Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making

Chapter 4 – The Physicist’s Viewpoint

by Christopher Millard

 

Take a deep breath now.  There are no equations here but some of the language will be challenging.  I promise to translate these ideas in later chapters.

If you ask a physicist to describe the basic mechanism of sound production on a bassoon, you might get the following:

  1.  The reed sits in your mouth in its resting state of equilibrium. As you consider the note you are about to play, you anticipate the aperture control this note will require, and make a small adjustment to its inertial size and dampening.
  1.  When you increase pressure in your mouth and release the tongue – air starts flowing through the partly open reed.
  1. The accelerating movement of air through the reed causes the pressure on the interior surface of the reed to drop, drawing the blades together, reducing and eventually stopping the airflow momentarily. After the air flow stops, the natural resiliency of the cane causes the reed to spring open. Its resulting “outward” momentum causes it to overshoot its equilibrium state – thereby opening more widely than at its resting position. In all, this motion gets the reed oscillating at all its natural frequencies – including many that are not associated with the frequency of the note you are trying to play.
  1.  At the same time, the abrupt beginning of airflow causes a pulse of air to travel down bore of the bassoon. When it reaches the first open hole (the Grand Canyon in in my Chapter 3 metaphor) it encounters a change of impedance, which induces a partial reflection of the pulse back up the bassoon towards the reed end.Unless you have studied physics or electric currents, impedance is a prickly concept.  You can think of acoustical impedance as the ratio of sound pressure in air to the velocity of the air particles.  Measuring the acoustic impedances of a bassoon bore is a way of determining the natural resonating frequencies for a bore.  But, we’re going to kick the word ‘impedance’ out of the conversation, and accept the fact that when a pressure pulse travelling down the bassoon bore meets some open tone holes, it doesn’t just drain out into the room, but reverses direction and heads back home.
  1. Before this returning pulse reaches the bocal tip, the reed is vibrating at multiple frequencies. The initial blowing impulse got it vibrating with a very broad collection of frequencies (not at all-equal amplitudes, however).When the reflected compression pulse reaches this vibrating reed, the pulse’s higher air pressure tries to open the reed.  This inhibits the reed from vibrating at many of its natural frequencies—in particular, those frequencies for which the reed is trying to close when the pulse arrives).  In contrast, the reflected pulse reinforces the reed motion for many other frequencies—those for which the reed is trying to opening when the pulse arrives.
  1. In this manner, this first reflected pulse constrains the reed’s vibrations and encourages them to be consistent with the natural frequency and harmonics of the bassoon tube. Bassoon makers have expended huge efforts over the last 150 years to make these natural frequencies pleasantly related and in tune with each other. These natural frequencies are immensely complicated functions of:
  • the tube length to the first open hole,
  • lengths to closed holes below that first open one
  • all the details of the bore diameter, including cross-sectional-area “bumps” in the bore caused by closed holes,
  • the volume of the bore,
  • the tendency of the bore towards being either cylindrical or conical
  1. As more and more pulses travel up/down the bore, they even out and set up a standing wave in the bore for each fundamental and its participating harmonics. This equilibrium is reached quite quickly, because the pulse velocity in the bore is essentially very fast (about 1 foot per millisecond). Remember my description of the ‘peeping pitch’ – the simplest tone you can get on a bassoon reed?  Well, when you take a finished bassoon reed and peep on it lightly enough that no ‘crow’ starts, you are not hearing the reed’s natural frequencies. Instead, you are hearing the standing wave set up inside the reed tube and caused by impedance-discontinuity reflection at the lower, open end of the reed tube. The reeds natural frequencies are much higher and are very “broadband” because of the graininess of arundo donax.

So, that’s the physicist’s viewpoint.  Let’s get back to the bassoonist’s viewpoint.

Viennese bassoon with beer

If you’re fingering a middle C [262 Hz], no matter what you do with your blowing pressure and embouchure, you’re not going to produce a D.  [The most you can do is play the C flatter or sharper – unless you build a reed that’s four inches long or the size of a toothpick.)

It stands to reason that something about the behaviour of the reed is determined by how many keys you have open or closed.   But if the reed is an independent sound generator (remember Skinner’s tuned oscillator?), how can it be so restricted by the choice of fingering and the length of the air column?  If you finger C, the reed vibrates at 261 Hz? Why not 277 Hz?  Why not 246 Hz?

The obvious answer is contained in paragraphs 5 – 7 above. The bassoon itself is exercising massive control over the behaviour of the reed.  The delivery of acoustical energy may start as a one-way street – blowing into the reed, but sustained tone at the correct pitches turns out to be a two-way street.  You can even go so far as to describe it as a master/servant relationship.  And the reed is the servant!

