It’s the second week of the month, and I’m hearing a lot of new reeds in lessons this week! That is great news for some students (who had been playing on reeds that are far too old), but a challenge for others whose intonation and dynamic control are suffering a bit as they break in their new reeds.
My thoughts about student reeds reminded me of one of my pet peeves: medium soft reeds. So today’s newsletter will explain why medium soft reeds are definitely not appropriate past the first month or so of playing oboe. Even for very young students.
Making a reed really soft…
…means that the reed has to have a lot of cane taken off it. It’s really hard to make a reed play in tune when it’s that thin. Many professional reedmakers (I’m talking about the ones who hand make the reed as opposed to mass-produce reeds on a profiler) don’t offer a medium soft reed because they can’t guarantee the reed will play in tune.
In general, the softer the reed, the less cane on the reed, and the flatter the reed will naturally play. Nearly every Jones Medium Soft reed I’ve seen/heard has played nearly a half step flat. Students can’t be expected to play with a proper embouchure when the notes they’re fingering come out sounding like the wrong note. These students resort to massive amounts of squeezing with the embouchure which is tiring, unsustainable, and frankly sounds awful.
On the flip side, though, the desirable result of a softer reed is that there isn’t much resistance from the reed which makes it easier for a student to pick up an oboe and be able to play without much effort.
Resistance is needed to develop air support
I already mentioned that oboe students playing medium soft reeds will rely more on mouth manipulations to play. Since they don’t need a lot of air pressure to get a sound out, they won’t develop fast air to support their sound and allow the reed to vibrate to its fullest potential and create a characteristic sound. Beyond tone quality concerns, there is generally less flexibility in dynamic and intonation abilities when students use more mouth manipulations and insufficient air support.
Without resistance, it’s way more common for students to overblow into the first octave instead of learning to use the correct octave mechanisms (half-hole, thumb, and side octave keys aren’t as necessary if the reed isn’t resistant). To master faster technical passages, we need accurate fingerings, and a soft reed doesn’t require accurate fingerings.
The exception to my dislike of medium soft reeds
I can think of just a couple of students I’ve worked with who needed to play on medium soft reeds for a few months before leveling up to medium reeds. So while I start my students on medium reeds, some students may need softer reeds for a short time.
The first kind of student who might need a medium soft reed is a beginning oboist who hasn’t played a wind instrument before. This could be a percussionist or pianist or string player, or non musician, and they have no idea what to do with their mouth or how to blow efficiently so they don’t use all their air right away. This student would do well with a medium soft reed until they can play 4-measure phrases at a slow andante tempo. (In my studio, it could take 2-4 weeks to get there) After that point, we want to switch them to a harder reed so they can develop their air speed against some resistance.
The other kind of student who might need a medium soft reed is a student who experiences any kind of physical pain when playing a medium reed. Last year I had a student in a group class switching from flute to oboe who was trying so hard to play with fast air that they gave themself stomach aches by squeezing their abs when playing. The first thing I did was to have them switch down to medium soft reeds so that they didn’t have to press so hard with their air and encourage them to play softer overall. Then we worked on using their air with more efficiency. A month or two later they went back to medium reeds and has been progressing well ever since! They just needed a softer reed to figure out their fast air stream without hurting themself for a short time.
So, use medium soft reeds with care.
A medium soft reed can be useful in certain cases, but they are a starting point for some students. If the student begins with a medium soft reed, they shouldn’t keep using medium soft reeds after they’ve been playing for 2-4 months.
Until next week,
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