From Our Artists with Kendra Hawley
Reed all about it! or Oboe you didn’t!
The oboe and English horn and their grandfather, the bassoon, are double reed instruments. This means that instead of a mouthpiece as on flute or brass instruments, or a mouthpiece/reed combination as on clarinet or saxophone, we play on a reed made from two pieces of cane bound together so that they vibrate against each other. Reed cane comes from the plant species arundo donax. which grows best in the temperate climates of southern France, northern Argentina and southeast Asia. It’s important for oboists to visit these regions to observe the cane in its natural habitat before mutilating it for our own selfish musical reasons. This is why oboists need patrons like yourself!
As an oboe and English horn player, it is necessary for me to make reeds for both instruments in order to create my individual sound. Each player is different and makes reeds in a different and highly personalized way, so purchasing reeds is not always an answer to the need for a reed.
I spend many hours per week working at my reed desk so that I can make a reed that functions for my technical needs while producing a beautiful sound individually and in concert with my colleagues in the ensemble. This process can be very time consuming and frustrating, but the result is a hand-crafted reed that fits me and my instruments perfectly, like a fine tailored suit or a customized bowling ball. Unfortunately, oboe reeds are very fragile and fickle and don’t tend to last very long, so the reed making process can seem to continue into perpetuity. You can easily assume that any professional oboist has spent about half of their concert preparation time crafting reeds, and you can double that time for a doubler like me!
The process is one of multiple steps that can be broken up into separate stages: cane selection, processing and gouging, shaping and tying, scraping and finishing. I usually do one step per sitting, as the cane needs time to dry out and settle, and the entire process could keep me chained to my desk forever.
First, the cane must be measured for diameter, split lengthwise into thirds and sorted for straightness. This sorting process usually yields about 1/3 of any portion of cane, leaving the rest to be thrown away or used for other arts and crafts like picture frames or wind chimes!
The sorted cane is then soaked in boiling hot water, trimmed to length with a guillotine, and gouged out from the inside with a rounded blade mounted on a specialized gouging machine. Yes, it sounds violent: believe me, IT IS!
After the cane has been gouged, it is folded in half and shaped with a razor blade using a specialized shaper tip, which is effectively a tiny jig. There are hundreds of different shaper tips, each with it’s own measurement ratios from tip to throat: short and fat, long and narrow, flared or straight-edge, it all depends on the particular oboists tastes. The shaped cane is then tied onto a metal tube with thread. The thread is the most important part of the reed as you must match the thread color to your particular mood or outfit or nail polish color.
Now the intricately detailed work of scraping begins. A sharp knife, a good light, and a glass of wine are the essential tools for scraping a reed. The reed is scraped and sculpted until the cane is very thin at the tip and can be clipped open. At this point I test the reed by blowing into it until it makes a particular sound called the crow. This sound is crucial to the function of the reed or for making friends with ducks. The reed is then left to dry and settle and is gradually scraped and adjusted throughout the next few days until it is perfect. If a reed is not perfect then it is subjected to the wall test in which the reed’s physical durability is tested against a hard surface like a wall or desk. No reeds ever survive the wall test. Those reeds that are deemed ‘perfect’ get the opportunity to be played in concerts. Some last for only one concert, others for months. I once made a reed that played 13 concerts! It lives in my reed box as an example for all the other reeds to live up to.
Now you have a concept of the reed making process for double reed instruments. Whenever you hear a double reed player sounding particularly lovely, I hope you’ll take a moment to congratulate them on their performance, and marvel at the obvious time and care they spent crafting a great reed! And maybe buy them a drink; they probably need it!
Dr. Kendra Hawley
Oboe/English horn nerd
Nu Deco Ensemble