Rhapsody on a Crap Reed

I hate flautists. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing personal. Some of my best friends in the world are flute players and as a musical species they’re invariably gorgeous, modest and utterly adorable. The fact is that I’m jealous. It’s because flutes don’t have reeds.

Yes I know, I promised never to write about reeds. After all, in the world of classical music there is simply nothing more guaranteed to bring on boredom-induced catatonia. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop woodwind players going on about them. We spend hours faffing about with the bloody things, badgering our musical colleagues for their opinion on individual reeds.

“Do you think this reed sounds better than that reed? What about this one? How about I spend the next hour playing the same tune over and over, on every reed in my possession, so you can give me a direct comparison. So go on… Which one’s the best?”

“Dunno, they all sound the same.”

If you’ve never had to deal with the fickle, fragile, unpredictable madness of a reed you’ll probably be wondering what the fuss is about. Or you’ll have clicked away to read about something more interesting – bowing, probably.

But here’s the thing: all clarinettists, oboists and bassoonists are only as good as their reed. Seriously, you can take the best player in the world, Give them a crap reed and they’ll sound like a farting duck after 8 pints of beer and a vindaloo. So how can a simple piece of cane make such a difference?

I’ve no idea. Because here are 2 basic rules about reeds:

  • Nobody understands how they work
  • Nobody cares

There we’ll be, expected to make a splendidly gorgeous sound on every register of our instrument – grumblingly low, beautifully middle and somewhere up in the stratosphere where only the angels dwell. We breathe in, place the mouth and tongue at exactly the right place for musical perfection and go `t’. What happens? Nothing at all. Zilch. Or, at worst, a sound that only your mother could love – if she’s a bit deaf and has had a couple of sherries.

Everyone makes a face. You apologise. “Sorry, it’s my reed”. The conductor, along with all other members of the orchestra, tut quietly and raise their eyes to the heavens. You take out your reed-fiddling kit and caboodle – knife, plaque, pliers, tip cutter, chainsaw, industrial sander – and then stamp on the thing in a fit of pique. The flute player, meanwhile, looks smug.

As I said, I have absolutely no idea how a truly great reed comes into existence. I reckon it’s a combination of cane, a skilled reed-maker and a perfect alignment of the planets or something. Magic, in other words.