Scraping in the Bassoon Reed: An Approach for (almost) any Reed Style

Even though I’ve been using a tip profiler for years—first a Rieger, now the Andante e Rondo—I still like to scrape a tip in by hand every now and then. It keeps me in touch with the core scraping skills and allows me evaluate the cane in a way that’s not possible when machines do 90% of the finishing in one step.

The method below is the one I teach my students when they learn to finish reeds. It is a process-oriented approach, rather than one that is tied to specific measurements on a dial indicator. This makes it exceptionally flexible. I first learned many elements of this method when I was studying with Frank Morelli, and I have also used it to scrape in Van Hoesen reeds, Herzberg reeds, as well as my current Italian-style reeds. It is the quickest and most consistent way I have found to get a blank into a playing state.

The photos and measurements will refer to my current reed measurements, but try this method on whatever kind of reed you make. Depending on your style and cane profile, you may have to do more or less of any one step, but the process will still guide you on your way from blank to reed.

Click here for a simplified scraping recipe

Step 1: Replace the first wire

All the wires on the reed should conform to the contours of the cane. After drying, it’s almost impossible to achieve this with without over-tightening the first wire, so the best option is to replace it. This is also a good time to check the second wire, which must always be snug.

1st wire removed and ready for replacement

1st wire removed and ready for replacement

Step 2: Prepare the blade

Sand the blade lightly with fine sandpaper to prepare the surface and remove any irregularities.  Cut a strip of sandpaper that you can comfortably wrap around your finger and use your finger to apply pressure and guide the sandpaper.  Think of sanding with your finger—not the sandpaper.

Sanding the blade

Sanding the blade

Step 3: Cut the tip

I recommend using a tip cutter—whether a guillotine or straight clipper type—to make this step as quick, accurate, and painless as possible.

 The initial length will vary depending on reed style, bocal length, and cane density. I always begin at the longest that my reeds would normally be, and then cut the tip back as necessary to achieve a stable one-finger E.  For my reed style this is 29 mm from the top of the first wire, but my reeds usually end up at 28 mm or even a bit shorter than that. Use whatever the normal measurement is for your reed style. Don’t be afraid to cut the tip back if the reed is flat or unstable!  Each piece of cane is unique, and there is no magic “correct” length.

Step 4: Taper the rails

If the profile of the cane is thick at the rails (as it is off of my Rieger profiler), use a sapphire nail file to taper the rails from the back toward the tip.

Rails after tapering

Rails after tapering

 The position of the file on the rails is key. The file should be angled so it rests flat across the channels with the tip of the file extending beyond the rails. The goal is to increase the center-to-side taper of the profile, not to round off the rails. Think about filing the 2-3 mm strip of cane from the rails into the blade of the reed, rather than filing the rails themselves.

Positioning the file flat against the blade

Positioning the file flat against the blade

Step 5: Sand in the tip

This sets the initial tip thickness. Place a piece of sandpaper on a flat surface, then press the tip of the reed onto the sandpaper so the entire tip of the bottom blade is resting on the sandpaper  The reed should be angled up slightly so that only the final 1-2 mm of the blade is in contact with the sandpaper.

Sanding the tip at a shallow angle

Sanding the tip at a shallow angle

Begin sanding back and forth, rocking the reed from side to side so that the corners of the tip are sanded an equal amount (if not a bit more) as the center. 

Sanding the right quadrant of the tip

Sanding the right quadrant of the tip

Sanding the left quadrant of the tip

Sanding the left quadrant of the tip

Press lightly at first until you learn how much pressure is needed.  Keep sanding until your tip is the desired thickness, and stop to check the tip frequently.  This may be a slow process in the beginning, but once you learn how much pressure to use, it will go quickly.

Checking the thickness of the tip of the top blade after sanding

Checking the thickness of the tip of the top blade after sanding

Step 6: Blend the tip

The previous sanding step creates a short, steep taper at the tip of the reed.  The next step is to blend that taper into the blade.

Sanding line visible across tip

Sanding line visible across tip

There will be a sanding line visible across the width of the tip.  Starting from the center and working outwards toward each corner, scrape straight across that line, focusing on the area where the line meets the unsanded portion of the blade.  Using the tip of the knife (or the curved portion if your knife has a rounded tip) can help with precision.  Repeat this process until the sanding line disappears and the taper to the tip is gradual and even.

