It’s crazy, isn’t it? Your performances (and often your mental state) are often entirely dependent upon a little piece of wood! If your reed doesn’t respond well, it can ruin your whole performance (and often your confidence right along with it!) The good news is that understanding a bit more about why reeds wear out can also help us understand what to do to stabilize them, make good reeds last longer, and hopefully, end up with some good reeds on which to perform.
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Inconsistent clarinet reeds
One problem is that many clarinetists have a very limited supply of reeds, oftentimes only one which actually works and is in good condition at any given time. Reeds are extremely inconsistent, even among the “best” brands. It’s best to have a much larger selection of reeds. Generally, out of 10 reeds in a box, only 3 or 4 usually play “well.” Another 3 respond “average.” The remaining reeds are likely to be downright poor. In selecting individual reeds out of a box, the odds are not great that you’ll select the reeds that work “well.” Therefore, I recommend that students purchase reeds by the box.
Next, try rotating your reeds. Have at least 5 reeds that you can rotate between, using a different one each time you play. This way, you won’t be using the same reed for hours on end, and your reeds will last much longer. Keep in mind that you don’t always have to use your “best” reed. Consider saving these for important performances such as concerts or solo and ensemble festivals. Many times, an “average” reed will work well enough to get the job done in a rehearsal setting.
Care for Clarinet Reeds
In order to understand how to care for reeds, it’s necessary to understand how reeds are made. Reeds are made out of a cane similar to bamboo named Arundo donax. This cane is grown throughout the world but is commonly grown in the south of France. After being cut, the cane is dried before it is made into reeds. However, when you open your box of reeds, the cane still hasn’t dried completely. Therefore, it is still extremely influenced by the elements: temperature and moisture/humidity especially.
In order to get the best and most consistent reed results, it is crucial to “break reeds in” before you play on them extensively: you must allow the reeds time to dry out and adjust to climate as well as allowing them time to adjust to the extreme vibration they will endure! There are probably as many “break-in” procedures as there are clarinetists. Don’t be afraid to experiment with anything new or different that you may hear. However, the procedure I use follows:
- Mill file preferred. (available at any hardware store, Sears, Meager, Target, Awl-mart, etc.) (600 grade wet/dry sandpaper if no Mill file is available.)
- Film canister filled with clean water. (it’s best to wet your reeds using clean water rather than your saliva….saliva contains much bacteria which will simply break down the reed fibers more quickly! Also make sure the entire reed is wet, not just the top part.)
- Take the reeds out of the original holder.
- While the reed is dry, file the underside, flat part gently, filing in the direction of the grain of the reed. Be sure to avoid filing/sanding the tip of the reed as it is already fragile enough. Also make sure to apply even pressure while you are filing so that you are sure to make the back of the reed flat. I do this by applying uniform pressure to the reed with my index, middle, and ring fingers.
- After filing, soak the reeds for approximately 1 (no more than 2) minutes; you don’t want to waterlog the reed.
- Remove the reeds from water. Place them front side down so they don’t warp, then test each reed by playing it. Try to play each reed for no more than 5 minutes. Avoid high notes and play no louder than a medium dynamic. Why? You must acclimate your reed to the vibration to which you’re subjecting it. You don’t want to work it too hard before it has a vibration ” memory” or you’ll likely wear the reed out.
- After play testing, rate then mark the reed in some fashion so you know how it plays. I tend to make little marks on either the back of the reed (as shown) or on the face of the reed. I use a system of +, , and – . One of my students uses smiley faces…Use whatever works for you. You can use a pencil or ballpoint pen to mark it, anything which won’t come off in water.
- Store the reed (discussed below.)
- Repeat steps 1 through 6 for at least 3 days in a row. After this, your reeds should be fairly stabilized.
Clarinet reed adjustments
Once the reed is broken in, it’s possible to adjust the reed further using tools such as a reed knife, reed clipper, reed rush, files, or sandpaper. However, that’s a bit detailed to describe here. I suggest asking your private lesson instructor (if you have one) or consulting another professional clarinetist to help you get started.
You can also emulate adjustment of the reed simply by altering the placement of the reed on the mouthpiece. Generally, if you place the tip of the reed a little lower than the tip of the mouthpiece, this will make it seem easier and “softer” to play. If your reed seems too “soft”, you can simply move the tip of the reed higher than the tip of the mouthpiece.
Similarly, if the reed seems hard, you can tighten your ligature a bit tighter. This forces the reed closer to the mouthpiece facing, making it seem slightly easier to blow. Likewise, if the reed is too easy to blow, loosen the ligature a bit. Also consider moving the reed slightly to the right or left side of the mouthpiece as each reed is slightly (or sometimes more than slightly!) imbalanced between the right and left sides. You can try moving it from side to side to try to eliminate the imbalance. Do this by leaving your ligature slightly loose so that you can move the reed but still have it held in place. Once you’ve found the “sweet spot”, just tighten the ligature back.
Finding the Best Clarinet Reeds
How do you know which are the best reeds out of the box? The supposed characteristics of a good reed follow, though in the end, it just depends on HOW THE REED SOUNDS!:
- Golden color: Not bright yellow, greenish, rust-colored, or brown.
- Bark can be spotted with brown or a darker color than the face…as long as it isn’t completely dark brown, gray, or black.
- A back profile should look like this: both sides basically symmetrical.
- An even cut of the face is preferable. (though increasingly rare!)
- Inverted “V” when held up to light.
- Evenly spaced fibers running through, no thick fibers when held up to light.
Warped Clarinet Reeds
One of the most common reed problems is also one you can easily fix. At different rates, the reed will become warped which is when the back of the reed is not perfectly flat. In this case, it won’t lay flat against your mouthpiece, so the reed will seem hard to blow. You can tell if your reed is warped if, when set down on a perfectly flat surface like glass, it “rocks” back and forth. If this is the case, you only need to sand or file the back of the reed (still staying away from the tip!) until it is perfectly flat again.
You can actually prevent warping by:
- never setting the reed back-side down on a flat surface without actually pressing it to the flat surface and by:
- your reed storage. You want to make sure your reeds don’t dry out too fast, you want to keep your reeds at a more or less stable humidity.
Clarinet Reed Storage
The least desirable option is the original reed holder. In the winter when it is really dry, put your reed case inside plastic baggies to prevent the moisture from escaping too quickly. In the summer, however, make sure your reeds are as dried out as possible before storing them so that they don’t mildew. Always make sure to remove the reed from the mouthpiece when you are done and store it carefully!
Recommended Clarinet Reed Brands
Finally, which brands of reeds would I recommend? I find that D’Addario Reserve and Vandoren regular or V12 cuts are more consistent and durable, though you might also consider Grand Concert (thick blank), Glotin, or Olivieri. Mitchell Lurie are OK, but they tend to be less substantial than the others and tend to wear out much more quickly.
For marching bands, I actually recommend plastic! (Artie Shaw always used them! It lasts lots longer, and how much difference can you hear out on that marching field anyhow?) Strengths vary between reeds, so if you try a new brand it may seem a bit harder or easier to play than what you’re used to. You might need to switch strengths to find something comparable. Also remember that reeds tend to change with the weather and the seasons. It’s perfectly fine to save reeds until the next year if you find that the ones that worked in the winter no longer work in the summer (or vice versa.)
You should also know that there are several “Reed reference books.” Again, confer with your private instructor to learn which books are best. Good luck improving those reeds.