The Skinny on Skinner

The Skinny on Skinner

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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How reeds work – A Booster Shot!

How reeds work – A Booster Shot!

Time for a refresher…

The Scream

When it comes to reed-making we are mostly creatures of habit.  We are generally disinterested in thinking about the big ‘WHY’ questions.

This reluctance is easy to explain.  Reed-making is an empirically driven craft; we advance by trial and error. Struggling young bassoonists may want specific instructions from an experienced teacher, wanting clear rules to follow.  With a lesson approaching or an important concert looming…the idea of taking precious time to think about the physics of your reeds?

Uh, no thank you…

Efforts to develop an understanding of the physics underlying the reed making craft tend to get quickly subsumed. I suppose it stems from a skepticism that theoretical knowledge can actually make a difference.  Sticking to the ‘tried and true’ is a reliable strategy – provided your success rates are high enough.

Oddly, in my 50 years as a working bassoonist I rarely remain attached to a ‘tried and true’.  I guess I was always fascinated by the variables: big reeds, small reeds, wide reeds, narrow reeds, easy lips, strong lips.  I think you need to remain open to trying different paths to be true to your evolving voice.  The ultimate goal is to spend less time at your reed desk while following that path.  If you are willing to stay flexible in your thinking, it helps to define some universal principles.

Elsewhere on this website you will find a lengthy exploration of the ‘how and why’ questions. It’s a collection of essays outlining a physics-based understanding of how reeds work.  As a teaser, I thought I might offer here a brief refresher of the most basic question: what does a reed actually do?

 

Roll up your sleeve!

It all begins with a willingness to visualize the working relationship between reed and bassoon and understanding that bassoon reeds aren’t the source of sound but rather the source of energy.  It’s an important distinction.

Bassoon sound emanates from the back and forth ‘sloshing’ of longitudinal pressure waves in the tapered bore of the bassoon.  You can imagine water sloshing back and forth in a tank to help picture this. In that water tank we can see the waves.  Why?  Because water doesn’t compress, so the energy of the wave has to go somewhere.  Ups and downs, waves and troughs.  However, air does compress so the energy gets organized into waves of compression and rarefaction – oscillations between high and low pressure.  Just as the frequency of water sloshing is determined by the size of the tank and the volume of water it holds, so is the frequency of air sloshing determined by the diameter and length of the bore and the volume of air it holds.

 

You create the sloshing waves in a water tank by some form of excitation at one end.  Kicking will work in a bathtub, if you don’t mind complete disorganization. But if you’re looking to set up predictable waveforms, the experiment works better when you have a movable end wall of a tank. You can gradually set up organized ‘standing waves’ by coordinating the excitation rate with certain natural wave frequencies, determined by the volume of water.  The wave patterns that form and sustain in water are transverse waves, and clearly visible.  [Don’t fear the terminology; if you’ve been to the beach you know what a transverse wave looks like.]  The waves that form and sustain in an air column are longitudinal waves, and are invisible.  A human conga line is a good way to imagine what longitudinal waves would look like.

Just like in the water tank, sloshing pressure modes in a wind instrument become organized when the excitation frequencies are linked to the natural wave frequencies. Reeds are the excitation mechanism and the speed of their oscillation is controlled by the natural wave frequencies inside the bore.  The reed blades form an enclosure to the small end of the bore, moving along with the sloshing while at the same time delivering a constant input of energy.

I have often seen a reed described as a tuned oscillator. It’s not! Don’t confuse the peeping pitch of your reed or the more complex rattle of the crow with what transpires once you attach it to your bassoon. Those sounds are just indicators of the size and stiffness of your reed and predictors of how well the reed is likely to serve the bassoon’s resonating frequencies.  They mean different things to different players and reflect the variable shapes, profiles and embouchure preferences that go with them.

 

 

The way I see it, the bassoon plays the reed!

Our lives as bassoonists are focused on the unidirectional sensation of blowing through a reed into a bassoon, so we therefore assume that the sound comes from the reed and gets amplified and transformed by the bassoon.  In fact, it’s a bidirectional process with a controlling feedback mechanism.  The bassoon needs a reed like a violin needs a bow; horse hair does not have an inherent sound by itself and neither does arundo donax.  A bow transforms energy from the bow arm allowing the string to vibrate.  A reed transfers stored lung pressure allowing the air column to vibrate, exciting the natural resonating frequencies in the bassoon according to the air column length you have chosen.