Blending the tip in the right quadrant

Blending the tip in the right quadrant

After blending: sanding line is no longer visible in the right quadrant

After blending: sanding line is no longer visible in the right quadrant

Blending the tip in the left quadrant

Blending the tip in the left quadrant

Blending complete: sanding line is no longer visible

Blending complete: sanding line is no longer visible

Step 7: Scrape in the hinges

Next we’ll create flexibility in the front third of the reed so that the corners will close when we play.  We’ll be scraping across the grain of the cane, using what’s called a “lateral scrape.”  The lateral scrape is focused on shaping the contour of the cane, rather than its thickness, to encourage the reed to close the way we want it to.

 Start by imagining a triangle formed by drawing a diagonal line from the center of the tip to a point on the rails about 1/3 of the way from the tip to the collar.  Place your knife along this line.  (You can draw the line with pencil to help visualize the placement.)

Drawing lines to visualize the hinges

Drawing lines to visualize the hinges

Positioning knife along the line

Positioning knife along the line

Scrape across this line, rotating the knife back toward the heart and out toward the corner in a circular motion led by the wrist.  The line should be the center point of the scrape.  You don’t need to go all the way out to the corner—stop a few mm short of it.  Focus on scraping across the line until you see the quadrant of the tip you’re working on start to curve down when you look at the tip head on.  This may take a little scraping or a lot, depending on the thickness of your profile.

Upper left quadrant beginning to curve

Upper left quadrant beginning to curve

I call this area the “hinges” of the reed, because creating flexibility in this area allows the whole tip to start closing from the sides in toward the center, like the hinge of a door.

If your corners are persistently staying open, bring the lateral scrape farther back into the channels in the middle third of the blade. You’ll be scraping even more aggressively across the grain of the cane.

Scraping farther back in channels

Scraping farther back in channels

Step 8: Blend in the wings/rails in the front third

Because we’ve been focusing on creating flexibility in the hinge area, the wings and rails in the front of the reed may now be slightly thicker than the channel areas just inside them.  Using the same sapphire file that you used to taper the rails, use the same flat filing motion here, working from halfway between the collar and the tip all the way up to the corner.  Check both the thickness of the taper and the shape of the tip as it closes at the corners frequently. A plaque may be useful for this step.

Filing the rails in the wings

Filing the rails in the wings

Step 9: Test your reed

It’s time to test the reed!  Check the crow, but don’t judge the reed until you’ve played it on the bassoon.  Is the reed flat and/or unstable on E?  Clip the tip back half a millimeter at a time until the pitch stabilizes, then repeat the steps 5-8 as needed.

Steps 10-Infinity: Adjusting from here

Your reed will need to be adjusted continually throughout its lifetime.  The good news is that the steps outlined above are the same scraping techniques I use every day to make fine adjustments.

 If the reed is stuffy, repeat the blending scrape in Step 6, but only in the very center of the reed.  (Make sure you are scraping behind the tip, not on the tip itself.)

 If the reed feels stiff or the tip is not closing from the sides to the center, scrape more in the hinge area, as in Step 7.  Check for flexibility by feeling the contours of the cane with your fingers, or the back of your knife.  Once the front third of the reed feels flexible, you can extend the lateral scrape farther back into the channels.  You will be scraping even more across the grain at this point. Always check the smoothness and thickness of the rails after this, and blend with your file if necessary.

If your tip opening is asymmetrical—with one or more quadrant curving less than the others, use the lateral scrap in those quadrants until the tip is closing symmetrically. 

Wires can be adjusted to change the resistance of the reed and the size of the tip opening.  Open the first wire from the sides to open the tip, increase resistance, and lower pitch.  Closing the first wire from top and bottom will close the tip, decrease resistance, and raise pitch.  Manipulating the second wire will have the opposite effect: opening it will close the tip and closing it will open the tip.  This is called reverse wire function.

 A note about adjusting the wires: once I set the initial tip opening I do very little adjusting of the wires, except to open the tip if needed as it closes down during the scraping process.  Think of the wires as setting the structure of the reed—moving them can have a powerful effect, but too much manipulation can undermine stability and lead to overscraping. 

 If at any point either wire becomes loose, tighten it so it is once again snug.

Good luck and happy scraping!

To lefreQue or not to lefreQue?

