There once was a girl who cried over reeds.
This girl started oboe between 6th and 7th grade, after playing flute for two years, and had no clue what she was in for. Neither did her parents. Her very first reed was handed to her by her sister’s flute instructor. He said, “Learn how to play an A in tune!” The reed was fibercane. It didn’t even allow an A to be played! Her parents then bought her reeds by Meason or Jones. (Are you cringing now?) The girl heard her mother say to her father, “WHEN will she stop sounding like a duck?!” She heard it. She was surprised — she thought she was sounding pretty good!
That girl started oboe lessons with a lovely woman who actually came to her house. The woman was a calming influence. She made the girl reeds. She worked on them right in the house and the girl didn’t worry quite as much about reeds. That teacher also taught a reed making class at a local city college (now called a community college). The girl learned to wind reeds and carve on them, but had little success in getting them to work well. Still, she loved to wind them. That was the fun part as far as she was concerned. So she had a fishing tackle box (any of you oldsters use that for your reed equipment?) full of reed blanks of pretty colors. The reeds she used still came primarily from her teacher.
Then the teacher moved close to an hour away.
The girl continued to take lessons. Her mother drove her the teacher’s house. The girl loved that because, as she was in lessons, her mother would shop for fabric and the girl would know that she’d be getting yet another outfit! It was a win-win. Except reeds were awfully far away and she couldn’t get to a lesson every week due to the long drive and the expense of it all.
Now that girl didn’t exactly practice hard. Music came rather easily for her even while reed making did not. She was pretty good at faking it, and her teacher didn’t seem to catch on — or at least never let on that she knew. Her mother MADE her practice, though. What a cruel mother, right?! Occasionally the girl would hear, “WRONG NOTE!” yelled from the other room. Her mother knew music, and she knew a wrong note when she heard one.
But it had to happen sooner or later. ABSOLUTE REED TERROR! The teacher continued to make her reeds, but they broke so easily. She would run out of them and dear mother would make emergency trips to pick up more. But they never lasted, and sometimes they just felt all wrong.
And then that teacher stopped teaching her. She had babies and life was busy and the girl had to find another teacher. She tried one but he didn’t work out. Later her high school band director gave her a name and her mother, yet again, was driving a distance so she could have lessons in Palo Alto. (Hi Bob!)
The girl enjoyed her lessons, even while she still didn’t practice very much except on those days when it suddenly seemed like something she wanted to do. Music still came easily to her. Successful reed making didn’t.
The girl cried over reeds. She worried. She fretted. She cried more. She had bad dreams when she could sleep, but a lot of the time she couldn’t even get to sleep! Her life seemed to revolve over reeds. Is she had good reeds, she was happy. (Well, most of the time: she was a teenager, after all, and she thought she was ugly and no one liked her — like most teenagers feel at some point or another!) If there were no good reeds, she was not only unhappy: she was a mess! Her mother didn’t know what to do with her, and they didn’t always get along terrifically well. (Her father tried to ignore the whole reed issue.) Sometimes she thought she would go crazy over reeds. They caused her such anguish it was ridiculous. If you looked carefully you might even see tears running down her cheeks while in a concert. (She is hoping, however, that it wasn’t as noticeable as she fears.)
Okay okay … enough of that “girl” business. You know I’m writing about me!
Here’s the thing: reeds are a pain. They always have been. I’m not a good reed maker. I never have been. There are times when the reeds in my case have all been bad. When I was younger that would have made me cry. That would have had me panicked. But you know what?
Life is too short to cry over bad reeds!
Trust me on that.
I spent far too many years, even as a professional musician, worrying and fretting and even crying over reeds.
So let me repeat:
Life. Is. Too. Short. To. Cry. Over. Bad. Reeds.
So now? Now my mantra is, “Play well on whatever is in the box!”
My suggestion to students everywhere? Do the same. Realize that you won’t always have that perfect reed. Sure, strive for it, but also have a flexible embouchure. One that allows you to know what to do with a less-than-stellar reed. And relax, for goodness sake. The more we get uptight, the worse a bad reed behaves.
So that’s my story. World’s Worst Reed Maker? Yep, I consider myself to be in that position. First place. Top prize. I’m probably exaggerating, but I’m an oboe player: we do that.
So anyway, just learn to play well on a bad reed. Learn to accept the fact that you won’t always have that perfect reed. Figure out how to make what you have work.
I know colleagues who will strongly disagree with me. That’s okay: they are probably great reed makers!
Oh … and ALWAYS have at least three reeds. Or more.
More is better. Even if they aren’t all perfect reeds.