The oboe is, in general, a lesser-known woodwind, but, like any instrument, requires skill and ded­i­cation. Not only does the oboist have to master the instrument, but its tem­per­mental double-reed as well.

“It is an ongoing kind of nightmare for double-reed players to have a reed that is always working well,” said James Holleman, chairman and asso­ciate pro­fessor of music, choirs, orchestra and con­ducting, said. “One of the big aspects of playing oboe is reed making. Every instrument has a unique set of problems you have to deal with to play the instrument. Oboe playing is all about the reeds.”

Holleman said a reed has an unpre­dictable “life.”

“All of a sudden it will have a peak and it will be responding sounding beau­ti­fully in-tuned. That could last a day, it could last a week, or it could last two days; it is really unpre­dictable,” he said. “The ability to control the quality of the reed from the beginning to the end is all part of learning to be an oboe player.”

Reeds are tiny, finicky, pieces of bamboo-like cane that have been spliced, gouged, guil­lotined, shaved, and tied. Until recently juniors Jacob Martin and Teddy Sawyer; sopho­mores Kelly Tillotson and Hannah Taylor have spent hun­dreds of dollars buying pre-shaped cane that was unre­liable, but the department just invested a little over $3,000 in reed equipment, so stu­dents could make their own, higher-quality reeds.

The equipment was pur­chased from as far away as Paris and Cal­i­fornia, and it con­sists of small, intricate pieces including a guil­lotine, a gouger, a micrometer, a reed pro­filing machine, and various other knives to shave at the cane.

Oboe Instructor Kaycee Ware-Thomas said stu­dents had been buying pre-gouged cane from local sup­pliers, and it doesn’t give them all the qual­ities of the tone that they need.

“The equipment at this school is so good that it doesn’t take much for the reed to sound really nice and have a really good fin­ished product,” she said. “And the stu­dents here are really good and why can’t they have the equipment that they need to work on reeds.”

“It wasn’t ter­ribly expensive,” Holleman said. “When you are talking about violins you can spend $5,000 on an ‘okay’ instrument or you can spend $4.5 million on a really good violin. I mean we are talking a little over $3,000 to have the equipment per­ma­nently, that is not that big of a cost. When you look at the big scheme of things, and you look at how many years, and you look at the expe­rience of our stu­dents are going to have, it really wasn’t that big of an expense”

The oboe stu­dents are now working in a practice room in the music building, shaving away at their reeds. From start to finish, a reed takes about 30 minutes to an hour to com­plete, Kaycee said.

“It is kind of slower for us though,” Martin said.

According to Taylor, sched­uling time to make reeds along with normal Hillsdale classes is difficult.Taylor said.

“I spend hours there and I have probably gouged 15 pieces of cane and seven of them cracked before they can become reeds. The others cracked when I was shaping them with the shaper tip,” Martin said. “Its frus­trating, but then the ones that turned out well, well they are really good reeds.”

Taylor added that it was good to have control of some of the vari­ables in the instrument-making process. Before the new equipment arrived, the odds of making a good reed were about one in ten.

The oboe plays a vital role in the orchestra because it is the instrument that all the other instru­ments tune them­selves to, adding to the necessity of a well-crafted reed.

“If we didn’t have the equipment then sud­denly the oboe section would fizzle out. It would take away from rehearsals,” Martin said. “Because so often oboes have very essential voices in the orchestra. Pro­fessor Holleman would have to hire free­lance oboists for the orchestra concert, and that would cost money. We are def­i­nitely a much stronger section than we were a few years ago and we have a lot of equipment to keep us very strong and to attract more oboist to Hillsdale College if we really need to.”

Taylor said she has a “love-hate rela­tionship” with reeds

“I really like playing oboe and I really don’t like making reeds, but it’s the best instrument,” she said. “It really is, and that is the beauty of the reeds, like with the flute there is really only one sound you can do and the sound does vary. But there is so much more color to a double-reed instrument. You can sound playful or you can sound really, really sad. All the heartwrenching solos in an orchestral set are the oboe or French horn, but mostly the oboe.”

Hillsdale College’s music department has now gained an essential asset to the Oboe section adding to the edu­cation of current and future oboe student alike.

Thomas said, “This studio will become com­pet­itive with other pro­grams that are nationally rec­og­nized.”