Musical Idiom

“Break a reed!”

Ava told me that she has heard this idiom spoken several times over the course of a few years. It is said by one oboe player to another during music auditions. One player will say it to another before they go into the audition room.

 “Breaking reeds is never good. they can break just by change in temperature, tonguing to hard on slightly the wrong corner, snap when you try to open the tip of the reed(or reed in general, to allow more air to move through it; usually cracks here because it’s dry or just bent too far). Oh, and you can smash it somewhere. people say it when the runner comes in and announces something like for ex: “Oboe #4?”, calling them to follow them to the audition room, and the oboist expresses grief/anxiety, or they may say it just because they know that person or wanna be friendly or whatevs. Heard it at allstate auditions. I don’t know about others. Oboe, because it’s so thin. The single reeds are never temperamental because they’re thicker, that’s why you never really hear single reed players complain about reed issues, only oboe, and occasionally bassoons, but again, their reeds aren’t nearly as bad because they are thick and won’t snap if you poke them the wrong way.”

The idiom is taken from the popular, “break a leg,” said to an actor right before they ascend the stage. The idea of breaking a leg right before a performance is an actor’s worst nightmare, effectively removing the actor from the performance. Hence, telling someone to “break a leg,” is a sort of protection against it actually happening, and is often used in jest.

Similarly, “break a reed,” is told to an oboist before they audition. A music audition is often a nerve wracking experience, and any additional stress is unwelcome. For musicians who play reed instruments, especially double reed instruments such as the oboe, the reed of the instrument can be extremely temperamental. Double reeds consist of two pieces of wood cane wrapped together. The reeds are expensive and difficult to make. If not made properly they are prone to producing a bad sound or even breaking. This is not something a musician wants to happen right before an audition.