A Guide for the Beginning Player, Parents and Band Directors
Warning: Bassoon reeds are fragile, frustrating and expensive.
For anyone contemplating taking up the bassoon be aware that it’s going to be more costly than playing sax or clarinet, and for the majority of you, the reeds will be frustrating. Why? Because if you don’t have a decent performer/teacher of bassoon who makes and adjusts reeds as an advisor, you will be a the mercy of music store bassoon reeds. Many players (and some of my students) are perfectly happy with store bought reeds and unless you come up against technical challenges that hold you back, you won’t seek out the alternatives. My motto has been I’m only as good as my reed allows me to be. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find the perfect reed. And I teach all my students how to evaluate and adjust the reed using my published methods. But in an instant, poof…it might crack and be a goner. Such is the life of a bassoonist. Start the search for the next one BEFORE you need it. Always have several good ones on hand. Since the reed cane itself varies so much in quality it you may find that only 1 in 5 reeds is acceptable and for professional players it may be 1 in 25 or more!
Music Store Bassoon Reed Manufacturers
There are a number of U.S. manufacturers who crank out many thousands of bassoon reeds every year. Names such as La Voz, Jones Double Reeds, Rico Reeds, Emerald Reeds, Meason Reeds, HMK, Chartier, Stevens and others. These companies (and some others) sell directly to your local band instrument store or internet band instrument suppliers. There are also companies from around the world who mass produce reeds which may also find their way to the store shelf.
What Bassoon Reeds Cost
You can find reeds at a discount on the internet for as low as $9.00 (usually from the manufacturers listed above) and through double reed specialty shops for as high as $30.00 each. A local bassoonist may sell reeds for less to his students.
Bassoon Reeds Come in a Variety of Shapes and Sizes, Strengths and Models
Like a single reed mouthpiece the double reed has a number of variables that effect the reed’s vibration. But with a single reed mouthpiece the internal geometry of the mouthpiece is constant with the strength and cut of the reed as the variable with many different single reed designs and manufacturers available.
The bassoon reed is the mouthpiece as well as the strength and cut of the reed. Double trouble! The recipe of the vibration and the success and comfort in playing depends on finding the right reed for YOU and your instrument. It’s also helpful to learn how to adjust a reed rather than just play them as is. (Another article) Most public school bassoons provided or rented to students leak or are in bad shape. (This is the subject of another article) The reed’s vibration may have to overcome the bassoon’s flaws (cheap, poorly designed instrument) or leakage when the keys are closed. This IS the case with over 90% of school bassoons I’ve seen. With a bad bassoon that leaks, who’s going to have fun playing on that instrument?
A Beginner Bassoon Reed
The Fox bassoon company who manufactures the Renard student model bassoons includes two polymer (plastic) bassoon reeds with every new bassoon sold. The plastic reeds made by Bob Stevens are available from Fox Products and work very well having the right recipe of vibration for a beginning student reed. The reed does not need to be immersed in water to play and not subject to mold and mildew that destroys cane reeds. However, the plastic reed can split or crack in the blade and is just as fragile if bumped dropped. Cost of these reeds currently from Fox Products is $13.95 (2008).
Do polymer reeds sound good when played? Certainly not as mellow as a cane reed, but the trade off is worthwhile to get a young player going. As the player develops, experiments with cane reeds of various types should come into play.
Many band directors buy reeds to have on hand for students who need a new reed in band class. If your band director supplies reeds, he should have a few polymer reeds on hand. And if the cane reeds all sag on E natural or don’t hold up well, let him know it’s time to try reeds from another source.
