“The Big Three” qualities of oboe reeds; Resistance, response, and intonation


Introducing “The Big Three” qualities of  oboe reeds. Resistance, response, and intonation.

The oboe reed can be perceived to be a complicated, finicky, and mysterious device. We oboists tend to fuss to no end over the small noise maker, spending hours lurched over a reed desk on our search for perfection. Over time the mysteries of the oboe reed reveal themselves to the oboist and what was once very complicated becomes an intuitive process, like riding a bike. like riding a bike we can always continue to develop and get better. Many people can ride a bike, but few can participate in the Tour De France. That takes a lot of practice, vast experience, and intense focus.

I am not claiming to be the authority on reed making, I am simply a little further ahead than some and behind many of the great oboists out there. I feel that  to build an intuitive understanding of reeds oboists must find and develop a mental framework for analysis. I feel this framework can be presented as a sort of hierarchy with “The Big Three” qualities  being the first area to be understood. I have written about “the big three” in other articles,such as oboe reeds for beginners  but I feel it is worth looking at this again before  digging deep into each quality separately.

The Big Three and oboe reed making

(click each term for a description)

How much air pressure and volume of air it takes the reed to play and continue to make a sound.  A reed that is too resistant will cause strain and tension within the body. It will also promote biting if not correctly matched with the players needs. A reed with too little resistance will not allow the student to develop correct support or embouchure, may also cause strain from over blowing. I wrote further on the subject of resistance in the article “Oboe reed resistance
how flat or sharp the reed plays.  Intonation is somewhat subjective with reeds, one reed may  play flat for one player and sharp for the next.  I suggest evaluating the “crow” to hear the reeds true pitch without embouchure interference.  
What volume the reed initially speaks at. Resistance and oboe reed response are sometimes grouped together by novice players, however they exist as separate scales. A reed that has little resistance but come in at a dynamic range of FF would be considered unresponsive. We would call this low resistance and low response. A

A reed that take a lot of air pressure to sustain a pitch and comes in with FF dynamics is also unresponsive. We would call this high resistance with low response. A reed that is very resistant but speaks at a dynamic level of p when it does come it is responsive. We would call this high resistance with high response . we could have a reed that takes a small amount of air to maintain pitch and articulates softly. We would call this low resistance with high response. Unresponsive oboe reeds can promote biting, sluggish articulation, and be frustrating to play on. 

These three variables/qualities, (oboe reed resistance, response and intonation)  can be evaluated and understood within any school of oboe playing you belong to. I feel they  can be examined universally and objectively not necessarily as judgments but as qualities on a scale. The threequalities can be examined independently, but  one quality will often affect other qualities in the oboe reed. Other variables are often introduced into the playing style  to compensate for qualities in the reed.  That is not to say there is one right way to make a reed, with the perfect amount of resistance, response, and intonation, but every oboe  reed maker and oboist needs to have an understanding of these concepts to evaluate their own needs and style. The embouchure, pitch level, volume of air used, support used, reed placement, aesthetics of sound and instruments used may change, but a good reed can always be evaluated whether consciously,  or intuitively against these variables.

Oboe reed qualities related to  personal playing style

One oboist may choose or be limited to play on reeds that are flat. The oboist must then find a way to bring the reed up to pitch with the embouchure or air stream. This may affect the oboists choice in  a reed related to response. The chosen reed may be  less responsive because the reed is being bitten down on. The same oboist may also grow accustomed to biting for pitch and need a reed with thick cane left in the back and heart  so that the  reed does not collapse prematurely. A reed with more cane will often have more resistance (though not always).  This may be the style of playing the oboist is accustomed to and so they look for those qualities within a reed.

The Big Three and national style.

I have had students come from European backgrounds and I find the reeds often require more embouchure manipulation to play, are slightly flatter and slightly more resistant than what I play. The embouchure must be tighter in the center of the lips to play on the reed. I am not making a judgment as to what is better, but both styles can be examined in relation to the “Big Three.”

