Monday, August 1, 2011

Choosing Reeds -- Beyond the "Omnireed"

Willard Elliot

My inspiration for branching out from the "Omnireed" originally came from Willard Elliot, Principal Bassoon with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1964-1997. Willard used his reedbox like a painter uses a palette.  He chose different reeds for different tasks, different reeds for particular composers and compositions. 

Here is his description of some of his reed choices (All quotations are from "Season with Solti" by William Barry Furlong):

In many of the Beethoven symphonies, for example, we need a very dark, "covered" sound but capable of a wide dynamic range.  For Tchaikovsky, I like to have a fairly thick sound because of the nature of the writing of Tchaikovsky, especially when we are doing his Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique, which is so somber at the beginning.  It also depends on the nature of the writing for the bassoon because playing in the high register for the Stravinsky Rite of Spring will take a different kind of reed than playing the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony, or Pathetique.
In my lessons with Willard I noticed that he used several different shapes and made reeds from several different cane sources.  These were all meticulously marked on the wrapping of the reed. 

While he did use different shapes, he also believed it wasn't possible to pre-determine the qualities of a particular reed.
I don't try to predetermine what the reed is going to be, because I think the cane dictates more what the reed is going to be than what you do with it.  So in making up a lot of reeds, I make up a lot of blanks in different shapes.  The different shapes will have different tendencies so I will start working with those shapes in regard to what is coming up (repertoire), and then the cane will tell me what it is going to do -- whether it is going to be deficient in the high register.  And if it is, I try not to go too much against the natural tendencies of the cane because very often you will ruin the reed completely by trying to put something in it that is not there.  Either that happens or you go so slowly on the reed that you never get it to work.  This is something one of my teachers taught me, that it is a waste of time to piddle around with a reed for fear of ruining the sound, because the sound is in the cane.  Go ahead and get that reed to working, take the wood off, and get it to vibrating.  And if the sound is not good, you haven't wasted that much time.  Just go on to another one. 
When reading this, it's important to note that Elliot made enough blanks so that he could afford to customize the ones he finds promising in certain ways.  If you are working with just 4 or 5 reeds, this technique won't be available to you!

I firmly believe what he says about the tone being in the cane and not wasting time trying to turn a reed into something it's not destined to be.  My success rate with reeds is between 20-25%.  This comports with what others tell me.  Don't be shy about throwing out a lot of cane!

In my next post, I'll give an examples from music I performed recently, detailing how I used three different reeds for the repertoire in one concert.

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