Howarth of London was packed yesterday afternoon as oboists piled in to try out the prototype of the Légère synthetic reed, and I couldn’t resist going along myself. Here I am, courtesy of Olivia Wild who was there taking photographs, and I’ve snaffled this from Howarth’s Facebook feed:
(I’m happy to remove the pic if requested to do so. I’m not sure now that orange is my colour, and I’m horrified at how many white hairs I can see here, not to mention the number of chins…)
So what are these synthetic reeds like?
There were quite a few people already playing as I walked in, and the sound these reeds make is good: it’s a full, rich sound, nothing remotely plasticky about it. Christoph Hartmann was very keen for people to just pick a reed and have a go, so I did just that, but I’m afraid I ran into problems straight away with my Lorée. Its serial number tells me that my oboe is twelve years old, and perhaps this has something to do with it, but I could only find two of the synthetic reeds that would fit: the rest just simply would not go in, even after applying lots of cork grease. Nevertheless, I tootled on the two reeds that would fit and was mostly pleased with the result, but the A, B and C in the top octave – always weedy on my Lorée anyway – were rendered even weedier by the synthetic reed, and all the notes from D upwards were really pretty awful. Very thin indeed, and no amount of diaphragm would make any difference. But I’m inclined to blame my oboe for that, to be honest.
Mike Britten had noticed the trouble I was having finding reeds to fit the Lorée and very kindly lent me a Howarth XM oboe so I could try a few more of the synthetic reeds. Surprisingly, there is some variation from reed to reed. I think many people there, myself included, were expecting the synthetic reeds to be all exactly the same, but they’re not. And what are they like to play? Very similar to cane reeds, but I found them to be rather hard work at the bottom end of the range, and some of the reeds I tried had a tendency to stop vibrating if I wasn’t paying enough attention. Some others felt as if they were rather closed, despite the aperture at the tip looking as it should. Rapid tonguing was really not very easy, and even slower legato tonguing was a little more difficult than usual. I felt more comfortable playing around in the middle of the oboe’s range, and on the XM, the top notes really sang out – I’m pretty sure I played the best top A I have ever produced in my entire oboe-playing life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get right to the top of the range – E, F and F# came out with no trouble at all, but I couldn’t get a top G out of any of the reeds. My lip was getting tired though, so this was probably my fault.
Can you scrape synthetic reeds?
Apparently you can, but carefully. And it’s only possible to make very minor adjustments, so you really do have to make sure you buy the reed that’s right for you.
How long do they last?
A synthetic reed should, in theory, last you for years, which could save you a lot of money, but as I said before, you would have to be very careful about choosing the right reed; given that the scope for adjustment is limited, you would have to hope that your embouchure didn’t change very much. I don’t suppose this is much of a problem for most people, but perhaps a synthetic reed wouldn’t be right for younger players who are still growing.
How much will synthetic reeds cost?
This is the question everyone was asking and no one was answering! Fair enough, because the reed is still at the prototype stage, but I don’t imagine they’re going to be cheap.
How do you clean them?
The reeds are clear, so you can see water (or, less delicately, spit) building up inside them. They can be cleaned by flushing them through with clean water and any remaining nasties can be removed with pipe cleaners.
What’s the final verdict?
Listening to the comments and conversations going on around me, I would say that the general feeling was that these reeds are very good, but they’re not quite there yet. As for me, I would certainly welcome the age of the synthetic reed, but it’s clear that I would have to get a new oboe. Synthetic reeds and the Lorée didn’t get on at all, but the same problems weren’t there with the XM. The XM is a beautiful instrument, a combination of the solidity of the Howarth intonation without the rather-too-strident-for-my-taste tone that sometimes goes with the XL. (In fact, I want an XM so much now that I’ve just bought forty quids’ worth of Woodland Trust raffle tickets because the top prize is £7.5K, which will cover the cost of an XM with a bit to spare. Got to be in it to win it! Fingers crossed for 19 June…)
The best and funniest comment yesterday came from Jeremy Polmear, who said that synthetic reeds deprive us of the relationship we have with our volatile cane reeds: Mr Polmear referred to the oboist’s relationship with his or her reed as ‘a flirtation, never quite managing to get off with it’. This is quite true. Quite true.
Just to finish off, I’d like to say a big thank you to all the staff, who remained helpful, cheerful and friendly in the face of wave after wave of oboists all keen to try the prototype reeds. I was even allowed to use the little staff kitchen to try out some cane reeds because all the rooms downstairs were full. And finally, a fond farewell and a heartfelt thank you to Emma Gourlay – Monday was her last day at Howarth’s, and she will be very much missed.