Why I Am Getting Out of the Reed Biz…

April 17, 2010

In August of 2010, I will be closing up shop and only making a very limited number of reeds. The reasons are complicated, so feel free to skip to the bottom if you don’t wish to read them.

Let me first state that I do not enjoy making reeds. They are a pain, are painful to make, and can be frustrating as all get-out, particularly when the waiting list is long and the pressure is on. But I do love the friendships and relationships with clients that I have developed over the years.

I recently received some less than stellar reed reviews on reedreviews.net. One person states:

I order 4 reeds from Cooper a while ago and was surpirsed in that they were not of the quality I would have expected – certainly not concert worthy and barely satisfactory in regard to practice. However, I do enjoy reading Cooper’s blog and see that he is evolving his reed making techniques. I may try his reeds again in the future.

These kinds of reviews bother me the most because

  • I don’t have any record of any Sandy or Sandra or Sandara or San or anyone by such name ordering from me.
  • I have no idea how long “a while ago” was.
  • It’s shocking to me that someone would spend $100 on reeds, receive “barely satisfactory” reeds to practice on, and keep quiet about it. If you paid that much for something such as reeds and they were crap, wouldn’t you return them immediately or at least write the person? Or perhaps they have $100 to burn, but I digress…

Another negative reed review states:

It is a shame that I have to write this. Cooper Wright is a swell guy who sells great reeds (other than the fact that their dynamic range is not too good) and who really, really tries for his clients. I have purchased several and was impressed by his reeds.

HOWEVER

His reeds do not last. They get tired and old very, very quickly. This has happened to all of the reeds I have purchased from him. For that reason, I have stopped purchasing his reeds for a while. I will try again later but for now, I have to look elsewhere. Alas.

This review is even more bizarre to me, because if he knows that I’m a swell guy, then surely he’s spoken to me personally, but I have no record (in my emails of orders) of anyone named alexander, alex, or with the last name of lupov. None, zero, NOTHING. I am also not sure why he would consider a reed “great” if it lacked dynamic range and quickly died. The reviewer sounds as though he’s ordered multiple reeds from me, which makes me wonder why someone would order such reeds repeatedly if they didn’t work in the first place. In any case, this reviewer didn’t leave his true identity either, so I’ll never be able to replace them or discuss the issues unless he writes me.

I don’t take negative reviews personally anymore, nor do I take positive reviews as an ego booster. If they ordered reeds 9 months ago from me, they very well could have been inconsistent. Since moving to Arizona, I’ve realized how the inconsistent weather of the Pacific Northwest changed my reeds so drastically, and how while my reeds were stable enough in pitch, they weren’t stable enough in tone. My studies with Martin (on a weekly basis) and with David Weber (seeing him multiple times a week, talking reeds 5 days a week with him) have re-shaped my reed structure and style so much, that I cringe at the reeds I was playing on last year as I go back and try them out from my archives. I’m comfortable with the product I produce as I know I do my best with every reed; and I can honestly say that the reeds I produced in the past were the best I could do at the time. But I’m a doctoral student, intensively studying under a professor who is constantly molding my playing, and therefore by making new demands on my playing, indirectly molds my reeds. In fact, today I pay my teacher Martin Schuring with reeds which he says he likes to play on and “run them into the ground” since it saves him time slaving away at the reed desk. If they’re good enough for the mighty Martin, then surely they’re good enough for 90% of the oboists out there. But what bothers me most about these kinds of reviews is the anonymity of it all.

An earlier reviewer wrote a less than stellar review back in December:

Cooper is one of 7 reed makers I’ve tried recently. With Cooper, I had the same excellent customer service that others have reported. Of course, I started by filling out his online questionnaire, but the remarkable thing was that he soon phoned me to further discuss my needs. However, I am sorry to say that the batch of 3 I got didn’t work for me. In 2 cases, I found the tone a bit thin and the dynamic range limited, and those 2 reeds also gave the sense of closing up with corresponding response problems. In contrast, the remaining reed was a bit wild pitchwise and ducky in tone. It is nevertheless clear that Coopers’ reeds do work for many, which demonstrates, I think, how individualistic reed tastes are. No reedmaker can appeal to all. I may also have failed to adequately communicate my wishes to Cooper. At any rate, I’m giving Cooper 3 stars as a compromise between my experience with his reeds and his excellent service.

