This event is currently being advertised on Howarth’s website. I’m going to go along if I can – I’m not sure I like the idea of synthetic reeds, but who knows? – this may be the answer to all our problems!
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a miraculous reed. Let me tell you why.
It’s not one I made originally – it’s actually one of those nice Dragon Graduate reeds that Howarth sell – and it has been an absolutely lovely reed. Just recently though, it’s been showing its age. It hasn’t been as responsive as it used to be, and the blades would flatten and close up after only a few minutes’ playing, leaving a tiny aperture for me to blow through.
So, first of all, I flushed out the reed to remove the grollies, and then I ‘dusted’ it with the reed knife, sweeping lightly all over and removing only the tiniest fragments of cane. Now that the reed was nicely tidied up, I set about re-wiring it: the original wire was slightly loose and a new wire would potentially solve the problem of the reed closing up. But – O horror, horror, horror! – as I was fiddling with the wire, all the binding came loose! Now, I usually varnish the binding with clear nail varnish so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen, but looking at my other Dragon reeds, varnishing doesn’t seem to be the practice of this particular reedmaker…which is fine until all the binding comes away in your hands.
I tried for a little while to salvage what was left of the binding, but it quickly became clear that it was going to be easier to either a) throw the whole lot away, or b) attempt to re-tie the reed. I went for option b) because, as I mentioned previously, I really liked this reed. I took the two loose blades – one of which had an enormous crack which had been hidden underneath the binding – and tied them back onto the staple, thinking all the while ‘This is never going to work’. And, the first time, it didn’t: my tieing-on was rather messy and the whole reed was too short – 71mm instead of 72. So I took the binding off for a second time, measured a little more carefully, and tied the blades on again, fully expecting the cracked blade to disintegrate in my hands.
But it didn’t. The reed looked okay once it was all reassembled. It was the correct length. It was air-tight. That nasty crack hadn’t travelled up the blade and was securely fastened beneath another set of binding. The tips of the two blades were meeting where they should. I gave the reed an experimental peep, and when that was successful, an enormous crow.
It worked. It was miraculous.
The next bit was relatively easy: I varnished the binding, and when that was dry, re-wired the reed. For this I use picture wire, which you can buy from Hobbycraft. Picture wire is wound in strands, and all you have to do is cut off the required length with a pair of pliers, separate the strands and voilà! It’s a bit thicker and stronger than the usual product sold for this purpose, so it won’t cut into the reed as much; instead, it will grip and support it more firmly. But I’ll go into more detail about wiring reeds another time.
The final touch was to add a small strip of plumber’s tape to replace the goldbeater’s skin that I’d had to remove earlier. (Goldbeater’s skin is far superior to plumber’s tape, but it is much more expensive and plumber’s tape is cheap, easily obtainable and sort of does the job.) The skin hadn’t really survived the process of being removed so I had to bin it and add the white tape you can see in the picture, which looks a bit like a bandage. The reed didn’t need this additional seal, if I’m honest – it was air-tight, as I mentioned earlier – but I was still fretting about that crack, and I thought with the wire and the tape together, I might just prolong the life of the reed a smidgeon more.
By now it was getting on for 11pm, so I couldn’t test the reed by having a quick tootle, not without having the neighbours hammering on the walls. I had to wait until today to try it out. It’s amazing. The reed works. The damn thing is even in tune. It’s actually slightly better than it was before, even after all that trauma. And I don’t think this is because I am a reedmaker extraordinaire, or anything like that – au contraire, I am a mere rank amateur – no, no, this is quite simply a miraculous reed.
The lesson here, my lovely oboe chummies, is that anything is possible. Don’t give up on that reed! It may survive yet!
When oboists or bassoonists use the term ‘grollies’, they are referring to the unhygienic spitty build-up that inevitably comes to reside inside each and every double reed. Even if you do manage to clean your teeth every time before playing, there will still be microscopic flecks of your lunch forming a small but growing community on the blades.
Now, you can slow the rate of grolly-growth by flushing out your oboe reeds on a regular basis, as follows: simply fill your mouth with boiled (not boiling!) water and blow it through the cork-end of the staple so the water squirts out through the tip of the reed. You might also try adding a dash of mouthwash to the water before flushing, but it must be a mouthwash that lists alcohol as one of its ingredients. Alcohol is very useful for cleaning things, and in fact, I always soak my reeds in a solution of three-quarters water and one-quarter Listerine (the original, none of your fancy new flavours). And if memory serves, Double Reed News featured an article fairly recently in which a bassoonist describes how he soaks – and I think even stores – his reeds in neat vodka.
(As a point of interest, I learned recently that neat vodka is used to scrub dirt and sweat from theatrical costumes that can’t be washed or dry-cleaned because they’re covered in meltable sequins or suchlike, so there you are – if you really don’t want to drink that nasty budget vodka you bought when you were on your uppers, you can use it to clean the cooker or something.)
