Reeds and MouthpiecesBy Mike Vaccaro
(from Mike's Musings #1, our newsletter)
Does your clarinet or saxophone reed work the way you want? Is it easy to find a clarinet or saxophone reed and keep them playing well? Those are the basic questions.
Let’s start with “Is it easy to find a reed?”
First, for a reed to work, the table on your saxophone or clarinet mouthpiece must be perfectly flat and the curve of the facing must be one that complements your style of playing. If the mouthpiece is not correct, you have little chance of finding a reed on a regular basis.
Secondly, you must be playing a reed that is the correct size for your clarinet or saxophone mouthpiece setup. Of course, this can vary. I have heard it said “play the softest reed you can, to get the job done.” ...only You can decide if that works for you.
I have found that many amateur and professional musicians use a reed that is too hard and they end up suffering because of it.
Conversely, I find that most beginners start with a reed that's too soft and stay on it much too long during their progress. Needless to say, the student must have an appropriate clarinet or sax mouthpiece that is easy to play, which is likely not the one that comes with the rental instrument or the first purchased instrument. A sax or clarinet mouthpiece is the least expensive component that I know of, to promote fast learning.
If your sax or clarinet reeds are not working on a regular basis, or if you have to go through a box or more, of reeds, to get ONE working reed, you're most likely using the wrong brand of saxophone or clarinet reeds!!!
With all the choices out there, start trying different brands of reeds. Don’t be afraid to experiment! Don’t use a certain brand of reed just because your teacher or your favorite musical artist does, or because that's what you have always used. A clarinet or saxophone reed source (brand) that has been good for a couple of years may not be good forever, so when your reeds start being a problem, it's time to search again.
Then there is the cane to consider. There are lots of differences in cane. The questions to consider: Where is the cane grown? What company or supplier is getting the best cane, aging it properly, and putting a good cut on it? If you have a good piece of cane for a sax or clarinet reed you almost can’t ruin it. If you have a terrible piece of cane for a reed there is nothing you can do to fix it. Most sax and clarinet reeds fall in the middle of great or horrible, so you will have to adjust most reeds to work for you and your unique needs.
The next item then, is your knowledge of the reed, how it works, and how to adjust it.
It was said of Benny Goodman, that, before each concert, he would sit down with 10 or 15 boxes of clarinet reeds and play them all until he got one he liked. For those of you who like to play a new sax or clarinet reed all of the time, it's in your best interest to rub the vamp towards the tip closing the cells of the reed to minimize the wet-dry cycle. If you don't do that most certainly the next time you take it out of the reed case, it will be completely different.
There are several books on the market that you can find on the subject of reed adjustment, so I won’t go into a reed symposium here. You can also get information on saxophone or clarinet reed adjustments from your teacher if you're a student. I do suggest the reed adjustment tool made by Tom Ridenour that is available at his website www.ridenourclarinetproducts.com, or from many retail outlets throughout the country. You can order just the tool, however I also suggest you get the instruction book and DVD that goes along with it. There is much insight to be found in Tom’s method. Sometimes I use Tom’s method and sometimes I just go after the adjustment with a great knife I bought from Bill Stevens at his company Reed Tools (reedtools AT aol DOT com).
As you get several years of experience working on your saxophone or clarinet reeds you will find a consistency in your reeds that you may never have thought possible.
Remember, you can take cane off of a saxophone or clarinet reed but you can’t put it back on so work slowly and keep trying the reed.
If you are not an expert at adjusting a reed, you will forever find your reed a mystery.
Regarding synthetic saxophone or clarinet reeds, I must say I do not perform with them, however I do keep 4 of them in my reed cases, in case the weather is so difficult that the cane reeds are acting up. Another good use for these reeds is for outdoor concerts or when you need to play unreasonably loud. Though I do not use synthetic saxophone or clarinet reeds, I know several very successful professional musicians that use them almost exclusively and I must say I can’t hear the difference in sound when they are using them.
Remember - Most good reeds are made and not found, so, become an
expert at adjusting reeds, and your life and music will become better.