Some Trial Reeds for the Berlin Aulos

Here is a link to a short video of some work I have done this week on the Berlin Aulos.


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Making reed caps 1

A very exciting package arrived 10 days ago from Robin Howell in Toronto – just before we left for a family holiday in Cornwall. Here are two videos kindly made by my 10-year-old son Sebastian, documenting my holiday project: a better solution to that all-important item, the reed cap.

These reed caps are for new reeds, i.e. they go further down the blades and serve to teach the reed its unfamiliar new shape over the breaking-in period, preventing lateral slippage of the blades and, fundamentally, making them playable. Reeds of this type are unusable without caps and I have learned since my aulos debut in January that well-fitting caps make a huge difference to being able to pick up an instrument and be its master in front of an audience, reliably. Hence the effort invested here, tailoring each cap to its reed.

Having to make 24 caps all at once for 12 beautifully-made Pydna reeds gave me an opportunity to develop my system and production method. I would welcome feedback – I am a new student at this and in these videos present only one of many possible solutions. Next time I make a batch, I think I will try using two strips of large-diameter cane, carved flat on the inside, then hot-soaked and bent around a hardwood carved reed shape, tied and dried before the final step of customising to fit an individual reed.

My “Towan” solution (the farm cottage where we are staying in Cornwall) is more labour-intensive. Rather than bending a flexible material, here I carve a hard one. Garden prunings are much better than dowel rod bought from a DIY store because they split perfectly. In these videos, I use rose I cut back last October and tied in a bundle to straighten the canes, but long straight shoots of some shrub or tree with softer wood and solid section (rather than pith) might be better. Rose is very hard, but I am pleased with the results and hope you can pick up something useful from these videos.

Part 1

Part 2


tip end


back end




roughly sanded




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Libation tune

After a lot of Louvre and Pompeii on this site, here’s a move towards the Archaic and Classical period: the Dorian aulos I have recontructed from textual evidence in my Ancient Greek Music: A New Technical History, playing the intervals recorded by Aristoxenus for the traditional Libation tune ascribed to Olympus, which seems to have remained in ritual use for many centuries.

I’ve made new reeds for it, returning to the hard cane I had started work on aulos reeds almost twenty years ago. And yes, I’ve toasted them a bit.

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Toasting and preservation of Aulos reeds

Idioglot double reeds (tubular reeds) have a natural tendency to return to their open, round condition when wet, making them harder to play. I find that ‘toasting’ the reed helps to maintain a closed tip. This is done as a matter of course with Duduk and Mey reeds, various bagpipe reeds, and even clarinet reeds in some cultures, especially Albania and Turkey.

First, put a clamp on the reed when it is completely dry, covering the top third or half of the blades. Then dab oil (olive, canola, almond…) on the exposed part of the blades. The oil will lightly penetrate the cane, and when heated will form a protective layer acting as a preservative to a small degree. Heat the entire exposed surface of the  blades, not neglecting the sides, until it begins to show signs of browning. You can also include the tube below the waist, especially if the rind has been stripped away, being very careful not to burn the binding. I prefer natural fibres over synthetics for the binding. They are less prone to damage during toasting, and in general seem to have a better chance of maintaining the proper tension. If the binding does burn, quickly rebind the waist while the reed is still hot, taking advantage of its temporary plastic state. While still hot, compress the back of the reed firmly for a minute or so between your fingers and thumbs to fix the reed blades close together (in the video above, I abbreviate this step). It will cool within a few minutes and be ready to finish scraping.

I use a Bernzomatic micro torch ( with the heating tip in place. I have come to prefer this to an open flame as it is much more controllable. A gas hob works fine, as does charcoal, an alcohol lamp or industrial heat gun, the only issue is focusing the heat in the proper area, and using a clean heat source which will not leave residue in its wake. I’ve tried toasting the entire reed and not had much luck. I have found though, that it is possible to bake a reed which is too light. A low heat (about 250 Fahrenheit or 120 Celsius) for half an hour or so will give it some more stiffness. Radical, but it does work.

I generally toast before the final scraping, so that if it comes out overly hard one can compensate. Toasted cane will still be somewhat malleable when wet, and if the form needs some touchup, reheating while the reed is wet will be more successful than retoasting, as there is a limit, a point at which the reed chars rather than toasts, and begins to lose its elasticity. One can also harden soft reeds using the same method, being quite delicate when approaching the tip area.

The inside of the reed may be wiped with canola (rapeseed or ‘vegetable’) oil – initially when first dried and occasionally throughout its lifespan. A heavier oil will impair the reed’s vibration, but a very light oil will lengthen the reed’s useful life. I have found that alcohol has no preservative effect on reeds, but many people disinfect a reed in either alcohol, mouthwash, or H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide). These, however, will dissolve any oil previously applied, so the two methods may be considered mutually exclusive. H2O2 is actually much more effective for cleaning and disinfecting reeds than any sort of solvent, and has fewer harmful effects on the cane. Alcohol eventually depletes the cane of some of its natural sugars, which are essential to its elastic properties.