And perhaps the best way to describe it is this – a reed is a pressure-controlled valve.  It’s not your blowing pressure that controls; rather it’s the acoustical pressure variations within the bore – the constant alternation between compression and rarefaction – that govern the reeds behaviour.

The bassoon itself is the real source of the sound; the reed just supplies the ongoing energy.   

This is likely to be a shift in how you imagine and visualize your reeds.

The preceding ideas are going to need reinforcement, so I’m going to go back and explain them using different language.

Tune in next Friday for Chapter 5!

If you want to learn more about Christopher Millard

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 2 Can you explain how a bassoon reed works? and Chapter 3 Surf’s Up!

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Chapter 2 Can you explain how a bassoon reed works? and Chapter 3 Surf’s Up!

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making

Chapters 2 & 3

by Christopher Millard

Chapter 2 

Can you explain how a bassoon reed works?” 

 This is the first question I ask of a student reed maker. It’s an incredibly difficult question, as it implies some knowledge of acoustical physics.  Have you noticed how few music schools offer acoustical physics as required courses? The answer to this question reveals a whole lot about the student’s ability to visualize and verbalize.

The first response is always a look of consternation. After a few moments of helpless uncertainty  the tentative answer might include:

  • “It produces the sound, right?”
  • “It vibrates, but I’m not completely sure what that means.”
  • “Well, it makes a crow, so I guess the bassoon transforms that crow to produce the different frequencies and the quality of sound.”

From the very first day we hold a bassoon in our hands, we experience the reed as the primary connection between body and bassoon. We feel its vibration with our lips – it’s a very personal and interactive relationship.  We can even taste it!

As we try to master the basics of the instrument, we are painfully aware that reeds seem to determine response, intonation, articulation and sound quality – as well as our emotional state! We develop a largely subjective vocabulary about reeds:  resistant, unresponsive, hard, bright, dark, buzzy, muffled, tubby, flat, harsh, sharp or simply bad. Considering how much time we devote to reed making, it’s alarming how little we understand. Most remarkably, we can become quite expert at producing good reeds and still not understand them.

It’s logical to conclude that because the reed sits at the tip of the bocal [and is the source of so much grief] it must be the actual source of the sound itself. Bassoonists tend to think of their reeds as independent sound generators that are adjustable in all sorts of subtle ways to deliver either a beautiful or a horrible tone, good or bad intonation and flexible or inflexible response. We nurture a unidirectional view – where sound comes out of the reed into the bassoon – a one way flow of energy. The reed makes noise and the bassoon transforms this into tone and pitches.

Unfortunately, it’s not an accurate description. To find a better model, let’s consider sound production in other instruments.

The sound of a violin comes from the vibration of the string amplified and modified by the body.  Vibration occurs when the string is displaced from its resting position.  The energy of this motion is transferred to the violin body, which enriches the complex modes of the string’s vibration and excites the air molecules both inside and outside the violin.  This excitation occurs at specific frequencies, made sonorous by complex overtones.  The top and the bottom of the violin are actively vibrating, as is the air enclosed within the body.  These vibrations cause compression waves to move outward into the room and eventually engage our eardrums. 

Nature gives a stretched violin string a natural tendency to move back and forth at frequencies dependent on tensile strength, elasticity and length.  The most basic motion of a string is a simple displacement from end to end.  Strings also exhibit more complicated modes of displacement; while the string moves back and forth in its whole length, it also experiences motions in smaller segments.  These modes always act in a very predictable way, with the string dividing into halves, thirds, quarters, etc.  Each of these vibrations happens at different frequencies, all of which are related in a simple mathematical ratio.  We call the extra vibrational modes that reach our ears – harmonics.   It’s an extraordinary fact of nature that the string vibrates in multiple modes of displacement simultaneously.  We’ll come back to this subject in future chapters.  For now, just remember that musical instruments produce very complex vibrations. 

 The simple way to get a violin string to vibrate is to pluck it.  Pizzicato is a great musical tool, but because it involves a single act of energy input (one finger plucking), it can’t produce a sustained tone.  Guitars, with their very large bodies, extend the duration of their plucking significantly, but violinists need a better way of sustaining the sound.  By dragging stretched horsehairs across the string, the movement of the bow continually excites the natural frequencies of the string and we achieve a sustained tone.  It’s like thousands of pizzicato per second.

