Engineering and music student has designs on building a better oboe
Posted September 13, 2013
Arizona State University freshman Alexis Mitchell of Chandler is planning to build a better oboe.
More specifically, she’s working on ideas for a process to produce a synthetic reed. An oboe player since fifth grade, Mitchell has been schooled in recent years on how to make her own reeds, a painstaking process consisting of splitting and gouging cane into tiny rectangles, then shaping and folding these over a metal tube and tying it on the instrument. Then the reed is continuously measured and scraped until it starts vibrating and allows the player to make music.
“It’s very precise with the knife strokes. If you press too hard, an entire corner comes off and you can’t use the reed. That’s two hours that you just wasted,” she said.
Mitchell is looking forward to declaring dual majors to earn concurrent degrees in music performance and materials science and engineering at the university that will allow her to work on her invention.
“When I thought of my major, I was really caught by this awesome idea about how I could put my efforts into creating a new reed that could be a synthetic reed with new polymers,” she said. “I’ve been constantly thinking about ways to do that.”
It’s likely she’ll have an edge on the market since there aren’t many oboe players who have experience in science or engineers whose goal is to make a better oboe reed.
Mitchell plans to put her expertise into practice by using knowledge in physics, engineering and chemistry to perfect the reed.
“Materials science and engineering is basically the creation of materials that last longer or are stronger, cheaper or better than anything that is already being used. It’s all about combining different forms of science – chemistry for composition, physics for forces that materials are put under and engineering for innovating and creating,” she said.
As she begins her first semester at ASU, Mitchell is looking forward to taking classes that cater to her interests. She hails from a family of Sun Devils, including her mom, dad and sister, Nicole, who is finishing her last semester in biology this year.
Mitchell was accepted to Northwestern University, but chose ASU. She received scholarships, including the President’s Award and a special talent award for music. A scholarship from Intel also helps cover costs for the excelling Barrett, the Honors College student.
Another factor in her decision was being able to study with oboe professor Martin Schuring, who she took private lessons from and began the process of learning how to fashion her own oboe reeds. A chemistry field trip to ASU in March sealed the deal after her group visited the Materials Sciences Lab.
“I just loved it there,” she said.
That’s also where she was inspired to make a better oboe reed.
With a double major, Mitchell will combine her passions to improve the instrument that she was first inspired to play after watching a Peter and the Wolf cartoon, where all of the characters were played by different musical instruments, with a duck playing the oboe.
“I really liked the music that was playing when the duck was on the screen,” she said.
Mitchell stuck with the instrument through the years, playing in the Basha High School symphonic band and in local symphonies, such as Phoenix Youth Symphony, Youth Symphony of the Southwest and the East Valley Youth Symphony. At ASU, she is auditioning for ensembles through the School of Music in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.
“I would really like to play in a professional symphony when I’m older. That’s my big dream, as well as doing research on polymers for synthetic reeds,” she said.