Oboe reeds are different to the reeds you find on other common members of the woodwind family, such as clarinets & saxophones.
Like its cousin the bassoon, the oboe is a double reed instrument.
An oboe reed is a double reed which is formed of two blades of bamboo-like cane, bound together with thread to form a small opening. When blown down, the air column vibrates in the blades and the sound is produced.
Reeds vary in hardness and style and each reed has its own character – two reeds that are supposedly identical can feel completely different!
In time, oboists often learn to make their reeds to tailor them to their individual style of playing, but as a beginner you will play on pre-made reeds.
It is important that these are maintained properly to increase longevity and ease of playing.
When starting the oboe, knowing how to choose and maintain your reeds can be a daunting prospect. We’ve put together a guide with top tips on how to choose the right reed for you and how to look after it once purchased.
Click here for an index to all the technical terminology used in this introduction to oboe reeds article.
Oboe reeds generally come in a variety of strengths and knowing which to choose is important for your ease of playing and progress with the instrument.
For beginner oboists, we would always recommend soft or medium soft reeds, since your embouchure is developing and won’t have the strength for harder reeds. A softer, free blowing reed enables flexibility in all registers of the instrument and won’t put pressure on your head when blowing hard.
As your technique improves, you may want to change to a harder strength of reed to enable a fuller and richer tone.
Before playing, soak the reed for about thirty seconds to a minute to allow enough moisture for the reed to vibrate but not leave it waterlogged, which would distort intonation.
You can then try ‘crowing’ the reed. This is when you over blow the reed to produce a squawky sound which is aptly named after a rooster crow; it ‘wakes up’ the vibrations of the reed and is a good test of how hard it is. An easy crow means the reed is softer and will probably play more easily.
Next, push the reed by the staple all the way into the oboe and make sure that it is flat and in line with the keywork of the instrument.
Many beginner reeds come with wire wrapped around the lower half of the blades; this is to provide stability in the vibration and enables you to open or close the aperture with ease.
Some reeds are not wired – this is also fine but you may wish to ask your teacher to add a wire onto your reed.
If the aperture of the reed is too open, you will be forced to bite the embouchure to shut the reed and produce a sound; this is hard work and can strain your mouth muscles.
To close the reed, soak it and gently push the blades towards each other at the wire using your thumb and first finger. Make sure you squeeze the lower part of the blades as the scraped section is delicate. Don’t force it to shut too aggressively – the reed might crack!
If the reed is too closed, you will struggle to get enough air down it to vibrate sufficiently. The sound will be thin, and you may struggle in the lower register. To open the reed, gently press the wire at the sides of the blades so that they open at the top. Again, proceed gently and always handle the lower half of the blades.
Make sure the reed is dry before storing it in your reed box – this makes the reed last longer and prevents it from going mouldy.
Depending on how often you use them, oboe reeds should last for around a month, but we recommend alternating between a couple of reeds to increase longevity. Your reed may also be wrapped in clingfilm, which ensures that the binding is secure and the reed is airtight.
This may become loose or fall off over time, so make sure to replace it with a small strip of clingfilm wrapped tightly from the middle of the thread binding to the middle of the blades.
Oboe reeds vary in price based on a number of factors. Reeds are made and sold by individuals and larger brands. Whether you purchase them from an individual or a bigger brand, the price points will vary based on quality. This article is just an introduction to oboe reeds, however here is a quick reference guide to the typical prices you can expect to pay in the UK.
Don’t panic – when starting the oboe it is possible that a reed will become damaged as you learn how to handle and use it. If the reed has a large crack in it, it will no longer play, but if the reed has a small chip on the corner of the tip, it might be just fine.
Remember that oboe reeds are delicate and should be handled with care. Equally, reeds are replaceable so a broken reed is never the end of the world!
Each piece of cane has subtle differences, even if it was manufactured in the same way – it comes from nature after all! As a result, each piece of cane reacts differently to being played: some reeds are more stable in the high register, others play staccato really well etc.
As you progress, you will learn how to tell which reeds feel suited to different parts of your playing, but the most important thing to remember is to keep a consistent air stream and diaphragm support no matter the qualities of the reed.
Reeds can feel frustrating at times, particularly if a reed that felt great yesterday somehow isn’t really working today.
This is completely normal, and every oboist experiences good and bad reed days at every level of playing. We would recommend showing your reed to your teacher if you are struggling – they will be able to adjust it by scraping it or replacing the wrapping and wire.
Always double check that the aperture of the reed is how you want it, stay relaxed when blowing and come back another day if the reed is proving to be pesky!
There are many oboe reeds available, the links below represent just a few of the reeds we would recommend to a beginner. We would recommend avoiding cheaper mass-produced reeds without advanced testing and advice of a teacher.
Airtight – No air is leaking from the sides of the reed, where the two blades meet
Aperture – The opening of the blades at the top of the reed
Binding – The thread which attaches the cane to the staple
Diaphragm support – Engaging the diaphragm muscles to sustain a consistent air stream
Embouchure – The position of the mouth when playing a wind instrument
Intonation – The pitch accuracy of a note
Staccato – Detached notes
Staple – The metal tubing wrapped in cork, which the cane is bound onto
Tone – The quality of the sound produced
We hope you found this article a useful introduction to oboe reeds.
If you’re thinking of starting to learn the oboe, we have oboes available to rent in London today.
We’ll be writing more about the oboe in the near future, so please stay tuned and follow us on your favourite social media platforms for notifications when our new content goes live.
Thanks for reading!