Oboe reeds can be a challenge for new and experienced musicians alike. The oboe is a double reed instrument whose sound is produced by two pieces of cane vibrating against each other, which can easily break or change their playability based on humidity and other factors. Manufactured cane reeds start at $15-$20, but might crack after just a few hours of playing or last little more than a month. Professional handmade reeds cost even more - or, if musicians make their own, reeds can take hours of work.
The frustration of crafting reeds led Camille Strahl to envision creating an affordable and reliable alternative.
"The technology that we use to make oboe reeds moves at a snail’s pace - much the same as it was 100 years ago" said Strahl, an oboe performance graduate student in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Music and former music teacher. "I still use a razorblade to shape my material."
Last fall, Strahl took the class Business of Music, taught by Lance LaDuke. The course is part of CMU’s Music Entrepreneurship program.
"I’ve joked for a long time about making synthetic reeds if I met an oboist who had an interest in engineering," she said. The appeal of reeds made out of plastic would make the product have more consistent playability, she said. "After taking the course I realized that even if I’m not an engineer, nobody at a company does all the things."
LaDuke, the freshman adviser and coordinator of special and creative projects for the School of Music, said that the Music Entrepreneurship program helps students identify new performance and business opportunities and act on them.
"Some are using their skills to develop solo careers or small music groups. Others are setting up teaching studios and a handful of them are looking for ways to create not-for-profit community organizations," LaDuke said. "The most unique aspect of what Camille is developing is that it is a physical product. We have lots of folks developing service-based ideas but to have someone who needs to deal with prototyping, inventory and order fulfillment adds a great dimension."
Camille coined her company, Synthody, a mashup of synthetic and melody. Since then, she’s written a business plan, conducted market research studies and started networking within and outside of the CMU community.
"People quit the oboe because it’s frustrating. I think I can make it less frustrating." - Camille Strahl
LaDuke connected Strahl with Nick Vlahakis, who graduated from CMU with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering degree in 1974. Vlahakis retired as chief operating officer at ATK, an aerospace and defense company, where he worked with composite materials.
Vlahakis has a lifelong love of music. The recording studio in the College of Fine Arts building was renamed the Vlahakis Recording Studio in 2014 in honor of a gift from him and his wife, Kimi.
He also is a member of the CFA Dean’s Council and recently started working with students on entrepreneurial projects. From a suggestion by Vlahakis, Strahl is now working with an engineer outside of CMU.
"This particular project was surprising to me because, first of all, I thought I was going to get something with music," Vlahakis said. "And it is music, but it really is a business with a product. And whether that product is a rocket motor or an oboe reed there are some commonalities. I was also impressed with Camille’s focus in her business plan."
Strahl also worked with the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship , where Strahl applied for and was accepted to the Project Olympus Incubator Program. She was paired with Ilana Diamond, an entrepreneur-in-residence.
"She has been amazing to empower me." Strahl said. "She helped me realize that yes, I can turn this into a real business."
To make prototype molds, Camille Strahl used CMU’s IDeATe Digital Fabrication Lab, a classroom and student workspace dedicated to rapid prototyping instruction and student projects.
Strahl used the IDeATe Fabrication Lab to make prototype molds for her synthetic reeds, which she gave to a local manufacturer for producing prototypes.
3D printing is a popular prototyping method with innovators in many disciplines, as it provides an enhanced level of detail that can be difficult to achieve in modeling materials like wood, clay or cardboard, said Cody Soska, IDeATe’s technical specialist, who worked with Strahl on the project. He said the method also allows for more iterations of a design than traditional fabrication methods, potentially saving hundreds to thousands of dollars for startups.
Strahl hopes to have a product ready for market this fall. In the meantime, she’s working on her business pitch through opportunities such as the McGinnis Venture Competition.
Her initial target customers are young students early in the practice, who need more than anything a stable reed that plays well and sounds good so that they can learn technique. Once established, Strahl said, she wants to expand her product line to other instruments.
"I have a dream that more people would play the oboe if reeds weren’t so challenging," Strahl said. "Teachers will steer their students away from the oboe or parents will say ’wow, that’s expensive.’ People quit the oboe because it’s frustrating. I think I can make it less frustrating."