Testing an oboe reed - 4 tips to improve your oboe sanity!
Being able to test the reed is crucial to good reed making and is imperative for students who are choosing a reed that will work for them. Whether you are a student trying out a bunch of reeds you just bought from different online vendors or a reed making college kid, these 5 tips will help you sort through reeds that sound pretty but may betray you and find the reeds that will get you through rehearsals and concerts with ease.
Function over sound
Odds are, if the reed responds well and plays in tune it will probably sound pretty. Unfortunately the reverse is simply not true. Many have been seduced by a heavy reed that had a super dark tone only to realize it is essentially useless for playing in rehearsal.
Key components of a functional reed
Response- If the reed doesn’t allow you to reliably and effortlessly enter with a conductor’s downbeat or catch a dovetailed melody with the flute in time then it is impossible for playing with others. If the response is delayed or heavy its probably because there is too much cane at the tip. You can remedy the situation by scraping away some cane from the tip but be careful to preserve the slope at all times! Otherwise the reed could turn harsh and gross. Or you can always just try a different reed.
Pitch- The reed must crow a C (or more recently in vogue; a C#). If you crow the reed and 5-20 different notes come out clip that reed, refine it, or throw it away. Reeds that have no clear pitch center or stability will give you a nightmarish time in a concert or worse make life hard for your friends in rehearsals.
Stability- This is kind of the combination of the other two. The reed should feel good in all registers and not be a one octave reed high or low.
Tip no. 1-Try before you buy!
Be sure to try the reeds from many suppliers and see which reed maker is going to make your life the easiest. Buying so many reeds just to try them out may seem like a waste of time and money, but many reed vendors may supply you with a sample or give you a credit from their store. Even if they don’t, finding a reliable reed supply is worth its weight in gold.
If you are buying a reed in person, from a teacher, ask to try at least two different reeds so you can try them and see which is best and that you can rely on the reeds to make your music making happen.
Tip no. 2 - develop a strong sense of what works
Reeds don’t have to be a mystery, after about a year or two of playing you should have a sense of how much air to push through the oboe when it is working properly. All oboists and students should have a go-to procedure on how to test a reed to make sure it functions. The video below shows some tests I like to use and teach to my private students.
Tip no. 3- Get comfortable scraping on your reeds
Students often avoid scraping on their reeds for fear of damaging them, but the sooner you start the sooner you will feel comfortable with a knife and know what to do. If you need tips on how to scrape on a reed I made a video for that as well.
Tip no. 4 - Always use playing habits, even/especially when testing reeds.
Some students try reeds in ways that they would never actually play. Often the trail of a reed will involve weak air and terrible posture. Be sure to remember to breathe deeply and push tenacious and viscous air through the reed to create a beautiful tone. The embouchure should help the reed sound good but not make the reed sound good. Feeling for a reed that allows you to play naturally is of the utmost importance.