Written by Phillip O. Paglialonga
Republished in 2010 with permission from Conn Selmer Keynotes Magazine
The secret to a good performance rests in a good reed
Reeds are made from a specific type of cane known as Arundo donax. Traditionally this cane is grown in the Var region of France, although in recent years, fine-quality cane has been produced in other areas such as South America. Cane is harvested and then dried, usually for at least two years, before it is cut into finished reeds.
Because reeds are made from a natural material and each piece of cane is of a unique size and density, it should come as little surprise that reeds vary greatly from one to another. Part of the issue is the method by which reed strength is graded.
As any player can tell you, there is quite a difference between a 3 and a 3 1/2 reed strength, for example. Individual reeds of your desired grading will actually fall within a strength range of considerable latitude, which is one of the reasons many players find only a few “desirable” reeds in a box. Therefore, musicians need to be the ultimate judge of reed quality and strength. Generally, a good reed has a golden color, straight grains running the length of the reed and a tip cut to match the curvature of the mouthpiece.
Breaking in the reed
If you look closely at a reed, you will notice that cane is made up of groups of hollow tubes that run parallel to the grain. When a reed gets wet from normal playing, water becomes trapped inside these hollow tubes. The immediate effect of this water-logging is that the reed will feel harder and less responsive. In the long term, however, waterlogging causes the fibers of a reed to collapse. Once a reed collapses, it becomes unstable and lacks the resistance necessary to play with a projected and centered sound. It is because of these detrimental effects that every effort must be made to avoid waterlogging.
One of the best ways to prevent waterlogging is to “break in” reeds before normal use. This break-in process should begin well in advance of first using the reed. Soak multiple new reeds for 30 to 45 seconds in a small cup (old film canisters work well) of lukewarm water, making sure that from the tip of the reed to where the bark begins remains under water. Next, remove any excess water and place the reeds on their backs (with the bark facing down) in a safe place to dry overnight.
On the next day, begin by running your fingers from the butt end of the reed to the tip several times to close the pores. Then repeat the same procedure as on the first day. Repeat this process for six to eight days, bearing in mind that the more days spent, the better prepared the reed will be for playing. After reeds have gone through this curing process they are ready to begin to be played. Reeds should be limited to five or six minutes of play in the first session, with an increasing amount of play in each subsequent session. Continually check the reed to make sure it is not becoming waterlogged. If you notice waterlogging, take the reed off the mouthpiece and allow it to dry.
Often students will spend many days curing reeds to get them acclimated, then get them waterlogged from too much use on the first day of playing. If prepared correctly, over the course of several days, the reeds will become more resistant to the water. When a reed can be played for an extended period of time without the threat of waterlogging, it is ready to be used on a regular basis.
You will find that constantly having reeds in each stage of the breaking-in process results in always having reeds ready to play. It also allows you to develop a habit of devoting a little bit of your practice time each day to reed work. Inevitably, if you practice a few days without doing any reed work, a week or so down the road you will experience a shortage of quality reeds.
Ranking your reeds
It’s a good idea when breaking in reeds to begin tracking how the reeds perform. After the first day of playing several reeds, rank them by the way they perform. You can keep track by simply placing reeds in order from left to right. Many commercially available reed cases have a numbering system for this very purpose. Undoubtedly each day the exact ranking of reeds will be a little different and this is to be expected. Every time the reeds are played, the ranking should be updated. When working on the reeds each day, begin with the reeds ranked the most desirable from the previous day and end with the least desirable reed.
By using this order, you ensure that the best reeds will be those ready for regular use first. While I try not to discard any reed, it is an inevitable part of the process. At the very least, those reeds with the most potential should get the most attention. Now that the reeds are through the break-in process, it is important that careful steps be taken to prolong their useful life. In the next part of Understanding Reeds, we will look at ways to maximize a reed’s life and simple ways to improve a reed’s performance.
