musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Update on Reed-a-Day Challenge

Well, it hasn't been easy, but I've somehow managed to stick with my New Years's resolution to make a reed a day. Today, August 15th, the 227th day of the year, I made blank #227.  Yay!
Blank #227 made on 8/15/15 (the 227th day of the year)
This fact would be unimpressive to a bassoonist who makes reeds to sell.  But to me, this is high output.

One reason I like the concept of making a reed a day is because....please accept my apologies for stating the obvious.....I know exactly how many reeds I'm making per year (and per day and per week, etc.).  I number each blank and keep a record of any changes, such as sharpening of the profiler blade.  It's fascinating to see how such changes affect the reeds.

It's easy to experiment with cane using the reed-a-day method.  In the past when I've made reeds during marathon sessions, it was impossible to try different types of cane and then make more reeds with the cane that worked.  Processing reeds each day allows for effective experimentation, and by that I mean experimentation which is followed by immediate implementation of the conclusion. Normally, the phases of making a reed are spread out over a period of several weeks or even months, but when experimenting, I have found that it's OK to make a reed quickly, by wrapping a newly formed blank the next day and testing it immediately.  (This has caused me to question my longstanding belief that the best reeds are made slowly, with new blanks remaining untouched for at least two weeks before further processing. Seriously, some of my best reeds have been made from blanks one day old.)

There's one drawback to making a lot of reeds, as I explained in a recent post.  Much to my dismay, the profiler blade must be sharpened regularly (every 50 pieces of cane) in order to achieve the best possible results.  So the more reeds I make, the more frequently I sharpen the blade....in order to make 365 reeds a year, I must sharpen my profiler blade a colossal 7 times per year!  What punishment!  On the other hand, I'll eventually become de-sensitized to profiler blade sharpening, and before long, I'll think nothing of it.  Right?

How many reeds does a bassoonist need for a year?  I suppose it varies a lot depending upon the amount of playing per year and individual preference.  I know some bassoonists who play on the same reed for months, amazingly.  For me, a reed is worn out after a week of playing on it, so obviously I much prefer to play on brand new reeds.  And, like all bassoonists, I like to have lots of reeds to choose from!

I try to always make enough reeds so that I'm maintaining a decent-sized stockpile, which was a strong recommendation of my teacher K. David Van Hoesen.  Mr. Van Hoesen himself maintains a massive stockpile of recently-processed reeds to this very day, even though he doesn't play all that often.
GIF animation of K. David Van Hoesen in his living room
Mr. Van Hoesen is an eternal source of inspiration, with his students performing in many orchestras, including the top ten, throughout the U.S.  His infinite wisdom and inimitable bassoon playing echo in the playing and the teaching of those who were fortunate enough to have been influenced by him.  Even though he's retired, his basement continues to fill with newly-made bassoon reed blanks.  Maybe someday he might be convinced to sell some of them!




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Sunday, August 2, 2015

The dreaded deed AGAIN

Yep, it's that time....it's time to sharpen the profiler blade.  In fact, it's been time to sharpen that profiler blade for a long time.  The great bassoon pedagogue Norman Herzberg, who designed and created the profiler I use, issued very clear instructions to me as I stood before him in his Encino, California garage/reedmaking studio: "This blade is to be sharpened after profiling 50 pieces of cane.  Got that?  Every 50 pieces.  That's non-negotiable."  And then he proceeded to show me exactly how it's done. 

He painstakingly demonstrated the technique of rubbing the blade the length of the sharpening stone with the forefinger on top of the blade, with the thumb pushing the blade along the stone.  This was a new blade, so it didn't take long for a burr to develop on the tip of the blade, signalling that the blade was properly sharpened.  At that point the blade was to be flipped over and given a couple of light strokes on the stone to get rid of the burr.

Solemnly I promised that I would sharpen that blade without fail each time I reached my 50th piece of cane since the last sharpening, and that truly was my intention.  At that time I had no inkling of the sense of dread which would befall me each time I inched closer to number 50.  In fact, I found myself using my very finest denial techniques to avoid sharpening the blade.  For example, there was always the strong chance that somehow I'd botch the job, thereby ruining not only my profiler but also my entire (now reed-less) career.

I managed to convince myself that I was actually preserving the profiler blade by refusing to sharpen it.  After all, each swipe across that diamond sharpening stone removed microscopic material from said blade, right?  Sharpen it too many times, and it's gone.  That's pure logic.

Oftentimes, it's difficult to find the correct position for the newly reinstalled blade.  I rationalized that I wasted too many pieces of cane each time I sharpened the blade, since the only real way to know if the blade is in the right position is to actually use the profiler to profile a stick of cane.  If the profile turns out too thick or too thin, the blade height is adjusted accordingly and then another stick of cane is tested on the profiler.  And it's really difficult to get it right!  Many pieces of cane are sacrificed during the act.  Think of all the arundo donax being forced to make the ultimate sacrifice just so that I can sharpen my blade....

