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There are a lot of oboe reed options out there now. They range from handmade to hand finished to factory made They include American and European scrapes. They now include playable plastic options. This guide is to help you assess if you are playing on the right reed now and how to navigate the on-line marketplace
The best part of buying a factory made reed is their on demand availability through local music shops and big box stores and their relatively lower price. These are also their weaknesses. Factory machined reeds have to streamline too many variables that should be nuanced in order to achieve very high production volume. Materials need to be wrangled to fit the set-up. They often use cane that is too soft so the reed cannot be adjusted properly if needed. For me, they are inconsistent and often unplayable. If I were buying them for my own needs, I would not only be unsatisfied with their performance, but they would actually cost me more than handmade reeds in the long run because of failures and lifespan. The inexperienced oboist doesn't know enough to detect this and this can derail their progress. Handmade Oboe Reeds from a reed maker who makes them from scratch means smaller volume with personalized care. It will cost more, but can put you on a better path to success with this already difficult to play instrument.
The true meaning of handmade by the reed maker is: handmade from scratch by the reed maker with no outsourcing. Hand finished means that the reed maker outsourced blanks, profiled reeds, or finished reeds that are adjusted. A little help from a trusted professional is fine, but doing a second finish on a factory made reed works for only a small portion of the order received. In terms of scraping, some reed makers do all of the scraping by hand, some use certain scraping machines to give them a head start. This is ok as long as it improves consistency without sacrificing quality. Finishing the reed with a machine rarely gets the results desired.
True handmade from scratch oboe reeds gives the reed makers the most control over materials, construction and promotes a more nuanced scrape for best results.
American oboe production techniques are taught be nearly all oboe teachers in the states. This free blowing style is different from how the Europeans play and requires an American long scrape reed. European scrape reeds are mostly found on-line and in music stores. They can be identified by a U shape scrape that covers the top third of the reed, and are made in factories. A definite no-no.
Medium for all oboists, medium hard for some advanced oboists, and medium hard to hard for those oboists with oboe reed adjustment skills or access to a teacher with these skills.
Geography is more important that one would think. Altitude and humidity significantly impact how a reed works. Oboe cane constricts in dry climates and expands in wet ones, even before they are soaked for play. This impacts the aperture size. An oboe reed made in NY is plays best in similar climates. The same oboe reed would end up with a tiny aperture in the mountains of Colorado and very open in the Amazon rain forest. Conversely, an oboe reed made in the high mountains would explode in New York. Check reed maker location to assess how well it will ship to your location.
First- you should know your reed maker by name. No one should be expected to make a good choice based on the color of thread- especially when there are a dozen alternatives. You should have access to your reed maker with questions or special need requests. You should expect a professional approach to the business and an expectation that they are committed to the business of Professional Reed Making for the long run. There are tell-tale signs in terms of packaging, shipping and websites that demonstrate this commitment.
No oboist should have to wait more than 5 days for an oboe reed. Professional reed makers should be expected to do the necessary advance planning to make this happen. 4-6 weeks means that volume has overrun capacity. I had a dentist once for whom I had to wait 3 months for an appointment. I left him because he was more interested in volume and profit than serving his existing patients. If you need reeds in real time, and want to benefits of being a valued client, find another reed maker who is capable of delivering this.