All my professional life I have heard people complain about their flat reeds, and I was polite but unsympathetic. Actually, I was kind of jealous. My reeds were never ever flat – I have always struggled against being sharp. Not terribly, noticeably sharp, or at least I hope not. I match the pitch of the group I am in, and in solo situations like auditions or recitals I play in tune with myself such that it is comfortable to listen to, and many orchestras sit above 440 anyway.
But deep down I knew it, and wasn’t proud of it. I would cheat and pull my reed out for the tuning A, even though that’s not how I play the oboe, just to ensure that my pluck-it-out-of-the-air first note of the concert didn’t sound sharp. The tuner is a tyrant, and while most audience members can’t tell the difference between a 440 and a 442 in isolation, everyone can hear it when the oboist hits it too high and then has to quickly drop the pitch down to the needle. I avoid the “Doppler Effect A” at all costs, but the tricks I use to do so are personally embarrassing. I should be better than that. I envied the players who could just plant the A right exactly where their reeds wanted to be and perhaps even blow up to the note a tad. It sounded so comfortable and safe.
So last summer I embarked on a reed project. I wanted to get my pitch down to a solid A=440, and in the process I also discovered an ease of articulation that I had not considered possible. Where I used to have to start the note with a puff of air and a gentle whack of the tongue, I can now release it gently and reliably. I attribute this to a summer of articulation work (and a certain amount of transitional awkwardness) and a significant redesign of the top of my reed. Where before I had used a very long tip with a long slope and lot of wood in the center, I now have a much stronger delineation and a shorter, thinner tip.
And I admit, I still glow when I plop a new reed on the instrument and the tuner’s needle stops one hair below vertical. I feel triumphant because that was my goal. Unfortunately, that result in reality doesn’t work.
If your reed is too sharp, you open your mouth more. You drop your jaw, you play more on the tip, you reach down for the bottom of every note. The result is that you are consciously, actively, physically relaxing all the time, and getting a great deal of depth in the sound. With a flat reed, you bite all the time, because it feels so crummy to be under pitch. Biting is a tense position, and makes you tired, and when you get tired you have to bite more, and notes become sharp and shallow because you are having to fight so hard to bring them up. The few sharper reeds in my case have been played to death now, because they are just so comfortable in the ensemble compared to what is coming off my knife lately.
Habits are funny things. You get the hang of a new system or a new way of balancing a reed, and then little things start to creep in. Maybe the delineation starts to be TOO acute. Maybe the center of the tip gets a little TOO thin. Or maybe it’s just that the season and the goofy weather have conspired to make my new reed scrape no longer magical. And I can’t go back. My hands don’t remember how I made my previous reeds, and those won’t accommodate my new, better articulation anyway. The only way out is forward – working through the difficulties and playing what I have. Experimenting as I go.
Unfortunately, with a reed business I really can’t do anything too drastic. There are plenty of people who buy my reeds every month and like them just fine the way they are. So changes to their reeds have to be gradual and those are the bulk of what I do. Every day I make 8-12 reeds, and only one or two of those are designated as mine. So I’m constantly making reeds with my “normal” scrape, and experimenting on only a few, which is a weird way to learn and make any sort of change. If I don’t think, think, think as I pick up a blank about what I intend to do differently, I’ll have it all scraped and be trying it on the oboe before I remember what my plan was, or that I even had one.
Every day when I come to the oboe, I pick up a new in-progress reed. I warm up on it, scrape, practice, scrape, and hope that the process of breaking it in both with my embouchure and my knife will ultimately result in the warm, responsive, comfortable, and manageably sharp reed that I crave. So far this winter I have not found it. But it is out there. Oh, it is out there.