I was honored to be the teacher of a master class in bassoon reed making at the University of Florida-Gainesville, Nov. 14, 2009. Dr. Arnold Irchai has done a wonderful job with his class of 14 bassoonists as evidenced by the fine studio recital performed by those students the next day. I always focus on reed finishing with my new students as I believe that will be the most help to them but, since this was my third visit to the University of Florida, I also spent a generous amount of the three-hour class on reed construction.
I believe that there are really four elements essential to successful reed making: good cane, proper tools, knowledge of the process and good technique. The art to the process comes from the individual’s own talents and skills as well as the years of applying all the above and are directly related to the reed maker’s ability to produce desired results on the bassoon. Anyone can improve their technique with repetition and the guidance of a good teacher. Try making a thousand reeds a year and see if that doesn’t help.
When teaching a class of 14, I try to get some hands on work with the students. Since there had not been much experience with using straight shapers I was able to show students the benefits of that type of template and the quick success they could achieve with it.
When forming a reed most students have a fear of folding the cane over the knife. This is really an unfounded fear. I have been able to show them how easy it really is, since you lay one blade across the blade of the knife, and, even if they don’t get a good center fold at first, it is very simple to shift the cane a little and get the two ends of the cane to line up. I insist that students make sure the two halves of the reed align properly before putting on the first wire. If you do this properly it is less likely the blades will be out of alignment later.
The last 5 % of reed making is the hardest. Dr. Matthew Ruggiero would say “anyone can make a blank.” There is plenty of information about making reeds in articles and books. It is the proper application and timing that is the problem. When do you thin the back rather than blend in the spine to correct difficult response in the low register? Should you thin the tip instead? These are the hard questions that confront any reed maker. Often students are afraid that they will hurt the tone of a reed and will not adjust the reed even though it will not respond on certain notes or in certain registers. I tell students that they must take risks if they want the best reeds.
I had some of the students test their reeds by performing the first and second bassoon parts to the opening of the second movement of Brahm’s Violin Concerto. As many of you know this excerpt often appears on audition lists for second bassoon positions and tests the player’s pp playing in the low register of the bassoon. I used this part of the class to discuss techniques for finishing the back of the reed, something often neglected by reed making beginners who concentrate so much time on finishing the tip.
Please see photos of the reed class in my photo album.
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