1.) Store bought reeds are short. Length matters. When I go to adjust a student’s store bought reed, I am very limited in what I can do. The final length of most oboe reeds should be between 69-70mm long (measuring from the bottom of the cork to the top of the cane). When a reed gets shorter than that, several things happen: the pitch gets sharp, the response is slow, and the reed can be hard to blow. Store bought reeds, although short, seem to have the opposite concern: they are generally flat in pitch. This poses a problem. As oboists, when our reeds are flat in pitch, we clip the tip a small amount with a razorblade, which will (of course) make the reed shorter. Because store bought reeds are already quite short (and quite flat), a larger amount has to be clipped from the tip to make the reed play in tune. In most cases, this initial clip brings the length of the reed below 69 mm, thereby compromising other imperative functions of the oboe reed. This will undoubtedly lead to students working much harder than they have to in order to make the oboe sound pleasing.
2.) Store bought reeds are mass produced. Oboe reeds are made of cane (Arundo Donax to be specific). This cane is cut and shipped in large tubes to the United States. Because cane is a plant, each piece is different. These differences MUST be taken into consideration when making an oboe reed. When oboe reeds are handmade, we can scrape on the reed for what it needs. If the cane is hard (meaning the fibers are closer together), we will scrape quite differently than if the cane is soft. You simply cannot mass produce oboe reeds with machinery and expect them to sound good. Because every piece of cane is different, every piece will vibrate differently. It takes a professional to understand how the cane is vibrating and scrape it accordingly.
3.) Store bought reeds are expensive. While it’s true that handmade reeds are MORE expensive, think about what you’re getting: when you’re purchasing a store bought reed, you are purchasing a reed which has been entirely manufactured and mass produced. The cane’s individual properties are never taken into account. If you’re extremely lucky, you MAY come across store bought reeds that are “hand finished”. Don’t let this fool you. “Hand finished” only means that someone has lightly scraped on the reed before it has been packaged. These people are rarely oboists.
When you’re purchasing a handmade reed, you are purchasing something that has been custom made for you from the beginning. The professional oboist can easily tailor a handmade reed to a student’s needs (do you want a quiet reed to play Mozart on? Done. A louder one for Mahler? Easy.) If your student is a beginner, a professional can make an easier blowing reed, yet keep the pitch stable. For just a few dollars extra, you’re getting something that is made entirely just for you.
Playing the oboe should be easy. If it’s not, check your reeds. Half of the time when I have a new student complaining that the oboe is impossible to play, their reeds aren’t working for them, but against them. The other half of the time, the oboe is horribly out of adjustment. But we’ll save that for our next post