Sarah Lewis spends her Saturday afternoons splitting and gouging cane wood. She soaks it in water, takes a razor blade to it and makes sure it’s perfectly measured.
Lewis, a music performance junior who specializes in oboe, isn’t building a house with that wood. She’s building a reed — and she has to get it right. Her pitch and sound quality depend on it.
Some wind instruments use reeds made of cane wood to create the vibrations that move through the instrument and create the sound. Professional double-reed woodwind musicians, such as oboe or bassoon players, often make their own reeds instead of purchasing them, a process that many MSU music students are using for convenience as well as cost.
Although the reed is pertinent to the sound of other woodwind instruments, they do not need to be as flawless as those of double-reed instruments, Lewis said.
“They’re important for clarinet or saxophone, but they’re not quite as particular or defined,” she said.
Double-reed musicians make reeds that fit their form and facial structure — features that aren’t always available in stores.
“The cane we use to make the reeds came from the ground. Every piece is very different, and to mass produce them is nearly impossible,” said Cindy Duda, a doctoral candidate in bassoon performance and a graduate assistant.
Jan Eberle, an associate oboe professor, said she had the “traumatic experience” of letting her oboe performance skills pass up her reed-making skills. Now, Eberle teaches students as young as 12 or 13 private lessons that include reed making, to guarantee they won’t feel left behind.
“Both skills develop together,” Eberle said. “When they get to college, my students are all independent reed makers already.”
To learn bassoon reed making, which usually takes longer but produces reeds that withstand longer playing time, it’s essential to watch someone who has been making reeds for some time, Duda said.
“You can read all the books you want, but you really don’t get it until you sit down and watch somebody,” she said.
Ryan Romine, a doctoral candidate in bassoon performance, was a teaching assistant for the past two years in charge of reed-making lessons for incoming freshman in bassoon studio classes. Romine said the process is vital to playing the instrument.
“Hopefully, you get to the point where you have gained enough experience so you can make a reed quickly and efficiently,” Romine said.
Along with the benefits of customizing reeds, the money saved by making reeds is worthwhile, Eberle said. A manufactured oboe reed costs about $25, but buying a bag of cane for $100 can make thousands of reeds. Bassoon cane wood, which usually is bought in the necessary shape for reed making and comes in bundles of 10 or 12, will save money compared to buying individual bassoon reeds, which cost about $20 a piece.
“It costs a lot at first, but the skill lasts forever,” said Eberle.
Saving money applies to bassoon players who make reeds as well, Duda said.
The length of time it takes to make a reed and how long a reed will last depend on the musician and the reed, said Marissa LeFevre, a music performance senior whose oboe reed wears out after a day of playing. Making a new reed every day helps prevent problems at a concert, she said.
“This is a nightmare: You perform, and something’s just not quite right with your tone, and you look down and your reed’s cracked,” LeFevre said.
For double-reed musicians such as Romine, the reed-making process is a blessing and a curse.
“It’s something that we spend just as much time thinking about and worrying about as we do with our playing,” Romine said.
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In spite of its time consumption and frustration, in the end, Lewis said she believes the craft is worth it.
“They say that before you can make a good reed, you have to make a laundry basket full of bad reeds,” Lewis said.
“But it’s really rewarding when you actually do get a chance to make your own reed.”
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