If you ask most modern oboists how they go about making their reeds, they will usually tell you that they try to make every reed the same, following a very particular pattern that, at some point in their career, they found worked well for them. To make reeds this way is to strive endlessly for the single, perfect product; anything else is practically unusable. Wastage and frustration are high, and reedmaking often becomes a burden.
This approach to reedmaking unfortunately seems to be the norm amongst hoboy players as well, who can often tell you the design and dimensions of their reeds to the millimetre. When I started playing the hoboy, I bought an excellent book for modern players on how to make hoboy reeds, which taught a very specific method and gave me the foundations for helping my hoboy find its voice. It also happened that the book was written by my first mentor on hoboy, who also provided me with a selection of reeds to get started. I duly learned to make copies of her reeds, and the result—my first reed case—looked like this:
A lineup of tidy clones…and yet part of the reason I had so many was that it was rare that I found one that seemed happy and played consistently well.
In time I became aware of just how many modern innovations most hoboy players rely on in their reed design, and also how modernised most modern replica hoboys are themselves. Here in The Queen’s Closet we share an interest in historical equipment and techniques, rather than modernised adaptations, so I acquired my beautiful faithful replica of a c.1690 hoboy by Richard Haka, and then set about researching how to make more historically plausible hoboy reeds.
What I quickly learned is that there is no one ‘authentic,’ and certainly not one ‘best,’ reed design. This should be obvious: even today, there are geographical, regional and personal differences in oboe reed design, often quite dramatic. And yet, the dogma still seems to exist that each combination of person and instrument works best with one single design. There are definitely some elements of personalisation to reed design, but overall what I’ve found is that different historically plausible designs simply have different characteristics and personalities and that it’s down to me to learn how to use each one. I’m learning that I need to understand every piece of cane that I work with, in order to determine how to design the reed that it will become.
This is what my current reed case looks like:
Every reed in the case is better or worse for different kinds of musicking, including when and where the music was composed, and of course the music’s affect. Different reeds also vary in their resilience to Wellington’s endless changes in temperature and humidity.
The triangular, or ‘fishtail,’ shape of most of these reeds is, I believe, more consistent with seventeenth century and early eighteenth century reeds, and it leads to a much freer and more flexible sound. The parallel shape of the last reed is probably a little bit later, with the earliest iconography I’m aware of for this kind of shape dating to the 1720s. Parallel shaped reeds typically feel more contained to play and can often sound more refined, but less characterful. The width of each reed is also different, with wider reeds (which evidence suggests may have been used more in seventeenth century England) giving a particularly full tone, and narrower reeds (perhaps more standard in Europe) favouring the upper register.
What surprised me most, though, was finding the length and shape of the scrape to be the most necessarily variable elements of reedmaking. Most modern oboists belong in one of two camps: either ‘short scrape’ or ‘long scrape’ reeds. Virtually nobody’s reed case, I suspect, would have a mix of the two. However, what I’ve learned through my research is that the colour and playability of a reed not only can, but often should, be shaped and adapted through use of different lengths and shapes of scrape. (I should say, though, that I only use simple, historically plausible scrapes; I don’t use elements of modern scrapes, such as the ‘spine’ or ‘heart’ of modern American-scrape oboe reeds, or the stepped-down tip that is characteristic of many modern oboe reed scrapes.)
So as I scrape each reed, I’ve learned to listen to what it’s telling me about how to get the best out of it and decide how to adapt my scrape as I go. I no longer start making a reed assuming that I know what it will look like when it’s finished, and as a result, more often than not I can make a piece cane into a happily playable, and wildly individual, reed. I think this is one of the most important things I’ve learned from my studies of historical hoboy reeds: that a box of hoboy reeds shouldn’t be like a string of paper dolls, but a collection of snowflakes.
Sharon is ensemble manager and hoboy player, and is also studying for a PhD at the New Zealand School of Music, focussing on seventeenth century hoboy reed design.