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Bassoon reed tips from an expert: Robert Williams (Retired Principal Bassoon for DSO)

This blog post is provided courtesy of Robert S. Williams and Womble/Williams Double Reeds (WWDR), and include some important questions that Mr. Williams has asked and shared with his students over the years.

Q: What would you describe as the 4 systems involved in trimming and adjusting reeds?

A: Shape, Thickness, Wires and Bevel.

Q: How would you use each system to correct or adjust the fault in the reed with which you are working?

A: If a reed is too flat in pitch you can narrow the shape of the reed or round the wires to raise the pitch. The thickness of scrape determines the basic sound of the reed. In general the thinner the scrape the flatter the reed will play. The reed will become darker as the sides are thinned or brighter as the center of the reed is thinned. As the first wire is moved above the narrowest part of the shape the tip opening will become more open. Rounding the wires make the reed play sharper, squeezing the wires top and bottom, (making them more oval and less round) makes the reed play flatter. Increasing the bevel towards the butt end of the reed will help the tip opening stay open and help support notes that tend do go flat first, (C-sharp and E in the staff). This enables the reed to be trimmed thinner and the second wire to stay round.

Q: If you were to carry each system to its furthest extent, what might the reed look like?

A: You would have a reed with round wires, very narrow parallel sides, thinly scraped and very short.

Q: Can you actually recognize a good reed by looking at it? What qualities in its appearance would give you helpful clues?

A: You can get an idea if a reed is on the right track by observing the tip opening for symmetry. The sides should close together as the reed is squeezed top to bottom, a little at a time from the outside to the middle, not all at once. You would make sure that the butt is perfectly round so that there are no leaks around the bocal. The shape should be symmetrical and the two separate sides of the reed should be of similar strength.

Q: In order of importance, what do you feel are the most important qualities in a reed?

A: A reed should play in tune, respond to the performers input and have a good tone quality.

Q: What is the parenchyma and the sclerenchyma?

A: The parenchyma is the pulp part of the cane and the sclerenchyma is the skeleton part of the cane. If compared to reinforced concrete the parenchyma would be the concrete and the sclerenchyma the reinforcing metal rods found inside the concrete.

Q: Do you have any thoughts about Heinrich heavy clarinet reeds?

A: The larger wind single reed instruments, such as bass clarinet and Baritone sax have a very thick reed and still can get a very vibrant sound using cane far from the bark of the reed in the parenchyma. This refutes the idea that you need a fairly thin gouge to get a vibrant reed. As you increase the thickness of the gouge in bassoon cane you lose the mechanics of the wire adjustments.

Q: Which side of the reed is usually played up and why?

A: The stronger side of the reed is played up because it is easier to control the weaker side with the lower jaw. The weaker side of the reed is more sensitive to the embouchure adjustments of the lower jaw.

Q: What is the benefit of a flat shaper v.s. a foldover shaper?

A: The main advantage to a flat shaper over a foldover shaper is that you get a more consistent result in the shape because the shaping knife always shapes at a 90 degree angle to the cane and the cane is forced to conform to the curvature of the inside of the shaper when clamped into it. In a foldover shaper the angle of cut can vary and the curvature of the cane can not be controlled as well so the resultant shape is not as consistent. . A straight shaper usually requires unprofiled cane. Profiled cane is used with a foldover shaper. A piece of profiled cane will usually fold over in the middle of the profile. Using a foldover shaper will center the profile on the shaper from front to back, but not necessarily side to side

Q: How do you reduce the effects produced in the folding of a shaped piece of cane?

A: If you cut the corners of the profiled cane where the foldover will be, is it is easier to shape and form. This will negate the darkening effect that shaping with a foldover shape gives to the cane.

Q: What is one way to ruin a reed before even making it?

A: If you split a tube and you get a piece of cane with different curvatures, i.e. one side is more arched than the other, it will be almost impossible to make a good reed from that cane.

Q: What are some ways to make a reed brighter?

A: 1.) Flattening the first two wires, 2.) Scraping the center of the reed, and 3.) Narrowing the shape of the reed.

Q: How do you darken a reed?

A: 1.) Make the first two wires rounder and 2.) Scraping the reed on the sides.

Q: Do you actually pick reeds for different songs? How might you construct an ideal reed for some of the most popular bassoon solos?

A: Bolero - narrow reed fairly thick heart with round wires and long bevel.

Opening of Tchaikowsky 6th - wider reed with flatter wires, thinner scrape and short bevel.

Peter and the Wolf - same as Tchaikowsky 6th.

Opening of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro - normal shape, oval 1st & round 2nd wires, thinner scrape for soft dynamics, short bevel.

Q: What effect does the trimming of the top half of a reed have? What effect does the trimming of the back half of a reed have?

A: The top half of the reed controls the sound of the reed. A reed will darken as the sides are thinned in relation to the center. A bright reed will have thicker sides in relationship to the center. The back half controls the blowing qualities of the reed. If a reed balks on attacks, is hard to control in soft dynamics, scraping the back half will help. It will also flatten the general pitch of the reed. The more you take out of the back the better the lower notes will respond, however you will lose the upper register at the same time. If too much is taken out of the back the upper register from middle C to F a fourth above will be adversely affected.

