Running a reed business and Reed shipping day

June 21, 2011

There are many advantages about being a reedmaker as a side job.

  1. You get to work on your own schedule.
  2. Your business is very portable. You can work from your own home.
  3. You can work at your own pace.
  4. You practice a skill which is directly applicable to your main job (being playing oboe).
  5. Most of the items needed to play oboe (including your knives, reed tools, reed materials, and oboes) can be considered part of the business assets and therefore are tax deductible.
  6. You always have good reeds.

All of these advantages have served me well, as being a graduate student often requires flexibility in schedule. Sometimes I’ve been scraping reeds at 6am, while other times, I’ve scraped until 2am. My business has traveled with me from Korea, to Oregon, and now to Arizona. There have been days that I’ve gone without making a reed, and sometimes I’ll make 20 in a day.

The tax write-offs saved me a lot of money the first several years, particularly when I slowly started crediting assets such as an oboe or two, gouging machines, etc. over to the business and away from my personal items. My father, being the accountant figured it all out so that over a good amount of time, I didn’t have to pay virtually any taxes for the first three or so years. Other tax write-offs including a portion of internet and cell phone charges, since all of my orders came through either email or phone calls, and even a portion of apartment rent and utilities since I have one entire bedroom reserved for my business.

Perhaps one of the most comforting aspects of running the business is always having good reeds. People always ask me, “So do you pick the best reeds out for yourself and sell off your secondaries?” to which I’m never quite sure how to respond. The truth of the matter is yes, and no.

I make approximately 60-80 reeds a month for subscription, and then another 20 or so for music stores to sell. Of the 80, I’d say 10-15 of the reeds are “special orders”. Some people want reeds a littler harder, some more open. Some like more covered, while others need a sharper reed. I’ve tried enough oboes to know that virtually every oboe has a “special need” to some degree, and I don’t mind such requests as I used to. After scraping all of the reeds, I move all of my reeds, both my cocobolo Howarth XL and Loree, a knife, chopping block, plaque, razor blade and various shotglasses out to the dining room table to give them all a “final blow”. This is the final test to see if they’re all ready to go out.

Final testing day

First I go through the special order reeds to make sure they all fit the bill. Then I go through the rest of and give them a blow and adjustment. Many of them do need an adjustment. A thinning of the corners or sides here, or perhaps a clip there. Occasionally I’ll find one that fails all tests and it gets smashed on the spot, but this only happens once or twice a batch.

Out of a batch of 80, I’ll usually take 5 or so for myself. Regarding the “skimming off the top” question, I guess the answer is yes, I take 5 which fit my oboe and my air and my style, but the term “best” is very subjective. I’ve been around the block and in this business enough to know that my five “best” could very well not be anyone else’s five “best”. In fact, I know that I like my reeds more closed and less “covered” soundingĀ  than 90% of my clients do, and so it works out anyways. Furthermore, I’ve tried enough oboes to know that what works in my oboe won’t necessarily work in someone else’s oboe the same way, therefore the reeds I pick REALLY probably won’t be the five best that anyone else would pick. So as for those other 60 reeds that aren’t special order reeds nor the five I pick, they have to pass the following tests.

  • Play on both oboes evenly in tone and scale.
  • Stable pitch throughout, stable tone throughout.
  • Must not be too small in opening and sound. In the Arizona dry heat, if a reed is small here, it generally gets bigger anywhere it goes, but can’t be too small.
  • Must not be too easy. I’d guess 80%-90% of the people who buy their reeds, like heavier things to blow against, and spend 90% of their time playing louder than mezzo-forte and don’t value or want a reed which can play a true pianississimo.
  • Be very responsive, although this is a given with all of my reeds.

If a reed plays well on one oboe, but not the other, there is generally something false in it which will usually show up when you least want it to (like playing a solo ending on low B and you JUST can’t get that note quiet enough.) I would say nearly 90% of the commercial reeds out there for me require me to control the top register with more embouchure than I prefer, and therefore would not pass my first two qualifiers. I want to be able to maintain an “ooh” focused embouchure at the top register rather than an “mmmm…” smiling embouchure on those top notes. Otherwise, how else can you play passages like Ferling #4 with octaves in tune and clarity in response?

It’s always a great relief getting my monthly reed orders out, and usually I try to do something special like order pizza or go out to lunch to celebrate. Namju and I were rushed this afternoon during her lunch break as we were preparing the orders. She is the official “writer of addresses and packer of reed orders” while I sit at the table sorting and adjusting reeds and selecting which reeds go to whom, so we had to hit Burger King for lunch.

Reed cases for retail reeds = empty. Reed cases for Cooper = Full. Good times...

But the reed orders are done, and as you can tell my big reed cases (50 reeds and 40 reeds) are empty, while my two personal reed cases (the black leather with red velvet for the Loree, the wood case for the Howarth) are full of happy, fantastic reeds. Ah, what a peace of mind.

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One Response to “Running a reed business and Reed shipping day”

  1. Cooper, your standards are amazing and that makes you one of the very best reedmakers around. The consistency and excellence of the reeds you produce makes your customers much better players than they could otherwise be. That’s the standard of a great reedmaker.

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