Oboist Liang Wang: His Reeds Come First At 26, Liang Wang is new on the job as principal oboe with the New York Philharmonic. He makes his own reeds, spending hours each day hand-crafting the essential equipment with incredible precision.

Oboist Liang Wang: His Reeds Come First

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Imagine if Barry Bonds had to carve a new bat by hand for every practice and every game. That gives you a rough idea of what a professional oboist goes through. He or she spends hours each day carving the two hair-thin reeds that are essential to the sound of the instrument.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: That's 26-year-old Liang Wang making his debut Wednesday night as principal oboe with the New York Philharmonic. For his reeds to vibrate against each other and produce this kind of sound, they must be handcrafted with incredible precision and a little magic.

Mr. LIANG WANG (Oboist): Just imagine that kind of pressure on you daily. But I, you know - in way that's the beauty of it, you know, because you're striving for something that's - someone's trying to hit a homerun. A lot of time it doesn't happen, but if it happens, it feels so good, you know.

ELLIOTT: Liang Wang agreed to give us a peek into his world this week for the latest in our series Musicians At Work. We visited him in his apartment near Lincoln Center, where he showed us the tools of his trade.

Oboes are a double reed instrument. The two reeds are tied together and stick up from the top of the oboe. There's no mouthpiece like you'd find on a clarinet or other single reed instruments. We asked Wang to demonstrate the difference between a good reed and a bad one.

(Soundbite of zipper opening)

He pulls out a small box, and it's full of reeds, each in its own slot like steak knives lined up in case. He selects two and puts them in a vial of water to soak. They have to be moist to play.

Mr. LIANG WANG (Oboist): Sometimes I'll be struggling with some reed, you know, in the rehearsal and I'll say, oh man, you know what this is really horrible, you know? And to the listener, sometimes they - they say, wow, you know, it still sound pretty good. And this is such a small, tiny difference the we are going for in this - you know, this reed-making process.

ELLIOTT: It sounds like it's a very precise art.

Mr. WANG: It is a very precise - that's why, you know, most of oboe players are very neurotic. You know? Because you basically live your life, you know, with like this tiny, tiny bit difference. And it would determine, you know - I mean no matter how great of an artist or musician you are, if you do not have a reed will allow you to do that, it would never come out the way you want to.

ELLIOTT: So does being an oboe player make you neurotic, or do you think...

Mr. WANG: Sometimes I think...

ELLIOTT: ...it just draws neurotic people to play?

Mr. WANG: I think a little bit of both, I would say. I mean, it does make you kind of neurotic. It's not - you know, some people would ask me, oh, how come you can't just make, you know, 20 good ones and put them away in the refrigerator or something?

ELLIOTT: Why can't you?

Mr. WANG: I don't know. You just can't. I mean, it just doesn't work. Because I guess it has to do with the - you know, the weather, it changes all the time. And it just wouldn't - somehow it just wouldn't work.

ELLIOTT: How long do they last?

Mr. WANG: Well, sometimes only a rehearsal, sometimes a couple concerts. Most of the times I just - you just never know. That's why I come back to this, you know, topic of oboe players being neurotic. I mean this is - you're living on the edge all the time. You don't know what's going to work tomorrow. So I think it's pretty much ready.

(Soundbite of reed crow)

ELLIOTT: Before Wang attaches the double reed to his oboe, he licks it, then puts the tip to his lips and blows.

Mr. WANG: You know, this thing we do is called a crow...

ELLIOTT: You're saying crow?

Mr. WANG: Crow, like...

(Soundbite of reed crow)

Mr. WANG: That would be like how the reed crows now.

(Soundbite of reed crow)

Mr. WANG: Sometimes you can tell a little bit of something about the reed by the, you know, maybe the quality of the sound and if it has lower partial of the octave; that probably means, you know, you might get a darker sound than usual. If it's - I mean, it has to be - the first thing, it has to respond. It has to, you know, connect with your air first and then you go for the tone and pick other stuff. But it has to sound when you start blowing. Very, very simple. So let me try this reed.

(Soundbite of oboe)

Mr. WANG: And I would say this reed is, you know, it's - its pretty good. Let's see this other reed I have. I can tell you this right now. It's not as good as the one I tried before, so I'm just warning you.

(Soundbite of oboe)

Mr. WANG: It's kind of got a real harsh and naked quality, and it just doesn't have the cushion, you know, that you are really looking for in the tone. I mean, the oboe is a very piercing instrument, as you know. And I think our job as - as oboe players is really make it as warm, as colorful as possible. So reach out to the audience, so people that want to hear it. So you don't want somebody using a needle, kind of, you know, just going at your ear. You know, it doesn't feel good.

ELLIOTT: So show me these two reeds and what the difference is as far as the sound that you're getting, and why one is better than the other.

Mr. WANG: To tell the truth, you know, just by looking at the reed, as you can see, it's very similar.

ELLIOTT: They look the same to me.

Mr. WANG: They look the same to you, that's right. It's basically how it feels in my - you know, to my air stream. And if I test - you know, this is the better one of the two.

