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Barrick Stees, Bassoon

Making Reeds

Reed Making FAQ

How often do you purchase cane?

I purchase about 200 pieces of cane a year.  I buy from several different sources, maybe two or three places during the year. 

How do you organize/store the cane you do not use?

I store the cane in metal cases with little drawers.  You can buy these in hardware stores. The drawers are just the right length for gouged cane.  I organize the cane by source and year purchased.  I throw out hard or warped cane.  I store soft cane and let it harden.  Some of it may be useable in the future.

Why do you use distilled water when soaking cane? 

A pure water source is important.  If your water is hard, soft or impure, using distilled water is best.  Soaking the cane not only prepares it for work, but also removes impurities in the cane such as the “sap”.  I soak the cane for 48 hours, changing the water after a day.  If you do this, you will notice the cane produces a fair amount of “wine”.  With less soaking this would normally come out gradually during the break-in period.  I believe getting these impurities out shortens the break-in period and lets me know earlier on whether or not I’ve got a good reed on my bocal.  Using this process I often get reeds that will be stable for a rehearsal or concert a few days or a week after the tip is cut.  

Can you soak cane too long when soaking cane pre-profiling?

I think it is possible to soak cane too long. If you sense a bad smell in the water, then it’s been left in too long.  If you use my 48 hour soaking length, the cane needs to be in very pure water in an airtight container with no direct sunlight. 

Do you use distilled water throughout the entire reed making process or only when soaking the cane? 

No, often it’s not convenient.  Water temperature matters, however. I’ve found that reeds react best when soaked in tepid water. Reeds soaked in drinking fountain water take longer to “warm up” and vibrate well.

Why do you use Rigotti cane?

At this point (2009) this is the best cane I’ve found.  The gouge from the manufacturer works best with my scrape and the cane seems more consistently vibrant than other brands. 

However, I don’t believe there is any “Coke” or “Pepsi” brand when it comes to cane.  Every source will eventually go bad for a while.  This is due to changes in climate from year to year and many other things.  Every cane dealer is in the business to make a profit and will try to sell as much of the inventory as possible.  This combined with the fact that different bassoon players prefer different types of cane (hard, soft, etc.) means that you will get some batches that are unusable. 

Therefore, it is extremely important to have cane from several different sources at all times.  In my #1 reed box now I have reeds made from three different sources.

What type of profiler do you use?

I use a Pfeifer single barrel profiler combined with a Rieger tip finisher.  I am a bit old-fashioned about this. 

I believe strongly that one should be able to adjust the scrape to suit the characteristics of the individual piece of cane.  This profiler allows me to do this.

Also, my job in the Cleveland Orchestra requires me to play principal bassoon, third bassoon and even a little second bassoon.  Because of the Orchestra’s demanding standards, I can’t always use an “Omni Reed”.  Sometimes I need a low, soft reed, other times a brilliant, projecting reed, a high note reed, etc.

Therefore, I don’t have much luck with the more sophisticated profilers.  For me they remove too much cane from the start.  Setting them thick to make up for this defeats the purpose of these machines and wastes the large amount of money one spends for them.

I get a higher yield and more variety using the single barrel profiler.  It leaves more cane on the blank than I’d like, but it’s really not much more work to remove it.  If, in the scraping process, I notice that a reed seems soft, I’ll leave a little more on to bolster it.  This reed would be unusable if profiled immediately to finished thickness.  If I need a high note reed, I can leave a little more thickness near the collar, too.

The tip finisher ensures consistency in tip finishing.  However, I also set this a bit thick to allow for cane variation.  I don’t recommend tip finishers for my students.  They need to learn how to scrape a tip by hand!  Many students can’t afford a tip finisher anyway.  If they use one in school, what happens after graduation?

How many reeds do you make at a time?

I usually make 10 at a time.

How many do you recommend students at various levels make at a time?

I make 10 at a time.  I don’t distinguish between levels.  Making just a few at a time can harm the student’s consistency.  Doing any activity many times in a row builds consistency.  Also, the failure rate with reeds is so high (25% good reeds, 75% bad is a good rate) that it forces one to make many at a time to ensure at least a few will be useable.

What does beveling do?

Beveling does two things.  First, it helps create an airtight seal for the bound part of the reed.  Second, it sets the amount of lift provided to the blades by the leverage provided by the wires and the back of the tube. This regulates the tip opening of the blade.

How do you know how much to do?

If your shaper has a substantial back flair (it flairs a lot again behind the narrowest point near the butt of the reed) then you probably should bevel more aggressively.  If little or no back flair, then less may be preferred. 

If your bassoon needs stronger low notes or more bass in the sound then bevel more.  If you need stronger high notes, then bevel less.

