• Musings

    A Reed for the New Year

    The Jewish New Year holiday of Rosh HaShana begins this evening at sunset. It is an auspicious time of reflection on the past year and what went well, and even more importantly, what did not. We are encouraged, through our traditions and liturgies, to go even further; and examine the things we ourselves did that perhaps made things not go well for not only for ourselves, but for others.

    As time moves on, so do traditions. Communal prayer, which replaced the animal sacrifices of Judaic Temple times, was considered a time to be with others to pray and reflect on our relationships with God, with self, and with others. Full prostration by not only the prayer leaders, but congregants as well year ’round, was not uncommon, such as during the Aleinu prayer. Tears and beating one’s chest over the heart, and other gestures, covering the head in a prayer shawl or scarf, provided solitude, as well.

    Things have changed, though. Prayer spaces are crowded during holidays, and priorities as to what we show to others have shifted. Long services often become a time for restless shuffling of nearby congregants, scrolling on mobile phones, thoughts of luncheon meals and guests, as well as tempting redirection away from deeper or painful thoughts towards uplifting songs and instrumental music from the prayer leaders.

    Let’s face it: it’s hard to do ‘deep reflection’! A relative used to glibly say, wineglass swaying in her hand, “Why would anyone want to do something hard if they don’t have to?”

    Yes, why would they?

    I’ve opened this post with the usual, annual, Jewish invitation to ‘reflect deeply’. It’s hard, and where are the instructions! I agree. So here is one way to think about it….

    The one thing that defines the personality and angst of being an oboist, far above anything we do or create, is our Oboe Reeds. Finding or making or being gifted the Perfect Oboe Reed is the ultimate quest for an oboist. Why is that?

    An oboe, the long wooden conical bore with keys on it, a bell at one end and an opening to blow through at the other, is not the part that makes the gorgeous, plaintive, oboe sound. It is the reed that allows the correct and perfect sound to move through the bore with the correct selection of keys for each note, become amplified into warm, dark, sumptuous sound waves, and gracefully round itself as it resonates through the bell. With an unresponsive reed, one that is too hard to vibrate naturally or too soft to hold its shape under embouchure pressure, the sound is, well, lousy. Quacky, like a duck, which is what beginner oboists are often accused of sounding like.

    So, there are a few things going on that an oboist has to control: the quality of the instrument; good habits with regard to embouchure, breath control, and fingering of keys; and using an excellent reed.

    It’s not too hard to acquire a good instrument, although they are expensive! I happen to own a wonderful Violetwood oboe that plays like a dream. However: Embouchure, breath, and fingering control are built and maintained by quality instruction in technique, and you guessed it: tons of practising those techniques!

    That leaves the bane of all oboists: the reed. It’s really hard to make or buy a perfect oboe reed. Making them requires good tubes of cane, and then gouging them to the right thinness, and then assembling and scraping the blades down, but not too much….You can buy a really good one, but it will still need your expertise to perfect it. The oboist will still need to have a good well-sharpened reed knife to whittle away on it, correctly, testing it at each slight scraping away of the cane until it feels and sounds perfect.

    My teachers always emphasized the primary directive of adjusting the reed to the player, and not vice versa. Settling for a bad reed, one that is not responsive, or plays too flat or too sharp, means monkeying around with your breathing, posture, embouchure, fingering, in order to get a decent sound out of it. In other words: the reed is controlling you.

    In the process of doing all these contortions, to the point of losing all your hard-earned good technique, you are no longer making your music. You are relinquishing your unique identity and timbre of sound, your signature as a musician, in order to produce instead an adequate sound, from a poorly crafted piece of cane. Your ability to play as a unique and expressive musician and muse of the instrument are the cost of this battle for control of the instrument. Convenience has won out.

    Again, back to my wineglass-waving relative. “Why would anyone want to do something hard if they don’t have to?”

    Making reeds is hard! Making excellent reeds is even harder! But, as musicians, driving to capture the correct sound for who we each are, it is imperative to strive to make them. Or else, we are lost to a poorer quality sound of convenience.

    Just like the oboist, we must patiently and attentively whittle at those rough places. The easier ways out – of letting the reed, or the situation, or that other person, control you – will cost you your self-hood.

    I recently received an email advertising a master class in learning how to adapt to and play with low quality reeds. Imagine! The premise is: that bad reeds abound. They come from making them without enough expertise or good materials; or else we buy them, and are unable to finish them well. Either way, this reed hack master class will teach you how to distort and bend your good habits and technique in order to play low quality reeds.

    I immediately thought of my teachers, often correcting me for doing just that: trying to get a good sound out of a bad reed, thus sacrificing the hours and hours of hard work I’d done to develop good technique in the process. Those reeds, they said, needed to be either adjusted or replaced.

    Looking at this past year now, and the unknowable that will unfold ahead, how will you adjust your reeds? will you adjust yourself further and further to meet the needs of reeds or situations that are unsuitable? or take the opportunity this time of year sets aside and do the satisfying work of refining these situations and yourself, forming lovely reeds for playing your song?

    I wish you all a year of good music, for yourself and with others, and all the joy and connections that music brings your way.