Q: How long should you allow a reed blank to dry?

A: A blank should dry for at least two weeks to stabilize (relax) the changes made in the cane when forming the tube. A piece of paper rolled in a tube will spring back when first rolled up. If kept rolled for two weeks it will stay rolled. You would not want to move into a house built of wood chopped down yesterday.

Q: What are some adjustments you can make on a reed if you're playing too sharp? Playing too flat?

A: If your general pitch is usually too sharp, any or all of the following will help lower the pitch of the reed: use a wider reed shape, flatten out the wires, lengthen the reed, use a thinner scrape and short bevel. If your general intonation is flat, any or all of the following will help raise the pitch of the reed: using a narrower shape, rounder wires, shorter reed, thicker scrape and longer bevel.

Q: What are the optimal shapes of the first two wires (the top 2) of a reed before trimming?

A: The first wire should be slightly oval in shape and the second wire should be round. This gives you the most options of adjusting the wires after the reed has been formed. If the first wire is too round, placing it more towards the top from the narrowest point on the shaped cane will produce a more oval wire shape. Shaper/mandrel compatibility also have a great deal to do with the shape of the first two wires. If the wires are too round the shaper needs to be wider or the mandrel narrower. If the wires are too flat a narrower shape or larger diameter mandrel could be used, or, simply inserting the mandrel farther into the reed blank will achieve that required result. Once the optimum union is found the mandrel should be marked so that consistent openings can be achieved.

Q: When you trim a bassoon reed, which side should be trimmed first?

A: The stronger side of the reed should be trimmed first to keep the reed sides as similar in strength as possible.

Q: For a bassoon reed, what decides the length of the tube? What decides the length of the blade?

A: The length of the tube is decided by the placement of the first wire. The cane should be cut 1” to 1 1/8” behind the first wire. The length of the blade is determined by the most narrow part of the shaper and first wire placement. I have found that the length of the cane used also can help determine tube length. If the wire is placed at the same spot (slightly above the narrowest spot of the shape), using a longer piece of cane will give you a tube 50% longer then the total increase in the length of the cane.

Q: When making a bassoon reed, where should the first wire be placed?

A: Slightly ahead of the narrowest spot in the shape so that the placement gives you a slightly oval first wire which lets you open the reed from the first wire if necessary without the wire getting too round.

Q: When making a bassoon reed, where should the second wire be placed?

A: 8 to 10 32nds” behind the first wire, center to center so that it is in the ideal position to respond opposite to the first wire adjustments.

Q: When making a bassoon reed, where should the third wire be placed?

A: 1/8th” from the back of the reed so that it keeps the tube round and supported and gives the best effect from the bevel to keep the tip open. This also gives you enough room to wrap a proper Turk’s Head at the end of the reed.

Q: What is the optimal opening of a bassoon reed during the finishing stage?

A: The optimum reed tip opening is a symmetrical opposing curve (ellipse). It is balanced in strength from side to side and top to bottom. This allows you to weaken (scrape) all four sides of the reed equally so the reed stays balanced as it is being finished and you avoid collapsing one of the sides of the reed.

Q: What would you consider a good piece of cane?

A: A good piece of cane is one that responds to and holds its trim.

Q: Wires on a reed sometimes get loose when a reed dries. When this happens, do you tighten them? If so which ones?

A: If the second wire is loose when the reed is wet or dry, it should be tightened. If a loose first wire on a dry reed tightens up when the reed is wet it should be left alone, if it stays loose it should be tightened.

Q: When trimming the blades of a bassoon reed during the final trial period, which general areas are trimmed first?

A: The channels, the area in between the center line of the reed and the sides are the first places to trim on a nearly finished reed. This is because scraping here will generally free up a reed without changing the pitch tendencies of the reed. You avoid scraping the heart which can make a nearly completed reed lose C# and E’s in the staff, and avoid making the sides too thin and collapse. Work from the tip of the reed back. Starting with the top half of the reed If the reed is still too stiff work towards the back.

Q: Which system in reedmaking is the most preferred one for trimming?

A: Adjusting the wires, because no cane is removed in the process.

Q: What are some examples of one system enhancing, and one system negating the other?

Scraping the channels and opening the reed by squeezing the second wire top to bottom will both make the reed play flatter and freer. Scraping the reed in the middle and rounding the wires of the reed counteract each other.

Q: If your playing reeds consistently have the second wire crushed so that it is below the level of the first wire, how can this be avoided?

A: Moving the first wire up on the shaped piece of cane can help to open the tip of the reed. Beveling the reed more towards the end will also open up the tip so squeezing the second wire top to bottom to open the tip will not be as necessary.

Robert S. Williams recently retired as Principal Bassoonist for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, where he has performed since 1974. He is generously sharing these materials in hopes of helping younger, aspiring bassoonists. For more information about Robert, please see his profile page.

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