Reeds have to be the most frustrating and aggravating part of playing clarinet and saxophone. Ask any professional player and they will go on for hours about this topic. To save you both time and aggravation, let’s talk a little bit about how to manage your reeds if you play saxophone and/or clarinet, particularly if you lack experience in this regard.
Beginners on saxophone and clarinet would do well to start with regular Rico reeds, #2, and move up to #2/1/2 or #3 once they are intermediate players. Buy a half a dozen, and also buy a little plastic Rico reed holder called a Reed Guard. Remember, all reeds are different. Reeds of the same make and strength will vary by a quarter strength in either direction, a #2 could be a 1 and 3/4, a 2, or a 2 1/4. Play them a little the first time, maybe two minutes each. Figure out which ones work and which ones don’t; I like to number them with #1 being the best. Put the best 4 into a 4 reed Reed Guard. I like to wait a couple of days and do this again. By the third play test you can play them longer, maybe 10 minutes. After this break in period they are ready to go. Rotate your reeds, they will last longer that way, and experiment with them in different acoustical situations. Professional players ofter use the Selmer Reed cases to tote around their broken in, ready to go reeds. I do that, as this works well if you are on a gig and need to try a bunch of reeds and want to make sure you have something really good to play on for that. Another tip—generally you need a softer reed in small confined spaces, and can go with a little stiffer reed in bigger rooms. Keep that in mind when bringing reeds into any performance space.
A few words about synthetic and plastic reeds…..I like them for outdoor gigs like Park Band gigs, but be aware that they tend to play a little flat in the throat tones. I feel it’s a bad idea for students to use them daily, they get used to them and they have a hard time coming back to cane reeds. Remember, all reeds including synthetic reeds get softer as you play them. If you play them too long you are effectively playing a strength or more softer reed. When a synthetic reeds gets soft it will sound very buzzy and edgy, can go flat, and tend to sound very thin and bright. These are not tonal characteristics to strive for!
Here is a Pro Trick Of The Trade……..I often practice on a reed one half strength less than what I use on a gig. On clarinet I practice on 2 1/2’s, but play 3’s on gigs…..same with bass clarinet. If you practice a long time every day, a few hours or more, give this a try. You will save your chops and probably find that the softer reeds work just as well but might not last quite as long.
A few words about brands of reeds. You will probably do just fine in the long run with Vandoren reeds on clarinet if you are an intermediate or advanced player. Vandoren still makes good reeds for the money, I buy them online several boxes at a time to get the best price. Do the same once you are sure what works for you. And be advised…..Vandoren reeds are usually very inconsistent! On saxophone the different cuts of Vandoren reeds are worth experimenting with. I seem to gravitate towards the ZZ and the Java Red Box. The clarinet V-21 is a new addition to their reed line, I tried it and it is worth experimenting with. I still prefer the V-12 for clarinet and bass clarinet. Alternatively Clark Fobes sells both Peter Leuthner and Pilgerstorfer clarinet reeds, as well as bass clarinet and saxophone reeds, I believe. The cane seems to be very good with these, and although I have had a little trouble getting the exact right strength for myself as I use a slightly softer reed than the average classical player, these reeds are well worth a try. If you work on them you might really like them in the long run. If you are interested in trying these reeds you can find them at Mr. Fobes website…..http://www.clarkwfobes.com. I’ve also found that Rico Jazz Select saxophone reeds work pretty well, and I’m sure you can find plenty of other reeds out there that are worth some time and effort to experiment with. Rigotti makes a pretty good saxophone reed, but their strength scheme is tricky to decipher as they make very slight gradations of reed strength. In general always be sure to check out the cane quality of your reeds, look for color and density. A yellowish hue is a good sign, green reeds are not properly cured and are to be avoided. Also be sure to check out the cut, and make sure the cut is even and true. Poorly cut reeds generally aren’t going to perform well…
Speaking of working on reeds or adjusting reeds—for years many of us used a reed knife. These days I use something called a Reed Geek to adjust reeds. I don’t believe in putting a lot of time into reed adjustment for single reeds, but certainly balancing a reed and taking the tip and rails down a little on a stiff reed with the Reed Geek is a good idea. You can find the Reed Geek here….http://www.reedgeek.com.
It seems to me that Vandoren reeds in particular have gotten stiffer over the years. I used to be able to play 3 1/2’s and 4’s on clarinet, but these days even the 3’s can seem stuffy and too stiff. I’ve also heard a theory that the laser engraved serial number on the back of the reeds can cause reeds to warp, that moisture can enter the reed there and cause that part of the reed to swell. Supposedly flattening the back of the reed on some fine sandpaper can help that situation, or scraping it with the Geek. If you feel your Vandoren reeds are getting stuffy after a couple of plays give that a try…..and remember, if your horn is badly out of adjustment, tinkering with reeds will only continually frustrate you. Have your instrument(s) serviced at least once a year by a good repair person for best results.
Lastly, my experience has taught me that a good, properly broken in reed lasts about 10 hours worth of play time. Students often play reeds much too long. I see dirty, moldy, chipped and funky reeds at lessons at times. Change your reed often and take the time to break them in properly, so you sound your best as often as possible. It takes effort, time and practice to manage your reeds as a saxophonist or clarinetist, but it is a necessary evil and part of the routine. Over time strive to develop a system that works for you, and an intuitive sense of what feels right to you on your instrument. That is the daily challenge, getting your instrument, the reed and the air column, to feel right. Do strive for your best tone at all times…..
Thanks for your interest……Markos