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The Agony and Ecstasy of an Oboe Reed Maker

Oboists can spend more time making reeds for their instrument than playing their music. One such musician, the comic monologist Josh Kornbluth, has a lot to say about reed making's painfully exacting process.

Issues: Fall 2020

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“The general rule of thumb is that after you fill a laundry basket with your failed reeds, you finally know how to make a working reed. And I think in my whole life, I haven’t filled a laundry basket yet.”

By JEFF GREENWALD
Photography by SCOTT CHERNIS

  1. “A Chef’s Knife That Dissolves”
  2. Wood Alchemy
  3. Of Reeds and Comic Monologues
  4. “Pure Masochism”
  5. The Van Gogh Maneuver
  6. Counting ‘Crows’
  7. “Welcome To My World of Pain”

The oboe’s a horn made of wood.
I’d play you a tune if I could,
But the reeds are a pain,
And the fingering’s insane.
It’s the ill wind that no one blows good.

– Ogden Nash

About 3,000 years ago, an instrument called the shawm become popular in the Middle East. Tall and sleek, the shawm used a double reed and seven finger holes to produce a captivating tone. During the Crusades, this godmother of woodwinds found its way to Europe, where—during the reign of the Sun King—it joined the court symphony. The sound of the instrument was so clear and distinct that the French called it the hautbois (ou-bwa): “loud wood.” Given the speed of conversational French, it didn’t take long for this to become “oboe.”

Josh’s first memory of the oboe, as a kid, is from its role in Peter and the Wolf, the famous 1936 “symphonic fairy tale” written by Sergei Prokofiev. The performance was conducted and narrated by the great Leonard Bernstein, with a very frightened duck immortalized by Harold Gomberg’s oboe. The duck sections, Josh says, are “kind of tricky… You have to do some pinky work.”

My childhood introduction to the oboe was serendipitous. One of my mother’s cousins, Elaine, was a model. Her long-lashed eyes, a faceted gem on her forehead between them, were featured on the slipcover for The New York Philharmonic’s powerful 1959 recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. My father played the album incessantly. The second movement features a haunting oboe solo—one of the only oboe solos in classical music. Since then, I’ve recognized the oboe’s voice in a few other random compositions—like the opening credits for Six Feet Under, or the mournful theme called “Gabriel’s Oboe” in Roland Joffé’s 1986 film The Mission.

“There are beautiful things that the oboe plays,” says Josh Kornbluth, the Berkeley-based oboist and performing artist, “like that famous solo in Scheherazade, and the duck in Peter and the Wolf. There’s also a particular solo in Stravinsky’s Firebird. But compared to other instruments, very little is written for the oboe as a solo instrument.”

It was Kornbluth who’d rekindled my childhood interest in the oboe. I’ve long been a fan of his probing and often hilarious autobiographical monologues, two of which—Haiku Tunnel and Love & Taxes—have been adapted into films. Learning that he is also a serious oboist was akin to my discovery that Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman played the bongos. It seemed, at first, a startling non-sequitur.

In 2013, Kornbluth wrote and performed a solo show called Sea of Reeds. Ambitious, if a bit diffuse, the show interwove two aspects of Kornbluth’s life: an exploration of his Jewish heritage, symbolized by the Biblical story of the parting of the Sea of Reeds (often called the Red Sea); and the daunting task faced by every serious oboist: the exacting, time-consuming, and often futile crafting of perfect reeds from a few slivers of cane.

Two things were unusual about Sea of Reeds. The first was that it was Kornbluth’s first multi-player production. He was joined by a female actor (Amy Resnick) and a small Klezmer band, which accompanied Kornbluth during the show’s several oboe recitals. The other was that, as part of his set, Kornbluth had filled a corner of the stage with the odd-looking tools and devices required for the shaping of cane into reeds. Before each show, audience members were invited to see how these arcane machines worked—and to witness for themselves (in a very small dose) what Josh calls “the Sisyphean task of continually trying to make oboe reeds.”