Originally posted 9/2/2014

Last winter, my friend Matthew Harvell sent me a link to a series of Youtube videosdemonstrating the lefreQue, a device that claims to improve the resonance of wind instruments.  The idea behind it is that wherever two joints of a wind instrument come together, there will be a disruption in the vibration of that instrument.  If you can remove—or at least reduce—these disruptions, then you will improve the instrument.  The lefreQue claims to do just this using two pieces of metal that act as a “sound bridge” that carries vibrations across the joints.  This was an entirely new concept to me, but I was impressed enough with the before-and-after recordings on Youtube to order a set from Maarten Vonk and find out for myself what they could do.

After receiving the lefreQue, I could tell immediately that there was an effect on tone and response.  From a player’s perspective, the feel of the instrument changes—the response seems quicker, and legato, particularly between different registers, is much improved.  Everything feels smoother and easier—but how does it sound?

THE TEST

My students and I devoted a studio class to trying the lefreQue on a variety of bassoons: my Walter, a 4,000-series Heckel, a 12,000-series Heckel, a Fox Renard 220, a mid-1970s Püchner, and a thick-wall Yamaha.  I played the same passage—the opening phrase from Dutillex’s Sarabande et Cortège—and used the same reed for each example.  I also tried to play each bassoon “as it comes,” without adjusting too much for pitch, to see what effect, if any, the lefreQue would have on intonation.

Walter

4,000-series Heckel

Fox Renard 220

12,000-series Heckel

Püchner

Yamaha

As you can hear, each bassoon responds differently to the sound bridges.  The consensus among studio members was that the most dramatic effect was on the Renard 220.  Other instruments seemed easier to play without them, like the vintage Püchner.  Of course, this is an isolated test of these few instruments, and conclusions cannot be drawn about the effect of the lefreQue on different makes of bassoons.

 

ANALYSIS OF EXAMPLES

To better understand the differences in the sound, I isolated the final A of each example and analyzed its overtone spectrum with Sonic Visualizer.  In each case, the sample without the lefreQue is on top, and the sample with the lefreQue is on the bottom.

The first analysis in each set maps the overtones and their relative strength onto a piano keyboard.  This presents a snapshot of a single instant in the sound.  Because the sound changes from instant to instant, this analysis can’t be assumed to definitively show the differences in overtones between the two examples.  However, it does represent general trends.

The second analysis, a spectrogram, shows a more comprehensive view of the sound across the duration of the entire example.  Each horizontal band represents a partial of the overtone series.  Redder bands indicate louder partials.

 

1. WALTER

 

 2. 4,000-SERIES HECKEL

 

3. FOX RENARD 220

 

4. 12,000-SERIES HECKEL

 

5. PÜCHNER

 

6. YAMAHA

 

CONCLUSIONS

The lefreQue clearly affects the distribution of overtones in the bassoon sound, diminishing some partials while amplifying others.  These changes vary in both nature and intensity depending on the instrument.  In general, it appears that the second partial (the octave) becomes stronger on most instruments.  The exception to this was the Püchner, whose overtones actually seemed to weaken with the lefreQue, and which felt a bit less comfortable to play with the sound bridges on.  Interestingly, both Heckels, as well as the Yamaha did not show as much change in the overtone profile as the Walter, Fox, or Püchner.

Are these changes positive or negative?  I have not come to a conclusion.  I’ve gotten very different reactions from colleagues when performing head-to-head comparisons.  Almost universally, bassoonists seem to prefer the unadulterated sound, saying that with the lefreQue, the  bassoon sounds less interesting, less “woody,” and less “reedy”.  Non-bassoonists I have played for had a different reaction.  One clarinetist much preferred my playing the lefreQue on, calling the sound more resonant, vocal, and “like you, but better.”  In the end, I agree with both of these assessments.  I do find that my raw tone is more complex and viscerally pleasing without the lefreQue, but when I listen in the context of a musical passage, the version with the lefreQue on sounds like better bassoon playing.  The feel of the instrument—smooth with a more supple legato—is also compelling.  Whether it is worth the slight sacrifice in tonal interest is still an open question.

Splitting Cane—Or Splitting Hairs?

Originally posted 2/3/2013

One of our most important tasks when we make bassoon reeds is creating symmetry: symmetry of the profile, symmetry of the shape, all aimed toward creating symmetry at the tip. But our raw material—the tube cane itself—is an inherently asymmetrical product.

Tube cane is rarely (if ever) perfectly straight or round. Splitting the cane is the only time during the reed making process that we are able to deal with the asymmetry of the cane and minimize its influence on our finished reeds, which can be impossible to correct for by scraping. While the shape of the tube as a whole may be warped and irregular, we can choose the flattest and most symmetrically curved parts to make reeds from.

