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When Does a Student Need a Stronger Reed?

Hi Jennet,

I’m trying to understand if my 11-year-old daughter should be able to use harder reeds at this point, or if different people require softer reeds because of their size or anatomy. I’m writing to you because I am trying to get another teacher’s perspective (to draw on a wider range of student experience).

At this point, should she have progressed to where she could use harder reeds — say maybe medium — or is this because her facial structure is a limiting factor, and she just needs to grow physically larger?

Thanks for getting in touch!  As always, I love to talk about the oboe, and about teaching.  This is a complicated question, though, and I would welcome input from other teachers in the comments as well.  

Everyone likes something different in terms of reeds - and every reed-maker assesses their mediums, medium softs, etc, differently, so NOTHING is standardized in this endeavor.  That's my first caveat.  Even among professional players - grownups - there is a lot of variance in how much resistance, flexibility, and response we are comfortable with.  As oboists and reedmakers we evolve with our reeds - so there's no firm rule about moving up in reed strength.  

There are two main factors at play in reed strength - resistance and stability. The easier the resistance becomes, the less stable the reed is, generally, so the the oboist has to control more inside her mouth. I try to move my students onto slightly more resistant, more stable reeds as soon as possible so they don't develop weird mouth habits from having to over-control a reed that is too easy.

What I find with young students is that at first they do not know how to blow.  All of the air seems to come from their face and neck, and they want a reed that they can play with little pressure and one that they can easily manipulate with their lips to produce the sound or the pitch they want.

It can take quite a while to organize their playing so that the air and tone production come from lower down, in the lower abs or diaphragm or the bottom of the lungs, or whatever terminology the teacher wants to use. (I use all of these terms and more when I teach - anything to get the point across.  I also make clear that I don't really understand the body, just the oboe...)  Everyone comes to this place at different times.  Physical size is probably a contributing factor, but maybe it's more about the body awareness to explore this source of tone production, and the emotional willingness to go there?

I find that once the student grasps the concept of SUPPORTING the air, she will quickly find that she prefers more resistance to blow against in the reed.  When I talk about this I speak of OPENING the sound, ENGAGING the ab muscles,  INHALING deeply and using that good, huge, warm air to play instead of just the air from the head.  

And then we talk about finding a compromise reed - not as strong as I would use but something that will accept and encourage that kind of good quality air- and usually the student is at that point willing to go along with me.  

The other factor, of course, is that a very soft reed is usually pretty unstable, so the student has been doing a lot of manipulating and is used to using her mouth and lips constantly, especially if her ear is good. When the reed gets harder, it SHOULD become more stable, which will enable her to let go of the tension she's been using there - but releasing tension can be difficult and scary too.  

It can feel uncomfortable to make that equipment change prematurely. The two physical changes - blowing more and controlling less - are aided by the stronger reed but it's hard to move to that reed until the student is ready to blow more and control less. 

All this to say that there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question.  No immediate hurry to move up unless the teacher is eager to have her move up, but the next step probably is blowing more strongly into a stronger reed. Harder reeds require better air, is the thing to keep in mind.

I hope this is helpful.  Thanks for getting in touch - feel free to keep asking questions!

Best,

Jennet


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