When humidity is low, wood instruments shrink.

Oboes and bassoons are sensitive to the weather – especially changing humidity levels. We keep the average humidity at about 45% here in the shop year around. Two big humidifiers run 24/7 to achieve this. In New England in the winter, building interiors get dry. Even more so if you run a fireplace or use wood to heat your home. Without the humidifiers, we run at about 15%-20% humidity in the winter.

The metal ring on the bell of most oboes and some bassoons is a good way to test if your instrument is dry. If the ring moves (and it didn’t at some point in the past) then the wood has contracted and is dry. It’s telling you please humidiy me!

You can never humidify and be fine. You can over humidify and be fine. Players who live in a coastal community, or on a high desert are used to the effects of high and low humidity. For them though, the issue is not change, but consistent humidity issues. This article is focused on us players who experience changing levels of humidity and want to lessen the effect on our wooden instrument.

Cracks can occur due to low humidity. Double reed instruments vibrate better in moderate humidity. Keywork doesn’t change as the wood changes which sometimes causes problems.

 

 

 

 

 

1)I discovered this the hard way. In 1976 I was playing with an avant-garde ensemble in downtown Manhattan which used a basement space just off the Hudson river as rehearsal space. One night, after it had rained for a while, the place was so humid the walls were sweating and the floor was tacky with moisture. My 15 year old Loree (BI-37) was crack free until that night. I heard it crack. Sends shivers up your spine. The keywork was sticking like it was too tight. The wood had swelled, and the keywork was holding the expansion back. Crack.

2) I discovered this the hard way (again). I was performing with an orchestra on tour, and a few of the stops were in very dry locations. After a week on tour through desert, I heard that sound again. Crack. I had been blowing warm, humid air through a thoroughly dry instrument forcing the wood to change rapidly inside the bore, while the exterior stayed dry.

If you humidify the whole house (which is good for the people, too), then you’re ahead of the game. But if you travel to dry places like school, university, a pit orchestra, church, and other performance places, let my experience be a lesson.

Keeping your instrument evenly humidified is easier than ever. We offer a few items that will help out including humidity monitors which let you know the humidity level wherever you place them.  I keep one of these in my case at all times now.

A 3″ hygrometer like this will fit in your case.

With one of these in my case, I feel like I have the information that helps me know what’s going on. I started using these in my oboe and bassoon cases years ago, and have found they last and are very accurate. I checked the oboe one with a fancier home system, and found they had virtually the same readings whether I tested indoors, outdoors or in the case. 

Once you’re armed with information, you can take action. If you’re like most players, you’ll have low humidity in your case. I did some tests:

  • A piece of lemon peel in the case. That smelled nice for a day or two, but really didn’t seem to make a difference
  • A bit of sponge in a perforated plastic bag. That worked a bit too well the first day, and dried out in two days. I didn’t continue the test, but it seems logical that if I had left it in there, it would have started absorbing moisture, making the case even drier.
  • I put my instrument away fairly wet. I cleaned it lightly with a feather and there was plenty of moisture left. This did nothing for the humidity.
  • I did nothing and found that the case interior was even with the exterior humidity.

So, the old classics were a mixed lot at best. 

Now I use the Humistat case humidifier. I can adjust how much humidity it causes, and the thing doesn’t spill water inside the case. It lasts for about 2 weeks before I have to refill it. If I don’t refill it, it just sits there inert in the case and doesn’t hurt anything (or get moldy, or suck in moisture!) You can get one of these on our website.

If you have another method to recommend – I’m all ears! This is just the one that works for me.

New Website?

Our website has been a very functional and popular site for double reed players. We built it almost 10 years ago and although it was updated frequently, it was time to create a full update.

Here it is! We hope you enjoy what we’ve created. Please let us know if you find any faults, and feel free to tell us how wonderful we are 😉

A student asked: “why do my oboe reeds play flat?”

If the reeds are not super long, generally, this means more breath support is needed. An indelicate test for this is to play into a tuner, and squeeze the reed harder with your lips while you’re playing. If the pitch is uncertain or swoops upward, the reed is too easy for you, and your concentration of breath is not sufficient to make it work consistently.

A common misconception is that softer reeds means easier reeds. Actually, the softer (easier, less resistant) a reed, the more embouchure control and breath support are needed to produce a good, consistent and in-tune sound.

Always consider that the instrument may be having a problem, too. If all your reeds are flat, or weird, it’s probably not you, or the reeds. Get your instrument to a repair technician.

If you have an experienced teacher, they will be your best resource. If not, try asking around and see if you can find someone to work with you in person.

There’s a great book on this subject that can help out. The Breathing Book, by Stephen Caplan, is a guide we trust. 60 pages of detailed instructions, illustrations, explanations, and examples. It’s helped out many a flummoxed reed player.