“When I was a student, I heard that the legendary oboist Harold Gomberg had his own cane fields in Italy. It was said that the room where he made his reeds was underground, locked and secured. No one was allowed to go in and steal his techniques. Maybe these were rumors; maybe this was true.”

“A CHEF’S KNIFE THAT DISSOLVES”

Creating a perfect reed is an almost alchemical process, more aligned with wand-making than blacksmithing.

The oboe is one of three members of the woodwind family—along with the English horn and bassoon—that use a double reed (unlike, say, the clarinet, which uses a single reed held in place by a clamp). The most basic description of double reeds is that they are made from two pieces of a particular species of curved cane (Arundo donax) tied together. Which is sort of like saying that a pair of fine Italian boots are a few pieces of leather, sewn together.

Peter Lemberg, who has played as principal oboe for both the San Francisco and Palo Alto Chamber Orchestras, has been one of Josh’s teachers for more than a decade. He was the first to tell me why making an oboe reed is an unusual craft. “It doesn’t differ too much from making other small objects—except that the reed is very small, and must be scraped very thin in places with a super-sharp knife. It’s a very systematic process, with certain basic measurements—despite the fact that each piece of cane is different. I think that reed-making is something one needs to be doing almost every day in order to stay in ‘scraping shape.’ Even so, I find that my reeds need to be adjusted, in some way, almost every time I play on them.”

“A good reed is gold,” Kornbluth told me during a recent visit to his studio in downtown Berkeley, California. “A good reed is a part of you. It’s an extension of your soul—like a chef’s knife. Except it’s a chef’s knife that dissolves.”

WOOD ALCHEMY

“I don’t remember if the cane I’m using now comes from China, or Italy, or the French Riviera. It could be any of those places,” Josh says. And they all come in different diameters—a handy feature for the bassoon, which is bigger than the oboe.

Imagine taking two blades of grass, holding them flat and tight against each other, and blowing through the gap. The shrill buzz you hear is their vibration; you have just made the simplest of reeds. Human beings create sound in a similar way. We have two membranous folds (vocal cords), placed horizontally in our laryngeal region. By expelling air through these folds, we make intelligible noise: be it speech, song, even a wolf-like howl.

The reed, in turn, is the voice box of the oboe—and the tiniest tweak in a double reed changes an oboe’s sound significantly. Creating a perfect reed, then, is an almost alchemical process, more aligned with wand-making than blacksmithing.

To show me what he means, Kornbluth opens a modified cigarette case holding an assortment of semi-completed reeds. They’re tied with threads of different colors and remind me, in their delicate intricacy, of fly-fishing lures. “There are at least four things that go into reed making—and I can maybe tell you what I think those things are.”

Kornbluth takes a moment to gather his thoughts. He’s wearing one of his signature colorful short-sleeved shirts tailored by his wife, Sara Sato. As overtasked as he is (along with playing the oboe and developing new theater projects, Kornbluth is currently performing “Citizen Brain”, a monologue based on his recent fellowship at the Global Brain Health Institute at UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center), Josh always appears affable. Stocky and slightly cherubic (if cherubs had male pattern baldness), Kornbluth calls to mind a modern Jewish incarnation of Benjamin Franklin—an affinity he embraced in his 2004 monologue, Ben Franklin Unplugged.

“First,” Josh says, “the reed needs to be responsive. If it’s unresponsive, it’s like bad sex: Something happens, but it’s not something that anyone wants to remember. Second, when you blow, it needs to vibrate. It needs to be alive. But it cannot be so bright in its vibration that it just buzzes.

“Third, it needs to have—and this is almost not a metaphor—a heart. There’s actually a part of the reed that is its heart. It doesn’t pump blood through the rest of the reed—but if you take it away, the reed will not have structure. It will collapse. And finally, a really good reed has a duskiness to it. It has soul. When you play it, you feel it and hear it immediately. You can tell when a reed has that—even before it’s done.”

