10 Important Life Lessons I Learned From Making Oboe Reeds

by | Jan 5, 2014 | Music Education | 0 comments

Forget the box of chocolate, life is like making oboe reeds. This is a heartwarming comparison I write right after graduating college. I hope it brings you some joy and comfort.

1. Life’s Cycles
There are no shortcuts when making an oboe reed. It seems to be human nature to spend our lives looking for an easier road. Making a reed requires a detailed process of cane sorting, splitting, measuring, pre-gouging, gouging, tying, and then finally scraping each chosen piece over several days. A few hours of playing time and reed makers start all over. It’s not how long the reed lasts, but what music you create while it plays.

2. Nothing is worth the stress
My sophomore year of college I was using a leather strop to sharpen my knives. I was so worried I would never make as an oboist that I slowly dug a hole right through the leather from pushing too hard on the strop. Life is stressful enough without creating extra stress. Two years later when I sold my oboes I found that strop and thought, “wow, all that stress for nothing”. And a few years after that when I received a second chance in music and I was able to start playing oboe again, and I thought, “wow, all that sadness for nothing”. Don’t take life too seriously. You’re not supposed to have the whole picture, but you are supposed to trust it anyway.

3. Less is more
Sometimes we don’t realize how close we really are to achieving greatness. When an oboe reed is almost finished it can feel completely unplayable and yet only be a few small scrapes away from something that plays very well. Likewise, when it is that close, a few large scrapes could ruin it. Life is not meant to be complicated. Look for the simple answers. The littlest change can create the biggest shift and those little changes are usually right in front of us.

4. Control, Mistakes and Laughter
You have slaved over your full box of concert-ready reeds and then a freak snowstorm rolls in and they all cease to play. Some are flat, some are unstable, some are hard… you make adjustments and they get worse. Maybe the weather is fine, but your best reed gets a chunk scraped out of it during intermission. Beat the odds. Don’t hold onto the things you can’t control. For every concert I prepare three good reeds, and those are in a box of about 6-12 other potentials that were along for the ride. It usually works out. Life is messy. If nothing in a box of 12 plays well, laugh. Really, it is pretty funny!

5. With the dark comes the light
There are two ways to approach reed making. You can get the reed completely vibrating and out of control and then refine the vibrations just enough to create tone and stability, or you can scrape a hard, un-vibrant reed until it just starts to vibrate. Both will play. One will have reached its fullest potential unleashing all the possible vibrations. Dare to allow something dark to birth the light.

6. Risk
In order for an oboe reed to play the tip has to be so thin that you are only a scrape or two from ruining it. The thickness of an oboe reed tip measures less then a sheet of paper when finished. Without getting a reed thin enough, it will never play well. Risk living life to the edge or you’ll risk falling short of the beauty.

7. Plans change. Be flexible.
Half the time my chosen concert reed changes during the 20-minute commute from my house to the concert hall. I usually end up playing on one of my other 2 back-up options. It’s good to have a plan in life, but it’s easier to be flexible. Don’t insist on playing on the chosen reed just because it was the best one at the beginning of the day. One of the other ones might play better then you expected if you soak it up and give a try.

8. Balance. Choose your battles wisely.
You scrape the heart, blend, and back of the reed to get it more vibrant, but it goes flat and gets unstable. You clip it and the pitch comes up but it gets hard. You refine the tip and loose some vibrancy, but the tone gets better and the stability comes back. Life is a series of choices that affect each moment going forward. It is meant to be hard. Don’t fight the war. Just choose your battles.

9. Don’t get emotionally attached
Maybe it’s a piece of beautiful cane you take extra care with or the perfect reed that plays oh so well. But before you get your fifteen minutes of fame playing on it, moments before the concert you take off a corner, or drop it on the floor and the tip bends. Maybe it starts to leak, or it dies while breaking it in. Whatever the case, this lesson couldn’t be better stated then the directly quote from my former teacher: “don’t get emotionally attached to your reeds”. Perfect moments are fleeting. They aren’t meant to last, and there will always be more.

10. Joy
The number one question I get asked after explaining the difficult process of reed making is, “so why do you play the oboe?” My answer to that is always, “because to me, once I get done making reeds, playing the oboe is pure joy”. My question to you would be, what’s worth it at the end of YOUR “reed making process”?

[Looking for oboe reed making tips? Check out my extensive blog with free resources.]

Archived Comments

January 08, 2014 @11:09 am
How true and how well-observed ! I play the uilleann-pipes among other reed instrument. These have four double reeds plus three single reeds that have to be adjusted so they can play together. Thank you for the philosophy you develop through reed making and adjustment. This should be applied to one’s whole life. You put it ever so simply and yet it’s so deep. Beautiful ! Jean Lhuillery

January 08, 2014 @10:46 am
I love this Khara! Lots to take in here and learn from. Thank you for writing it! 🙂 David G

January 05, 2014 @12:53 pm
Immense WISDOM!!!!! Grateful that life’s biggest challenge, reed making, is also its greatest gift.. you have always been an beautiful wise soul!!! AWESOME piece of writing!! Lynn Wolf


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