This method does take longer than just splitting the cane into random pieces, and I admit, it took some practice before I felt comfortable with the process. Some might even say that it’s not worth the effort—splitting hairs, not just splitting cane—but if we’re going to the trouble of processing our own cane on machines worth thousands of dollars, why not take the extra time to make sure we’re using the best cane possible? Try it for a few batches and see if it makes a difference in your reeds.

You will need:
Tube cane
Ruler
Knife
Dial or digital calipers
Circle templates (available at art supply stores)
Markers, preferably in two different colors (Matthew Harvell, who taught me this method, uses dry erase markers.  I just use the Sharpie type.)
A flat, straight piece of gouged cane the same length as the bed of your gouger (usually 120 mm).

Step One: Make a Gouged Cane Template
Measure the gouged cane and draw a line all the way across the center point. For my gouger, this is 60 mm. You can make this template and use it again and again for future batches of cane.

Measuring the center point of the template

Measuring the center point of the template

Step Two: Find the Flattest Part of the Tube
Using the template you just made, locate the flattest portion along the length of the tube. Place the gouged cane on top of the tube, moving it around until it lies flat, with no detectable warping at either end of the piece of the gouged cane. (If you can’t find a perfectly flat area, that’s ok—just find the flattest part that you can.)

The flattest part of the tube, where the template lies flush against the cane

The flattest part of the tube, where the template lies flush against the cane

Mark the tube cane at both ends, as well as the center line of the template piece of gouged cane. Draw these lines so that they extend all the way around the tube.

Tube cane with marks corresponding to the center and ends of the template

Tube cane with marks corresponding to the center and ends of the template

Step Three: Find the Narrowest or Widest Point of the Tube
There are two types of calipers that you may see at the hardware store: dial calipers and digital calipers. Either will do the job, but I find it easier to work with the digital ones.

Digital and dial calipers

Digital and dial calipers

Open up the calipers and put them around the center point that you just marked on the cane. Applying light but steady pressure to the caliper. rotate the cane all the way around to find either the narrowest or widest point of the tube. (It doesn’t matter what this measurement is; we’re just finding the narrowest/widest point.) Usually, the narrowest point is easier to find, since you can feel the calipers “settle” into it. If the cane is very circular, then the widest point might be easier to locate.

Finding the narrowest part of the tube

Finding the narrowest part of the tube

Closing one eye, look straight down the tube. On end of tube, mark the center point right between the caliper arms. This will be the center of your future piece of cane.

Cane with the center of the arc marked

Cane with the center of the arc marked

Step Four: Mark the Splitting Points
Find the circle template that most closely matches the curvature of the tube cane, aligning the mark you made in Step Three with the center mark of the circle template.

The circle template that  fits the cane most closely

The circle template that  fits the cane most closely

When you find the right circle template, line up the center mark you just made, and mark the cane at 45° angles. I use a different color marker so that I can easily distinguish these marks from the ones I made in Step Three.

Line up the center line and mark 45° all the way around.

Line up the center line and mark 45° all the way around.

Extend these across the grain at the end of the tube.

45° angles marked all the way around. This is where you will split the cane.

45° angles marked all the way around. This is where you will split the cane.

Step Five: Split the Cane
Use the knife to split the cane along the lines you just marked. I use an old kitchen knife that I don’t care about, but I do keep it sharp to make the splitting easier.

 

Beginning to split

Beginning to split

To split, line the knife up with the marks on the end of the tube. Use steady downward pressure and rotate your wrist to rock the knife from side to side until it digs into the cane. Work the knife further into the cane with this same rocking motion until the cane splits in to two piece. Split each of these pieces again along the remaining line.

Split each half into two more pieces.

Split each half into two more pieces.

You now have four pieces of split cane. If you’ve done it right, two of these will have one arc, while the other two will have a very different arc. To see this clearly, trace each arc on a piece of paper and compare.

The different arcs of the cane

The different arcs of the cane

The cane is now ready to soak, guillotine, pre-gouge, and gouge!

Bonus Feline Outtake

Bento thinks you should split your own cane.  It's ok—he will help you.

Bento thinks you should split your own cane.  It's ok—he will help you.

Yoga for Bassoonists: A Customized Routine

Originally posted 9/19/2013

A musician's life is a physically demanding one.  We lug bags full of instruments, music, gadgets and gear, hustling through airports and train stations.  We cram into uncomfortable airline seats, drive for hours to get to gigs—abuses that come on top of the many hours we spend day in and out with our instruments in our hands.