But wait!! Why are we always testing peeps and crows?  Don’t they play a part in the sound?  Well, yes – the reed does ‘kickstart’ each note with some of its own oscillations [these are indicated in its peep/crow].  But it very quickly becomes a responsive servant of the natural frequencies within the air column. The reed’s oscillation frequencies are controlled by the pressure variations experienced between the blades.  Though we can control the loudness of the sound by delivering more blowing energy, we cannot control the primary frequency of the note produced.  At least, only to a relatively small degree.

Of course you can influence both pitch [frequency] and colour [harmonic content] by changing things in the reed. Size and stiffness are the major factors for both pitch and response. The pitch effects are simple: anything that makes the bore effectively shorter will cause sharpness, and anything that makes the bore effectively longer will cause flatness.  And yes, the bassoon will ‘allow’ pitch adjustments up or down – but will do so grudgingly at the cost of tone [harmonic complexity] and flexibility [physical efficiency].

I like to define reeds as pressure-controlled valves that convert steady air pressure from your lungs into very fast pulses of air, but delivered at precise frequencies. This definition can be confusing until you understand how we use the word pressure in the term ‘pressure-controlled’.  It does not refer to your blowing pressure! Rather, it’s the bassoon’s oscillating internal acoustical pressure which is ‘felt’ at the start of the bore within the blades of the reed.  Those oscillations – natural alternation between high and low pressure – are caused by the longitudinal sloshing behaviour of sound waves in the bore. Their frequency is defined by the design of the bassoon, not by your reed.

Understanding all this begins with respecting the instrument’s almost complete control over frequency behaviour.  When you choose to finger a middle octave ‘A’ the air column within your bassoon really wants to vibrate at a frequency of A=220.  It’s true that the bassoon can be persuaded to play a bit sharper or a bit flatter by changing your embouchure or your air pressure.

Let’s dig into this a bit. High A on a bassoon operates at 440 hz, [pressure waves sloshing back and forth 440 per second].  To sustain this natural resonating frequency, the reed must supply energy pulses 440 times a second.  If we finger high Bb, the reed needs to increase the frequency of its energy inputs to 466 times per second.  You can make those internal pressure waves slosh back and forth fairly well from 438 to 445 hz, but asking for anything outside of this range is asking for trouble. If your reed design forces the system to operate at too high a frequency both your tonal richness and your response will suffer.  Playing sharp is not pleasant for your colleagues, but it’s equally unpleasant for the bassoon, which is designed to maximize harmonic complexity within narrow frequency ranges. I’ll explain…

Bassoons manifest a complex array of harmonics at every moment.  You can think of harmonics as overlapping sloshing modes; frequencies that live in the air column in addition to the ‘fundamental’ oscillation.  For example, if you play the lowest A on your bassoon, you will activate a basic fundamental frequency of 110hz.  But the air column will also setup additional sloshing frequencies at 220hz, 330hz, 440hz, 550hz, 660hz, etc.  These overtones are part of that low A, and include the octave higher  A, 12th E natural, the two octave higher A, C#, E, G natural and so on. This is one of nature’s marvels and makes acoustical instruments so rich and varied.  It’s a beautifully organized – though complex – stew of harmonics.

Each note will have variable amounts of those harmonics at any given time. Some notes will have a strong fundamental while others will show stronger second or third harmonics. Every note must include the  participation of these higher components, but with huge variation in the relative strengths of the harmonics from note to note. These inconsistencies are part of the charm and character of the bassoon.

The pitch effects are simple to categorize. A point made above is worth repeating…Anything that makes the bore effectively shorter will cause sharpness and anything that makes the bore effectively longer will cause flatness. You all know this.  But remember there is a limited range to this flexibility, for while the bassoon will ‘allow’ pitch adjustments up or down it is always at the cost of sound and efficiency. It’s important to ask not what you want from a reed but what your bassoon needs!  The bassoon is asking for constant reinforcement of its harmonically complex bore vibrations.  The qualities we are seeking sit on the precipice between what we think we want and what is ideal for the bassoon.

