Bassoon Reed Tuning Using Advanced Reed Design and Testing Procedure

Question from Greg, a student of Mark Eubanks:

I have been focusing on reeds as opposed to the exercises and have some questions. I am using your book as my main resource. Right now, I have a reed which I think is a great reed. I am able to go through the warm-up routine (all of it!) without flicking and croaking. I have some questions, though.

This reed passed Objective #1 (pg. 14). On Objective #2 Eb was sharp so I added the 2nd finger and Bb key r.h. It was in tune at that time. Am I supposed to scrape regardless of the correction or can I move on to Objective #3 (Tuning Harmonics)? I went into Objective #3 and everything seemed fine. At Objective #4 (the Ab/Bb trill test) I am not sure if I am doing the fingerings correctly because I am getting a gargling sound on the trill Bb. I don’t want to do any correction to the reed because it seems to be doing so well in spite of this problem. I have not gone on to Objective #5 and 6. Is it required to go into Objectives #5 and 6 (if the reed is responding well) to go on and make necessary corrections? Does every reed have to go through the entire circle of objectives?

On the flip side, I have the reed which I used at my last lesson and you spent time adjusting it. Here is what I ran into with this one. It did not pass Objective #1 and was flat on all four notes. I kept clipping reluctantly until I got it to play in tune on high C# and F. However, it measures at 26 mm! It played real hard so I scraped the sides (a to c) and tried to bevel the tip (b to a area) like you have done in lessons for me. I did overlap scrapes on the tip like you have described in the book. It played easier. Is this the right approach for a stiff reed after clipping it? What is your analysis of all this. Am I on the right track?!


I’m glad you’re now into the reed tuning with my Advanced Reed Design and Testing Procedure. You’ve presented some really good questions. I appreciate you taking the time to work through these tests. As a bassoonist I feel your pain. These things do need further explanation and clarification. I’ll post this response on the website and these things will find their way into my next reed tuning publications. A minor dissertation resulted from the questions. I’m trying to be thorough and perhaps help some others with questions along the path. Thanks.

You are on the “right path” because you are now looking into the cause and effect of the reed’s scrape. Success and failure in the bassoon world is MORE about mastering the reed technique than anything else. I used to bulldoze my way through the music with “unfinished” and unrefined reeds causing both a disservice to the music and personal embarrassment. Tenor sax chops and youthful strength. Because of my many reed failures in my younger years, I sought answers and methods to tune reeds. It was sink or swim in the Seattle Symphony. I started my reed manufacturing company as a laboratory to test my theories and techniques. Some bassoonists are able to intuitively scrape the reed in the right places. I was not. I didn’t know how to properly sharpen and use a reed knife either which caused frustration and failure.

Here’s how I pick my reeds. I always start by eliminating any reed that won’t slur back and forth over the break from E2 to C3 in Objective 5 without flicking. If I’ve clipped to length that is shorter than my standard length then it’s eliminated from current candidates. (I may come back later and move the wire back if I’ve run out of candidates.) Before this first test, I’ve made sure that all my candidates have gone through several soak and dry cycles and I’ve broken down the back of the reed. The reed doesn’t “yawn” when water hits it. In other words it has settled and has a normal tip opening size.

Generally, in the reed testing, if the reed is close to meeting any test or objective then it’s okay to move on. When the reed doesn’t even come close to passing the tests or objectives there are going to be insurmountable problems later. I’ll go through several rounds of testing with my candidates. The reed needs to settle into its new structure by drying out too. The warp is going to change in the reed’s arch. It may play completely different tomorrow, so never rush to finish the reed. That’s where most reed makers fail. They have one reed going and it needs to work today.

For me, the most important final objective is the clear Ab/Bb trill of Objective 4. If it is working, the forked Eb always works too. I’ve played on reeds that gargle on the Ab/Bb trill, but the BEST reeds will pass that test. Not all reeds are capable of reaching that level of performance. If the reed plays the fork Bb of Test 4 I’m usually okay unless I’m needing a pianissimo reed in all registers. I do think it is important to have the bare forked Eb close to pitch on Objective 2 without the extra keys. Take care not to scrape too much in area d. Concentrate the scraping in the “upper triangle” formed between points e to a in the upper part of the line d-e.

To maintain good pitch in pianissimo playing I also need the reed to play the harmonic tests “in tune” as close as possible. I’ll usually fine tune these at the end if I’m going ahead with this reed. I’ll also recheck these before every performance, scraping usually to get “dead lip” of the blade in those places or if I’m feeling too much resistance or lack of response on a particular note. Chicken fat is the worst pollutant that must be scraped off. It seems to stick no matter how much I brush my teeth before a performance.

