Does it matter how your reed looks?

When we first start learning how to make reeds, spending a lot of time on how it looks is very common and normal. After all there’s the actual scrape pattern, there’s how it looks against a backlight, how thick different parts of the reed are, how well the blank is tied on and so much more. But it is also common….. very common……. for us to pull out a reed that looks terrible and it actually plays amazing! And of course that is the most important thing right? That it plays well. I’ve also had reeds that look beautiful and perfect but play terribly. In fact, it is rumored that John Mack, former principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra, had terrible looking reeds. Yet we consider his teachings on reed making as some of the greatest in the American Style scrape. So this begs the question, how important is it that your reed looks a certain way?

John Mack Oboe Reeds from Oboe Reed Styles: Theory and Practice by David Ledet, pg. 135

The Looks Provide Clues

Being a great reed maker is some ways can be like being a detective. There are a lot of reasons why your reed plays a certain way and it is a pretty complex system. When we don’t break the variables down and find a systematic approach to understanding reeds it can start to get overwhelming. Spending time on how your reed looks without playing them can help us get an objective view on what’s going on with the reed. Here are a few things to look for:

  • How your blank is tied on.
  • The measurements of your reed.
  • The symmetry of your reed.
  • Does it look balanced? How does it look against a backlight?
  • Are all the parts of the reed intact?
  • Are there any chips in the reed?
  • Are there any extra thick places that don’t belong?

etc…..

There’s a lot more that you can analyze in the reed of course, but the point is to spend some time thinking about you reed and how it might be reacting to where you have scraped… or not scraped.

So then why does my perfect looking reed sound so bad?

First of all, it takes time and a trained eye to start seeing where there might be issues in your reed if you are just analyzing it by how it looks. Nevertheless, the looks provide clues to how a reed plays but it doesn’t give you the whole picture. After over 20 years of making reeds I’m convinced the quality of the cane is a HUGE factor in how your reed plays. Unfortunately we don’t have too much control over that all of the time but we can learn how to select cane well if you have learned to gouge your own cane. Of course, there are ways to work around cane quality but it sure makes it easier when you are working with good cane!

So next time you’re wondering why you’re perfect reed plays so badly, or puzzled why the reed your teacher wouldn’t like the looks of is playing quite nicely, try to remember reeds are complex little things! There is a way to figure them out but it takes patience and time…… and probably a little luck too.

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