“Have you ever noticed that not all of the reeds play the same way?”
A former student asked this question of me a couple years ago, and it reminded me that this is a hard learned truth for most students that use reeds. We expect things that come out of a box brand new to do their job, but with reeds that is not always the case, and naturally there are many reasons why.
What do the different numbers on the boxes mean?
The numbers on reed boxes are a bit confusing for everyone! The number basically tells us the “strength” of the reed. When we say reed strength it refers to how hard or how soft the cane is. A 1.5 reed will be too soft for most beginners, a 5 reed would be too hard for even me (and I practice several hours every day!). The right reed strength is a little different for each person, but it rests on two very important factors.
Factor #1- EMBOUCHURE. Embouchure is the word we use to describe how the muscles of our mouth and face interact with the clarinet reed and mouthpiece. Just as you strength train any muscle, what was once difficult will become easier over time. Once the embouchure muscles have developed, they will become too strong for the beginner reed strength, and the reed will no longer be able to vibrate against the mouthpiece due to the mouth muscles squeezing the reed and mouthpiece.
Factor #2- MOUTHPIECE. The kind of mouthpiece a student uses plays a big role in the strength of reed that I recommend. There are countless varieties of mouthpieces out there, and due to the millimeters (yes millimeters!) of difference in the shape of each one, different shapes and cuts of reeds are needed to suit each mouthpiece. Upgrading mouthpieces can change what strength of reed a student is playing (up or down!).
Do harder reeds mean that a clarinet player is more advanced?
Absolutely not! There is an unfortunate rumor (especially amongst high school aged students) that “good players” play very hard reeds, and “bad players” play very soft reeds. This is an easy conclusion to draw considering that students start out on 2 or 2.5 strength reeds, and move up to harder reeds as their embouchures develop. We need more resistance in our reeds as our embouchures strengthen, and we also need this resistance as we begin to play in the upper registers more often. However (as I stated above) appropriate reed strength is dependant on multiple factors, so moving up to a 3.5 or 4 just because the person next to you does is not necessarily a wise choice.
Why don’t all of the reeds sound or feel the same?
Not all cane is created equal. Like anything found in nature, there will be slight variations in each tube of cane. Some of the raw material we turn into reeds that will play well, and some of it will not. This distinction can literally come down to the weather while the cane was growing, or how long it was aged before it was used.
When I start working on a new box of reeds, I play them for a few days just for a minute or two at first. I number all of my reeds (so I can keep track of them!), and if the same reed doesn’t make a clear sound, or doesn’t feel easy to play for a few days in a row, I throw it away. I know it might seem like flushing money down the toilet, but important thing to understand is that most boxes of reeds do not contain 10 great reeds. Personally, I usually keep about half of the reeds that come in a box, and discard the rest. Using reeds that sound good and feel good to play is one of the easiest ways to improve our clarinet sound.
How can a reed sound good one day and terrible the next?
Reeds have a lifespan. Some reeds sound good for an hour, and others sound good for 10 hours, but all good things must come to an end. The combination of vibration, saliva, and being soaked and dried eventually breaks down the reed to the point that it doesn’t work anymore. We’ll talk about how to break in reeds so they last longer in a future blog post, but I wanted to mention one other culprit behind sudden changes in our reeds before we wrap up today.
The weather. Take a look outside, or look at your weather app. What is the humidity level, how hot or cold is it? Is a low or high pressure system moving in? What is the altitude of your location? All of those things can impact how your reeds function, which is why I recommend having a few different reeds in your case.