“It is no exaggeration to say that when the weather changes, a reed can stop working—or become a very different reed. Sometimes better, usually worse.”

Meeting all of these conditions, for every reed you attempt, is impossible. One of the tropes I heard time and again was that aspiring oboists need to make a laundry basket full of failed reeds before making one that actually succeeds. Even viable reeds fall along a sizeable spectrum of quality and durability.

“The best reeds—and even the greatest reed maker might make one in ten—are reeds you might play in a concert. For an oboe solo, you want to soar. Other reeds are good to practice on. So there might be a reed that’s great for when you’re one of hundreds of musicians in an orchestra, and another that’s better for a solo.”

I ask what the expected life span of these rare reeds might be. “A few hours of playing,” he replies. “The act of playing literally dissolves it. And the reed that was great yesterday might not be great today. It is no exaggeration to say that even when the weather changes, a reed can stop working—or become a very different reed. Sometimes better, usually worse.”

By definition, then, there is no such thing as a perfect reed. “You’re working with material that was not intended to play Bach,” Kornbluth reminds me. “God did not, to my knowledge, grow cane for the purpose of being turned into an oboe reed.”

“You take out a little bit from here, from there, from the tip, from the back, or a combination of those things,” Josh says. “If we weren’t talking, I would take a half hour to get my knife really right sharp—because when it isn’t right sharp, it doesn’t work. You can tear the tip off.”

OF REEDS AND COMIC MONOLOGUES

I was wrong about the disconnect between Josh’s stage work and musicianship. As with Richard Feynman—whose inventive bongo rhythms echoed the patterns he found in subatomic particles—Josh’s crafts complement each other. Making oboe reeds and creating monologues (whether about brain science, fatherhood, Ben Franklin, or even the IRS) involve a similar skill set: assembling seemingly unrelated elements into a unique and cohesive whole.

“I have completely fucked this up,” Josh says ruefully. “It’s twisted. It’s warped. It’s the very first thing I did—and already it’s unusable.”

“It’s not an exact analogy, of course,” says Josh. “A monologue doesn’t dissolve from my saliva after a few hours of performing —although that would be amazing. But in terms of the attention to detail, the introspection, and the neurosis of it, crafting a monologue does have some of the same elements of attention and pain.” He pauses a moment, letting down his comic guard. “And also, joy. If you make a reed that works well, you can make the most beautiful sound you’re capable of making as an oboist. That’s also my dream with Citizen Brain: to use my voice—the way I think about things and process them—to make something beautiful and compelling.”

Josh had a leg up with stagecraft. When you are fascinated by details, and you grow up in New York as the son of activist Jewish parents, storytelling comes naturally. Reed making, not so much. “I’m a good monologist” Kornbluth concedes, “but a shitty reed maker.”

Things could have been easier for Kornbluth. He’d started out on the violin. “My Mom would run into my room as I’d be practicing, holding her hands over her ears.” Walking home from school one day, he was mugged—and the violin was stolen. Eventually, the thieves were caught. “The only thing that wasn’t recovered was the violin,” says Kornbluth. “And we were all very grateful.”

But learning music was a family requirement—and guitar didn’t count. You had to play an orchestral instrument. “So I asked my Mom: What was the most obscure instrument in the orchestra, and what was the most difficult? She told me that, to her understanding, the oboe was the answer to both questions.”

Music theory is one thing. But the added imperative of reed making is so laborious—and requires so much skill with sharp edges—that beginning students can’t be expected to do it. “You never make your own reeds at first,” Kornbluth says, shaking his head. “First, it’s hard to be very young and even play the oboe. Just physically. You have to blow really hard. Your lips have to get strong. The young body isn’t suited that well for it.” The oboe,” he adds, with a dire look in his eye, “is not something that you want to expose young children to.” [In some cases, maybe you do. For an example, see our sidebar: “Aya Rokeach: Notes From a Young Oboist”]

“PURE MASOCHISM”

One morning, Josh and I are sitting on opposite sides of his partially cleared desk, which is arrayed with the strange, Medieval-looking gear I’d seen on stage during Sea of Reeds. Crafted of brass and wood, integrating small gears and fine channels, they look efficient, expensive, and extremely challenging to master.

