Common Oboe Reed Adjustments by Khara Wolf
A analytical guide to oboe reed adjustments and assessing the crow and reed playability.
Asses your crow and how the reed is playing:
- Thread Crow: Mouth on the thread (not the cane)- blow with a lot of air and there should be three octaves of a “C”
- Play the reed in the oboe to check for stability and tone
Things you are looking for:
- Does it sound buzzy? Stuffy? Bright? Ok?
- Does it crow flat? Sharp? Does it play flat? Sharp? High notes flat?
- Are some notes flat and some in tune? Do you have to fight to keep it up to pitch?
- How much air does it take to start making a sound? If it takes more then the slightest start of air, you will have that much more effort just to get the reed vibrating (let alone playing it!)
- How much air does it take once the reed is already playing? Too much? Too little? You need some, but not too little or too much.
If you get stuck… some helpful resources!
- Oboe Reed Making by Professor John Dee (book)
- Oboe Art and Method by Martin Schurring (book)
- High-altitude reed making with Jennifer Stucki in Boulder, CO—Online Course
- 5-Minute Reed Maker with Jennet Ingle—YouTube Videos
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THE OBOE REED ADJUSTMENTS GUIDE
Crows a C, but it is not responsive and is stuffy/bright sounding when played.
- Start by making the whole tip a little lighter (be sure to stay away from the center of the tip!). Once it is responsive (passes the ha ha test), check for the following issues:
- Now it’s flat: Clip it back up to pitch. If it goes back to being unresponsive, lighten up the tip even more and clip if needed.
- In tune, but still stuffy and bright: Once it’s in tune and responsive, you’ll need to make sure all three C’s are crowing. Usually you’ll only have the top two. To get more vibrations going, smooth out the blend area slightly, look for imbalances, and scrape a little out of the back. If it goes flat clip it first, and if it now has a wild crow, refine the sides and corners of the tip.
Crows a C and is responsive, but is too buzzy sounding when played.
- If the crow is mostly high and middle C’s: You need to get more of the lower vibrations going to darken the sound. Scrape a little out of the back and smooth the blend area. This should drop the pitch slightly, do a small clip until it’s back up to a crowing C.
- If the crow is wild: Refine the sides and corners of the tip. Clip if needed to keep the crow at a C.
*This can happen when too much has been taken out of the center of the tip. If the reed is collapsing, there is probably too much out of the heart.
Crows a C, is responsive, but is stuffy/bright.
- You need to get more lower crow vibrations going. If the heart is still thick, scrape the channels lightly, scrape the blend area, and lastly the back. Once you have all three crows going, clip if needed to bring it back to a crowing C. If it has a wild crow, refine the sides and corners of the tip.
*If there is already a lot out of the heart, make sure the tip is thin enough- often stuffy reeds can be confused with non-responsive.
Crows flat, has a wild crow, and is not responsive (hard to play).
This is what most store bought reeds feel like at high altitude, or what a brand new reed will feel like the first few days of scraping.
Also check to see if the opening is too big- new reeds can sometimes handle a little “gentle pressing” on the tip to encourage it to close down.
For scraping: first, clip it up to a crowing C. Then you need to lighten the whole tip (stay away from the center). Do this until it passes the responsive ha ha test. Often store bought reeds have too long of a heart area and too short of a tip. Check the proportions.
Once it passes the responsiveness test and crows a C:
- If it’s stuffy and bright, you need to get more lower vibrations going. If the heart is still thick, scrape the channels lightly, scrape the back, and scrape the blend area. Once you have all three crows going, clip if needed to bring it back to a crowing C. If it has a wild crow, refine the sides and corners of the tip.
- If it now has a wild crow and is buzzy, make sure it’s clipped up to a crowing C, and refine the sides and corners of the tip.
Crows flat, is very responsive, but is buzzy sounding when played.
First clip it up to a crowing C. Often this will solve the issue, but if the crow is still wild, refine the sides and corners of the tip. If it gets stuffy after clipping and is still responsive, lightly dust the blend area and/or the back. If it’s no longer responsive, lighten the whole tip.
Crows sharp, is not responsive, and is stuffy/bright sounding when played.
This is what new reeds sometimes feel like after they’ve dried out. First get it responding by scraping the whole tip (avoid the center). Once it’s responsive you’ll probably need to get some more lower crow vibrations going. Smooth the blend area and channels of the heart, then do a little in the back. Clip if needed. If it gets a wild crow, refine the sides and corners of the tip.
*if there is already too much out of the heart/back, check the proportions. It’s possible the tip is too short and the heart is too long or the whole reed is now too short.
Crows sharp, is responsive, but is just a little stuffy or bright sounding.
Make sure it’s not too closed or doesn’t have too much of an overlap. Try opening it gently (after it’s been soaked), and continue…
Dusting the blend area a little should solve the problem. If needed, a little in the back, and lastly, the channels of the heart. Be careful not to take too much as this reed is already in tune and probably just a little stiff. Once you have all the C’s crowing, clip if needed and lighten the tip if it gets un-responsive.
This is caused when the tip (or another area) is thicker at the end and there is a thinner part before it. It can also be caused by knicks from the knife. Look for imbalances and with a very sharp knife, gently try and smooth over the imbalance.
No matter what I do, it just keeps getting worse.
First, let the reed dry out and take a fresh look at it in about 24 hours. Reeds need time to dry out and adjust. Usually if you come back it will present with a new diagnosis and you can keep working. If it still doesn’t get any better after drying out, check for places where you may have taken too much cane out (like the heart or center of the tip). Also check the proportions and make sure the tip, heart, and back are in proportion to each other and the whole reed isn’t too long or two short.
Still not working? Bring it into your teacher! Or, start over. Remember, it takes a whole laundry basket full of reeds to get some consistency and you are learning something that is very hard to do!
I took off a chunk of the tip.
This happens when your knife isn’t sharp. First, sharpen your knife! If your reed is still long you can afford to clip off the chunk and re-lighten up the tip. If the reed is already at a finished length, you can clip a small amount, but if the missing chunk is causing issues, let this reed go.
My knife keeps getting caught and causing “nicks”.
It’s time to sharpen your knife! This happens when you are starting to press down too hard. Make sure your knife is sharp, and scrape with a very light hand. You should be able to smooth out the nicks.
This usually is caused by a tying issue. Make sure your reed seals as you are tying it by seeing if those sides seal with your mouth. Sometimes reeds leak from poor shaping, poor gouging, or bad staples. If you are already scraping and then it starts to leak, use some Teflon or goldbeaters tape (not my favorite choice because it inhibits vibrations, but it works!). If the leak is too high for tape, toss the reed.
It’s unstable when I play it and the crow is one mono-tone of C (not three separate octaves).
This can be caused by too much out of the heart. It also can be caused by a reed that flares out at the top (which is often from a bent piece of cane). You can do some scraping adjustments, but otherwise it will be a bit of a wild card to play on.
Especially at high altitude, reeds that are too closed often are from cane that is 10.5 or wider. At high altitude, it is important to use 9.5-10 mm diameter cane, which is only available as a handmade reed.
Other issues that can cause this issue: reeds that are starting to wear out, reeds that have too much of an overlap,
This is usually indicative of a new reed that has a nice sized diameter and is a strong piece of cane. Work with the adjustment guide to continue breaking it in slowly. Once it’s soaked, you can also gently press the tip down to encourage it to close down a little.