The most essential and most fragile part of the clarinet is the reed. Reeds are made of cane, a plant similar to bamboo. (There are synthetic reeds available for purchase; the rest of this post addresses cane reeds.) Many different companies make and sell reeds, and it is even possible to make them at home. How does a person pick which brand to purchase? What does it take to ensure that reeds play well for as long as possible?
First, it’s important to buy reeds that are high quality—this means that they will be a bit more expensive. Van Doren and D’Addario, for example, both make quality, consistent reeds. Reeds are made in different strengths, which measures the “hardness” of the reed; the higher the strength number, the harder the reed and the more air pressure it takes to produce sound. The strength of the reed can be adjusted by buying a box a half-strength higher or lower, or adjusting the reed with sandpaper, a reed knife, etc.—best done under the supervision of a clarinet teacher. Reed strengths usually start at 2, then 2.5, then 3, then 3.5, and so on. A beginner starting with 2.5 reeds will be able to gradually increase the strength to 3 after several months of playing (perhaps even a year), depending on the amount of time they spend on their instrument. A good clue that a harder reed would be a better choice is an increase in squeaking and chirping when those noises were formerly not occurring.
Taking the time and effort to properly maintain reeds is as important as selecting them. A box of reeds is simply packaged for convenience; they are not a storage device. Individual reeds usually come in little plastic sleeves that keep the reeds intact during transport. They do very little to keep a reed dry and flat, especially once it has been used. A reed case like this one, or a similar model by D’Addario, will keep the reeds flat while allowing for air circulation, so they can dry out completely. Some even have humidity packs that insert into the cases and keep the reeds at a stable humidity level, which can keep them playing more consistently. A reed case is an excellent investment in extending the life of one’s reeds.
Breaking in a new reed starts with moisture, typically in the form of saliva. It is a good idea to have at least rinsed one’s mouth out with water first, or even better, to have brushed one’s teeth! Food particles will damage the reed, and will quite likely stick to pads and cause problems with the whole instrument. Alternatively, dropping them in a small cup of water (only about ¾ of the way—not fully submerged) for a few minutes works just as well; leaving them in for too long will cause them to become waterlogged fail to cooperate when played.
The damp reed can then be inserted between the ligature and the mouthpiece (note: the ligature should already be around the mouthpiece loosely, to minimize the risk of damaging the reed by slipping the ligature over it). The tip of the reed can be aligned with the tip of the mouthpiece so that a very thin sliver of black can be seen above the tip. Once the bottom of the reed is straight on the flat part of the mouthpiece, the ligature can be tightened until the reed no longer moves easily on its own. It is possible to tighten it too far, which will leave marks on the reed, like a hair tie on one’s wrist that is too tight—this also means the reed won’t be able to vibrate as freely to make sound. If this happens, it should be loosened a little.
The reed is then ready to play. A new reed should be played for 10-15 minutes the first time, then swapped out for another reed. The next time playing that new reed, one can extend the time to 15-20 minutes, then to 20-25 minutes, and so on, until after three or four uses it’s “broken in” and can be played for more extended periods of time. When finished playing or to swap a reed out, one must loosen the ligature, remove the reed to the top (so the tip doesn’t have to go under the ligature), and dry it with a swab, especially on the back of the reed. Then, it should be placed in a reed case, which will keep it flat as it dries so it’s in proper shape to be played the next time.
Breaking in a reed gradually is especially important for the long-term health of the reed. Playing on a new reed that feels great right away for 30 minutes or longer makes it likely the reed will never feel that good again! The ligature should be snug, but not too tight, to lengthen reeds’ life span, because they won’t have to vibrate against extra constriction. Cleaning one’s mouth before playing clarinet is vital for the health of the reed and the whole instrument. Finally, after playing, drying reeds carefully and storing them in a reed case that’s designed to keep them flat and encourage air flow is key to maintaining them from one playing session to the next.