 

I hope that didn’t hurt…

Christopher Millard recently retired as Principal Bassoon for Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra.

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Just One Word…

Just One Word…

Plastics!!

A Review of the Ambipoly Reed

Toronto-based bassoonist Kristin Day offers some initial thoughts about the latest entry into the field of plastic bassoon reeds.

About a year ago in mid-2022, I saw friend and oboe colleague Ron Cohen Mann’s YouTube review of Silverstein Works’ new synthetic ‘Ambipoly’ oboe reed. I was very excited to see a company that had previously focused on the larger (and more lucrative) single-reed market make a double-reed. Since double reeds are a much smaller niche market, many large companies don’t take a chance on us since it’s a riskier venture. After that video, I’ve hoped very much that Silverstein would take a chance and develop a bassoon reed. To my delight, they did.

For years I’ve been hoping for a good reliable synthetic reed for a few reasons.

I love to teach bassoon. My studio’s focus is teaching beginner, high school and amateur bassoonists. Having a reliable and stable reed is paramount for my students. Especially since COVID, I’m still not comfortable adjusting or playing their reeds to see if they work properly. The idea of a synthetic, plastic reed that could be sterilized, adjusted, then shared with less risk of illness is extremely enticing. Another aspect that makes them attractive is the fact they would last much longer than traditional cane reeds and require minimal (if any) soaking in water.

After seeing Ron’s video, I signed up on the Silverstein website asking to be notified if and when they’ll have a bassoon reed. In February 2023, I was pleasantly surprised to see Silverstein send me an email saying their bassoon reed was ready for purchase. The ‘Ambipoly’ bassoon reed is available in two strengths: ‘medium’ (with red wrapping) and ‘medium-hard’ (with blue wrapping). I bought one of each strength.

When I bought them in February 2023, Silverstein was still beta testing (by the time this review is out they have since finished their beta test) and were actively looking for feedback to improve their product. I was pleased that when I had any questions they were quick and cheerful with answering my questions.

Before playing these reeds, I was instructed to soak them for 30 seconds in water, and then do a 15-minute ‘break-in’ so that the reeds would adjust to my style of playing.

First playing impressions: red medium reed

Very responsive, almost too responsive. First finger E and C# below middle C were very flat. Those notes tell me the reed is too weak and needs adjustment. If it was a cane reed my instinct is to clip the reed a little and/or open the first wire to make the tube more round and build in a bit more resistance.

The sound was very buzzy at first but tempered down a bit into the 15-minute breaking-in period. I think with adjustment the sound would calm down and there’s definitely core to the sound and the material feels more like cane than any other synthetic reeds I’ve played in the past.

Other than the flatness issue and the high register being unresponsive (also due to the reed being weak and flat); it has the potential to be a very usable serviceable reed. I would be able to practice scales and technique on it. I believe if I can adjust the tip opening and clip it a little, there’s potential for a very nice-sounding reed.

First playing impressions: blue medium-hard reed

Much nicer than the red. Still responsive, but less buzzy and the E and C# that were flat in the red reed are more in tune. High registers (high B and above) are a bit weak but workable. I could see some minor adjustments to this reed improving it, but I think I could play this reed in a bit more to get to know it.

Red (medium) reed adjustments

I adjusted this reed as I would have a cane reed. Firstly, I trimmed about 1 mm off the tip in two small cuts using my Rieger tip cutter (as it was far too flat); I used a diamond file to smooth out some bumps; used needle nose pliers to open the tip opening at the first wire.
Now the sound is still buzzy, but the reed plays in tune and is still vibrating freely. I’m going to take it to rehearsal tonight and see how it feels in the context of an orchestra.

Blue (medium-hard) adjustments

I trimmed almost 1 mm off the tip and opened the tip opening with pliers at the first wire. Same general adjustments as red, but not as aggressive.  The sound on this reed is quite acceptable! Again, it’s still a little buzzy, but with more core and depth to the sound than the red and certainly any synthetic reed I’ve ever played. Is it better than my best cane reeds? No. Is it better than many mediocre cane reeds? Definitely yes.

I will also take this reed into rehearsal tonight and will take notes.

