Last week after I sent the newsletter version of last week's post “Medium Soft Reeds Aren’t the Answer”, I got an email from Khara Wolf, an oboist and teacher colleague who lives in Colorado. She reminded me that at higher altitudes, medium soft reeds are actually preferable to medium reeds!
So I wanted to take a moment to talk about my experience playing at high altitude, some considerations for high altitude playing for students, and how Band Directors can set your students up for success before their summer music festival or camp in the mountains.
Reeds at high altitude
We know that reeds are finicky even in the best of times…when you throw elevation (or altitude as I’ll refer to it here) into the mix, funny things happen. As Khara says in a blog post, “The main variable that affects an oboe reed as you go up or down in elevation is how much the cane vibrates.”
From my experience playing a concert at Sacramento, then the next day playing the same concert at a venue in Lake Tahoe, the reed changes are real and can be really uncomfortable. What I noticed was that my reed’s opening started to collapse (and this is without much extra lip pressure than I would normally use). I also noticed that my reeds felt much harder than they had the day before in Sacramento, or at my house! Then when I returned home after the concert, the reeds I adjusted in Tahoe were too soft to be useful at about sea level.
Khara goes on to say:
“It has been my personal experience that you’ll start to feel a difference in your [reeds] for every 2,000 feet of elevation.”
If you’re curious about how reedmakers adapt their reeds to altitude, check out the full post on Khara’s website.
Students at high altitude
Students playing at high altitude will need to use reeds that are at least one resistance level lower than they normally play. It may be wise to plan to use medium soft reeds when playing at high altitude.
Students should also strongly consider buying reeds from reedmakers who live at altitude. These reeds will not go through as drastic a change because they’re already acclimated to the altitude. Khara has a list of high altitude reedmakers in the US.
If students traveling to high altitude to play are able to adjust their own reeds, they should plan to bring their reed tools on their trip with them to make adjustments as needed. On school-organized trips, that may mean they need special permission forms, or for an adult chaperone to be responsible for the tools.
Finally, since altitude can also be an issue for the body, try to give your students plenty of time to acclimate at altitude before your first rehearsal. I’ve never gotten altitude sickness while needing to play oboe, but if preparedness is your thing, you may want to learn more about altitude sickness. (Mayo Clinic)
The TL/DR: Medium soft reeds are appropriate when playing at high altitudes (2,000 ft above sea level or higher).
Until next week,
If this blog post was helpful, you can get more weekly thoughts, tips, and resources on teaching oboe (or playing oboe) through my newsletter, Teaching Oboe! It's designed for band directors and their students to learn from.