musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reeds


I began making reeds when I was 14, so I’ve had a lot of practice.  A while back I set a goal for myself of making a reed a day, after hearing a successful oboist speak of his self-imposed requirement of making two new reeds each day.  (Oboe reeds are quicker to make!)  I have fallen short of my goal, for sure, but at least I am regularly making reeds. (At the end of any given day, I have either made at least one reed during the previous 24 hours or I’m feeling quite guilty!)

During my college years at the Eastman School of Music I made reeds like crazy over the summers so that I’d pretty much have enough to last throughout the school year.   I don’t think that was a very good idea- like any other technique, reedmaking must be practiced and maintained.  Whenever I take a break from reedmaking (it’s always a reluctant break, of course, caused by too much repertoire to learn!), I notice a huge difference when I resume- my technique has suffered!  (I accidentally forget to score the bark, or my knife slips during the shaping process, for example.)

After much experimentation I have settled upon a method of reedmaking with which I am comfortable (for the time being!).  I reached a point exasperation with my reeds in my job with the Columbus Symphony, and to address that problem I decided to study reedmaking with Norman Herzberg  in Los Angeles.  He very graciously agreed to set up my Herzberg profiler to the specifications of my Eastman bassoon professor, K. David Van Hoesen.   As far as I know, that was the only time Mr. Herzberg set up one of his profilers to Mr. Van Hoesen’s specifications.

As a result, my reeds are what I consider to be Herzberg/Van Hoesen hybrids- the best of both worlds.  Mr. Van Hoesen and Mr. Herzberg are revered as highly influential bassoon teachers of recent decades- each was a genius, yet the two couldn’t have been more different regarding their approaches to playing and teaching.

I suppose most bassoonists seek the ideal setup (bassoon + bocal + reed) which offers total control, yet a strong, pleasing sound from top to bottom of the range.  That’s a tall order.

For me personally, the Van Hoesen reeds favored the high range and the Herzberg reeds favored the low range; likewise, the Herzberg reed tended to be flatter pitched while the Van Hoesen reed tended to be higher.  Other bassoonists have played each of these two styles with great success, of course, as evidenced by the playing of Mr. Herzberg and Mr. Van Hoesen and their many students, but for me, the best reed is a hybrid of the two styles.

Besides the Herzberg shaper and profiler, the other major piece of reedmaking equipment I use is a Reiger tip profiler.  Most of the time, my reeds play when they come off of the tip profiler; I prefer not to finish the reeds by hand if I can help it.  Inevitably, though, many reeds do need to be hand-finished, with a bit of light knife scraping, filing, or sandpapering.  I like to leave as little room as possible for human error- the unavoidable variation in cane is already more of an obstacle than I’d like!

I prefer to play on new reeds- the fresher, the better!  I remember with horror how, during my Eastman days, I used disgustingly ancient reeds on a routine basis.  At the time, I’m sure I thought I was getting away with it, but now I know better.  Newer reeds offer a crisp, clear, sparkling and flexible sound that cannot be had with an aged reed.

In the Columbus Symphony I prefer to use a new reed each week.  There may be a way to either preserve or resurrect older reeds, but I have not figured out the key to either.  Each bassoonist has his/her individual preferences and tolerances- for me, new reeds rule!

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