Reedmaking Guilt and Shame

I got an email recently.

I loved your recent video about Ugly Fixes, in which you mentioned oboists experiencing social anxiety about how our reeds look. I have definitely experienced the social and emotional element of reed-making. I’m hoping you can address in more detail some of the other emotional hurdles that often act as a hindrance in our reed-making.

From my own experience, I have felt:

Guilt — that I am not devoting time to it or that I do not have the skills developed already.

Shame — that I am a lesser oboist than others around me, and I feel afraid that others will find out that I don’t/can’t make reeds, because this feels shameful. 

Fear — that 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.)

Anxiety — that I don’t know enough or I’m not good enough, and somehow my lack of ability reflects on my value as a musician and person.

Oftentimes I feel that these emotions are the biggest barrier to reed-making, perhaps more than the technical challenges itself. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to address these emotions for oneself. Any wisdom from you or your extended oboe community would be much appreciated!

This is heartbreaking to read! I hate the thought that all of these negative emotions are coming up for this oboist around reedmaking, a thing that I happen to do easily and daily. But we all have these kinds of feelings, and triggers of our own. Do you, reader, share any of these feelings?

It’s not unusual to feel blocked around this skill. Reedmaking is not something we are told about when we first start playing the oboe. As young people we get sucked in by the enchanting sound of the oboe, its rich role in the orchestra, and its enticing shiny keys. Only later do we realize that half of our time as oboists has to go into CARPENTRY – into reedmaking.  Making reeds is a skill that is integrally tied to our success as players but which is completely unrelated.  The skills literally are different. 

Trumpet players just use their practice time to practice, we have to use ours to build the instrument every day, and it IS HARD.

There are plenty of reasons that you might not be a fantastic reedmaker. You may not have been taught it well or clearly or at a young enough age to make it feel effortless now. You may not HAVE the time to devote to it – everyone’s life is different, but maybe you have an intense career outside of music, or maybe you are caring for small humans, or maybe you are working a day job while you try to break into the freelance scene or win an audition, and maybe there just aren’t enough hours. You might have the time but prefer to spend it NOT working with tiny pieces of damp wood. 

 In other words, to your first point about guilt, I would love to take that guilt away from you. You get to choose how you spend your time!  How important is the oboe to you? And how important is it that you do things the “right way”, by making your own reeds, from scratch, as opposed to just happily buying them and tweaking them for yourself?  Are you happy with the amount of time you spend on the oboe practicing? Do you want to cut that time in half so you can spend more time on reeds, or can you afford double it to do that? And if not, that is a decision you get to make, as a grown up person. 

I have taught terrific reedmakers who are indifferent players, and I know great, heartbreakingly gorgeous players who choose to buy reeds. 

You look at a Pixar movie, like Turning Red or Toy Story, and it’s so well crafted it breaks your heart, but please know that it’s not one dude there behind the scenes writing the script and acting the parts and drawing each cell of the animation and composing the score. People specialize. 

I do advocate for having adjustment skills. Being able to put words on what you don’t like about your reeds and tweaking them in the moment so that when the weather changes, or when you move from venue to venue, or when you NEED something different, you can take care of your needs. 

But even as a professional reedmaker and a teacher and inspirer of oboists and reedmakers, I don’t believe that EVERYONE has to make ALL of their reeds FROM SCRATCH in order to consider themselves oboists. There’s a cost-benefit analysis to make around this skill because no one has unlimited time. Maybe you can do that analysis and decide once – and let that guilt go. 

When I say “decide once,” of course I don’t mean that you can’t revisit the question later, if your circumstances change, or if your feelings do. I just mean that you can decide that RIGHT NOW, your time is best spent in THIS way – buying and tweaking reeds, practicing the oboe so that you can play optimally well on the reeds you have, or letting yourself prioritize other urgencies in your life and just showing up for the gig with the reeds you have and doing your best. Your best, by definition, is all you have to give. 

I want to invite you to let go of the guilt. Zoom out a little bit and ask yourself if you WANT to spend more of your time making reeds, if you WANT to spend the time to learn the skill better, if you WANT to have that extra layer of control. If you don’t – if you prefer NOT to put this burden on yourself right now, that IS A CHOICE that you get to make, and you have your own reasons for making it, and no matter how glowingly I or someone else might speak about the magic of reedmaking, YOU can feel confident in the choice you made, and let the guilt go.

Of course. If you zoom out and think about it and you really WANT to dig into this skill, I can help you. I have a lot of ways to help. But you get to decide!

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