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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
reasonable initial investment; pricier if you regularly buy additional Vitalizer packs
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.
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*)
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.” Continue reading “New endorsement deal”→
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.
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.
If you buy into the myth that there are only two or three “good” reeds in a box of ten, you are buying the wrong reeds. There are many, many options available to you. When I’ve got the right brand, cut, and size of reed for my mouthpiece and embouchure, easily eight play respectably well right out of the box. Within 15-20 minutes, I can adjust nine or ten to play quite well, and maybe three or four of those at recital quality. I use the steps below and nothing else.
Don’t waste time and cane messing with the topography of the reed’s cut. With all the variation in reeds, the cut is the one thing that is really quite consistent. If you don’t like the cut, shop around some more. If you own a diagram like the one shown here, with elaborate instructions on which tiny sectors of reed you should sand, I recommend that you throw it away.
Make sure the reed is flat. Many aren’t, and one that was flat yesterday may not be flat today. A piece of 600-grit wet-dry sandpaper held against a piece of glass is the perfect tool for this. Concentrate on the part of the reed that contacts the mouthpiece’s table. For $2, I had a local glass shop cut me a 3″×4″ piece of ¼” glass, with the edges ground smooth. You can also use a mirror or window pane. A flattened reed will respond better and squeak less.
Balance the corners. This is the one exception I make for changing the reed’s cut. Well-balanced reeds have a nice clear tone and respond reliably throughout the instrument’s range and at any dynamic level. I find that balancing the corners can correct for much of the asymmetry of a typical reed. Even a reed that already seems pretty good can often be improved. Tom Ridenour’s method is dead simple and strikingly effective—required reading.
If absolutely necessary, clip the tip using a high-quality reed trimmer. I do this to maybe one in twenty reeds. I do it to make a reed feel a little stronger. Clip off the tiniest possible amount at first—a little clip goes a long way. It’s very rare that I clip off more than a tiny bit, and if I do, it rarely works out well.
Since I moved to the lovely and historic Mississippi Delta about two and a half months ago, it has been on my to-do list to find a local source for Duco cement to use in bassoon reedmaking. I used to be able to buy it at a certain notorious chain store, but my local store here doesn’t stock it. One well-known double reed supplier sells it for $3.95 per one-ounce tube, which is four times the price I usually pay for it locally.
The Devcon website makes it hard to find information about retail locations, and in fact you have to head over to another web domain to find it. After an unsuccessful morning driving around looking for Duco, I went home and dug up this link:
Select DUCO® CEMENT, TUBE CARDED and your state. The website doesn’t give retailer addresses, but does provide names. I found a store within a half-mile of me that had it for just under a dollar per tube. Continue reading “Duco cement and bassoon reeds”→