Brains and Membranes
Bassoon Reed Making
by Christopher Millard
Christopher Millard giving a lecture and recital at the Stockholm Royal Palace 2018
As aspiring bassoonists, success with reeds is the essential ingredient in your recipe for happiness. When you find a good reed you nurture it. You pray it remains faithful. When University life gets busy, you might avoid the reed room for a few days, but everyone knows they need to get back to their tools and to their cane. Next week’s lesson, next month’s orchestra concert, tomorrow night’s wind quintet, all loom ahead. Every time you put the reed on a bocal you wonder if you are going to be able to make music – or simply suffer.
Those of us who make a living at this -and those of us who want to – have a hard time explaining to our families and friends just how problematic and time consuming this reed making business is.
The aspiring bassoonist goes about learning reed making by absorbing and imitating. We are generally given a set of instructions designed to replicate the practices of our teachers, using specific dimensions and a series of steps that will lead to a functional reed. We don’t have equivalents for Newton’s laws of thermodynamics, no ‘first principles’ upon which to build our knowledge. It is an empirical skill that we seek to perfect through trial and error. And unlike laws of physics, which are universally true, our reed making experiments resist consistently successful outcomes.
In the following pages – Brains and Membranes – I’m going to tell you about my own journey and introduce you to some common sense ideas about the relationship of reeds to bassoons.
48 years ago, in one of my first lessons, I asked my teacher Sol Schoenbach how sound was produced on the bassoon. He took my reed and pointed to the tip.
“The open F is produced here, the E just behind it, and so on until you get to the back where the low Bb comes from.”
I spent many hours trying to make sense of this!
Sol Schoenbach, principal bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, 1937 – 1957
I knew Sol Schoenbach as a brilliant man who spoke with clarity and forethought and he never spoon-fed his students!
So, rather quickly, I became convinced he was just tossing an overly simplistic hypothesis my way, expecting I would pursue further investigation and makes some sense of it all.
A very young Sol Schoenbach at the reed desk of oboist, Marcel Tabuteau at a time when they were both principals of the Philadelphia Orchestra
Photo sent by Peter Schoenbach
Schoenbach’s own reed-making history was rather modest. He told me how he had gone to Germany after the war to study with the legendary reed maker Mechler. He claimed that on the first day cut his thumb with a reed knife and immediately decided that this was not how he wanted to spend his life. This sounds a bit apocryphal, but like many bassoon artists of his era he usually had his reeds made for him by others for much of his career.
During my first year of study with Schoenbach he sent me to up to a little fishing village on the Maine coast to spend a week with the reed maker and pedagogue Louis Skinner.
Skinner, who was the most loving and gentle man you could imagine, got me organized. He showed me how to improve my skills with tools, gave me some clear ideas about designs, measurements and techniques, and imparted some basic ideas about reed acoustics. During subsequent visits to Skinner, my techniques and outcomes improved, but I can’t say that I came to a satisfying understanding of the underlying mysteries of the reeds and bassoons.
In the following chapters I’ll introduce you to a different way of thinking about reeds and perhaps guide you to a clear path to happiness.
Chapter 1 – The Craftsman
Louis Skinner was a master craftsman. He guided many of my generation to more systematic approaches to their reed making.
At the heart of Skinner’s thinking was this: you build a ‘tuned’ reed to make your bassoon play efficiently. A properly tuned reed is responsive, not too sharp and not too flat with an attractive sound.
In our very first conversation about the principles of reed making, he defined the bassoon reed as a ‘tuned oscillator’.
He showed how to put your lips over the first wire and blow very lightly to find a particular ‘peeping’ frequency, which might range from a D to a G. And this led to the assumption that reeds are fixed pitch tone generators. In other words, it seems that the reed sounds a specific fundamental frequency, which enters the bocal and comes out at the other end as the Jolivet Concerto.
Skinner was very clear that he associated the basic ‘peeping’ pitch* of the reed with its dimensions; longer reeds had a lower basic frequency and shorter reeds had a higher basic sound. For example, a reed that measured 28 mm from first wire to tip might sound a D, a reed that measured 27 mm should sound an Eb, and so on. Of course, this was just a guide, and it turns out that for many players a 28 mm reed producing a D natural is too flat. Although he was initially quite firm about following specific length/pitch rules, Skinner certainly understood that the peeping pitches were dependent on many variables.
*”Peeping pitch’ is the simplest tone you can make by placing the lips over the first wire and blowing lightly.
So, early in my reed-making life I committed to this way of thinking. I viewed the behavior of reeds in a very uni-directional way: that they produce a tone [a fundamental pitch with its own series of harmonics], which somehow modifies into all the available pitches. It is a simple and appealing concept, that your bassoon magically transforms the peeping of the reed to produce all the notes on the bassoon.
I was particularly grateful to Skinner for his very organized pedagogy. It got me building reeds with consistent structures and some guidelines about how to make them function.
Against all odds, I ended up winning a first bassoon chair when I was 22. I was thrilled but often miserable. I wasn’t ready as a musician and I had no confidence in my reed making. I was convinced I would not earn my tenure in the orchestra. So, during my first seasons I spent 4 or 5 hours a day at the reed bench – even more than I had done as a student.
Somehow, my older colleagues took pity on me and decided that I would eventually improve, so I did get past probation and got more and more determined to live some part of my life away from the damn reed desk. Skinner had been a great help in giving me grounding, but I started to think it was time to learn something about how the bassoon worked. So, I bought Arthur Benade’s books on acoustics, then those of John Backus, then the indecipherable (but brilliant) Cornelis Nederveen, and so on.
If you want good answers, you need good questions.
In the next chapter, I’ll ask some good questions.