Fortunately, this reviewer left his name to which I could write him and offer him FOUR replacement reeds (which was more reeds than his original order). I sent off reeds to him a few weeks later, and several months later he wrote another review:

Cooper noticed my review, and offered to send me some replacement reeds. (Talk about going the extra mile!) He mentioned that his reeds had changed a lot since the ones I had received and reviewed. The changes he credited to tips from Martin Schuring at Arizona State. Well I must say I like the new reeds much better. Cooper sent me four reeds of two widths, RDG 2 and Bloom X, and I prefer the wider RGD 2. But I find both widths, but particularly the RGD 2, more responsive than my first reed order, with a wider dynamic range and more pleasing tone. I’d give 4 stars now, but the server won’t let me give a star rating twice.

Because the reed client left his name, we were able to discuss the shortcomings of the first batch, what he wanted differently, and he ended up with four new reeds that he was quite pleased with. Everyone is happy, end of story.

Another client who actually owns a music store in Iowa ordered 10 reeds from me back in July of 2009. The man not only is a music store owner, but plays in a professional symphony and had a MASSIVE reed survey, (the single longest in history. It was the most specific reed survey I’ve ever received.) In any case, I sent 10 off, he accepted a few and sent the rest back. I replaced them, and he accepted a few more. This went on for several rounds, and all in total I’d say I made at least 30 reeds to fill the 10 reed order. At several points, I discussed simply refunding his money, but he encouraged me to keep trying, and out of stubbornness or out of pride, I continued and finally managed to meet his expectations. All because he kept working and communicating with me.

Reedmaking is a labor of love. On my website, I state:

I decided to go into the oboe reed business after having spent endless nights as an undergrad staying awake trying to make an “acceptable” reed so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself at rehearsal the following morning. The pressure drove me to a near breakdown, and I quit oboe for several years after a while. Upon my return, I vowed to learn oboe reeds, embouchure and playing “the right way” so that I didn’t have to physically hurt myself trying to play the instrument.

I wanted to offer this service because being in the amateur oboe scene for a while (before I jumped back into a Master’s program in 2007) I saw fellow oboists having these exact same frustrations. It’s awful seeing people struggle with reeds that prevent them from making the music they so desperately desire to express, and I could sympathize. So I jumped into the business as a labor of love. I love meeting new oboists and building relationships, and hearing about the new pieces they are playing and their needs. I love taking on their customized orders as a challenge to help them accomplish what they so desperately want to express through their instrument. I love entering into a partnership and working with people on a monthly basis when they become subscription customers. This is a major reason why I discount their subscription customized reeds from $33/reed to $23/reed when they subscribe.

I was recently evaluated by an occupational therapist who after poking and prodding my back, prescribed intensive exercises, stretches, ice and heat treatements, along with chiropractic care, physical therapy and massage in order to begin healing the massive nerve damage I have inflicted upon my back. Sometimes, if I move my neck the wrong way while looking over my shoulder in order to merge into another lane, a nerve in my neck tweaks and I can’t turn my neck to look sideways. Sometimes my upper back gets so tense that I loose feeling in my ring and pinky fingers in my right arm for hours, or sometimes I’ll get massive migraines which shoot up my neck. The pain often keeps me up at night at all odd times of the evening, and has no regard for the rest of my time commitments, including practicing. Last night, instead of practicing for my recital (which is on Saturday, April 24th) and attending our Bible study of which I am co-leader of, I had to pop four 500 milligram advil gelcaps and four 500 milligram extra strength tylenol to manage the pain. Of course that’s enough painkillers to knock out a small horse, and I quickly passed out.

In August, I’ll start my doctoral program full time and will basically stop making reeds commercially and will only be making them for my subscription clients. The process of opening a reed business and running it by myself has been an eye opening experience to the business world and to the cruel world of oboe reeds, but I am grateful for the relationships it has given me and the lessons I have learned from making thousands of reeds over the past four years.

