About High Altitude Reeds
Why high altitude reeds?
The playing characteristics of oboe reeds are greatly affected by altitude! As a reed goes up in altitude, it will become:
- Higher in pitch (sharper)
- More resistant (harder)
- Smaller in opening
- Less responsive
Most commercial reeds work terribly at high altitude. My high altitude reeds are designed to compensate for these problems! I learned to make reeds in this style when I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico for three years.
Where are high altitude reeds useful?
Short answer: anywhere 4,000ft above sea level or higher. Check your performance elevation!
Longer answer: My high altitude reeds are designed to work best at 5,000ft above sea level, but will be substantially better than standard oboe reeds at any elevation 4,000ft and higher. Those living at intermediate elevations (2,000-4,000ft) may want to try both styles to find the best fit for them. In that case, I suggest starting with standard reeds and switching to high altitude if you find the standard ones to be too hard, sharp, and/or closed for your tastes.
Most places in the following states are at high altitude:
- New Mexico
Some places in these states are also at high altitude:
Many locations outside the USA are at high altitude. While I do not ship outside the USA, if you are performing on a trip you may want to check the elevation of your destination!
How are Sweeney high altitude reeds different from standard reeds?
- They have a wire
- The heart (center part of the reed) is longer and thinner
Did you say…wire?!
Yes, I did!
Wires on oboe reeds (placed between the thread and the start of the scrape, just like on an English horn reed) have a bad reputation in the United States, perhaps due to being associated here primarily with short scrape European reeds or low quality reeds. I promise you, my reeds are neither of those things!
You will not need to make any adaptations to your playing to use reeds with wires, other than to take care not to prick your lip on the “twist” if you have a tendency to soak or carry reeds in your mouth (not recommended)!
Why do you use a wire?
At its simplest, because wires make playing oboe at high altitudes easier. I used them on nearly all my reeds when I did my graduate studies and performed professionally in New Mexico. I was introduced to the idea by my teacher, Dr. Kevin Vigneau, and though skeptical at first, I was soon a devotee.
In more specific terms, the wire:
- Helps prevent the reed from collapsing, allowing more to be scraped from the reed to compensate for the challenges of high altitude
- Gives the end user of the reed the ability to adjust the size of the opening for their exact climate and altitude
How can I know when I should adjust my reed using the wire?
You will want to adjust the wire if your reed’s opening is too closed or too open.
A reed which is too closed will:
- Make you feel “backed up” with air
- Have a limited dynamic range, tending towards being very soft (pp)
- Play too high in pitch (sharp)
A reed which is too open will:
- Make you want to bite
- Play very loudly
- Likely have a “honky” or “brassy” tone
- Play too low in pitch (flat)
How do I adjust my reed using the wire?
Warning: it is possible to ruin a reed while adjusting the wire! Err on the side of caution: make very small adjustments at a time, pay attention to what you are doing, and do not adjust minutes before a performance.
Always start by soaking your reed- adjusting the wire on a dry reed could cause the cane to crack.
To make either of the following adjustments, you can use your fingers (less risky) or small needle-nose pliers like the ones pictured below (easier). The variety with small ridges on the opposing faces are best.
Opening a Reed Using its Wire
To open a reed, place your fingers or pliers over the wire where the blades of the reed meet and apply pressure. With your fingers, the effort required will be moderate. With pliers this action requires BARELY ANY force. You will hardly feel like you are doing anything, but it will make a big difference to the reed.
Opening a reed with fingers from two angles:
Opening a reed with pliers from two angles:
Closing a Reed Using its Wire
To close a reed, place your fingers or pliers over the wire - one facing each blade of the reed, but offset from the centerline, and apply pressure. With your fingers, the effort required will be light to moderate. With pliers this action requires BARELY ANY force.You will hardly feel like you are doing anything, but it will make a big difference to the reed.
Next, flip the reed over and repeat, such that you have closed both sides of the wire evenly.
The reed should now have a more comfortable opening. If it still feels too open, you can try using your fingers to squeeze VERY LIGHTLY directly on the centerline.
Closing a reed with fingers from two angles:
Closing a reed with pliers from two angles:
To a certain degree these adjustments can be repeated for greater effect or reversed by using the opposite adjustment. However, it is possible to ruin a reed by going too far, so always do a little at a time and never adjust right before a performance!