Violinists will pay a great deal of money for a good bow – and are meticulous about the condition and tension of the bow hairs – but I don’t imagine they ever think of the wood of the bow or even the horsehair itself as containing sound.  Rather, they understand a violin achieves a singing sound through the interaction of bow hair and string.  Notwithstanding the fact that well designed bows offer significant performance improvements, when a violinist says that “this bow sounds better”, she means “this bow produces a better sound” meaning “this bow gives me a more responsive interaction with the violin.”  Violinists implicitly understand that the basic tonal character comes from the violin; the bow is the means of supplying energy to those very expensive boxes.

Here is the big picture: the food that the violinist eats for breakfast is converted to stored potential energy in the body; the movement of the bow arm transfers this energy into the mechanical interaction of bow to violin, producing the acoustical energy we call tone.

 

Violin and bassoon

Chapter 3

Surf’s Up!

A bassoon without a reed is like a violin without a bow.

Just as a bow serves as the energy conduit from bow arm to instrument, the reed converts the blowing energy of the bassoonist into the sustained acoustical energy within the bore of the bassoon. Sound in the bassoon is produced by the complex motion of compression waves within the bore of the instrument.

Sound pressure waves on a violin string act transversely; when you pluck a string it vibrates back and forth, while remaining fixed at both ends. We are used to seeing various kinds of transverse waves – at the beach on or two-dimensional diagrams.  When we watch ocean waves moving towards land we know that the water molecules themselves are not travelling very far; it is the travelling energy of the wave that we see moving forward. Water is essentially non-compressible, so the waves must assume peaks and troughs.

Because air is compressible, wind instruments function using longitudinal waves.

This is a bit hard to visualize, so here is a little thought experiment to help you understand.

 

Imagine taking a group of eager bassoonists and lining them up in a row – all facing one direction. Each puts their hands and the shoulders of the person in front, like a Conga line. Now, imagine that someone bumps the person at the back of the line and nudges them forward a bit. This would cause that person push into the guy in front of him, who would then push into the lady ahead of him, and the initial bump energy would transfer from that first bump all the way to the front of the line. This is how compression waves travel in an instrument, each molecule being pushed and itself pushing, until the initial input of energy comes out at the end of the bore.

Imagine a compression wave moving from the tip of the bocal to the end of the instrument. What happens when that energy meets the first open tone holes or the end of the bell? Fortunately, a great deal of the energy is reflected back into the bore. Thank goodness.

Imagine that you are all lined up as before, but this time the guy at the front of the line is standing at the cliff edge of the Grand Canyon. When the girl behind him pushes, he is going to yell really loud and try not to fall. He is going to try and resist the transition that occurs from the contained line of compressed people into the vast open space ahead of him. So, he screams and releases some of his energy. Then he leans back – relieved that he didn’t fall – and starts the whole pushing process in reverse.

This longitudinal back and forth is the way sound waves act in a bassoon.

The guy at the front of the line emits some energy when he screams, but he doesn’t quite make the big jump. In our conga line analogy, the first open tone holes are the cliff. Only a portion of the transferred energy escapes the first open tone holes, the reset start pushing in the opposite direction, all the way back to the reed where the first push started.

If wind instrument bores gave up all their energy to those first available openings, we would not have wind instruments. Let me repeat this in slightly different language: when the compression energy of the longitudinal wave meets the Grand Canyon of the open tone holes, most of that energy reverses direction and heads back to the reed, where the process will begin again. Compression waves are always followed by rarefaction waves, travelling back and forth in the instrument. Because this all occurs at the speed of sound, the alternation of direction happens many times a second.  The frequency of that directional alternation determines what we call pitch.

Violin strings have natural frequencies determined by their diameter, tension and length.  Bassoons have natural frequencies determined by the length, internal diameter and taper of the bore. Violinists control pitch by shortening strings with the fingers of their left hand. As bassoonists, we have control over pitch by modifying the length of the bore according to tone holes and keys we open and close. Longer bores produce longer wavelengths [more people in the conga line] and lower pitches. Shortening the bore produces shorter wavelengths and higher pitches.

This is pretty easy: in a violin, the tension of the four strings and the placement of the fingers determine the pitch In a bassoon, the length of the air column determines the note you play.

This is not so easy: just as a violin string operates with simultaneous modes – harmonics – so too does the bassoon.

We’ll get to that and much more next week!

 

If you want to learn more about Christopher Millard

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Introduction and Chapter 1 – The Craftsman

Brains and Membranes by Christopher Millard – Introduction and Chapter 1 – The Craftsman

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making

by Christopher Millard

Christopher Millard giving a lecture and recital at the Stockholm Royal Palace 2018

Introduction

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.

 

Sol Schoenbach with Marcel Tabuteau

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.

Lou Skinner

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.

