The Skinny on Skinner

Reed maker Louis Skinner had an outsized influence on a generation of young American and Canadian bassoonists.  In this article, Vincent Ellin joins Christopher Millard in looking back at this iconic figure.

Until his death in 1993, Louis Skinner was an important figure in the development of systematic designs and skills in the making of bassoon reeds.  A visit to his seaside home in Jonesport, Maine, was a Mecca for serious young players seeking guidance.  Young players today will not be as familiar with this man’s work as they ought to be.  Many of the now older generation of players were influenced by his ideas, and many of Skinner’s strategies have been passed on to our aspiring young professionals.  Among the Canadian bassoonists who worked with him are Christopher Millard and Vincent Ellin.  Though both are now retired, their appreciation for Skinner’s help in their early careers remains undiminished.

So, who was Louis Skinner and why was he important? Louis Skinner [1918-1993] was an American bassoonist who found a niche as a reed pedagogue. Though his playing career included a stint in the U.S. Navy and the Baltimore Symphony, Lou never considered himself a ‘high-level’ player.  He was, however, fascinated with the challenge of reed making and determined to help young players through their agonizing early years.  Along the way, he educated himself about some of the older European techniques and became the first New World player to start incorporating ideas about gouge alteration with the use of more modern tools and strategies. Where do we go for specific ideas about his methods? Canadian bassoonist James Mackay was one of Skinner’s students, and was the lead author of the one important book about Skinner.  You can purchase copies online easily here or here, and you can read portions of it online here.  Along with Eric Arbiter’s The Way of Cane and earlier works by Christopher Weait, Rian Craypo and Mark Eubanks, it is an important addition to your reed making library.  You should also look at Rick Yoder’s website London Fields Reed Shack.

Christopher Millard: My first visit to Lou Skinner was in the Spring of 1973 during my first year of study at Curtis.  Sol Schoenbach knew about Lou and his methods and encouraged me to make the first of several pilgrimages.  Jonesport was a rustic little town on the North East coast of Maine where Lou and his wife Betty-Ann had chosen to live.  The clarity of his instruction, the orderly nature of his methods, and his personal warmth were a welcome solace to me and many others.  Students at that time were in the middle of a generational shift; our teachers in the post-war years were still more likely to buy their reeds than make them.  50 years later, you would be hard pressed to name many performing bassoonists in North America who rely completely on others for their reed supplies. Along with figures like Norman Herzberg, Skinner was a central pillar of that move to reed self-suffiency.

This post is not a description of Lou’s specific methods, but rather a discussion of how both Vince Ellin and I evolved in our utilization of those techniques. I have written about my experience with Lou and his theories on this website and I urge you to spend a couple of minutes now reading about my initial experience here.

Vincent Ellin: I have been mulling over reed making questions lately and how to approach and integrate all the physics. For me it seems that the adjustment phase is the most intuitive and artful part of the journey. What I find so lacking in novice reed makers is the willingness to question their preconceived notions about when, where or how to adjust the reed. They will just madly scrape before thinking about what they intend to do!  On my first visit to Skinner, he said that I seemed to have a good grasp on reed balancing and adjustment.  What I needed to work on was the basic design that I was using.  Things changed for me after that visit; before then I had no concrete plan for dimensions, much less why I should keep to a certain length or shape, or what I was looking for in a reed. The consistency of reeds improved and I could begin to understand the “why” of the changes when I made a decision to alter my reed design. This is something I do to this day. It doesn’t mean my reed design never changed, but that I would make just one small change, observe the outcome over several identical reeds, and decide whether to continue with the alteration or not.

CM: For me, Skinner’s two most important contributions were the logic of his methodology and his revival and development of sophisticated gouge alterations.  I have commented before that his assumptions about reeds being ‘tuned oscillators’ don’t really hold up in a physics based view of the bassoon/reed acoustical coupling.  But from a purely empirical standpoint, his instructions about ‘peeping pitches’ laid some important groundwork for his students.  We’ll talk about this more, Vince, but I also want to delve into a conversation about the why and how of gouge alterations.  Our current generation of reed makers propose many valid ideas about cane behaviour and the effects of blank construction, shapes and profiles on the behaviour of reeds.  But there are really very few people who have maintained Skinner’s methods for interior gouge modifications.  I have some ideas about how these modifications fit into the interaction of ‘shell’ and ‘fixed bar’ physics. Every reed maker has their own preferred crow sounds and simple pitches.  [I’ve addressed the details of what is really going on here]  Vince, what aspects of Skinner’s ideas about ‘peeping’ pitches stuck with you over the years?

VE:  Let me first respond to the ‘why and how’ of gouge alterations.  Skinner’s inside profiles would transfer denser cane to the affected area after profiling.

CM: You’re talking about the disc scraping techniques that remove some of the softer cane from the inside surfaces?

