A balanced reed is one that is symmetrical down the length of the vamp (see figure below – points ‘A’ would be the same thickness, as are the ‘Bs’ and ‘Cs’ etc…). Not only does the reed need to be symmetrical geometrically, but also in cane characteristics. A reed may be precisely cut so that if you divided it down the spine, the two hemispheres would be exact mirror images, however it may still not play perfectly balanced. This may be due to variations in density within the cane.
A reed that is NOT well balanced will have at least one of the following characteristics:
- Difficulty articulating
- Uneven articulation in different registers
- Uneven tone across registers
- Difficulty connecting notes across large intervals
- Odd intonation issues
- Difficulty beginning tones in soft dynamics
- Overall crumminess
I find that most, if not all reeds need some balancing, especially in the tip area. This is so much the case that Tom Ridenour wrote an entire book on balancing reeds (and developed a funny little tool too! ).
There are four ways to evaluate the balance of a reed: 1) a reed micrometer, 2) a lamp, 3) finger flex test, and 4) play testing. Each will be covered here.
The Reed Micrometer:
This is a device that is design to measure the thickness of any point along a clarinet reed. Typically, they are set up with guides for measuring corresponding points on either hemisphere, making this tool a great way to measure topographical balance. If you own one of these tools, begin by measuring points up the length of the vamp, every 5mm or so. It doesn’t matter exactly how many points you measure, as long as you are measuring the reed at precisely the same point on each side. If there are any differences greater than .001”, correct using your reed tool of choice (ReedGeek “Universal,” reed rush, or a trusty reed knife).
The reed micrometer is the best way to test for balance across the entire length of the vamp, not just the tip area. The following methods work best at the top third of the vamp, nearest the tip. It is this area that balance issues pose the greatest problems for players. A micrometer is not completely necessary for reed adjustment, is can be a very handy tool.
The Lamp Method:
By holding your moistened reed up to a lamp and looking through the illuminated vamp, you can roughly judge the overall symmetry of the cut. Note that a dry reed is not as evenly translucent; make sure that your sample is well hydrated. This method will show unbalances in density of the cane (darker areas) that may otherwise measure as balanced. If you find that the shape of the translucent area of your reed is not symmetrical, you may want to correct it. Large areas can be corrected with reed rush or sandpaper, while small areas can be precisely corrected with a reed knife, or your preferred sharp tool. A photo light-box also works, but is much less handy.
The Finger Flex Method:
With some practice, you will be able to gain a lot of knowledge about a reed just by gently flexing the tip with your index finger. For balance purposes, place the tip of a well soaked reed against the tip of the index finger of your non-dominant hand. With gentle but significant pressure, rock the tip across your finger, from corner to corner. Repeat this motion noting how the tip and rails flex. Does one corner flex more or less than the other? Does each corner bend from the same point on the vamp?
This is the most reliable way to fine-tune the tip balance of a reed. The only reason it is mentioned last is that it can be a time consuming method, since the reed needs to be played, taken off the mouthpiece to adjust, reattached, and played again, only to be taken off again, and again. I use the play test as the final step in balancing my reeds, only after I am convinced that they are as balanced as possible using the other methods.
How it works –
- Place the reed perfectly centered on the mouthpiece, and place mouthpiece in your mouth (attached to the clarinet)
- Rotate the clarinet on its axis slightly to the left, so that the mouthpiece (and reed) are eschew from your normal playing position. Strive to keep your embouchure as normal as possible. The goal here is to pinch one corner of the reed while the other corner is free to vibrate.
- The three Gs: Without tonguing, play an open G, fortepiano, and sustain. Repeat on the G an octave above and below that G. Note the response and ease of sustainability on each G.
- Now rotate the mouthpiece to the same spot on the right, pinching off the right corner. Repeat step 3.
- Now you should have a good idea of the evenness of response between the left and right corners.
If one of the corners plays freely in each register while the other is somewhat or significantly more resistant, the more resistant side of the reed will need to be adjusted. If one side plays well, while the other is way too soft and squirrelly, you may need to clip the reed until the soft side “comes into focus,” then adjust the heavier side to match. The idea here is to make both sides match resistance, NOT to make the reed play well in this eschew position. JUST BALANCE!