Why is my reed playing sharp AND flat?

Also known as playing “flarp,” playing sharp AND flat is one of the hallmark problems of reed making. You can’t seem to get in tune with ANYONE and you also tire easily when you play. It’s such a drag! The truth is I can answer this question in one sentence; your reed is most likely unstable. But to really understand the problem more thoroughly we need to break this down to understand how intonation is built into a reed.

Stability verses Intonation

I categorize my reed adjustments into four groups; response, stability, flexibility and tone. Very often I group intonation with stability, but although they are related, they are two different problems. Intonation refers to the general pitch of the reed. This can be primarily determined by how the reed crows at the thread. Pitch stability in the reed refers to how even in pitch and sound the reed is in all registers. A great way to check this is to play a song or a few scales out of the side of your mouth… like a flute! If your reed is mostly in tune and has a decent sound throughout the entire register then congratulations! You have a stable reed… I love stable reeds. You can also check this with your crows by checking the difference between the thread crow and playing position crow. You shouldn’t have too big of a difference. I prefer the difference between the two crows to be 20 cents or less.

Ok, so back to playing both sharp and flat. Humans have amazing ears and as musicians we are constantly refining and perfecting our ability to play in tune. When our reeds are either flat or unstable we are going to adjust and we usually adjust with our embouchures. Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to over adjust and when that happens we go sharp. With a really great ensemble that plays in tune, sometimes we can make this work because it will be very obvious when you’re out of tune. BUT with a less experienced ensemble or if you’re playing by yourself you don’t have a stable pitch center to rely on so playing in tune is much more difficult…. not to mention tiring!

Causes Of Playing Sharp

Playing sharp is kind of a normal problem for all wind players so at least this isn’t an unusual problem! For oboe players much of the general pitch level is built into the reed and so therefore a likely cause for playing sharp will be caused by your reed. Here are a few general reasons your reed is playing sharp:

  • You haven’t scraped it down to pitch (it’s not crowing octave C’s at the thread.)
  • Your reed is too closed.
  • Your reed is old.
  • The cane is too soft.
  • Your reed is flat (hilarious right?) and you are biting it up to pitch.

Other general reasons for playing sharp are:

  • Blowing too hard.
  • Incorrect embouchure placement on the reed.
  • Incorrect embouchure in general.

Also, I can’t understate the importance of hearing where the correct placement of the note center should be. This is the number one guiding factor for playing in tune. Practice long tones with a tuner often!

Causes Of Playing Flat

Much of the same reasons for playing sharp will also apply to playing flat…. but in reverse. Playing flat is an annoying problem on the oboe, especially if it’s because your reed is hard and flat. UGH! Ok, so here are a few (just a few) reasons why your reed is playing flat.

  • The reed is crowing flat at the thread. If this is true, a simple clip should help fix it.
  • Your reed has too large of an opening.
  • The heart and/or back has been scraped too much in comparison to the tip and/or the length of the entire reed. If this has happened, it’s possible that this can’t be fixed.
  • The cane is too hard.

There are a lot more reasons of course, especially if there is a cane processing issue, but those are the biggest ones.

A couple of reasons you are playing flat that are not your reed’s fault are:

  • You’re not using enough air and filling out the instrument.
  • Your embouchure is incorrect… try pulling in the corners of your lips and using a more focused air stream!
  • You have too little reed in your mouth.

And again, using a tuner can help a lot. Training your ears to hear the center of the pitch correctly will guide your body to adjust appropriately.

Building in good response and intonation into my reeds is usually what I am focusing on 90% of the time. If you can do that, you probably have a good reed and your reed making life will be much easier! These are just a few things you can do to help your reeds but I have a whole slew of information in my reed making course listed below!

Good luck!


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