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5 Responses to “Why I Am Getting Out of the Reed Biz…”

  1. Marian Buswell Pendell said

    Cooper, it will be a loss to all the oboists out there who do not make their own reeds that you are leaving the business. I myself continue to toy with the idea of making reeds commercially, but after reading your blog, I am not sure I would like to subject myself to the kind of scrutiny you describe. I have tried your reeds, and I think they are quite lovely, and I think you should be very proud of the product you offer. The reeds I have tried were beautifully balanced, stable, in tune, responsive, and produced a very lovely rich, refined tone. I don’t know how much more one could ask of a commercial reed. I would suggest that anyone who expects to play upon a reed that suits his personal taste exactly should consider embarking upon that quest for the perfect reed that all of us who play professionally embrace, and spend the rest of his career banging his head against the wall with the rest of us. For nearly all of us, the reed we are playing the concert with,
    the best reed we can craft for our own use, is STILL a compromise. I am frankly a little surprised at the expectations some of your clients must have of a reed that they purchase from a professional player like yourself at such a reasonable price.
    Don’t forget what Mr. Mack used to say, though, “Some like, whiskey, and some like Scotch.” I am sure that your regular customers who play in a similar fashion to you, are very appreciative to have access to such fine quality reeds and understand the kind of labor and skill that is required to produce them. I wouldn’t take those “reviews” too personally. If someone prefers a different kind of reed, he can shop elsewhere.
    I have read some of the reviews from that site of reeds that other friends of mine produce, and I have to say, I have been shocked at the kind of negative reviews I have read of some of their reeds. These are fine professional players who, in my humble opinion, offer a very fine product.

    I think the expectations of some of these oboists who buy reeds are pretty unrealistic. To be able to purchase a hand-made reed that is responsive, stable and makes a pleasing tone is such a great thing, and has frankly not always been available to players who didn’t make reeds. I can remember when these kinds of fine quality reeds just didn’t exist for purchase, and players were at the mercy of companies who manufactured reeds of such an unrefined nature that one could NEVER consider playing those reeds in public…..and plenty of people still rely on those reeds. Honestly, if you receive good reviews from the likes of Martin Schuring and David Weber, and other players for whom you have respect, I think that should be a good barometer for you. You can’t worry about pleasing everyone, and in this business, the customer really is NOT always right. Offer the product you take pride in, and if others prefer something different, they can shop elsewhere. Isolated opinions from anonymous players should certainly not bother you too much, when the players you respect are so favorably impressed with what you do.

  2. oboeidaho said

    Hey Cooper, sorry to hear you are quitting the reed biz, but it sounds like you are ready to move on! But I just can’t believe some of these people who reviewed your reeds – how they feel free to comment negatively about something so subjective as an oboe reed, but they never talked to you about it! Wild. And it sounds like many of them spent a fair amount – I agree with you that I’d sure talk to the reedmaker if I didn’t like the reeds I’d spent $100 on! Hope you learned a lot about making reeds for yourself (and maybe about business too); best of luck to you!

  3. patty said

    Sorry you’re giving it up, but you know me — I’d never start in the first place!

    I have been known to spend MORE than $100 and never complain to a reed maker. I figure reeds are so personal that what works for one doesn’t work for another and so be it. It is what it is. I doubt many would want to play on my reeds, yet I can make them work for me. And, as you know, I have trouble playing on yours! Such is life. I probably couldn’t wear your shoes comfortably either. 😉

  4. Jeremy said

    Hi Cooper,
    I was very satisfied with the reeds you sent me (I ordered twice, a long time ago). I used your reeds as examples to emulate in my own reed-making – I played them only rarely, though they sounded gorgeous. The thing I immediately noticed about your reeds was that the tip and back were extremely refined, and thinner than paper at the tip corners.

    Every oboist is different, and I think that amateur players like myself are simply heavier on our reeds than pros. What do I mean? A pro player has his lip-muscles absolutely controlled at all times. He would never “mash down” on a reed, such an act would be completely foreign to him.

    The rest of us eat steak, chew gum, bite apples and tend to do the same to everything that goes into our mouths, including reeds. We’re impatient – late at rehearsal we’ll take a dry reed, wet it for 20 seconds and wonder why it isn’t playable. Then we mash down on it or even squeeze it down – anything to get a note out.

    And of course, the reed is never quite the same afterwards.

    The more delicate, the more finely crafted the reed, the more it suffers from this sort of treatment. If the reed is made with a thick tip and soft cane it will sound like treacle, but it is relatively indestructible and can take a pounding.

    I make my own reeds now, and I learned a lot from yours. Whether you continue your business or not I wish you all the best – you are a fine reedmaker and one to emulate.

  5. Susan Kundert said

    Cooper,

    The pain of your self-examination practically oozes out of this post. I had wondered why we hadn’t heard much from you for a while. Now I know.

    You ARE growing, both as an oboist and as a reedmaker, I am sure. Congratulations to you for having the courage to not only persist, but to take inventory of yourself and make necessary course corrections.

    One of my favorite lines from T.S. Eliot:

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

    See you there!

    Susan

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