Bassoon reed insights

The purpose of this section on Bassoon reeds is to help people get a better handle and understanding on the adjustment and the techniques of coming to grips with these double reed issues

Over the years I have as a teenager struggled with "store bought" Bassoon reeds and also in later years analyzed and studied everything I could get my hands on.

We'll start with some basic common knowledge issues.

One of the biggest mysteries for school band directors is how to deal with bassoon reeds. The reeds seem inconsistent from one to the next, break easily, and they cost a lot more than clarinet or saxophone reeds. In essence they actually represent the entire "mouthpiece" of the instrument so their importance should not be underestimated. If single reed players had to discard their mouthpiece along with the reed when it was time for a change, they would become crazy immediately.

Double reeds are available in stores in several strengths, and are usually marked: soft, medium-soft, medium, medium-hard or hard. Depending on the embouchure and playing skill of the player, it is usually best to select reeds in the medium range, because soft or hard reeds will need considerable adjustment and modification just to make them playable. Single reed players, especially clarinetists, often begin by using softer reeds and as their skill builds they gravitate toward harder reeds.

Look for excellent Workmanship
Does the cane have a good color, straight grain, mostly small fibers, no apparent cracks or defects? How secure is the wiring, the string wrap, and the cement or plastic string coating? Is the surface of the blade smooth and without slivers or other imperfections?

bullet Before playing, moisten the reed, tip down, for about one minute in warm water-not too hot, not too cold. A small glass, plastic cup, 35 mm film container, or a "reed soaker," which attaches to a music stand, will work for this purpose. Moistening helps the reed vibrate better and it prevents cracking. Over-soaking can cause the reed to become somewhat distorted and the tip will usually open so far as to make the reed unplayable.
bullet Check the Tip...
The tip opening should be approximately 1/16 of an inch (1.5 mm). If it is less than 1/32 of an inch, the reed will probably not vibrate enough to produce a full sound. If it is more than 1/16 of an inch, the reed will be loud and hard to control. The tip opening can be adjusted with a small pair of pliers. Pressure applied from top and bottom of the #1 wire (closest to the blade part of the reed) will close the reed, while pressure from the sides of this wire will open the reed. Adjustment of the #2 wire (right in front of the string wrap) is the opposite. Pressure from the sides closes the reed and from top to bottom opens it.
bullet Crow the Reed
After moistening, take the reed into the mouth up to the first wire and, with a loose embouchure, blow into the reed to make a sound. The reed should produce a crowing sound. This test indicates how freely the reed blows and also its strength. If the reed only makes a very high pitch, it may be too closed at the tip or it could be too hard. The reed may crow with a very rough low rattle and this could mean that the reed is too open at the tip or is too soft.
bullet Use A Reed Case
Most bassoon reeds are sold in small plastic containers, either a round vial with a stopper or a small plastic box with a clear-top lid. These containers are generally not durable enough for day after day service and they can actually contribute to a shorter reed life. Some of the vials are air-tight and they also rely on cotton or plastic foam as a cushion for the reed tip. In time this can cause the reed to mildew. A better solution is to use a reed case that is big enough to hold at least three reeds. The reed cases preferred by many professionals have mandrels on which to mount the reeds so that they dry properly after each use.

Making Adjustments to Finished Reeds

With the help of only a few tools, it is possible for a student player to learn to adjust bassoon reeds. The minimum required tools are a knife, cutting block, plaque, pliers and a mandrel. It is also helpful to have a reamer in case the reed does not fit the bocal properly.

Here are a few suggestions for adjustment of common problems:

bullet Reed is Flat
Test the reed on your instrument by trying a few notes: left-hand C, D, E and F. From this simple test you can determine the overall strength and the pitch. If the reed is too easy to blow and is very flat in pitch, you will need to cut more off of the length of the tip using a knife and cutting block.
bullet Reed is Too Stiff
If your reed is too stiff and unresponsive you can begin a gradual scraping process. Before making any adjustments, be sure that the reed is moist. Also, always insert a plaque between the blades before scraping the reed. Start with the tip and work toward the back; short strokes from about ¼-inch back of the tip out to the tip and gradually increase the length of your knife scrapes until you are going from the shoulder to the tip. With this method you end up taking somewhat more off of the tip. After scraping both sides uniformly, try your first playing test again to see what progress has been made. You can begin trying other ranges of your instrument; low range for response, an F Major scale for overall tone and intonation, and high notes for general playability. Another way to help poor response of notes is to try adjusting the wires with pliers as mentioned before.
bullet Pitch Level of the Reed is Low
If the strength of the reed is correct but it is still flat overall, you will need to ream it so that it will go further onto the bocal. If the reed is still soft, try clipping the tip again.
bullet Pitch Level of the Reed is High
Generally, harder reeds play sharper in pitch so you can again do additional scraping to soften the reed, thus bringing the pitch down while probably improving the response. Try taking a bit more cane out of the area immediately back of the tip. On first attempt most students take too much out of the reed in this area, which may cause the reed to collapse. It is better to do this process a little at a time to see what happens.
bullet Reed Sounds Good but Pitch is Unstable
Sometimes this type of reed will become more stable after continued playing, but you can try to scrape along the edges of the reed on both sides to help stabilize the pitch.

Making Your Own Reeds....

Although making your own bassoon reeds sounds impossible, this is not the case. I suggest with the help of a teacher- and these two books you try to get started as soon as you can.

Bassoon Reed Making by Mark Popkin and Loren Glickman is one of the top bassoon reed making books available. Topics covered: bassoon reed making from tube to finished reed, instrument repair and maintenance and approaches to bassoon playing.

Basic Reed-making, A Basic Technique by Christopher Weait -The book goes from tool selection all the way through making and finishing reeds from tube to final reed. An excellent book used by every bassoonist.