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When should you use harder reeds?

Now that we’re in mid-October, I’ve been evaluating my students’ reeds to make sure that they are playing reeds that are appropriately hard. Fun fact: it’s normal and appropriate to upgrade to harder and better quality reeds at some point. Today I’ll get into why and when to move to harder or better quality reeds.

Why move to harder reeds?

As I discussed in my post last year “Why medium soft reeds are NOT the answer”, it’s super common for students to start with soft or medium soft reeds because they think they need a softer reed to begin with. (Ok, some students, especially those switching from flute or who have never played a wind instrument will need a softer reed at first) BUT it’s really important to move up to harder reeds over time.

Harder reeds are slightly thicker, and all of the following elements can be influenced by that thickness in the reed:

  • Intonation: harder reeds are generally closer to in tune because they haven’t been scraped as thin

  • Dynamic range: harder reeds are stronger and can handle louder dynamics.

  • Tone color: harder reeds can provide more depth and complexity of sound, as long as the student doesn’t control the reed too much with the mouth.

In general, harder reeds will provide a musical improvement!

When is it appropriate to switch to harder reeds?

There are a handful of common issues that pop up when students continue to play on reeds that are too soft:

  • The dynamic range is really small - playing a true forte is nearly impossible

  • It’s really difficult to play in tune - this can happen suddenly or over time

  • The reed keeps collapsing - over time the reed stops vibrating even when the air is still moving

  • The reed squeaks or over-blows when the student tries to use more air to support the note

These are all indicators that you need to use a harder reed!

What about beginning oboists?

I evaluate the following elements in beginner’s playing before switching them to harder reeds:

  • Ability to play confidently from low C through second octave C

  • Ability to play both loud and soft

  • Ability to adjust tuning (even if the student doesn’t play in tune all the time, can they adjust their pitch?)

  • Practice habits (a student who doesn’t practice should probably not be given a harder reed)

Most of my private lesson students achieve these 4 elements within the first few months of playing oboe, so that’s when we switch to slightly harder reeds. Band students may need more time to gain proficiency before it is appropriate to use harder reeds.

I play medium reeds now, should I switch to medium hard reeds?

While harder reeds can be the answer for many students, harder reeds can also cause other problems in your playing. So, if you’re comfortably playing a medium reed and want to switch to a harder reed, consider the following:

  • What is your current air/embouchure balance when you play? If you’re using quite a bit of embouchure pressure to manipulate the reed for dynamic or intonation, this could mean that you haven’t developed your airstream very much. Rather than switching to a harder reed, consider switching to a higher quality (ie more expensive) reed in the same hardness to achieve better intonation, AND work on doing less with your mouth. Over time you’ll be ready to play a harder reed.

  • Are you over-blowing notes frequently?

If you decide that you want to try a harder reed - go for it! Keep in mind that the harder reed does not require more mouth pressure, and if you’re feeling like it won’t vibrate comfortably with your current air usage, it may be too hard for you.

It’s also important to know that you don’t need to play a “hard” reed to be an advanced player.

What reeds do you recommend?

(I am not sponsored by any of the companies below, and these are not in any particular order.)

My beginning students are playing:

  • Singin’ Dog Classic reeds in medium

  • Singin’ Dog Pro reeds in medium

  • Forrests Music Green Label reeds in medium

My intermediate students are playing:

  • Singin’ Dog Pro reeds in medium

  • Forrests Music Green Label reeds in medium

  • Bocal Majority Intermediate reeds: D, Z, O, A

  • Forrests Music RSB reeds in medium

  • Wildflower reeds in medium

My advanced students are playing:

  • Wildflower reeds in medium and medium hard

  • Oboe Duck student reeds in medium

  • Reeds by Elizabeth student reeds in medium

My English horn students are playing:

  • Wildflower reeds in medium and medium hard

  • Bocal Majority reeds in medium

  • Forrests Music RSB reeds in medium


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