Reeds: My Bane

Bassoonists can sit this one out. You already know what I’m talking about, and you don’t need to hear one more person complain about not having enough/the right kind of/that magical reed that will save you, make you sound like a rockstar, and will probably chip the next time you look at it wrong. Everyone else, come sit around and let me tell you a tale about why playing bassoon can be such a pain.

Reeds. Arundo donax. A large piece of invasive grass is something that many wind players desperately depend on to make their instruments work. This stuff grows everywhere, rapidly takes up land when given the opportunity, and basically is a pain in the ass to most people. Woodwinds (except some – I’m looking at you, flutes) depend on this little plant to make their lives go.

At this point, I’d often rag on clarinet and sax players for not having to make their own reeds. Don’t like one? Pull another from the box. Think this one is a little too buzzy? Pull another from the box. Bassoon player is looking sad and frantically whittling? Smash one of your reeds in front of his face, laugh, and then pull another from the box. Now, while I realize there are more subtleties than that (and I do teach some of those subtleties in my woodwinds methods class, thank you very much), it’s much easier for me to generalize about an entire population when writing short essays. I’m just like all of those other lazy, suburban white kids out there.

Bassoons (and our oboe brethren) are generally required to make our own reeds. It becomes a point of pride after a while. Half craft, half engineering, half dark, magical art, reed making is something that consumes the lives of bassoonists. I keep trying to frame it to my non-double reed compatriots like this: imagine if, every day, you were unsure how your instrument would play. Maybe your mouthpiece wouldn’t sound the same day to day. Maybe your drumsticks would randomly get lighter or heavier.

Madness? This is bassoon.

The entire process from taking a hollow tube of Arundo donax cane and turning it into something resembling a musical device takes about 2-3 weeks if done properly (or less than 24 hours if I’m desperate). Several thousands of dollars worth of machinery are involved in the process, and that’s not including the several thousand dollar instrument you’re going to attach this thing to at the end of the day. Then the large bag of tools that you need to adjust these things. Knives, pliers, wire, wire clippers, razor blades. Enough stuff to make me double check if I’ve left anything in my bag when I go through airport security.

“But officer, I was just going to adjust a reed or two on the plane!”

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen bassoon reeds, but I’ve included a shot of what I currently have drying below.

Non-bassoonists always ask me why we wrap our reeds in colorful string. Well, it serves three purposes: first, it helps create and keep a seal on the back of the reed; second, it helps us differentiate between reeds when we have so many in our cases; third, it brings a little bit of joy to the otherwise frustrating and bleak world of reed making.

Out of the eight reeds you see before you, past experience and probability tells me how they will probably break down in quality.

  • 1 will chip or shred before I even get to a point where I can play on it
  • 2 will be utter crap and useless to anyone
  • 3 will be good student reeds, but have one major problem
  • 3 will be back up/practice reeds, with several small problems.
  • 1 will be good enough to use in public performances.

1 in 8. Those are some odds, let me tell you.

I have to admit, though, that there is something zen about reed making. When you’re not desperate for something to play on (because you’ve gotten behind), the whole process can take on this mind-clearing quality. If I became a monk, I would spend my days in solitude making reeds. It has, for me, the same focusing, peaceful quality as large-scale data entry (don’t laugh). I actually enjoy the process when I’m not desperate.

Unfortunately, when desperation kicks in, it becomes a series of mistakes, curse words, and thinly veiled threats to whatever reed-making deity you believe in (mine is a statue of a cobra in the university’s reed room).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make sure I have a reed to play on for Friday.

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4 Responses to Reeds: My Bane

  1. Lindsay says:

    Other members of my lab have done research on Arundo donax, oddly enough: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2007.08.015

    Damn reed players, bringing in an invasive species that decimates the ecosystem.

    Isn’t it true that the way it grows in the US it can’t even be used for reed making, and so it has to be imported from Europe? Or do you just go outside and hack down a cane or three when you need to make reeds?

    • Widget says:

      That’s really interesting – I always threatened to start growing my own once we had a house. All of the stuff I use is imported, but I was never sure why.

  2. I like the pretty strings around the reeds!

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