We learn early to value reeds and play them until they wont…
Often when I start beginners I provide them with a reed to learn their first notes on. To be honest, it is rare to find a beginner who is able or willing to play the oboe for more than a few hours a week when starting out, so their first one or two reeds last for a while. Perhaps they last even a few weeks or a couple months.
It is very telling who is not practicing at home based on how long their reed is still able to trudge along. In reality, through normal use in practice and band class, an oboe reed should only last a couple of weeks. For tips on making the reeds last longer and getting the most out of your reed check out this article I wrote by clicking here.
A reed that is no longer functional has three key indicators that will reveal if it needs replacing. 1. The opening of reed will collapse overtime. This leads to sharpness and makes the reed harder to blow through. 2. The tip of the reed may become frayed from trauma of tonguing and knicks from the reed case or hands. 3. Any cracks in the reed will render it flat and useless. 4. Mold…enough said…
Oboe reeds are expensive and it can be painful to have to get a new reed so often. While single reed players may replace their reeds every few days. Oboists may keep a reed for a while so it is worth monitoring the wear and tear on your reed so you know when it’s time to say goodbye. These simple but crucial tests will help you decide if your reed is broken or needs replacing especially if your just starting out on the oboe.
The opening of a reed is key in determining the pitch, and resistance of the reed. If a reed is too open it will be difficult to control and may fatigue the mouth too much to be playable, but if the opening is too small the reed will be sharp and inflexible. The opening of a reed will collapse overtime so there is a limited window (10-15 hours of playing, or 40 hours or so of not playing) when the reed will have an optimal opening. Luckily, this also means that if the reed is a little too open just wait a week or two and it may collapse to a manageable size.
As the reed ages, the blades will slip past each other little by little. This is sometimes referred to as “breaking in the reed” when the reed is new and is a natural part of the lifecycle of the reed. The micro trauma of controlling the reed with the embouchure(mouth) will accelerate the process. Additionally bacterial growth inside the reed can effectively make the opening smaller as the biofilms coat the inside cavity of the reed.
The opening of the reed is stabilized by two main opposing forces. First the thread that is tied around the cane to fasten it to the staple tugs on the cane counter clockwise. This is opposed by the rails of the reed which pull clockwise to a neutral and stable result. As the cane is played and ages the cane loses some strength but the thread does not wear away. The result is that the blades are pulled counterclockwise over time slowly collapsing the opening of the reed.
The tip of the reed is the thinnest part of the reed. Or at least it should be. Some commercial reeds do not respect this and sometimes leave the tip thick. A thin and sloped tip allow the reed to give a warm sound with easy response.
As the tongue attacks the reed and/or it endures other microtraumas from handling or accidental knicks or bumps, the tip of the reed may take on a ragged or frayed appearance. At first only the low notes will stop working and eventually nothing will sound right. This will eventually make the reed too hard to play as the response and tone will be compromised and a new one should be used instead.
Chips that occur at the edges of the tip are not as critical as chips at or near the middle from left to right. Often a professional can clip the reed and remake the tip. The reed may never sound as good but it may be playable for a while longer while a replacement can be ordered. However, inexperienced reed makers should not try this.
As always keep a few reeds broken in and in rotation. A few reeds can help you feel ready for anything. If you need to order reeds, click here to go to the shop where I sell handmade reeds.
A crack is certainly the death of a reed. The reed vibrates hundreds of times a second and a week grain in the cane can be convinced to come apart by these undulating waves through the material. It is usually not the players fault if a reed cracks; they just happen when they happen and can be impossible to predict.
A crack is usually obvious. If the pitch drops significantly and the cane feels soggy and sluggish to play there is probably a crack. There is no remedy. Some advocate for super glue but I don’t feel comfortable putting such chemical’s in my mouth.
Mold or Other Colonies
The reed is organic fuel for many micro-organisms that live harmlessly in your mouth or the air kept in check by your immune system and competition from other microbes. However the environment of the reed can allow some germs to proliferate beyond the point of control.
Molds will often show up as fruiting bodies or black colonies, while bacteria will often form films along the inside of the reed. Using rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide may keep them at bay temporarily but this is not a long term solution. The age of the reed required to grow such creatures is a bit longer than recommended simply because of the slippage and collapse described above. White or black growths in the reed mean it’s time to order replacements.
You can prevent these growths by soaking your reeds in a reed soaker, or cup, instead of your mouth. Keeping your reeds in a reed case and not in the plastic tube or coffin it came it will help as well. I have other strategies for getting the most life from your reeds in an article I wrote which you can read by clicking here.
Reeds are not meant to last forever and by keeping a rotation of reeds in your reed case you can sound your best. If you have any other questions or stories of reeds gone bad, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear about them.