- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - On a recent Saturday night, Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, the principal oboist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, returned to her home in Franklin Park after a performance at Heinz Hall. She had one more concert with the symphony that weekend - a 2:30 p.m. show on Sunday - but rather than turn in for the evening, she went downstairs. Down to the Dungeon.

It was nearly midnight, and DeAlmeida was going to make an oboe reed, the small, handcrafted piece of cane that oboists, along with other woodwind players, blow through to produce sound on their instruments.

She had an excellent reed from Friday’s concert that she could use on Sunday. Excellent, yes. But what if it cracked, or she dropped it? In any case, could she make one that was even better?

She thought maybe, and with reed-making - which is, for many musicians, as much obsession as it is craft - maybe was enough. So the oboist began the process of preparing five reeds, of which two survived. She went to bed, woke up at about 5 or 5:30 on Sunday morning, and spent another 4½ hours in the Dungeon, focusing on the one she thought would work best. Trying to meet a self-imposed deadline of 10:30 a.m., she finished the reed, which she would use that afternoon in a performance of music by Schubert and Mozart.

“It is an obsession, because, well, it is your sound. It is your sound board,” DeAlmeida said of making oboe reeds.

The banal labors of everyday life increasingly are outsourced to technology. You can buy groceries online, deposit checks with an app or track the weather on your watch.

But for many serious woodwind players, the ritual of reed-making cannot be entrusted to another human. No, it is just you, you and your tools, cutting a bamboo-like piece of cane and fashioning it into a personalized mouthpiece. Hours a week, thousands of times, until it’s done just right.

All musical instruments require some TLC. For woodwind players, a good reed determines their sound, tone, pitch, response and comfort. Teachers pass down this craft to their proteges, and DeAlmeida said her students at Carnegie Mellon University essentially have two majors: oboe performance and reed-making.

The oboist displayed a box of some of the best reeds she has made, labeled by year and piece. “1996, Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto,” she said, as if reading a rare baseball card. “Strauss’ Concerto, 2012.” She eagerly pointed out one reed that she used on a PSO recording of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4, recently nominated for a Grammy. “Oh, that is a beauty.”

Of the reeds DeAlmeida makes, about one in five or 10 is good enough to perform on. She estimates spending six to eight hours per day, six days every week, on this work. And oboe reeds will last for just two or three concerts and a rehearsal.

“I usually do three to four hours of reed-work before the 10 a.m. rehearsals,” she said. “It is living on the edge all the time, and it is difficult explaining to people.”

The process

While the method varies by musician, most professional double-reed musicians - including oboists and bassoonists - make their own reeds, while clarinetists tend to buy them, since the clarinet reed is flat and simpler to construct.

“Since our reeds are made to our individual tastes, and since the spectrum of possible outcomes is so wide, our oboe voices are very individualized and personal,” said Robin Driscoll, principal oboist of Pittsburgh Opera and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. “The art of reed-making is a big focus for players, and the quest for the perfect reed is our ‘holy grail.’ “

The quality of tube cane determines, first and foremost, how good a reed can be. DeAlmeida estimates that she can use one-third of the cane that she purchases.

The cane hails from the Var region of southern France and also grows in Argentina, Australia, California, China and elsewhere. Many musicians believe that the same conditions that make excellent wine produce excellent reed cane, and they age the cane in a similar way.

“You’re trying to find that great bottle of wine,” Driscoll said.

“You never get the same piece of cane twice. They’re like snowflakes,” said Jim Rodgers, the PSO’s principal contrabassoonist, who has a box of cane from the 1960s. His email address is a condensed version of “Arundo donax,” the scientific name for the cane.

In general, double-reed musicians take a tube, split it into pieces, chop it to length and measure it. Many musicians use a machine to gouge the cane, an important step that determines the curvature of the opening of the reed.

Driscoll even developed his own gouging machine, which copies a blade used by his teacher, John Mack, the venerable former principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra.

“He knew he had to pass it on,” Driscoll said. “I was trying to find a way to digitally reproduce it, so we have that curve forever now.”

(By contrast, many other legendary teachers were known for hiding their reed secrets from students, turning around as they made adjustments or even breaking brand-new reeds to encourage proteges to try again.)

Working with machinists in Pittsburgh, Driscoll was able to replicate the blade’s curves, based on a photograph his teacher took in 1965, and incorporated them into his own patented gouger. He manufactures the machines in Winston-Salem, N.C., and has been selling them since the early 1990s. While he used to produce them in Washington, Pa., he now lives in North Carolina and manufactures the gougers there.

After gouging the cane, oboists shape and fold it, tie it onto a tube, cut the tip and carefully scrape it with knives. The cane is measured in increments of 1/100 of a millimeter.

Woodwind players even see opportunities to spruce up the pieces. Rodgers believes using colorful thread to tie the reeds, in addition to differentiating them, may have a psychological effect. “You have a color in mind,” he said.

All told, the work of reed-making is done in stages, over multiple days.

The knife skills used to scrape oboe reeds would make capable chefs blush. But reed-making takes a toll, beyond the inevitable cuts and calluses: DeAlmeida so eroded her left thumbnail - on which she tests the sharpness of blades - that she has pasted Krazy Glue to the nail, picking away at the adhesive instead.

Closing up shop

After making about 10,000 clarinet reeds over three decades, Jack Howell stopped.

The PSO’s principal bass clarinetist was as much of a fanatic as anybody. He would have French-speaking colleagues call up Madame Ghys, his tube-cane supplier in France, to re-up his provisions. In college, he would order cane with a friend and stage a two-person draft, alternating picks of the best pieces.

The move to store-bought reeds was sealed in February, when he auditioned for the PSO and decided that a commercial variety was as good as the 150 or so he’d made for the audition.

Howell, who makes bamboo fly-fishing rods and hand-carved pipes, would appear to be a reed-making evangelist, but he didn’t enjoy the task. “It was just a chore,” he said.

“Music,” he noted, “is time soluble”: Concerts come and go. Your skills deteriorate without regular practice. But the pipes he carves can last for decades.

“I find that in order to stay sane, I need to have something in my life that stays done,” he said.

Loving the craft

Once, when he was passing through an airport, Rodgers’ bassoon reeds were nearly confiscated by a security officer who believed the sharp pieces could be used as weapons. After demonstrating how the reeds worked, the bassoonist was allowed to take them on board.

“I was on my way to an audition. If he had taken those, I might as well have just gone home. He might as well have just thrown out my bassoon,” he said. “It’s like taking a singer’s vocal cords.”

Last winter, he had to stockpile six months’ worth of finished or near-finished reeds in anticipation of shoulder surgery.

He recently started making them again, which for reed enthusiasts like Rodgers is for the best.

“I love making reeds. I always have,” he said. “I’m responsible for creating the sound, not just blowing into the instrument and moving the fingers, but I’m making the sound.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com



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