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Several essential things happen during the break-in period of a new reed. If you have ever taken a reed out of the box and played in for an extended period of time, you know exactly how essential this process is.
A new reed, out of the box, was probably made weeks, months, or years prior to you purchasing it. In this time, the wood dries out considerably, shifting the cells from their original state and location. The first part of the break-in period is a process of rehydrating the cane and allowing the wood to shift, warp, and acclimate to its new environment. During this period, playing the reed may greatly affect how the wood makes these shifts. Instrument makers are very aware of how wood shifts during the manufacturing process and often have a period of rest between cuts. Understanding this idea will be important throughout the entire life of the reed: every change made in the mass, geometry, and structure of the reed will require a period of time for re-acclamation to its new state.
Step 1: Rehydration
The first step is to allow the cells of the reed to rehydrate over a period of stages. While saliva is an acceptable substance for wetting reeds after broken in, due to the other substances present besides water, it is not as efficient as pure water at hydrating the reed. The goal here is to evenly wet the reed and allow it to dry again, and repeat until the reed’s cells have swollen and shifted as much as they are able before making any other adjustments.
By the third day it is time to seal the reed, closing up open pores along the vamp, thus making the reed less able to take on water. This may seem counterintuitive, but we do not want the reed to be water logged when playing. When the reed is completely soaked through, it loses the springiness required for it to flex and return to its original point. The center of the reed needs to be moist but not wet for this action to work properly.
Days 1 and 2:
- Soak reed in luke-warm or slightly cool water for 1-2 minutes, until soaked.
- Wipe of all excess water with your fingers and place on a piece of glass, exposed to air.
- The cane will have shifted and warped somewhat from the hydration process. This is the time to lightly sand or file the flat side of the reed.
- Soak the reed 1 min.
- Seal the open pores of the vamp by rubbing down the vamp with 600 grit sand paper, reed rush, paper, or your finger.
- Play test the reed for a minute or two. Note any adjustments the reed may need. Finger dry and store.
- Continue soaking and play testing, making slight adjustments until you are feel that the reed is ready for longer periods of playing
Step 2 – Breaking in the reed
At this point, the reed has become acclimated to its new state, it is hydrated and warped areas flattened. Minor adjustments such as tip balancing flex-point corrections may or may not have been taken care of. It is now time to begin playing your reed for greater lengths of time with little fear that the wood will shift much further. Greater adjustments can be made to the reed.
For the next week or so, add time to the amount that you play the reed. Perhaps use it for a small portion of a rehearsal or two. Playing the reed outside of the practice room is the only way to get a feel for the reed’s playability in real working situations.
I am NOT a fan of working on reeds at a rehearsal. Rarely are good decisions made on your reed while the conductor is talking to the strings. Besides, one wrong scrape and you are stuck playing a faulty reed until the next pause in the rehearsal. Scary. It is also distracting to your colleagues around you to be scraping and swearing through a rehearsal. Instead, take careful notes on how the reed responded during that rehearsal. Did it have the projection you wanted? Was the sound easy to control? Intonation issues? Once you have collected this information, you will be better informed on what you should do to correct any problems in the practice room.
Basically, you will know when a reed is broken in and ready for extended use in several ways:
- A reed does not change its playing qualities noticeably from one day to the next
- A reed does not change its playing qualities noticeably within the same playing sessions
- The reed does not get water logged in the heart area
Oh boy, there are a lot of different ideas and products about the best way to store your reed. It seems that there are as many reed storage methods as there are players. Here’s an incomplete list:
- Plastic reed guard
- Plastic reed guard in a Ziplock bag (left open or closed)
- Glass or Plexiglas with rubber bands to secure reed
- Reeds stuck in a Tupperware kinda thing
- Those crummy plastic cases reeds are sold in
- Humidity controlled plastic cases
- Humidity controlled wood cases
- Wood cases with glass inserts
- Storing reeds with those neat-o Rico humidity packs
- On and on and on and on….
With so many methods, what are the important factors to consider? Glad you asked.
First and foremost, the reed needs to be protected from damage caused by tossing it in your case. With this in mind, clearly it is the tip area that is most susceptible since it is the thinnest portion of the reed. So, any method that protects the tip of the reed is acceptable. However, this can disqualify several storage methods, including the glass plaque with the rubber bands wrapped around it, unless you have a way of keeping the reed tips from contacting other things in your case. Most of these storage devices do not take this into consideration. Also, those little plastic reed guards that cost only a few bucks at the music shop have the ability to indent a small area of the vamp. While this is not as problematic as damaging the tip and can be avoided by not pushing the reed in too far, it is still not advisable.
