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Clarinet Reeds 101

Lisa Canning • August 2023Wind Talkers • August 20, 2023

With marching band in full swing, and beginning clarinet students on the horizon, August seems like a perfect month to talk clarinet reeds 101.

REMINDER: Without the reed, the clarinet won’t make a sound.

While this might seem a bit obvious, it makes it pretty clear how critical a well-adjusted, properly fitted reed can be to the player trying to achieve the results you most want from their efforts.

Basic Tips: Reed Selection & Care

Encourage your beginners to buy a more expensive quality brand name reed as soon as they have stopped breaking their reeds frequently.  This usually should not take longer than a few months.  I love to go up first to Gonzalez Classic 2.0 before Vandoren Traditional 2.0 because they are slightly less of a big strength step up.

The quality of the cane truly matters. 

Rico reeds are great for the first three months, but they have less ‘spine’ or ‘heart’ in the reed. This makes it easier for the player to make a sound at first, but because they are so soft, if students learn quickly how to properly blow into their mouthpiece, it could cause them to not make any sound at all because the reed has little spine and will easily collapse and stop vibrating on the mouthpiece. Moving them to a better reed sooner will help get a much better sound earlier, which will inspire them to work harder abilities. The better the quality of the cane the more spine the reed has and the denser and smoother it will be. Lesser quality cane is more rough, grainy or mealy. 

Make sure every clarinetist has a reed guard they purchased separately from the reed case that comes with their reed. Never store reeds in the case they came in. The packaging the manufacturer provided does not promote the even drying of the reed, as it was simply a storage to help it not break before use. Reeds need to be stored on a flat surface to help them lay flat and not warp. Reed guards apply a little downward pressure on the reed, so they stick to its flat surface which in turn makes them play better because they are flat on the back.  

If a clarinetist changes mouthpieces, they will need new reeds. When played, reeds form to the facing of a mouthpiece and when you switch mouthpieces those same reeds will not play well anymore on the new facing. 

Make sure beginners and concert band clarinetists have at least 3-4 reeds free of chips that they are rotating at any given time. It is critical reeds don’t become waterlogged because it just makes them stop vibrating which is the reason they exist in the first place- to produce lots of sound. Waterlogged reeds often die faster and need to be replaced even if they are not chipped. 

Adjusting Reeds

There is much to be said about the adjustment of reeds that has already been written. Learning how to adjust reeds, and teaching your students, or asking a private lesson teacher to teach them instead, is an excellent idea. The more you understand how to adjust them, the better your students will play and sound and the happier their parents will be because less money on reeds will be spent.  

There is a great article written by Maryanne Lacaille on the International Clarinet Associations website you can find at Clarintet.org. A more comprehensive resource is Larry Guy’s book titled:  Selection, Adjustment, and Care of Single Reeds. I would consider this the go to resource for reed adjustment at any level. 

Breaking in New Reeds

For most young players, it takes some time for them to gain control over how much saliva flows into their mouth and at what speed when they play. For some time, it is too much making it easy to soak reeds and waterlog them. 

When placing a reed in your mouth for the first time, encourage new and developing clarinetists to just quickly wet the reed in their mouth for less than 30 seconds. The reed just needs to be wet enough to vibrate and not soaked.

Have your section or beginner play no more than 10 minutes on a new reed, at first. Teaching them to rotate between reeds is a good practice to help your section and beginners alike to understand the importance of caring for their reeds to produce a great sound. 

When putting reeds away, teach your students to wipe off the back and the front of the with two fingers- as if they were squeezing the water out of the reed. Moving from the back of the reed, from the butt to the front, pull the water out. You can also teach them to rub the back of the reed on a clean dry flat surface first to help seal the back. Reeds last longer if they don’t get waterlogged and actually build up some protection from the natural oils in the skin that is left from wiping them off with two fingers. You can also teach them to rub on the front and the back of the reed carefully but stay away from the tip of the reed which is most delicate and easiest to break.  I often will rub the back of the reed along the side of my nose because I can seal it up fastest using the natural oil on my face.  

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