New workshop provides space for students to learn art of reed-making
St. Olaf College oboe instructor Dana Maeda ’92 shaves the sides of a piece of cane with a small razor, carving off bits as if she were slicing a pepper. Luke Simonson ’16 sits to her left and looks on attentively — he’ll be trying this on his own in just a few minutes.
Maeda stops carving and picks up a spool of gold thread from her work station. She ties the thread’s free end to the table and unrolls the spool. Simonson hands her a small bar of beeswax, which she rubs along the length of the thread.
When she’s finished, Maeda pulls the line taught and leans down close to it. With her right forefinger, she gives the line a good pluck.
“Hear how high-pitched the tension is?” she asks.
Simonson nods. Today, he is learning how to wrap oboe reeds.
Every St. Olaf oboist learns some reed-making skills in their music lessons, but trying to fit both reed-making and playing in a half-hour time slot is difficult. Simonson, a music theory and composition major and principal oboist of the St. Olaf Orchestra, wanted more experience in crafting reeds. So this year he’s taking the college’s first independent study in oboe reed-making, and is using the Hall of Music’s new reed-making studio as his workshop.
An oboe is a woodwind instrument with a double reed, two pieces of cane that vibrate against each other when air is blown between them. The double reed is responsible for the oboe’s unique tone quality, and it has a large effect on an oboe’s overall sound and pitch.
As part of his course, Simonson is learning how to manipulate his sound by adjusting variables like shape, cane width, and raw materials. So far, he’s learned how to revive “dying” reeds and how to adjust store-bought reeds to fit his instrument.
After he’s done learning how to wrap reeds, Simonson will be ready to create reeds from scratch. For his final project, the St. Olaf junior will create a reed-making book that will serve as a reference for other oboists.
Maeda has noticed an increase in reed-making in recent years, a change that she attributes to St. Olaf’s new reed-making studio, which was completed in February 2012.
“The reed room is a huge draw,” says Maeda. “It provides a fun, collegial atmosphere for oboe and bassoon players. We are grateful to have such a wonderful space for our students.”
The reed room, located in the Hall of Music, is temperature and humidity controlled, and features seven work stations. It also has a mobile shelving unit where students can store their supplies in a personalized bin.
In the corner of the room is a “reed graveyard” — a circular, Styrofoam depository for unusable reeds.
“After you have a laundry basket full of reeds, then you’ll be a reed maker,” Maeda jokes.
Continuing the craft
As Simonson finishes wrapping his first oboe reed, he can’t contain his enthusiasm.
“Yeess!” he says. “This is so great.”
He places the beeswax and spool of thread in a small plastic bag, which he slips into the front pocket of his backpack. Maeda finishes class with a quick review of that day’s reed-making steps, and Simonson heads out of the studio.
“Reed making really is a craft,” Maeda says after he’s gone. “I want to make sure my students will continue to play after they leave St. Olaf. Learning how to adjust and make reeds is essential to making that happen.”