Tune in next Friday for Chapter 2, “Can you explain how a bassoon reed works?”

If you want to learn more about Christopher Millard

Épiphanie Chromatique

Épiphanie Chromatique

Épiphanie Chromatique

par Mathieu Lussier

C’est arrivé encore aujourd’hui. Ce n’est vraiment pas la première fois que ça arrive. Certainement pas la dernière. Ça fonctionne à tous les coups.

Pourtant…je ne suis pas croyant, je fonde mes convictions personnelles sur les avancées de la science et ce phénomène, je le reconnais, se rapproche très certainement plus des croyances  Jedi que des travaux d’Einstein….

Je joue du basson depuis 35 ans. Depuis maintenant environ 15 ans (touchons du bois), j’ai l’impression d’avoir trouvé une façon de faire mes anches relativement simple, constante et fiable, me permettant de ne pas constamment vivre dans une paranoïa à l’approche d’un concert ou d’un enregistrement.

C’est donc arrivé aujourd’hui. Après avoir échoué dans le grattage consécutif de deux anches j’ai appliqué le traitement choc : changer la couleur du fil d’anche utilisé!

Après une longue et merveilleuse séquence, mon magnifique fil bleuté a dû céder (temporairement je l’espère) la place à ma bobine de fil blanc.

Ça se manifeste comme une voix intérieure, un fort appel, une conviction. C’était la chose à faire et, encore une fois, cela a fonctionné.

Est-ce que le fil blanc fonctionne toujours ? non, évidemment. Il m’est arrivé le contraire, de passer du blanc au bleu, du rouge au blanc, du rouge au bleu, en passant par le noir, le vert, le rose, le jaune…

Certaines couleurs, magnifiques, ne fonctionnent simplement jamais. Pourquoi? Difficile à dire…Certaines couleurs, comme le rouge, font généralement consensus. D’autres, comme le vert, polarisent…Pourquoi? Impossible à discuter ouvertement sans risquer l’internement.

C’est un phénomène qui me fascine. La seule conviction « paranormale » que j’assume complètement, si on laisse de côté ma fascination pour la famille royale britannique.

J’ai cependant la certitude que je ne suis pas seul à croire aux pouvoirs des différentes couleurs du fil de nos anches. Étant grand fan de la saga Star Wars, tel qu’évoqué plus haut,  je me console en me disant que ce phénomène me rapproche un peu des pouvoirs des disciplines de Yoda.

Si j’ai longuement hésité à formuler cette conviction ouvertement, craignant pour ma réputation, cette dernière aurait certainement souffert à plusieurs reprises tant sont nombreux les souvenirs d’impasses terriblement angoissantes à la veille de concerts importants ou d’enregistrements de disques lors desquelles un changement de couleur de fil a tout changé.

Oscar Wilde a dit : « Les folies sont les seules choses qu’on ne regrette jamais ». C’est donc sans regret et sans honte que j’assume ce brin de folie en espérant que cette conviction, mais surtout ce pouvoir magique, ne s’estompe jamais d’ici la fin de ma carrière.

fil blanc, white thread, anche de bassoon

 

En savoir plus de Mathieu Lussier

“Reed” more about Mathieu Lussier

Musings from the Reed Museum

Musings from the Reed Museum

Musings from the Reed Museum

By Adam Romey

Mathieu Lussier’s recent and insightful blog post about reeds, “IL EST GRAND LE MYSTÈRE,” describes three main categories of the relationship that bassoonists have with reed making. Roughly translated, the first group knew what they were getting into, the second did not but discovered a fascinating new world, and the third who did not know and were tempted to flee once they realized what they had gotten themselves into but remained committed to the study of the bassoon. I fall somewhere between the first two types in that I thought I knew what I was getting into but generally became more interested the more I learned.

Bassoon Reeds,. famous bassoonists' reeds

The Reed Museum, est. 2008

As a part of this process, I began intentionally collecting the reeds of teachers, friends, and many others not long after I started university which has grown into what I consider to be a sort of small museum. This collection now includes 62 reeds or blanks from 39 unique sources from the United States, Canada, and Europe (mostly Germany and the Netherlands). Most of the contributors are professional bassoonists I studied or interacted with, along with a smattering of students, friends, and commercial makers. There are reeds from orchestral musicians (sometimes from different members of the section of a single orchestra), chamber musicians, freelancers, professors, and soloists. Of the more commonly used American styles, there are representations from the pedagogical philosophies of Norman Herzberg/Benjamin Kamins, Bernard Garfield, and K. David van Hoesen, to name a few, as well as former students of those teachers who went in other directions. Well-known soloists and recording artists Nadina Mackie Jackson and Bram van Sambeek have multiple entries to their name. There are distinct reeds from inspiring past and present bassoonists belonging to groups including  the Baltimore Symphony, the Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the National Symphony (Washington D.C), the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Albany Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Las Vegas Philharmonic, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, in no particular order.