Notes from orchestra rehearsal

These reeds are very responsive and vibrate very easily. The buzzy sound wasn’t a distraction in tutti passages, but in solos the sound was hollow and they didn’t have the strength for the amount of air I wanted to push through them. However, in the soft dynamics they were very reliable; especially in the low register. I would think this would make a very attractive second bassoon reed.

I’m still getting to know these reeds but I am confident about the following pros and cons:

Pros:

  •  Very responsive and vibrant especially in softer dynamics
  • Are adjustable similar to cane reeds (full disclosure I haven’t scraped using my knife yet)
  • They stay soaked and vibrant for hours
  • Attractive looking (looks very similar to cane reeds)
  • Silverstein says they would last at least 6 months, at this point, I’d agree seeing how they’re aging.

Cons:

  • Buzzy sound, especially in the upper register
  • Needs adjustment in order to have more strength. Both reeds were too flat on my 8000 series Heckel where reeds tend to be sharp.
  • Cost. Each reed was $140 USD (approx $190 CAD), you can buy many cane reeds for that price!

I see lots of potential with these reeds, and if I had to choose one I’d go with the blue “Medium-hard” reed. It had more strength and needed fewer adjustments than the “Medium”. Once I play these reeds some more and in more situations I will pop up again here with more thoughts. If you have any questions or comments, please find me at www.bassoonist.ca, shoot me an email at kday@bassoonist.ca, or find me @bassoonday on most social platforms.

Cheers, and happy bassooning,

Kristin

Kristin Day, M. Mus. is devoted to nurturing bassoonists of all levels. Visit her website for more information.

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Balance – Chapter 21

Balance – Chapter 21

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making by Christopher Millard

Chapter 21 – BALANCE

Magician Art Bassoon Reed

 

 

Our Little Bassoonist is trying to make sense of this language about geometry and radial transitions.  To see how her reeds evolve from tube to tip, she imagines sawing her reeds into numerous cross sections. She finds ever enlarging diameters as well as transitions from strongly convex at the back to flexibly concave towards the front.

 

What truly grabs her attention is the increasing complexity in the curvature of her blades. As the radius expands there is a gradual shift from convex to concave resting states!! This is a feature of all bassoon reed topologies.  Whether big or small, wide or narrow, almost every reed has a region where expanding curvature interacts with ‘profiler induced’ softer cane to produce inward flexing towards the wings.

Whether or not you see obvious concavity at the aperture will largely depend on your reed’s width and profile – and ultimately your embouchure and air preferences.  Our Little Bassoonist likes a reasonably wide shape, so her cross sections start to show a transition from convex to concave around the middle of her blades.  More narrow shapes may not necessarily show concave collapse in the wings in their resting state.  But even in a narrow reed, the wider portions of that reed must still flex inwards as the membranes respond to air flow.  Inward flexing in the wings and sides is an inevitable outcome of the Bernoulli effect, where accelerating air flow reduces pressure on the inside surface of the blades.  This induces closure of the blades, enhanced by the widening, arrowhead shape of the bassoon reed combined with typically softer profiles towards the wings.  .

In Chapter 10 of Brains and Membranes, we shrank LB down into a tiny, time-dilated observer.  She was able to witness the messy and non-linear oscillations of reed membranes. Nothing was very smooth! No sine waves, but instead lots of flapping and asymmetrical contortions.  It’s chaotic.  And yet, most bassoonists are persuaded that symmetrically balanced profiles and trims lead to better reeds.  Is this a paradox?  Do geometrically beautiful membranes – with smooth radial transitions – offer the best mechanism for harnessing the acoustical chaos and delivering better reeds?

This is a contentious subject for reed makers!  Everyone has experienced reeds that appear unbalanced and irregular – yet somehow perform well.  But, notwithstanding the fact that visually irregular reeds are occasionally fine, I remain convinced that highly symmetric reeds significantly improve one’s odds of successful outcomes.

Our Little Bassoonist [who has been forced to participate in these 21 arcane chapters about reed acoustics…] is coming to a comprehensive interpretation of all this: visualizing radial/topological transitions is just a search for functional balance. Many bassoonists associate ‘balance’ purely with dial indicator measurements, leading to matched profile thickness in all four quadrants.  But functional balance is only revealed after the reed is built, when all the growth memories meet the newly imposed tube structures, revealing shape variability as the cane asserts itself in its new form.

