Parents guide to an oboists reed crisis!
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
Under normal circumstances it’s a case of getting your child to cope until their next lesson and then getting your child to show the reed to their teacher. It is much the safest way but a the moment we don't have that luxury.
There are various reasons a reed crisis can occur.
Students forget the routine of preparing the reed and try and launch into playing without the preparations.
The reed may have a crack in it.
The reed has got harder (oddly this can happen).
The reed is old and wearing out.
I’m sure I don’t need to say that you need to make sure there are always spare reeds as they can break quite easily, sometimes for no reason at all. The oboe, when a reed works is a joy to play but when the reed isn’t working it can become so difficult the students can get disheartened when trying to play and we certainly want to try and limit that as much as possible.
I am sure that your teacher either makes reeds for your child or suggests good reed suppliers, but just in case here are links to a few. There are many others though and please just ask your teacher what strength reed to order. They will, I am sure, happily advise you.
How to help
At the start of your child’s practice session do help them check the reed and prepare it for playing. They really should know what to do as I am sure they will be doing it every lesson. First soak the reed, either suck it while getting the oboe out or pop it upside-down in a little pot with about 2cm of water in it. An egg cup works perfectly. Pop it in before getting the oboe out and it is usually ready by the time you have everything else set up.
Once the reed is soaked a student must check the size of the hole top of the reed. The gap between the two blades at the widest part of the opening should be about 1mm but when dry can have closed up or opened up and trying to play in either of these situations is hard work and frustrating.
Please don’t try adjusting the reed when dry. ALWAYS soak it first.
If the reed is a little too open you need to gently close it up a little. Put your fingers on either side of the reed, not too high up as that is the most fragile part of the reed and then gently press the reed together. Keep looking at the size of the hole in the top of the reed as you do this. Once the blades are touching each other just keep the pressure but DO NOT put any more pressure on the reed as this may break it! Release the pressure regularly and check to size of the gap as you don’t want to make it too small, otherwise you’ll need the information below.
If the reed is too closed you need to gently open it up. Again looking at the hole in the top of the reed place your fingers on the edge of the reed, again not too high up otherwise you are likely to break the reed. Gently put pressure on the edges and you will see the blades of the reed slightly separate. Don’t open too much, you can always do this again it the reed closes up again whilst playing.
General oddness, squeaks, squarks and random noises.
Do check the reed fully. Often if the reed is suddenly behaving very differently and making noises it hasn’t normally made it is likely there is a crack in it somewhere. Have a close look, it’ll probably be there somewhere and it might be tiny but any form of crack in the reed will totally change the way it vibrates.
Stuffy, hard to blow.
Firstly, there might be a quick and easy solution to this. I have had many students tell me there reed was too hard. I have taken a look and discovered they have got a certain amount of gunk stuck down the reed, probably from playing after eating. (yes I know, it makes my stomach churn as well)
The easy solution to this is hold the reed, upside down, under a running cold tap. It will flush out the gunk and then the reed often works again because the blades aren’t sticking together when trying to vibrate.
If the reed is still too stuffy and hard to blow then it may need to you to do something more to it. Now under normal circumstances this is the point when you would say, “show it to your teacher and get them to sort it out in your lesson” but as well all know these are not normal times.
So I am going to give you a couple of tips that may just help a little.
Please when doing the following things be extremely gentle, you do not need to put pressure on the reed when doing this as even when we scrape the reeds we are being incredibly gentle and careful otherwise, yes, you know it, they crack!
If you can get a plastic reed plaque that would help the reed but you can do this without, just very gently and without pressure.
Get the finest piece of wet and dry sandpaper that you can and fold it up as shown below. (I don't have any so have used a piece of paper!) When using the sandpaper only push it from the base of the reed towards the tip and not the other way round.
Reed really hard to blow on all notes, child getting tired more quickly and going more red in the face.
You can then gently move the sandpaper from the base of the scrape towards the tip as shown in the video. I have coloured in the area of the reed you need to push the sandpaper across in the video to show you exactly where to try and remove a little bit of the thickness. When you have done one side turn the reed over and try and take off the same amount on the other side. Make sure you do a little at a time and then get your child to try the reed again. Repeat as required. It is far from ideal but is better than a child struggling on a hard reed.
Reed basically works but is a bit stuffy and low notes are hard work.
This time we don’t need to take anything off the main part of the reed but you do need a little off down the sides. Push the sandpaper up the reed as shown. In the video it shows the area to push the sandpaper over. This encourages the reed to vibrate more freely which will help if only the low notes are being difficult.
As I have said, none of these are ideal solutions but if it can help make a reed work and make playing a little easier for students then great! Just remember, when we get to have face to face lessons again please leave the reed adjustments to the oboe teachers.
Happy Music Making everyone.
Every one of my blog posts has some musical inspiration at the end. No woodwind in this but it is a work full of character and emotion.