Finally I couldn't take it any longer.  I knew the blade was barely functional - its cutting power by this point barely rivaled that of a chunk of cardboard.  Worse yet, I was sure that Mr. Herzberg was rolling over in his grave due to the number of sticks of cane I had profiled since my last blade sharpening.  It was mainly my debt of gratitude to Mr. Herzberg that lifted me out of my state of inertia.  After all the years of research, experimentation and struggle he spent creating his state-of-the-art profiler, the least I could do would be to honor him by performing routine maintenance on the treasure he had bestowed upon me.

Thus the dreaded deed was undertaken.  Having convinced myself that the task at hand was stupefyingly difficult, I didn't dare approach it without my original notes which I had hastily jotted down in Mr. Herzberg's southern California garage.
I re-read the notes, then got out the hex wrenches and diamond sharpening stone which he had given me, and then took photos of the profiler with both my camera AND my phone, in case the unthinkable occurred and I somehow botched the job.  I wanted to be able to see a picture of the profiler before I wrecked it., so that I'd stand a chance of putting it back together the way it was.  (I do this each time I sharpen the blade, as if I've never done it before.  Maybe it's good to always approach a task as though for the first time......I'm not sure.)
one of the photos I took of the blade assembly in case I bollix the reassembly
another photo of the blade assembly










In yet another act of compulsive overkill, next I drew a diagram of the cutting head assembly, even though I already had several diagrams of that same cutting head in the notes I had just re-read. 
Then I unscrewed and removed the cutting head shaft handle, thereby clearing the way for the grand disassembly......

Finally I took the plunge, inserting the hex wrench into the set screw while turning the nearby knob for the notch.  Before I knew it, the hitherto-eschewed blade was in my hands, slippery like a fish out of water.  I saw that the edge was kind of shabby looking, slightly jagged.
profiler blade before sharpening, looking kind of rough

Earlier that day I had received a pep talk from a bassoonist friend who understood my trepidation.  I had admitted to him that I had little confidence in my profiler blade sharpening skills.  I had elaborated on that theme, explaining that I had never really understood the "burr".  What the heck was a burr?  How did one know if the burr was there or not?  I myself had never experienced a burr, as far as I knew, and I had always given up on the elusive burr, flipping the blade over and giving it a couple of light strokes on the other side anyway, as if I had found a burr.

During this heart-to-heart with my commiserator,  I came to realize that it was my sense of guilt over my failure to produce the elusive burr that was blocking my profiler maintenance duties.  My friend assured me that it takes a long time to reach the burr phase, longer than expected.  It's not like sharpening a knife, I silently acknowledged.  It takes a long time to produce a burr on a hardened steel profiler blade.  Ah-ha.  I didn't know that.

So I stroked.  And stroked. And stroked some more.  No burr.  I was afraid I would damage my forefinger atop the blade during all of these strokes, as though my finger was being sharpened along with the blade.  I kept pushing that blade with my thumb, wondering how all of this friction could seemingly have no effect on the stubborn blade.  I rested.  Then stroked, stroked, stroked some more.  And tested the blade for the burr.  And stroked more.  And tested.

This went on for a long time, which was what my friend said was necessary.  I knew the blade was sharp, having accidentally cut myself on it, but still no burr.  And I kept stroking and stroking.
the blade resting on the diamond sharpening stone
Finally, after what seemed like an hour or two, I sensed something different on the tip of the blade.  Could it be???  Was this a BURR???  I wasn't sure, but it was different, so I kept stroking with renewed enthusiasm and tested the tip again.  Yes, if it wasn't a burr, then it was some sort of alteration of the tip of the blade which was discernible to the touch.  And when I flipped it over and gave it a couple of light swipes as Mr. Herzberg had instructed on that hot, dry California day so long ago, the burr disappeared as though it had been but an apparition.
profiler blade after sharpening, looking mighty impressive if I do say so myself
 Could it be that this was the first time in my life I had experienced a burr on the blade?  I daresay it was.  When I reassembled the profiler and made the first reed with the sharpened blade, it was as though the machine was brand new again.  It worked like a dream, cutting that cane as though there was nothing to it.  Reedmaking could actually be a much more enjoyable activity, I thought, with such a well-functioning, well-honed machine cutting the reeds for me.....how much more satisfying could reedmaking possibly be?

In the interest of honesty, I must admit that I think the blade is a hair too low, meaning it's cutting a little too much cane off the reed.  But this profiler is like a racehorse given full reign to unleash its extreme strength, speed and competence.  If the reeds prove to be too thin, I'll move the blade up a bit tomorrow.  But for now, I bet Mr. Herzberg is smiling ear to ear.



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