Review: ReedGeek “Universal” reed tool

reedgeek-1_mini

I’m a little late to the party on this, as the ReedGeek has been around for a number of years now and has been widely reviewed, but I finally picked one up (at ClarinetFest) after a long conversation/demonstration with inventor Mauro Di Gioia.  I have been using mine for a few months now and wanted to add a few points to the conversation. Here is my take.

The ReedGeek isn’t completely replacing my traditional reed tools, but, I am using it for some of the tasks that I used to do with those tools:

  • Flattening the backs of single reeds. This seems to be what the ReedGeek does best, and it is now my go-to tool for this procedure (by far the most frequent adjustment I make to my clarinet and saxophone reeds). I used to do this with wet-dry sandpaper on a piece of glass, and with flat files prior to that. Using the ReedGeek is faster and neater, doesn’t remove as much cane unnecessarily, and leaves a nice smooth non-shredded finish even on wet cane. I had also experimented in previous years with using knives for flattening, which is fast and leaves a nice finish but is risky because it’s so easy to gouge out chunks of cane by accident. The ReedGeek is much safer.reedgeek-2_mini
  • Smoothing out oboe reed windows. I still like my double-hollow-ground knives for carving out oboe reed windows, but I do have a tendency to leave the windows a bit rough and craggy (like from knife chatter). That’s fussy and time-consuming to fix with a knife, and if not handled delicately a knife can actually exacerbate the problem. But the ReedGeek cleans up my windows pretty quickly and easily, with much less risk of making the gouges worse. I mostly use the squared-off end for this.reedgeek-5_mini
  • Scraping bassoon reed channels. The concave parts of a bassoon reed blade are all but impossible to get at with a straight knife, and I find round files or sandpaper to be only a little less clumsy. The ReedGeek’s slightly curved tip works very well for this. Mr. Di Gioia describes this as being similar to using a pencil eraser—you just “erase” the cane you don’t want.reedgeek-4_mini

I’m not currently using the ReedGeek for:

  • Balancing the corners of the tips of single reeds, though it certainly can be used for this. I’m still used to sandpaper and glass, which at this point feels more controlled to me. If I have both tools available I still grab the sandpaper but if I’m away from my reed desk and traveling light, the ReedGeek will do the job. The ReedGeek can, I think, be used effectively to target specific spots on a reed’s profile (using either the square or the curved end), but I personally do very little of that.
  • Double reed making. (It’s fair to point out that the ReedGeek isn’t exactly being marketed as a tool for this anyway, though the company does publish a document on its website that provides some instruction for double reed players.) For one thing, the ReedGeek is quite small, and for reedmaking I like big, chunky, comfortable knife handles. A handle would also get my hand out of the way, which was a problem for me when I tried to use the ReedGeek for some fine tip work on oboe reeds—it was hard to get everything angled so I had control and could see what I was doing. I spoke to Mr. Di Gioia on the phone while preparing this review, and he hinted at a soon-to-be-revealed, more double-reed-oriented version of the ReedGeek, with some kind of extension for increased leverage (though he shied away from calling it a “handle”), and with scraping surfaces tailored more for double-reed applications. Because of the ReedGeek’s extremely hard alloy, it may be tougher on reed plaques than a traditional knife, but if you’re planning to use the ReedGeek in that way, the price difference between the ReedGeek and a good knife will buy you dozens of plaques.

The ReedGeek is very portable, won’t be confiscated at an airport security checkpoint, and doesn’t need sharpening like a knife or replacing like sandpaper. (When I spoke with Mr. Di Gioia he joked that he has to hope that people lose them so they will have to buy more.)

The ReedGeek has a hole drilled though one end (visible in the oboe reed picture), which I thought might be a way to attach some kind of handle, or perhaps to put it on a lanyard or keyring. In my follow-up call with Mr. Di Gioia, he explained that the hole has to do with the ReedGeek manufacturing process, and that keeping the ReedGeek on your keyring would likely damage your keys as it is much harder than the metals keys are made from. Also, the ReedGeek’s edges feel sharp to me, but not really in such a way that I would cut myself on them; Mr. Di Gioia recommends handling it with care but isn’t aware of people injuring themselves with it. He has an idea for a sleeve or sheath that may become available at some future date, and that could make carrying the ReedGeek in your pocket more feasible.