Improving performance of your reeds will improve performance of your music
In the first part of Understanding Reeds, we focused on what to do with reeds right out of the box. We began with a brief look at some of the basic aspects of reeds, including the general characteristics of a good reed. Then we took an in-depth look at how to break in reeds in order to prolong their useful life and avoid water-logging. In the second part of this discussion, we explore ways to improve the performance of reeds once they are ready for regular use.
Rotating reeds can dramatically extend their life. Keep three or four good reeds handy, and regularly rotate them. Although a well-broken-in reed will not likely waterlog, it is usually best to limit playing on a reed to no more than 30 minutes when practicing or two hours when playing in a rehearsal. When you use a reed while practicing, you are playing almost every moment, and the reed is constantly being taxed.
On the other hand, in a rehearsal situation the actual minutes of play a reed gets will be significantly less. All of these variables should be kept in mind in order to maximize the life of a reed. Reeds should be taken off the mouthpiece and stored in a reed case after each use. They should never be kept on the mouthpiece for an extended period of time. Every care must be taken to keep reeds free of chips or splits. Don’t allow students to wear lipstick or apply lip balm right before playing, as it will end up on the reed. Try to keep excess dirt and grime off the reed. If a reed does appear grimy, it can be carefully cleaned in lukewarm water or soaked in an equal mixture of hydrogen peroxide and tap water for 20 to 30 seconds.
One of the most common reed problems is tip warpage. Any warpage will make a reed extremely unstable and prone to squeaking. To eliminate tip warpage, first soak the reed in water as you normally would for about 45 seconds. Then firmly press the reed tip against a flat surface for 15 to 20 seconds. Visually inspect the tip of the reed to see if you were successful in correcting the warpage; if not, repeat the same sequence.
Tip warpage is usually caused by a dramatic change in the moisture content of the reed. It is particularly problematic for saxophone and bass clarinet reeds because of their larger size. Whenever a reed does not seem to be playing to its usual level, I first try to eliminate any tip warpage. Often this simple procedure can rejuvenate a poor-performing reed.
Reed placement on the mouthpiece
The way a reed is aligned on the mouthpiece can have a profound effect on the way it plays. Generally it is best to align a reed horizontally so that it is centered on the mouthpiece and then check to see that the tip of the reed extends a tiny bit past the vertical end of the mouthpiece. To check the vertical position of a wet reed, use your thumb to press the reed into the mouthpiece to reveal a dark line that should appear just below the tip of the reed.
The more the reed extends beyond the mouthpiece tip, the harder the reed will feel. Conversely, the farther down the mouthpiece the reed is placed, the softer it will feel. It is important to note that this can be taken only so far before the reed will simply not respond properly. Professionals often take a few moments to find the optimal position of the reed on a mouthpiece using a simple trial-and-error approach. This is a good habit students can develop to improve the response of their reeds.
Reeds do not last forever. Over time, the fibers in the reed begin to break down and no longer offer the necessary resilience. As the fibers of the reed begin to break down, the strength of the reed begins to diminish. Often students will “fall in love” with an older reed and continue to play on it well past its usefulness – and then wonder why newer reeds are so difficult to play.
The embouchure is quick to adapt to the weakening strength of the older reed, but the embouchure is left unprepared for the resistance a new reed offers. The best way to avoid this is to be always rotating reeds of different ages so that it is easy to recognize aging reeds. Students should constantly be comparing their older reeds to the newer ones. When an older reed can no longer perform at the level of the newer ones, discard it.
Baseball great Branch Rickey was definitely on the right track when he pointed out that it is better to get rid of them too early than too late. Though he was speaking of trading players, not switching reads, the principle is sound.
In the end, audiences don’t care what a reed feels like; audiences are only concerned with the music they hear. Every effort should always be made to use the best reed available, but when it comes time to perform, reed players must find ways to make the reed they have chosen work. The only excuse for a bad reed is inadequate time spent preparing reeds for regular use – and that’s no excuse.