Characteristics of Some Store Bought Reeds
Store bought reeds are generally quite wide at the tip of the reed, and have a large internal throat between the two wires and are non-rounded interior. They are mass produced and most have a short playing life. These reeds produce a flabby loud vibration that might help overcome some of the leaky bad bassoon difficulties. But the downside of that kind of reed vibration are two common problems student bassoonists encounter: an unstable E (3rd space bass clef) and a flat and often pinched sound in the upper register notes. Theses notes may also “croak” (see MY Notes Pop Down) These problems come from a reed that plays too flat and doesn’t have sufficient resistance to blow against. The player must “bite” the reed and develops bad “embouchure” habits (how you form your lips around the reed) of gripping the reed to close to the tip. Some manufacturers stamp the reed’s hardness on the blade. I’ve seen reeds marked as medium hard or hard fail the E test.
Finding the right reed is a matter of experimentation or getting a recommendation from someone experienced enough to know the difference between a good and bad reed for you and your bassoon. Reeds come in different external shapes of the blade. The blade’s belly can be concave, straight, convex, or a combination. The interior “throat” can be small to large, rounded or a flat oval, or distorted by poor reed construction techniques. It should be at least symmetrical when you look through the end that fits onto the bassoon’s metal bocal (crook). For success you’ll need to find the right match for YOU… AND your bassoon.
Reeds also have a tapered blade profile cut down into the reed material that can be quite thin at the tip and thick at the back near the wire or the reverse with many, many variations of how the surface of the reed’s blade taper is contoured. We call this the blade profile, scrape or lay. Many store bought reeds take too much cane out of the front of the reed blade to get them to vibrate strongly. One of my mottos is this: Thin tips sink ships! Meaning, the E is going to sink or sag down to Eb if you play it loudly.
All of the variables, reed shape, blade strength (hardness), throat size and adds up to whether you will be able to play in tune with a good tone quality. If this is a constant struggle with the reeds you use. Get another reed style.
Common Problems with Store Bought Reeds
Besides the playing problems you might encounter above there are other concerns.
- The reed doesn’t fit far enough onto the bocal mouthpiece and falls off while playing. The solution is to get a reed reamer. Prices range from $20.00 to $90.00. Band directors might want to have one. Reaming should be done to the reed when it is dry. Reaming may result in the binding to break loose or blades to shift. Go easy.
- The reed leaks at the back of the tube where it fits onto the bocal. Possible solution is either that the tube is out of round or there are cracks in the seam between the two blades. If out of round, squeeze with small pliers, if leaking through cracks, fill these by rubbing candle or bees wax into the cracks with a small instrument screw driver.
- The string binding comes loose or moves up and down on the reed. The best solution is to remove it and glop Duco cement over the portion of the reed’s tube where you removed the string or use hot glue or shrink tubing. File some small notches into the tube first and that will help the glue, shrink tubing or new string binding stay in place.
- The reed’s blades slip side to side. Solution? Blade slippage is common. If the reed is well constructed it will not matter much, but if extreme and always happens, try another manufacturer.
- The wires don’t stay in place. When the reed dries out between playings (and it should) the wires may become loose and slide out of position. Be sure when the reed is wetted that they are back in the proper position. If they are loose with the reed wetted, the wires need to be tightened. Using small pliers lift up the folded over wire, pull up on the wire and then twist tighter. If you just twist the wire, you will break it off! Then you are in real trouble. If the wire is not snug and up to the right position for the first wire near the blade, the reed will play very flat and be unstable on E.
- The tip opening of the reed is too big or too small. A normal tip opening is about 1/16 inch or 1.5 mm top to bottom. If it is too big, the reed may feel to stiff and will be tiring to play. If it’s too small it may fail to play the lowest notes or just feel weak. In both cases the solution is to manipulate the first two wires. Be sure the reed is fully wetted first. Squeezing the 1st wire (closest to reed blade) from the sides (gently) with small pliers will open the tip and make the reed feel stronger with a bigger sound and better low register. Squeezing the 2nd wire from the sides will close the tip and makes the reed feel weaker with an easier upper register. Squeezing the 2nd wire top and bottom will open the tip and help forked Eb (3rd space) and the lower notes. Squeezing the 1st wire top and bottom will help the upper register and give a smaller sound.
