The difference between a good and a bad reed can make or break a performance. Also a good reed can help you progress confidently while a bad reed can hold you back. Therefore, it’s important to take great care when selecting reeds. Frequently, I ask students about their reed selection process and they explain that they select one reed from a box and play on it. This process is a gamble for a number of reasons. If a single reed is selected there is the possibility that it could be outstanding or poorly matched to your set-up leading to squeaks and poor tone. Each clarinetist has a different instrument, mouthpiece, and facial structure which means a reed that works well for one person might not for another. Given the variables involved, in any box of reeds there is a variety. For example, in a box of 3.5 strength reeds there will be reeds closer to 4 and 3. This fact makes it essential for clarinetists to try all the reeds in the box to see which are a fit. Selecting a reed is like buying a pair of shoes. It is essential to find a shoe that is comfortable; the same idea holds true with reed selection.
Reeds should be purchased in at least quantities of ten. Most boxes of reeds come with ten reeds. Having more reeds increases the number of good reeds that you will get from a box. A good reed has a variety of characteristics:
- A clear focused dark tone is the primary quality with a sound free of fuzz and buzz.
- A reed that has an ease of playing. Balance should be achieved between free blowing and resistance. Too much resistance will create a fuzzy tone while a free blowing free will be bright and unfocused. Between these two extremes is a reed that offers ease of playing while maintaining enough resistance to blow against and hold tone.
- Ease of articulation response is essential as well. A more resistant reed will articulate slowly while a free blowing reed will be difficult to control. Again, when selecting reeds you should seek a balance between these two variables.
- A good reed should allow you to play in all registers with a matched even tone. If the tone is fuzzy in the chalumeau register and strident in the altissimo, it is not a good fit.
I begin my reed selection process by taking all the reeds in the box out of the package and their individual wrappers. On each reed I play a scale the full range of the instrument (F major 3 octaves) and a line of an articulation study (Langenus 11). Through this process I am able to assess the tone across all registers, resistance, and articulation.
- If the reed sounds good and articulates well I add it to a “YES” pile.
- If it’s a little fuzzy or light but has an overall good tone I add it to a “MAYBE” pile.
- If the sound is really fuzzy or bright with a bad tone I add it to the “NO” pile.
I complete this process for all the reeds in the box. At the end I usually have 3 or 4 YES reeds. These reeds I date and put in my reed case. Adding the date on the reed allows me to project the life cycle of the reed and not mix up older reeds.
I will complete this process again with reeds in the MAYBE pile and determine if any are worth practicing on. The reeds in the NO pile are composted right away. Life is too short to play on bad reeds!!!
Reed storage is key to their longevity. After initially testing reeds, the plastic holders they are packaged in should be
placed in plastic recycling. These holders do not keep the reed flat. Reeds not places on a stable flat surface will warp. There are a variety of reed storage devices which boast particular features. However, it is most essential to keep the reed flat and protect the tip.
Repeating this reed selection process weekly or bi-weekly (depending on the amount of playing you do) will ensure that you have the best reeds for your instrument set-up.