Légère Synthetic Reeds: A Review of the Prototype

Howarth of London was packed yesterday afternoon as oboists piled in to try out the prototype of the Légère synthetic reed, and I couldn’t resist going along myself. Here I am, courtesy of Olivia Wild who was there taking photographs, and I’ve snaffled this from Howarth’s Facebook feed:

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(I’m happy to remove the pic if requested to do so. I’m not sure now that orange is my colour, and I’m horrified at how many white hairs I can see here, not to mention the number of chins…)

So what are these synthetic reeds like?

There were quite a few people already playing as I walked in, and the sound these reeds make is good: it’s a full, rich sound, nothing remotely plasticky about it. Christoph Hartmann was very keen for people to just pick a reed and have a go, so I did just that, but I’m afraid I ran into problems straight away with my Lorée. Its serial number tells me that my oboe is twelve years old, and perhaps this has something to do with it, but I could only find two of the synthetic reeds that would fit: the rest just simply would not go in, even after applying lots of cork grease. Nevertheless, I tootled on the two reeds that would fit and was mostly pleased with the result, but the A, B and C in the top octave – always weedy on my Lorée anyway – were rendered even weedier by the synthetic reed, and all the notes from D upwards were really pretty awful. Very thin indeed, and no amount of diaphragm would make any difference. But I’m inclined to blame my oboe for that, to be honest.

Mike Britten had noticed the trouble I was having finding reeds to fit the Lorée and very kindly lent me a Howarth XM oboe so I could try a few more of the synthetic reeds. Surprisingly, there is some variation from reed to reed. I think many people there, myself included, were expecting the synthetic reeds to be all exactly the same, but they’re not. And what are they like to play? Very similar to cane reeds, but I found them to be rather hard work at the bottom end of the range, and some of the reeds I tried had a tendency to stop vibrating if I wasn’t paying enough attention. Some others felt as if they were rather closed, despite the aperture at the tip looking as it should. Rapid tonguing was really not very easy, and even slower legato tonguing was a little more difficult than usual. I felt more comfortable playing around in the middle of the oboe’s range, and on the XM, the top notes really sang out – I’m pretty sure I played the best top A I have ever produced in my entire oboe-playing life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get right to the top of the range – E, F and F# came out with no trouble at all, but I couldn’t get a top G out of any of the reeds. My lip was getting tired though, so this was probably my fault.

Can you scrape synthetic reeds?

Apparently you can, but carefully. And it’s only possible to make very minor adjustments, so you really do have to make sure you buy the reed that’s right for you.

How long do they last?

A synthetic reed should, in theory, last you for years, which could save you a lot of money, but as I said before, you would have to be very careful about choosing the right reed; given that the scope for adjustment is limited, you would have to hope that your embouchure didn’t change very much. I don’t suppose this is much of a problem for most people, but perhaps a synthetic reed wouldn’t be right for younger players who are still growing.

How much will synthetic reeds cost?

This is the question everyone was asking and no one was answering! Fair enough, because the reed is still at the prototype stage, but I don’t imagine they’re going to be cheap.

How do you clean them?

The reeds are clear, so you can see water (or, less delicately, spit) building up inside them. They can be cleaned by flushing them through with clean water and any remaining nasties can be removed with pipe cleaners.

What’s the final verdict?

Listening to the comments and conversations going on around me, I would say that the general feeling was that these reeds are very good, but they’re not quite there yet. As for me, I would certainly welcome the age of the synthetic reed, but it’s clear that I would have to get a new oboe. Synthetic reeds and the Lorée didn’t get on at all, but the same problems weren’t there with the XM. The XM is a beautiful instrument, a combination of the solidity of the Howarth intonation without the rather-too-strident-for-my-taste tone that sometimes goes with the XL. (In fact, I want an XM so much now that I’ve just bought forty quids’ worth of Woodland Trust raffle tickets because the top prize is £7.5K, which will cover the cost of an XM with a bit to spare. Got to be in it to win it! Fingers crossed for 19 June…)

The best and funniest comment yesterday came from Jeremy Polmear, who said that synthetic reeds deprive us of the relationship we have with our volatile cane reeds: Mr Polmear referred to the oboist’s relationship with his or her reed as ‘a flirtation, never quite managing to get off with it’. This is quite true. Quite true.

Just to finish off, I’d like to say a big thank you to all the staff, who remained helpful, cheerful and friendly in the face of wave after wave of oboists all keen to try the prototype reeds. I was even allowed to use the little staff kitchen to try out some cane reeds because all the rooms downstairs were full. And finally, a fond farewell and a heartfelt thank you to Emma Gourlay – Monday was her last day at Howarth’s, and she will be very much missed.

