Avoid The Reed Making Rut.
We oboists and double reed players in general, must deal with temperamental reeds which are made from organic material. What is working great one month may not work at all the next. Reed making can be going very smoothly and suddenly nothing we make is working. Reeds are leaking, or not vibrating, they are vibrating in the wrong places, or we are constantly hacking the tips off our reeds. These periods where the reed gods seem to be punishing us are known to oboists and reed makers as “reed ruts”. We all get into one at one time or another, they are fairly natural but can be frustrating. The reed making rut can be avoided or escaped by assessing the problem, addressing variables and implementing a solution. While reed making ruts are to be expected on some level I find it more beneficial to avoid them in the first place. “Yeah…Duh Aaron.. I know but how do I avoid them?”
I have come to analyze my own reed ruts in terms of three categories “The Three Ms” if you like; Mental, material and mechanical. A change in one of these variables can affect the reed making process, sometimes in obvious ways, and sometimes more subtly. A reed making rut may start in one area and move to another if we do not step back and look at what is happening within the process. By looking at each category and deciphering how it may be affecting the reed making rut we can hope to avoid or escape it without too many casualties, dead reeds or wasted time.
Let me start by explaining what I mean by Mental, materials, and mechanical.
“The Three M’s” of reed making.
- Mental – pressure from upcoming events, personal life situations, fear, pressure, etc. The frustration from being in a reed making rut!
- Material- This is will be the supplies that we as reed makers use to make the reeds themselves. This will include things like cane, staples, thread, wires, wax etc. The qualities of the materials also fit into this category, so while gouger itself is in the next category, the gouged cane is here, as is the shaped cane.
- Mechanical – This is going to include the tools we use within the reed making process. Knives , gougers, gouger blades, shaper tips, mandrels, etcetera.
These three qualities will often overlap. The materials used will be affected by the state of your mechanical tools. The more of the reed making process we control the more variables that can go wrong, but also the more ability we have to positively control them.
A reed maker gouging their own cane may run into problems with their own mechanical equipment and have no choice but to eliminate variables one at a time. Their gouging machine may be out of adjustment and creating inferior reeds without their knowledge. Every reed is working improperly due to the gouge but the reed maker may not even recognize the problem is the gouger. Frustration may settle in within the psyche and create more problems beyond the initial problem. The mechanical status of the equipment used to make the reeds will affect the materials used to make the reeds, and the overall state of reed making may affect the mental state of the reed maker.
Sometimes the less control over the whole process the reed maker has the easier it is to eliminate variables. I am a proponent of learning the whole reed making process, but feel when starting out it can be detrimental to new reed makers to feel they need to do it all themselves. I feel the gouging of cane is a very specific process and if a student does not understand the importance of the gouge I might advise them to purchased gouged cane or get it from a teacher.
A reed maker may buy cane gouged shaped and folded from a dealer. The dealer may send a less than ideal batch of product. That may be related to the material or the mechanical tools being used. The reed maker would then need to simply choose a different supply and not dig into what the problem is. The reed maker may recognize the inferior product before it becomes a problem. Reed rut avoided!
Avoid getting into a reed making rut by keeping the process consistent.
I recall experimenting with all sorts of different gouges, oboe reed shaper tips, staples, threads and any other variables I could think of early on my reed making path. I would constantly be changing things without spending any time to develop a more consistent reed. Being a person that has always enjoyed the reed making process, I wanted to know how all these different things would affect a final product. I am still this way, however, I have a more scientific approach of trying to only adjust one variable at a time. I certainly do not regret this time of youthful ignorance, and thinking I had enough understanding of how a change in any variable may affect everything else. hopefully inexperienced reed makers might take this advice to heart though. Keep the reed making process consistent or you will not make consistent reeds…what a concept. I am pushing it because it was such a big setback for me.
I would often find myself in reed making ruts while I was in college because I would be so interested in changing variables that I would not have a solid foundation in regard to the materials or mechanics of the machines I would use. Constantly changing the gouge, playing with different shaper tips and anything else I could think of. I look back and realize I was never really able to get a clear understanding of how each variable affected the function of the finished reed. I did gain a lot of intuitive understanding from this period, and find it valuable to experiment, but a stronger foundation would have had its own benefits, especially when attempting to avoid or escape a reed rut.