The verdict: for me, it’s useful and I will easily get my money’s worth out of it as long as I don’t lose it. For a single-reed player, I think it can realistically replace most or all of your tools. For a double-reed player, it’s currently a supplementary tool at best, but stay tuned for a possible new product.

At the time of this writing the ReedGeek goes for right about $50 from the ReedGeek store; some retailers also carry it.

Misconceptions about saxophone-to-clarinet doubling

I saw a blog post recently by a saxophonist who had been called upon to play some clarinet for a big band jazz gig. The post was full of common frustrations that saxophonists who are casual clarinet doublers face in that situation. I want to respond to some of the ideas in that post, but since it’s not my object to embarrass anyone I’m not going to name the saxophonist or link to the blog post. Also, the “quotes” I’m using here are actually paraphrases, but I believe they capture the saxophonist’s intended meaning.

The clarinet is evil! And it sounds like a dying animal.

I understand this is said in jest, but fear and/or contempt are not good starting points for approaching woodwind doubles. Either focus your energies on instruments you are motivated to play, or have an open mind. As with most things, you probably hate and fear the clarinet because you haven’t taken the time and effort to get to know it.

photo, APMus
photo, APMus

I’m actually pretty good at the bass clarinet, though.

I doubt it! There are plenty of saxophonists who claim they can play the bass clarinet but not the B-flat clarinet. In many, many of those cases, what the saxophonists mean is that they can use a very saxophoney approach to playing the bass clarinet—a too-low voicing, a too-horizontal mouthpiece angle, etc.—and make some kind of sound, whereas the smaller B-flat simply won’t cooperate at all with these bad techniques. Truly good bass clarinetists, however, produce a more characteristic sound because they play the instrument like what it is: a member of the clarinet family.

I dug up a fingering chart so I could do some practicing for my gig. Those pinky fingerings just don’t make any sense, plus you have to read a bunch of ledger lines.

Saxophonists are spoiled by the instrument’s relatively small “standard” range and relatively simplistic fingering scheme. But I think a reasonable argument could be made that the clarinet’s system of alternate “pinky” fingerings is tidier and more flexible than the saxophone’s clunky rollers. Break out the Klosé book and learn to do it right.

Read more

Play reeds that fit

Photo, °Florian

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.

Evaluating reeds

Photo, chelseagirl

There are three things to consider when evaluating a reed. I consider these same factors for either single or double reeds, and prioritize them in this order.

  1. Response. The overriding concern for me is that the reed responds exactly as I expect it to. A reed that is stiff, sluggish, stuffy, or otherwise unresponsive isn’t a good reed (at least in its current state), even if it “has a good sound” or whatever. Many reed players, I believe, are consistently using reeds that are overly stiff, often in the name of “good” tone.
  2. Stability. This is the flip side of the coin from response; a reed that is too responsive is uncontrollable. (Think of the gas pedal and brake in a car: unresponsive pedals make the car feel lethargic, but overly responsive ones make for a jerky ride.) With an unstable reed, it’s hard to play in tune, hard to control dynamics, and hard to keep the tone consistent.
  3. Tone. Once I’ve selected a reed that has the right balance between response and stability, I evaluate the reed’s contribution to tone quality. Remember that the reed is only one of many factors that affect tone, and that tone is relatively easy to manipulate if the reed is responsive and stable. Resist the temptation to rank your reeds based on their tone alone.

Review: Rico reed cases

I’ve been trying out the Rico single and double reed cases. These are plastic cases that can optionally accommodate Rico’s “Reed Vitalizer” packets, which, according to Rico, help keep your reeds at your desired humidity level. The single reed case holds eight reeds, baritone saxophone or smaller, and the double reed case holds five double reeds, oboe or bassoon. (I found contrabass clarinet reeds to be just a little too large for the single reed case. The double reed case holds English horn reeds just fine, but doesn’t work for oboe d’amore or contrabassoon.)

Detailed review follows, but here is the quick summary:

Price reasonable initial investment; pricier if you regularly buy additional Vitalizer packs
Looks handsome
Humidity undecided
Design flawed

Price

Current street price on both the single reed case and the double reed case  seems to be about $20. This includes one Reed Vitalizer pack. If you choose to use the Reed Vitalizer packs on an ongoing basis, they go for about $5 apiece, and Rico says you will need a new one every 45-60 days (so, up to around $40/year, not counting tax or shipping).

