We musicians discuss technique a lot in private lessons. Whether it is keeping your fingers close to the keys, or fine-tuning your embouchure, classical musicians constantly think about their technique. But what about when we are making reeds?
The one reed-making technique mistake that I often see is too much tension in a reed maker’s hands. Right away, if you notice that you are gripping the knife while you are scraping, that is a good indicator that your knife is not sharp enough. Your grip on the knife shouldn’t be tense, but instead, you should be able to very lightly hold the knife and allow it to lift cane off the reed.
I think “good” technique (whether performing or reed-making technique) means you can comfortably and repeatedly perform the necessary maneuver, and it should be scalable without causing injury.
For example, maybe if you grip the knife too hard while you are scraping a reed, you will be able to make one, two, or three reeds in a day. But, if you have too much tension in your hand and you try to make five or ten reeds in a day, you can easily create wrist pain or shoulder pain.
Similarly, when you are performing, if you try to “bite” up the pitch of high A’s with your embouchure, you will raise the pitch of your high A’s. But, if you are performing the Strauss Concerto, your embouchure could very easily give out after just the first page if you always have to “bite” the pitch up. Last example: let’s say you are practicing the opening to Le Tombeau de Couperin slowly; if your fingers are too rigid or tense, you might be able to perform it successfully under tempo. But, when you try to play it faster, you are more likely to stop making progress at a certain point because your fingers are too rigid to increase the tempo. These are all examples of technique that doesn’t scale very well.
Next time you go to make some reeds, drop your arms to the side and relax. Let your arms and hands just fall to the floor and dangle. Your fingers in their natural position will remain curved slightly. Then, very gently, lift your arm from the elbow and gently place your hand around the handle of the reed knife. See if you can scrape the reed with as little grip strength as possible. If someone were to try to take the knife out of your hands, they should be able to do so with very little effort and without playing a game of tug-of-war. See if you can keep your knife sharp enough to successfully scrape a reed without causing unnecessary tension in your hand, forearm, bicep, or shoulder. If not, it might be a sign to sharpen your knife.
All in all, sitting down to make reeds for an hour, or two, or three will hopefully not be too uncomfortable (maybe a little frustrating though!). Yes, you should probably stand up every hour or so to quickly stretch, but I think another sign that you are not using good reed making technique is if you experience any excess discomfort, pain, or tension after making reeds.
More can be said about posture and the chair that you sit in when making reeds, but a sharp knife can be a good start!
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