“There’s a progression,” he says. “Typically, you start on training reeds. Some are even made of plastic, so they’re much easier to blow. After that, your teacher starts making reeds for you. Then, one day, there’s a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. Your teacher says, ‘You’ve gotten this far. If you want to go further, you start making your own reeds.’

“And you have to make your own reeds, if you’re a serious oboist,” Josh says.

This struck me as an odd pre-requisite. Why not just buy reeds from someone who is good at it? Since oboe reeds don’t last long, buying dozens of laboriously made reeds would be extremely expensive. But even if a player could afford that expense, there is the nettlesome question of its “embouchure”: how each reed fits, feels, and vibrates between your lips, and how it interacts with the force of your particular breath. And, of course, there’s the particular quality of tone each oboist is after, what might be called a reed maker’s Holy Grail. These qualities are the un-teachables: things you master only after many failed efforts. “So my primary answer,” Josh says, “is that the double reed is a very quirky and personal thing. And my ancillary answer is, it’s out of pure masochism.”

So where is Josh on this scale? “I’m at the same level as a reed maker as I am a practicing Jew: Good intentions, but not great at it.” Some highly accomplished oboists are superb reed makers, of course. And even Josh has come close. “Then I get to a certain point, and I need my oboe teacher to help me. It’s mystical to me—but he’ll take one molecule off one corner, and it’s done.” [For a taste of what reed-making, and the oboe, mean to this comic monologist, see our documentary short, “Josh Kornbluth: On the Short Intense Life of the Oboe Reed.”]

THE VAN GOGH MANEUVER

Every stage of reed making is measured in fractions of a millimeter, as explained in Professor John Dee’s class at the University of Illinois at Urbana. And any miscalculation can damage the wood. Even when each step is followed precisely, the result can still be unsatisfactory. “You have to be a fanatic to make reeds,” Josh says, “because it’s so frustrating.” photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois News Bureau

Reed making, I soon learn, is a journey of a thousand steps, beginning with the selection of a 3” length of dried cane. Kornbluth shakes a baggie of them; they rattle like Scrabble tiles. He removes one, splits it with an arrowhead-shaped tool, and examines the results. “I have completely fucked this up,” he says ruefully. “It’s twisted. It’s warped. It’s the very first thing I did—and already it’s unusable.”

Josh the musician, I quickly discover, is not Josh the monologist. Before he brings a new piece to the stage Josh will test his material again and again, for non-paying audiences, trying new angles and seeing which jokes and anecdotes land most effectively (I’d actually attended four of the workshops for Citizen Brain which opened, as a paid Zoom show, on October 16th). He can even make changes in real time, during a live performance. As a reed maker, however, he has less wiggle room. It’s a binary craft: a reed must be flawless, or it’s discarded. The process requires laser focus, and the jovial, slightly awkward persona Josh has mastered for his comic monologues takes a back seat.

Kornbluth now places the cane on a shallow metal track, and feeds it beneath a perfectly positioned blade—one of the various gougers a reed maker uses. These are serious tools; a good gouger can cost as much as $2,000. During the “pre-gouging,” which reduces a bit of the reed’s thickness, Josh lays the ground for the next steps: more gouging, then folding, and trimming the folded cane to its near-final profile on metal dies called shapers. These tools come in various sizes, widths, and lengths. “Each will produce a reed with a fractionally different sound,” Josh says. “It’s very personal to the player.”