I use the Herzberg “short” bevel.  This bevel goes from the second wire placement to the butt.  The “long” bevel can be used to enhance the high register.  This bevel extends all the way to the first wire placement.

I check the amount of bevel by folding the blank so all sides are touching.  I place a finger and thumb at the second wire mark (the fulcrum of the reed as lever) and press the ends of the reed together so there is no space between them at the butt end.  I look for a sliver of opening to occur in the blade area.

You can see a short video of my beveling procedure on the website.  Also, read both Norman Herzberg’s and Hugh Cooper’s articles on beveling in the Double Reed magazine.

Do you purposely slip the blades of your reeds sometimes?

Rarely.  This can be a way of taming cane that is inherently bright, however.

Why do you use rubber bands when forming and drying the blank?

The rubber bands help distribute the stress introduced in forming the reed.  They ensure a consistent tube from blank to blank.  They mold the cane around the drying rack pin and make it unnecessary to round the tube with pliers. 

I use rubber bands instead of string because the rubber bands keep constant tension on the tube during drying.  Rubber band formed blanks stand up to the beveling I do, whereas the tubes of blanks formed with string tend to collapse when I bevel.

 When using the rubber band method as a way to form the blank, how can one be sure the blades have not slipped during the drying process?

The rubber band must be wrapped around the tube equally in clockwise and counter-clockwise directions to ensure there is no slipping.

What effect do the special forming pins have on the reed?

My forming pins are a blend of three different tapers and reflect the taper of the inside of the reed tube most accurately.  The collar on the pin allows for consistent tube dimensions for every blank.  The length of the pin helps make the throat size consistent, too.

Using the pins with a pin vise allows the blank to remain on the same taper during forming and drying.  This adds to the consistency in reed making.

How do you prevent a crack from going into the blade of a blank?

Cracking can be prevented through proper soaking.  Sometimes it is necessary to re-soak the blank before forming if the blank has dried out.  Scoring the blank helps distribute the stress of forming and can prevent cracking.

With the first wire in place and using my rubber band method, it is necessary to round the first wire slightly before inserting the mandrel.  My mandrel pins are made long to ensure uniform throat size from reed to reed.  If the first wire is not rounded a bit prior to insertion, the blank may crack.

However, all of my best reeds have a very small surface crack in the center of the area in front of the collar after forming.  This is a surface crack and it disappears after scraping.

Why do you let formed blanks dry for two weeks?

After two weeks the cane is very dry and stable after forming.  The tube doesn’t collapse during beveling.  Drying allows the stress introduced into the blank through forming to settle in place.  Also, it can take a while for the reed to dry out after soaking.

The longer the blanks dry the higher the yield of good reeds.

Why do you use the crow as a diagnostic check of the reed?

Testing the crow is helpful in many ways.  Crowing the reed first saves time wasted testing bad or under-scraped reeds on the bassoon.  Crowing also helps guide your decisions on how to adjust or scrape the reeds.

Crow the reed by placing the lips on the first wire.  Blow air through the reed lightly at first until a sound starts to develop.  This single tone is the predominate pitch of the reed.

This pitch should be an “F” or “E”.  A reed at this pitch will do several things well.  The general pitch of the reed on the bassoon will be within range of A = 440.  The low notes will respond well.  The reed may also have a complex, warm tone.

If the pitch is higher, find where the reed is heavy and scrape.  If lower, the reed may be too soft to be reliable or may be over scraped

Now crow the reed again with a sense of crescendo from “ppp” to “ff”.  Notice when the multi-phonic crow appears in the crescendo.  When does it disappear and turn into a squawk?  A reed with a multi-phonic that starts early in the crescendo and stays in place late into the crescendo will be a good reed.  It will articulate well and have a clear, focused tone at all dynamics.

How important is accuracy in reed making?

Removing variables in reed making improves consistency.  Cane, being a piece of nature, will vary in quality.  Therefore, accuracy in all aspects of reed making is the only way to mitigate this variability.

How important is it to follow reed making steps in the stated order?

A reed making style is a system.  All of the parts work together for maximum result.  Taking steps out of order can cause trouble.  However, some steps can be taken at different times (e.g., when you form the collar).

Why do you advocate use of a dial indicator?

A dial indicator is extremely helpful in attaining the most important attribute in reed construction: symmetry.  To produce reeds that vibrate well in all registers, the blades must vibrate at the same rate at all points.  A well-scraped reed will do this.  This can only be  done accurately by using a dial indicator.  A reed lamp will help, but the silhouettes can be deceptive.

Why do you advocate the use of your particular shaper?

