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!

The BIG Double Reed Day 2014


Snapshot image of the website for The BIG Double Reed Day

The BIG Double Reed Day is an annual event held at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and this year it’s scheduled for 16th November 2014. I’ve been every year since 2010 and I’ve got the T-shirts to prove it:


Registrations for this year are open and you can apply online here.

Participants are divided into those under 10 who have not yet passed their grade 3, those aged 11-18 who are grade 3+, and the last group is for adults. These three groups run on three different timetables, and in addition, the events are staggered for oboists and bassoonists so there are never too many people in one place at one time: this helps avoid a massive bunfight at lunchtime.

Workshops run throughout the day and the choice is substantial:

  • Baroque Instrument Try-outs
  • “Big Brother” Try-out (contrabassoon/cor anglais)
  • Contemporary Techniques Workshop
  • Improve Your Articulation Workshop
  • Improve Your Sound Workshop
  • Reed-adjusting
  • Technique Troubleshooter

Additional Classes offered to students grade 6 – 8:

  • Audition Preparation
  • Baroque Performance
  • Music College Q & A Session

In the past I’ve played a baroque oboe, picked up some tips on how to warm up and practise effectively, attended several extremely useful reedmaking sessions, and participated in the playing workshops. There’s even a photograph of me with Alison Teale on the BDRD website:

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 20.32.10

…but I’m not sure if this was taken before or after I hyperventilated. I hadn’t had much sleep, I’d drunk far too much coffee and I got very nervous about performing – all of which meant I took in far too much oxygen while I was trying to play and had to stop. Everyone was very kind, although several people did point out that I’d gone ‘a really funny colour’. However, the very lovely and talented Alison Teale smoothed the situation over by talking about How To Avoid This Sort Of Thing and, in giving me a few minutes to calm down, she gave me time to get my breath back so I could have another go at playing.

There were others who made a far better job of things than I did: here’s Helen Martin, an absolutely lovely lady who goes to the BDRD every year and she always plays something in the workshops. In fact, Helen is often the brave soul who volunteers to go first.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 20.32.45

This post is just by way of getting the information out there, and I’ll post a complete review after this year’s BDRD. There’s still time to sign up – just go to the website and click on ‘Apply’. See you there!

Crossed blades

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:

Photo 20-04-2014 13 13 57

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:

Photo 20-04-2014 13 25 13

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:

very small opening

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:

pencil mark at top of staple

I start tying on about five thread-turns beneath this pencil mark:

Tying on five turns below

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:

Tied on 29

And I was quite pleased with how well the sides matched up:

Tight sides

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.

Have fun!

oboe blog 2

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.


oboe blog 6