I Knew I Needed to Make a Reed . . .

by Randall Wolfgang

I knew I needed to make a reed. All my reeds were old or on the wrong track. I wanted something big but beautiful sounding. I’d had some good cane… decided to make just one reed.

I soaked it up. Made a nice coffee. Then I started tying the cane onto the tube — a corked metal tube that fits into the top of the oboe.

As I was tying I started to daydream about the Beaverkill River where I’d rented a tree house on an island in the middle of the river. I would drive there after the last show on Sunday and sleep and when I’d wake up I’d have a great view of the river upstream. If the fish were jumping I’d go down to the river to see what they were feeding on, then come back and tie a fly that looked like the hatch. It always amazed me how many different kinds of things hatch on the river.

The birds were important, too. They’d auger what kind of day I would have on the river.

I remember the summer four waxwings were living in my trees. Their flight patterns were fantastic and they were such beautiful small birds with tail feathers that looked like they were dipped in yellow paint, with two bright red spots on the sides. One time I made a fly trying to match their colors in my creation. I found a feather, tied it to a hook, wound it towards the eye so that the feather flared out and tied red string near the eye of the hook to make it look like the head of an insect. Then dipped the artificial insect in yellow paint.

After making a fly that looked like what was happening on the river (or finding one in my box of flies) I’d go downstairs, put on my waders and my vest, assemble my fly rod, wade out into the stream and start casting. It took six or seven casts to get the line to fall straight and soft on the water. I’d practice for accuracy, putting the fly two or three feet above stream where I saw the fish rise, letting the current of the river float the artificial insect above the fish. If the fish took the fly there would be an exciting fight and the trout would wind up in my net.

If not…just being there was enough, practicing my cast. There is nothing better than being in nature and standing in a rushing river, fishing.

Invariably I’d start to think about being in the pit playing my oboe. So the daydream would go in reverse.

I needed a special reed because the Barber Violin Concerto was coming up at the end of the week. The second movement starts with an oboe solo that is glorious to play — that is if I have nice reed. I don’t think of reeds as bad or good, only as old and new. I needed a new reed and play it for a few days at the ballet so it was no longer “new”. An old reed would never do for the Barber. Plus, I had in mind the kind of sound I wanted when the short introduction ended and I’d make my entrance.

I crowed the reed (blowing into the reed without the oboe). It was starting to vibrate the way I liked. I didn’t want to finish it too fast. I wanted to play it in as I was finishing it. I wanted it to flow like an old fountain pen — I did not want it to stop “mid-sentence” or “mid-word”. I wanted the sound to end by itself. I did not want the timbre to be too clear — a little “stuff” in the sound was preferable.

I started to play the solo that starts on the fourth space “E”, a beautiful register for an oboe solo. I’ve always wondered why Barber wrote so well for my instrument. Maybe because Marcel Tabuteau, who played in the Philadelphia Orchestra, taught at The Curtis School of Music when Barber was a student there. A larger than life Frenchman, Tabuteau imposed his musical phrasing on everybody at Curtis, using a number system that showed the top of each phrase. My teacher, John de Lancie, was his successor in the orchestra and at Curtis, and carried on Tabuteau’s tradition. We joked that when de Lancie retired he’d have numbered every piece of music in the repertoire. When he retired from the orchestra, however, he became the Director of The Curtis.

My reed was playing nicely now. I needed to make it a little more stable to make a great high B (above the staff) and going from the high B to the C# at the top of the phrase.  The interval is difficult.  It goes “over the break” and is very exposed. It is the same interval, the same feeling playing it, as in the english horn solo in the second movement of Ravel’s G Major Piano Concerto — that same high B to C#.

Okay, that would be enough — I didn’t want to overwork the reed. It would want to change when it dried out the first time and I’d have to sort of make it all over again.



  1. I would tell Randy that each time he would play the Barber Violin Concerto, it was so beautifully played, it would bring tears to my eyes !!!

    1. What a wonderful re-introduction to the NYCBO! Great website, fascinating interviews and sensitive articles. (…and then there was the time all the ‘snowflakes’ came down at once!) Bravo everyone — Liane

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