VE: Yes.  I found that initially when I studied with him, the amounts he suggested to remove were too aggressive a change – often as much as a .25mm alteration.  Now I’m just using .05mm to .10mm at most.  The only Skinner model I use now is where you remove progressively more cane internally towards the tip of the reed.  I’ve found this inside alteration increases resistance a bit and tends to open the tip more easily.  It produces for me a vibrant reed that remains very flexible.  I learned later that the very first reed makers in the baroque era were scraping mostly from the inside to form their blanks.  This explains how those old reeds worked despite having a bit of bark left!  But to our question about peeping pitches, I do indeed constantly check the peep.  Usually it starts on an E and sometimes an F, and I will check this constantly in the next 4 o5 days to be sure it remains stable.  Some cane during adjustments may settle on an Eb but after some drying and soaking return to an E.  If a reed refuses to return to that original E I usually reject it.

CM: It won’t surprise you to learn that my peeping pitch on my larger dimension reeds tends towards an F#.  There is no absolute ‘correct’ value for this pitch. Larger shapes and dimensions need thicker profiles which produce higher peeps. The peeping pitch and the general behaviour of the reed crow are useful indications to how the reed will function when attached to the bassoon. I think about this basic relationship in terms of the Missing Conical Apex formula.

VE: Skinner used some language that we need to cover, especially his focus on ‘parallel’ and ‘pyramided’ fibres.

CM: I always understood this to be a visualization of ‘un-tapered’ or ‘tapered’ scrapes, with the added complication that the interior gouge alterations were  ‘pyramiding’ the cane from the inside as well.

VE: Yes.  Skinner’s observation was that parallel fibres are less resistant to vibration and pyramided fibres are more resistant.  In terms of adjusting and scraping there is obvious truth to this.  But for me this assumes the blades are already vibrating.  If I made a totally parallel blank and the total thickness was .85mm there is no chance that reed is going to vibrate at all.  In fact, a pyramided reed that starts at .85mm and tapers as MORE likely to be capable of vibrating.  In some ways, my manner of scraping contradicts what Skinner said: I have a quasi parallel scrape at the back, a slight spine in my centre and a tapered tip.  Skinner would have suggested playing towards the back of a reed like this, but I play more on the tip, unlike many of the Garfield disciples.  I’m also using a much larger shape than when I saw Skinner – at the time I was using a Knockenhauer shape from my teacher Sherman Walt.

At this point in our conversation we discussed some of the acoustical principles that might be at play when evaluating Skinner’s interior gouge alterations.  These include the idea of ‘fixed bar’ physics.

Diving boards, rulers and bassoon reed membranes all demonstrate aspects of this behaviour.

A brief diversion…

The physics governing the relationship of profiles, gouge, cane, dimensions and tube structures are far more complex than we might realize.  Skinner’s definition of a reed as a tuned oscillator does not hold up well to scrutiny, but the outcome of his methods can prove to be very successful. Gouge alterations select for different cane resiliency and stiffness at different parts of the reed.  Removing softer cane from the inside of your sticks where the blades are widest will affect the pitch of the reed both generally and specifically.  Before reading this next section you might go for for a swim and watch how diving boards work!  Then try the setup shown here to visualize ‘fixed bar’ behaviour in a ruler.

Tuning forks are the simplest examples of fixed bars.  They ring with a reliable pitch for a few seconds after being excited by a knock on the knee [or the forehead of a nearby clarinetist…].  They come in a wide range of pitches but are most frequently used with a tuning of A=440.  Their size and alloy composition are carefully controlled.  If you grind off some metal to shorten the tines the pitch will go up.  Maintain the length but substitute a softer material and the pitch will drop.

The behaviour of a fixed bar is easy to visualize with a ruler clamped to the edge of a table.  Metal or wood both work.  You can control the ‘twanging’ pitch by adjusting the length of exposed ruler hanging over the edge.  Shortening the free end of any fixed bar will raise its oscillating frequency and lengthening it produces lower frequencies.  Changing the material makeup of a fixed bar also affects its frequency.  A wooden ruler of comparable length and thickness will oscillate slower than one of metal.  With a material like arundo donax the hardness and elasticity will affect its oscillating frequencies. [Incidentally, take a moment to observe that a little twang produces a smaller amplitude motion than a big twang, but the frequency of oscillation will be the same.]

If you watch a diving board you can see the relationship between length, stiffness, and motion.  Divers can use a wheel to adjust a movable fulcrum point and make the board either more or less flexible.  Increasing the free vibrating length will slow the natural frequency of the board while allowing for increased flexibility.  If you leave the fulcrum unchanged and just jump up and down you will increase the amplitude of the flex but not the frequency. Sound familiar?  Sure.  Longer, wider reeds are lower in pitch than short, skinny reeds.  Keep this board analogy in your heads while we dive a bit deeper…

To make bassoon reeds behave like diving boards you’d have to put two curved diving boards together and wrap them in a flexible membrane so they could flex in response to some water loving idiot jumping up and down.  And…what if the jumping up and down happened from the inside of this ridiculous contraption? Something that exerted regular pressure and mimicked the behaviour of sound waves? [I touched on this idea in another article.]

