Friday, August 5, 2011

Choosing Reeds -- Reed Hoarding

Hoarding the Reed

Willard Elliot also spoke about how he hoarded particular reeds. (from "Season with Solti" by William Barry Furlong)
For the tour week, for example, he'd been hoarding a particular reed to play during Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica, in Carnegie Hall.  He though it was finished "but somehow it came back and I used it on our recording sessions for the Beethoven symphonies.  Then I put the reed aside and saved it because I was going to use it for the Carnegie Hall performance."  He did not use it in rehearsal, he did not use it in the Youth Concerts, he did not use it in the programs of the Mahler Sixth Symphony.  ("I used another reed for that because the requirements of the Sixth Symphony are not quite so great.")  The reasons he treasured this reed are embedded in the demands of the Eroica on the principal bassoon player.
I try to do much the same thing.  If I identify a reed I want to use for a particular piece or concert, I'll try not to use it on the dress rehearsal and probably won't play on it the day before.  The reed will be tired and less vibrant and responsive if I don't give it a rest.

A Pitching Rotation

I use an approach similar to that of a pitching coach in Major League Baseball.  I try to have three or four reeds that I could use for the week's repertoire available.  I do not use one reed for the whole week's rehearsals and concerts.   In addition, I have a "farm system" of reeds that I break in during the week that I could use the following week.  I also have some "veterans" on hand for use in a pinch.


For most situations, a reed that satisfies the criteria listed in my previous post, "Choosing Reeds -- Some Criteria" will be fine.  However, in some cases, demands placed on us by conductors, repertoire, ourselves, etc. make use of a good, everyday "Omnireed" insufficient to the task at hand. 

For those special situations I use the above process to select reeds that have certain inherent qualities that are different from the rest of the pack.  I try to enhance those characteristics through adjustments in one or more of the parameters listed on my website.  I then hoard these reeds (sometimes a month in advance!) and use them only for the piece for which they were intended.

Remember that you must have a large quantity of blanks available as it's probably impossible to predict what a reed's special qualities will be until you begin scraping.  Also, very few reeds (maybe 1 or 2 out of 20) will commend themselves to you as "high note specialty" or other "extreme" types of reeds.

The selection process is worth it, however.  The feeling of comfort afforded by playing a difficult excerpt on a reed chosen especially for it takes your playing to another level and enhances the impression of ease for the listener.   

Never let them see you sweat!!


  1. These last few posts about reeds have been a great help to me, thank you for writing them! I have a question about reed rotation. When I try to switch reeds to favour certain passages or excerpts I run into trouble, because of differences in embouchure pressure and articulation needed to make the two reeds respond. Particularly response-sensitive moments (the opening of Tchaikovsky 6 in an audition, for instance) worry me greatly when I'm changing to a different reed. Do you have any advice on overcoming this?

  2. Hi, Mike,

    Great comment! I have written a LOT of thoughts on this below, so be patient while reading!

    I hope some of this helps!

    You bring up a problem I have struggled with a lot. It took me a while to have the courage and confidence to switch equipment (reeds, bocals) to favor certain passages, especially in an audition.

    I think the main issue here is picking up a reed that you haven't used in the past few minutes that may have dried out or whose tip may be gaping because you just soaked it.

    Getting the tip opening under control is of primary importance. I wet the reed I'm saving to use for later and keep it in the case while I'm playing on another one. By the way, I have already soaked and tested this reed while warming up for the audition/concert/rehearsal.

    When I'm ready to use the reed, I check the tip opening and feel the wires to see if it's soaked enough. I also gently manipulate the tip opening by plying the blades with my fingers.

    If too open, I ply them on top and bottom to shut them down a bit. If too closed, I do this on the sides at the throat. When it looks comfortable and feels comfortable in the mouth, I put it on the bocal.

    Also, I think it's fine to play a couple (just a couple!) of notes on the new reed before launching into your excerpt.

    In concert or rehearsal, of course, you can play on the reed during a tutti passage or two prior to the solo for which it's intended to "warm it up".

    Like anything else you should PRACTICE switching so you get used to what happens. Do this when you give yourself a mock audition or do it a few times prior to when you have to do this in a concert/recital. You will get used to it!

    Try to memorize the feeling of embouchure/breath support needed for each reed to work optimally.

    Long tone practice is excellent for cementing this feeling in your brain and lips!

    It has become common in auditions to immediately precede or follow the Tchaikovsky 6th opening solo with the Rite of Spring, so getting used to changing equipment for these extremes is good practice.

    I don't think anyone can really play those excerpts back to back on the same equipment and sound as good as someone who has the extra tools to enhance the qualities of each solo.

    My colleague, Jonathan Sherwin, has a good habit for keeping reeds ready when switching from contrabassoon to bassoon or vice versa. During a rest he will wet his fingers with reed water and dab some on the reed on the bocal of the instrument he's about to switch to just to keep the reed from drying out. He also checks the seal on the reed before using it.

    I'll close with a funny audition story.

    I was auditioning for the principal bassoon position in the Hartford Symphony a long time ago. I played my Mozart concerto and several excerpts.

    Then it came time for Tchaikovsky 6th. The principal clarinetist, Curt Blood came over to help with the music. I had put my Tchaikovsky reed on top of my reed box on the floor next to the music stand.

    Curt accidentally stepped on my reed! I thought that was the end for me! I picked up the reed, he apologized. I looked at the reed and it seemed fine. The tip was a little closed, but that was perfect for the solo. I tried it and it came out beautifully!

    I won the job!

  3. I know I am a couple days behind from this post, but after just reading the commentary above, I have a question along the same lines.

    When I was sick at the beginning of summer and was not allowed to play my bassoon for a week Mr. Weait told me that I should continue soaking my reeds on a daily/bi-daily basis. Should this be done with a reed that you are "Saving" for a concert/audition for its rest period?


  4. I have not done the kind of soaking to reeds you are saving that Weait recommends. In the winter sometimes, I'll wet every reed in my box or keep the reeds in a humidified case. I don't find the need to do so in the summer because of the humidity, though.

    Once in a while I'll come across a really exceptional reed during a period in which I have little high level playing but have a recital or something big coming up in a month or so. I have stored those reeds in the refrigerator for the month (or whatever period of time) and get them out a week beforehand. They play well and seem relatively unchanged after the storage.