During a rare visit to a music store this week, I overheard a very young clarinetist asking a salesperson to help him locate some unusually stiff reeds. The salesperson was as surprised as was I that the young man was interested in such an extreme equipment choice—but apparently for different reasons.
“You must be very talented to have moved up to such stiff reeds already,” the salesperson told the beaming prodigy. “How impressive!”
To me, this is a little like congratulating someone on moving up to a larger hat size. “Oh, it’s nothing, really. I started out in a 7¼, but I worked really hard and now I’m ready for the 7½. But the real greats all wear at least an 8, so that’s where I want to end up.” Bigger isn’t better—you should wear whatever fits your head.
A clarinet or saxophone reed should be an appropriate fit to the mouthpiece. There are a number of factors that determine what strength of reed is right for a mouthpiece, but, in general terms, most mouthpieces with wider tip openings require softer reeds to get good response, and most mouthpieces with narrower openings need a stiffer reed for stability and dynamic range.
While each player is of course different, I think sometimes the factor of the individual embouchure is actually over-emphasized. The embouchure doesn’t and shouldn’t need unusual muscular strength to do its job—it requires delicacy and control. If you’re biting and straining against a too-stiff reed, you’re sacrificing both, and both you and your audience are suffering for it. For most mouthpieces, there is a narrow range of reed strengths that is about right, no matter how “strong” you are (or think you are).
There’s no such thing as “moving up” to a stiffer reed, just “moving” to a different strength to suit a new mouthpiece or to correct an error in your previous reed choice.