Many thank yous to Paul Globus for initiating this correspondence and editing it for publication on this website.
The subject of clarinet reeds is awash in theories and assumptions. Some stand up to objective verification while others turn out to be pure hogwash when examined in the light of scientific or quasi-scientific inquiry.
As a service to readers of this Web site, I am initiating a running list of what I am calling assumptions. After each assumption, I weigh in with opinions based on years of in-depth research and study into the nature of clarinet reeds and how we clarinet players use them to give our chosen instrument voice.
After you read and digest the full list, why not write to me with other suggested assumptions that you yourself, or your teachers, friends and colleagues, hold dear? I will do my best to answer those as well.
Assumption 1: New reeds, because they tend to change quite a bit and can quickly become waterlogged, should not be played too much at first.
I agree and I am not alone. The break-in period should be gradual (over several days) so as to rehydrate the dry cane and allow the wood to shift and settle before doing ANY work.
Assumption 2: Most often when reeds do not respond or sound as well as we like, the problem is inherent in the cane itself and cannot be adjusted.
Yes and no. Some manufacturers have a much larger tolerance for variations in their cut than others. Vandoren Rue Lepic reeds, for example, are extremely consistent cut-wise, but the cane varies greatly. In contrast, I used to play Marca reeds many years ago and the cane seemed to be quite consistent but the cut was not. This allowed me to make adjustments in the vamp and make most reeds playable.
Assumption 3: So called “hardness” or “softness” has nothing to do with the cut of the reed and everything to do with the relative stiffness of the material
Depends on the manufacturer. Anyone who has worked on their reeds will tell you that by removing wood in certain areas, such as sanding the flat side, the reed will play softer. Additionally, two reeds with identical geometric properties can play with slightly different strengths. Manufacturers typically deal with issue by having just a few variations on their profile corresponding to generally hard, medium, and soft reeds. They then let properties of the cane determine the rest. For more information on strength, click here.
Assumption 4: Reeds tend to lose reliance (soften) over time.
Not necessarily. It certainly can happen. But if the cane is well sealed, reeds do not tend to soften dramatically. That said, over time reeds can begin to calcify, making them more brittle sounding. The calcification is difficult to avoid because as we play, reeds soak up saliva, a situation that cannot be avoided.
Assumption 5: The sound and response of a reed will be affected by the room or hall in which it is being played.
This is true. Most players, me included, prefer a softer reed in a dead sounding room and a harder reed in a bright room. Physically, the reed plays the same in both types of rooms. We respond to the aesthetic of the acoustics in the room, which influences our choice of the best reed in a particular playing situation.
Assumption 6: Altitude, weather, humidity, and the acidity in one’s saliva can all have an effect on the performance of a reed.
Yes, most definitely. A reed is a live substance, after all, and is changing all the time. Altitude is a particularly important factor, as any player who has ever gone on tour will tell you. I had the opportunity to perform in La Paz, Bolivia, which is at 13,000 feet above sea level and super dry. I had to dramatically soften my reeds.
Assumption 7: In the practice room, it’s a good idea to switch reeds every 15 or 20 minutes so as to develop flexible chops.
This is a good idea but not only to develop flexible chops. It’s also better for the reed itself in terms of optimizing its playable life. I switch my reeds several times per rehearsal and performance as well. I think that there is a limit to how long a reed should be played in a single session. As you past that limit, the wear and tear on the reed increases exponentially, thus, prematurely ending the playing life of the reed.
Assumption 8: Reeds change radically from day to day.
If reeds are properly hydrated, broken-in and stored, the day to day change will be minimal. The most hostile environment for a reed is while it is being played.
Assumption 9: Reeds that look bad (greenish, misshapen, dusty colored, etc.) right out of the box should be rejected straight away.
Some of the worst-looking reeds often play best (and conversely, some of the best-looking reeds, often play worst). Thus one should never judge a reed on the basis of looks alone.
Assumption 10: If you let reeds dry flat-side up, they never warp.
Warping is the natural swelling of the wood cells when taking on moisture. That’s why a regimented rehydration process is so important. I do prefer a reed-case that has perforations or grooves on the surface to allow the reed to dry evenly. I definitely wipe of as much surface moisture as possible before storage as well.
Assumption 11: A reed’s response can always be improved by moving it around (up and down and sideways) on the mouthpiece facing.
This is to some degree a true statement if only if you modify it thus: A reed’s response can sometimes be improved by moving it around (up and down and sideways) on the mouthpiece facing. This old and reliable trick to find the reed’s “sweet spot” will sometimes do nothing to improve a reed’s response.