Guest Oboe Lesson with Tim Gocklin
By Tim Gocklin; Artist-in-Residence at University of Northern Colorado
Q1. Recently, you moved to Colorado for your new position as Artist-in-Residence in Oboe at the University of Northern Colorado. You are living at a much higher altitude than you previously did in New Haven – how has your reed making process changed in the past year to be able to play in Colorado versus when you were living in New Haven?
My transition to making reeds in Colorado has thankfully been easier than I thought it was going to be. Luckily, I am just slightly under 5,000 ft. in Greeley. That said, it’s still MUCH different than being at sea-level in New Haven! My gouge, if it’s changed much at all, has gotten a touch thinner. I still use a Kunibert Michel gouging machine (with an 11/11 set-up, 10-10.10.5 diameter Rigotti cane that is purchased from Rigotti), but now I’ll accept cane gouged as thin as 0.57mm in the center. When I was living in New Haven, I was using Rigotti cane and my Kunibert; however, I could get away with my cane being gouged at 0.60mm in the center, which has proved to be too thick for Colorado. In the summer months, I can get away with 10.5-11 diameter cane. Every other time of year, I must use 10-10.5 (and in some cases 9.5-10) to get a proper opening to the reed. The dry and cold weather makes traveling to warmer and more humid places difficult!
With regards to what I do differently with my scrape, this has been somewhat of a transition since moving to Colorado. I used to have a much more defined style of reed, with a very clear delineation between my tip, heart, and back. The sections were still blended, but that was something that was more-or-less put in after the sections had been defined and put in place. To combat the structured tip/heart, I would scrape more out of the back to give the reed its flexibility. This resulted in a reed that sat up in pitch, and had a beautiful, lush sound, but required slightly too much air to get it vibrating than I was liked (playing a full concert of chamber music can be very tiring on a reed like this). This style of reed was also much more difficult to make work when the weather got colder. While the sound of this type of reed was quite nice, I realized that it tended to be a bit one dimensional in tone quality – I was looking for something more vibrant and warm with a more immediate response. To achieve this, I’ve started using a more blended scrape in the tip, which is something I did years ago, and from the back into the heart, making sure I lift the knife at the top of the back to avoid making the ridge. The vibrations have been much more immediate with these reeds and have so far been giving me the tonal complexities I’ve been looking for. Instead of trying to take definition out of my reeds after, I’m putting more in and taking more out of the very sides of the tip to mellow the sound and raise the pitch. Also, because of the blended style, I am finding that I do not need to scrape as much out of the back as I used to.
I am fortunate that my Caleb -1 shape that I used in New Haven also works well in Colorado! I have also had success with the Sara shape, though I find that the Caleb -1 provides more tonal complexities.
Q2. Akropolis will be performing all over the country this season. With your busy touring schedule, how do you manage your reeds when you could be playing in a different climate the next day?
To be honest, I have yet to figure out the best system for this. Ideally, I would be in a situation where I had a case of reeds that are nearly-finished and half-finished before I travel. By half-finished, I mean all the dimensions of the reed are very roughly scraped, followed by an initial clip. Also, I am careful to be sure that the reed will not develop loose sides after going from 5,000 feet to 500 feet above sea level. The tip is thin, but not too thin; the thickness of the heart measures around 0.45mm in the channels and 0.50mm in the center (my finished measurements are around 40/45 side-center); the back only has the bark scraped off. I refrain from scraping too much in the back before I travel because that will be the biggest factor preventing the reed from coming up to pitch. In addition to these half-finished reeds, I need to have some moderately ready-to-play reeds that can be scraped to pitch quickly, as we will generally rehearse when we arrive in a particular city (these reeds will rarely see the concert stage). I remember getting off the plane in Chicago one winter last year, rehearsing the night before at our Air BnB, and then performing a concert the next day. We also had some scenarios where we were recording works for our upcoming CD and there was a similar turnaround time (I was terrified). We made it work! I am always cognizant of leaving a little bit more cane in the back and rails of the reed so that the reed maintains its strength.
When I first started touring with the quintet last fall, my strategy was to bring only nearly-finished reeds to our destinations, as I have never branded myself as a fast reed maker, and have something ready to go (knowing what I know now, this is a silly thought that I can only imagine possible once Legere develops the American scrape oboe reed). As the weather got colder and dryer in Colorado, however, I would scrape too much out of the back of my reeds to get them to vibrate. When I would leave Colorado, those reeds were too flat and weak for me to scrape up to pitch, as we usually perform at much lower elevations. When I did get the reed up to pitch, I would usually lack the dynamic range needed to perform our repertoire due to the process of readjusting the tip/back ratio even more, which then weakens the cane (the increase of humidity also plays a role in weakening the fibers of the cane). I once tried putting a wire on the reed, but that also proved to be unfavorable. I’ve since abandoned this touring strategy and now only bring half-finished reeds and have started to use 46mm staples more often to help facilitate the pitch issue.
