Reeds are our saviors. We can blame anything on them, thank goodness. "Oops, I squeaked! Oh well, that wasn't a great reed after all." Or, "Man, I can't believe how much my reed's changed since two hours ago. No wonder I'm having trouble with that run!" Oh yes, the weather is our second savior. From November through March we're off the hook. No need to practice, since it wastes reed which could be saved for performances.

Kidding aside, we do struggle with those neurotic slivers of bamboo, thinner than finger nails. My students ask me how to "fix" them and I answer, "Try something. If it works, don't expect it to work on the next reed, but it might. If it doesn't work, it may work on the next reed, or not." There, does that clarify things?

Now don't go asking oboists what they think of clarinetists complaining about reeds! They have no idea how much energy it takes to order the boxes, open them, wet all the reeds, try them, and throw half away. It's utter agony to throw away what was once a living thing! Ok, I'm being silly. The real problem clarinetists face is how little control we have over the finished reed, since we buy ours already made. Yes, we could make our own as oboists and bassoonists must, but that would take their drama away, so we suffer through the drudgery of opening boxes and making friends with reeds we hardly know.

I usually just slap them on the mouthpiece and blow. If it does something I like, I spend some time balancing the tip, which means shaving the thick parts to get the reed vibrating evenly. Then I usually put the poor water logged thing away to recover from surgery. I do this a few times, usually during breaks at rehearsals or while practicing work stuff at home. I almost never work on reeds without multitasking. After a few tries, the reed either begins to settle down and behave, or it loses my interest. I give reeds lots of leeway to improve. I experiment on dubious sounding reeds, sacrificing them in the name of science, sculpting them just to see what it does to their sound. Occasionally one will surprise me and return from the dead to become something I actually use in a real rehearsal or performance. So though I'm brutal with them, I give each one a fair chance.

A good reed is not a universal constant. One reed may work for one piece or concert, but will not for another type of music. A jazzy reed for the beginning of Rhapsodie in Blue may not work for the Mozart Symphony on the second half. Reeds are like wine, better drunk before their brief glory is faded with age. I don't believe in saving reeds, putting them back for a rainy day. Each day my good reed might be a different one than the day before. I keep three or four top ones and six to eight others in rotation as any one time, while bringing a few dozen new ones into possible daily usage.

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4 comments for “Reeds

  1. November 3, 2009 at

    Part II of my comment (it was too long)

    One of the most interesting things for me is finding a "home" in between the resistance of the mouthpiece curve (with a soft reed) and the built-in resistance of a firm reed (with a close mouthpiece). It's fun to go back and forth, as long as you don't play clarinet for a living 🙂

    • November 3, 2009 at

      Bill- I used to practice on somewhat bad reeds, partly to save money by using them up, and to test my flexibility and strength to overcome their problems. Sometimes in a live performance your reed just craps out, and you have to play on. So that advice you disagreed with is not so bad if it is understood for its particular value.

      I would also play in hard reeds to develop strength of air. I no longer do either. Not sure why, except perhaps I don't need to.

      Re resistance of reed/mouthpiece, many people play on too hard a setup, and use biting to control. I recommend the softest reed you can stand, and blow down into the heard of the reed to get a full sound.

  2. November 3, 2009 at

    Part I of my comment:

    I know nothing of what oboists have to do to create their reeds, and so I've always felt like clarinetists shouldn't complain. Unlike you, I've saved used reeds for 10 years!!! That's probably stupid, but I admit I have gone back to a few with very good results. Plus, gosh, they're expensive.

    In the last 10-15 years of my life I have done a lot of reading on the subject of playing clarinet, mostly from on-line sources such as the site … but also from stuff photocopied from the DC library and books I've purchased. One of the worst things I ever read was a teacher's instruction to a student to "play through" a bad reed. Although many elements of performance rest with the player's sensitivity and ear (and skill), if you're working with an unresponsive reed it's like cutting hair with two pencils. At the same time, the surprise, the joy of finding a "good" reed (and that probably means different properties for different people) is indescribable.

  3. Brett
    August 12, 2006 at

    You put what makes me want to scream in frustration quite humorously, and it makes me feel a little silly for always being so stressed over them. I play on Vandoren V12s, but every once in a while I have to refer over to some Mitchell Luries of a harder size because the Vandorens are so difficult to keep up with, because so many of them are so poor. If not for the awesome tone and richness they help my bring, I would do away with them entirely, but Mitchell Lurie doesn’t come even close, as consistent as they are…..

    I really enjoy your articles!

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