While a main focus of my practice has long been to develop a more relaxed and efficient technique,  playing the bassoon (or any instrument) will always be a compromise between seeking a more ergonomic physical experience and respecting the traditional form of the instrument.  The bassoon balances fairly easily, despite its size and weight.  Even so, years spent bearing its weight with our left hands, holding out our right arms, and our tendency to rotate slightly to the right can create imbalances in strength and flexibility that can result in chronic tension and pain, which in turn can compromise our technique.

Like most musicians, I’ve experience occasional physical issues, but they were never anything I couldn’t resolve through observation, relaxation, and a little creativity.  But when I saw my students having some of the same experiences, I sought out one of the most thoughtful and creative yoga teachers in the Morgantown area, Nicole Gauthier-Schatz of Ancient Wisdom Yoga. Nicole has years of experience working with artists, musicians, and actors, so I asked her to create a routine that would specifically address the needs of bassoonists.  What she created is an effective, efficient, and flexible routine that can be used every day as a part of a regular body warm up, or as a recovery routine after practicing.  You can do as little or as much as you have time for, and it not only helps correct bassoon-related imbalances, but also prepares the body and mind for playing.

 

DAILY YOGA PRACTICE FOR BASSOONISTS

by Nicole Gauthier-Schatz, Ancient Wisdom Yoga

These movements can bring your body back in balance by making overused muscles more flexible and underused muscles stronger, building strength on both the left and right side of the body. 

This practice may improve: 

  • Mental clarity, focus, and concentration
  • Health of immune system Circulation of the whole body
  • Flexibility in the shoulders, chest, and hips
  • Range of motion in fingers, wrists, and shoulders
  • Agility of the spine
  • Flexibility of the respiratory muscles
  • Girth of rib cage = expanded lung capacity
  • Balance and coordination

This practice may lessen: 

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Symptoms of stress
  • Overuse syndrome
  • Performance anxiety
  • Mental clutter
  • Reactivity to feelings and emotions

 

GUIDELINES TO THE PRACTICE

Space and Time 

Choose a quiet, clean, well-ventilated space.  Early morning is preferable; however adhering to a daily practice is preferable regardless of time.  Do not eat a heavy meal before the practice. 

Dress 

Wear loose, stretchy clothing. Use a yoga mat to prevent slipping. 

Regularity 

Flexibility is increased over a period of time. Respect and work around your limitations. Patience, self-acceptance and self-mastery is more important than the mastery of poses. 

Move slowly into each pose with the breath. 

Hold the pose initially for about 10-20 seconds, or about 5 breaths, increasing slowly over a period of time. Hold without pain or strain. 

The breath is a most integral and important part of the practice. Breath freely, mindful of not holding the breath. 

Move slowly out of the pose. Observe a few seconds of rest to allow for integration before moving to the next movement.

 

THE POSES

This routine is organized into four series of poses. If are short on time, or need a quick warm-up before practicing, you can just do the first series or two. As you have more time, add in the additional series. The greatest benefit will be obtained by practicing the full routine.

Series 1

 Neck Stretch             Eagle Arms             Hands in Prayer Pose Behind Back (Reverse Namaste)         Cowface Arms

Series 2

 Mountain Pose             Tree Pose             Warrior II             Extended Side Angle

Series 3 

Chest Expander             Warrior I             Warrior III             Downward Facing Dog

Series 4

 Half Lord of the Fishes             Bound Angle             Legs Up the Wall

 

TO FINISH: ALTERNATE NOSTRIL BREATHING

Sit comfortably with your back straight.  Press the index and middle finger together and place in between the eyebrows on your forehead.  Your thumb will control the opening and closing of the right nostril, and the ring finger will control the opening and closing of the left nostril. Inhale to the brim of your lungs.  Close the right side, pause, exhale out of the left nostril. Inhale through the left nostril, close both nostrils, pause, exhale out of the right nostril. Inhale through the right side, close both sides, pause, and exhale out of the left side. Continue alternating from side to side.  End with an exhalation out of the left side. Breathe slowly and evenly through both sides a few times.

Benefits:

  • Calms, purifies, and strengthens the nervous system
  • Balances both hemispheres of the brain, and both sides of the body
  • Helps to alleviate headaches, migraines, and frazzled states
  • Facilitates elimination of wastes and assimilation of energy
  • Soothes strong emotions