Everything You Wanted to Know About Making Oboe Reeds, But Were Too Terrified To Ask
As an oboe student progresses, store bought reeds just don't cut it anymore. At some point in high school, we begin to purchase hand-made reeds from high end oboe suppliers (like RDG here in Los Angeles). Those reeds cost $15-$30 each. But even those "fancy" advanced reeds don't cut it for the serious oboe student headed for college.
College bound oboists require professional reeds which, if you buy them, cost upwards of $60 EACH. As you can imagine, it is financially unsustainable to spend that much on reeds, especially since those students need 12-15 reeds in their case at any given time. So before we reach the point of selling a kidney to afford our oboe habit, we learn to make reeds for ourselves.
I have had many parents approach me, the moment their 4th grade student begins playing the oboe, and declare that they want their kid to learn to make reeds right away. Alternately, parents of high schoolers often ask why their child isn't making reeds yet.
But this isn't really how it works...
1) Beginners (who are most often young kids age 8-10) are still just learning to play the instrument. They are still developing fine motor skills in their hands, they're not exactly ready to wield a very sharp, $100+ knife. It's definitely not the time to introduce them to the finer points of knife technique. You can expect that any child will need to play the oboe for at least 3 years before they even begin to make a good tone or understand and recognize what differentiates qualities of tone. After that, we will discuss reed-making lessons if appropriate.
2) Most kids are not going to become professional oboists. So, unless they are working toward college auditions, there is not a real need to learn to make reeds.
3) You need to have a high quality oboe that responds to hand-made reeds. To try to make reeds which you will play on a student level oboe (which, by the way, doesn't even have all the keys!) is nearly impossible and a waste of time and energy. Your child will need at least an intermediate oboe for the reeds to make any difference, and of course upgrading your oboe is expensive.
4) If I feel that the student has progressed far enough to upgrade their instrument, and shows the quality of tone & technique indicative of mature playing, I will recommend we begin reed making lessons. Normally, I don't even talk to students about reed-making before 10th grade.
Reed-Making Lessons are a separate session lasting an hour to 90 minutes.
Parents often ask if they can combine the oboe lesson with a reed-making lesson, but this isn't really the best way. I recommend we have two reed-making sessions per month on a different day from your oboe lesson.
If that schedule isn't possible, then we will spend a weekly 90 minute session split between reeds and playing.
The initial investment in reed-making tools & supplies is a bit dizzying. My safe estimate is around $400 to get started. But, once your child is set up, you will actually begin saving money on reeds. Where store-bought reeds can cost on average $20, a reed your student will make will cost about $4.
There are very nice, pre-packaged, reed-making kits, aimed at beginning reed-makers. They contain most of the items you'll need to get started, but you'll still have to buy large quantities of cane and staples separately. I'll ask you to get a better quality knife as well.
If you have been saving all your child's broken reeds through the years, then you probably have a large bag filled with hundreds of staples! This is great: you won't have to order any new ones, saving yourself quite a bit of money. Staples alone can cost as much as a reed, depending on what metal they are made from. For instance, I play on $15 staples...
I always teach reed-making in stages that each can last several months, so never fear: you won't be expected to buy every tool right at the beginning, unless you feel the reed-making kit is right for you. Plus, if your child decides reed-making is not for them, then you haven't spent large sums of money.
Until your student begins their reed-making lessons, they will not be shown how to "adjust" or "fix" any reeds. That may seem a little mysterious, but adjusting reeds is a skill they learn as part of making reeds, and only after they have mastered making their own reeds, can they trouble-shoot anything else.
Kids love to squeeze their dying reeds open, or squish a new reed into a flat mess. Seems like no matter how many times I tell them not to do this, they do it anyway. If a reed is too open, they can let it dry out a bit, and if it's too closed, they can soak it in a cup of water a little longer. Squeezing or pinching reeds actually makes things worse, wearing the reeds down even faster, and pushing them beyond the point at which I can still fix them.
Note: most times a closed, rigid reed means that the reed has seen the end of it's usefulness. Time to get a new reed!
A long time ago, one of my oboe students saw me trimming a reed in their lesson. They decided at home that it looked simple and they would "trim" their reed as well...except that they used a pair of scissors and cut half the reed off!
Reed-making is a skill that takes many years (sometimes up to a decade) to perfect. It requires hours of practice, and in many cases: multiple teachers. Most students spend a year just learning how to tie the cane to the staple.
It took me 7 years of dedicated study and practice to get to the point where I could make reeds without the supervision of a teacher. So be patient with your student! It's tempting to think the savings in reeds will be instantaneous. It won't happen right away, but it will happen.
Reed-making is frustrating even for professional oboists, but eventually we get the hang of it and take great pride in the craftsmanship and individuality the skill brings. All professional oboists make their own reeds, so there is a real sense of accomplishment when we finally join that elite club.
Welcome to Reed-Making!