Make reeds erryday

Everything I know about reed making I learned the hard way.

The hard way takes a very long time and involves a lot of failure. Failure is part of life, and in a very big way it’s part of being a musician. Part of what makes a great musician is an enlightened response to failure. Learn to live with and love failure, because reed making is one area where even at the peak of our careers we repeatedly encounter failure as we throw out reeds that fail to attain the standards we expect.

Reeds are a numbers game. The solution to most reed making issues is to make a lot of them. The primary factor in how well a reed turns out will be the inherent quality of the cane, which will vary significantly from piece to piece. If you don’t have access to specialized measuring equipment, your best bet is to produce a huge batch of reeds. After the initial cut and scrape, it should be fairly obvious which reeds possess the qualities you’re looking for.

Bad reeds reveal themselves early in the testing. Throw them out. You’ll quickly get to know them. Their crow is weak and lacks a strong fundamental. The tone is muffled, yet hard to control in quiet dynamics, and collapses when pushed beyond mp. High notes refuse to work until the joint health and safety committee has cleared them for duty. Scraping to correct these problems may initially yield promising results, but over just a couple minutes of playing, everything reverts back to its problematic former self. Do not waste your efforts trying to save these reeds. They are beyond your ability to help.

You can boost your output of good reeds relative to bad ones by improving your cane selection process by measuring various physical qualities. A hardness tester just by itself helps a great deal with cane selection by quickly identifying unsuitable pieces. Michigan reed guru Jim Poe tests every piece of cane with a flexibility tester as well as a hardness tester; Cleveland Orchestra bassoonist Barrick Stees augments the hardness measurement with a density testing apparatus. Both approaches acknowledge that while hardness testing alone can eliminate most of the reeds that definitely won’t work, some of the ones that make it through will still lack some other essential quality needed to perform on the job.

The main thing, though, is just keep making reeds, regularly. Set aside some time for it every day. Steadily working at it in manageable chunks of time is all it takes to keep you out of trouble when things get busy further down the line.

Finally, a positive attitude at the reed desk helps. I’m trying to fix a broken relationship with my reed making – I brought so much negativity into that part of my work that I started unconsciously avoiding making reeds, which creates problems in a busy orchestra season! Do whatever works for you – I have friends who make a point of listening to great music at the reed desk, and I’ve actually been working with a heart rate variability monitor while I work on reeds to see if I can maintain  calm and focussed state of mind. So far, broadly speaking, the answer is no, I can’t, but I’m improving slowly!


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