At the first lesson of a beginning clarinet or saxophone student, I ask, “What makes the sound on your instrument?” Many students say blowing air through the horn. Well, that’s a good, logical answer, but it’s more complicated than that. Something has to vibrate to make a sound. A rubber band, guitar string, timpani drum head, the air column itself (as with the flute) all need to vibrate at a very high rate of speed to be heard. With reed instruments, it’s the reed itself. For brass instrument, the player’s lips must “buzz” against the mouthpiece to start the air column vibrating through the instrument. The rest of the instrument is merely the amplifier that gives that vibration its distinctive sound.
The next question is how does the reed vibrate? It has to be damp and flexible so when the air pressure hits it, it begins to vibrate. Band directors tell the students to just put the reed in their mouths to get it wet. The director is looking for the most expedient way to get the students quickly ready to play so the rehearsal can start. Also, if the director is not woodwind specialist, he/she may not fully understand what needs to happen get the reed ready. But that really doesn’t do the proper job. Here’s why the reed needs to be soaked in water: In order for the reed to vibrate, the fibers of the cane need to be flush with moisture. Just putting the reed in one’s mouth is like spitting on a house plant to water it. It doesn’t work. Also, the saliva actually eats away at the reed, wearing it out faster. Rinsing or soaking the reed in water cleans it and makes it flexible and pliable to do its job on the mouthpiece.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the reed is not made of wood. It’s made the stem of a plant called Arundo Donax, or giant reed grass. It grows primarily in southeast Asia and European countries in the Mediterranean basin such as France and Italy. Below are pictures.
All reeds-oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone reeds are made from this plant. It grows over twenty feet tall and looks like a corn stalk, even with a tassel on top. The stem is hollow and varies greatly in diameter and looks like bamboo. In the late summer and early fall, the plant dries out and is harvested in huge fields. The leaves are stripped and the stems are taken to the factories for further drying and processing. Reed-producing companies include Vandoren, Rigotti, Hempke, LaVoz, Zonda, and Rico. The clarinet and saxophone reeds are produced to various thicknesses (or strengths), and are labeled as such by numbers. A 1 1/2 is the thinnest reed, then gets heavier and thicker with 2, 2 1/2, 3, all the way up to 5. To make things more complicated, each company has its own standard of reed strength and quality. So the musician must try out and choose which brand works best in terms of tone quality, stability, intonation, and response. A 1 1/2 reed will respond very quickly, but will have a bright sound that is difficult to control. Extreme high and low notes are very unresponsive and would take an experienced player to coax the notes to speak. And it is easy to overblow and overwhelm the reed. It will “freeze” and no sound will come out at all. It’s as if the player is blowing on a piece of paper. On the other hand, a 4 or a 5 reed is like playing on a board. It takes an enormous amount of air pressure to get the reed to vibrate. But the sound is the opposite-dark, warm, and stable, however can be airy because not enough of the reed is vibrating. Because this strength reed is so uncomfortable, the young musician will quickly get tired and want to give up. The solution is to find the right strength reed that has an easy response and produces a good tone.
The brand of reeds is important. Many students play on Rico or Rico Royal because they are cheap and that’s what the band directors sell at school. But tone quality, stability, and even intonation is compromised. Other brands are more expensive but are much better in these aspects. I recommend the student buy the Vandoren 2 1/2 reeds that come in boxes of 10 reeds. With proper handling and care, this box will last well through the first semester of school and even longer. Later, as they gain experience, the students may move up to a thicker reed to further refine the sound. Vandoren makes a variety of reeds-hand select, 56, V12, and V16 (suitable for use in jazz band) and might be worth sampling as the student grows in musical maturity and begins to demand more from the reed. The bottom line is this: the student needs to play on the highest strength reed to get the best sound but is still comfortable to play.
Let’s talk about proper care and handling. As soon as the student sit down to prepare for band class or to practice at home, he/she needs to either put the reed in a small, plastic container or cup filled with water, or go to the water fountain and run water over the reed for about a minute. After the rehearsal is done, the student must take the reed off the mouthpiece and store it in the white plastic sheath that came with it in the box. I do not recommend using the black plastic reed guard that comes in the starter kit. The reeds are difficult to get out (one time I actually had to break one of those things to get a reed out), it leaves a black spot on the reed, and the reed cannot dry out properly. What student must NEVER do is leave the reed on the mouthpiece. The reed can easily be chipped or broken and must be thrown away. Also, leaving the reed on the mouthpiece between practices means that the student didn’t clean out the mouthpiece (read my blog, Cleanliness is Next to Godliness). The student cannot play on a reed that is not whole. It has to be replaced with a new one. I’ve had arguments with kids who say the reed play just fine even though it has a big chip in it. The reed is damaged, period. The sound is going to airy, and the reed won’t respond well. So in the trash it goes.
While the student is playing, he/she must not chew gum, candy, food, or have anything else in his/her mouth. Another thing students don’t think about is putting Chapstick or lip gloss on their lips before or during the practice. These items contain oils and dyes and emollients that will put a coating on the reed. The fibers in the cane become clogged and will not absorb water. And you can’t wipe off that stuff. At best it has to be scraped off with a knife, and that reed is never going to play as well as before. Moreover, the mouthpiece will collect dirt and grime, making the idea of putting it in one’s mouth not very appealing. It becomes a real mess. Students complain that their lips are chapped, especially in the winter, and they see the flute students using Chapstick. Well, it’s easy to wipe off that greasy stuff from a metal head joint. And they can wait until after they play to put it on. Even if they wipe it off their mouths before they sit down to play in band class, the oil and grease is still there, and will ruin the reed. As an oboist, I’ve been making and scraping on reeds made from Arundo Donax for over forty years. I know when there’s something on that clarinet or sax reed that’s not supposed to be there.
Adhering to the right way to handle and care for reeds ensure that these little, expensive pieces of the stem of a big plant will last longer, and the parents won’t have keep buying them so often. Choosing to play a reed instruments means taking care of the equipment and accepting that reeds will break and/or wear out and must be replaced regularly. When I give private or group lessons, I teach the students all this, and I watch and correct any mishandling of the reeds. I am constantly thinking about the parent’s pocketbook and how I can keep saving them money. I want the students’ reeds to last as long as possible.
The really good news about clarinet and saxophone reeds is that they aren’t oboe or bassoon reeds which is a whole different world of care, maintenance and expense. That’s in part II . . .