 

Through numerous moves and many affectionate handlings, some reeds are in better condition than others, but all provide opportunities for learning and observation. 

Reeds of five American principal bassoonists

 When I began to study reed-making as a teenager, I was initially very excited about what I viewed as an aspect of taking responsibility for a musician’s identity and individual needs that was unique to the double reed instruments. Upon reflection, it seems natural that an extension of this mindset was my deep curiosity about the reeds made by other people. I firmly believe that being exposed to all shapes and sizes (in this case quite literally) of ideas and approaches provides a wide range of useful information. Exploring the gamut of what different set-ups feel, sound, and look like can awaken the imagination to new possibilities of artistry, comfort, ease, and efficiency; one can also discover that the choices one makes are an appropriate fit for current demands and store the experience for future situations. I will be kind to my younger self and simply say that I was forward at times in my quest to learn, and that at this point in my life I follow different rules of etiquette when around new players.

 

To the less experienced reed-makers, I offer some ideas to consider during their studies from years of observing other people’s reeds and making my own. To the more experienced reed-makers, perhaps these could be of use or create opportunities for discussion and debate!

1. Wonderful artistry through the bassoon comes in many forms, and the basic styles of reeds used in the process are equally as varied. Big reeds, small reeds, and everything in between can be heard in inspiring performances by bassoonists. This could be taken as an invitation to experiment freely, as there are reeds large and small, short and long, and everything in between heard in inspiring performances by bassoonists. However, another takeaway is that reed styles of experienced players all have a truth to them which serves their artistic personality,professional demands, and playing style. To those studying reed-making, it can be an invaluable part of the learning process to understand what this means in the context of the teacher. As you build foundations of tone, phrasing, and fundamentals with your mentor, an approach to reed-making that is integrated with these elements will provide a ‘true North’ for future experimentation and development.

Reeds of Brian Pollard, former principal bassoonist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1954-1996

Reeds of Nadina Mackie Jackson, including an early freehand reed (#49)

2. No two pieces of cane are identical, so no two reeds ever look exactly alike. “This isn’t a great example of what I do” is far and away the most common remark from experienced reed-makers when they have agreed to share an old or dysfunctional reed with me. One lesson from this is that reeds rarely, if ever, look identical to one another, even from the same experienced individual. Although this reed is not part of the museum, one of my favorite memories where this became blindingly clear was at my first professional audition. The player in the warm-up room after me sounded absolutely fabulous. We spoke later and he graciously allowed me to look at his reed, which I expected to follow certain attributes from his current teacher: no cracks, no side-slipping, fairly narrow. Instead, I saw a reed a little wider than I presumed, with a huge crack down the back of one side and a substantial side slip. He told me it was a freak piece of cane that wanted to be a good reed. After he won the audition on this reed, and multiple subsequent auditions over the next few years on the same reed, I threw preconceptions of what a great reed had to look like out the window. It is worth noting that this player is an extremely diligent reed-maker, so this “ugly duckling” was really that extraordinary.

3. Everyone has distinct details in their reed-making that they are attached to that others may disagree with (or perhaps not even notice!). Some reed-makers clip off the corners of their reeds, while others feel strongly about leaving them. Some reed makers want their wires slightly loose so they do not choke the cane, while others prefer tight wires even if there is a little indentation. Some reed-makers side-slip to the right, or to the left, or not at all. Through hours of practice and countless performances involving many different reeds, experienced players have come to conclusions about how their reeds can best support their artistry. Other players may have come to entirely different conclusions! I separate this idea from the point about general styles because often these details are outside of the principles and philosophies that define an approach, which creates a gentler space for experimentation and variation that could possibly exist outside the integrated context. Put another way, details like tightness of the wires (or even the approach to installing and tightening wires, as I have found) that make a significant difference to some but not all players can have a noticeable effect without entirely abandoning a given reed style. Additionally, there are other opportunities for learning when aspects like these are monitored for consistency.

Second bassoon reeds

In summary, reed-making and adjusting is a journey in tandem with many bassoonists’ musical lives. Perhaps this is best illustrated by a fond memory when talking with a seasoned orchestral bassoonist I admired. It was early in my reed-making studies, and I told him that I was just beginning to learn. His response: “So am I.”

Adam Romey

Bassoonist Adam Romey is currently the Education and Community Engagement Coordinator for the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis, Minnesota.