Reedmaking Fear and Anxiety

This week on the blog, I want to continue reacting to the anonymous oboist who sent me an email about emotional hurdles to reedmaking. 

She specifically cited fear of failure as a barrier to entry – saying “my attempts this time will not be any better than past attempts, and that it would be better not to try than to fail one more time. (“If I don’t try, at least I won’t fail” acts as a barrier to even getting out my tools.)”

Have you ever felt that? The resistance to reedmaking that is so acute that it comes across as fear and anxiety? 

Here’s the thing. We all have fear. It may manifest differently – I’ve seen it VERY FREQUENTLY appear in reedmaking as “I don’t know if I can improve this so I’d better play on it as it is.”   This leads to oboists struggling on sub-optimal reeds, not able to easily manage their entrances, tapers, or pitch centers. The reed is too hard, but if you pull out a knife it might get worse, so you may as well just muscle through, at some expense to your embouchure, your playing, and your enjoyment of the experience. 

And we can be honest here – if a failed reed is the thing you fear the most, let’s just admit that that MIGHT HAPPEN. It is completely possible that you’ll spend an hour at your reed desk and have nothing to show for it. It’s possible that you’ll work on your not-quite-great reed and ruin it. These things do happen, and they happen to everyone. 

BUT. We fear getting into car crashes and we still drive. We put our seatbelts on and set our phones to the side and go boldly out onto the roads, because the alternative is staying small, constricted, trapped at home and never going anywhere. Never getting better. Let’s not let our fear prevent us from moving forward.

We can put some safety measures in place for our reedmaking.

Rule One: NEVER  work on your best reed, no matter how tempting it is.  Even if it’s not great, if it’s functional and nothing else in the case is better, leave it alone. You can work on your SECOND-BEST reed, and if it BECOMES your best reed you can then work on the other one. But that one Best Reed is the safety net. If worst comes to worst and you wreck everything else, you can still walk out on stage with THAT GUY. 

Rule Two: Create a check-in process with yourself – if you destroy two reeds in a row, you have to take a break. At minimum, this gives you a little space to breathe before you spiral into a negative place and break a bunch more. But ideally it also gives you time to analyze what’s going on. Did these reeds die because your knife was too sharp or too dull? Did these reeds have the same problems, and did you try the same solution twice and have it not work? Maybe it’s time to form a new hypothesis. Maybe it’s time to back up a step and try to NOT have your reeds all have that same problem. Maybe it’s time to watch a video or reach out for help. You don’t have to sit at the reed desk wasting time and money and failing to make reeds. There is a way out. 

And then, with your safety measures in place, here are some ideas that might help. 

In Oboe Reed Boot Camp and in my Zero to Reedmaker program, I offer the idea of an EXPERIMENT DAY, in which the goal is NOT to make a good reed, but to FIGURE THINGS OUT. Make a hypothesis and carry out an experiment, and whatever you do, do it ENOUGH to really feel the difference. 

Often as we refine our reeds, we make just the tiniest little adjustment, and then another tiny one, and then we work a little in the tip and in the heart and in the back, hoping that SOMETHING will help but not sure at the end of the day which thing DID help. On an EXPERIMENT DAY, you decide to try leaving your heart thicker, and so you make it WAY thicker and see what that does. And then you can try to balance the reed from there, or you can bring that thickness down little by little, focusing only on that variable, until you understand what too thick FEELS LIKE, and what happens when you change that, and what you might be able to do with that information going forward. 

On Experiment Day you might end up with a great reed or you might not, but if you can devote an hour and a few pieces of cane to an experiment, you will at least have DATA, and understanding, and isn’t that a good way to face your fear? 

Another idea is this: You can talk yourself through the problem – through both the reedmaking AND the fear, actually!  I love the exercise, which I use when I am finishing or adjusting reeds, of putting words on what I don’t like about my reed. Sometimes we just kind of lean in and start scraping without thinking first, and this MIGHT work but more often just leads to the same mildly disappointing results we’ve seen over and over again. Get SPECIFIC about what you don’t like, and then formulate a plan to fix it. This verbalizing of the problem really helps you to get to the crux of it!

AND SIMILARLY, if you find that you are having resistance about your reed desk, maybe verbalize that. The voice of fear, when it is inside your head, sounds like the TRUTH. But when you hear it out loud, maybe you can hear it for what it is. It’s fear, and you can argue with it, or engage with it, or prove it wrong, you don’t have to just believe it. 

This could sound like, “What is even the point? You know you’ll fail again, just like you always do.” Really, fear, really? This is not a high-stakes endeavor, it’s just a bunch of little pieces of damp wood. “You can’t make a reed worth anything!” Well, fear, maybe I can’t – YET – but I can sit down and learn something today and maybe get better at it! “You might as well not even start.” Look, I could watch Netflix for the next hour, or I could make reeds WHILE watching Netflix, and at the end of the hour I’ll have done SOMETHING. What are you doing, Fear? Anything productive? 

I know this is silly. But remember in Harry Potter, those Boggarts that take the shape of your worst fear, and the way to conquer them is to make them ridiculous by putting silly hats on them? Why not laugh?

No one has to make reeds. This is an optional activity. But if you WANT to have better reeds, you can talk to your fear, you can defuse it, and you can do the work to prove it wrong!

If you want better reeds and you need some support, I’ll remind you that I have plenty of resources for you. You don’t have to be alone with your fear and your anxiety and your reeds!

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