Careful measurements with a dial indicator can be useful, but the structural inconsistencies of Arundo donax will more often bring disappointment.

The word ‘balance’ gets thrown around so much it might be wise for reed makers to consider better definitions.  I think the word can describe the organized integration of axial and radial forces within the finished reed.

 

We all learn reed making through trial and error; remove a little cane and see what happens.  If it works, we repeat the same maneuver on a similar reed and hope for a successful outcome.  Younger players correctly follow their teachers’ suggestions, and despite inevitable disasters everyone eventually develops some reliable skills.  But it’s mostly empirical.  I’m not sure that we think through what happens physically to the reed behaviour when we take a knife or file to a particular spot.  For example, will removing cane increase or decrease the potential for flexibility in any given spot?  Will the removal contribute to overall radial symmetry?

All the past chapters of this blog are leading to a more holistic view of the reed valve and its complex Yin/Yang behaviour.  My advice is to always follow this underlying principle: pay attention to structural symmetry.  Well-planned profiles will give your reeds the best opportunity to demonstrate compliance with the non-linear, non-sinusoidal and acoustically asymmetrical internal standing waves.

LB is so often frustrated.  Though she takes particular care with both her profiling and her blank assembly, her finished reeds are often irregular and warped. Great care, good intent, but puzzling asymmetry. Why?  Part of the answer may lie in improving her assembly techniques, paying attention to the distribution of cane as pliers and mandrel interact. Everyone has a slightly different solution to getting the best possible blank. But there remains an overlooked practice that I’ve seen time and again – it’s over-reliance on profiling machines to do most of the work.

Asymmetrical outcomes typically result from overly profiled cane. 

Throughout this blog I’ve avoided giving specific advice on techniques and designs.  But I’m going to bend that rule a bit and suggest a protocol that I think will improve outcomes for many players.

I think most young players expect profiles to deliver 95% of their expected final trims.  Of course, why not? It’s logical to use machines to do the work!

The most obvious weakness of that strategy is when a piece of cane is too weak for a given profile.  You all know what it’s like to have 10 pieces of GSP and discover half of them wind up to thin and soft.  But I’m addressing a more fundamental problem: profiles are so often not thick enough to maintain smooth radial transitions.  When profiles are too thin, the brutal process of folding, applying wires and molding cane to mandrel easily lead to structural irregularities.  These include precipitous radial collapse in the back sides, sudden transitions at the border between convexity and concavity in the wings, or simple warping in the front of the blades where the profile is thin.  These all create unintended internal radial memories, where the four quadrant behaviours are too irregular for most efficient interaction with the acoustical turmoil going on inside. And the outcome of these unintended geometry changes? Compromises in resistance, control, pitch and tone color.

Popsicle Bassoon Reeds Keys

I want to suggest a strategy which I have employed for decades in my own reed making. Plan for two different profiles.

  • The initial profile should be about 20% thicker than anything you might have used before!  It’s a strategy that allows the blank to survive the rigorous forming process with better radial integrity. 
  • The second will be a ‘maturation’ profile that you impose immediately on the finished blank before it has time to dry and set up new memory.

 

 

 

LITTLE BASSOONIST ASKS: “I’M AFRAID TO TOUCH MY PROFILER. HOW DO I GO ABOUT THICKENING MY INITIAL PROFILES WITHOUT THE NIGHTMARE OF ADDING SHIMS, fooling with ADJUSTING KNOBS,  OR FIDDLING WITH A BLADE THAT TOOK WEEKS TO GET RIGHT????”

Changing the initial profile is not rocket science.  All profiling machines use a roller bearing on a carriage guide.  Simply add strips of thick adhesive tape the full length of the guide to raise the cutting assembly and thicken the profile.  You can use masking tape – start with 3 or 4 layers, or duct tape – 1 or 2 layers.  A longer lasting solution is glue a strip of thick teflon using contact cement or a thick cyanoacrylate glue.

Of course, a better solution is to dive in and adjust the cutting depth of your machine. If you are sharing a profiler in a school environment, make sure to take clear notes of what adjustments you have made and then return the machine to its initial configuration.

The very best, absolutely most valuable solution of all?  Hand profiling!!  That deserves a full chapter by itself…

But what on earth is a ‘maturation’ profile?