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A selectively-tongued attempt at Bellermann, DAGM 37

Using Pompeii 2+3 with rather wide reeds.

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Learning to Play 1

Having attended the London Aulos Group’s November meeting with Barnaby, I left having been lent the EMAP/ Workshop of Dionysios’ ‘Lilac Louvre’ with which to practise (a 3D print of the Louvre aulos). A condition of this loan was that I would document my learning process on this blog. As such, my first post delves into ancient history (last November) and recalls the first stages of my learning. Subsequent posts will look at what I got up to in the December meeting, explore how my playing has progressed since then and document the various hurdles on the way.

I wrote the following a week after the November meeting.

Circular Breathing

During the meeting Barnaby taught me some basic techniques and practices. I left being able to do ‘step 4’ of his guide to circular breathing. This involves breathing through a straw into a small glass of water and then ‘topping-up’ the air flow with big sniffs in through the nose while maintaining the bubbles (i.e. the airflow out of the mouth).

The morning after the meeting I practiced Step 4 some more (straws courtesy of a nearby McDonalds). When I was feeling confident enough, I tried doing the same while playing an instrument. Since bassoon reeds are more familiar to me than aulos reeds, I tried the exercise on my bassoon.

As Barnaby had warned this stage would not be easy. Try though I might, what I intended to be a sniff ended up being an almighty breath in from the mouth… less than ideal. This process is still on-going, and I am getting better at it, yet at the moment cannot circular breath while getting the instrument to sound.

Breaking the reeds (in).

This process, for me at least, took about a week or so of light playing every day. By the end of the week, the reeds were much easier to play, their tips had narrowed up nicely too, and they had taken a nice shape.

I spent more time playing the high pipe on its own (my right-hand bias), and some things became apparent. At this early stage of the reed’s life, it was quite lively, prone to overblowing-squeaks. It was also very difficult to tongue the reed without it either squeaking, not-tonguing, or stopping the flow of air. The fourth finger-hole took more time in particular to ‘mellow’ than the other holes, being a lot squeakier.

While spending more time on the high pipe, I would occasionally play with both. My initial observation was that if one pipe alone didn’t suck all the air from my lungs, then two pipes certainly did! These reeds needed an unholy amount of pressure in order to sound!

After this, I spent more time on the lower pipe. This reed seemed harder to break in than the other one. The first hurdle I had to overcome, however, was the rather large gap between holes 4 and 5, it must have been made for an ancient Greek Rachmaninoff! Reaching this gap was made easier by covering the holes with fingers, rather than my fingertips (this form of playing can perhaps be inferred from various ancient depictions of aulos-playing). After a similar amount of time playing-in the low pipe, the reed had improved a little, though not as much as the high pipe reed had.

Because the lower reed was proving difficult to play, I decided to try and scrape it. This is something I have done with bassoon reeds before, but I do not proclaim to be an expert. Taking the bridle off the reed I slowly scraped away. However, I must have been holding the reed too tightly and, unfortunately, broke it!

My next post will document the December meeting, and also the arrival of my own Louvre aulos (and reeds) from Thomas Rezanka, as well as some of the practice studies I have been preparing.

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Practising episode 2: Seikilos song & tounging

I’m having fun with the Seikilos song, prompted by a collaboration  with Aleksandra Szypowska. I met her last month in Mark his Words, a semi-staged dramatisation of St Mark’s Gospel in Greek, by Patrick Boyde, in which we were both performing. Yesterday, she gave a presentation on Ancient Greek Music at the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge, singing three items of ancient notation. In the first two, she explained and illustrated the nature of the problems; in the third, I had the pleasure of accompanying her on Louvre aulos.

This morning, I took forward the idea of using this melody as a study to develop my aulos technique. I practised tonguing each reed separately and, at the end (26:17), explained the good practising habit drilled into me by Seumas MacNeill at the College of Piping in Glasgow when I was 8 years old.

Episode 1

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Learning to play the aulos: practice documentation 1

It has been quiet on this blog for the last five months. Callum Armstrong has been busy, however – practising, composing and making reeds. I have kept up my documentation of his progress by pressing record on my video camera and audio recorder every time we meet, but I have fallen behind with the editing and publishing of this material, occupied by other projects (e.g. Highlights of Callum’s progress will be shared here in the coming weeks: he is a source of serious inspiration, leagues ahead of me in his capacity to bring the Louvre aulos to life!

For the documentation of my own journey learning the aulos, I am going to adopt a different policy. This is episode 1. I simply pressed record and am uploading my morning’s practice (with commentary, sharing my thoughts in the moment) without listening back. To avoid backlog, I want to get into the habit of recording and uploading on the same day. What you hear is fresh, unedited, direct from recorder to blog.

Why share a messy, organic process, warts and all? I want to encourage this revival and know that for learners it is more helpful to hear a co-learner struggle than to hear the polished end results of a master. How did the master get there? I’d like to know! I trust that this documentation of my practising will advance understanding of the slow process of conquest, reaching higher levels of competence on this glorious instrument.