The other issue to consider is how the reed dries. After spending so much time and effort to insure that the reed is properly rehydrated, it would be a shame to allow it to dry out again completely. In most climates, it takes a considerable amount of time for a reed to completely dry out, so if you play your reeds regularly, this is not something to worry too much about.
However, if you store reeds for longer periods of time or live in a dry climate, humidity control may become a factor. I believe that the ideal level of humidity to store reeds at is between %65-%75. If reeds get too dry, they may require a lengthy rehydration period, and if reeds are stored too wet, they may develop mold or lose the necessary springiness. Also, huge shifts in humidity can cause the wood to shift manifesting in warping or reeds going out of balance.
There are many great methods for controlling the humidity of your reeds. Some cautions though: 1) Plastic bags can hold the moisture to close to the reed, causing your reeds to be stored in an overly wet environment, 2) cases that have a flat surface (glass or plastic) do not allow the reed to dry evenly, period, so make sure your reed is completely dry before storing on these surfaces, and 3) sometimes it is necessary to pull moisture out of the air instead of holding it in.
For number 3 above, there are many products that accomplish dehumidification, including the Rico packs and any case that offers the ability to add silicone crystals. Consult the reviews section for information on specific products.
Always have several reeds in top playing condition in a regular rotation. You should avoid playing any reed longer that 30 minutes in a practice session, or 60 minutes in a rehearsal (let’s face it, you probably don’t even play 30 minutes total in a rehearsal, so you could fudge this time a bit). There are several important reasons for this:
Playing a reed wears it out. The integrity of the cells breaks down mechanically due to the constant flex that occurs during playing and chemically by slowly digesting the wood with the enzymes in your saliva. The amount of time this process takes is highly variable, although somewhat predictable. The longer you play a reed in any one session the faster the breakdown of the reed, so shorter periods of playing is ideal.
Knowing the obvious now, it is important to realize that each reed in your stash is at a different point in this process of degradation. The more reeds in your rotation, the better chance you will have a reed ready to play when needed. Several books written by great players have noted that the player will adjust their playing based on the playing qualities of a reed (this is worth a citation: pending). A player using just one reed in their rotation will get used to the feel an ever aging reed. When the reed finally dies, a new reed will feel so completely different from dead one that the player will have difficult time playing it. Similarly, this same player will be less adept at discerning a good reed from a bad one, since they are used to the playing qualities of their one good reed.
With my own playing, I have eight reeds in rotation. Through a typical 2.5 hour orchestra rehearsal, I will play four reeds, and then play the other four reeds in the next rehearsal. This way, I will have played all eight reeds at least once, often twice, before the concert, and have a pretty good idea which works best in the hall. Also, I arrange the reeds in my case chronologically, so within the same rehearsal I will have played a reed that’s only a week old and a reed that much much much older than that. Getting to know intimately how reeds at different points in the cycle play helps me to make judgments on a good concert reed. It also gives me a reference point in my reed adjustment routine, assisting me in tweaking new and really old reeds to play more like the ones at their prime. The result: very consistent reeds throughout my entire rotation.
A properly broken-in reed will require only a little maintenance throughout its playing career. There are a few steps that can be taken to insure that the reed will play reliably well for a significant period:
- Occasional rehydration: Unless you are one of those players who carries around a little film canister of water wherever you go, you will probably be wetting your reeds with your mouth. This works well enough for playing situations, but as mentioned earlier in this article, saliva is not as efficient as water at hydration. Over time, the wood will reach a point of dryness that inhibits the best playing situations. So, every now and then (once a week?) it is a good idea to soak a well-playing reed in water for a minute or two. This technique may also help revive a reed that starts to sound stuffy due to dehydration.
- Remove the “bump:” When the reed gets strapped to the mouthpiece in a wet state and played, the wood gets pressed into area of contact between the wood and the window opening of the mouthpiece (see photo below). Over time, sometimes not much time, a bump will form at this spot that can have a great affect on playing. You can check this by very gently rubbing your finger across the mid-point of the reed, feeling for the slightest bump. This bump MUST be removed from time to time without affecting the rest of the reed. One way would be to use sandpaper (or even just white printer paper) on glass, one of those cool etched glass contraptions from Vandoren, the ReedGeek “Universal” reed tool, or my favorite, the flat file. As it turns out, the flat file is one of the more gentle and user friendly tools for slight corrections to the flat side. I reserve sandpaper for correcting warping and the ReedGeek tool for checking flatness and as a travel too. In fact, when I have a big audition or recital, the one tool I have backstage is the flat file.
To use a flat file to remove the window bump, lay the flat side of the reed against the file. With gently and even finger pressure, rub the reed up and down the length of the file a few times, and check to see if the bump is entirely removed. If not, repeat with a few more strokes and recheck. The goal is to file as little as is necessary for the job. We do not want to affect any other parts of the reed.