Reeds, Reeds and More Reeds!
This week I have been on a quest to find, test, categorise and eliminate my large stores of reeds that seem to have accumulated all over my studio in various boxes and places!
I’m sure we’ve all “been there, done this” though. I open a box of reeds up, select the first one my fingers come across, wet it with one quick lick and test it out.
It will either:
1. Play perfectly on the first blow (a problem actually, but I’ll talk more about this later).
2. Play well but need some further TLC.
3/ Will not blow easily and feel like I’ve accidentally picked up a floorboard by mistake.
Sound familiar? Well, here’s how I work my way through this dilemma.
The first thing to do is to sort the reeds into three (or more) categories.
Personally, I find that three is fine for my needs. I use the following labels for these categories:
1. Good! Plays great and is keen to be my friend.
2. So-So Plays fine but has some resistance. Not quite sure whether we are friends until I spend some more time with it.
3. Hard/Fluffy! Not interested in being friendly, and plays as though it’s a floorboard or as though it’s got holes drilled through it.
OK, so let’s take a closer look at these categories to find out which is the best to look for…you will be surprised I’m sure.
Reed categories and characteristics:
Although it’s great to find a reed that bends over backwards to please you on your first meeting, this can be a problem in itself. Why? Because a reed that offers little resistance or that plays easily can, and usually does become weaker and soggier as you play it. I find that if I get a reed like this that after playing it for even 5 minutes, crashing through high notes and extreme volume changes, the reed tends to collapse and what seemed like a perfect friendship becomes more of a “don’t call me, I’ll call you” relationship!
Easy to play or softish reeds are to be avoided if possible as although they may first promise to be great to play, they can cause you to compensate for tone and strength by biting your bottom lip in an effort to keep them vibrating evenly and in tune in the higher registers. Students often make this mistake and then suffer flat high registers and sore bottom lips as a consequence.
These reeds are the hardest to justify keeping and it often leads to asking yourself that immortal Shakespherian bard’s phrase; “to trash or not to trash, that is the question.” Indeed it is. As a matter of record, I hardly ever trash a reed unless its tip is damaged or it has split. These reeds, even with the best will in the world cannot be salvaged.
Reeds that possess this character are usually either comprised of cane that is too thick or dense for your set-up. That’s not the same as being totally useless though, and at a pinch, you can shave, adapt and eventually get them to work at some level for you, if only for a session or two. So only trash a reed when it has some form of irreparable physical damage to it.
These are, I believe, the reeds to look for and collect. Why? For the simple reason that they have resistance and are ready to be blown in. These reeds tend to give much better performance and tonal results than my “Good!” reeds and for a longer period of time too.
“So-So” reeds are full of potential and promise that makes you work a bit harder and in return, they will offer up their crunchy goodness.
Having said this, however, there are “so-so” reeds that never actually become reliable, functional reeds because what seemed like “teasing and tempting” you was in fact “stubborn arrogance” on their part. These reeds should then be re-housed to the “Hard/Fluffy!” category for a later TLC session.
1. “Good!”: What seems to be an easy to play and softish reed is not always the best choice.
2. “Hard/fluffy!” reeds can be worked overtime to work for you so don’t trash them yet!
3. “So-So” reeds are the ones to go for as they often contain quality tone and playing qualities if you blow them in for a while. They also tend to last much longer than softer, easy to play reeds.
4. Only trash a reed that has irreparable physical damage to its tip or body. Splits and tears cannot be repaired and these reeds have shuffled off of their mortal coils. The bin is the only suitable resting place for these.
Playing reeds with splits and damaged tips is also potentially hazardous to you as the player as small particles and chips can easily dislodge and get swallowed or inhaled by accident. Avoid playing reeds like this.
Reed fairy stories and myths:
1. You need to soak your reeds before you play them: No! Don’t do this! All you will do is waterlog the reed and make it soggy and wet. A quick wet down in the mouth or even just a couple of licks on the back of the reed is enough. Never suck a reed! It’s not candy. Buy a lollipop if you want to do this, it’ll taste much better too. Sucking a reed can easily damage and crush fibres and the physical structure of the reed.
2. You can keep your reed on your mouthpiece: Nope! You can’t and shouldn’t do this. Bacteria and germs love the warm, moist areas of your reeds and when it’s snuggly against your mouthpiece, it’s the ideal place for them to thrive. Your mouth has way more germs than your toilet seat on average, so don’t risk it.
3. Don’t shave or alter your reeds: This is true if you don’t know what you’re doing. But for experienced reed users, shaving reeds, re-filing and profiling a reed is a common activity and it can make a “so-so” reed an excellent reed if done correctly.
4. Reeds come good again if you let them dry out. Sometimes, but rarely. In my experience, a soft, soggy reed will eventually always go back to being exactly that. Saliva and muck that dries in the pores of the reed only serve to shorten its life and tonal qualities. Unless you have a reed endorsement, look after your reeds and treat them like you would a precious gem.
Looking after your reeds:
1. Dry your reed after playing it: This helps to clean off the bacteria, slime and salvia that accumulate in them after playing and can dramatically increase the life of the reed.
2. Put your reed back into its case after drying: The case has been specially designed to keep the back of the reed flat and the tip safe from knocks and snags.
3. Don’t touch the tip or rub your fingers all over the body of the reed as this only serves to clog the reed up and shorten its life.
4. Never leave your reed in your mouthpiece after playing it in a hot area: This will cause the tip of the reed to warp and crinkle. If this happens, it is a tricky and difficult recovery for the reed and in my experience, the reed is never as good.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about reeds. Drop me a line and let me know your thoughts and what you find works best for your reeds.