High Altitude Reeds

So yes, reeds are hard to work with up here.  I don’t know exactly what causes it – the dry climate and the thinness of the air, perhaps, or maybe the same mystical property that makes baked goods fall flat (I won’t be posting pictures of Zoe’s birthday cake – far too humiliating). 

The symptom is that my “normal” reeds – the ones I’ve been happily making my living on for weeks – won’t vibrate.  Just won’t make the oboe play.  Maybe I can squeak out a few wimpy left-hand notes, but nothing more than that, and nothing that sounds good.  And the low register of my instrument feels terrible – unresponsive and mushy – which I understand is also a factor of altitude.  I don’t know why it is, just that it is.  I’ve checked and rechecked the adjustments on both of my oboes and there’s nothing wrong – they just don’t want to vibrate properly.

But honestly, it’s not been all that terrible to work with.  My midwest reeds won’t play, but I made a new batch on a wider shape and scraped them down a ton and they are fine.  I don’t have the cushion of old reliable reeds that I’m used to, but I have three or four new ones that are acceptable, and I’m even getting adequate response in the lowest register now.  And mercifully I arrived three days before I actually had to play, so all this struggle could take place behind the scenes and not in public.  Ten years ago, when I didn’t have the confidence and reed-making skills I have now, I bet I would have struggled a lot, but this is not impossible – just different.

An educational story: when we sat down for the first rehearsal the principal oboist, Sandy Stimson, gave an A to the orchestra, and then looked ruefully at her reed and said, “OK, yup, that’s my sound!”  And that to me was a perfect response.

Let me say that she sounded lovely and not different (to my ears) from sea level.  The reed was obviously excellent.  But of course it sounded and felt different to her, as my reeds sound and feel different to me.  We are so attuned to these little scraps of wood, and they form the entire interface between our bodies and the instrument we play, and even a little change in the weather, much less a 1000+ mile journey and 9600 feet of elevation, can make a noticeable difference. 

But her response to this discomfort with her set-up could have been apologetic.  She could have dived for a reed knife and spent the rest of the rehearsal fussing (and probably making things worse).  She could have fought the perceived problems inside her mouth, exhausting her embouchure muscles over the course of the service.

Instead she accepted the sound she was producing, committed to it, and moved forward, making beautiful music and leading confidently.   I loved and respected her choice.  It’s absolutely the philosophy of the Unfussy Oboist in action, and I couldn’t have done it better myself. 

4 thoughts on “High Altitude Reeds”

  1. It must be the first time you were at such a high altitude, with the oboe at least. I have been at various high places, and it seems that everyone and everything respond differently. No doubt all challenges will be overcome. Much good luck .I’ve been meaning to post a note following your faculty recital at St. Mary’s on the 26th, but the words manana, domani, demain kept preempting meaningful action.I was disappointed that I didn’t see any of the performers come out to express my gratitude and congratulations. The performance, however, was, sometimes, tinglingly enjoyable. My thoughts may have wandered for a moment but I seem to have heard some notes in the beginning of the concertino that reminded me of a series of notes from Scheherazade. I especially enjoyed M.Jones arrang of Le Tombeau.Is it possible that he knows you and favored you with a greater portion of the piece for the oboe part?Hopefully I’ll hear you at Preston Hall. When in Chicago I rarely missed a performance.Dimitri

  2. Thank you, Dimitri! Yes, it is the first time I've tried to play at high altitude, and it continues to be an education. At least it's a spectacularly gorgeous place to be struggling in!I was wondering if I would see you at the little cookies and punch reception at St Mary's, but I guess we did miss each other. I hadn't noticed that Scheherezade moment, but singing it back to myself I know just the spot you mean. I have not, in fact, met Mason Jones, but le Tombeau de Couperin has always been a big oboe piece – the only real additions in the quintet version are there to cover holes left by the lack of strings and English horn. I'm always so glad to see your comments on this blog – you pay such close attention and it really keeps me honest!Best,Jennet

  3. I often have to travel and play between sea level places and high(er) altitude places. What I found works best is to prepare reeds that are on their way to being balanced, but still have a good amount of cane left, and are about 1 – 1.5 mm longer than finished length. That leaves room to finish the reed on site. If time is a factor and you know you won't have much time to adjust the reed, I would say make a slightly flat, slightly too vibrant reed that can then be clipped, if necessary. Often, I find altitude \”finishes\” the reed for me. Where at sea level, the reed might have been too flat, loose, and noisy, going up in altitude tightens the reed up, and raises the pitch. Sometimes. Another recommendation is to temporarily forgo using the crow to make reeds. (I might not make friends with this statement!!) Normally, yes, using the C-crow and all that is a pretty good guide to producing an in-tune vibrant reed. However, with abrupt altitude changes both the oboist and the reed are affected. Make and adjust the reed to your mouth. Just do a lot of play testing to make sure you can comfortably get notes out in tune. Sometimes the reed will crow a B, sometimes a C# when doing it this way. At least, though, the reed is comfortable and you will get through the performances and rehearsals. It won't help if the reed is crowing \”C\” but the oboist is playing too sharp. Sometimes the muscles just get weak – that's all. Eventually, if you were staying in the high-altitude place for a long time, you would get used to it, and you could carry on making reeds as usual. This is just a coping technique.

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