Double-reed instruments, and those who play them, show what they're made of at JSU event
by Brian Anderson
banderson@annistonstar.com
Feb 09, 2014 | 2948 views |  0 comments | 57 57 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A step in the process of making a musical instrument's reed is shown at an exhibition at Jacksonville State University Saturday. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
A step in the process of making a musical instrument's reed is shown at an exhibition at Jacksonville State University Saturday. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
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JACKSONVILLE — Michael Maxwell showed off his bassoon reeds like some might show off their jewelry, or collection of fine cigars.

The Jacksonville State University graduate and Fayetteville, Ga., attorney — "and bassoon player," he added, as if part of his job title — didn't need to be asked twice what makes a good double-reed, before producing a dozen or so of his own hand-crafted variety, tucked away in a padded black case.

"This is the key," Maxwell said, holding a reed. "You don't want it so thick that it's hard to blow, but you don't want it too thin so it squawks when you play."

Maxwell was at his alma mater Saturday afternoon, accompanied by 14 of his middle-school aged bassoon students for JSU's second double-reed day: a celebration of bassoons, oboes and English horns.

Double-reed instruments are rare in bands and orchestras. They differ from single-reed instruments in that they don't have a traditional mouthpiece, but the two reeds vibrate together to produce the sound.

The difficulty of playing the instruments — as well as the added component of creating reeds to best match the player's style and sound — is what turns off some musicians but fascinates others, said Eryn Oft, JSU's double-reed instrument professor and the event's organizer.

"Challenging is underselling it," Oft said about playing oboes and bassoons. "But it’s also the most rewarding."

The event was an introduction on how to make the double-reeds for many of the younger bassoon and oboe players on hand Saturday. Chris Knight, one of four bassoon students at JSU, said knowing how to create your own reeds is an important step in learning to master the instrument.

"You should be at least aware of how to make them, even if you don't use them," Knight said. "That's part of the uniqueness of the instrument."

The process of how to make double-reeds often starts at the high school or college level and is perfected over a lifetime, said Dane Philipsen, principal oboe of the Atlanta opera and participant in JSU's double-reed day.

"By the time you're in college, you should know at least how to make your own reeds," Philipsen said. "Every professional oboe or bassoon player makes their own reeds. It’s part of how they create their own signature sound."

Uniqueness was a theme hammered on by the reed makers throughout Saturday's event, but there are some characteristics that define the sound of all double-reed instruments, Oft said.

"The bassoon is warm, resonant, rich and dark, like chocolate," Oft said. "The oboe is like chocolate with cinnamon, or hints of hot pepper. It’s dynamic and cuts through the ensemble."

If the sound is like chocolate, the process of making the reeds, where that rich chocolate sound starts, is like crafting a fine wine or great beer, said Rebecca Collins, a reed maker on hand Saturday to instruct the young oboists how to create their own.

"The kind you buy in the store are like the Budweiser of reeds," Collins said, demonstrating how to make oboe reeds. "Creating a good beer is tough. You have to work your way up though, until you have a good microbrew. That's where I am now."

Analogous to the finest wines having grapes selected from the best regions, Collins said, where you get the bamboo that becomes your reed is just as important.

"Chardonnay and champagne have to come from France, and the best bamboo comes from France, Spain and Portugal," she said. "You get it from Florida, it's not going to be the best."

The reed making and an evening recital were the highlights of double-reed day, but the event wasn't just to show off the art and craftsmanship of the instrument. Oft said the event was also able to raise money for a new English horn for JSU's music department, as well as help pay for reed-making tools for the college.

"A lot of places are having to cut double-reed day," Oft said. "So we're proud to have this. It's a benefit to the community, and tri-state area."

Staff Writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.

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