Is it worth practicing when your reeds suck?

If you play the oboe, or bassoon, or really any reed instrument you probably can relate to this question quite well. We all know how it is. You’re geared up to practice today. You have big performance, or jury, recital or audition coming up and you must practice. You soak your reeds, pull out your instrument, grab your reed and play a few notes and….. whoa…. what happened to your reed???

At this point you have two choices you can take. One, suck it up and practice on what is in your case or two, fix your reed.

Many times I’ve tried to practice but get very frustrated and end up in a frenetic reed making session trying to get my reed to halfway work. Unfortunately, these sessions don’t really accomplish much. I’m too hurried to thoughtfully adjust my reeds, and not focused on accomplishing much in the practicing session because the reed problems are overwhelming.

So is it worth it to practice at all? Is it better to just have a reed making session? Or not practice at all?

Well, I have two answers for that. Yes and no. Simple, right?

Ok, I’ll explain.

Reasons for not practicing when you have bad reeds.

1. You can develop bad playing habits.

Playing the oboe well requires two things: a good player and a good reed. (You also need a well-adjusted oboe too, but that’s for another blog post). At times, good players can and will have to accommodate for bad reeds, but the more you relax your standards on your reeds, the more you will end up accommodating for them and your overall playing will suffer.

…the more you relax your standards on your reeds, the more you will end up accommodating for them and your overall playing will suffer.

A great example of this is with response. A few months ago, I was going through an exceptionally busy time. Spring is always a busy season for freelancers but I was also commuting a significant amount of time, moving, and going through a workout plan that required a lot of time. I was doing all of this on top of all the teaching, rehearsals and performances that were scheduled. I hardly had time for reeds and as a consequence, I practiced on whatever I had in my case and just made it work. This was working for a few practice sessions but over time I saw my standards for responsive reeds declining and it was a wake-up call.

2. Your practice session can end up being a waste of time.

clear glass with red sand grainer

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One of the main attributes oboists try to build into their reeds is good intonation. Everyone has different standards on what this looks like but for me, my reeds need to play evenly from the lower register to the upper register with little embouchure manipulation involved. Whatever your standards on stability and intonation in your reeds are, if you are practicing on something that isn’t even close to what you normally play on then your practice session will likely suffer.

If your reed has bad intonation and you spend hours working on intonation with tuning drones then you’re wasting your time. Why spend hours working on problems you’re having when the problem isn’t you?

3. You have nothing in the case that actually works.

How bad are your reeds? Are they not so great, or completely  hopeless? If you really don’t have a reed that has decent response or good intonation then you have a bigger problem on your hands and it may be time to just work on reeds.

Reasons for practicing when you have bad reeds.

1. You can use the opportunity to shift your mindset and actually fix your reeds while practicing.

A lot of reasons for practicing even when your reeds are bad come down to mindset and switching your goals. The best reeds I make are ones that have been adjusted while testing them on actual music. A few noodles around a comfy scale doesn’t really tell us much does it? So spend your time fixing your reed and then use the music you need to practice to reveal what is lacking in your reeds. Is it response? Intonation? Identifying problems are the key to making good reeds.

If you’d like extra help with that here is my reed making adjustment chart to help you!

A lot of reasons for practicing even when your reeds are bad come down to mindset and switching your goals

2. You can do more mental practice.

The terms ‘mental practice,’ ‘visualization’ and other similar phrases have been getting thrown around the professional music scene a lot. But what exactly is it and what does it look like? Well, to really dive into this would take a lot longer to explain than in one section of a blog post. Books have been written and courses have been launched regarding mental practice. But here’s a summary of what it is:

person holding pen leaning on table

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Mental practice is simply using your imagination to work out technical, phrasing, musical and performance anxiety problems. There are many ways you can do this. You can actively listen to recordings of what you are working on, sing out the part you are learning to work out your phrasing and explore musical ideas, and you can use mental practice to perfect technique. Yes that’s right, you don’t have to slave away in the practice room with a metronome to work on technique all the time! Here’s a short example of what I do.

First, pick out a section of what you’re working on. Just a few measures at most. Then set your metronome to half the tempo of where you are able to play the section at. Go ahead and play through the section once.

Then, put your instrument down and imagine out how each note feels on your finger without using your instrument for any help. If you’re doing it right, you probably can’t do it! Slow the metronome down to as slow as you need to until out can actively feel in your mind how each note feels on your fingers. When you can do that, then pay the passage. Repeat this a few times and then move the metronome up a few notches and repeat.

…put your instrument down and imagine out how each note feels on your finger without using your instrument for any help. If you’re doing it right, you probably can’t do it.

I can usually only do 10-15 minutes of this at a time but it’s highly effective and really increases efficiency! Once you feel comfortable with the technical aspect of this, you can add in other things like how you are using your air, what the note sounds and feels like, etc.

You can use mental practice with reed making too. What does a good reed feel like? Try to get that feeling back into your reeds. Have you forgotten? Maybe that’s a sign you’ve been playing on bad reeds for too long!

3. You can learn to play on bad reeds.

This may sound a little contradictory to what I was saying before, but the fact is you can’t expect to always have good reeds.

In one particular studio class at DePaul University, Eugene Izotov (then principal oboist in the Chicago Symphony) was demonstrating something on another student’s oboe and reed. I can’t even remember what he was showing us but what stuck out in my mind was his reaction and response to this person’s reed. His first few notes sounded unresponsive and bright. Then he pulled the reed out, said “whoa” and played it again sounding as beautiful as he always does.

What struck me was how quickly he adapted to a reed that he wasn’t used to playing and was probably not as good as his own. My point is no matter what is going on with your reed, if you are in a professional situation you have to deliver. The audience doesn’t care how bad your reeds are, the conductor doesn’t care and your colleagues don’t care.

So how do you adapt? It’s important to know what you want to sound like and use use your mind and ear to guide you. Don’t analyze every aspect of what you need to do to make your reed sound good. It is more important to “hear” in your head what you want the music to sound like then your body will follow. The reed should serve you, not control you.

The reed should serve you not control you.

There really isn’t a black and white answer to whether you should practice when your reeds are bad. It’s really a personal decision. Instead of thinking of musicianship and reed making skills in opposition to each other, try to see them with a more holistic mindset. I have found that to become a great oboist you have to become a good reed maker. The two go hand in hand. If your reeds are bad, use your skills as a musician and oboist to make them better. If your reeds are awesome. Great! Then work on becoming a better player.

Instead of thinking of musicianship and reed making skills in opposition to each other, try to see them with a more holistic mindset.

As you become a better player you start to demand more of your reeds and as your reeds get better you are able to become a better oboist.

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