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.