Objectively looking at where the reeds exist on the scale related to “the big three” can help a player to make and adjust their reeds. They will also grow as a player to create the best oboe reed that will allow them to find their own voice on the oboe without feeling tension in the body.  That may be within the German school, the English school, some category of the American school, the French school or the players own personal school. We are often brought up in one specific school with its own tendencies, but even within the specific schools there are big differences.

I have not studied other countries schools of oboe playing, so if anyone has any insights into this please leave me feel free to share it in the comments. I predict that just as the U.S style of reed exists in many different forms so will other reeds of national origin.

The personal element within the style of oboe reeds.

I have studied with four great oboists, all belong to the  American school of oboe reed making. All four have slightly different reed making styles and different ideas of what  great oboe reeds feel like.  They all have different ideas about what the most beautiful oboe playing sounds like. They perceive music differently with different aesthetics in mind and have learned to make oboe reeds to suite their individual needs. One way is not better than another, they simply make oboe reeds to work for their specific style and concept.

I am really trying to hit home how personal oboe reeds are to the individual oboist. This  is why we all need to develop some framework for the evaluation of oboe reeds.

I have embraced the idea of taking from teachers with vast experience to find what will ultimately work best for me. I encourage my own students to do the same and use what I share to find the perfect reed for their individual needs. Measuring my reeds against an objective framework of analysis helps me to continue to grow as a player and reed maker. Being well educated about The Big Three provides the first step in developing an objective criteria to asses reeds against.

Finding Balance in the oboe reed

Developing an understanding of how the Big Three variables can interact and affect each other will help the oboist to analyze where their  reeds are and where they need to go to get better. Understanding the variables that affect the big three will give the oboist  a vocabulary of  cause and effect scenarios. Let me attempt to paint a picture of how the traits of the  big three may interact with one another.

  • A player has a very loose embouchure. The loose embouchure will favor a reed that plays in tune with no biting at all. The reed must be very responsive or the oboist will not be able to play softly. To play softly on an unresponsive reed the oboist would need to manipulate the reed with the embouchure which would likely cause the pitch to raise.  Conversely, if the player is consistently  sharp they may be using slightly too much embouchure or volume of air for the reed style. The player could change the style, or change their concepts of embouchure and air. The variables of individual and of the reeds will affect each other. The response and intonation are related in this case. The need to be looked at and assessed alone and together.


  • A player likes to bite the reed. The reed must be slightly flat or the oboist will play sharp. They may choose/make reed with more cane left on the reed so the reed does not collapse pre-maturely. A player may also be playing flat on their current reeds and decide they need to change the intonation of the reed style to compensate. here we can see the resistance and intonation being related.


  • An oboist may use a lot of air and choose reeds that will not overblown when played. They may favor a reed that is fairly open which can also hinder response. They may start the reed with a lot of air and control the response of where the note speaks with their embouchure.  The oboist may play flat and not be able to articulate softly on such a reed and decide they need something different. The response and intonation are related in this case. We may say the resistance is related to this scenario as well since a change in tip opening may also change the resistance of the reed.  Evaluation of how they interact may give the oboist insights toward improvement.

Each player and reed style will be evaluated on a scale of the three traits. Thinking about the traits  and how they exist on their own will give oboists a basic framework for evaluating reeds they are playing on, reeds they like and dislike and how they may find better results.  Evaluating each property alone will eventually grow an intuitive understanding of how they interact within the reed system. They will come to realize  where improvements can be made.

Recognize the problem to find the solution

“I am having trouble playing softly” what might be causing this? The answer would be Response of the reed first, but may be related to other traits in the oboe reed. The player may not feel comfortable making their reeds very responsive because they may associate that with something else, resistance, or tone perhaps. Or playing more responsive reeds may require the oboist to rethink their concept of embouchure. When the reed is responding more efficiently the embouchure control used in the past may affect pitch.

“I am feeling a lot of discomfort in my body when I play the oboe” may be because the reeds have too much resistance. The oboist can experiment with making reeds less resistant in some way. I often find people assume resistant reeds sound “dark”  or they assume they need a resistant reed to support correctly. A resistant reed can sound “dark” for a certain players preference of air and embouchure, but that is because the reed is suited to that style of playing and body. Some people with larger bodies and different physical features will need a more resistant reed to play with the same effort as someone with a smaller build. What is resistant to one player may feel easy to the next. Oboe reed making is about finding the right balance for the individual.

