Three Common Mistakes New Reed Makers Make

Learning to make oboe reeds takes a lot of time and patience, there’s no doubt about that. To become a good reed maker one must develop a heightened awareness of tiny details, have patience, and have the ability to take risks and problem-solve. There are many pitfalls new reed makers can fall into but there are a few repeated problems I’ve seen amongst all new reed makers at one time or another.

1. Not keeping a knife sharp.

Having problems ripping off your tips? A dull knife might be why! This is most definitely one of the top problems I see with new reed makers. It’s also a common problem we all can fall into no matter what stage of reed making we’re at. Learning to keep you knife sharp is a skill that requires time and patience to develop. Unfortunately, we tend to get impatient easily. The worse the reed making session is going the less we pay attention to our knife which may very well be the source of reed problems. Having a dull knife will affect your scraping technique, causing you to use too much pressure and increasing the risk of making mistakes like ripping off tips, scraping to much in one area, and other things like that. Take the time to really learn how to get your knife sharp and keep it sharp.

The worse the reed making session is going the less we pay attention to our knife which may very well be the source of reed problems.

2. Not scraping enough.

A problem I often see with new reed makers is not getting their reeds to respond by simply not scraping enough. This is common with oboists who are afraid to make mistakes or scrape the wrong area. We all can be nervous about making mistakes but the good news is it’s just a reed! There will be plenty more to screw up down the road. I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Atomic Habits and the author, James Clear, tells a story about a photography experiment where the class was divided into two groups. The first group was told to focus on quality. All they need to do to pass the class was take one amazing picture. The second group was told to focus on quantity and to take as many pictures as possible. The group that produced the best pictures in the end was the group that focused on quantity. Why? Because they were practicing and perfecting their skills while they took many shots (Atomic Habits, pp. 140-142). This is SO true with reed making. You have to make a lot of reeds to become good. There is no shortcut. John Mack is famous for saying “you have to fill a laundry basket full of reeds to become proficient.” Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Be careful and thoughtful, yes, but don’t let fear stop you from doing what you need to do to get the reed to play.

…don’t let fear stop you from doing what you need to do to get the reed to play.

3. Not getting detail-oriented.

Details matter when it comes to reed making. It’s true that a good reed may sometimes look terrible but you would be surprised at what mistakes can be fixed by just looking at the reed and examining where you need to scrape. Most reed makers know what a reed should look like and understand the basic scrape. However, we are working in very small measurements and it takes a skilled eye (and a ruler!) to really see all the details. Examine your reed against a backlight and under different lightings to really see what is going on. Here are a few things to look out for:

  • Is the placement of the back of your tip symmetrical? Are all four quadrants at the EXACT measurement. I put the back of my tip at 66mm but somewhere between 65-66mm is normal. The most important thing is that the measurement is perfect on all four sides.
  • Are all the parts of the basic scrape visible through a backlight?
  • Do you have a spine (or extra thickness) going through the center of the reed?
  • Are all your rails intact and symmetrical? Do they thin out evenly into the heart (or plateau)?
  • How is the profile of the reed? Do you have an even and smooth transition into the tip? And does it have the kind of blend you are looking for?
  • Is the tip even in thickness?
  • Do you have extra cane at the tip of the tip?
  • And more…..

A really good way to help train yourself to see these things more clearly is to keep a reed from your teacher that you really liked and always compare your reeds to theirs. Always strive to make your reeds better so that you can play better!

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