Playing the oboe is difficult. It’s a woodwind instrument topped with a double reed made of cane, wire, cord, cork, nail varnish, beeswax and brass. When the reed is working well the oboe makes a beguiling and plaintive sound (think of the solo from Swan Lake or at the start of the slow movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto). Played inexpertly the sound can weaken concrete. Most parents don’t have the patience for it, nor can most afford the isolated farmhouse that it requires, which is one of the reasons why so few children learn how to play it and why almost all oboists were brought up in the countryside. It’s said that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert at anything. Your first 8,000 hours on the oboe should be spent in solitary confinement.
Putting others’ aural comfort aside, the challenge of the oboe is that if you want to play it well you’ve got to make your own reeds, or, at the very least, have the skills to adjust them if others have made them for you. You have to be a craftsman as well as a musician. If you’re a flautist you can simply pick up your flute and play it. There’s no fussing about with a box of DIY tools. In fact, there’s no other instrument I can think of that involves such pernickety fiddling about with bits of cane, and wire, and cork and knives. It’s as if you should know how to make corsets in order to function as a barrister. True, playing any musical instrument involves a certain amount of manual dexterity, but that’s a different thing from taking tube cane, splitting it, gouging it, shaping it, binding it and scraping it. Lucky indeed is the oboist who’s a good craftsman, luckier still the oboist who enjoys the craft of reed-making. If he or she is a good oboist and musician too, it’s like winning the Euromillions Lottery.
I make my own reeds. I was taught how to do it by my wonderful oboe teacher, Douglas Heffer, more than forty-two years go. I still hate doing it, but I can’t play on anyone else’s. Each one can take me an hour or so to make and test, and only one in eight (a low hit rate – some oboists achieve one in four) works well enough. Worse still, when you’ve made yourself a good one, it lasts just a week or so in peak condition. They’re fragile and organic, and they’re gradually digested by saliva. The mouth isn’t a good place to put a natural substance, but as far as I know you can’t play the oboe in any other way.
So, we oboists have dreamt of the artificial oboe reed – the ‘plastic reed’ impervious to saliva and time. Clarinettists already have them (but theirs is a single reed rather than a double) and bassoonists are starting to use them too. Both of these types are much larger, and the higher margin of error means that artificial clarinet and bassoon reeds have been easier to develop. And even if they’re not using artificial reeds, bassoonists and clarinettists can buy reliable natural ones made by others. They don’t need to be craftspeople.
So, we oboists have been excited recently by the launch of the ‘plastic oboe reed’ by Légère, and I went to the oboe shop, Howarth, in London, with my oboe-playing friend Caroline, to try one out, in the hope that for the rest of my life I might never have to make another reed. Mind you, they’re expensive, but I and most oboists would sell half of what we possess, as well as our souls to the devil, for a reliable supply of pick-up-and-play, last-forever oboe reeds.
And, they’re not bad at all. I think I could get used to them. The ‘scrape’ has a different contour to mine, and the sound is a remoter, mellower, more closed sound than mine, but I think I could get used to that, if others could. I also understand that they can be adjusted slightly, if you’re nice to Ollie, who works at Howarth, but once you’ve adjusted them you can get months, even years, of life out of just one. I’d wondered what it would feel and taste like to put something dry and artificial in the mouth but it felt just the same as the natural ones. So, I’ve ordered four. Why four? You’d think they would be identical, since they’re made out of the same substance by a machine, but apparently they can be hit and miss. And at more than one hundred pounds each, and with a waiting list, I thought I’d improve my odds by buying in bulk, and trust that Ollie won’t ruin them all.
And it doesn’t’ stop there when it comes to oboes and the artificial. Oboes are traditionally made of a very hard wood called African Blackwood that sinks in water, and is so close-grained that it looks and feels like stone, but the mischievous Michael Britton, who runs Howarth, and whom I’ve known for 35 years, brought out a swirly purple ebonite oboe for me to try. Ebonite is a hard plastic that’s closely related to kryptonite (apparently), or Bakelite, the hard stuff that old-fashioned telephones were made of. Howarth have made just two of them, and they’ve both been kitsched up with gold key work.. If Liberace had played the oboe, not the piano, this would have been the model he would have chosen. But, to my very great surprise, it played remarkably well, though at 14,000 pounds, I don’t think I’ll be buying one tomorrow.
It’s a myth that natural is always best. Let plastic reign.