A Guide to High Altitude Oboe Reeds
As you get above 5,000 feet, and often into a dry climate, the reeds will vibrate less. The result will be a reed that might be stuffy, sharp, too closed (small tip opening), or issues with leaking sides. The major of reeds I’ve made for my students, and myself, have been scraped at high altitude over the past 20 years, which have led me to the following suggestions of how one might start to combat the effects.
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How does altitude affect an oboe reed?
The main variable that affects an oboe reed as you go up or down in elevation is how much the cane vibrates.
It has been my personal experience that you’ll start to feel a difference in your for every 2,000 feet of elevation. The majority of major cities in the United States and Europe are fairly low in elevation, however if you find yourself needing to travel, live and/or play at an elevation of about 5,000 feet or higher, I hope you find the following article helpful.
Variables You Can Change
- Cane Diameter Size (9.5-10, 10-10.5, and 10.5-11)
- Cane Density (sometimes described as soft, medium-soft, medium, medium-hard, and hard)
- Gouge Thickness (most common is 60 micrometers in the center)
- Shape (narrow shape verses wide shape)
- Tie Length
The most common cane diameter size is 10-10.5. If you are finding your reeds are too closed at high elevation, or the tip opening is too small, I recommend tying some reeds on one size smaller tube cane then you usually use. If you usually prefer 10.5, go down a size to 10. If you prefer a larger tip opening, use 9.5. There are other elements that affect the opening (discussed below), but changing cane diameter is the easiest variable to control.
I personally find that anything between 9.5-10 mm works, however 10 mm size cane offers a more manageable tip opening and doesn’t require as much scraping or break-in time for those getting used to the high altitude elements. 9.5 mm cane, once scraped down and broken in, will not close down as early in the life span of the reed, and offer a much longer life expectancy in terms of a healthy opening.
*May 31, 2016 – After posting this article I had the pleasure of talking to a few oboists who shared their high altitude reed making experience. One oboist I spoke with uses a mix of 10-11 mm cane and selects “a portion of wider cane where the curve is more pronounced and thus get an effectively smaller diameter”. This especially works if the cane is more oval with a “V” shape on one side. Since buying smaller diameter cane can be costly, I thought this was wisdom worth sharing.
Because reeds vibrate less at high altitude, you will find you need to scrape more cane to get the reed to vibrate (I talk about where to scrape next). The excess scraping may cause the cane to react differently then you are used to. If you are finding your reeds are collapsing or becoming too weak, thin, or unstable, I would suggest going up a density level in your cane choice. If you normally prefer Medium, try some cane that would be classified as Medium-Hard. Medium-Hard cane is my personal preference at high altitude. I find slightly softer cane, about Medium density, to be great at a lower elevation and humid climates, but a little too closed and “thin” sounding in Colorado. Although Hard density cane could work, I have on occasion found some pieces to be too hard, just as plenty of pieces are too soft.
The general proportions and back-lit silhouette will remain in a similar state, but the main difference of an oboe reed made at low altitude verses one made at high altitude is the amount of cane that needs to be scraped, and where it is scraped.
In general, extra cane will need to be scraped out of the heart and the blend area between the tip and heart. This may feel counter-intuitive as it would normally cause the reed to become extremely flat and unstable at low elevation, however, at high altitude it is necessary in order to bring a full spectrum of vibrations. This is where you will start to notice if your cane diameter and cane density are up to the task!
You may also find that because a smoother surface encourages more vibrations, your high altitude reeds might vibrate better with softer transitions.
A note about working with dense, 9.5 cane
It can be a little bit of an adjustment learning to work with dense 9.5mm cane. Although this size and density will far outlast the 10 mm and/or lighter cane in the long run, it can take a few extra scraping sessions to get these reeds to a playable state.
There are two variables to consider. The first is that the opening may be significantly larger in the beginning which means it may not lay flat against your plaque. You can scrape it down in short sessions with a very sharp knife, giving the reed time to close down a little, or use a contoured plaque. I personally use a flat rounded steel plaque from start to finish, but usually keep the first couple of scraping sessions short with these types of reeds to prevent uneven scraping.
With that in mind, the second suggestion for working with this type of reed it to allow a several extra scraping and playing sessions. I find reeds with smaller openings and/or lighter cane can be scraped down quickly, but these extremely dense pieces can take a bit longer. It is also very important to mention that if a reed doesn’t start to come around in a couple of scraping sessions (not finished, but showing signs of a playable reed), the piece of cane may be too dense.
If you choose to use tube cane with a higher density, or even with your normal cane of choice, you may want to consider a thinner gouge. I find gouging around 57-59 mm in the center helps tremendously when looking for a more flexible, vibrant reed. Because we need to take more cane out, a thinner gouge allows the reed to start vibrating sooner and much more freely (especially with thicker cane). 60 mm in the center is one recommended standard for American-scrape reeds, but I find that reeds in my personal set up that are gouged over 59 never feel flexible and responsive, no matter how much I scrape out of them.
Wider shapes can lower the pitch, and scraping more cane at elevation will also drop the pitch, therefore using a wider shape to achieve a larger opening may cause the reed to feel uncontrollably flat. I use the Mack-Piffer shape, which is a medium-narrow shape, and find my tips have a nice medium opening when used with my set up of 9.5-10 mm and medium-hard tube cane.
Tying your reeds slightly shorter may help the reed seal and create a “wider shape”, therefore making a slightly larger opening. However, like the shaper tip, this is a difficult variable to control. I tie my reeds at 73mm on a 47mm staple.
I feel this is an important topic to cover. I don’t actually soak my reeds more in the dry climate then I do at sea level, however, they do dry out quickly and completely here between each playing session. I find they need to be soaked each time from a completely dry state, which means each time I use the reed (even if it’s only been a few hours), I am soaking them fully for the recommended 1-2 minutes.
They also may need to be encouraged to vibrate again with some light scraping each time they dry out, as the reeds will often become less vibrant and sharp due to the loss of saturation over the course of even a few hours.
Soaking them excessively (more then you usually do) won’t necessarily bring the vibrations back. For students, it is important to make sure you don’t over-soak your reeds, even in a dry climate the cane fibers are prone to becoming oversaturated.
I do keep a water cup on my stand when I play, but unless my reed is starting to get old, I don’t find I need to soak it much during a rehearsal or performance with the suggested cane density and diameter. However, it is important to note that a reed with a tendency to leak (although not ideal) will need to stay fully saturated and soaked as you are playing.
Final Notes: Leaking Sides
The most difficult issue to diagnose is leaking sides. Unfortunately, there isn’t a black and white variable you can adjust for this. My suggestion would be to tie your reeds at low elevation (high humidity), with the best possible seal you can get. Make sure your reeds seal in a completely dry state. In very dry climates reeds will actually dry out a little even as you are playing them. If they seal 100% in a dry state, they will have a much higher success rate of sealing at high elevation.
I have left the comments on this post. Please feel free to submit questions or comments about what has worked for you at high elevation.