High Altitude Reed Advice - Bassoon

by Yoshi Ishikawa

Location – Boulder is located at 5,328 feet (1,624 meters) and anyone traveling from near sea level to higher altitude will experience dramatic changes to their reeds. The following are suggestions based on my experience living and performing bassoon in Boulder. I travel often to lower altitudes with considerably higher humidity, such as those in Southeast Asia. In these environments, reeds with about 25% more resistance function better than those for higher altitutes. The opposite also applies to reeds made in lower altitudes. In order for these reeds to work in higher altitudes, some modifications are necessary. Reeds made from dense/thick gouge, but not brittle/thin gouge, are the best choice for multi environments. With good cane and luck, I have made reeds which worked well in all altitudes and climates.

Relative humidity – The climate in Boulder is very dry. Reeds assembled in humid climates will fall apart in dry climates. Inversely, reeds assembled in dry climates will swell and wires often will choke them. In dry climates, I keep my reeds in a plastic bag with a Boveda 72% Humidity control pack. In humid climates, I remove them from the bag. If reeds are kept in a plastic bag with Boveda 72% pack in humid climates, mold will quickly develop. Boveda is originally made for a cigar humidor and is available from Amazon for about $4-$5 per pack.

Vibratory characteristics – At high altitudes, reeds will be harder and more resistant. The fundamental crow pitch will rise. Crow response may become wild and loud. Overall, reeds will become sharp, with a limited dynamic range, and will be difficult to articulate, especially in lower registers. There are several techniques to compensate for this change.

Priority – Knowing your priority for reeds is an important first step in reed making/adjustment. My priorities are: 1) response, 2) control, 3) intonation, and 4) tone. A balanced reed must have all four categories working in sync. The tolerance level of what constitutes an acceptable range within these categories differs with individual needs and backgrounds.

Reed Scrape – Thinner reeds respond with less effort than thicker reeds. The objective of scrape for high altitudes is to improve response without losing the element of control. The common mistake is to scrape the entire reed. In most cases, a considerable amount of cane must be removed to free the reed using this method. The outcome is a responsive but difficult to control reed, often flat especially in the tenor and upper registers. The upper register response is also compromised.

Method – The following is a scraping method that I have developed over the years. Start with a good working reed. Adjustments you apply are not drastic and should be done in small increments.

Regions – I divide my reed into four regions from the collar to the tip, see image 1. The inverted V shapes numbered 1, 2, 3, and 4 are scrape channels. For high altitudes, scrape regions 1 and 2 and blend them to the heart (center column), see image 2. Scrape regions 1 and 2 until you have the proper response (see Massage the blade below). These regions do not include rails. Scraping rails will dampen (impede vibration) the reed. Scrape rails in very small increments to add control to the reed. I scrape the rails as a final adjustment. (Image 3) Scrape region 3 and 4 as a last resort to free your reed only if the first scrape (regions 1 and 2) was unsuccessul.

1 2 3

Massage the blade – This process will tame and add control to the reed. Place your thumb and index finger on regions numbered 1 and 2 until the reed tip is closed. Massage the reed tip by moving the reed back and forth at the turban. Repeat the process for the other side of the reed. If the tip opening is too wide, massage the reed by placing your thumb and index finger on the tip center. This should force the reed to close. (Image 3).

There are so many other variables, which have a profound effect on the reed. The above method is meant as a general basic guide for adopting your working low-altitude reeds for use in high altitudes.

Yoshi Ishikawa, DMA
Professor of Music, Bassoon
University of Colorado Boulder, College of Music

CU Bassoon Studio

Copyright © 2020 Yoshiyuki Ishikawa. All Rights Reserved.

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