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!

I never thought it would work: The Reed That Just Won’t Die

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESLadies 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!

Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, or Coming In Quietly After A Long Period Of Not Playing

Okay, so sometimes the 2nd Oboe has to sit for quite a long time doing nothing…

 

Mussorgsky Pictures Tacet before quiet entry

…which is all well and good until you have to come in quietly after a long break, as here in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition:

Mussorgsky Pictures quiet entry after long tacet

E to C# in the lower register after a lengthy tacet? Thanks very much. But there is a neat trick you can perform to make this entry slightly easier. The problem is that your reed will have dried out and opened up a little, so you need to get it ready to play again. Take the reed out of the oboe during the tacet, and, if you have a water pot with you, give it a little extra soak. When the moment of your entry is drawing near, do what you do when making reeds to ensure that the reed is airtight: namely, place your finger over the cork end of the staple, form the embouchure and put the reed in your mouth. Pull the reed out so that it makes a little popping noise (if there’s no pop, the reed isn’t airtight). Repeat two or three times*. This will have the effect of closing the reed up slightly, so it doesn’t make a honking racket when you come in on that E.

It works, I promise.


 

*Obviously don’t do this in the silence between movements! By that stage, you should have the reed back in the oboe and you should be watching the conductor, because you have to pick up the speed of the movement quickly: there are only seven beats before you come in.