Grolly build-up will eventually cause problems for you once the reed gets a bit older: suddenly you’ll find that you’re playing a bit on the sharp side. There is a way you can prolong the life of the reed and restore the pitch, but I should add that this is a ‘make or break’ solution, and there is a chance that you may destroy the reed entirely. It’s worth a try, though. Unless you have only one reed (which you really shouldn’t!), in which case – don’t.
You’ll need to get hold of some hydrogen peroxide solution. You can buy this from most chemists because it has many uses as a mouthwash, gargle, antiseptic, etc. (If you are going to use this stuff as a mouthwash, please please don’t forget to dilute it first, because it is essentially bleach: I flushed out some reeds with it and felt unwell for hours afterwards. It was yucky.) Okay, so dilute the hydrogen peroxide solution with boiled water (four-fifths water, one-fifth hydrogen peroxide solution) and then soak the grollied-up reed for no more than one minute. When the minute’s up, remove the reed from the solution and flush it through thoroughly with boiled water. If you leave any hydrogen peroxide solution inside the reed, the cane will just disintegrate.
If this works – and it will depend very much on how old the reed is and how close it is to its reedy death – then your favourite reed will be revitalised for perhaps just one more concert. Good luck!
(PS. While we’re on the subject of hygiene and cleanliness, it’s good practice to wet the brass part of the staple before tying-on, and then dry it with a clean cloth. This will remove any lurking dust deposits.)
One of the most persistent problems I experience when making reeds is the blades crossing a week or two after the reed is finished. This is because I’m still not very good at tying-on. The reed will still play if the blades are slightly misaligned, but the cane won’t vibrate as freely and this leaves the player struggling to produce a good, solid sound.
I bought these little doodads from Howarth’s in the hope that they would help solve the problem:
But, while they do help, they’re incredibly fiddly to use and the success rate is not sufficiently good to justify the extra hassle. The width of the cane I use is such that these little oval rings won’t fit over the top so they have to be fitted from the bottom up:
This means you can’t actually take the ring off again until the cane is completely dry – when it’s wet, it’s too swollen for the ring to fit over the top – so you’ll have to soak the cane a second time before you can scrape it. I don’t like to introduce this extra level of stress for the cane, especially at this stage of proceedings when it’s still so vulnerable to cracking.
More importantly, it’s almost impossibly fiddly trying to insert the staple for tying-on into an aperture only this big:
So, on the whole, it’s probably wiser to look for another solution.
I attended a reed-adjusting session at The Big Double Reed Day in 2013, and the tutor came up with a possible solution which involves far less mucking about. Okay, so I tie on at about 74mm, which gives me 2mm of leeway: eventually the tip will be cut so the entire reed measures 72mm. I measure this out before I start tying on and make a pencil mark where the staple ends, like so:
I start tying on about five thread-turns beneath this pencil mark:
Now, the advice given to me about how to avoid crossed blades later on was as follows:
If the sides of the reed close before you reach the pencil mark: stop, pull the cane out a little, and then continue.
This is still a little bit fiddly, of course – having to unwind the thread and then wind it again is not that much fun and of course, you always have to be mindful that you don’t crack the cane, but it’s still much easier than trying to use those little hoops. Here’s that reed, now fully tied on:
And I was quite pleased with how well the sides matched up:
Hope that helps. If I’ve not made any of this clear, please do let me know – you can submit a question via the form on the Contact tab. I’ve done my best with the photos, but I’m only using the little camera on my phone and it’s not very good. I’ve already put in a request for a sooper-dooper camera for my birthday, so things will improve, I promise.
All information in this post taken from the Howarth website.
Reeds ‘n Stuff Equipment Demonstration 1st-3rd May 2014 with Lorenzo Masala, Equipment Developer, Reeds ’n Stuff
Lorenzo Masala will be at Howarth of London for 3 days of equipment demonstrations at the beginning of May.
– Thursday 1st May –
9.30am – 12.30pm
– Friday 2nd May –
9.30am – 12.30pm
– Saturday 3rd May –
10am – 1pm / 2pm – 4pm
The event will run as a drop-in session so there is no need to book an appointment.
In order to get the most from this opportunity, please come with your own prepared blanks (without the tips cut!).
Howarth of London, 31 Chiltern Street, London, W1U 7PN
Try the full range of Reeds ’n Stuff equipment and seek tips from one of Reeds ’n Stuff’s top designers. Lorenzo will be bringing a full range of templates and shapes, and will be demonstrating the innovations of the oboe profiler, gouger and shaping machines as well as the newly designed bassoon tip profiler.
These precision tools are the best available on the market and the quality is second to none. Udo Heng has revolutionised the way professional players make reeds. The gouging and profiling machines can be adjusted to the finest tolerance, giving astoundingly accurate results that are consistently high in quality.
Camilla Clark – Oboe Specialist
All equipment will be available for sale.
For more information, please email Camilla Clark.