by Martin Schuring ©2004

You are not making reeds. You are learning to make reeds. There's a big difference. It's not all your fault.

One day, your teacher says, "We're going to make reeds." An hour later, you are wishing you had four hands, wishing you could complete one or two ties without pieces flying in all directions, hoping that this time the string won't break. Immediately after these are achieved, the bar is raised. The reed is supposed to be straight, of a particular length, without leaks. The string winds should go neatly one next to the other, not snarled on top of each other. Moreover, the reed should have a proper overlap. Too many things to control, all long before the knife goes anywhere near the reed. You are now firmly stuck in the deep end, trying not to drown.

The problem is that there are not enough preparatory exercises to build the skills you need to make reeds. The only way to learn to make reeds is to do it. The analogous situation would be to go to your first oboe lesson and have the teacher say, "Here's the Strauss oboe concerto. We're going to learn this." Possibly, eight years later, you might make a presentable job of the Strauss, but you can imagine the frustration of being so bad at it for so long.

So, you're not making reeds. You're learning to make reeds. There's a big difference. The frustration can be reduced considerably by being much more interested in process than in product. Do each task as well as you possibly can. Know that you will probably make mistakes, or that you will overlook something because you haven't learned it yet. If the reed plays, great. It was probably an accident. Don't get used to it. Getting a reed is less important than getting skillful.

There is a way to speed up the process and minimize the frustration. Since reed making is something you learn by doing, do it a lot. It will likely take about a thousand reeds (!) before you feel like you know what you're doing. If you make two reeds a week, those thousand reeds will take you ten years to finish. Too long, don't you think? Two reeds a day, and you're down to a year and a half. Much better. After those thousand reeds, you will start to feel like you aren't drowning any more. Then, we can proceed to actually swimming.

And, there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel. Reed making is not the oboist's curse; it is the oboist's secret weapon. Eventually, you will be able to adjust a reed to suit your situation exactly. You will be able to make different reeds for different halls, different repertoire, different size ensembles, etc. Other instrumentalists need expensive additional equipment to make these changes; you can make them in a few seconds with your reed knife. Get to work.