Take a look at The Breathing Book

There’s a so much more to share on this topic – this little explanation barely scrapes the surface (hehe). I’ll write more sometime soon.

Have any questions? Let me know. I know a lot of stuff, and I’m eager to share.

A Question About Ponte Oboes

“Mitch the Multi Instrumentalist” from Oregon posed a great question:

“Who really made those Ponte oboes?”

Well Mitch, I spent more than a few years at Charlie Ponte’s midtown Manhattan shop as the reedmaker (and floor sweeper, truth be told). During that time, I saw dozens of new Ponte oboes come in and go out. You would think I would know everything about them, right? I honestly think that no one knows the full story except Charlie, and he’s been gone a while.

In the photo above, Charlie is the man on the left. Bennie Fairbanks is further down the counter. My reed making counter was just to the right of this photo. Unfortunately I don’t know who the customers are.

People have been sending them to me for many years, and I’ve repaired and sold dozens and dozens of them. From what I’ve seen, there are three main types of “Ponte Oboes.” None of them were made in Manhattan, of course.

There’s the lighter, thinly plated version, which is often stamped “made in Italy” somewhere on the body. These resemble the Prestini oboes from that time period. I believe those were made by Chasserini, a relative of Prestini’s who turned out a lot of stencil instruments. Remind me to tell you about old man Prestini sometimes. He came from Italy to Ponte’s shop every few months to wine and dine with Charlie, Sam, and Benny. Quite a character.

The mama bear versions are marked “made in France” and seem uncannily like older Kreul instruments. They have familiar intonation quirks, and the key structure is very similar. The overall dimensions, weight, and feel are like Loree oboes from that period, but I don’t think there is any connection there.

The big bruisers are the “made in Germany” models, which are most probably from Malerne. They’re heavier, more richly plated, and often have a really dark, chocolaty tone.

Like many smaller companies, Charlie imported instruments with no name on them from quality manufacturers. He then stamped his mark on them, and gave them serial numbers. I swear the numbers make no sense at all, so don’t even bother trying to date an oboe by that method. These, as you know, are called stencil instruments.

The best of Ponte oboes can be extremely good instruments and I’ve performed on them over the years. Charlie retired in 1983, and didn’t produce very many oboes at the end of his run, so you can count on all of them being from before 1983.

Thanks for asking! If you ever want to try one, we have models for sale pretty regularly. Visit our used instrument pages to see what’s available.

Does Music Help You Study?

As a student, I liked to have music playing when I got down to serious studying. Headphones, speakers whatever – as long as it was music I knew and enjoyed.

Have you been told how bad this is supposed to be for you? “How can you concentrate with that racket?” was my parents’ complaint. I felt bad going against their wishes, but I knew deep inside that music helped my academic performance. I could feel it even though I couldn’t explain it.

As an adult who runs a business, I still depend on music, especially when I’m in serious concentration mode like writing copy for our catalog, doing photos for the website, or prepping for meetings.

Of course, some people are much better off studying in silence and some situations are just not good for listening while studying. A USA Today story last September reported that listening to music with lyrics is an especially bad idea when studying languages because the words of the song conflict with the part of your brain trying to understand words in another language.

Another research study run by British psychologist Dr. Emma Gray found that it’s important to choose the right music for the topic you’re studying.

Math and classical music are an example. Dr. Gray’s research found that students who listened to classical music (with 60-70 beats per minute) while studying math, scored on average 12 percent higher than without. “The melody and tone range in classical music, such as Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, helped students to study longer and retain more information,’ she said. “Music in this range induces a state of relaxation in which the mind is calm but alert, the imagination is stimulated and concentration is heightened. This is thought to be best for learning.”

For those studying science, humanities and languages, Dr. Gray found that Miley Cyrus and Justin Timberlake are worth downloading. “The left side of the brain is used to process factual information and solve problems, which are key skills in these topics,” said Dr Gray. “Listening to music with 50-80 beats per minute such as ‘We Can’t Stop’ by Miley Cyrus and ‘Mirrors’ by Justin Timberlake have a calming effect on the mind that is conducive to logical thought, allowing the brain to learn and remember new facts.”

The right side of the brain is used to process original, creative thoughts, so Gray suggests English, Drama and Art students listen to emotive rock and pop music. “Songs like Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ and ‘I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)’ by The Rolling Stones produce a heightened state of excitement that is likely to enhance creative performance,” she said.
Of the beauties in scientific research, that we attempt to understand the world around us through trial and error – repeated attempts at achieving clarity, without presupposing what the results should be, is my favorite. That’s exactly how I came to understand that listening to music while studying works for me.

What works for you?