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.”