Okay, it’s a ridiculous idea, but fixed bar behaviour is a big part of the complex physics of reeds.  The other important part is the behaviour of the blades as membranes responding to the turmoil within the bore.  Bar physics and shell physics are two interacting principles which produce some confusing paradoxes, especially in regard to the effect of profile thickness on pitch.  It’s easy to see that with stiffer membranes we create an effectively shorter bore and a sharper outcome.  But redistribution of mass on the fixed bar can produce contradictory results, as can happen if you front load the profile and leave a lot of cane behind the tip of the reed.

This is a tricky thing to unravel, so bear with me…  Take your clamped ruler on the edge of your desk and ‘twang’ it.   Now, take some masking tape, or some chewing gum and wrap it around the tip of that ruler so that you are adding mass as far from the fulcrum as possible.  The ‘twanging’ pitch will now be lower! Wait a minute.  Shouldn’t the ruler become stiffer and the frequency higher?  Not with a fixed bar! If you add mass to the tip of your ruler the oscillations will slow down! This explains why removing cane in the front of the profile will often raise the pitch a bit.  From the viewpoint of the membrane we might expect thicker cane would contribute to a sharper system.  Well, in some reeds that may be the case, but it depends on the balance of the ‘shell’ and ‘fixed bar’ physics in the reed’s behaviour.

No part of bassoon intonation is more indicative of these contrasting behaviours  than the tuning in the tenor range. In some ways, adjusting third octave tuning is the Holy Grail of advanced reed making.  Experienced reed makers find their own solutions through trial and error, eschewing explanations to some extent. I have been fascinated how different profiles affected the modal ratios from the bottom range into the complicated tuning within the money register.  I have explained in another article the odd behaviour of the bassoon as it chooses bore resonances based on the third and fourth partials.  If you have ever experimented with making reeds a bit flatter, a bit larger and a bit louder you will have undoubtedly experienced the challenge of slightly flatter tenor register response.  Inexperienced reed makers would not normally choose to remove cane near the tip to solve F4 flatness, but in many cases this can really help.  Not always – there are too many variables – but the pitch outcomes that relate to the fixed bar behaviour are amplified as we move from the fundamental register, to the second octave and then to the rather sharp twelfths in the tenor range and beyond.  I have addressed the idea of ‘modal ratios’ and how players respond as they ascend the steps of the range of the bassoon.

So, where does Skinner fit into this ridiculously nerdy conversation?  As it happens, gouge alterations seem to harness the fixed bar behaviour as we move into the higher bore resonances, especially from Eb4 and up.  Front loading your ruler slows the frequency of oscillation, but it seems to matter what the composition of that front loading is. More cane, yes, but what kind of cane, what part of the gouge?  If you alter the material by gouge alterations you change the stiffness of the cane.  So instead of simply adding or subtracting material in the profile, you can change the fixed bar behaviour.  Stiffening care towards the tip of the blades produce higher oscillating frequencies especially as we move up into the tenor range.  F4 utilizes much of the same length of bore as A2, which resonates at 110hz.  If we make a little leak at the bocal and touch a flick key, the next available bore resonance will be 220 hz.  And if we make a big leak in the wing joint by opening the second finger we achieve a bore resonance around 349hz.  At least, we try to achieve this pitch without overdoing embouchure and air support.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our reeds would operate a little higher when we play Tchaikovsky 4?  I think that Skinner’s interior gouge alterations may help achieve this.  Why?  Because as we gradually dampen the reed in our ascent to the third octave, we rely more on the stiffness of the cane in that narrower band down the middle of the reed, and a gouge alteration that makes that area a bit more resilient and springy will help us keep the pitch up just a bit!

Back to our conversation…

VE: The diving board analogy works for me and seems appropriate. We seem to use longitudinal references when talking about cane, and the density contributes to how much mass a piece of cane might have. I found James Kopp’s study quite enlightening. Cane needs to be somewhat dense, but also needs to recover (resiliency). You need both for successful reed making. There’s also the phenomenon in the plant that you have transverse fibres behaving almost like a fluid when vibrating. It’s a much more sophisticated system than what I have words for. I think Skinner was just scratching the surface of what is going on in a reed.

CM: My own needs as a bassoonist were always focused on how to make my fairly heavy setup stay workable in the tenor range.  I suppose we all go through periodic changes in our embouchure habits. Your thoughts, Vince?