My shape, the Berdon #6 (copy available from Fox Products Corporation – model ST), enhances the qualities of my bassoon and strengthens its weaknesses.  A good overall shape for many different types of bassoon is the Fox Sakakeeny Van Hoesen model.

How much do you scrape the rails, and what effect does this have on the reed?

This depends upon your profile. Mine requires a lot of work on the rails.  Most of my reeds have a taper from tip to collar that is very similar to that of the spine.  However, to darken the reed if bright, thinner rails are helpful.  If the cane is inherently dark in tone, leaving the rails a little heavy can help.  For a better high register, a more extreme taper from tip to collar is helpful (heavy near collar, very thin at tip).

This variability is one reason why I like the single barrel profiler.  It leaves open the possibility that I can customize sections of the reed like the rails.

Work on the rails cannot be checked by a dial indicator.  If you slip the plaque between the blades so it sticks out on one of the sides you can compare thickness between bottom and top rails by eye.

Does the thickness of the wire used really matter?

Yes, this is very important.  Most bassoonists use #22 gage soft brass wire, although some will use #23 (heavier) or a different metal (copper).  The first wire serves as the capo d’astro or cut off point for the vibrating blade.  A heavier wire will dampen vibration more, lighter wire less.  The wires also help activate the lever action that the bevel applies to the tip opening.  A heavier wire will close the tip, a lighter wire will make it open more.  #22 gage wire seems to work best.

The blades of most my blanks tend to lay off center of each other (side-slipped).  What can I do to keep the blades aligned?

To avoid slippage in the blades observe how you form the reed, use the rubber bands (or other wrapping material for forming) and even how you put the reed on the bocal.  The key is to avoid twisting the tube in one direction.  If you must twist to get the forming mandrel or put the finished reed on the bocal do as little as possible and twist in both directions.  Pushing with a little twisting is best.

You can correct slippage after the fact by twisting the wrapped area of the tube while twisting the blade (hold around the throat above the first wire) in the opposite direction.  Alternatively, you can sand or file off any slippage.

Slippage further dampens the reed making it less vibrant.  It also changes the shape of the blade making it narrower because the overlap does not vibrate.

Why did you create your reamer?

I asked Ken Potsic to design my reamer because of my students’ (and my) dissatisfaction with all the other reamers on the market.

How is it different from other reamers?

It is sharper and more accurate in taper than any other reamer I know of.  The collar is adjustable and allows you to ream to the same depth every time. Unlike other reamers with collars, it screws into the shaft and not the flutes of the reamer.  The flutes are not marred by the set screw.

How much do you ream?

I usually ream the reed so it fits on my bocal between 7-10mm.

How does more or less effect the reed?

More reaming makes the reed play with more depth and tends to darken and even the tone.  Less reaming keeps the reed brilliant.  Because my reamer also reams the throat of the reed this also helps pull the pitch down and focus the low register. 

To raise the pitch of the reed without cutting the tip, open the first wire so the reamer does no work in the throat and ream more aggressively.  Fitting farther on the bocal, the reed will play higher in pitch.

Is there a noticeable difference in playing using cotton verses nylon thread?

I haven’t noticed any.

How often do you sharpen your reed knife?

I try to touch it up before a lengthy reed making session.

How important is it to keep it sharp?

Sharpness is essential for efficiency and accuracy in the scrape.

How long does it take to make a reed start to finish?

Technically, I could take a piece of tube cane, boil it for an hour and make a reed out of one of its parts in a half hour.  However, for reasons explained above, I would never do that.

From start to finish usually involves a few months with all the soaking and drying.

Do you ever play on a reed two days in a row, or do you always give them at least one day of rest in between playings?

Yes, I sometimes do play on a reed on consecutive days.  I try to avoid this if I’m playing a lot on both days, because the reed tends to tire, though.  I can do this successfully with reeds that have been played in for a week or more.  New reeds need more time to rest between playing.

You once said that you had to dramatically increase your reed standards when you joined the Cleveland Orchestra.  What were your old standards, and what became your new standards?

Arthur Weisberg once said, “You get the reeds you deserve”.  I think that’s really true.  If your standards are high, you will demand more of your reeds.  The same holds true of your playing environment.  The more demanding the environment, the higher your standards for your reeds will be.

Before joining the Cleveland Orchestra I was a full-time professor at Michigan State University.  Of course, I needed to have high standards as a teacher so I could demonstrate effectively in lessons, play in the area orchestra and give recitals, but I didn’t have the daily requirements placed on me by playing with 100 world-class musicians in a world-renowned orchestra. 

Our orchestra has a very specific type of sound a style of playing.  Some reeds that would have been good for using in lessons, etc. are not acceptable for playing in our orchestra. My reeds need to fit into a much more specific, smaller category than before.