The tests and objectives in my method do NOT need to be followed in any particular order. The new (unpublished) book’s method starting with the open F comparisons (ear plugging tests) working down the scale does follow an orderly procedure up to a certain point. This is done to avoid mistakes and get the reed playing well in the low register before moving on. The current publication assumes that you are starting with a reed that actually plays. There are some anomalies in reed tuning causing problems for some that I will address in the next publication. We must ask the question: Is it me, the reed or the instrument or bocal that’s causing my problems? The marvelous thing (or frustrating depending on the view) about the bassoon is that there are many layers of difficulties that must be addressed.

Does the reed need to go through or pass the entire circle of tests? NO. The level you reach with the objectives depends on what you need at that moment. If I’m looking for a low register solo reed it’s not going to pass Objective 6. It may be okay on the G but forget the high C test. This same low register reed may not pass objective 5 as well. So I might look for a reed that fails Objective 5 if I’m playing Peter and the Wolf or looking for a reed for the opening of Tchaikovsky’s 6th. If I need a special high register reed it’s not going to pass low note and other tests. The croaking reed is always the big problem. You’ll often need to try everything to clear it up.

Obviously, some reeds are NOT going to make it no matter what you do with it. Flip side, some reeds are going to play great no matter how poorly the reed was formed or how crudely it’s been adjusted. Some reeds will be too soft for high register playing of any kind and some reed will be so hard that you can’t come close to getting go vibration on the low notes. Knowing how to evaluate and/or eliminate reeds early on saves time. Some reeds are going to be ready to play now, others may not be ready for several years until they’ve settled and/or stiffened.

The biggest frustration for beginning reed makers is that they want the reed that they just spend the last hour constructing to play right now. Not every piece of cane is going to make it, especially if they rush it. I’ve spent countless hours working a reed to DEATH, when I should have looked for another or just come back to it later. I may have told you that I actually discourage learning reed MAKING by high school students, but rather reed tuning and adjusting. Not everyone can make a proper reed, nor do we have time to make enough of them to find the magic piece of cane that will do it all. Players of single reed instruments are much better off aren’t they? Open a new box of reeds and give each one a quick toot. You know immediately if you’ve got a reed. As they break in they only get weaker. They don’t change radically during break in. The expense of buying a box of double reeds is daunting, but time spent making them without sufficient knowledge of the causes and effects of failure at the end of the line has ruined many a fine player. Some pro players have been known to buy 50-100 reeds at a time rather than waste time better spent on practice.

I’ve been after you to use more variation in the air speed, especially better support and faster air speed in the overblown second octave. Because you have a tendency to under support, a shorter reed length makes sense for you and may be the way to go. Some pro players use 26-27 mm blade lengths who play a certain type of reed. Also a reed with really soft cane isn’t going to pass any test in the middle or upper register until it is quite short, so that’s part of it too. As I recall the reed I worked on the other days was terribly out of balance in terms of one blade compared to the other with one very strong and arched and the other flat and weak. I scraped the hell out of the strong side. This anomaly in the structure of the reed can throw everything out of whack. The tests and objectives may not work. That’s why it’s important to have the balance of both blades the same at the beginning which shows by the symmetry of the tip opening and closure. The thumb nail pressed into the blade as a strength test shows a lot. Balance everything first. Then proceed with tuning adjustments. Croaking reeds has much to do with balance too. Have you looked at my 1982 publication Arundo Reed Test Procedures which address the tip opening/closure issue as well as simple reed tests?

Any time you scrape to rebalance the reed you run the risk of having to clip the tip. Once you’ve clipped the reed it is usually going to be too heavy somewhere and fail a test or objective. That’s just the way it is, especially if you take too much off the tip. So yes, it has to start over with rescraping and testing every objective and test. This frustration can lead to random scraping or scraping without reviewing what IS working. Patience and retesting are key.

Have you yet found the reed shape and scrape that is right for you? As a single reed player how many types of mouthpieces from different manufacturers, made of different materials with different baffle heights, throat opening shapes and sizes of chambers have you tried with different lays and tip openings? And then how many different single reed manufacturers reeds have you tried with their different styles and strengths? As single reed players we’ve tried lots of this and swapped with other players to find the combination that works. I forgot ligatures.

As bassoon students, we are often stuck with what our teacher “preaches”: reeds, bocals and instruments. I’ve made the mistake of forcing my reed on students. I’ve said many times that the teacher can be the worst enemy. We’re all different. That’s why I ended up selling nine different reed shapes, and two gouges with unfortunately, only one profile. That’s the one profile that works for me.

So many young bassoonists are failing to enjoy the bassoon because of crappy music store reeds. Do pro players use these? NO. Can these store reeds be adjusted? In some cases the answer is YES.