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 air 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 fibres 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 starting to play them, so the reed wouldn’t suffer that much impact when exposing to the saliva.
Subsequently, it is advisable to start playing those new reeds for no 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 way of treating).
‘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’ procedure (it 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 to rotate a few of them. In this way we will have much more choices and we won’t be wearing out just one reed. 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!
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 them! We could always use them for practising or rehearsing purposes, even if we don’t use them for performances.
There will always 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 an extent topic. However, just to say that before starting to sand a reed we should bear in mind that brand new reeds will always feel a bit harder at 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. It is important to highlight that reeds are manufactured by machines and their original wood will never be alike from one to another. This is why two reeds from the same strength 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 in an easier way. 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.
The use of one strength or another depends also on the equipment (mouthpiece, ligature, clarinet…) the clarinettist plays with. Some mouthpieces will be a bit wider and therefore will need a bit harder reeds whereas narrower mouthpieces will generally require a softer reed.
‘What reed model/brand suit better for my way of playing?’
Unlike oboe or bassoon players, not many clarinettists make their own reeds. However I would like to share a very interesting video by Laura Grant, clarinettist in Washington, who specialised in making her own reeds.
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, each of them offering plenty of reed types depending on the cut of the reed. Some differences between them are the kind of wood used and their way of calibration, for instance González reeds are numbered in quarters, whereas Rico reeds feel a bit thicker and more rough when blowing into the clarinet. No brand is better or worse than the others, but I guess it is a matter of preference according to the sound quality and blowing control you are looking for. As a clarinet performer and teacher I have tried many of them and there is quite a difference in sound quality.
Whatever your opinion is about reeds, don’t let music shops choose for you. They tend to sell what is ‘trendy’ without even knowing what the features of those reeds are, so I would recommend to try a few different types yourself and choose whatever suits 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. Firstly, 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 fibres 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. Our tone quality would be lacking of harmonics, so our sound wouldn’t be as round and mellow as with a harder reed. Not to mention note attacks and dynamics, which can become quite unpredictable too.
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, neither brand-new nor very old. My clarinet teacher 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. When choosing a suitable reed for a specific repertoire in a solo performance, I don’t think you want to be changing reeds and losing control of the situation. 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 the country. For this reason reed makers keep constantly creating special reed cases to prevent environmental changes from affecting reeds.
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 best suits your equipment and way of playing without working very hard!