound. There may be a rattle or stable pitches at this point. Note how much air the reed takes to maintain the sound. Are you or the students using a lot of air and energy to maintain the sound? How much air and effort that is needed to maintain the pitch is
You will hear that there is a certain pitch that initially speaks and then some other pitches that come through in the crow. There are different philosophies and schools of thought as to what the pitch should be, and whether there should be other pitches in the crow. I think the reed should crow around a C natural. A reed that is significantly flatter or sharper will play out of tune and promote poor technique to play in tune. There are some strategies to adjust reeds slightly out of tune, I have written about adjusting flat oboe reeds for beginners in a past article; How to adjust flat oboe reeds without any tools.
The reed should respond at a soft dynamic, at a pitch of around a C natural with a comfortable amount of resistance for the student. The reed can be adjusted as shared in my guide “how to adjust a flat oboe reed without any tools” and then evaluated again. Reeds that are too hard/resistant, play out of tune and do not respond properly will lead to poor habits and should be avoided. I would suggest looking to a professional oboist or reed maker for help if the reeds you or your students are currently using do not meet the criteria listed above. Finding the right oboe reeds for beginners can be a challenge without understanding the basics. There are a lot of professional reed makers now offering great products at reasonable prices. I would suggest serious oboe students be in touch with a reed maker to find a product that works correctly.
While professional reed makers may charge slightly higher prices than the music stores for oboe reeds, the reeds will function better and last longer.
I will be writing future articles about how to adjust the Big Three characteristics, so please subscribe to the blog to keep up to date on all related material. Leave your comments and questions about this article below and I will try to answer them, in comments or future posts.