- The reed has a normal tip opening but it is too weak or too strong. If it is too strong and hard to blow, sand the blade of the reed lightly all over to weaken the reed. If it is too weak or sags on E (third space) reposition the 1st wire closer to the tip. If this is not possible, the tip must be clip back to shorten the distance from the reed tip to 1st wire. Use a reed clipper or place the reed tip on a flat guitar pick and cut the tip back with a single edge razor blade. Cut very small amounts and test your results.
A Beginning Bassoon
If you are a band director or a parent looking at whether to buy a new beginner bassoon and you have only $2,500 to spend DO NOT buy a cheap wooden bassoon. I’ve seen a number of unplayable Ebay bassoon disasters with local bargain hunters. If you know what you are looking at, and are willing to spend money for repairs you might get lucky. Better to wait a year save up and spend more to get a Renard model 41 polypropelene bassoon or model 51 (for small hands stripped down model 41). Virtually impossible to find used. MOST of the big names in band instrument manufacturing (and not so big) don’t measure up to the Renard instruments. You get what you pay for and the player’s success depends on a good instrument as well as a consistent source of good reeds. Rent a bassoon? At least $100.00 a month for something decent if you can even find one. Not likely.
How to Handle Reeds and Reed Care
As mentioned above bassoon reeds are fragile and you can split the blade easily rendering the reed unplayable. See article on how many reeds.
With cane reeds, there are a number of DON’TS:
- Don’t drop them.
- Don’t squeeze them unless they’ve been wetted.
- Don’t store wet reeds in airtight plastic containers or mold and mildew will form in or on the surface of the reed. (Most store reeds come in such containers.)
- Don’t leave the reed on the instrument when you are not playing it. It might get bumped if you leave it on the chair or bassoon case. Hold in your mouth or set somewhere safe. (My cat chews on them.)
- Don’t let your reed get dirty on the inside or out. Drop in hydrogen peroxide once a week and let the crud bubble away. Ultrasonic jewelry cleaners work well too or run a folded over soft pipe cleaner through from the butt end of the reed out the tip swing it right and left. Don’t reverse the pipe cleaner back through the tip. If you get a build up on the outside scrape it off careful with your fingernail or reed knife. Chicken fat seems to stick on the reed.
- Don’t play the same reed day in and day out until it dies. Rotate your reeds and save the best one for performances.
- Don’t over-soak the reed in water. Immerse the reed to get it wet. Just run water over it, or wet it in your mouth. Over-soaking shortens the life of the reed, weakening it or choking it.
- Don’t store your reed in an airtight reed case on solid metal or plastic pins. The reed’s interior will not dry out.
- Don’t overlook learning how to make simple adjustments to the reed.
- Don’t have just one reed.
- Don’t keep all your reeds in one place. Keep your best reeds in a good reed case and a few extras in your bassoon case, just in case you leave your reed case at home or on the stand somewhere.
Sources for Professional Quality Reeds
While it is possible to find reeds that work well for you from the music store, you are more likely to located quality reeds from a professional reed maker or double reed specialty store. Before taking on the task of learning how to make your own, find out what it’s like to play on a good hand made reed. Reeds of my design are available in 9 different reeds shapes from Arundo Reeds and Cane and Forrests music, which has a number of other hand made and player tested reeds. Other sources of professional quality bassoon reeds are Charles Double Reeds and Vigder Reeds. All these companies have been producing professional quality reeds for many years. The International Double Reed Society has listings for many other reed makers.
Contacting local bassoonists who teach private lessons is another source for reeds, as most make reeds to sell to their students. My first bassoon teacher grew tired of giving me a great reed only to find that I broke it before making it to the next lesson. He finally said, I would have really enjoyed playing on that reed and you trashed it. I’m not going to make them any more for you. It’s time you learned to do it yourself. Being lazy I headed down to buy them at the music store. I struggled and suffered as a result. Then learned to make reeds. I had played on great reeds, so I knew what a great reed felt like to play.
Many bassoonists never really know…