Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making

by Christopher Millard

Chapter 8 – Dialogue

Bassoon reed, huff, puff

You must be wondering if I’m ever going to tell you anything of immediate value – like how to build blanks, profiling, details of shapes or measurements? 


Right now, let’s keep focusing on holistic concepts.

So, how about a nice easy subject?  Like ‘response’?


Have you ever noticed that the word response – when applied to anything but reed making – is usually used in the context of dialogue?  It’s usually about feedback to a spoken or written thought, a reply to a question or an acknowledgment of a communication. Here are some synonyms for response: rejoinder, retort, comeback, counter and riposte.  These are all ripe with meaning.  Dialogue in conversations are typically complex and can be guided or controlled by either party.    

If you are speaking with someone who absolutely won’t respond, we have a rich set of internal observations, which lead us to figure out why the conversation is one-sided. For example, is there a physical reason? Are we mumbling, is there hearing impairment, is there too much ambient sound, too much distraction? Perhaps there is a different language, or little shared experience?  Is there a complex emotional barrier?  Are we too aggressive, too timid, overbearing or our relationship poisoned by personal history?   Conversations easily become unbalanced, with one party controlling the evolution and outcome of the interaction.

To communicate effectively, we need to sort out the reasons why dialogues become one-sided.

Can you see where I’m going with this? 

Response is this big catch-all term to describe the behaviour of reeds in the context of our dialogue with the music.  For example, we say a reed is responsive if…

  • Vibration begins with a predictable and efficient input of air…
  • Tonal changes in dynamic and colour can be achieved with a comfortable amount of embouchure effort and blowing pressure

Then we might start going for comparative details…

  • Tchaikovsky 6 or Le Sacré are equally cooperative
  • Low Bb ff staccato is as immediate as a gentle mid range mp attack
  • The reed allows flexibility in tuning with fellow performers

All these comparative reed behaviors seem bound up in ‘response’.  It’s asking a lot of one word.

When two people are engaged in a long and committed process of therapy, they work hard to find words and strategies to improve communication through effective dialogue. Maybe we need an equivalent effort to unpack that big umbrella word response?

To start, let’s consider response as a ‘physical’ dialogue between reed and bassoon. Based on the ideas suggested in previous chapters we can organize our thinking into two large categories.

Input + Output = Responsive dialogue

The reed starts the conversation.  Beginning with a brief stutter, the words fly – all of the available words.  The bassoon – initially unsure of the message – responds:

“Reed, too much information!  What are you trying to tell me?  Right now – with all these closed tone holes – I can only give you an F#.”

From the physicist’s viewpoint, the stutter is that initial engagement of the reed via the Bernoulli process with the bassoon, at first sending a complex jumble of frequencies down the bore, then the returning compression waves begin selecting for the most efficient frequencies.  The air flow starts the conversation – input (energy).

The bassoon answers with alternating compression/rarefaction – output (frequency).

On the one hand, input response describes the reaction of the reed to the flow of air from our lungs. On the other hand, output response describes the reed’s reaction to the pressure variations in the bassoon bore.  It’s a two-way process, the Yin and Yang of reed making.

The famous Taoist symbol suggests the interconnectedness and interdependence of opposites – approaching oneness thru duality.  We can use this concept to achieve a holistic way of thinking about designing bassoon reeds.

The mechanical reaction of the reed to the input of air is the more traditional way of characterizing reed ‘response’.  Observing the acoustic reaction to the output of internal pressures in the bore is the more complex way of defining response.  Successful reed making depends on both the mechanical reaction to the air you put into a reed AND to the reed’s phenomenally complex compliance with the pressure variations of the bore.

In future chapters I’ll flesh out these deeply interconnected processes – the dialogue between input and output response.

Read more about Christopher Millard. Chapter 1 – The Craftsman Chapter 2 – Can you explain how a bassoon reed works? Chapter 3 – Surf’s up! Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint Chapter 5 – The Big :Picture Chapter 6 – We’ll huff and we’ll puff… Chapter 7 – Look Both Ways Chapter 8 – Dialogue Chapter 9 – The Big Bounce Chapter 10 – The Incredible Shrinking Bassoonist Chapter 11 – A Useful Equation  Chapter 12 – Goldilocks’ Dilemma Chapter 13 – Stairway to Heaven  Chapter 14 – Reed MyLips Chapter 15 – Resonance Chapter 16 – Corvids & Cacks Chapter 17 – Lift  Chapter 18 – Chickens and Eggs Chapter 19 – Chiaroscuro  Chapter 20 – Donuts Part One / Donuts Part Two Doodles & Design by Nadina


thesaurus, bassoon reed response dialogue

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