The Right Reed Can Make All the Difference

What’s in a reed? Would a reed made of bamboo sound just as sweet?

While my students and I talk about reeds all the time in their lessons, the upcoming series all about reeds will give a quick overview about why reeds are so important, and how we can take care of them a bit better!

How do reeds work? Do we need them?

Reeds vibrate when air is pushed between the reed itself and the clarinet mouthpiece. That vibration emits the sound that we hear when a clarinet is played. If you tried to play a clarinet with no reed attached to it, you wouldn’t get any sound!

What are reeds made out of?

Reeds are made out of a material called cane. The scientific name for cane is Arundo donax, and while it looks quite similar to bamboo, it vibrates much better than bamboo. While plastic reeds have been developed in recent years they do not respond exactly the same as cane reeds. There is no natural substitute for cane reeds. All reed players play reeds made from the exact same cane species!

 
 Cut tubes of dried cane. This material is cut and shaved down to become a reed.

Cut tubes of dried cane. This material is cut and shaved down to become a reed.

 

Why do they break so easily?

If you are the parent of a budding clarinet player, I’m sure you’ve asked this question a few times already! Beginning clarinetists break reeds at a remarkably quick rate, and you may be wondering why your child is asking for new boxes of reeds quite frequently. The tip of the reed is very VERY delicate- especially on the soft reeds that beginning clarinet players use. It is nearly paper thin, and even the misplaced touch of a finger can destroy them, or greatly impact the sound quality. Don’t worry- once your student gets a little more comfortable handling the reed and mouthpiece this will happen much less frequently. Accidents can also happen when we store reeds. If a mouthpiece cap is placed on too hard, or if a reed is jammed into a holder too quickly the reed can break. Broken reeds are a casualty of playing the clarinet, but with the right training, practice, and the correct equipment we can avoid reed breakage as much as possible.

 
 A very broken reed.

A very broken reed.

 

That’s all for this week! Next week I’ll cover those mysterious numbers on reed boxes, and what that actually means from beginners to advanced players. Questions? Write them in the comments!