I have some advanced oboe reed making students who are similar to the way I was, always trying different staples, and cane, hoping to somehow find the golden reed. My teacher told me to learn to make reeds before experimenting too much with different variables, now I tell my students this too. I didn’t listen due to my curiosity, my students don’t listen due to their curiosity, I can’t help but just smile. Expressing this makes me feel like I am either gaining wisdom or getting old.
I was stubborn so I would squeeze the reed with my embouchure so tightly that my lips would bleed, and blow my brains out trying to get a decent sound and play in tune. Present Aaron is shaking his head at past Aaron and telling him to Learn to make reeds as consistently as possible. Only then can you really experiment with variables and understand how they affect the reed in total.
Learn to make reeds by keeping your variables limited. Make reeds as consistently as possible and when something goes wrong in the process it becomes significantly easier to recognize the problem. Imagine we use the same gouge cane and staples every time you make a reed. Suddenly we feel like our reeds are not working. The solution is likely not to go and change the gouge, shape, cane and knife at the same time, but to first recognize the problem itself.
Recognize the problem
I feel the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is a problem . Do you have a reed making problem? its okay, this is a safe place…
All variables are kept the same and suddenly your reeds are not working properly… first breath.. then go sharpen your knife! Sometimes it is that easy. Reed rut avoided, article finished.
Okay so it’s not your knife. What is the problem? Is it mechanical, material or mental?
recognize how the problems manifest within the reeds themselves. Are the reeds behaving differently or malfunctioning completely? The problems become significantly easier to identify as we gain experience and develop reed making skills. Students will begin to recognize patterns in reed making over time so if you are a student with some new problem ask your teacher to help, you are welcome to leave it in the comments and I will try to answer it too.
The easiest patterns to recognize will be in reeds that completely malfunction. Reeds that are suddenly all leaking after not ever having that problem is an easy pattern to recognize for any reed maker. Reeds that seem to play flatter than the reeds that were made a month ago may be harder to recognize. Sudden changes are easy, long term changes are more difficult to recognize.
Look at any change in “Three M’s”
The more limited the variables are within the reed making process, the easier it is to analyze problems within the process as they arise. Once you recognize you have a minor problem with the reed making, the question “what has changed?” should be asked. I go through a checklist in the order or mental, material and then mechanical. The first place to look is our mental state or mood.
Step 1: Look At Your Mental State.
The first place to look is within out mind. Are we feeling frustrated with something? upset? I feel when I have a difficult reed making day stepping away and going for a walk can help. I often come back to my desk the next day and feel refreshed and ready for another day. I usually make much better reeds than the day before. Even as a professional oboe reed maker I never make myself sit and make reeds if I really don’t feel like it. It is better to go work on something else instead of forcing myself to make reeds. I realize this a great luxury in a job, but it is what keeps the process interesting and fresh for me.
I feel the best way to escape the reed rut is to step back and look at the exact problems first and then examine variables. Observing these variables requires an objective, non-judgmental mind , and openness and desire to change the problem. Reed making ruts are easily escaped but only when we don’t get overly affected by the problem emotionally. Do not identify as a poor reed maker, or bad oboist, or any other mental identification the mind may place on you. You are experiencing a problem, but you are not the problem. That is my meditation background speaking, it may seem cliche but it is important not to let yourself get into the downward spiral of feeling frustrated with reed making and that coming out in your reed making. A frustrated reed maker will become a more frustrated reed maker.
If everything feels fine internally, or you take a day to relax and come back to the same problem look to your materials.
Step 2: Observe Changes In Materials
Did you change a material? Trying new cane? staples? something else? Nothing?
Materials are usually the easiest variable to recognize and address, for me at least . Take note of what has changed within the reed making process. Did you change the staples that are being used? are you using a new type of thread? Have you been using one supplier of cane and ordered a new batch which does not work the same? I suggest all reed-makers find a process that works for their own personal needs, with the materials that work for them. I suggest setting up a standard and really trying to understand how to make reeds from that standard. Use the same staples, the same gouge the same shape and the same thread until you really know how to make a reed that works well.
