One Way To Customize Your Oboe Reeds

One week we are playing in a chamber music concert and the next it could be the infamous 2nd oboe part to Dvorak's 7th Symphony.  One week we may be playing with colleagues who demand the smallest pianissimo timbre and the next it could be with individuals who all seem to love to play with a full and rich sound. These are just some of the situations that oboists are placed in on a weekly and even daily basis.  

The good news is that we can make a different mouthpiece (reed) for each situation; the bad news is that we have to make a different mouthpiece for each situation. Reframing what we want our reeds to be able to do can help us with this struggle.

Here is a complete process to help you adjust:

If you try playing on a finished reed and just honk out its sound, you will probably start to notice a larger discrepancy in timbre, color, and dynamics than if you were to try to control the reed with your embouchure.  I call this the reed's default sound, meaning what the reed sounds like when you don't try to compensate for its shortcomings with your embouchure or air speed. Letting the reed just play how it wants is a great way to see what needs to be finished, but it also might indicate what type of music that reed is best suited to play.  Some cane will just sound a little less refined and some cane will sound more colorful. When I’m playing principal in a large orchestra, especially for classical and romantic repertoire, I want a reed that’s default sound is a solo, mezzo forte, singing tone quality. When I’m playing in smaller ensembles, I want a reed that’s default sound is a very beautiful, but a relatively smaller and darker tone. Here is one way that you can adjust your scrape to achieve this particular difference.

It comes down to how you balance your reed...

After you’ve cleared off the bark on the reed and have begun scraping a blank into a functioning reed, you can balance the reed in a few different ways. To achieve the smaller sound reed, you will start at the top of the tip and work down.  To make the larger, principal oboist sound, you will work to keep the entire reed more balanced during the entire process.  Members to this website can see clear diagrams and a video further explaining this process.

For the smaller sounding reed

Scrape off the bark and start to define some of the sections of the reed. Then divide the tip of the reed into 3 sections: top, middle, and bottom. Start with the top and scrape it as thin as you can. It might start to fray at the top, but as long as the reed is still long enough to clip, then a little messiness will be fine at the beginning.   You want the top of the tip so thin that when you scrape onto the plaque you will not hear a clicking noise as the knife hits the plaque. The top of the tip will be about 0.01mm in thickness, or as thin as you can possibly make it. This will be just the top 1mm of the tip and you will just use very short scrapes that go straight up. Some reed makers call this a “super tip” and most of it will be clipped off.  This step should be done to help you balance the rest of the reed.

As soon as you make the very top portion of the tip that thin, move down to the middle section and blend it so that there is not a bump, but instead of scraping straight up, angle the knife 45 degrees to the staple and scrape outwards towards the corners. Do the same angling of the knife at the bottom of the tip and blend so there isn’t a bump, but still scrape up and out towards the sides. Try to leave a spine that goes up through the tip. The tip and the blend should have a curve that resembles a wine bottle.  Premium members can refer to the Reed Slopes Page to see exactly what this will look like.

At the end of this process, you will have a very finished tip, but a very imbalanced reed because the heart and windows will be too thick. Scrape just the very top of the heart (the blend between heart and tip) and scrape until it resembles the curve of a wine bottle. You might need to take more cane out of the bottom of the tip to create that slope. Then move to the bottom of the heart. The bottom of the heart will have a similar curve going between the top of the windows and the bottom portion of the heart. The middle portion of the heart will need some balancing to help the vibrations go through the reed, but be careful not to overscrape or the reed will go flat. The windows and back will need to be scraped out more than you might think to keep the whole reed in balance (because remember the tip is so thin). If the bottom corners of the tip are scraped out enough, the reed won’t go as flat as you might expect.  (Once again, premium members can check out the reed slopes page to see exactly how much should be scraped at the beginning).

Making this type of reed is essentially a top-down approach where the top of the reed is finished, then the middle, then the bottom. This reed will ideally have limits. If you play on it using no control to your embouchure it should sound great.  The problem might be that it will be easy to overblow and might be more difficult to get a full range of dynamics, but it will be light and easy to get through long and tiring stretches of playing.

For the bigger sounding reed

To make that bigger and more resonant orchestral reed, the tip will need to be thicker all around.  You should also try a wider shaper tip like the Gilbert 1 shaper tip. The blades of the reed should look almost parallel when looking at the reed from a profile (looking at the sides to see how the reed slopes down from the thread to the tip). To compensate, the heart might need more scraping out for response.  The heart, instead of having slopes going into the tip and windows, will also look more parallel if you look at the reed from a profile.

To scrape this reed, don’t create a “super tip” and work from the top down, but rather keep the whole reed in proportion between the tip, heart, and back. This is similar to replacing a tire on a car where you don’t want to tighten one bolt completely at first, but rather you tighten one bolt just a few turns and then go to another bolt and then another so that each bolt is tightened a little bit at a time. For this reed you will need to scrape each section (tip, heart, windows, and back) a little bit at a time to keep everything in proportion. There won’t be as many wine bottle curves that transition from one section to another, and each section will look more like flat lines that run parallel against each other.

This reed will be harder to control with the embouchure and will take more work to play on.  This makes it less ideal for long stretches of playing, but it will be able to take more air and can give you a larger range for dynamics and color. It might not sound great if you blow into with no embouchure control, but it will do ‘more.’

Rarely (if ever) will we have that perfect reed that fits every situation, but if you mix and match some of these processes and come to your own conclusions then you will be better prepared for the playing situations thrown your way! 

If you want more information on the details of the reed slopes, then click here to purchase full membership!