The concept of air and embouchure can change to favor reeds with less resistance and provide more control with less work. I would disagree that resistance has much to do with tone of the reed, I separate the two concepts within my mind and method of analysis. A reed that is well balance for the player in regard to “The Big Three” will likely  allow the oboist to express the sound they want without putting the focus first on tone. A reed made with tone before function will limit the oboist. Oboists will gain more control over the resistance of the

Balanced oboe reed response, resistance, and intonation leads to great tone.

Tone is very important in any school of oboe playing. By focusing on “The Big Three” primarily, it will lead students to have more control over the tone without sacrificing function. I feel the function of the oboe reed should come first. An oboe reed that plays well will allow the oboist to play music, and not be overly focused on the problems in the reed.

An oboe  reed made with tone before function will limit the oboist. Oboists will gain more control over the resistance of the reed while maintaining a beautiful tone as their concepts and reed making  skills increase. This is not to say we should not consider tone when making and adjusting reeds, but “The Big Three” must come first.

Face the fear, develop the skills, make the best oboe reeds you can

I am not making the case that one level of resistance, response or intonation is right or wrong, but to encourage each oboist to look at these three traits within their own reeds, and look for areas to improve. An oboist may favor something because it is what they are schooled in,  accustomed to, or limited to. They may play beautifully on a reed that is drastically different than what I may like to play. Their bodies may feel very comfortable as they play these reeds.

Other people may be acting out of habit and not realize how they could be making reeds easier to play on in one way or another and really sing. They may not go further with their reed making because they are afraid of hacking off the tips, or are unsure of where cane should be taken away from. They play it safe and leave the reed slightly unfinished. Unfinished reeds are  usually too resistant, and unresponsive in my experience. The student will then learn to favor reeds that are resistant and unresponsive due to limitations in reed making and knife sharpening skills.

There is often fear of making an okay reed into a good or a great oboe reed. The thinking is that  it is better to have an okay reed than lose the tip in the process . This is certainly an understandable fear, which the oboist must work through to gain confidence in the process of oboe reed making. Many tips must be removed, and okay reeds destroyed to learn to make good oboe reeds. Good oboe reeds destroyed to make great oboe reeds.  The easy solution is to make more reeds, keep sharpening your knife and learn from mistakes.

Wherever you currently stand on your oboe reed preferences I would suggest keeping in mind that the function of the reed is to vibrate. Try to conceptualize how to make the reed vibrate to fit your concept of expression, music and sound, and keep expanding upon that. Evaluating “The Big Three” qualities can be a very valuable tool in the process, and will open the door to deeper understandings of the function of oboe reeds.

Concluding thoughts about “The Big Three” and oboe reed making.

I envision oboe reeds as having a very structural form in theory and process. I ultimately see oboe  reed making as a hierarchy of skills and concepts needed to be understood and learned by every student. I find from my own  experience that more I question the reasons I do something, the deeper I understand it. I tear apart the rules and concepts and then rebuild a mental understanding.I embrace this state of mind in oboe reed making and playing, and encourage students to do the same. I also see this as a life lesson which encourages open-minded thinking. Questioning why something works the way it does and not simply accepting it is the first step in finding wisdom.

The reason I stress the “big three” is because it is the structure that all other oboe reed making concepts can be related to. Every adjustment we make to an oboe reed has the potential to affect response, resistance or intonation. We must understand the concepts so we can relate them to the sensations in our body internally and through our senses. I hope to continue to clarify my ideas as these topics unfold. Happy oboe-ing

Feel free to let me know your thoughts, about this topic in the comments with any questions. I am happy to take feedback on areas which I can attempt to clarify.



"The Big Three" qualities of oboe reed making are resistance, intonation, and response. Oboists will make better reeds, and play the oboe better after understanding these qualities.
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