I suggest that players start with standard measurements and move away from those slowly as needed. Start in the middle of the road and move to the sides, gouge cane at standard dimensions, use 47mm staples, and a medium shape. Only adjust one variable at a time from there. When trying a new shape do not change any other variable until you understand how the change in shape affects the qualities of the reeds. If you are not sure the standards contact a teacher or professional reed maker. Once a standard has been set up reed ruts will become more recognizable. Patterns will also start to emerge as far as what is causing the reed rut. The variables of change will be easier to identify as well and ultimately oboe reeds will become more consistent.
The cane itself will change from piece to piece, brand to brand, and year to year. Cane is not a variable that can be controlled exactly over the long term. This adds to the importance of developing a baseline to the reed making process with every other variable which can be controlled.
If no variable related to material or mentality have changed then there may be a mechanical problem with some piece of equipment.
Step 3: Assess Mechanical Malfunction
Has something changed in your mechanical equipment? Are you using any new tools? old tools needing to be replaced? Are your blades all sharp? I personally suggest not adjusting too much with the gouge unless you know that is the problem. If the problem is not the gouge you will throw everything else off if you start tweaking the gouge. I have a few different gouging machines at my disposal so I can isolate the variable of gouge by simply making a few reeds with another gouger and seeing how it compares to the reeds in question. I would suggest that students find a dealer that can sell them 20 pieces of cane using the same gouger they use to try with their current setup to see how it compares. The reeds may feel great using the new cane and you will know that the problem is either the gouge or the cane itself.
I find that a sharp knife is the greatest friend in reed making and avoiding reed ruts. A sharp knife not only stops reed tips from being hacked off but it also just makes better reeds. I recall reading one theory that a dull knife will compress the vascular bundles within the reed which affects playing qualities. I do not remember where I read this but it makes sense to me on a lot of levels. A reed needs structure on every level to vibrate properly so if the tip of the reed loses its structure on the micro scale it playing characteristics will change as well. Please let me know if anyone knows what article I am talking about and I will try to find a link and post it.
A reed maker will do well not to forget that mechanical tools do wear out over time, but will last longer with care. I have broken two shaper tips and even dropped a gouging machine once, it only takes one time to learn the important lesson to take care of the tools as you would an instrument. Shaper tip ears break very easily, hitting it lightly on the corner of a sharpening stone is often enough to send metal flying. I digress.
Most common reed making rut symptoms (for me)
Here are some of the most common symptoms of reed making ruts I have experienced. When I start recognizing any of these patterns I know to step back and look at the situation. I have become pretty good at recognizing these things before they become a problem but it may be a good checklist for reed making students or other oboists. The causes are more difficult to recognize but I will attempt to in some other articles when I find time. I am an oboist so some items on this list may apply only to oboe. Sorry bassoons, you are on your own.
- Reeds all play out of tune from previously made reeds with the same setup.
- Reeds seem to not vibrate properly, either too hard and resistant or shallow.
- False intonation between intervals. (oboe reed intonation introduction)
- Reed openings are too opened or too closed. (internal dimenstions of the double reed)
- I don’t want to make reeds. when reed making is going well I enjoy it. (Why oboists should meditate)
- Leaky reeds (9 Reasons your oboe reeds are leaking)
- Low success rate with completed reeds. I have around a 7/8 out of 10 success rate with finished reeds. note your own tendency and notice if it changes.
- Hacking off the tips of reeds.
- Cracking cane with finished reeds.
- The best way to avoid finding yourself in a reed making rut is to avoid it. Do this by building consistency into your reed making process.
- Change only one variable at a time to understand how it affects the reed making process
- Try to recognize problems in the reed making process early as the arise
- Asses problems objectivly without judgment
- analyze what is causing the problem. Is it Mental, Material or Mechanical ?
- Breath, relax and fix the problem.
I hope you much luck in your double reed making adventures! As always feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments, subscribe to the mailing list and be happy oboe-ing and bassoon-ing too if you are into that sort of thing.