Kent students make their own reeds


Arundo donax, or giant reed, is a special type of plant used to make reeds for oboes and bassoons. Submitted photo.

Rachel Hagenbaugh

There is much more to being an oboe player than most people would think. They not only play their instruments, but most also make their own reeds. Kent State’s oboists now have the opportunity to start growing their own reed canes to produce the best sound the Kent State Orchestra has ever played.

Oboists and bassoonists are the only members of the band who make their own reeds, said Bryan Read, a second-year graduate oboe performance major.

“Our reeds are very temperamental because one that worked yesterday might not work today,” Read said.

The barometric pressure has much to do with how the reed will play. Read said the oboists need to make different reeds for different pressures. On average, one reed will last six to seven hours of playing time, so it’s “all about consistency,” Read said.

Some of the Kent State oboists are also taking a one-hour per week class to perfect their reed-making skills.

“It’s like Project Runway, but instead of critiquing clothes, you’re critiquing reeds,” Read said.

The students involved in the extra class meet with a professor and spend that time adjusting their reeds to try and find the perfect balance of sound. Reed said it makes it much easier when the professor is right there to help you fix the problem.

Reed cane, also called Arundo donax, mostly grows in tropical conditions in Asia, Africa, California and the Caribbean, said Justin Bannon, first-year graduate oboe performance major. The oboists buy the cane and begin to make the reeds from scratch. They use a razor blade to cut the cane down the middle. Then the oboists cut the cane down to the size they need. Next, the oboists begin shaving different edges of the reed according to their preference. Bannon said it’s difficult to mimic the sound of professional oboists because what works for them would not necessarily work for him.

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To see Bannon, Read and the rest of the Kent State Orchestra show of their talent, watch them perform Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kent State Orchestra Concert in Cartwright Hall.

“You have a general guideline for the thickness and shaving of the reed, but after that, you just have to go with what you feel,” he said.

In October 2010, the oboists made a very exciting discovery. Danna Sundet, assistant professor of music in the College of the Arts, said a colleague notified her of Arundo donax growing on one side of the radio station on Kent State’s campus. Sundet planned to harvest some of the cane, but the groundskeepers cut it down before she had the chance. Sundet said she hopes to work with the groundskeepers so she can acquire some of the cane when it begins growing again.

Luckily, she found another strain of cane growing not far away. At the corner of Seasons and Ravenna roads, reed cane grows at the Morningstar Farm. Bonnie Zuchniak and her husband are the owners of the farm and allowed the Kent Garden Club to use a portion of the property.

Sundet said Zuchniak told her that a groundskeeper took the cane from Kent State and planted it here because he was a member of the Kent Garden Club. Zuchniak planned to have the cane removed but allowed Sundet and her students to take what they wanted first. A lot of people don’t realize what the cane really is, Read said. They assume the canes are weeds and want them removed.

“It’s exciting to see it first hand as an organic product,” Sundet said. She also took one root ball from the farm and planted it at the back of her property.

Sundet currently has two bundles of cane from Morningstar Farm that are in her garage harvesting. The harvesting process includes cutting the cane, planting the root ball, cutting the cane from the ground them off and allowing it to dry out for two years at a specific temperature.

Sundet and her students will not be able to experiment with the freshly grown reeds until Spring 2013, but she said she hopes this will become an ongoing project every year. She said she plans on having her students plant the root balls in the fall and use the fully harvested cane from the students who planted it two years prior. It will become a cycle of Kent State students growing and making their own reeds from scratch.

“The reality of seeing the whole process will make them better musicians,” Sundet said.

Sundet’s prediction on how the cane came to Kent State’s campus is similar to the story of the black squirrels. She said the groundskeepers are very savvy and are always looking for ways to make the campus look better.

Sundet said the groundskeeper might have thought it was ornamental grass, which is really popular but unique to this area.

“On the side of the radio station you can really tell it was supposed to be used just for show,” Bannon said.

Since Bannon was a graduate student, Sundet let him be in charge of studying the Arundo donax cane and how to grow it. He said by doing this as a graduate student, he had more time to research and it kicked off the semester.

Bannon said it would be nice to see the difference between how these canes play compared to the ones they have shipped from France.

Contact Rachel Hagenbaugh at [email protected].