For every reed player, there exists the potential for truly tragic moments during their professional careers. I'm not talking about botched solos or malfunctioning keys - of course those are always risks. What I'm referring to is the potential to forget an essential, nay, THE ESSENTIAL, genesis piece of what they do:
The Reed Box.
Every traveling musician has pulled over countless times within the first 5 miles from home to do the panicked re-check. Seat strap? Music? Concert Black? etc etc etc
More often than not all is well and you continue on. Every once in a while you discover you have left something behind and you return home, retrieve the item and, with a sigh of relief, congratulate yourself for remembering in time.
Then there are the truly tragic moments that happen ONCE and once only during a musician's career. In my case, I drove over 200 miles from home for my monthly residency with the Billings Symphony. Having taken this trip many times with nary forgetting a thing, I was confident that all was well and everything I needed would be in its place upon my arrival for rehearsal that evening.
I should have immediately questioned my own confidence. Upon settling into my hotel room I thought I would pull out the bassoon and play for a few minutes. I unzipped my case to retrieve my reed case and it wasn't there. I immediately urged myself to *wake up* and look again. Surely, I was dreaming a bad dream. But second, third and fourth looks proved that I had truly left my reed case at home. I called my husband who confirmed that it was sitting on my desk in my studio.
It was 5:17 pm.
I called the local music store which remained open until 6:00 pm.
I arrived by 5:27, grabbed one of every type of bassoon reed they had, a reed case, and then pleaded my case to the incredibly sympathetic sales associate (it's a small state for pro musicians). With a bill of $100+ for the reeds and case, she gave me a huge discount and then encouraged me to record my thoughts on the manufactured reeds since I have not played on any since...1994?
I returned to the hotel room by 6:10 pm giving me a solid 50 minutes before I needed to head to rehearsal. Plenty of time to fix/finish a reed.
I purchased the following reeds and found them in the listed condition:
Eastman Medium Soft -
large crack from tube traveling into the blade
overly thinned corners mangled by the case
35 cents flat
nutty conservatory sound (dark and mostly desirable tone)
Jones Medium Hard -
20 cents flat
very reedy/robust tone
bad bocal fit
very "poppy" response but no finesse
"The Jones Bassoon reed is one of the finest commercial bassoon reeds available. Each piece of cane is selected for exact diameter and wall thickness. Following a number of mechanized steps, the reeds are assembled by hand and the string is coated with the strongest lacquer available. The reeds are then tested and adjusted, as necessary, before packaging."
Emerald Medium -
narrower tube and shorter than the other Emerald reed
30 cents flat
Emerald Medium Soft -
30 cents flat
Lesher Medium -
40 cents flat
horrible bocal fit
"Marlin Lesher reeds hold up to the most discriminating of tastes. Beautifully cut and wound, they produce a great sound."
Fortunately, I had my tools and was able to set straight to work trying to make even 1 of these reeds sufficient for a Christmas Pops concert but also capable of playing a read-though of Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Sprech for rehearsal that evening. Honestly, I was appalled by all of them! It was a positive confirmation of why I NEVER permit my students to play on manufactured reeds. Yes, they are all responsive which works great for the amateur/student embouchure. However, every other aspect of these reeds was horrendous. I know these companies claim they "play test" these reeds. At 3,500+ feet in elevation, to have a reed play flat is pretty impressive. We all know reeds go sharper with elevation. So, if these reeds are made at 500 feet elevation or less, and the bulk of the bassoonists purchasing them are at those elevations, I can't even begin to imagine how low the pitch must be for them.
Every bassoon teacher fights the young bassoonist biting with a tight and tense jaw/embouchure. Of course they would have to in order to have any hope of raising the pitch on these reeds. Which is EXACTLY the opposite of what we want to teach our students. Even after working with them to raise the pitch on all of them, they were all still flat. They were unplayable in any meaningful way.
This was the order of merit as I headed into rehearsal: Eastman, Emerald, Lesher, Jones. It was pretty depressing since I know these are basically reputable reed/cane suppliers. In fact, I have been buying cane from Jones since 2009 and have recommended Jones to students and colleagues because of the consistency of their cane.
Unfortunately, I really felt duped and pretty frustrated that these reeds had 1) cost so much and 2) were not truly useful. I charge my students $10 for my handmade reeds and finish them to suit each student's particular setup. Clearly I am undercharging and should go into business as a high elevation reed maker!
I walked into that rehearsal panicked because I knew that NONE of the reeds had come within 20 cents of the A-440 I was going to need to tune at.
Here's where the story turns from TRAGIC to MIRACULOUS.
I sat down in my chair feeling defeated and greeted my wonderful 2nd bassoonist, Paul. He turned and exclaimed, "Oh, Elizabeth, look what I got in the mail today!" He reached down into his case and pulled out a BRAND NEW Légère synthetic reed!
This is why I am a woman of faith who believes in miracles, people...MODERN DAY MIRACLES!
I played that Légère the whole weekend and didn't touch those awful, expensive reeds.
Was I total moron to forget my reed case? Obviously!
Was I naïve to believe I could purchase a functional reed from a local music store? Apparently.
Are Légère reeds amazing, consistent, dependable, and career-saving? Clearly.