Légère Synthetic Oboe Reed Prototype Review with Christoph Hartmann 13/04/15

Légère Synthetic Oboe Reed Prototype Review with Christoph Hartmann 13/04/15.

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!

Slings and stands for the cor anglais: a review

The cor anglais is a large, heavy instrument and unless you have strong arm muscles like those of Alison Teale (who plays a lot of tennis) you’re going to need a sling or stand of some kind to help you support the instrument for more than ten minutes at a time.

The muscles in my arms and back are positively weedy and I was experiencing some very unpleasant shooting pains across my right wrist when playing the cor. In this post, I review two slings and a stand from the point of view of someone who was going to develop serious tendonitis if I continued playing the cor without support. (My teacher told me simply to build up the muscles in my arms, and of course this isn’t bad advice, but a) it isn’t going to happen overnight and b) at my time of life, it probably isn’t going to happen at all. I’m stuck now with my bingo wings. I might as well learn to love them.)

The Sling That Goes Around Your Neck

The Howarth Cor Anglais Sling (click on the information symbol to the left of the product name for an image) will cost you £16.85, and while it’s better than nothing, it really didn’t work for me. The sling goes around your neck and hooks onto the thumb rest like so:

Neck sling hook through thumbrest

The problem with this sling is that it tends to pull your head forward, so I found that I still had the shooting pains in my wrist plus an ache across my back and shoulders as a result of my head and neck being forced into an unnatural position:

Neck sling pulling head forward

Another solution had to be found.

The Sling That Goes Over Your Shoulders

This sling was recommended to me while I was on a music course and I’m afraid I’ve thrown away all the packaging so I don’t know anymore who makes them. As far as I remember, these slings are designed for saxophonists and I’m pretty sure it cost me the best part of forty quid…anyway, this is what it looks like:

Posh sling

Designed for the sax as it is, this means there’s a little bit of fiddling to be done to set up the sling for a cor anglais because this…

Posh sling thumb rest attachment

…will not go through the little hook on the thumb rest. I got round this problem by slotting a keyring through the hole on my thumb rest like so:

Keyring through thumbrest

…and then you can put the sling and cor together like this:

Posh sling thumbrest attachment

The sling is adjustable, so what you have to do is fiddle with it until the flat piece of plastic at the bottom is sitting where your diaphragm is:

Posh sling diaphragm rest

…and here’s what it looks like from the front and the back:

Posh sling front viewPosh sling back view

It’s much more comfortable than it looks, I promise, and it’s much more effective at load-bearing than the sling that goes around your neck because the weight is placed squarely on your shoulders. It does help – but not enough. I was still getting those pains if I played for more than about 45 minutes. Then Howarth’s started selling these…

The Floor Stand

This little number saved the day. It is very simply a block of wood containing a metal peg that slides in and out, with a strip of elasticated material that fits around the bell and is fixed in place with velcro. It will set you back a cool £89.95. But it works. The player bears no load at all – the entire weight of the instrument is concentrated on the floor through the metal peg. I can play the cor now for about an hour and a half without experiencing any physical discomfort.

Floor stand peg and elastic

Here’s a view of the bell with floor stand attached:

Floor stand with labels

…and this is how the stand attaches to the thumb rest:

Floor stand thumbrest view 2

Here’s what the whole thing looks like once assembled:

Floor stand extended

It’s not without its problems, of course. First of all, if you want to rest your cor on a stand you have to retract the metal peg first, but compared to suffering from tendonitis, this is not such a hardship:

Floor stand on a stand

There are two other problems: you can’t use the floor stand if you have to play standing up. And secondly, the player does not have the freedom of movement that is possible with the two slings, so if you’re playing in a chamber group and you need to bring other players in, it’s not as easy to indicate when you’re going to start playing. A workaround has to be negotiated. But again, this is not such an insurmountable problem as not being able to play at all because your arms are full of inflammation.

The verdict is: use a floor stand if at all possible, and if you are obliged to play standing up, use the sling that goes over your shoulders. The neck sling (for me, at least) is no good.

One last thing about the floor stand: after every practice session/rehearsal, remove the metal peg entirely and make sure it is dry before reinserting into the wooden case. Moisture will form on the peg while you are playing and if you don’t wipe the condensation away, the peg will rust. I learnt this the hard way. It didn’t occur to me that spit would be dribbling over the stand, and the next time I pulled the peg out ready to play, it was covered in rust spots. I cleaned them off with a wire sponge and painted the peg with clear nail varnish to stop the rust coming back, but my lovely stand is not as perfect as it was and I certainly can’t afford to punt out for another one!

Reeds ‘n Stuff Equipment Demonstration 1st – 3rd May 2014

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.

View the full range of Reeds ‘n Stuff equipment here

For more information, please email Camilla Clark.

camilla@howarth.uk.com

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