Read more

Don’t adjust your best reed

Photo, stonelucifer

I worked on reeds today (both single and double). My favorite reed tip: don’t adjust your best one. Adjust some others until one of them is the best, and then go back and work on the first one if you like.

Adjusting reeds can be a little risky, so gamble on a reed that you won’t miss too much if it doesn’t survive. And don’t put all your eggs in one basket, concentrating all your efforts trying to perfect one reed—try to bring several up to a playable level.

Keep those knives sharp!

More free reeds from Rico

Rico seems to be continuing their push to get their reeds into players’ cases for an audition. I wrote a couple of years ago about their “Make the Switch” promotion, in which I scored some free Rico Jazz Select tenor reeds.

With their current promotion, through the Woodwind and the Brasswind, you order a box of your favorite non-Rico clarinet or alto saxophone reeds, and get a free box of the comparable Rico offering. The deal is good through March 7 or while supplies last, so I suggest putting in your monthly (weekly?) reed order today and scoring a free box.

I’m more than happy to try out some new reeds for free, and won’t hesitate to switch if I find them better than what I’m currently using. (*wink*)

New endorsement deal

I am pleased to announce that, after several weeks of exciting and productive talks, I have signed on for an endorsement and development deal with an up-and-coming reed manufacturer. Here’s the official press release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 1, 2010

Bret Pimentel Signs On As First FLAVOREEDS™ Artist

FORT WAYNE, Indiana.—FLAVOREEDS™ Flavored Clarinet and Saxophone Reeds, Inc., is pleased to announce the first in what it hopes will be a series of “fruit”ful relationships with professional woodwind players in developing and promoting its new professional line of premium cane instrument reeds.

The first FLAVOREEDS™ Artist to join the roster is multiple woodwind performer and educator Bret Pimentel. Dr. Pimentel has performed with such acts as Dave Brubeck, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the O’Jays, and is currently Assistant Professor of Music at Delta State University. He is an experienced performer on all the major woodwind instruments, and expects to bring this expertise to bear in consulting on new and current product lines.

“As soon as I made a verbal commitment to the company, I forwarded them some thoughts about their new Papaya-Mango Bass Saxophone Reeds™,” Pimentel said in a telephone interview. “I found them to be a little overpowering in the papaya department, with not enough mango. I’m working closely with FLAVOREEDS™ to better balance the flavors.”

Read more

Review and blindfold test: Légère Signature Series clarinet reeds

A few months ago, I posted about plastic reeds, and reported some of what I had read on another woodwind blog about the Légère Signature Series and Forestone clarinet reeds.

For reasons unknown to me, the post from which I originally quoted has been removed, but there are similar thoughts expressed in a more recent post.

Anyway, I got a kind offer from someone at Légère to send me a few samples.* They asked about my current cane reed preference, and sent three reeds in different strengths close to what I currently use.

Goodies via Canadian mail

Read more

Not making your own double reeds

I’ve posted a few times over the past year about making double reeds (cf. here, here, and here), and I maintain that this is the truest way to abiding oboe/bassoon satisfaction. If you consider those instruments to be serious parts of what you do as a musician, you need to learn to make—or at least skillfully adjust—reeds.

But, frankly, not everyone is up to the challenge.

The basic reedmaking process can be learned within a few lessons, but developing the skills well enough to make good reeds consistently can take years, and most reedmakers will continue to develop and modify their approach over a lifetime.

Reedmaking is expensive, too. A set of the most basic tools for making reeds from preprocessed (gouged, shaped, and, for bassoon, profiled) cane costs as much as several boxes of clarinet or saxophone reeds, and the cane doesn’t come cheap, either. If you want the control of doing your own gouging, shaping, and so forth, the additional equipment may cost you nearly as much as a pro-line clarinet.

And, of course, reedmaking takes time. I’ve heard the “rule of thumb” that an oboist, for example, should spend an hour making reeds for every hour he or she spends practicing. I don’t know that I agree entirely, but you get the idea of what kind of commitment is involved.

So, if I’ve now talked you out of making your own reeds, what are your options?

Read more