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Reeds While Practicing

I like traveling, and I love summer for summer music festivals.  But if I’m not careful I can fall into unhelpful habits.

Normally, at home, I have practice sessions, and sessions of reed work.  I do both every day, so I pretty much always have a new reed or two coming up, and I frequently use my morning practice time to break in the new ones.   Then I’ll use something older and more comfortable in rehearsals or concerts, and in a  few days the new ones will move into that category.  I usually don’t play brand new reeds in public, and usually don’t practice on proven ones. 

But now it is summer.  My reed business slows waaayyyy down at this time of year, and I am traveling, and it’s not necessary to spend hours a day sitting at a reed desk.  I would far rather use this lightly scheduled festival to get out in the beautiful Upper Peninsula and hike and explore with Steve.  I don’t need 10 new reeds every day to keep up with demand - in fact, I don’t have an order up right now and don’t plan to do another big sit-down until someone wants something.

The result for me, though, is that I don’t have anything semi-finished to break in, and my old reeds are getting older.  It doesn’t much matter for the opera I’m playing, but I do have some solo work coming up and I want great reeds in my case. I’m doing these odd hybrid practice sessions in which I scrape a single new reed and then play, scrape, play, scrape, and finally grumble, swear, and soak up an old favorite.   This is not good.

When I sit down properly to make reeds, I get into the rhythm of the work and have consistent success.  I scrape, try on the oboe, scrape, and finish each within a few minutes.  Without the obligation to fine-tune each one I can create a case full of promising hopefuls fairly quickly, which I can then finalize the next day either for sale or for myself. 

When I practice on a functioning reed, I can get past the mechanics of producing sound and start really digging into the music.  I use my focused attention to diagnose and fix tiny details and work toward the essence of the piece and find moments that I can communicate to an audience.  

If I try to combine those two activities, though, I get utterly non-productive.  Any missed attack becomes an excuse to scrape more, rather than to work harder at my own playing.  I can’t settle into a useful workflow, and even though I have nothing but time up here I seem to squander it when I pick up the oboe.

Back when we were starting out, before I had my reed business, this was my normal M.O.,  and let me tell you from experience - it is not better.  The work of an oboist really is divided into two parts - carpentry and artistry - and acknowledging that distinction goes a long way toward a better use of time. 


  1. I am so grateful for writing about so many aspects of your musical activities. I knew that wind players make reeds-some of them-, and there is, maybe, and art to it, why else would anyone make her own? My imagination went to other instrument players, like strings for instance, trying to do something similar. If I wanted good strings for my violin I’d have to start with, what? Stalking the appropriate animal, killing it , well you can imagine the rest. Fortunately steel strings do the job. There seems to be a whole cottage industry in reed making.(I googled it).
    Your repeated mentioning of practice reminded me of a little essay I read recently about its value. It seems that some studies rather conclusively have shown that that the difference between excellence and mediocrity among promising and talented music students of an early age is the hours of practice they spend practicing. Examples given were some computer geeks like Gates and Jobs but also the Beatles who have had more than 10,000 hours of “practice” playing in Hamburg twice a day. 7-days a week.
    Hope to hear you play soon in Michiana.

  2. Was it Malcolm Gladwell's essay you read? How much do we love him?

    The reeds are the grim secret that no one tells you about when you start the oboe. You wind up devoting equal time to both skills, and really, I suppose it probably takes around 10000 hours to be expert at the carpentry of oboe playing as well.

    Thanks as always for reading! And you can catch me performing next Tuesday at 7:30 over at St Mary's, if you're interested!




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