Reed: All About It! (Part 1)

The hunt for that elusive “perfect reed” is one with which every saxophonist and clarinetist is surely familiar. As an educator, the success of my students in lessons and performances, as well as their disposition in the practice room, is largely dependent upon the cooperation of their reeds. As a performers, we all put our faith in the reeds that we select and trust that they will be reliable when the time comes. In a clinic recently, a student asked me if I could recall the single best reed that I had ever performed on and I realized that I have not dealt with many of the troublesome reed issues plaguing students in some time. This article aims to delineate my own personal process for breaking in and maintaining reeds as well as offer some methods to troubleshoot some of the most common reed ailments.

Before diving into specifics of reed care, let’s explore the most important parts of the reed.

All of the natural cane reeds that clarinetists and saxophonists play on come from the Arundo donax perennial plant and is most frequently harvested from the Var region of southern France, although some is also grown in South America. Amazingly, the time from when the cane is planted to when you receive your finished reeds is a period of years! Keeping this artisanal craftsmanship in mind will certainly help you to better appreciate each and every reed that you play on and encourage you to take the utmost care of them all.

The stock is the smooth laminate-like outer section of the reed formed by the bark of the cane. Some reeds feature speckled stocks, some have elliptical patterns, and others are completely unmarked. These are a completely natural organic quality of cane reeds and will not affect the sound in any way.

The shoulder is where the initial cut into the cane takes place. The shoulder should be centered on both sides of the reed. A miscut or off-center shoulder will often create balance issues with the two sides of the reed. There are two basic styles of reed that you will find: Filed and Unfiled, also referred to as French Filed and American Unfiled. The bark on unfiled reeds runs all the way up to the cut and are characterized by a full, powerful sound. Filed reeds have a small section of the bark removed below the vamp and feature added flexibility and a fast response.

The vamp is the sloped top surface of the reed that contains the heart of the reed, side rails, and the reed tip. On a brand new reed, the vamp might be slightly rough on the lower lip because it consists of hundreds of small open tubes. As the reed is gradually broken in and the tubes are sealed, the vamp will naturally become smooth. The heart is one of the most important parts of the reed and is found right in the center of the vamp. This where much of the resistance and core sound come from and will be avoided when we begin working on and adjusting reeds. In addition to the heart, the reed tip is crucial to the success of a reed. Because of its relative thinness and delicacy, the utmost care should be taken when handling and storing your reeds to avoid damage to the tip.

The table of the reed is the flat backside, usually on which brand and strength markings are stamped. To create an airtight seal against the mouthpiece, it is very important to ensure that the table of the reed is perfectly flat and not warped in anyway. Many ailments that reed players face are due to a warped reed table!

In the subsequent installments to this article, we will explore a break-in approach that will ensure that the reeds perform at their highest possible level and last for a long time, and I will provide some troubleshooting for some of the most common issues ailing single reed players today. Stay tuned!

“The care and maintenance of reeds is a constant trial. Twice a year, a safari of saxophonists and I go out with our machetes to the jungles of Ceylon in search of reeds. And when we find them what a clatter and noise of machetes whilst we cut them and fit them into our ligatures! We are then ready for the long trek home. Imagine the kiwa birds, the gorillas, the pythons staring at miles and miles of a single-file cortège of saxophonists, practicing our fiendishly difficult exercises as fast as possible.”

- William Bolcom

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© 2020 Mirasol Quartet.  All rights reserved. 
Photos by Brianne Butterworth/Sebastian Serrano Ayala.  Artwork by Pat Maines.
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