Luckily, I do not need to bring my gouging machine on tour! I used to when I was more active with my reed business…that was always worrisome. My Reeds N’ Stuff Hygrometer case (a GREAT case for someone who travels often) holds 18 reeds, and on longer trips, I like to have an assortment of reeds from nearly-finished, half-finished, and complete blanks.
In the spring, the quintet does a 2-week festival in Detroit working with high school students and premiering new works in the Together We Sound festival. For that, I will plan to bring a bunch of gouged cane, along with reeds in all stages. This past fall (2019), we traveled to Connecticut, California, and Canada. This winter and spring, we’ve had concerts in Michigan, upstate New York, Iowa, Arizona, Texas, and Nevada – I made sure to have as much time as possible in order to scrape up something that works with our repertoire! Whenever possible, I try to make sure I have a couple of finished reeds to leave in Colorado so that I am able to teach and not worry about reeds when I come back from traveling.
I always look forward to traveling to warmer places, despite the climate being so different. My theory is that because the air is warmer and there is more humidity in the air, it takes less time for the reeds to vibrate. This is when I use my 10.5-11 reserves of cane. I’ve also got a theory that my reeds want me to move to California because they seem to vibrate so much better and quicker there!
I would say another hard part of touring and performing with the quintet for these concerts is the return trip home. Every time I leave, I tell myself that I’m going to leave some reeds behind in CO so that I can have working reeds when I need to teach the day I get back from an Akropolis trip. Since I want to have enough options for Akropolis, I tend to bring all my reeds with me, which means I will rarely have something that works when I fly back to CO. Every now and then I have a reed or two that I can adjust for a quick turnaround teaching day, but if I’m trying to demonstrate how to articulate the first ‘g’ in Ich habe genug or a long-tone exercise showing a wide range of dynamics and smooth note beginnings and endings, a ‘turnaround’ reed won’t quite do the trick. Will it play the 5th Silvestrini etude? Absolutely!
Q3. Since you are busy touring, do you make adjustments to the various halls and venues that you perform in?
I’m just happy if I can get a reed to play in tune and have a semblance of a dynamic range when touring! Joking aside, I truly am more concerned about having a reed that will function the way I need it to rather than how it feels in the hall when on tour. If the circumstance allows, I will try to make any necessary adjustments to my reeds to suit the hall if I feel it won’t sacrifice the performance of the reed. Because I’m now getting used to making reeds from half-finished to fully finished in a short span of time, I’m noticing how drastically the reed changes from the beginning of the day to concert hour (I usually make my reeds over the course of 4 days and give them time to rest). We will sometimes perform in Black Box theater environments, and these moments make me cringe and just hope for the best! Black Box theaters and radio stations are some of the driest venues due to their nature of being designed for spoken word (you can find me praying to the reed gods before these concerts). These venues tend to bring out the higher overtones, which means you want to make sure you have a reed that will favor the lower overtones.
Q4. Do you have a particular sound that you look for when you are playing a reed quintet as opposed to any other type of ensemble? Does the music that Akropolis commissions require you to play with a particular sound or have any different capabilities?
Sound is always an interesting concept and is always so unique to each individual’s voice on their instrument. What I strive for in a “chamber sound” is not too different than what I strive for in an orchestral sound, which is an evenly balanced set of highs and lows in the sound that allows for many color possibilities. In essence, my general sound concept stays the same regardless of the sort of performance, though what I require my reed to do will change. I find it more difficult to prepare reeds for solo and chamber music playing, as I feel that more is required of the player in these instances due to the exposed nature of playing these types of music. That said, I give myself a little bit of liberty with reeds for chamber and orchestral playing with regards to the sound. If the reed is favoring the higher overtones too much, but functions well, I may not use it for orchestra, but would most likely use it for the reed quintet. I’ve found that the reed quintet requires a reed with a greater ratio of high overtones in the sound due to the need to cut through the textures of the saxophone and bass clarinet. Despite this, I still take great care in the construction of the reed to make sure there will still be enough lows in the sound to balance the highs (tip/back balance) and to also give me the tonal flexibility needed to play an array of different repertoire.
