In terms of reed response, we often see Hard, Soft, or Medium reeds advertised, or we will say that our own reeds are too hard or too easy. In this post, I want to go through how I think about response and easiness levels in my reeds. Some people might see this topic differently than I do, or adjust their reeds differently, so this is just how I handle my reeds. It is important to use as many adjectives as we can to describe our reeds (and our playing too) to help zero in on the precise problem. And of course, if you have any thoughts, feel free to comment or send a message!
I think some of us have slightly different definitions of words and phrases like 'response' or 'medium-hard reed'. For me, response means that if I try to play a low C, middle C, and high C, all notes in all registers should play on command. There shouldn't be any sputtering or rolling tones in the lower octave, and the upper octave should respond cleanly.
With my reeds, I get this kind of response mostly from how the tip is scraped and how the reed is balanced. The tip (especially at the top and sides) should be scraped thin enough to easily start the sound. On my reeds, I basically scrape what some people call a 'super tip'. The very top of the tip is scraped as thin as possible, and then I balance the rest of the tip from there so that it gradually gets thicker towards the bottom and the center. The reed also needs to be balanced so that the heart isn't too thick compared to the tip or windows.
To test the response, try playing the low, middle, and high Cs and C#s to make sure each note responds similarly. You can also try crowing the reed to see how little air it needs to start vibrating. While you are crowing, you should also try to feel if the reed is vibrating into the heart and windows. The heart and windows of the reed need to be just thin enough, which is why I sometimes use a dial indicator to quickly measure those areas—this just ensures that my reeds are within a normal range. Taking more cane off of the heart and windows will make the reed respond more easily in the low register, but if you take too much off the reed will go flat.
(Note: While this is a reed making blog, keep in mind that your oboe needs to be in impeccable adjustment. An easy test is to play the middle B (with just your first finger), then slur down to an A, then G, and see if each note responds just as easily as the previous note. Ideally, this should work as you go down to an F#, E, D, C, low B, and low Bb. Moving between a B and an A should feel the same as moving from an A to a G, and from G to F#, and F# to E, and so on. Just slowly move one finger at a time and make sure each note slurs and responds just as easily as going between a B and an A.)
Sometimes people refer to reeds as being too easy or too light. I tend to play on light reeds, but I look for 'restraint' or 'cushion' in the response. I heard from a pianist that he likes to warm up pretending like he is underwater so that when he warms up, his movement is slower and more deliberate with a lot of 'restraint' in his motion, just like how someone would move if they were underwater. This is just the visualization I like to use for the terms 'restraint' and 'cushion'. By having some restraint to our sound, it will improve the tone quality.
Maybe not everyone reading this has driven a car, but you wouldn't want to tap the accelerator and have the car go 90 mph, but instead, you would want to have the control to ease on the accelerator to increase your speed. Think about your reeds in the same way where you wouldn't want to lightly play and have the dynamic come out as a fortissimo.
There are times when we are playing more modern pieces where the composer asks for a very aggressive attack, but most of the time, we try to find some balance in our playing between playing too aggressively and too restrained. That might depend on the composer, the hall, or our colleagues with the exact type of action or attack we are looking for on each note. Pieces by Stravinsky might call for a more aggressive attack. Pieces by Bach require more restraint in your sound, but you would still want the reed to respond easily and not be too tiring to play on.
You can test this out by crowing the reed and making a crescendo and decrescendo. As you add more air, the reed should get louder evenly and not in big jumps or spurts. Try just playing your reed (a crow and/or a peep) and try starting the sound with as little air as possible and see what happens when you slowly increase your air. The sound shouldn't jump out but rather crescendo gradually.
The restraint in the reed comes partly from leaving enough cane in the center of the tip. I try to leave a spine going up the center of the tip. Also, the heart and windows should be balanced so that they are not so thick that the reed doesn't vibrate, and of course, not too thin that the reed is flat and too 'loose' in how it responds. You can also look at the transitions between the tip, heart, and windows. If you've scraped too much out of one area, you can't add cane back on, but you can try rebalancing the reed and make every other part else thinner by comparison.
The size of the reed opening can also be mistaken for hardness. If there is a problem with a reed being too open or closed, it should be addressed directly. Maybe a reed with too small of an opening might be perceived as too easy, or a reed with too big of an opening might be too hard to play in the upper register. Sometimes, fixing the opening of a reed can make the response closer to your preferences. For example, creating more separation between the tip and the heart and between the heart and windows will tend to open up the reed which might improve the response in the low register. Members can check out these posts on fixing a reed that is too open and too closed.
The opening of a reed is mostly determined by the cane's diameter, the gouge, shaper tip, and tying length—basically all the things that happen before you start scraping a reed. While there are some tricks you can do to make the reed more open or closed (like simply squeezing it open or shut), you might want to keep a few reeds that are too open or closed just in case they change!
The hardness or heaviness of a reed is very often mistaken for response. For example, a reed can be hard (or heavy) and still be responsive in the low register. Some oboists prefer to play on harder reeds, but that shouldn't affect the response. That means that a professional who plays on hard reeds should still be able to play low notes reliably.
If a reed does not respond very well in the low register, I would consider that an unresponsive reed, not necessarily a hard reed. For me, I make my reeds to be as responsive as possible while still maintaining some restraint to the tone. Some pieces of cane and some reeds will simply come out harder or softer than others. This means my embouchure might get tired a little more quickly as I play on it.
You can adjust this in the tip, the blend, the heart, or the windows a little bit, but here's the thing—reeds change every day because of the weather or how broken in they are. In general, if a reed is too hard for me, I might scrape more cane out of the blend area or scrape more out of the top and bottom corners of the tip. But, it can be a good thing to have a few reeds that are a little bit different! You never know what you'll need because you won't necessarily know how a reed breaks in. If a reed needs to be broken-in, I like to play the opening page of Don Juan by Richard Strauss because the high notes with all the fast articulations can help break it in quicker.
Sometimes Quantity Over Quality
Ok, yes, you need to have a few very good reeds for a concert or audition. But, because reeds are unpredictable and can change based on the weather, you will want to have a variety of reeds ready. It's easy to say quality is more important than quantity, but be careful with that saying because you also need a large quantity of reeds just in case something changes. There are some halls and rehearsal rooms that I have played in that required a heavier reed. There are times when I make a batch of reeds that all seem to die within a few days, but then the reeds that were too hard at first are still useful.
Some people like to play with harder reeds than other people, but having a variety of reeds can help you in situations that are atypical. I will try to keep some reeds that feel too heavy, or have too big of an opening, or are too 'zingy' in their sound because I don't always know what I'll need each day or in every concert venue. Sometimes the reed that is too heavy will be just what you need if you are playing in a black box theater with very dry acoustics. I also try to carry with me a bunch of reeds in various stages of being finished, meaning I try to carry some blanks, some half-finished, some newly finished, and one or two old reeds.
Check out the oboe reed measurements page to see how I make my reeds. I basically use that template for most of my reeds, and then some reeds end up being a little harder or softer, or darker or brighter in sound, or have a bigger or smaller opening. Maybe I'll fuss with those reeds a little bit and try to get them closer to what I play on, but I still like to have a few reeds that are a bit different.
If you are looking for more reed making instructions, check out the oboe reed measurement post where you can download a reed making PDF that has scraping instructions and oboe reed measurements. Looking to buy reeds? Check out this page with my handmade oboe reeds or Boomerang oboe reeds from Midwest Musical Imports.Follow us on social media: