How do you pick the clarinet or saxophone reed that is the right strength “for you?” You mostly don’t, really.
It’s important that the reed be a good match to the mouthpiece. In most cases the primary consideration is the mouthpiece’s facing curve and resultant tip opening. Generally, a shorter curve and/or wider opening require a softer reed, that can flex enough to meet the mouthpiece while vibrating. A longer curve and/or narrower opening need a stiffer reed, which will have enough guts to spring back after flexing to the mouthpiece.
This means that the “right” strength for a player using a particular mouthpiece will be pretty close to the “right” reed for anyone else using that mouthpiece.
Some players and teachers object to this, insisting that the “strength” of the embouchure needs to be accounted for. But the embouchure shouldn’t employ much “strength”—it should close just airtight (but not tight) around the mouthpiece and reed. If you are using your embouchure to muscle the reed around, then you might think you need a stiffer reed, but what you really need is a more open, relaxed embouchure. (If you feel like you will lose control by relaxing your embouchure, make up for it with powerful breath support.)
So, assuming a reed reasonably well-matched to the mouthpiece, and a correctly-formed embouchure, the only thing left to consider is personal preference for how much resistance is in the setup. A slightly more resistant setup is good for things like soft, gentle articulations and stable pitch and tone. A slightly less resistant setup favors crisp, immediate articulations and some pitch and tone flexibility. I find this acceptable range of reed stiffnesses to be small enough that I can usually find some softer and some stiffer specimens within a box of reeds that are nominally the same strength.
Some mouthpiece and reed makers publish information about which reeds match to which mouthpieces. If you find yourself straying far from these recommendations, take a closer look at your embouchure and your stability/flexibility priorities.
D’Addario was kind enough to send me a couple of their new(ish) Reserve Evolution clarinet mouthpieces to try out. The Evolution currently comes in a single opening/facing, but the two Evolution mouthpieces I received are different in appearance: one is the standard black, and the other is what’s called “marble” on D’Addario’s website, or “sandstone … Read more
If you have read my reviews of the D’Addario clarinet and jazz alto and tenor saxophone mouthpieces, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a big fan of their new classical alto saxophone mouthpiece, too. (As with the last several reviews, D’Addario sent me some mouthpieces at no cost, with the possibility but not … Read more
I’ve already done thorough reviews of the D’Addario clarinet mouthpieces (twice) and alto saxophone jazz mouthpieces, both of which immediately replaced the competing Vandoren products I was previously using. So, naturally I’ve been very anxious for the release of the hard rubber tenor saxophone jazz mouthpiece, and I got my hands on some samples earlier … Read more
I like mouthpieces that are easy to play, especially in terms of response and tuning. But I also really like something easy to replace; I don’t like the idea of a mouthpiece that is so expensive, variable, or rare that if I drop it I can’t just order a new one, have it in a … Read more
I mentioned in my recent review of the new Rico Reserve clarinet mouthpieces that Robert Polan, Rico Product Manager, was shipping me a few additional samples for comparison. I received three X5 mouthpieces this week, and I have been inspecting and playing them side-by-side with each other and with the one X5 from the original shipment. … Read more
I was pleased to hear from a representative of Rico about their new “Reserve” clarinet mouthpieces, which they seem to be promoting very heavily and which are generating some buzz (no pun intended) among curious clarinetists. She was kind enough to send me a few to check out for myself and to review here, and to put me in touch with Robert Polan, Rico Product Manager, who answered some of my questions during the process.
Initial observations and thoughts
The mouthpiece is currently available in three models. Rico sent me one of each:
X0 (which has a 1.00mm tip opening)
I’m a fan of connecting model numbers to actual relevant measurements, as Rico has done here, rather than assigning seemingly arbitrary codes (take note, Vandoren), though of course the tip opening is only one of many measurements that affect a mouthpiece’s playing characteristics. Dave Kessler speculates that we might see some larger tip openings from Rico in the future, but it does seem that Rico has boxed themselves in on any smaller openings with this naming scheme; naming the mouthpieces something like X100, X105, and X110 might make more sense if future offerings were to include a sub-1.00mm tip opening (X095, etc.). Mr. Polan responded noncommittally to my question about future offerings:
Since the product is so new, it’s too early to know which additional models clarinetists will want. We are carefully evaluating the response to these three models in order to determine what is next.
The boxes’ design includes some faux-technical-drawings of the mouthpieces—which I initially thought was a cool touch, showing the precise dimensions of the mouthpieces—but the drawings are actually identical on the different models’ boxes, so they are probably mostly decorative.
The mouthpieces themselves are etched with the text “Reserve Rico,” a six-digit serial number (the first three digits are zeroes at this point), the model number (such as “X5”) and additional numeral 2 (I don’t know what the 2 means, and I couldn’t seem to get a response to my question about it). It seems a little unusual to see a serial number on an inexpensive, mass-produced mouthpiece (the Reserves seem to be going for a street price of about $100). I asked Robert Polan about this, and his response was:
Adding a serial number was an important feature for us. We are planning to offer online tools and future promotions for Reserve mouthpiece owners who register their mouthpieces on a soon-to-be released “Owners Area” on our website. Again, more to come on this in the coming months.
The mouthpiece is also bedazzled with a painted-on dullish-silver “R” logo on top, which I expect will wear off quickly; I think it would be a classier (and more permanent) touch to etch the logo. I am pleased to see the other identifying information etched into the mouthpiece; my old Vandoren mouthpieces get difficult to tell apart once the painted model numbers wear off. The Reserves also have the usual latitudinal lines which can be used to gauge ligature position.
One of Rico’s big claims about the Reserve mouthpieces is the extreme precision with which they are made, using a process of milling, or carving, the mouthpieces out of solid material, rather than pouring liquid material into a mold. In fact, Rico touts “Zero handwork for maximum consistency” as a feature of these mouthpieces. This seems like a daring choice; in the past, I’ve always seen mouthpiece makers anxious to point out the hand-finishing of their mouthpieces. Rico’s implication seems to be that other mouthpiece makers use hand-finishing because their manufacturing tolerances aren’t exact enough without it, and that Rico has found a way to improve those tolerances to the point that they can eliminate the extra step, cut costs, and take potential human error out of the picture. Mr. Polan clarifies:
Using the CNC technology to fully machine the Reserve mouthpiece allows us to control consistency to a very high level, resulting in greater repeatability than with hand-finishing. This is especially true with high volume production. One of the smartest operations experts I know once put it to me this way: “When you ask a human being to perform a task repeatedly, he or she will get it right on average about 80% of the time.” While a mouthpiece craftsman like Lee Livengood can no doubt produce results that rival our machines, finishing hundreds of mouthpieces a day would make maintaining repeatability challenging for even the most skilled hand-finisher. Considering that many competitors’ mouthpieces in the Reserve price range are finished by factory workers, most of whom do not even play clarinet, the attention to detail with the finishing steps is not the same as it is with someone like Lee Livengood, nor does it come close to matching the consistency we achieve with the Reserve mouthpiece.
[Ed. note: Lee Livengood is a clarinetist with the Utah Symphony, a mouthpiece maker, and a past president of the International Clarinet Association, and a technical consultant to Rico on the development of the Reserve mouthpieces.]
Rico claims that they can machine-mill mouthpieces to tolerances of 0.0005″. Kessler suggests that Rico is perhaps stretching the truth with this claim; when I mentioned this, Robert Polan responded:
Regarding the question about our machining tolerances, we are indeed holding tolerances as tight as .0005” in areas of the mouthpiece that require that precision. We do not claim to hold .0005” with every dimension; that would be both costly and unnecessary. But we are holding to that tolerance where it counts. Ultimately the player will judge any claims about tolerances and quality. We did our homework with the Reserve mouthpiece and we are confident it stands up to the most discerning players.
It’s fair to point out that I don’t really have a concept of what kind of tolerances are necessary for mouthpiece making, but, on close visual inspection, the precision of these mouthpieces does indeed appear very impressive. The rails and tips appear to my eye to be very, very symmetrical and even. This is something that I definitely haven’t seen in mass-produced mouthpieces before. Held in the right light, the tables reveal some visual evidence of the tooling process: some subtle lengthwise lines. However, the tables feel glassy-smooth to the touch.
I mentioned that it would be interesting to compare several of the same model and see if any variation could be spotted with the naked eye (my bet is: not much). Mr. Polan immediately offered to send me several more to compare, commenting:
We don’t claim that every mouthpiece we make is identical; offering identical measurements is impossible. We do, however, feel confident that there is a noticeable similarity between every mouthpiece we make, thanks to the control in our process. As Richie Hawley put it when we had him test our consistency, the Reserve mouthpiece has a “comfortable and predictable similarity” from one to another.
Though demand for the mouthpieces has delayed getting the additional mouthpieces to me (I understand Rico is currently backordered by 5oo units), I think it speaks to Rico’s faith in their product that they are willing to offer samples up for side-by-side scrutiny. I will post a follow-up when the additional mouthpieces arrive. [Update: read the follow-up here.]
The proof is in the playing
But of course the real question on everyone’s mind: how do they play? I’ve been playing the Reserve mouthpieces over the last few weeks.