“Tying the reed onto the tube is a very tricky maneuver,” Josh says. “You have to keep the pressure on, then very quickly make a knot. If you release the pressure early, the whole thing unravels.” photo by Jeff Greenwald

As Josh turns the freshly shaped cane in his hand, examining it closely, he gives me a cautionary look. “So far, this has all been mechanical,” he says. “We aren’t even close to any of the really involved stuff yet. We haven’t gotten into the art of reed making.” At this point, he picks up a very narrow, tapered tube of metal, half of it sheathed in cork. “Oboes are conical,” he says. “And the reed becomes an extension: a continuation of the cone created by the oboe.”

Holding the folded cane against the tube, he reaches for a spool of maroon nylon thread. “This is my favorite color,” he says. (The use of nylon vs. silk thread for this step is hotly debated among oboists. Silk loyalists say their material stretches less than nylon, which allows for more vibration, whereas nylon advocates, like Josh, are attracted to its sturdiness—and its affordability.) With the concentration of a surgeon, Josh wraps the folded cane tightly around the tube, working up from where the cork begins. “This is all toward the goal of sealing,” he says, his eyes never leaving the thread. “If I tie it too low, it’ll leak. If I tie it above the tube, it’ll collapse when I play it.” When he’s done, the reed’s closed end still has two little protrusions, called “ears,” which are left over from the shaping process. “I call this the Van Gogh maneuver,” Josh says, as he cuts them off. “But on both sides.”

Many instruments include elements, like the oboe reed, that are highly personal. A violin bow is one example. “But as far as I know,” Josh says, “violinists don’t have to make a new bow after every few hours of play. They don’t have to persuade a horse to give up some of its hair. I don’t believe even Itzhak Perlman does that—but I don’t know for sure.”

At this point, after all this work, the object Josh has been working on is now called a “blank”— and its life now hangs in the balance. “Every step, even for great reed makers, is fraught with danger,” Josh says. He picks up his reed knife, lays the blank on a chopping block, clips off the tip, puts the reed to his mouth, places his finger over the other end, and sucks. “I’m not sure about this reed,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m finding this one to be very dicey.” Without hesitation or preamble, he tears the reed apart.

“You destroyed it!” I cry out.

“Reed making,” says Josh calmly, “is an exercise in non-attachment.”

After passing the “crow” test, each half of the double reed must be sculpted independently. To accomplish this, Josh slips a leaf-shaped piece of metal (called a plaque) between the two halves, does a bit of microscopic carving, then drops the raw into a glass of water to soak.

COUNTING ‘CROWS’

Undaunted, Josh turns to his small supply of blanks and selects another. “Now comes the fine scraping,” he says. “And this is where the art begins.” While the adjustments at this stage are miniscule, their consequences are substantial. Imperfectly carved reeds can cause actual physical harm. Such reeds can force an oboist to strain—as they compensate for pitch and dynamic control with their lips—injuring their embouchure. In extreme cases, an oboist might not be able to finish a performance.

The final goal in reed making is to strike a delicate balance: You want a reed solid enough at its base to remain sturdy, but thin enough at the tip that it can vibrate.

After sculpting each half of the reed, Josh drops it into a dish of water and we pop out for lunch. By the time we return, the reed, now softened, is ready for its next existential test. “If it’s going to be workable, it will make a sound called the ‘crow.’” Josh puts his lips on the reed, all the way up to the thread, and blows. Piercing and nasal, it sounds like a chipmunk’s shofar. But Josh nods. “It should be exactly the note C,” he says. “If it’s a little flat, or a little sharp, that tells where you are in your carving process.” He blows again, and laughs. “This is where I’m least secure. At this point, I’d be much more comfortable if you were replaced by my teacher Peter Lemberg, and I could say, “Can you look at this before I go further?’ And he would say, ‘Oh, let me just do this: Doink doink doink.”

“Doink,” in this case, means any of an infinite number of almost invisible adjustments. To target that elusive C-note, for example, Lemberg might scrape a hair’s breadth off either side of the reed’s “spine,” which is situated approximately three-quarters of the distance from the maroon thread to the reed’s tip. Those little scrapes, if done properly, can raise or lower a reed’s pitch just the right amount. Like Tiger Wood’s mindset as he makes a miraculous putt, or chef Daniela Soto-Innes seasoning a mole, these micro-skills come through endless practice, confident artistry, and intuition.