This is the most important application of the ideas presented in this chapter.
It’s all about setting up your blanks to undergo the drying and aging process in a way that establishes ideal radial structure in the wings. Just like the laminated furniture, you want to take advantage of the new radial resilience that is imprinted in Arundo donax during the blank formation process.

There are two distinct approaches.

– If your reed making practices involve building a blank and letting it dry/age before cutting the tip, you should expect that the ‘topology’ that you see in the wings will be reinforced in the radial memory of the cane. That usually means that there will be a kind of neutral aperture in the wings when you finally cut the tip – neither strongly convex nor strongly concave.  You will be accustomed to dealing with this aperture shape and it may or may not be serving your ideal tonal and embouchure needs. The downside to this approach is that a strong irregularity in one quadrant will still assert itself, and you will have to correct this when trimming.

– If your practices involve building a blank and immediately cutting the tip you will be able to make an instant assessment – both visually and with physical flexing – of both the symmetry and the concavity of your wings. Any imbalance that you leave at this point will be imprinted to some extent and you will have to correct this in the trim.  However, if you make immediate corrections before placing the blank on the drying board, you will create an immediate imprint for symmetry during the initial rest – whether it’s a day or a month.  Ultimately, this second approach is likely to give your reeds the desired shape with less cane removed from start to finish.

Great bassoon reeds are most likely to emerge when we respect the irregularities of organic material. Adjustments to your reed making that increase mass and density in the early stages will bear fruit in the long run.  Less wasted time at the reed desk?

Certainly more time for donuts and coffee..

Here is a link to a presentation given on Symmetry in reed construction.  You may find this helpful in terms of implementing the concepts above!

https://www.youtube.com/@councilofcanadianbassoonis1487

Text by Christopher Millard

Drawings by Nadina

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 Doodles & Design by Nadina

Donuts – Chapter 20

Donuts – Chapter 20

Brains and Membranes

Bassoon Reed Making by Christopher Millard

Chapter 20 – DONUTS  

 

 

 

Visualizing form and function is a critical skill in achieving better reeds.  If you can imagine a clay coffee mug emerging from a donut, you might also see how the reed aperture morphs from the reed tube.   In this chapter, I’ll explore the transformation of reed geometry from the butt end to the tip aperture and discuss how that evolving radial structure influences the behaviour of the reed.

Imagine a coffee mug made of modelling clay.  You probably saw a demonstration of this idea in high school, where donuts and coffee mugs were used as an introduction to topology, a field which considers how an object’s shape can be substantially deformed without losing its core properties.  In this case, just one hole!

Okay..this model is not quite right, is it?  In actual reed making tube cane must first be cut and folded, which alters its identity as a ‘one hole’ object.  Though we start with a single stick, the reed emerges from two flexible planes, which we shape, contort, and bind together.  Only after building your blank can we go back to visualizing the reed as a long, extruded, and deformed donut!

 

Let’s do a quick overview of an actual bassoon reed.  We start with a tube of cane – diameter @ 25mm – split it into quarters, gouge out the soft pulp on the inside, then using a shaper we remove enough from each of the pieces to create our typical arrowhead flare.  This modified ‘stick’ is just a slightly rounded quadrangle, with a curve matching the original growth radius of the cane.  It’s a memory of life in the field!  As we gradually deform the material to follow this imposed shape, we must both reduce and expand that initial growth radius.

Consider the transformation of that piece of cane.  Molding the butt end to a conical mandrel and binding it with wires and string produces a tube with about a 5mm interior diameter.  Now, follow what happens with the ever-widening shape. There’s a gradual expansion of the curvature all the way to the tip aperture, where a cross-section suggests the radius of a much larger tube.  You’ve significantly reduced the original growth radius in the tube and greatly expanded it in the aperture.  Somewhere towards the mid-point of your finished reed, you’re likely to find a curvature matching the original growth radius of the cane.  That’s a happy place for the cane, a kind of neutral position where the material is experiencing the least altered radius and the least internal stress.

bassoon cane arundo donax

Our forming techniques are necessarily aggressive, securing both a fitting for the reed on the bocal and a comfortably open radius for the embouchure at the other. All the shrinkage and expansion of the radius from bocal to tip places demands on the innate elasticity and resilience of arundo donax.  The reduced diameter sections will try to spring open, requiring brass wire to harness the outward radial force.  At the other end, the much-expanded radius at the reed tip will be inclined to close, requiring longitudinal strength to counteract the inward collapse.