(Soundbite of oboe)

Mr. WANG: I mean, this is - actually, I fell in love (unintelligible) when I started the oboe, but the reed just seems to have a little more depth and warmth and flexibility in the sound. So therefore it's a better reed for me.

ELLIOTT: The desk and bookshelves in Wang's apartment are scattered with tools, miniature versions of what you might find in a wood working shop. He starts with cane, small tubular sticks he orders from France and China. They're like wine, he says: some vintages are better than others. He soaks a piece of the butter-colored cane in warm water for a warm tone, he says. Once it softens, he splits it with a razor blade.

Mr. WANG: What I do is cut in the middle like this. I basically want to get three pieces from one tube. After I finish this, I have a guillotine there.

ELLIOTT: The tiny guillotine chops the pieces of cane into rectangles about two inches long. Next, gouging devices start to thin the reed, taking tiny shavings. At this stage Wang folds the cane in half. He now has two perfectly matched reeds. He uses colorful thread to tie the reeds onto what's called the stable, a metal tube with a cork base that fits into his oboe.

Now Liang Wang says the real work begins. He refines the reeds by hand, first on a shaping tool and finally free-hand with a very sharp beveled knife. That's how he goes after the sound he wants. He may carve the reed a little thinner for Mozart, a little thicker for Mahler. Here comes the bad news. At the end of all this, he tosses more reeds than he keeps.

Mr. WANG: Actually, I make two reeds every day - almost. So I kind of let them - you know, I start them together. So it's almost like see which one can come on top, you know.

ELLIOTT: Competition.

Mr. WANG: Competition. That's right. Competition is always healthy.

ELLIOTT: You must have very steady hands.

Mr. WANG: Well, you have to, especially at the final stages. You have to be extremely careful on every move. Sometimes just one stroke - wow, the reed come alive. But if you, again, I mean vice versa; if you did a wrong move, it's done.

ELLIOTT: Getting the perfect reed is a seemingly endless quest. Right up until a performance, Wang is making last minute adjustments - onstage - and moving the reed in and out of his mouth to keep it moist.

Mr. WANG: I have a little table right at, you know, in front of me and so I can put my reed knife and sharpening sticks, you know, to sharpen you knife. Your knife needs to be very, very sharp in order to make the fine tuning at the end. I mean, the final stages will always be at the hall, because, you know, reed might sound good here; it might not sound good in the hall.

ELLIOTT: Have you ever had a problem where you - I don't know - bit down too hard or hit a tooth or did something that messed up the reed right before you went to play?

Mr. WANG: It never happened to me yet, you know, I mean...

ELLIOTT: Now I'm giving you something else to worry about.

Mr. WANG: I know. This is something I never thought of, or thought about, you know. Thank you for - for reminding me that. But I know people have done that, you know, they get excited and somehow didn't place the reed in their mouth right. And sometimes if you - if you didn't brush your teeth, if you ate cookies - I mean, that's why, you know, people - you know, orchestra members in the break, you know, they - they have a snack and say, do you want to eat something? I say, no, I can never eat. You know, because you have a little bit of something in your mouth, you blow into the reed, some time little bit of something gets stuck, you won't sound.

ELLIOTT: So you brush your teeth before a performance?

Mr. WANG: Oh yeah. All the time. Yeah, I carry a toothbrush in my oboe case. You know, it's one of those things. Somehow it's good for your teeth too.

ELLIOTT: How do you look at the reed? Do you consider the reed part of the instrument or part of your mouth?

Mr. WANG: Part of my body, I would say. I consider that that's sort of a connection between my body and the instrument. But it's just - I think - I hope it's more with my body than the instrument.

ELLIOTT: Do you have like a reed hall of fame? The greatest reeds you've ever made?

Mr. WANG: Actually, you know, I do have a reed case here full of reeds that I - kind of is meaningful to me. You know? Here is the reed that I won my, you know, Cincinnati Symphony audition on. There's a reed of me winning the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. And there is a reed that I played my, you know, last trial with the New York Philharmonic that basically you could call it, you know, the reed that I won my New York Philharmonic job on. And I - you know, I don't play them anymore. It's - you know I look at them, I'm very happy. You know, it's sort of - when you get depressed of making reeds, you look at this. It's almost like, you know, a candy jar. You know, you look at - this is really, you know, make me happy that I actually achieved something. That's not so bad now.

ELLIOTT: Do you ever find yourself wanting, oh, if I could just recreate that one reed?

Mr. WANG: I know. I mean, and I can really count on my fingers and how many good reed I actually had. I mean, there are times I went to auditions and performances just thinking I'm completely screwed, you know? I just can't come up with anything. But somehow the magic of music kind of takes you away from that. You know? And you still happen to make somewhat a good performance.

(Soundbite of oboe)

ELLIOTT: Liang Wang made his debut this week as principal oboe for the New York Philharmonic. To hear more of his music go to our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of oboe)

ELLIOTT: Our story was produced by Alice Winkler and recorded by Monu Zuba(ph).

(Soundbite of oboe)

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