It would be great if other learners joined me, in order that the library of practising here documented the struggles and breakthroughs of different types of learners at different stages. Episode 1 of my journey begins too late to be of much use to students who are climbing the circular breathing mountain. People sharing their trials and solutions at that vital stage would boost this revival more powerfully than I can because circular breathing is so fundamental (after efficient reeds – the most important thing of all).

As you will hear, I am at the foot of another mountain range, gazing up at distant peaks that are no less challenging. It is an exciting journey ahead, so much to learn!

Episode 2

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Some Aulos Techniques

Thoughts on Overblowing

Thoughts on Microtones



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Further thoughts on reed making

This tool makes short work of cutting tubes in batches, all the same length. The end stop is adjustable because the length of reed varies from aulos to aulos.

Wolfcraft ‘megaCut S’ precision cutter with an adjustable clamp added by Barnaby Brown after the example of Julian Goodacre.

Wolfcraft ‘megaCut S’ precision cutter customised by Barnaby Brown after the example of Julian Goodacre.

After cutting the tubes, I now use a sharp scalpel blade to remove the bark, first slicing consistently with the grain, then scraping lightly to remove small ridges. This achieves a smoother finish and you can be more precise than with sandpaper.

Scalpel action removing the bark and golden fibre layer.

Scalpel action removing the bark and golden fibre layer.

To constrict the waist, I use bicycle gear cable with a wire rope grip at each end.

Apparatus for constricting the waist.

Forming the waist, I use bicycle gear cable with wire rope grips at each end to form loops. These are FIRMLY fixed to something at waist height, beside a pan of boiling water.

I rotate the tube back and forth, turning it with my fingers while increasing the pressure by leaning back.

Leaning back with hands free to rotate tube.

With the gear cable fixed to my belt buckle, I rotate the hot, wet tube back and forth between my fingers and thumbs while leaning back to tighten the cable. For its hardness and lower friction, it helps to have the shiny protective bark under the cable. The tube must be freshly boiled for the waist to form easily and evenly.

I don’t use a metal rod any more: it gets in the way and is more of a liability than an aid. For the batch that Barnaby took to Berlin in March, I tightened the waist until it was completely closed. The waist opens up again a little on releasing the cable and binding with waxed thread. This way, I can control the final waist size more precisely.

With some of the reeds in this batch, the internal fibres frayed, lifting up on either side of the waist. In Berlin, finishing reeds for the Pompeii aulos, Stefan Hagel removed these loose fibres and advised me not to constrict the waist so far. Cleaning internally above the waist is a difficult operation! After this Skype conversation with Stefan, I cleaned out  loose fibres on other reeds and found this greatly improved the sound.

A finished waist interior (above); removing the bark and golden fibre layer (below).

A finished waist interior (above). Removing the bark and golden fibre layer (below).

If the waist is too tight, the blowing pressure is too high; if the waist is too open, the air flow is too high – it is about achieving low airflow without having to burst blood vessels. What we want is equilibrium between the thickness of the blades and the constriction of the waist, so I tried adjusting the inside diameter of the waist using beeswax on a heated needle. I ran the needle along beeswax until a drip formed, then poked it inside the waist and ran it around to build up wax, reducing its size.

A temporary bridle to help break in the reed.

A temporary bridle made of cane and waxed hemp.

Wrapping thread around as a bridle opens up the lips, making the reeds harder; when cane slips are inserted under the thread, however, pressure is applied at the centre of the blades which closes the lips, making the reeds easier. These bridles are highly adjustable – you can pinpoint where you want to apply pressure, and they don’t slip or gouge into the cane like wire, forming a rut.

If you go for the softer cane (the ‘deep pith’ layer), the reeds form more easily but you loose sound quality – the tone is duller. Closer to the bark, the cane is springier and harder to blow, at least initially. But I believe that perseverance will create reeds that last longer, sound better and are more reliable.

Previously, my success rate was about 50% (6 out of 12). I was heartened to discover that this was also the case in ancient times:

[Aulos cane] generally differs from other types of cane by a kind of inherent thriving condition, being fuller and more fleshy and overall of female aspect. It also has broader and brighter leaves, but a smaller plume than the others, some having none at all, which they call barren-cane. From these, some hold, the best reeds are produced, though few work out right during the process of manufacture.

Theophrastus, Hist. Plant. 4.11, trans. Stefan Hagel

Does this mean that using ‘barren’ cane (i.e. with no flower) reduced success rate but might be worthwhile to achieve a superior quality of reed?

Increasing the blade length on 8 March increased my success rate to 10 out of 12. Was this improvement a result of: 1) a longer blade length, 2) variation in the nature of the cane, or 3) me becoming a more proficient reed maker?

Batch formers

Batch formers made of cane.

These clamps are quick and easy to make, but perhaps not as good as split dowel rods, or half rounds, which press on a larger surface area of the blades.

Thanks to Barnaby Brown for the photos and for co-writing this instalment. See also:
Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 4 coming soon…

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