The reader will learn how to break in clarinet reeds in a way that optimizes reed performance gently and gradually.
The clarinet reed is largely responsible for the quality of sound produced on the instrument, and thus its care should be given careful consideration, especially if the reed is new. Reeds are not ready-to-go out of the box; it is important to break them in gently and gradually to ensure they reach their optimum sound, as well as give the player an idea of the quality and potential of each reed as a good sound producer. Here are some simple steps to successfully break in reeds.
• Box of reeds
• Water to soak the reeds in (A container with a lid is nice and allows you to transport your reed water)
• Reed case for storing reeds during and after the breaking-in process
1. Carefully take one to four reeds out of the factory packaging. You will be testing in batches of four until all reeds have been evaluated.
2. Take a look at each reed from various angles. Not all reeds are created equally, even if they are from the same box. Here are a few things to look for:
- The vamp (the cut section) should be a nice, even, light cream color. If you hold the reed up to the light, you should see an even pattern in the fibers that comprise the reed*. There should be no variation of color on the vamp; if there is, put the reed aside and open another.
- The bark (the thick, uncut part of the reed) can have more color variation than the vamp. However, DISCARD any reed that has green in the vamp or the bark. This means that the cane was cut prematurely and not ideal for clarinet playing**.
- Take a look at the profile of the reed. Is there a nice, even slope from the bark to the vamp, with a level surface for the heart and tip (the places where your lips and tongue will touch the reed)? For a good reed, the answer to both questions will be yes.
- Finally, flip the reed over so the rail (the flat side that touches the mouthpiece) is up. Put the butt of the reed (the end that you do not play from) at eye level, so you are looking down the reed. The surface should be totally level, with no sign of warping. Put any warped reeds aside.
3. Place all four reeds in the water, bark end first. Let them soak for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Then, take the reeds out and place them rail side up on a flat surface. Take one reed and dip the tip side into the water to dampen it. Carefully slide your finger over the rail to remove any excess water.
4. Attach the reed to your mouthpiece as you would to play. Play through scales or some long tones to test the quality of sound. Be careful not to play above G in the clarion register so you do not stress the reed to much during its trial run. Likewise, keep articulations, especially ones hard on reeds like accented staccato, to a minimum.
5. If it is not difficult to blow through the reed and the tones you created were pure and free of any reedy back noise, then it passed the first test and made it to the second round. Place it rail side up on a flat surface and let it dry out completely before you store it in your reed case.
6. Continue this process until you have inspected and tested all the reeds in the box. Those that do not produce a clear sound or are hard to blow through should not be considered in the next rounds.
1. Repeat steps three and four from day one. When breaking in reeds this round, however, spend 2-5 minutes going through scales and long tones, adding in articulations. A reed that responds well to your articulations will produce a pure tone with little resistance. It is now okay to test the higher registers a time or two, or play through some lyrical music.
2. Test each reed using this process. If some reeds do not respond well to the articulations, or lose integrity in the upper registers, do not consider them in the next round.
3. Place reeds rail side up on a flat surface and let them dry completely. Store them in your reed case.
By now, you probably have one to four reeds that have passed through rounds one and two. Today, listen more closely to the tone and response of each reed, and rank them from best to worst.
1. Start by soaking the reeds and playing scales and long tones, as before. Spend 5-10 minutes moving through more intense articulations (repetition of short staccato, for example) and some lyrical studies or passages from ensemble music. How does each reed respond? Does the reed produce a rich, pure, even sound in all registers, or is the performance a little spotty, especially in the upper registers? Is the reed still responding well to articulation?
2. As you answer the above questions, rank the reeds from best to worst, and store them in your reed case in this order (after they have dried, of course!). Keep your best reeds for performances, studio class, or ensemble rehearsals. Use the average ones for scale study, articulation drills, and practicing other skills.
Remember to go easy on your new reeds as you continue to break them in, gradually increasing the time you spend per day playing each reed. Bring a couple of reeds to rehearsal in case you feel one giving out or break one. Good luck and have fun!
* Catchlove, Brian. “A Reed Buyer’s Guide.” Australian Clarinet and Saxophone.