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Essays and information on reed making, innovation, pedagogy, and music.

Qualitative Cane Techniques

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CANE CONSISTENCY & COLOR UNIFORMITY

Cane color and uniformity have long been theorized as factors in determining cane consistency. The color of reed cane comes from naturally occurring compounds in plants, known as Xanthophylls. Similarly, fruits and vegetables such as Papaya, Squash, and Peaches contain lutein diesters, these chemical compounds are produced by leafy green plants as part of a non-photochemical quenching mechanism which protects the plant from adverse effects of high-intensity light. The xanthophyll compounds also protect a plant when it is dormant.

As Arundo Donax L. ages, the amount of xanthophyll pigment increases while the chlorophyll subsides. This shift in coloration happens after the Anthesis stage, where the cane is in full bloom, from October to November in Mediterranean-like climate regions. At the end of its life-cycle, in the Phenological stage, from late fall through winter, the moisture content significantly drops and growth ceases. By the middle of winter, the reed stops growing completely due to low temperatures. Since Arundo Donax L. is a perennial grass, harvest must be complete by the time new shoots emerge in early spring. Double reed musicians who harvest wild Arundo Donax L. on the Pacific Coast and in the Western United States typically harvest in early to mid-January.

The brown discolorations on the outside of the cane are from Tannins, another naturally occurring compound in plants. Tannins, in plants, are typically produced as a deterrent of predators, it is also the bitter taste or dry feeling in the mouth from ingesting unripe fruit and wine. The degradation and modification of tannins play a major role in the ripening of fruit as well as the creation of wine. Tannin discolorations in aged Arundo Donax L. range from light-yellow to purple and dark brown.

Reed cane can be highly figured with natural discolorations but there are a few things to look for when subjectively assessing the reed cane. Grey, white, or black splotches and striations or distinctly off-color hues of yellow-brown on the outside of the cane are indicators of rot, mildew, mold, and water damage. Consequently, yellow or reddish-yellow to brown splotches in the pulp of the cane are signs of mold and mildew damage. Pitting in cane is a sign of disease and is rarely seen in commercially available cane.

 

CANE TUBE DIAMETER

As the height of the Arundo Donax L. plant increases the stalk tends to have a larger diameter, this leads to a thicker, less dense, inner cortex. Though this may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, reed cane of a larger diameter tends to be less dense than reed cane of a smaller diameter. Understanding this interaction of diameter and density is especially important when making adjustments in gouge thickness and eccentricity. The standard diameter ranges of tube cane for double reed instruments are listed below.

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GOUGE THICKNESS & ECCENTRICITY

Gouge thickness and eccentricity are important factors in cane preparation. The range of gouge thickness that bassoonists use varies, in part, due to pedagogy, instrument setup, the physiology of the musician, cane preference, climate, and elevation. The range of bassoon cane gouge thickness is from 1.00 – 1.65mm with the most common gouged thickness of 1.25mm.

The eccentricity of gouged cane is determined by the relationship of the center gouge thickness to side-taper. Concentric bassoon cane has no side taper and the side and center dimensions are the same. Eccentric cane is cut with a side-taper; this is controlled by offsetting the bed or changing the blade radius of the gouging machine. A side-taper can be very minute or prominent, it also effects the dynamics of the bassoon reed. Side taper cuts ever closer to the harder epidermis of the cane and sometimes into the fiber band, a distinguishing layer between the inner cortex and dermis of the reed cane. Commercially available eccentric cane can be ordered with a side taper ranging from 0.1 – 0.4mm.

Generally, eccentric cane creates reeds with an inner-blade plane that has softer material at the spine with harder material near the rails and wings. Reeds made from concentric cane will have the same soft material across the inner-blade plane and the strength of the reed will be more reliant on the profile thickness. A few examples of center-to-side taper eccentric gouge thickness include offsets of 0.1, 0.2, and 0.4 side taper.

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GOUGE ALIGNMENT, SYMMETRY, AND STRAIGHTNESS

Quality gouge alignment, straightness, and symmetry come from using proper technique and attention to detail while processing cane. It is very apparent when the gouge is not centered, however detecting straightness and alignment can be difficult. Instead of discussing the ways in which errors can occur, this portion will discuss ways to evaluate cane after production.

GOUGE ALIGNMENT & SYMMETRY

  1. Using a pencil, mark the thickest part of the gouge- when using concentrically gouged cane, mark the center of the cane, on both sides of the piece.
  2. Check the alignment of either side of the piece of cane in order to distinguish gouge alignment.
  3. Using these marks, determine tube alignment by following the striations, or grain, of the cane from one side to the other. A quality gouge will be centered, straight, in alignment, and symmetric.

LINEAR STRAIGHTNESS OF CANE

  1. Lay the gouged cane, bark side down on a table.
  2. Tap the cane lightly from one side to the other. If the cane springs back, rocks back and forth (against its natural curvature), or lifts at any point, this piece of cane is warped.

CANE FLEXIBILITY TEST

Cane flexibility is a comparative test to determine reed strength and resiliency by hand. This is a highly subjective test because the tube radius, gouge thickness, eccentricity, and environmental factors can affect the stiffness and resiliency of the cane. It is best to use this test as an initial check to observe or postulate reed-cane dynamic before critical scientific testing.

  1. Holding the sides of the gouged cane, bark-side down, between the thumb and index fingers, gently flex the cane from side to side and observe the flexibility of the cane.
  2. Compare the flexibility of other pieces of gouged cane using step one.
  3. Sort the cane into 3 groups: highly flexible, moderately flexible, and stiff. Note any trends that are apparent between them.

PITCH – DROP TEST (LOU SKINNER)

The pitch-drop test is more accurate than the manual cane flexibility test, however, it is still highly subjective. Unless every piece of cane is uniform, observable changes in pitch, based on density, between pieces of cane will not be apparent.

  1. In a quiet space and sitting at a solid-top table, lightly drop a piece of cane from a height of 5 to 8cm (2 to 3 inches).
  2. Listen for the resonant pitch of the cane as it hits the table. Repeat step 1 a few times to get a sense of this reference pitch.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 comparing pieces of cane, listen for differences in tone quality, higher or lower pitch, or a thud-like fundamental timbre.
  4. Organize the cane by high, middle, low, and thud-like pitch frequencies.

Cane of higher density will have a higher pitch than cane of lower density. A glassy like timbre to the resonant pitch indicates a deviation in stiffness and this cane is likely to make a brighter, and harder, finished reed than its counterparts. Respectively, cane that has a thud-like timbre, regardless of pitch, will likely create a more resistant and less free-blowing finished reed. When using consistent and uniform cane this comparative method is useful in determining the batch quality and general finished reed quality.

We'd love to hear from you! What are some tests you run?