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To Measure, or not to Measure

Of the many oboists I’ve met and made reeds with, it seems I can generally put them into one of two categories: those who use specific measurements for nearly all parts of the reed, and those who make reeds purely by feel, with almost no standardized measurements.

I, myself, learned to make reeds with measurements and still do so for the majority of my reeds. I measure the length while I tie the blank, the length of where I want the tip, where I want the heart, and where I want the back. I measure the thicknesses of the spine, the heart, the channels, even the corners of the tip. All these measurements come from recommendations from teachers and colleagues who have had a good deal of success.

Many others have had just as much success in their careers by focusing entirely on the feel of the reed, and seem to be not at all concerned with specific thicknesses and lengths of each part of the reed (here is a video of John Mack making a reed).

So, why is there such a divide?

Using measurements is a great way to learn somewhat quickly how to make the reed. By following a template, a person can reliably get close; the measurements generally don’t result in a finished reed, but with a few final touch-ups, the reeds can be quite good, and consistently so. The downsides are that tedious measurements add substantially more time to the process, and with all the emphasis set on numerical measurements, the student often has a harder time learning how to properly customize each reed.

Making reeds without strict measurements emphasizes the unique nature of each piece of cane. No two pieces of cane are identical, and each requires something different to get the appropriate vibrations. In focusing on what the piece of cane needs, a person can begin customizing the reed from the beginning, and in this way, can better understand the result of scraping on each part of the reed. The downside is that it takes longer to develop the mental database of causes and effects, and it can take longer before a student is able to make successful reeds.

Even with this divide between people who measure every part of the reed and those who measure very few, the most successful oboists I’ve met all agree on the importance of at least one thing – being extremely careful not to tie above the end of the staple. Otherwise, it seems all measurements (or lack thereof) are open for debate.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, and the best reeds probably have some measurements in common with a fair amount of necessary customization. As Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s principal oboist Peter Cooper once explained to me, making reeds is arts and crafts. If we remain strict to all our templates, we are only exercising the “craft.” The “art” comes when can react to the piece of cane so that it helps our musical phrasing rather than limits it.

Do you measure your reeds? What areas of the reed are the most important to measure for you?