By Delight Schwartz
Note to reed-instrument musicians: before playing, take a close look at your reeds. Because reeds are made from cane, each reed will differ slightly from the next, just as each cane plant differs from the next. For this reason, test-play your reeds, select your favorites, and keep them handy. It is important to have several reeds prepared at any time, so that you will have predictable ones ready. You should also experiment with different reed strengths to find out which one works best with your mouthpiece and is best suited to your embouchure. Reed strengths may vary greatly from one manufacturer to another. Make sure it is shaped evenly from side to side, check for consistent thickness, and select only flat, unwarped reeds. The reed should appear symmetrical, with either side of the center line a mirror image of the other. It should fit exactly over the opening of your mouthpiece. The vamped (or cut) area should be even.
Preparing a Reed
Before you play any reed, you must first moisten it. Many musicians simply wet their reeds in their mouths. While this is popular, we recommend that you wet your reeds in a small cup of warm water for two or three minutes, until the tips appear flat and unwrinkled. Next, place the ligature on your mouthpiece. Carefully fit the moistened reed underneath the ligature from the top. Align the reed tip with the end of the mouthpiece. Tighten the ligature screws so that pressure is evenly dispersed on the reed bark. Be careful not to over-tighten or under-tighten the ligature screws. Simply tighten them until the tension feels snug in your fingers.
Getting the Best Performance From a Reed
No two reeds play exactly alike but, by following a few rules you can count on good consistency from reed to reed. Remember, your reeds must be thoroughly moist before use. Uneven moisture content can cause your reed to warp or wrinkle, prevent it from properly sealing against your mouthpiece table, and even cause squeaks. You can avoid these mishaps by soaking the reed in warm water for a couple minutes. When you're finished playing, remove the excess moistures. Rinse the reed thoroughly in water until clean, then wipe it dry. Finish by placing it in a Reedgard to dry completely. Don't keep your reeds sealed in a plastic bag - this causes mildew to form. Also, prolonged soaking over an hour or two will make the reed too porous, changing its vibrating characteristics and shortening its playing life. As you place the reed between the mouthpiece and ligature, experiment with the placement. Some reeds may respond best when placed even with the tip, others slightly above or below the tip. Sometimes a reed will speak more clearly when moved slightly to the left or right. Fluctuation in humidity, barometric pressure, and temperature greatly affect how each reed plays, and may explain why a reed responds differently from day to day. As you learn, you will become aware of how these changes affects a reed's performance.
Maintaining and Storing Reeds
During breaks in performance or rehearsal, cover your mouthpiece with its cap to keep your reed moist and prevent chipping or other damage. Never store your reed on the mouthpiece inside the instrument case. Any reed which is allowed to dry on the mouthpiece usually warps, reducing its playing qualities. When you're finished playing, loosen the ligature and remove your reed first before disassembling the instrument. Again, the best way to prevent warping and chipping is to store your reed in a flat, dry holder. After removing the reed from the mouthpiece, gently replace the ligature and mouthpiece cap. Forcing the cap too far down may cause a chip or crack in the mouthpiece. Place the capped mouthpiece, ligature and stored reed in your instrument case.
Delight Schwartz is the corporate communications editor for Rico International. Reed Maintenance was written with assistance from clarinetist Marcus Eley and saxophonist Terry Landry, both of whom are marketing staff musicians at Rico