~Bad Habits, Troubleshooting, Reeds P.2~

Common Troubleshooting

The problems listed below are some common causes coupled with some common solutions-- they are by no means the ONLY causes or solutions. I usually look for these first. Being an oboe player, I can usually fix these problems with a screwdriver. I do not suggest this for most people. Adjusting one pad will usually affect another, and then you're in real trouble. When your oboe needs repair or adjustment I strongly suggest that you take/send it to an oboe specialist.

I highly recommend Bruce McCall for oboe repairs. He works out of Rush's Musical Services in Knoxville Tennessee. I recently sent my oboe to him and couldn't be happier with the results! It's like an entirely new instrument!

None of the notes on the oboe come out-- There are two trill key pads above the first finger on the left hand (see T1 and T2 at left). Most of the time, if no notes are speaking on the oboe at all, one of these pads is leaking. Leaks can be caused by torn pads or bent rods. Hold down the pads while the student plays to check.
Solution-- A quick fix is to simply put a rubber band around the pad in question, but this is very temporary. Sometimes the rubber band will start to discolor the silver of the key. Take it to a repair shop as soon as possible.



The notes on the top joint of the oboe come out, but the notes on the bottom joint don't-- This is usually caused by a leak in the pad between the second and third key on the top joint (see P3 above). The first finger of the bottom joint is connected to a bridge key. This bridge key opens the pad in question (finger a third space "C" and you'll see what I mean). When you press down all the keys of the top joint, this pad should close. It should stay closed when you press down the first finger of the bottom joint. If the oboe is out of regulation though, the pad will open slightly when you press the first finger of the bottom joint. Sometimes the opening is so slight you can barely see it, but it's there.
Solution-- This one requires a screwdriver. If you follow the mechanism from the leaking pad, it will lead you to a couple of adjustment screws. You can usually close the pad by turning one of these screws. The only problem is, if you turn it too far, you'll open another pad on the bottom joint. If you MUST try to fix this yourself, turn the screw a little at a time. Play a scale on the oboe to make sure you haven't caused other problems. I would suggest taking it to a repair shop or someone who teaches oboe lessons.


The third line B and fourth line C sound the same-- the pads (P2 and P3) that lift when you press the first finger of the right hand (R1) are probably out of adjustment and are not lifting high enough.
Solution-- This is another one that requires a screwdriver and involves an adjustment screw. And again, I would send it to a repair technician.

The low E, Eb/D#, D, Db/C#, and C don't speak easily-- This is usually caused by a leak in the pad P1 at left. This pad should close completely when you press the E key down (R2).
Solution-- This can be fixed by turning the adjustment screw attached to this pad. Just press down R1 and R2, and turn the adjustment screw until you feel R2 start to lift. If it lifts at all, back the screw up a quarter turn.

The high notes come out too low when the octave key is pressed-- Sometimes this is just a reed problem. If the opening of the reed is too wide or if the reed is too hard, it will not hold the octave. Also, check to see if there is water in the key. The opening of the octave key is very small and traps water easily.
Solution--A good swabbing should fix this. If swabbing doesn't, take the top joint off, hold your right hand over the tenon cork (to completely block the air flow) and press all the keys down with the left hand. Blow really hard, and press the octave key. This should force any water in the key out.

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Let's face it-- oboe reeds are the bane of my existence, and yours too if you have an oboe player in your band. I can't even begin to tell you how to adjust a reed if it isn't perfect, but I can give you some tips on choosing them.

Buy from an oboe specialist-- When you buy a reed from your local music store, chances are it is a mass produced, machine-made reed. Chance dictates that you will get a decent reed every once in awhile. But more often than not, and correct me if I'm wrong here, you'll have a substandard reed. And you probably paid over $10.00 for it. Reeds from oboe specialty shops are hand made. Many offer "student" reeds, or quantity discounts. The prices range from $8.00 for a student reed to $14.00 for an advanced reed. Even if the price is higher than your local music store, you've got a much better chance of getting a better reed. I would suggest ordering two or three reeds from different companies, and have your students tell you which ones work the best.

Look at the reeds-- If you're in a pinch and MUST buy from a music store, look at the reed. The finished length of the reed should be 70 mm (for those of you who carry a ruler around in your shirt pocket). If it is longer, it will be flat. If it is shorter, it will be sharp. Also, look into the opening of the blades. If one blade is flat and the other is curved, don't buy it. Is the opening too wide? It will be very hard to play and probably flat. Is it too closed? It will be too easy to play and probably sharp (and will last about two days).

Hold the reed up to a light-- Hold it just in front of the light in such a way that you can see through the blades of the reed. You can usually spot a crack this way (it will look like a dark vertical line). You can also tell if the reed is handmade this way. The machine made reed will start dark and progressively get lighter.

The hand made reed will have definite areas-- windows, spine, rails, a heart, and a tip.

Look at both blades of the reed. If they don't look exactly alike, the reed will probably not be very stable, and therefor a bad choice. Symmetry is everything!

Look at the sides of the reed-- If the blades do not touch, the reed will leak. If a student has a leak on the side of the reed, there are two ''quick fixes". If you happen to have "fish skin" (it's an oboe supply), apply that up to the point of the leak. You can also apply a very light, thin layer of clear fingernail polish up to the point of the leak. Make sure the polish is completely dry before playing! Also, check to see if the blades are "slipped" (one blade to the left or right of the other). Some oboists prefer slipped blades. The point to slipping blades is to make sure the reed doesn't leak, but I have found this causes more problems than it fixes.

Reed Secret-- If you have a really good reed, but it is really old and starting to "die", there is a last resort quick fix. This procedure is highly controversial amongst the oboists of the world, but hey, it works for me. Here it is-- Soak the reed in peroxide instead of water. This sort of cleanses the "gunk" out of the reed, and gives it one last play before you have to give it the wall test. It also damages the reed, so it's a "one time, last resort, desperate move" fix. Use sparingly!


Because there is no mouthpiece, and the reed is so small, many young oboists come up with some very interesting embouchures! To help them achieve the correct embouchure, here are a couple of tips I give them.

  • Pretend to whistle. Freeze that position, and put the oboe reed in the mouth. This sets the opening of the lips in the shape of an "O". One of the most common problems with oboe embouchure is that the student "bites" down on the reed. (S)he has too much pressure coming from the top and bottom and not enough from the sides. When they pretend to whistle, it brings the sides in.
  • Pull your bottom lip over your teeth. This one is a little harder for students to understand. I tell them to curl the bottom lip over the bottom teeth, as if they are trying to put the bottom lip in their mouth. Then pull the lip out and down and stretch it across the teeth. This makes them "flatten" out the chin. The chin muscles should be pulling away from the reed, not pushing up to it.
  • The teeth should not be too close together when playing the oboe. If the student is "biting" down, (s)he is using a "double lip" embouchure, where both lips are curled across the teeth. The top and bottom teeth are only about 2 centimeters apart and are biting down on the reed. The teeth should be further apart, and the not putting any pressure on the reed. The lips should be the only part of the body in contact with the reed.

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