VE:  I have quite thick lips, and although my setup feels quite light to me it might not to someone else trying my reed. It also depends on the bassoon. A freer blowing instrument might need a slightly resistant set-up, maybe even a smaller reed. Certainly the hall has quite a bit to do with it as well. When I first started in Winnipeg, the hall wasn’t in the sad shape it is in now, but I still had to project. A centered and vibrant (not necessarily super buzzy) tone seemed to work well here. I had to work at it at first, but a hard reed wasn’t an option I could handle. Above all, the flexibility to morph your sound in different ways is what I aimed for. I’d say I’m probably middle of the road in terms of embouchure effort, but I’m more into European sound concepts than what some of my contemporaries preferred. I really think the sound you want is important to your musical personality, and isn’t in any way a detriment to getting to the core of the interpretation of a work. In opera I would always be going towards a significantly lighter reed, as I would if I was playing basso continuo…so it pretty much depends on what I’m involved with at the moment.

CM: It’s interesting looking back.  I met Skinner for the first time 51 years ago.  I couldn’t make more than 1 in 20 reeds work, so my goal was essentially to find some repeatable techniques and clear theories which would allow me to survive.  I have to confess that I probably abandoned the Skinner gouge alterations way too soon in my career.  I have a letter from him from the late 70s responding to my drifting away from the various internal modifications and focusing on developing a healthy reed box.  He wrote, “Of course, you’re absolutely correct, gouge alterations will ALWAYS be subordinate to your trimming skills.”  When I consider how hard I worked to balance embouchure effort with achievable tenor range resonance and tuning, I think I would start building some internal tapers once again.  What about you?

VE:  I would say my experience with Mr. Skinner’s approach wasn’t that different, but at least my usable reed percentage was a little bit better, but not that much! Some of the ones that Mr. Skinner made for me in my first session were impossible for me to play, but some others worked quite nicely. Honestly I began dialing down the amount of interior scraping almost immediately. I found out that ‘less is more’, though all improved the ease of playing in the tenor region. The other tactic I took was to experiment with different styles in hopes of learning a bit more about how a normal piece of gouged cane would behave with the varieties of gouge alterations Skinner had in his toolbox. That opened up a whole new world for me with the back to tip expanding cone alterations. I do know some of my bassoon colleagues think I’m nuts, but there it is.

CM: Let’s offer some ideas to young players who are not familiar with the process.  They can certainly start with either Jim McKay’s book or Dick Yoder’s excellent website. Those will recommend the scraping disc techniques.  But I think there are much simpler ways to experiment, simply using sandpaper on the inside of a stick of gouged cane, either shaped or not, but definitely not profiled.  Ideas?

VE:  Yes, I have mentioned to students about reed making that you CAN just use various sized dowels,  some sandpaper and get similar results. It’s a good way to get a taste for what you might get regularly, but perhaps the discs are a bit more precise. I count, measure and test my scraping depth frequently, and I keep to a pretty predictable amount. It’s easier to know where you’re going with a particular type of gouged cane. I’ve found that the quality of gouged cane these days to be pretty consistent, at least from the suppliers that I’m using. When I started out, I don’t think that was the case. In much of this your sense of the material and your experience will over time help inform you on how you’re doing in terms of having a good number of reeds at the ready.

CM:  Totally agree.  Let’s finish this up with a simple recommendation for executing a simple interior gouge taper á la Skinner.

  • Use several grits of sandpaper wrapped over the index finger to remove cane from the interior of the gouge.
  • Wet/Dry or fabric/plastic backed abrasive is superior to paper backed garnet sandpaper as it cuts a bit smoother and leaves less residue embedded in the cane.
  • Cut the sandpaper into strips approximately 1″ X 2′, so you can comfortably hold the material over the tip of your finger.
  • Start with a 120 gauge abrasive for the more aggressive initial sanding, then move to 220 and finally 400 for the final product.
  • It’s always advisable to put several drops of water onto the cane when you are finished, which will raise the fibres a bit when dry and allow for a final smoothing of the material.  I personally prefer a very smooth finish and use a 600 grade abrasive to smooth the entire interior surface.
  • Sanding with a flexible abrasive will tend to remove more material from the sides than the centre, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.  You will end up increasing the eccentricity of the gouge and leave the cane in the wings made of harder material.
  • Perform these experiments on unprofiled cane only.  I prefer to do this work on pre-shaped cane, but you can just as easily do the alteration on straight sticks of cane.
  • The typical thickness of modern gouged bassoon cane ranges from 1.15 to 1.35 mm.  Your goal is remove between .20 and .30 mm in the middle of the stick.
  • Visualize a gradual taper from the tip back towards the collar.  I recommend having the taper start about 3/4 of the distance from your tip to the collar.

 

 

Christopher Millard is the former Principal Bassoon for the National Arts Centre Orchestra.
Vincent Ellin is the former Principal Bassoon for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

They both serve on the Board of the Council of Canadian Bassoonists.

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