musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, December 16, 2017

How long does it take to make a bassoon reed?

This is a common question posed by those who marvel at the notion that a musician might be involved by necessity in an intricate wood-carving craft.  It does seem somewhat would be like string players making bows or brass players producing mouthpieces or pianists carving ivory.  These days, even clarinet and saxophone players, who used to at least buy large numbers of wooden reeds to sort through even if they didn't actually make the reeds, seem to be gravitating toward synthetic reeds.  Only double reed players engage in the antiquated art of reed making, it seems.

Once people find out about this, they naturally wonder how much time we spend on this activity.  Most people who dabble in arts and crafts do so only when the whim that how it is with reed-making?

Not exactly.  Our reed-making determines, to a large degree, our level of command over our instrument.  If we wish to triumph as double reed players, we make reeds.  Constantly.

For a long time I didn't really know the answer when asked how long it takes to make a bassoon reed.  Part of the reason is because my reeds are made in three phases spread over a period of at least two weeks. It's not possible to make a reed from start to finish in one fell swoop.
Examples of reeds at the end of steps 1, 2 and 3

Finally I decided to do the research.  I timed each step.  My conclusion was it takes a total of 45 minutes for me to make one bassoon reed.  First the blank is formed (see step 1 on the left in the photo above), followed by a waiting period of at least 2 weeks, if possible.  Next the blank is straightened out by taking off the wires, and the cane is beveled, the wires are placed on permanently, and the tube is wrapped (step 2 in the middle of the above photo).  After the Duco cement dries overnight the reed is ready to be finished.  In my case that means cutting the tip, reaming the reed and finally using the Reiger tip profiler (step 3 on the right above).  Occasionally the reed is finished at that point, but often hand-finishing with a knife and/or file is needed.

My students often ask me how many of the reeds I make are good enough to use.  That question always makes me think of my reed-making teacher, the renowned Los Angeles studio bassoonist and teacher Norman Herzberg. who always told me that one out of twelve reeds worked for him.  He was, of course, a master reed maker, but he also had sky-high standards.  Anyway, the answer I often give to my students is that one out of twelve reeds is good enough to use in the orchestra, but the truth is that I don't know exactly.  If a reed doesn't play well at first, I usually keep it anyway, hoping that someday it will magically turn into a usable reed.  (That does happen once in a blue moon.)

Using the above data, it's easy to figure out that it takes no less than nine hours for me to make a usable bassoon reed, assuming that one out of twelve is good enough to use professionally.  For me, a reed lasts only one week, so the hours spent on reed-making add up quickly!  The payoff from constant reed-making is control over the instrument and a desirable sound, so there's no question that the time and effort is well spent.

blue moon



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