At a typical concert of Akropolis’ music, you’ll hear music from slow, sensitive and beautiful to a cacophony of multiphonics, saxophone wails, and bass clarinet slap tongues to a jaunty, Sunday walk in the park a la the opening of An American in Paris. I’ve found that the best option is to make a reed that does a little of everything. Given the nature of the oboe’s melodic and exposed role in the reed quintet, the tone must be colorful and beautiful (I realize this is also subjective, and again, everyone’s concept of a beautiful tone is different). In Akropolis, we have spent years developing our group sound, so I will always be manufacturing a reed that accomplishes what is needed to fit into that mold.
There are many times where I’m making reeds and think, “this would be great for the orchestra!” It’s a reed that is a little bit on the heavier side with a beautiful, rich, lush sound, but would most likely cause too much fatigue for a chamber or solo recital. I want a reed that is going to allow me enough flexibility to be able to blend with my other colleagues and project as a soloist when needed in an orchestra, but also has enough stability so that I’m not changing too drastically with my embouchure. I use my embouchure and voicing to manipulate the pitch/tone colors more than relying on the reed alone. With the Kunibert gouge, I find that I can produce an ideal reed that offers a multitude of colors in all ranges of the instrument.
I tend to use two kinds of staples, Chiarugi 2+ brass (46mm and 47mm) and Chudnow S and sometimes E staples (brass and gold…silver tends to be too brilliant). The Chudnows work well with the reed quintet and solo playing because of the added brilliance of the tube; however, these do not work as well when trying to blend in a full wind section. The cork staples add a nice cushion of sound that is harder to achieve with a Chudnow staple. It can be done with a less dense piece of cane, however! It is not impossible.
Q5. What do you look for in an oboe reed when you are testing it out? What qualities do “good” reeds have that “bad” reeds don’t have?
When I am testing out a reed, I am testing to make sure that the reed responds and that the reed is in tune. The reed needs to be comfortable enough to play on to the point that I feel I could get through a concert with Akropolis, doing all of the necessary nuances our music requires and the blending required to play in a reed quintet; from the quietest niente entrance to match with the clarinet to the most resonant fortissimo to cut through the many overtones of the single-reed instruments. The qualities that I find in a “good” reed have to do with the quality of the cane and the gouge. If the cane is of good quality, it’s up to us as the reed maker to not mess it up too bad, haha! It is also our responsibility to make sure the gouge is in proper condition. At that point, we know that the cane is of proper measurements, proper color, and straightness, and all we need to do is construct it the way we want (easier said than done…have a sharp knife!).
Simply put, if the reed plays in tune, is strong enough to where I know it will last a concert, responds, and has a nice tone, then it is good enough for a concert. If something happens to the reed on stage, I try to make sure I have at least two back-ups. Because of how often I travel and the short amount of time I sometimes have from a half-finished reed to the final product, it is hard to tell if the reed is going to be a concert reed when in the test phases. I could finish a reed on a Saturday for a concert performance on Sunday that changes drastically depending on the climate of wherever we are. I’ll usually know when I have “potentially” concert ready reeds.
Now, do all my reeds possess these qualities all the time for every one of our concerts? Absolutely not – that would be amazing! At the end of the day, it is still up to us. WE have to make the reed work because it is going to do what it wants at the moment. Can we help guide it beforehand? 100%. What’s the most important thing we can do to make sure the reed does what we want when we’re making reeds? Have a sharp knife!
Biography: Known for his “remarkably beautiful oboe playing” (Fanfare Magazine), Tim Gocklin is the oboist of the Akropolis Reed Quintet and serves as Artist-in-Residence in Oboe and woodwind chamber music coordinator at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, CO. Prior to his present position in Colorado, Tim lived in New Haven, CT and performed in a wide variety of settings with ensembles such as The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Le Train Bleu, New York Chamber Soloists, Mozart Orchestra of New York under the direction of Gerard Schwarz, the Argus String Quartet, and The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.
Began in 2009, Akropolis has won six national chamber music prizes, including the Fischoff Gold Medal and Grand Prize at both the Plowman and MTNA chamber music competitions in 2011. The ensemble has recorded three albums to date, most recently The Space Between Us, which showcases original works for reed quintet commissioned by the ensemble by composers such as John Steinmetz, David Biedenbender, Rob Deemer, Paul Dooley and more.
In 2012, Tim received his Bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from the University of Michigan where he studied with Dr. Nancy Ambrose King. He went on to pursue his Master of Music degree and Artist Diploma at Yale University studying with Stephen Taylor.
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This post was made possible in part thanks to support from The New England Conservatory’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship department.