Reeds… any musician not experienced in the reed-related world could think that complaining about reeds is the perfect excuse for a woodwind player to somehow justify their ‘not that successful’ performance. The truth is that sometimes reeds can make your sound and sensation of wind control change quite significantly. Unfortunately we, as woodwind players, depend quite a lot on the reed as it is one of the smallest but most important part of the instrument.
A clarinet reed (or single reed) doesn’t sound by itself, as opposed to a double reed from an oboe or bassoon which can produce a sound without the instrument if you blow into it. In the same way the clarinet wouldn’t sound without placing a reed on the mouthpiece.
I remember the first time my dad (amateur horn player at that time) bought me a second-hand clarinet that didn’t have any reeds with it. I was seven years-old, so excited about this instrument that I was trying quite hard to blow into the mouthpiece even without a reed! Obviously I couldn’t get any sound out of it. 🙂
The reed placed on the mouthpiece and tied with the ligature is the element that allows the air to vibrate when we blow into the clarinet. This creates what in physical terms are called acoustic waves.
The only purpose of this article is giving my point of view about this vast topic. I am aware, from experience, that every clarinet player has got their own habits and ideas regarding reed care and selection. I would be grateful to hear your opinion about this topic, so please leave comments at the bottom of this post.
Brand-new reeds, procedure to treat them.
It is very important to realise that reeds are cut from canes of wood very similar to bamboo, called Arundo Donax.
Every reed contains thousands of microscopic elastic fibers lying in parallel that will expand like a sponge when watering them. Therefore it is essential to treat this material before playing it. And how to do that? As simply as soaking new reeds in a glass of tap water for about 5 minutes and letting them dry on a flat surface immediately afterwards, which will help to keep the tip of the reed flat. We should repeat this process for a few days before reeds get watered with saliva when playing them.
Subsequently, try to start playing those new reeds for not more than 5 – 10 minutes during the first few times until they acclimate to the saliva. For this reason, it is essential to have multiple reeds around and rotate between them. This will also help us to develop accuracy and flexibility to play a variety of reeds with slightly different strengths. (Obviously, plastic reeds won’t require this treat procedure).
‘How long does a reed last?’
Reeds can last years and years if you take care of them properly. Firstly, we should follow a ‘treating’ process (could be the one explained above or anything similar to that). Secondly, it is advisable not to use only one reed at a time but rotate a few of them. In this way we won’t wear out just one reed but have plenty of choices. And thirdly, we should be aware that the tip of the reed is the thinnest part of it, so I would suggest to avoid touching it when placing the reed on the mouthpiece!
However, it is true that after five or six months a new reed that was sounding perfectly may not sound as good anymore. Reeds become old, but that doesn’t mean we need to dispose of them! We could always use them for practising or rehearsing purposes, even if we don’t use them for important performances.
Also, there will be reeds that are not that well-manufactured from the start and so they won’t last very long. Some examples could be reeds coming with a very thin tip, or one side much thinner than the other, etc.
One way of adjusting reeds to our playing is by sanding them a little bit. I have even met clarinet players that were buying stronger reeds to be able to sand them and reach the perfect strength for their way of playing. Sanding reeds is a complicated and delicate procedure that I wouldn’t recommend to beginners.
I won’t be covering this process in this article as it is quite a deep issue. However, before starting to sand a reed we should bear in mind that brand new reeds will always feel a bit harder in the beginning and will slightly become softer with the time.
‘What reed strength should I use?’
The number on the reeds refers to their thickness and therefore its strength when blowing into the clarinet. Numbers usually go from 1 – 5 by half-steps, being no 1 the softest and 5 the hardest. However, we need to bear in mind that reeds are manufactured by machines and that their original wood will never be alike from one to another. For these reasons two reeds from the same number may feel quite different from each other too.