Normally, a new reed would now be allowed to rest and re-settle. “You’d do it in two sittings,” Josh says. “Because the wood changes. I’ve been told this by carpenters. You cut the wood and you let it rest—because its tree-ness is trying to reassert itself.” This is when the reed’s heart, which Josh spoke of earlier, comes into being. Watching Josh, I am reminded of what Michelangelo says, in Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, about sculpting: The figure is already in the marble, just waiting to be released. Likewise, the perfect reed is already in the cane, awaiting the carving skill of the musician.

A good corollary for trial-by-reed, Josh suggests, lies in the world of ballet. It takes dancers about a month to break in each pair of hand-sewn pointe shoes, yet some last for only a single performance. A professional ballerina can dance through as many as 120 pairs each season.

“Okay,” Josh declares. “Just for the hell of it, let’s see if I can play a note on this.” He fixes the reed into the end of a nearby instrument and, to my amazement, plays a short, beautiful solo. His eyes widen, and he lights up with a luminous grin. “Y’know? That actually sounds like an oboe!” He removes the reed. “I’ll leave it to sit, then work on it more later. There are a million different things I could do to the reed at this point. But it does play!”

“It seemed to play beautifully,” I remark. “What’s missing?”

“Well, for one thing,” Josh says, “a finished reed is easier to blow through. It has a balance of a darkness, duskiness, and a lightness, a brightness.” These qualities only come as a reed ages. “At first, it’s a baby reed—but as you work on it and play it, it will mature.”

“WELCOME TO MY WORLD OF PAIN”

During one of his first solos, Josh tried to play softly and very carefully to cover up his nervousness. After the performance, he heard someone say they loved the show, they were just sorry the oboe solo had been omitted.

Flight of the Bumblebee, written in 1899 by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsokov (who also composed Scheherazade) is one of the most demanding pieces ever written for oboe. At a 2008 concert in Los Angeles’ Thayer Hall, oboist Jack Cozen Harel played the piece in 26.1 seconds: an average speed of more than 15 notes per second. “The Guinness Book of World Records” confirms his achievement; but a perhaps more amazing feat was crafting a near perfect reed, able to maintain its tonal integrity throughout the performance.

I’d asked Peter Lemberg if he had ever made what he considered a “perfect” reed—or if such a thing is even possible. “I’ve had some near-perfect ones,” he allowed, “but due to the nature of cane, they don’t stay perfect for long.” To prove his point, Lemberg shared this anecdote: When John de Lancie—the famous 1st oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years (and father of the beloved Star Trek actor who plays “Q”)—was once asked, “How long does a reed last?” here was his answer: “Forever; as long as I don’t play on it.”

When I next visit Josh Kornbluth, he is carving the blanks he’d shown me a few days earlier. He’s happy to talk, but I’m forewarned: It’s best I don’t watch. It would be like leaning over the shoulder of a pool player trying to set up the perfect shot. I stand a few feet back, slyly peeking. Josh continues to crow, clip, crow, clip, scrape, shave, scrape, scrape, punctuated by an occasional expletive, and finally looks up. He fixes me with the anguished gaze I’ve seen him cast many times from the stage. “Welcome, Jeff, to my world of pain.”

“How many reeds,” I ask, “would you say you’ve made during your oboe career?”

“Probably hundreds,” he says.

“And have you saved any of the great ones, like, as totems?

Josh laughs, and shakes his head. “If you hit a home run, you don’t save the swing,” he says. “You may remember it, but you don’t own it. It’s almost,” he muses, “as if the reed itself doesn’t exist. It’s the thing that makes the oboe/human connection. It’s an ephemeral, mythical beast.”

Josh Kornbluth’s new solo show, “Citizen Brain,” is running through Nov. 8 on Zoom. Pay-as-you-can tickets are available here.

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