To Scrape or Not to Scrape?

I gave my first concert on a plastic reed on Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t the Strauss Oboe Concerto at the Royal Festival Hall, fortunately, but rather an intimate family concert to celebrate her 95th birthday at my mother’s sheltered accommodation in Salisbury (see Being at your own Pre-Funeral). I believe the average age was a musically tolerant 80.

I am an amateur musician, and have been playing the oboe for nearly fifty years, on and off. Over the last twenty years, more off than on, unfortunately, though there have been bursts of activity when I’ve found a piano-playing friend. I’ve always struggled with the making of cane oboe reeds. It takes hours, most of them are no good, and the good ones last two weeks or so. I’ve also found that I can’t buy ready-made reeds that suit me. So recently I’ve become rather excited about the new ‘plastic’ oboe reeds produced by Legere (see The Artificial and the Natural).

Well, I bought four of them and whilst bicycling in the Dordogne two weeks ago I adjusted them to my own liking – ruthlessly removing the hump-and-spine features of the ‘European Scrape’. I don’t mean I did this whilst actually bicycling. I mean at the end of the day in hotel bedrooms when there was nothing else to do.

I should point out that they are expensive, which I take as a measure of how far oboists will go to solve the reed problem.

I am, on the whole, pleased with the result and I got one of the four reeds to the stage of being the best reed in the box. So I played on it on Saturday – Poulenc, Bach, Boismortier, Stravinsky and Rossini, with my brother (flute), his partner (violin), and my two nephews (piano and bassoon). The result did not provoke a riot.

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The oboe world is buzzing with curiosity about these reeds, so I’ve added my own comments in a short YouTube video – To Scrape or Not to Scrape.. I strongly believe that within a few years we’ll all be using them. Legere will inevitably produce different varieties and their materials will improve. Perhaps the price might also decline.

It’s years since I’ve played the oboe as frequently as I now intend to. Plastic has changed my life. Forty years ago when I began to play the oboe I could never have imagined that I might believe this.

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Being at your own Pre-Funeral

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My mother is 95, and in good health, both mentally and physically, facing the last years of her life with equanimity, good grace, and a total absence of self-pity. Her powers are failing, but, as I remind her, so are mine. So are everyone’s. She might well have another ten years to go, or even more, and if she can maintain her mental acuity, and her sense of humour, and of the ridiculous and the absurd, they will be good years for her and for those around her. She has no expectation of immortality and is determined to make the most of the time that’s left.

I spoke to her yesterday on the way home from the airport. She’s been cajoling me into playing the oboe at her ‘final’ concert party in Salisbury in September, and I’ve been teasing her by pretending to demur. There have, after all, as I point out, been several ‘final’ concerts – almost as many as the great Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballe, has given.

Our family concerts involve my brother and me, his children, their spouses and partners playing classical music on the oboe, flute, violin, bassoon and piano, often awkward arrangements of well-known pieces such as the Rite of Spring. These concerts serve as reminders, in some cases, of how much better we used to play when we were children or young adults.

So, I have pretended to be unsure of whether I can take part, citing business travel, lack of practice, broken reeds and hugely more important things to do. My mother has countered with various powerful arguments, most of which boil down to the unreliable suggestion that ‘this really is the last.’ But I am not convinced.

Yesterday, however, on the spur of the moment, she launched a new line of argument.

‘You played at that old lady’s funeral last year,’ she said, referring to my two-minute oboe solo at the funeral of my dear friend Jane last May (my mother has total recall, it seems, and I should never have told her about it).

‘So, I really think you should play at my pre-funeral.’

Pre-funeral!

What a marvellous idea! All the ceremony, glad-handing and fun of the funeral itself, with the added advantage that you can actually BE THERE to enjoy it.

We had a good laugh about it. She can still be funny, inventive and absurd. And it is true that we shall probably play the same music at the real one, assuming we do not pre-decease her, and as long as we are still young enough to play.

But the question is, how many pre-funerals can you have? I am afraid this may be the first of many.

Nevertheless, I suppose I shall play at it.