Overall, clarinet beginners start playing 1 – 1.5 reeds, which are quite soft and allow them to get used to the breathing and blowing procedure of playing the clarinet. Once students get used to that, their blowing starts to feel too easy and uncontrolled to the point that the sound becomes too bright and brittle. Teachers then should recommend these students to change to higher-numbered reeds progressively.
However, the use of one strength or another depends also on the equipment (mouthpiece, ligature, clarinet…) the clarinettist plays with. Some mouthpieces will be very wide and will need a bit harder reeds whereas narrow mouthpieces will generally require a softer reed.
‘What reed class/brand suit better for my way of playing?’
When it comes to reed brands, there are quite a few reed makers in the market today. The most well-known are Vandoren, Rico and González, including plenty of classes and naming conventions within them too.
The difference between them may be the kind of wood used and their way of calibration (González reeds are numbered in quarters, Rico reeds feel a bit thicker and more rough when blowing into the clarinet, etc.).
No brand is better or worse than the others, but I guess it is a matter of preference according to the sonority and control you are looking for. As a clarinet performer and teacher I have tried all of them and only one of these brands works better for me.
Whatever your decision is about reeds, don’t let music shops choose for you. They tend to sell what is ‘trendy’ without even knowing what the features for those reeds are, so I would recommend to try a few different classes yourself and choose whatever suit you best.
‘How to choose the best reed for a performance/audition?’
The process of choosing a reed before a performance or audition is crucial for a woodwind player.
First of all, I don’t think choosing a brand-new reed would help our performance at all (for the reasons explained above in the section about ‘how to treat new reeds’). These reeds could produce a very mellow, round sound at first, but the fibers of the wood wouldn’t be used to that vibration produced when playing and therefore, the reed would start to react very differently by the end of our performance.
Another common misconception that clarinet players tend to have regarding this issue is to choose a reed that sounds ’round, thick and powerful’, rather than an ‘easy, free and sensitive’. It is very common for players to focus on the sound that a reed produces instead of how easy their playing could be, which may evolve into an unexpected exhaustion in our breathing, blowing and embouchure during our performance.
On the contrary, choosing a very soft reed can be quite difficult to control too. Firstly, our tone quality will be lacking of harmonics, so it won’t sound as round and mellow as with a harder reed, and secondly the attack of the notes and dynamics can be quite unpredictable too.
Therefore my advice in this matter would be to try to find a perfect balance between ‘mellow and round’ sound, and ‘flexible and tender’ one too. It would usually be a reed you have played for a couple of months or so, not brand-new but not very old either.
My clarinet teachers used to say to me: ‘Playing the clarinet shouldn’t be a hard and unbearable process. We should enjoy the music we play and for that we need to choose a reed that feels easy and flexible. Let’s try not to make our lives more difficult.’
‘Should I change reed during the same performance or audition?’
I guess it depends on how long the performance is. For instance, if we are talking about a two/three-hour operatic or orchestral performance I personally like changing reeds from time to time. The reeds usually start to feel softer and lose tone quality after a while and it is quite common to have some resting time in between pieces or movements to facilitate the change.
I would not recommend changing reeds in a performance as a soloist or in an audition. In a solo performance if you choose a suitable reed for a specific repertoire that allows you flexibility and control in the sound, the last thing you need is to feel that control of dynamics and attacks to change with another reed. And obviously auditions just tend to last quite a short time anyway.
Temperature can also affect reeds
In general, reeds become softer with a very hot weather and harder in cold weather, at least that’s my experience. They will also tend to vary depending on whether it is dry or humid, either in cold or hot weather. This is something we need to bear in mind if we are performing abroad or on the other side of our country. For this reason reed makers have been constantly creating these special reed cases to prevent environmental effects on them.
The simple truth is that there will be times where we think our reeds are working perfectly, times where we feel none of our reeds work at all. Whatever the reason, we shouldn’t let our reeds define our playing. Sometimes woodwind players get too obsessed about this matter, they even believe is the only thing that is impeding their playing…
And always remember…the key is to try what better suit your equipment and way of playing without working very hard!