Despite the forces we impose on the curvature of the cane, there will always be some residual memory of its original growth radius!  It’s important to understand that our profiling and construction techniques encourage additional ‘imposed’ memories. We need to manage and balance these conflicting opening and closing tendencies.  . 

Chair Laminated Steam Bent

To understand the concept of an ‘imposed’ memory in wood, let’s imagine a curved laminate chair.  Curved wood furniture is made by subjecting wood laminates to heat and moisture, producing permanent changes in the form and the resilience of the material.  A piece of plywood can be transformed into an elegant piece of furniture which behaves as if it the wood had naturally grown this way.

Let’s explore what happens when we shrink or expand the natural curvature of cane.  Earlier in this blog series I mentioned the term ‘elastic modulus’ – which is a material’s elastic resistance to deformation under stress. Cane demonstrates elastic modulus in both radial and axial [longitudinal] dimensions. That’s just a complicated way of saying that cane is flexible in three dimensions.  Shrinking the radius of the tube is like tightening a violin string, creating more internal tension and more resistance to vibration, and a tendency to vibrate at a higher pitch. You might expect that expanding the radius thru the blades to the tip would be akin to loosening a string, producing less tension and slower vibrations.  But this is not actually the outcome, because a deformation to a larger radius is still flexing and stressing the cane, and it still wants to return to its original radius.  Think of it this way: if you constrict a 25mm diameter tube into a 10mm diameter tube it will want to open and if you force that same tube into a 100mm diameter it will want to close.  Now, both actions stiffen the cane, but the radial enlargement out towards the tip occurs in softer material due to the profiling.  More on this in a moment.

Chain saw art

Arundo donax wants to retain the resilience of its original growth radius, but subjecting cane to the heat and conformational stress of blank building ‘overwrites’ much of that radial memory.  The response of cane to mandrels, pliers, heat, and moisture becomes a permanent part of the reed’s identity after it dries.

We need a way to make Arundo donax pliable enough to establish and maintain this new curvature memory. Our principal tool is the profile.  Without the removal of the bark, and the parenchymal material beneath it, we wouldn’t achieve all the necessary contours; nor could we take acoustical advantage of the more flexible material in the softer parts of the cane. This allows reed membranes [blades!] to respond to the complex pressure oscillations within the bore. Profiling reed blades gradually attenuates the innate radial memory of the cane, gradually weakening the elastic modulus along the longitudinal axis of those blades.

Subjecting profiled cane to heat, moisture and stress allows new curvatures to dominate the original radial memory.

In Chapter 18 of Brains and Membranes, I described balancing ‘shell’ and ‘fixed bar’ behaviour.  I’ll jar your memory: shell physics are strongly correlated to radial elasticity, fixed bar physics with axial [longitudinal] structure. These are the Yin and Yang of reed mechanics – not distinct or separate behaviors, but rather aspects of an integrated view.  Membranes, trampolines, diving boards, etc…  It’s where elasticity meets structure and delivers acoustically efficient response.

This rather esoteric discussion of the topological structure of reeds boils down to visualizing how the changes in radius might impact the stiffness of cane at any axial point in the blade membranes.  We often get unexpected and unwanted irregularities in the radial transitions from collar to tip.  I think intonation, response, and sound quality depend on successfully managing the transformations from small to larger radius.

 

  • Radial compliance is bound to the shell behaviour of the membranes
  • Axial strength reflects the functioning of the fixed bar and the longitudinal strength of the reed

Axial structure is just a fancy way of describing longitudinal stiffness… Diving boards, twanging metal rulers, etc… Some profile elements exaggerate longitudinal strength – spines and rails are the obvious examples.  But axial integrity relies on more than profile design; our dimensions and our methods of tube construction are critical.  Mandrels, shapers, wires, bevels, wrapping and glues all influence the longitudinal resilience of your reed and modify the contribution of fixed bar longitudinal behavior. 

 

Reed making fresh air

In Part 2, our Little Bassoonist will try to make practical sense of this…

Illustrations by Nadina

Text by Christopher Millard

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